Category Archives: Featured Archives
On Emily Wolahan:
Emily Wolahan is the author of the poetry collection HINGE. Her poetry has appeared in Boston Review, Georgia Review, DIAGRAM, Oversound, and many other publications. Her essay “The Drawn Word/The Disappearing Act” is anthologized in Among Margins. Other essays appear in The New Inquiry and Quarterly Conversation. She has served as Senior Editor at Two Lines Press and and is Founding Editor at Jerry Magazine. She won the The Georgia Review’s Loraine Williams Poetry Prize and Arts & Letters’ Unclassifiable Contest. She has been an Affiliate Artist at the Headlands Center for the Arts and received fellowships from the the Vermont Studio Center. She currently lives in San Francisco.
The Direct Account of Frank Thomas
The Direct Account of Frank Thomas appeared in Issue 34
“It’s funny about wars, they ought to be different by they are not.”
“But how intolerable bright the morning is where we who are alive and remain,
walk lifted up, carried forward by an effective word.”
“There’s no war without hard work.”
—Private Frank Thomas,
US Army, 10th Engineers Battalion, 1917
“I miss you, Frank. Come home.”
—Clarissa Mae Thomas, wife, 1917
Built a camp of tents on a sandy plain amid alfalfa-timothy—Pontnex-les-forges.
Put roof on barracks as it rained. Got wet again cleaning out drain ditches. Trenched officer’s tents. Cleared away fallen trees and debris to build a road to the corrals. Grubbed at pine stumps.
Peachy and me put at carpenter’s work. At sawmill, got some boards, fixed my bunk. Shelf and drawer in lower parts so I can keep things dry. We cut the deck of cards for places.
Pump finished today and made writing board. Sharpened tools. V-troughs, tent floors, ironing boards, and water troughs for the horses.
Fixed up the tool boxes, put together a barber chair. A floor in the officer’s tent, two-board walls, and a door. To my bed, added a clothes rack and shelf.
Down to the mill for boards, three francs. Ten bricks for a franc from Squad 2. Swiped five more and a length of pipe. All this for our new store shed.
Worked the bakery, mostly alone. After the bakery, started on wooden pump. After pump, a writing board for Tom Lommason. Pump needs an extension and valve. Also boards for walling the well at mill-site. Bakers wanted an oven shovel, cooks a stew-paddle.
Called it a day’s work.
Drilled with Company B and wrote to Mae. Back when I’d joined up, we’d killed time at Fort Douglas, write letters, rest.
Before Pontenx, we cleaned up, slept, shaved, wrote letters. Made medals. Drills and the remainder of the day to fill.
If we saw a US flag, the boys would cheer it.
This night is calm, no moon. Camp cleaned up, barracks scrubbed, boys at the Y writing letters. A card to Clarissa Mae, one to her father.
Each one says the same thing—a silhouette of the day imagined, the local lace strung together.
All that space between.
Mail today—a letter from Mother, Dad, Joe, Albert. None from Mae. Got Mother’s package of sugar and Postum, mailed to Washington DC, found me in Pontenx, France—a long time getting here. Many of the boys are worried. Chinwhiskers II says we’re going to the front soon—all they talk about the last few days, this latest line. Wrote Mae a letter—number eighteen, number nineteen. Lieutenant Sanford, Company mail censor, says, “Thomas writes the most legible letters of any man in the Company.” Got two letters from Mae, December 17–23. Finished one I started yesterday. To my wife-woman—
Friday on mill—cold and disagreeable. Spent noon-hour putting up rafter-trusses, laying sheet iron roofing. Floored tool-house, braced mill, built lumber car for yarding lumber. Took an hour off but Peachy and Captain real peeved. More work at mill. Store, supply room, Lieutenant Allen’s office. Window in and finished Allen’s desk. Ordered to build a balloon butterfly catcher for Captain Marbleheart.
Sanders and I on oil house, then hung meat house door. Weighs six hundred pounds, some time hanging it. Bennett had me fix the meat house for a prison—cold storage plan. Deserter Gillis of 503 Service Battalion sleeps there tonight. Sanders tried to saw off his thumb—only got half. I filed saws, ground chisels, hand axe. Marbleheart handed out another bouquet on the log haul. Been doing most the work myself. Fixed pile driver, used adze, ever the log haul.
Meat house letter shed
rifle boxes Meat
lumber for meat block
Dodged work and managed to keep out of it with no trouble.
Made sleeping bag out of my shelter half.
maybe sunshine tomorrow.
Last August, reported to Forest Services. Mr. Kneipp said no chance for me and Tom to get out of it. Enlistment papers for 10th Engineers made out. Wired Mae.
Reported to Fort Douglas but sent away until morning.
Instead, went to the Wilson and the Lodge with Tom, Laverne Rae, and her sister.
Salt Lake is a good city but not for me and Mae, maybe. Too many temples. Back up the mountain, sun blazing and fresh trout for dinner—I could call that a temple.
Returned to Fort Douglas where I was passed through by doctor—physically fit—ready to be shipped out.
Tried to get leave and go home to see Mae and Mother before I left for France but could not, so wrote letters home.
Been writing letters last two months since surveying the Sevier, grazing reconnaissance. Keeping lupine out of reach of cattle. Writing letters, getting mail whenever someone went to Sevey’s ranch. Surveying Kanab Creek, kept track of coyote.
Until it was time to enlist. Wrote a letter home all about it.
In Salt Lake City, issued travel rations, got second shot in the arm. Beat it downtown to collect lots of mail for Tom Lomasson and me. Been with Lomasson since Podunk Creek. We’ll stick together if we can. Left on berth in tourist car 1495. Some rough night.
SALT LAKE CITY
HOT COFFEE ON TRAIN IN JERSEY CITY TERMINAL SHEDS OF PENNSYLVANIA LINES.
Crossed Hudson River on steam ferry and embarked on RMS Carpathia.
In dock all day.
Sea breezes very cold.
Much seaweed in water off Nova Scotia—gulls and fish plentiful. Lots of fish smacks and larger vessels.
Cape Sable lighthouse about eight o’clock. Low, spruce-covered shores.
Dropped anchor in Bedford Bay Harbor full of jelly fish, small bowl-shaped, lace-like affairs—fringe around the edges. Drew a picture of them in my letter to Mae.
They make the water look thick.
Days warm, nights cold.
Passed a fleet of chasers today
—small and common to look at—
dangerous to Hun-ducks.
Stuck at bay and people eating rotten meat. Our destroyer now coming, now here, escort. Still—stuck at bay—drilling, washing clothes, learning two-arm semaphore code. Stuck seeking out our double-tank life raft lowered off davits B6. Failed every boat drill. We cross soon. Sticks float by moving faster than us—
Wilson died last night—ptomaine poisoning off meat. Struck by the silent force of capture.
No one knew code before we were stuck. Now it’s the only way we can talk.
The problem with crossing isn’t the ships we can see. Destroyer first, then a line of transport, us at the head.
Struck dumb, ordered to cross, stacks steaming up.
Long days so nights can’t compare.
Still, we go into town to see other people living, differently
from how I expected. No lights.
Low-lit signs read Open beside a dark doorway.
In the pub, as many women as men there. On the street, a pretty girl threw her arms around my neck, said Oh man, let’s. Let’s! Pushed her thin red belt into mine.
There are no headlights and no roads cross each other—
they go above or below.
Road beds kept in excellent condition.
Left Glasgow over Caledonian Railroad to Carlisle and on to Birmingham. Many women working.
Residences are named, have small yards brimming with flowers, ivy, shrub.
Bought a bag of apples, three and a half dollars. Rode on top of the street car—one penny, a soldier’s fare. Morning’s march
—garden, sun, garden.
Holly hedges, an American Mountain Ash.
Branches of old trees along the drive meet above us.
The petals off a hanging flower spell Idaho.
Marched down the Southampton docks, waited a while. Fell out, a chance to look around. Saw Eustace in dry dock, hole blown in her aft the smokestack, starboard side. Submarine. They loaded us on a double-stack, side-wheel French boat, La Margueritte. Packed in. Waited some more. Put on submarine guard with ten others. An Endfield rifle to share, plus fifty rounds.
Instructions: obey officer’s orders. In the dark, we crossed. Landed in Havre by early morning. Sent to wait. Rest camp No. 2, horse sheds, cobblestone floors. Clean, not uncomfortable.
Train in from the North, boys from the trenches laid out.
Rain fell hard.
Boarded 3rd class coach. Sat up all night.
Hard bread and canned meat for dinner, coffee twice. Train headed south. Arrangements for second night were two men in hat racks, two on each bench seat, two on floor. Drew a place on one of the benches—changed later with Erwin for a hat rack. Landed in Nevers to go downtown in morning with Erwin and Boatwright. Saw St. Cyr and found a Y. Met Tom Lommason at Y so stayed in town for a good French meal, 3 francs. The French shake hands only once and often across very narrow streets.
Traveled all day. Was fifteen kilometers from capital. Then turned south. Issued trenched tents and ticks. Filled those with hay. Turned rifles in—thirty to entire company—kept belts. This means we do not go to the front. Rumor is we go to the Spanish border on one of France’s slow trains. A small place stuck in the pines, on a flat and sandy plain.
- ST. FEYER,
LA JONCHERE, LIMOGES,
LAFARGE, BUSSIERE-GALANT, THIVIERS,
CHANCELADE, PERIQUEUX, RAZAC,
NEUVIS, MUSSIDAN, LAMPIESTIERE,
COUTRAS, LIBOURNE, BORDEAUX,
Built a camp of tents on a sandy plain amid alfalfa-timothy. Pontenx among the pines.
Trenched officers’ tents.
Grubbed at pine stumps.
Put at carpenter’s work, put at the mill:
build barracks, build a bakery.
Twelve bricks for a franc from Squad 3.
Build a camp of tents
on a sandy plain amid alfalfa-timothy.
Lavender and brome.
The pines planted in a row grown tall, lumber for the effort.
All day to set up a few tents.
Lines like they’d been done be a cross-eyed man.
Officers have no idea, yet remain in charge of all.
Speared logs, fished deadheads and sinkers out of reserve log pond. Once dry, good lumber. Learned several new ways of doing things less well from Lieutenant Burlow. Pulled a lot of lake bottom out of pond. Water-plant root masses, mud clinging to them, suspended under surface of lake. Hard to drag logs over, had to be taken out. Gas launch and two-prong hook did the business. Underneath the root mass, lake bottom was clean sand.
Three hydro-aeroplanes came down, took a spin on lake, returned to camp near Arcachon—finishing school for pilots, American and French. Men there go direct to the front. Loaded lumber. Waited two hours to get hair cut.
We walk. Four across, steps out of time. Trucks on roads are US Army. Farmers pass on foot in sack-cloth shoes. Soil grainy and packed, small white stones speckled, catch low light. Fields fallow, grown up with toadflax and something looks like wintergreen.
Forests planted in rows, makes a straight border between woods and the slight rise of a back dune. Bay of Gascogne.
Beach debris—a long American tallow candle, rolled in sand. Timber spars, planks, hatches. Lifebelt with strings snapped, ARTISAN lettered on the chest.
Flat bright grey sky branches. The sea, dank earth, proof at our feet. Pick it up, boys, keep looking. Cargo, crates, a good shoe, a sack of potatoes the farmer needs. Boot-print patterns ornate as field mice—
This is a very long day to me. Started another dock but busted my shin with adze—clear to the bone. Laid up for a while, lots of mail. No. 7 letter from Mae, plus two from Mother. Finished letter No. 31 to Mae. Doc made shin sore by dressing again, put me on wounded-in-action report. Had to stick around camp—still a crip. Read papers, magazine, cleaned up. March 9 Star-Mirror came. Wrote Dad since it rained hard all day. Signed pay roll. Pretty much disgusted with this country and “Tin Engineers.” At physical inspection, Doc put a new bandage on my cut. Papers very optimistic.
USS Tuscania disaster. A possibility Oscar Munson was on the boat. Papers say ship when down on same sea we crossed, standing guard with a rifle shared between two. That’s where the horizon breaks exposing the sky. Proof the sea and sky are not the same,
just look it in the dark.
The horizon breaks pushing the sea out one way, sky another. Like a movie starting up after the theater went dark.
The horizon breaks on a sea with no ship on it.
The horizon breaks and breaks. The sea is more likable when it seems granite.
In the pines, we continue to wait, hear about explosive devices that push a person through the air—an 18-pounder or 60-pounder.
Light might flash at a distance.
We lose track of how far.
There’s an explosion. A pattern that’s held for years.
Boys came in today—French Louis had seen the gas, tried to describe its color. Said, makes you lie down when you should rise.
We feel the compulsive force of machinery.
We use it. Where’s the next line of work coming from? We build in the valley, construct what aids the effort. Meat house, hay shed, barn, oil house. Our bodies construct the regular guard.
Nothing can defeat us, we think. Our bodies, throat-filled tongues. We watch, machines groan. Nothing can fill our heads, we think. In our bodies are spine ladders, a transportation. We move, we think. Nothing can receive us.
Oscar Munson and I went across the lake to the other camps. Visit the remainder “Palousers.” Nothing could destroy us. Munson told stories of the Tuscania shipwreck. Many killed by one lifeboat dropping on another loaded below. In our bodies, leaden kidneys wait to drop out. Livers shriveled. Muscles drawn tight. Nothing can betray us, we think.
Last night the sun reflected light across Kanab Creek. Close in, along the margin, a fisherman stood, silhouetted against the darkening waters, reeds, rushes. He’s welcome to them. Sunlight blew out wheat stalks as far as Paradise Ridge, rolling light in growth. We have to take the bad with the good. My wife beside me, dusk grey walls, white plastered ceiling. I want that. Where golden paths are slits of light under curtains, innocent as innocent.
We take the road they lead us down. Nothing to say in return. Go into town to spend some money.
Follow the local road and walk the shoulder. Saw a pretty French girl in a little grocery buying jelly. Followed the straight line back to camp.
Still on the mill. Not friends with enough non-coms to land the good jobs. I think of Sheriff Campbell of Moscow, Idaho, never drafted, still home.
Roads are built and put to immediate use.
The lumber we cut is taken out by road. Up to the little stream impassable since the bridge was bombed. Really is a little stream for such fuss.
Return to Pontenx after leave. Inventory found my fortune consists of twenty francs. Some drafted 503 Engineers pretended they were volunteers who had enlisted. We put a crimp in their game on the train home. They were a good bunch the rest of the way. Go to Pontenx-les-forges, a long walk back to camp. Good cold, some bum and blue.
Saw a girl in St. Eulalie looked just like Bessie Kesler. Dressed better than the other girls. Stared for a bit, thought it was her. Stopped at Forest Guard’s place and bought three bottles of white wine de cette année. Saw a pretty French girl in a grocery store buying jelly, looked just like Clarissa Mae. Could have sworn her brother Walter was serving in that group of medics we met headed to Spain. I stared a bit, thought it was him, but I know he’s back home. Letter from Walter, Nov. 9.
Handmade lace to send home. It’s all the same color in Mimizan. Wrote eight pages to Mae last night. Paulson tried to burn the tent up, using Mac’s new writing desk—got candle too close. Lace is clean and white. A dresser scarf, eight doilies. Gave Bascom Brown 5 francs for Flag of Our Union penny—1863. Tied up bundle to send home. Indignation Party.
Long time we’ve been going.
Empty like air with a few snowflakes drifting down.
How some appear with weight and others roll down the air like the side of a gentle hill.
Sun comes out, air mostly empty. Nothing feels right.
Lots of powder burnt at aviation camp
north of us. Bomb practice.
Long time been working Landes Forest—every tree in a row.
Spoons stacked in a drawer.
Think of a forest and I’m up near Sevier. Trout for dinner. Air filling up with snow too light to land but landing anyway.
Dec. 19 STAR-MIRROR. Dec. 4 STAR-MIRROR
Jan 22 STAR-MIRROR and there is not a bit of news of the war in it.
Also Jan 9-12-14-17 STAR-MIRROR.
Jan. 18 STAR-MIRROR,
Jan. 10 Inter-Mountain Ranger,
Jan. 3, 17, Feb 7 Washington Office Newsletter.
June 21-25-29-30-31, Feb. 1-2-5-8-9-11-13 STAR-MIRROR.
Also March 7-8-18 STAR-MIRROR.
March 30 Literary Digest and a couple of STAR-MIRROR.
A Nov. 14 STAR-MIRROR.
Feb. 6-7 S.M., Feb. 26-27-28 + Mar. 1 S.M.
March 9 Literary Digest, a bundle of The Argonauts from Walt and a S.M.
Three S.M.’s today and one Lit. Digest.
Drew in S.M.s May 17-18
No mail except Nov. 19 S.M.
Potage three times a day and a cord of wood on each foot. They leave these when they go inside and wear an inner moccasin. Saw French man today—no legs, body on a rocker, a grind-organ, wagon, donkey and four children. His two girls danced in costume on high stilts. Everyone used to be on stilts here before the marshland was planted in pines. Shepherds could see their sheep. Now stilts used for dancing, grandma’s starched lace perched on small heads. A land of sheep, stilts, bog. Customs that stretch through time with needlework to match.
Found life preservers and one life boat the BRITTIA. Also the SWINDON. Beaches washing stuff up every day. Pretty shells, brass lamp hoods, timber, spars, hutches. The Atlantic looks terrible from here. Beaches on the bay of Gascogne. Breakers coming in and wreckage strung along shore. Packed and unpacked my haver-sac, barely made it back to camp. Felt like the tail end of creation, if creation delivered itself piece by piece out of the waters. What comes to me—the remainder.
Raining and we are still working in the water. Lake has risen a foot last three days—that with a good-sized outlet. Stopped raining but lake still rising.
Captain Bedard keeps ruining the work we do. Tore up with incompetence what took two days to build. Got boat started and it has no power—good engine but toy propeller. Took thirty-three minutes to haul empty brail boom across lake, one hour ten minutes for next. Before, took fifteen minutes most.
Five hours for a boom with 1,500 logs halfway across the lake with a good wind.
There’s the joke propellor and then there’s what we’re dragging.
Tried boat out again this morning, busted shaft connection. Fixed her up so could pull raft of logs out of swamp in the east end of lake against a very strong headwind. Working better considering it’s a truck engine, not marine. Captain Bedard said, of course it’s a marine engine. There’s an anchor, isn’t there?
Hard luck with the boat last night. No boom of logs in, so had to break into reserves. All big logs, had hands full loading them on haul car—only ten inches water over car bunkers, when should be 2 feet—makes heavy work. Shallow because of hurry when they put it in, now losing time—may have to shut mill.
More of the tropical effect. Or il fait chaud. Cold foggy nights and very hot days. Some of the sick men are getting well. Spanish fever we have in our camp much lighter and mild in form than in any of the other camps, according to Lieutenant Medic. Still, advised not to visit Mimizan-les-bains. Over in the 20th Camps, several men have died. Others go out of their heads, some bleed at the mouth, nose, and ears. Some develop pneumonia. All cough and complain of sore lungs. Bad stuff—good to stay away from. Still hot.
Mill shut down at noon. Put a dam across lower end, used the big steam pump on it—a Big Jake. Work and more of it. Griswold held on to mail yesterday—too lazy to distribute it Sunday. Lied when I asked him about it.
Tom Lomasson transferred to St. Nazaire, presumably for dock construction. Hope it’s not permanent as we said we’d stay together. Mais, c’est la guerre.
New job now: general repair man—carpenter and utility—around the mill. Beats working pond anyway. Building a sawdust conveyor for the bolter mill.
Built a camp of tents—when? A while ago now. On a sandy plain amid alfalfa-timothy. Landes Forest, Pontenx les forges. Pontenx among the pines.
My fortune consists of 20 francs, sending most of my pay home.
Letters from Clarissa Mae, numbers 5–7 are my favorites.
They read like they’re written yesterday.
There’s the mill and the pond, the lumber dragged out.
Planes out of the aviation camp.
Hard luck for those sent forward.
New boys sent to us since so many camps quarantined.
They work the mill and the pond—count the rows of pines.
More rain, more work on friction, more work on our shanty this evening. Finished papering it with tar paper and Shelley, Frazier, and I moved in. Captain Eldredge ordered I put in his store—made one hurry-up job of it. Got the same spread he had last winter, store box and all. Finished our friction today and put it in this evening at supper hour. Greasy job. Sun shining, rain over. Have a prison camp at Aureilhan now. Converted the carpenter shop into quarters, built a stockade around it and sent eight incorrigibles down from Pontenx. Serving out sentences of hard labor doing work we’ve done ever since our mill got going. Good joke on us.
Thirteen men died of Spanish Influenza in the 20th camps. Captain sends them out to work as soon as they are able to wiggle. Men often work with high fevers until they break. Some go out of their minds, malaria fever, and on top of that contract pneumonia.
Wrote wifie letter No. 16.
Trucks from Bordeaux brought eight letters, one from Mae.
Wrote wife-woman No. 17.
Two letters from Mae, December 17-23.
Wrote Mae No. 20.
Letter from wife today, Dec. 28. Got letter No. 4 from Mae.
Wrote her letter No. 22.
Finished Mae’s letter No. 23.
Wrote letter No. 24.
Letter No. 25.
Got letter No. 5 from my woman today.
Wrote letter No. 27.
Got No. 11 letter from Mae, Feb. 13.
Wrote Mae No. 30.
Got No. 9. Got No. 13, March 4. Got No. 7, January 27 from Mae.
Wrote Mae No. 33.
St. Patrick’s Day card from Mae, letter No. 15.
Wrote No. 34.
Got letter, package, Feb. 21.
She’s changing. I see it in each letter. Doesn’t write, Your wifie anymore. Busy with her own days, her own signs of spring. Here, the wheat’s up and headed out, cherry and plum trees in bloom. That big oleander. Woods full of cuckoos, a few swallows that may have nested them. That cuckoo cry sounds good enough, but swallows sing like they lost everything.
Beacoup de travaille—the same old line. Gear wheel on sawdust conveyor broke. Took us an hour to put in a new one. Fixed up tools into good shape. Rained hard. Worked on bumping. Turn-down blocks were set on the carriage while trying out the mill. Put in conveyor for the bolter. We don’t have enough tools. Our captain tried to hog tools back at the start, now we don’t have enough. Department of Supplies handing him back one.
More women than men, and all French in black. A fine old church and nice altar. Will never forget figure of Jeanne d’Arc nor old man in red who marched up and down the aisles. They passed bread after communion. Noisy service. Four miles back to camp—a clean cold night.
Slept four hours on a tick without single blanket—colder than thunder. Got our coffee, prunes and beans and left plenty early next morning. Rode down to Midi Station on street cars, found we had a day’s wait. Cathedral in Bordeaux has mummies preserved in arsenate of lime for 400 years. Only a narrow vein of the mineral in catacombs. Some corpses missing feet—out of bounds.
Read that the ship that took us over—RMS Carpathia—was torpedoed off Irish Coast, US bound. Hit three times and took two hours to sink.
Started day standing reveille. Court marshall proceedings and order of execution of Claude Wilson, Company B, Service Battalion—Base Station No. 2. Hanged by the neck until dead this morning in Bordeaux. Raped a French girl. Better off without these men.
Returned to Pontenx among the pines, sawed out all my wood but did not get on to the paper on account of saw breaking. Hit me across the right ear and I thought for a minute the whole blamed ear was cut off. But it was not. Got No. 44 letter from Mae. Blue. Wasn’t for me she could love another. Al Taylor—or is it my imagination?
Started a new friction this morning—so far nearly all my time keeping up the frictions. Invented one to last four to six weeks, not seven to ten days—gives some relief.
All kids like fairytales but us lumberjacks may not be as simple as we seem. What is your real value? “Every man has a certain chemical value, a professional value. Most important are character and service.” Chaplain Williams is a fine fellow, but the more I hear him talk, the more I think his real purpose is not religious salvation, rather balm to soothe our injuries, kid us along. Make each unit believe it’s the most important in the service. Maybe we are like children—free, great-hearted, and hardworking. $9.50 per 200 lbs.
Cleared up today—sunshine with us. Peachy’s well is running 900 gallons per day—picked up from 300 yesterday. Fine cold artesian well but lots of sand coming up. He’s running round like a kid with new rubber boots.
Finished friction today. Our artesian well is now running about 1800 gallons per day and Captain Peachy in all his glory.
Did not work last night. Did not eat a bite of anything from Thursday noon until Saturday noon—very unusual for me. Got all ready for inspection this PM. Never had one. This has happened a number of times. Good way to get all tents cleaned up and camp in order. We did stand muster, though. I wished it was mustering out and we were given discharge papers. Holding down ossifer’s shanty this eve. Everyone is gone and I’m here by my lonesome spending the evening writing letters.
Wrote Frank Hartman, Sgt., 644 Aero Squadron, A.E.F, and ——
On Wes Civilz:
Wes Civilz lives on a green hill in Vermont. He teaches writing at the community college level, and has recently gone back to school for computer coding. Besides Arts & Letters, his writing has appeared recently in journals such as The Antioch Review, The Threepenny Review and New Ohio Review.
First World Problem
First World Problem appeared in Issue 36.
What a great crime scene, if they found me dead like this…naked, t-shirt draped over my face, on a bed at Motel Q. All these empty bottles on the bedside table. Imagine the investigation photos.
This is ridiculous. I know it’s ridiculous to be breathing through a shirt in order to smell a stripper again. An hour ago she was pressing her body into mine in a dark corner of the club, and now I’m lost in her watermelon body wash.
God. Who goes to a strip club at lunchtime?
When I leave my room, I see a woman in the hallway. She’s slumped on the floor, a few doors down. She’s conscious…but not going anywhere soon.
“What are you doing?” I say.
“Well,” she says, “I’m lying in the hall.”
“This is pathetic,” I say. “Get up. If your life depended on it, you could.” I step over her and push the elevator button. The part of me that felt bad for collapsed people died a long time ago. People love to collapse…in their houses, in hallways, on sidewalks.
Behind me, I hear a faint Fuck you.
Once upon a time, those words could hurt my feelings.
When the elevator opens, I see a dark shape looming over a cleaning cart. My adrenaline goes off before I realize it’s the cleaning woman. It’s a Muslim cleaning woman dressed in full cover. Everything is covered except her face. What do they call it…hijab?
“Do you need service?” she says. A few strands of hair have slipped out.
“Later in the week,” I say.
I drive around in my rental. I end up at this oyster restaurant downtown, and it must be the best oyster place in the state of Maine. They serve them with flavored ice, and lemon slices from lemons fat as grapefruits. I eat eight dozen oysters. That’s ninety-six.
I’m emptying the sea of this life form. Extincting it. I order another dozen.
Back at Motel Q, I hear someone crying in the room next to me. I put my ear to the wall. I hear loud noises coming from the room on the opposite side. I go to that wall.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit,” says a male voice.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” says a female voice. “Fuck!”
I get out my laptop and go to YouPorn.com to see what’s bubbled its way to the top of the cauldron today. YouPorn doesn’t load, and I remember that I haven’t set up my wifi. I head downstairs…getting internet here involves going to the front desk every day, paying $2.99 to get a piece of paper with a code on it, then taking the code down the hall to the security camera room. I do these things. I could go for a drink.
“Let me pull up your account,” the security guy says, taking my scrap of paper. “What’s your room number?” I tell him, and he taps the keyboard, and says, “You’re golden for twenty-four hours.”
“Is there any way to set this up for the next, say, three days in a row?”
“Do you get asked that a lot?”
Even in the days that lead up to death, there is bureaucracy. In every coffin lies a piece of red tape.
The next night I go to the oyster place again and get pretty sloshy on wine. Driving back to the motel, I’m rooting for a cop to pull me over. I burn through a couple of stop signs and jump some curbs, but nothing comes of it.
The woman is lying in the hallway again. It’s like she’s been tossed here, a sack of flour on a kitchen floor.
“You aren’t having a great week, are you?” I say.
She scowls at me like duh.
“Do you want a drink?” I say. “I’ve got a lot of vodka.”
She perks up at the idea of vodka, but plays it cool. “You were kind of a dick yesterday,” she says.
“I was in a bad mood.” I reach out a hand. “I’m a gentleman at heart.”
She takes my hand, teeters to her feet. “You were right,” she says. “I am pathetic. Still, who likes hearing it?”
“Nobody. I’m sorry.”
“I can’t believe I ended up in the hallway again tonight.” She smiles. Her face seems about to cry. She keeps smiling.
In my room, she sits down on the bed that’s still made, the one I haven’t been sleeping in. I shake up some vodka-cranberries in my drink shaker. Cape Codders, we called these, growing up around here. They were the first drinks we made in high school.
“Are you here with a guy?” I say.
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” she says. “I’m here with fucking Leah.”
I hand her a Cape Codder. She is not attractive to me. Her eyes give a feeling of dull grayness. Her blond hair has black roots, and these black roots in turn have gray roots.
“We’ve been here all week,” she says, “drinking. We’re roommates. Well, we were roommates—we got kicked out of our apartment last week.”
“You’re still roommates, just now at Motel Q.”
“That’s my story, pretty much.”
“Why does Leah keep kicking you out of the room?”
“We fight. Like, a lot.” She looks me over carefully. “You don’t look like you belong here. That jacket. Why are you here, Mr. Fancy Jacket?”
“To kill myself.”
“Oh,” she says. She laughs. “Well, this is definitely the right place for that.” She might believe me a little. But not enough for things to get weird. “So,” she says, “how are you going to, you know, do it?”
“I have the necessary drugs.”
She sips her drink, and looks at me. After a while she says, “I knew a guy who killed himself by getting the cops to do it.”
An hour later we are having sex. Which is surprising, because I’ve been impotent for a long time. And here, now, I’m like an eighteen-year-old boy again. With a woman I’m not attracted to.
Why did I spend so much time chasing the good-looking ones?
When I wake up in the morning, I’ve got the jitters. The woman is gone. I’m not as hung over as I thought I’d be.
I have a keen intuition that something bad is going to happen soon.
Well, something bad is going to happen. But I mean something besides that. A random, appalling something. It will lurch around a street corner, like the town drunk on a bender, and the day will morph into hell. I feel like yelling, a profound and childlike need to scream.
I hold it in.
As I drive, I feel sure I’m going to nail something with my car. A bird, a deer, a jogger, a nanny with a baby carriage. Nothing happens, of course. The universe remains stubbornly peaceful, smirking at me. I park at a hiking trailhead on the outskirts of town.
When I slam the car door shut, birds flutter into the air. I walk in the direction of the large tree they are flocking around. I am jealous of their simple, stupid lives.
Time for a walk in the woods. I am taking a nice walk on a nice day in these nice woods. I stroll by peaceful fields and magical little brooks.
I had better see an elf out here. An elf springing toward me over the waving grass, an elf with pointy ears and smooth skin, babbling in their language that is midway between speech and song.
“Hello, traveler,” the elf would say. “Do you want to sleep with my sister?”
“Yes,” I’d say. “I bet she is very tall and has long silky hair.”
“Well, no. My sister is a dwarf, actually. A quite unattractive dwarf.”
“What? How can an elf have a dwarf for a sister?”
“It’s a long story. It all started when my father—”
I snap out of it when I see a bird-watcher up ahead. He’s glued to a pair of expensive-looking binoculars. I’ll go see if I can make friends.
“Seen any elves out here?” I say to the bird-watcher.
“Elves?” he says.
I look at him.
“Is that a kind of bird?” he says, but I know that he knows that I don’t think elves are a kind of bird.
“No,” I say. “I mean the creature of myth.”
He puts little lens caps on his binoculars. He is striding away from me. He disappears around a curve in the trail.
I feel exhausted. I lie down next to the path. This surprisingly soft patch of grass seems to be set here like a little bed. It would be a good idea to get back to the motel, and have a drink to calm down, but I’m going to lie here for a while.
I wake. I head back to my car.
My motel room has been cleaned—by the Muslim woman, I assume. The room has a shining cleanliness that seems alien to Motel Q. She must take her work seriously. I’m going to have a little Scotch. I unwrap one of the plastic motel cups, and the whisky goes down like water after a long run. I gulp at it. You’re not supposed to drink the good stuff like this.
When I come to again, it’s night and I’m in bed. The woman from the hallway is sleeping next to me. She appears to be naked, but a quick check under the covers reveals that she still has underwear on.
I scream. I scream as loudly as I can. The woman sits up and grabs me around the throat in sheer instinctive terror. I smile, and when she sees that I will not resist her grip, she runs out of the room, trailing the bedspread. I hear her banging on her door, banging for Leah, who for once lets her in. No one from the motel bothers to investigate the fuss.
I lie stiff-bodied on the bed. Arms at my side. I stare at the ceiling.
What do they call those stone coffins with the sculpture of a guy lying on top? A sargo… sarco…sarcophagus. That’s it. A hell of a word.
I pretend I’m the sculpture above the dead body. Not a worry in the world. I just float here while the body turns to mush below.
Waking up the next morning, I’m filled with an unfamiliar sense of being normal. I leave the motel and walk to a cheap breakfast place down the street. As I pay for my meal, I look up at the waitress.
“You can’t wait,” I say. “You’ve got to change your life now.”
She looks at me funny. But then she feels it—we slip into reality with each other. She walks away with a smile.
I walk down to the docks and look out at the ocean. Orbiting gulls and salt reek. This, for whatever reason, is going to be a good day. Without a break, I tell a hundred passers-by that they must change. One hundred is the number I choose, and it takes hours, but I push through, one after the other.
“You can’t wait to change,” I say.
“What the heck?” says one man, an older gentleman. He smiles. I smile. “My goodness,” he says.
“You must change,” I say to a girl.
“Okay,” she says, walking past me with her dog, smiling.
“What are you talking about?” a teenaged boy answers angrily.
“Why would you say that?” answers a woman. She’s not angry, just puzzled. She looks around to see if there are other people who might clarify. “Who are you?” she says.
“Who am I?” I say.
“Yes,” she says. “Who are you?”
“I am…not myself,” I say.
“I can see that,” she says, and gives me a hug.
To Fawzia, the cleaning woman from Somalia, the white man’s body looked like another body she remembered, one from twenty years ago.
The walk to the Kenyan border, heading to the refugee camp at Dadaab, lasted for weeks, and it was too long for some. She remembered her father carrying her on his shoulders. He delivered them safely to the camp, but went back to help the others, and never returned.
On the morning of the day they arrived at Dadaab, there was a dead man on the road. He lay as if asleep, arms straight at his sides, his robe tucked around him.
“Not everyone is a mule,” said her father. “But you are. You could walk to the moon and back.”
The dead man had been pale, of course not a ghost like this white man, but pale. There was something similar about the shape of their smooth foreheads. Scientists, her cousin at the college said, believed that the whites had originally come from Africa, many generations ago.
There is death every day in every village, she thought…but to think that this man would choose death. She looked at the pills scattered on the bedside table. She opened one of the bottles of alcohol, a brown liquor, and sniffed. Clearly this was a poison. She went down to the front desk to tell the manager what had happened.
“There is one every year,” the manager said. He picked up the phone.
Fawzia walked out to the swimming pool, sat down on a deck chair, and said a quick prayer. She stared at the water’s surface, stirred by breezes, and thought of the drought, when dust had covered the camp and everyone’s throats became sore. Mules were kept in the yard next to her family’s tent, and there was a long time when there was very little water for animals. Still, most of them made it through. Tough, those beasts. She remembered their tongues, swollen and dark with thirst.
On Kristin Kostick:
Kristin Kostick writes poetry and nonfiction, and is an anthropologist based in Athens, Greece. She received her MFA in nonfiction in 2015 from the University of Houston’s creative writing program. Her poetry and essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Riveter, Blackbird, Forklift, Ohio, H_NGM_N, Drunken Boat and other journals.
Hostage Situation won the Susan Atefat Prize and appeared in Issue 31.
On the news over breakfast downstairs at the Plaza hotel they are still showing the grainy footage from Victoria Terminus, people running and then being shot and then skidding to the floor face-first. Then the various stages of aftermath: the blood streaks on the floor tiles, the sandals left behind when the bodies are moved and nobody bothers putting the shoes back on anyone’s feet. They show corpses wheeled out from the Taj Mahal on bellboy’s carts and flames licking out from a hotel room on the top floor. At the Nariman House, two Jews are being held hostage, but if nothing is happening the news switches back to the blood streaks or the fire. I sit at the table eating little bananas with cheap cereal and milk. Today they’ve set out mangos and papaya, and I jab them with my fork, watching the TV, listening to the rain and the 6 a.m. namaz through the open doors and a crow hammering its beak on a radiator somewhere above. The waiters, too, stand around watching the TV, glancing at regular intervals to see me sip my coffee or snap my newspaper into a backward fold. “Another cup of coffee?” one of them asks. “No, thanks,” I say. They quietly refill my coffee anyway, making sure I have two spoons in case I want one for creamer and one for cereal.
All I want to do is leave this hotel. For four days straight I’ve been stuck in my room trying to get on a flight out of the country, and now that the airports are open again, all the flights are overbooked. To pass the time, I spend all day every day in bed, sprawled over the tangled sheets reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Every time I venture outside, people look at me like I have a suicide grenade plastered to my forehead. The fruit stand man who sold me guava three days ago said, “What are you doing outside? Don’t you know they’re after people like you?”
Planning and Surveillance
Let’s go back to the beginning: my first visit a year earlier in June, to help run an HIV prevention program for poor women in the slums outside of Bombay. Steve picked me up at the airport just before midnight after a long and cramped flight. I spotted him outside the airport among hundreds of people waiting in the sweltering humidity. He looked the same in India as he did in Connecticut, his mass of curly gray hair and goofy smile forming an image you wouldn’t normally associate with “boss.” We climbed into the air-conditioned taxi and rode through the busy streets. The mass of people outside seemed to indicate a festival was underway, but there wasn’t. There’s just this many people in Bombay, Steve said. We zigzagged through the ill-defined lanes of traffic, occupied not just by cars but women, men, and children flocking alongside the honking, swerving torrents, as if everyone here had a death wish. Lining the streets were shacks made from slabs of wood and metal, plastic tarps, most of them doorless so I could see into them like shadowboxes lit up from inside. They formed a flip-book of disconnected scenarios, interrupted by alleyways too dark to see into. In one: a man stacking cartons of eggs chest-high. Flip: a woman sitting on the floor cleaning a big metal pot, three kids standing around her eating from their fingers. Flip: a man sitting on the sidewalk hammering at the bottom of a shoe. Flip, flip, flip: A doorway, the silhouette of an old woman’s arm swatting a dog with a rag.
After forty-five minutes, we arrived at the research institute, a handful of classroom buildings and residential halls shielded from the noise and flurry of the streets by rows of broad-leafed trees and bushes. Steve lugged my suitcase up the three floors to my room. Two mangos and a liter of bottled water awaited me on my desk. He showed me around the room and we talked about the plugs and lights and the air conditioner, how to work the shower and whether or not the smell of mothballs in the closet would bother me and whether or not to open the windows. Then we bid each other goodnight. I would start early tomorrow morning, my first meeting at the clinic. I was eager to see Bombay by day. I slept badly, the sounds of dogs howling down the road, crows pecking at the air conditioner outside my window. Tumbling into a surreal pre-dream state, I imagined a chaotic jumble of howling dog snouts and bird beaks gathered at my window, angry beak-taps and the disconcerting brush of wet whiskers finally carrying me off to sleep.
Startle / Panic
Day two. I woke up to the sound of rain—yesterday marked the first day of monsoon season. People were talking about the rains in the plural tense—not just rain, but rains. They seemed to come out of nowhere, with a force and fury I had never seen before. It was like the rain had harnessed the force of a tidal wave and split it into a million drops over the city, flooding the streets with brown water. After a breakfast of fried egg and toast at the campus “canteen,” Steve and I set out for the slum, the rickshaw splashing defiantly through the streets’ swill. We dodged women in bright saris and men in collared shirts and sodden slacks, everyone walking in the middle to avoid the knee-deep water on each side of the road.
The rickshaw dropped us in front of the clinic and we disembarked into the chaos of the street: horns honking, dogs barking, hundreds of people wading in different directions through the muddy water. Three oxen trudged by us, followed by a slew of mud-slicked, clucking chickens. A teenage boy on a bicycle skimmed past me, shouting something in Hindi, I thought at first, but then I realized the words were in English: Leave India!! I watched him, startled, as he twisted his torso on the bike to look back at me, almost running into a herd of muddy sheep, their wool spray-painted with patches of neon green and orange, led by an old man with a stick.
Already, the women had been standing for hours in a line that snaked from the inner lobby and tangled before the clinic’s façade. More women arrived every few minutes by rickshaw or on foot, with babies and toddlers in their arms, kids satelliting round the hems of their saris. Steve and I shuffled past them into the clinic; he knew exactly where to go. Ten years of research in this slum had made him something of a local, as much as a tall, curly-haired Jew can be a local in India. Steve would leave tomorrow on a plane back home, which meant I had exactly one day to learn the ropes before taking over the local side of the project. But at this point, I still had no idea what I was supposed to be overseeing, had only a hazy understanding of my responsibilities, how to take “ethnographic” notes on clinical procedures, the patient population. Listen, was Steve’s main advice before he left. In the near distance, you could see Asia’s largest dumping ground rising sharply into the smog-hazed sky, the slum’s inhabitants ignoring the toxic stench and flies, mere organic extensions of the hovels and lean-tos. He also said, Remember, you come with one question to answer, and this place digests it, hands you a different question.
The walls of the clinic director’s office were a dingy gray, the color of an exposed brain. Dr. Mishra sat regally at her desk, wearing a dark green and gold sari, bedecked in gold jewelry, her black hair yanked into a tight bun. We sat facing her, and after the routine introductions, Steve started talking about patient records, how—or more accurately—whether they were being kept. I learned that each patient carries a “chit” noting their diagnosis and permitting them to stand in line for the next—and most coveted—phase of their visit: the pharmacy. What happened to the chit after they got their meds was unclear. I pictured them leaving the clinic and the tiny piece of paper slipping from their fingertips into the gutter outside, swirling and turning pulpy in the streets’ awful stew. Steve diplomatically suggested that the chits and also their medical histories should be better recorded. His suspicion was that a large proportion of women were reporting symptoms that were linked to things the women were not reporting. Abuse. Feelings of captivity. But the point was dropped. So far, we had evidence for nothing. Steve and I were only able to discern that a disproportionate number of women were coming for treatment again and again for the same problem. Safed pani. I had never heard of it before coming here.
A persistent fly buzzed around Steve’s head. He waved it away, kept talking. The director listened, swiveling her head slowly from left to right, as if politely disagreeing with every word he was saying. But Steve didn’t seem to notice, just went right on talking. The fly came back, nestling into a tuft of his grey curls. A powerful fan whirled above our heads, and when the fly left Steve’s head, it got caught up in the swirling air near the ceiling, struggling to make it back down to us, the fan’s current sweeping it up again. I watched it, feeling there was something at once sad and impressive in its perseverance. The conversation ended before I could see whether it would find its way to the window.
Fast forward to the shootings and the bombings, my third visit to India in just over a year. I have graduated from the research institute’s residence halls to a room in a cheap hotel behind a restaurant reeking of spicy food and mildewed kitchen towels. Here, I have reached day four of quarantine. I’ve almost conquered the chapter in 2666 where all the prostitutes turn up raped and murdered in Santa Teresa. Bolaño’s tale of these women stretches on in a single chapter for close to three hundred pages. The whole book is eleven hundred pages long. The women are almost all poor, working in maquiladoras—widely known for their cheap labor and their exploitative conditions—or as waitresses, some of them students. Bolaño’s accounts are fictionalized, but based on the real-life phenomenon of “femicide” in Ciudad Juárez, where since 1993 the mutilated corpses of over four hundred young women have turned up in garbage containers, vacant lots, drainage canals. Many of the women have a similar aesthetic: dark skin, slender physique, long dark hair. When they’re found, some of them have had their nipples and breasts cut off, buttocks lacerated like cattle, their genitalia penetrated with objects. Almost none of the crimes have been solved.
I’m sprawled across the hard mattress, flipping page after page. It is unbearable to think of this as a true story. My mind involuntarily reads it as fiction. But Bolano is writing about the real killings in Ciudad Juárez. I keep turning back to the chapter’s first lines, which read: “The girl’s body turned up in a vacant lot in Colonia Las Flores. She was dressed in a white long-sleeved tee-shirt and yellow knee-length skirt, a size too big.” Pages later: “The first dead woman of May was never identified…” and then, flip, flip, flip: “Emilia Mena Mena died in June. Her body was found in the illegal dump near Calle Yucatecos, on the way to the Hermanos Corinto brick factory.” Bolaño goes on and on: Ema Contreras, her hands and feet bound, shot four times; Beverly Beltran Hoyos, aged sixteen, multiple stab wounds to the chest and abdominal area; Erica Mendoza, aged twenty-one, raped multiple times then stabbed to death. The cases of the women start to blend together, their ripped clothes, muddied faces. In the book, one of the corrupt police officials investigating the crimes quips, “Women are like laws, they were made to be violated.” By the two hundred and eighty-fourth page, I’m so ready to move on from the dead women that I don’t even care anymore about reading their names, how they died, what they were wearing. I think: just let me turn away from this.
I go downstairs for breakfast; there is nothing else to do but eat and read and watch the same old snapshots of the gunmen flash on the news, to marvel at how young they look. I open the paper over my breakfast, the waiters hawking on either side of me. They’re not doing anything wrong, I tell myself, but I am unjustifiably annoyed; I feel monitored. The front page of the Times of India reads “City at Gunpoint” with two grainy photographs of men and women crying into their hands. Every page has a story about the hostage situation. Towards the back of the paper are stories they had planned to run before any of this happened, stories worthy of the front page but pushed back to the section reserved for stories about elementary school fairs or people fed up with the litter on Chowpatty Beach. It’s hard to believe that less than a week ago I was walking freely around the city, wandering aimlessly in the sidestreets near Crawford market, dodging cricket games in the road, one game bleeding into another.
I remember back to one morning when I sat in part of the clinic called the “lady clinic,” a tiny room tucked into the building’s side where someone had managed to pack a big metal desk, a set of filing cabinets, and a raised aluminum cot with a curtain to pull around for privacy. There was barely room to walk. A stream of women spilled through the doorway, their expressions unanimously terrified. They had been waiting for hours already, with all that time to think about what might happen to them in this very room. Most of the women had never undergone a pelvic exam, or what American women know as a pap smear. Most had never ventured beyond the tiny Ayurvedic clinics folded among the slum’s shops and tea stands and shanty houses and mechanic shops and poultry corners and prayer spots. Most had probably never even seen an antibiotic, wouldn’t know if it’s a serum, a pill or an injection, could only imagine it as a morsel of Western medicine that might help them. Then the shame might disappear, and everything connected to the boggy discomfort at the very hub of their existence, right between their legs.
I squeezed past a crowded line of women into the exam room to “observe,” perched beside Kalpita, the “lady doctor,” at her desk. A nineteen year-old girl came in and sat down in front of us. Kalpita listened to the woman’s list of complaints, checking them off on the new patient record sheet: Lower abdominal pain; white discharge; itching in vaginal region; inguinal swelling; ulcer disease; Other—Explain. The list went on, little boxes to mark the woman’s afflictions. This time, we only needed one. Safed pani, check. According to protocol, Kalpita would give her a pelvic exam, one of over thirty she would perform a day in the tiny eight-by-eight space of the lady clinic.
The young woman undressed and lay down on the cot behind the curtain. All I could see of the exam from my vantage point were the woman’s thin, coffee-colored feet sticking up from the stirrups and Kalpita’s sandals shuffling back and forth over the concrete floor. As she examined the young woman out of view, her three young children waited quietly on the other side of the room with absorptive eyes. The rest of the women in the long line waited too. Kalpita poked her head out from behind the curtain and motioned for me to come stand next to her. “Want to see?” she asked.
I glanced at the line of women in the doorway. They were all different ages, all dressed similarly in gowns and veils, all there for overlapping reasons. I wanted their approval for being there, too, for participating in whatever this was, but I got none. They did not know how to place me, without a white jacket or a name tag, maybe just another white lady doctor from somewhere far away. Even I had trouble placing myself there. Did I look the part, dressed in my salwar kameez, the too-small armholes squeezing my underarms? I looked back at Kalpita. She smiled warmly, maternally, though we were exactly the same age. I knew what she was looking at back there. Did I want to see?
I stepped behind the curtain, confronted by the young woman’s spread legs, her thinness startling, her bony knees splayed off to the sides in a position of ultimate exposure. A fan issued strong gusts over our heads. The woman’s skin quivered, maybe from nervousness or fear, her whole body rattling the aluminum cot. Kalpita had already inserted the speculum. The two of us stood there, staring down into the dark tunnel of the woman’s vagina all the way to the scarlet pink cervix, which itself seemed to quiver and glisten.
“See?” Kalpita said, gently pointing to the cervix with her pinky. “That could be it, a slight discharge.” And sure enough, there it was—a milky film gathering at the bottom of the cervix. Was that enough to be “abnormal”? I was careful not to look into the woman’s face, as if I had no right to see any of this, to be there at all, no credentials that should allow this kind of intimacy. The fan breathed over the woman’s skin.
Here is what we know about safed pani, so far. Doctors call it a “syndrome,” as in, an experience of being ill, something with no definite beginning or end. Literally translated as “white water,” it is an experience of having too much moisture in the vagina. “Abnormal discharge” is the clinical term. Steve once told me, There is no point in being squeamish in a place like this. I realize this is not what we came to study, maybe had nothing to do with HIV, but I remember Steve’s reminder. This place hands you another question. Or questions, plural. Why is this the leading symptom among women in India? Why is it so prevalent among poor women in particular?
In the lady clinic, patient after patient describes her symptoms. A kind of heat—or garmi—builds up in the body, they say. You feel threads of weakness, or kamjori, spreading through your veins. Then it’s like your bones are melting, liquefying. The way they talk, I picture the skeleton taking on a mind of its own, finding a way out of the body. When asked what causes safed pani, the women can only shrug and speculate: poor diet, poor hygiene, too many pregnancies, too much sex. “Women’s work,” is how they sum it up, as if we—as women—should already know this.
Western doctors are perplexed, because symptoms of safed pani are most of the time perceptible only to the patients themselves. A doctor might search for inflammation, infection, flu, or even more serious conditions like an STD, but more often than not, no biological basis is identified. But the experience is quite clearly there, I can see it in their faces. This is not your typical malingering for attention. I believe the women when they say they feel it physically. Even the ones whose cervixes betray a perfect, healthy pink. Even these women say they can’t take it anymore, the constant sensation of something leaking from the bodies and draining them to the core, the burden of washing their underwear multiple times a day with nowhere to dry them in the crowded, all-seeing slum. There is something inside, a woman once whispered to me, escaping.
Behind the sheet, the young woman slipped her sari back on.
“What will you give her?” I asked Kalpita.
She shrugged. “If it’s safed pani, protocol says we have to give them antibiotics.” But the way she looked at me seemed to say, We know that won’t fix a thing.
Nariman House is still under siege, hostages still held in the Oberoi and Taj hotels. I watch footage of people who have been shot being wheeled out from the hotel, stacked on shiny brass luggage carts. In my own hotel room, I look up online what to do in a hostage situation. “None of us expects to be taken hostage but the possibility exists,” is the first line of the NATO Hostage Survival Skills manual. The first hours to days of a hostage situation, hostages are expected to move from a state of startle and panic, to disbelief, and then to hypervigilance and anxiety, extremely wary and alert to minute details as various events take place, further attacks, interrogation, the movement of captives from one place to another. Their mindsets are often accompanied by startle reactions to noise or sudden movements, a tendency to think the worst, to catastrophize the situation. You see the captors tying up ropes and think for sure they’re fashioning nooses. Then you see the ropes are just for the horses outside, according to one of the manual’s examples. Later, captives often must choose between resistance or compliance. Sometimes, the manual says, a skillful captive can make the one appear very similar to the other. I leaf through the newspaper at breakfast, my only descent for the day from my room, to see if the captors have let anybody go, but the articles reveal nothing but more watching and waiting.
Meanwhile, my research has been suspended. I look up flights to see if something opens up, if I will be going home soon, but the planes are still grounded. I hear by email that the clinic is still open, that the treatments continue, women walking for miles or longer through the flooded streets to get medicine, not just antibiotics but “vitamin tonics,” or sugar water with electrolytes, smuggling these artifacts from the outside world back into their small homes, shoving the tonics and pills out of their husband’s sight, stockpiling the possibility of feeling normal again.
I am almost through reading the awful chapter. The detective in charge of figuring out the murders is on the verge of throwing up his hands. There are simply too many to make sense of. I wonder if this was Bolaño’s point of stretching the chapter on for so many pages, to desensitize the reader in the same way that the citizens of Juárez have become desensitized to the hundreds upon hundreds of rapes and murders. Will there be some resolution? I resist the urge to flip to the end, to see whether Bolaño’s tale ever offers something more than the author’s own witnessing of these events, if the characters ever discover a way out.
A woman who had come to the clinic with symptoms agreed to tell us her experience with safed pani. She explained that, because she was only allowed to leave home for medical appointments or to buy food, we would have to come to where she lived. That afternoon, Prajakta, my translator, led me through the slum’s maze, the rain waterfalling from overhangs and umbrellas, the streets filling up like a soup. We passed three young women who stared at us from the narrow slits in their black burkhas as we waded in our sandals through the calf-deep sooty water, tiptoeing around hairy black mango pits floating in puddles, over piles of trash and ripped cloth, dirty clumps of chicken feathers and animal hair, things only vaguely identifiable.
From a distance, the nine-story trash heap climbed before us, white and brown over the tin and plastic roofs. Other colors began to pop out as we neared—flashes of red candy wrappers, bidi pouches, cigarette boxes, plastic scraps. My sense of orientation was askew. I glued myself to Prajakta’s heels, following her royal-yellow and emerald-green salwar kameez through the narrow alleys, the walls on each side of us painted bright blues, pinks, yellows. The streets looked to me like a hive brimming with pedestrians, some carrying umbrellas, some wiping sweat or rainwater from their brows, their rubber-sandaled feet expertly maneuvering around puddles and sewage ditches. I tried to catch the eyes of women as I walked by. I tried to tell them with my eyes, I’m on your side, even though I didn’t know what that side was, what that meant.
“We’re getting close,” Prajakta said. I could make out the silhouettes of skinny women and children climbing barefoot over the garbage piles in the distance, bending over to pick up scraps and stash them in bags over their shoulders. Prajakta told me they were picking out pieces of metal or plastic, bottletops to sell to others who melt them down, shape them into something else.
We stopped at a clearing to ask a woman for directions. Did she know the lady we wanted to speak to, where she lived? The woman squatted over the ground, wearing a tattered sheet fashioned into a sari. A film of dirt lightened the dark skin of her face and arms. Flies fluttered about her, alighting on her cheeks, the top of her head, her eyelashes. She looked at us unblinking and waved to a doorway down the street.
“Hello? Hello?” Prajakta called in English through the sheeted doorway. Moments passed and a skeletal hand appeared at the curtain’s edge, pulling it slowly aside. The overpowering stench of gasoline flooded from the shack’s interior and infiltrated my nostrils. The curtain opened more to reveal a tiny woman, of indefinable age, lost to the folds of her threadbare sari. She looked sickly, though her eyes shone from her wan face like oncoming comets. She invited us to sit down with her on the floor mat. Her husband would not be home for a while, she said. She could talk.
We sat about five feet from an industrial-sized blue barrel of gasoline. Her husband is a mechanic, she told us, and makes a little money every time something in the surrounding slum is broken. The smell of gasoline was omnipresent, and I wondered how she and her kids had gotten used to those venomous fumes overwhelming the small space. As we talked, each of her five children came and went through the curtain beside us leading to the street. Her youngest daughter, no more than three, circled around us and reminded me that this woman could not be more than thirty, though the deep crevices in her eyes and cheeks shrouded her with two more decades. Another daughter came to twirl some strands of my hair around her finger, laughing and leaping back playfully every time I turned to acknowledge her. Another of her daughters—about seven—had gone to put on her best red dress for us, torn at the seams near her waist, and now she hid behind her mother, peeking out at us at regular intervals and swishing the skirt of her dress left to right. The woman’s son, a lanky young boy of about ten—or perhaps fifteen, the malnutrition making age in this place so hard to decrypt—stormed in and headed straight to the back of the shack to “shower” over a small concrete slab behind the gas barrel. As the woman talked, I stole curious glances at the boy’s peculiar “shower,” which consisted of dipping a bar of soap in a bowl of water poured from a small vat near his feet, rolling up his pants legs and vigorously scrubbing his skin with the soap bar. Then the other pant leg, then each of his shirt sleeves, reaching under each of his armpits to scrub, so hard it looked as if he were punishing his skin. As he bathed, I watched a rat skitter along the edge of the concrete slab and disappear behind some crates. The boy didn’t seem to notice, quickly toweled himself off with an old rag, and left again through the faded curtain.
We got to the part of the interview where we talk about marriage and sex. Her girls seemed too preoccupied by my hair to listen. The woman told us that she and her husband only have sex with their clothes on, him lifting up her salwar as they lay in the hut’s only twin-sized bed with their children and in-laws sleeping on the floor beside them. It is the same every time, she said. She waits for him to be finished, proud that she can provide him with pleasure but always frightened by the looming humiliation that others might see or hear. Sometimes she feels pleasure too, but most often there is no time for that.
I try to put all the stories together. They sit in stacks on my small desk, their edges curling in the afternoon heat. The typical trajectory of a woman’s life in the slums is to spend her childhood in a rural village hundreds of miles from Bombay. Despite the daily burdens of poverty, these are the happiest years of her life, when her days amble by under the easy oversight of her mother and father, maybe some aunties or an older brother or sister. But after these fleeting years, the girl wakes to find life has shifted. She is expected to marry, move away. Leave forever. She finds herself in an arranged engagement by the age of fifteen, sometimes as early as twelve, to someone she hasn’t yet met, someone she and her parents have only seen in photographs. Then, after a protracted engagement, a woman (girl) finally comes via train or bus to meet and marry her husband, who has been living and waiting for her in Bombay, while making a pitiable salary as a construction worker or a rickshaw driver. Then begins the woman’s tenure in her husband’s household, cocooned amongst her in-laws. Her “women’s work” begins the first night of marriage. Maybe, if she is like many of the women we’ve interviewed, her sister-in-laws tells her, “Whatever you do, don’t scream.” The girl has never been told about sex, often knows nothing of its basic mechanics. Meanwhile, her husband has already had his first sexual experiences, usually with one or more prostitutes. In some stories, which I hope are just folklore, it is with an animal, maybe a sheep. Almost invariably, there is alcohol involved for the men, for they have their anxieties about sex too. We hear this from doctors on the “men’s” side of the clinic. Overcoming these anxieties about sexual performance becomes a bonding point among men, who goad one another to drink, to watch pornographic “blue films” in makeshift cinema booths hidden throughout the slums, or to practice with prostitutes so that they can better please their wives. The men, too, have often come from villages far away to find work in Bombay, bringing their families there in hopes of providing a better life, earning enough money to find and bring a wife to Bombay. By the time the wife arrives, the world in which her husband lives is already structured and rich with expectation. Having no education, no employable skills, and a family who cannot afford to keep her any longer back home, a poor woman arrives in Bombay with no choice but to step into the walls of a life her husband has already created.
The third stage of a hostage situation often involves shifting the location of captives to a place from which they cannot easily be freed. This could be a bunker, a closet, a hotel room. Once there, a number of psychological tactics are employed to make the captives easier to manage. Physical restraint and sensory deprivation (for example, chains and blindfolds). Mental cruelty. Interrogations. Indoctrination / brainwashing (often associated with enforced sleep loss). Verbal abuse and humiliation (such as being stripped naked). Threats of injury and death. Physical, perhaps sexual, abuse. I read on and on, scrolling through the pages of the NATO manual and wondering where captors learn these techniques, if they must enact practice scenarios or if capture comes naturally, absorbed from living within a culture of other captors.
If it is too risky to move the captives, they may remain where they are. For that reason, sometimes the former comfort of the home itself becomes a hostage zone. The NATO manual recommends that captives employ strategies to maximize chances for survival and minimize suffering. Regain—and maintain—composure. Assume a low-key, unprovocative posture. Get captors to recognize you as a human being. Follow the rules. Say little when questioned. Set goals. Keep your mind active. Try to adapt feelings of weakness into strength and hope.
At breakfast, the TV shows Indian National Guard commandos entering the Nariman House from the roof. There are two big blasts and a cascade of gunfire. One official says he heard a woman from inside say in English, “Please help immediately.” A helicopter hovers overhead as ground troops close in.
Demographic Notes. Location of residence: Baiganwadi, age: 25 years, Religion: Muslim, Number of children: 3, Type of house: Semi Pucca. Baiganwadi, 37 years, Muslim, Number of children: 5, Semi Pucca. Baiganwadi, Age: 31 years, Muslim, Number of children: 3, Type of house: Semi Pucca. Baiganwadi, age: 19 years, Religion: Muslim, Number of children: 1, Type of house: Semi Pucca. Baiganwadi, age: 35 years, Religion: Muslim, Number of children: 3, Type of house: Semi Pucca.
One woman goes days without food because her husband won’t give her money to feed their children. He comes home from work, already drunk, and beats her when he finds no food in the house. Another woman’s husband beats her because her pregnancies have yielded only girls whose future dowries they can’t afford to pay. Only boys bring money into a family. Another woman’s husband has sex with a prostitute near the dumping ground, and comes home reeking of alcohol and of the other woman’s body. She has no idea if he uses protection, where he would even get such a thing. Another woman’s husband asks her to perform the sexual acts he has seen in blue films with his friends. She feels ashamed and unknowledgeable and repulsed, is beaten when she refuses. Another woman has sex with her husband on a tiny bed with their four children sleeping beside them on the ground, her in-laws snoring across the room. Neither she nor her husband remove their clothes; he simply pulls down her drawstring pants and enters her. She wonders who is this man, her husband. Another woman eats dry white rice to get rid of her safed pani, swallowing grain by grain without water, a small pouch throughout the day. Another woman who believes her body hair is unsanitary shaves her arms and coats her vagina with hair removal cream, letting the potent chemicals seep into her skin, devouring her pubic hairs, follicle by follicle. She, too, has safed pani. They all do. Another woman is beaten for staying too long at a neighbor’s house, “gossiping,” according to her husband. Another woman peeks over her husband’s shoulder to make sure their children are asleep when he forces her to “do sex.” She concedes only because she doesn’t want him to go “elsewhere.” She herself has nowhere else to go. A woman, she says, cannot say no to her husband. Another woman doesn’t like to have sex because she must “take a bath and wash properly” afterward or else she will feel deeply impure, a religious belief shared by others in her community, and by her husband. If it is past midnight, the only place to wash herself is the public toilet blocks away, but if she goes then all her neighbors will hear and know what she is up to. So she falls asleep quietly, feeling the impureness settle deep into her bones.
I enter the women’s data into a large spreadsheet. From each interview, I mark a ‘1’ or a ‘0,’ whether or not the woman has suffered mental or verbal abuse, difficulties with childbirth or miscarriage, too many or too few children, inability or unwillingness to eat, signs of depression or anxiety. I want to add a box: Desire for escape. But it is not in our protocol.
Resistance / Compliance
It had been weeks since I arrived. The monsoons had not let up for more than thirty minutes at a time. The improvised drainage routes along the rooflines overflowed with rainwater. The dirt streets formed a lakebed awash with broken umbrellas, lost sandals, scraps of paper and cloth. Prajakta and I arrived at the steps of the Ayurvedic doctor’s office, took refuge under the dripping overhang. We waited outside for him to see us, standing next to a stout woman with a leathery face, wearing a weathered sari, chewing bidi and spitting streams of thick, red saliva into the street. The door opened and the doctor waved us in.
We entered the threadbare white room, nothing more than a desk and an examining table crammed into an eight-by-five space, two posters hanging on the wall with “HIV” written amongst things I couldn’t read in Hindi. Prajakta and I squeezed ourselves into the same metal chair across from the doctor. He wore a white coat and slacks, a stethoscope around his neck. He was one of what they call “AYUSH” doctors, practicing a combination of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy, essentially traditional medicine with a dash of Western biomedicine.
“So you are here to talk about lady problems,” he said.
“Yes. Well not ours,” we told him. We said we were there to learn more about safed pani. Maybe he could tell us his procedures for diagnosing and treating the disorder, what its causes might be?
“Leukorrhea,” he said, nodding. “Yes. Very common among women here.” He began to explain what we already knew, the whitish or yellowish discharge, feelings of weakness, no exact causes, associated with overwork, reproductive “problems” like multiple, successive pregnancies.
I asked Prajakta to ask him, “How does he spot it? What does it look like?”
The doctor shook his head, said something lengthy in Hindi before Prajakta turned to me to translate, “He doesn’t examine the women. They just come and tell him, ‘I have safed pani,’ and he writes them a prescription and then they pay and leave with their medication.”
“So he doesn’t examine them?” I asked, incredulous.
She translated again and he replied, “There is no need. All the women have it.”
“What do you give them?” I asked.
“A vitamin tonic. Antibiotics.” He stared smoothly back at us.
“What can the women do to prevent it from coming back?” I ask.
The doctor clicked and unclicked his pen. “It is inevitable,” he said. “But she must abstain from sex during safed pani, or else it can harm her, and her husband too. It is dangerous for everyone,” he said.
Abstain from sex, I thought to myself, remembering the women’s stories as we walked back from the doctor’s office. Given the circumstances, that didn’t seem like such a bad prescription. Doctor’s orders, is what the women could say. And if their husbands, too, believed in the dangers of safed pani, there would be little to no explanation needed, no arguments involved, no violence. I walked back to the clinic, clicking and unclicking my pen, as the doctor had done. Safed pani, the intangible illness, I realized, might have suddenly divulged its motive. Was this elusive syndrome the sickness or the cure? And if the cure, what was the actual malady?
Here’s what I think: It is not that safed pani doesn’t exist. To say that real suffering is not what brings the women here rings false to me. I’ve seen the genuine expressions of distress when they arrive, a sincere disdain for the scent of their clothes, and candid desperation for a sustainable cure. The fact is, it doesn’t matter if it exists or not. A more interesting question might be, Why do women go to so much trouble to seek treatment for it? Certainly there are some women that do, some that don’t. But what series of events must be endured and for how long in order for a woman to finally plead the dubious permission of her husband to leave her house, to walk all the way across town through a maze of hostile streets in the pouring rain, to wait in line for hours, only to finally expose herself on a hard metal table to the prods and pokes of the lady doctors, in a room where privacy is as thin as a sheet dangling loosely around your naked body? The more I consider the effort involved in seeking relief from safed pani, the more I think that seeking relief might be the most crucial aspect of the illness itself. It is more the act of trying to alleviate a chronic problem than figuring out why it is there in the first place. Rather than searching for the “real” causes, we could simply listen to what the women have already identified as their own causes. Wasn’t that Steve’s parting advice?
Anthropologists say that distress is “unlocalized,” meaning you can’t just point to a broken toe or a sprained ankle and say, There, that’s the problem. Most of the time, there is no “there.” The “there” feels everywhere, an amorphous moving target, embedded in the fibers of your clothes, the air that you breathe, the food you eat. It drifts inside you, deep in your bones, looking for expression, a buoy to the surface. That the illness just “happens” for these women to be situated in the vagina is probably not a coincidence. A problem that circulates around a woman’s private parts is just that: the issue begins there, it is understood there, it is treated there. From the time the women first come to Bombay, first meet their husbands, first have sex, up until they’ve gone through multiple childbirths (or deaths), endured countless acts of intimacy for which the word “intimacy” is probably a euphemism, they’ve amassed enough emotional and connotative timber around the idea of vagina to light the whole city on fire, monsoons or none.
One must choose between compliance and resistance. One can appear very similar to the other.
Against the advice of the hotel concierge working the front desk, I decide to go for a walk. The hostages still haven’t been freed, but I don’t care, I’m going out. I mean, of course I care. People have guns pointed at their heads this very minute, are wondering if today is their last day to live. I walk down the street in the heat of the morning, the rickshaws rushing by, the crows squawking overhead, horns honking, voices clamoring. I try to imagine what the hostages downtown are doing to stay alive, to keep calm in the confines of the Nariman House. I think, too, of Bolaño’s descriptions of the thousands of Juárez women. I wonder what tactics they tried with their captors, what they must have thought about in the darkness of some trunk or the back of a van with blindfolds over their eyes, the wheels beneath them chattering over the empty desert terrain. And then, of course, I think of the Indian women here too from the clinic, all lined up outside the door of the examining room, waiting to be treated. What are they doing to keep calm? What do they really mean when they say they can’t take it anymore? I look around to all the things they could be referring to: the poisonous dumping ground, the detachment from their natal villages, their personal histories and identities subsumed now by their husbands’ lives and families, the irony of the ever-present duty to have more children as they mortally struggle to feed the ones they have.
And then there is the matter of the vagina, the locus of this malady: the lack of control over your own sex, your own body co-opted by others for pleasure, procreation. I think of the words: take it. As in take in, into oneself, store inside, something unable to get away, locked within. There is something inside, escaping, the woman had told me, her face fraught with grief. What is it that has been trapped, that now wants out? I think of the voices of the girls who long ago arrived from their villages, voices which once echoed throughout open, rural spaces. Is that what wants out, the collective rush, the effortless, feminine treble of those girls’ voices before coming to endure all they have endured here in Bombay? Or are those girls’ voices gone now, disappeared?
I realize that what I have learned by coming here I could never have learned from an academic article or medical journal. What there is to be known about safed pani is not its cause, but the fact itself of the women’s suffering, the capacitating process of identifying and treating the otherwise unidentifiable, dispersed experience of being a woman facing this specific set of circumstances. I think of the boy in the street yelling to me: Leave India, how I have the luxury of doing that. But these women do not, stuck in the convection current of a culture that is perpetuated by its own uninterrupted dynamic.
I think of the medicines the lady doctors dole out: vitamin tonics, antibiotics, of how “compliance” is a word doctors use to describe patients who do what is best for them. And the women do, they take their medicines, compliant with their treatment, compliant with their diagnosis. I think of the word itself: compliant. From the Spanish cumplir, or compliment. One thing going with another. Complicit. Together, the women and the doctor pinpoint the problem and can move on. The medicines stop the leak, cease the struggle of whatever-it-is trying to free itself. The “treatment” stops all that nonsense, dams the flood.
Compliance. Resistance. How to tell one from the other? The manual said that to cope, one must maintain composure. Follow the rules. Try to adapt feelings of weakness into strength and hope. There is a section about Stockholm Syndrome, a name for when hostages develop feelings of affection for their captors. The manual explains that at the root of the syndrome is a desire to reposition reality to make it more bearable. Feelings of subordinance and fear gradually shift to feelings of dependence, even gratitude for being taken care of. This shift in emotional understanding is adaptive, it says, a tool for gaining control, for coping with an inherently horrible situation. I think of the women coming in with safed pani, how reconfiguring the dissatisfaction with their lives as illness gives it weight, gives it “thing-ness,” renders it capable of manipulation, alleviation. Treatment becomes a temporary taking back of control, an act of strength, empowerment. Resistance. Maybe it is what is best for them, to believe in the possibility of relief in those moments when existence feels too heavy to bear.
I round a corner near the train station to see the market a ways down under the overpass. I wonder if the man selling guavas will tell me again to return to my hotel room, to not come out until it’s all over. This is something you tell someone when you know that her situation will someday soon come to an end. I know the planes will take flight again and I will go back home. I know that, for me, the women’s stories will exist in someplace far, far away, in a never-ending book chapter, or a series of articles I write for work. For some hostages, the danger will subside, and they will be set free. For others, “Don’t come out until it is all over” is not something they will hear, not something you tell someone whose situation is permanent, when there is no “over.” For those people, you don’t tell them anything. You say other things: Antibiotics, Vitamin tonics. You do not say: All of this will go away. Maybe the reason the AYUSH doctors don’t say this to the women is because it would disrupt an implicit agreement of exchanges. Maybe it is not out of negligence that they don’t examine the women, but out of mutual understanding—that the women are in the business of seeking relief while the doctors are in the business of providing it. What appears one moment as weakness is revealed the next as strength. What is uncontrollable becomes, for a moment, controlled. It goes on this way, a system of gives and takes, steeped in a world where nothing changes.
On Cate Hodorowicz:
Cate Hodorowicz’s essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, and Arts & Letters. She has also recently reviewed poetry and/or prose for The Rumpus, Hippocampus, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal. In 2017, she received a Pushcart Prize, and this summer she attended the Kenyon Writers Workshop as a Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellow.
Chasing Rabbits appeared in Issue 34
The first time I saw The Cottontail Rabbit Among Dry Grasses and Leaves, I was sitting at my kitchen table with an enormous old book. Its pages from 1909 were thin and fragile and cream colored, save for the thick and satiny white sheets upon which colored plates—one of them the cottontail—were printed. I had been looking forward to this book, Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, for quite some time and was thrilled to have it in hand, but when I came across this watercolor rabbit, a deep tunnel emerged behind my eyes and grew down into my chest, belly, and legs. I had to place my hands on the table to steady myself.
At first, I thought this reaction had something to do with what seemed to me the painting’s perfection. Its neutral and delicate palette—ecru, café-au-lait, hints of mahogany and chestnut—appear flawless, and the gentle textures of autumn leaves, rabbit fur, and one glossy, chocolate eye make the painting seem weightless. Positioned on the diagonal, the rabbit faces left, in profile, neither fully alert nor fully at ease: the chocolate eye is like velvet, the delicate ears turned back but not fully flush with the rabbit’s back. The creature rests among parchment-colored grasses, a few spindly twigs, and fallen, curled leaves Novemberish in their absence of color—ghostly, as if they have nearly reached disintegration. But disintegration, the folding back into the earth from which the leaves came, is far from melancholy. Rather, the ethereal leaves seem to hold the cottontail aloft as the rabbit’s white, then biscuit-colored, then tawny fur blends into the background.
Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom is the lifework of Abbott Handerson Thayer, a nineteenth-century portrait artist and naturalist who developed some of the first color theories behind camouflage, which of course is the patterning that allows animals and insects to blend into their surroundings. The book is not Abbott Thayer’s alone, however; his son, Gerald, is the author of record, and many of Abbott’s artist friends and family contributed to the paintings. The cottontail, for example, was painted by Gerald, while Thayer’s second wife, Emma, completed some of the background. You would never know it, though; the watercolor seems to be of one hand.
As I sat there at the kitchen table, a bit dizzy and perplexed, it became clear that The Cottontail Rabbit Among Dry Grasses and Leaves had done something to me, reminded me of a history of rabbits, of the sensation of small rabbits in my hands, the role of rabbits in my family and how and why I am here on the earth. And in those moments at the table, those memories came together strangely, far less unified than the composition of that lovely cottontail.
Perhaps the easiest way to begin is with a happy story. A moment when I was a child of eight and the world was still gilded with sunlight. My pet rabbit had birthed kits, and my younger brothers and I made elaborate stories with the babies: the white rabbit became the princess, the black rabbit the prince, the three brown rabbits their servants and footmen and evil doers. Gilded in sunlight, indeed: we were outside, it was summer, and we contained the kits in a wheelbarrow or created elaborate mazes for them on the picnic table. The rabbits had no fear of us, so we cuddled them in our hands, against our cheeks, and wished for them never to grow up.
But they did, of course, grow up, and as they grew, we lost interest. Even though the rabbits lived just steps from our back door, in a plywood and wire cage alongside the old barn, we took them out rarely once summer turned to fall and we returned to school. Too, the rabbits changed from placid babies to unruly adolescents. They bucked and squirmed when we tried to hold them; sometimes they tried to bite. They refused to stay contained in the wheelbarrow, and so they spent more time in the cage.
By winter, the rabbits had grown up and were no longer easily lovable, so I visited them only at feeding time. We lived in western New York, where the lake effect snow is such a part of life that children grow up with snow shovels in their hands—or at least my brothers and I did. One weekend afternoon, I noticed from the kitchen window my father in the snowdrifts in the middle of the day by the rabbit hutch. It seemed odd because he never tended the rabbits; that was my job. When I asked my mother what he was doing, she said, Nothing. Come make some cookies. So I did.
Later that day, I bundled up in snow pants and boots and went out to play and feed the rabbits. Huddled together in the back of the hutch were some but not all of my bunnies. The three brown ones were gone. Puzzled, I went back inside where my mother was still in the kitchen.
Where are Hippo and the others? I asked.
Honey, there were too many rabbits, my mother said. Dad had to get rid of some.
I don’t want to be overly dramatic, and I’m not interested in blaming my parents or suggesting that the loss of three rabbits scarred me. We weren’t a farming family; the rabbits were pets, though somewhat neglected. My brothers and I, we hadn’t been prepared or told. The deed was just done. Part of me, the rational part, knows that if my parents had told me they planned to dispatch my rabbits, I would have put up a fight and carried on like a banshee. Too, if my parents had chosen a different route and given the rabbits away, the animals would likely have met a similar fate. But the irrational part of me, the part that is sentimental and remembers the soft warmth of kits in my hand, cannot bear the memory of rabbit stew. And though I want to and know I should put all of this behind me, I find that I can’t quite come to terms with what felt like my parents’ betrayal—that they would kill a creature I had loved and then put it on a plate and expect me to eat.
Here is where you need to know more about my father’s life, so that you might see why I so dearly want and need to resolve the conflict I have about those three rabbits and my reaction to their demise. My father was born to a single Polish Catholic woman in a German forced labor camp in 1944, and when he was six months old, he and his mother barely survived the bombing of the munitions factory where she worked. Afterward, from April to July 1945, conditions in postwar Germany were so violent, chaotic, and abysmal that a German woman offered to take my father and raise him as her own. My grandmother considered it; his survival would be more certain. But she said she would never be at peace if she gave up her son. And so, for the next nine years, she raised my father and the three other children who came after him in refugee camps, first in Germany and later in France. My father in photos from those years is always serious; it seems there was no play or lightness in him. In a class picture in France in 1951, he appears to be the poorest child in the group: his hair shorn with what must have been kitchen scissors, his thin, pale face wistful and distant, and his clothes ill-fitting, ragged, made of coarse cloth that looks something like burlap.
In France, his mother kept rabbits as a source of food and income. She gardened, too, and had a few chickens, the occasional goose. She had been raised the daughter of a peasant farmer, and there was no sentimentality in her when it came to animals and survival. When she needed help with immigration paperwork, she paid the priest with rabbit skins.
As my father got older, he helped kill the chickens and geese. I don’t know about the rabbits. But even children raised in poverty love animals. My father’s brother told me a story about those years in France. The boys had found a litter of kittens. They were the cutest things, my uncle said. When their father learned about the kittens, though, practicality intruded. Kittens would grow into cats, there were no scraps to spare, and hungry cats would hunt his wife’s chicks and kits. So my grandfather gathered the kittens in a sack, and with the boys trailing after him, he walked to a bridge that overlooked the canal. I can still see that bag arcing over the water, my uncle said. And my daddy, he had tears in his eyes.
I try to remember stories like this one when I wrestle with the memory of my three brown rabbits. My father’s childhood was harsh and practical, nothing like my own, and his experiences explain much about why he killed my rabbits and asked my mother to use them for dinner. Too, now that I have children myself, I understand there are things we do as parents that we don’t want to do but that we see as necessary and adult.
In the first year that I started keeping chickens, one of my snow-white laying hens developed an infection. My daughters had named her Pearl, and they had hand-raised her from a chick. Even now that she was full-grown, they still loved to carry her around the yard. Despite much doctoring, Pearl did not improve, and when she refused to eat and drink for the third day in a row, my husband and I decided on a coup de grace as the most humane choice. At the time, the girls were five and seven, so we set them up with a movie while we went outside to do the deed. It was a beautiful summer day. Dread girdled my stomach; I had never participated in the killing of a creature I had raised. But I wrapped the hen in an old towel, told her she was a good girl, and held her still on the picnic table while my husband aimed and fired two quick pellets into her little brain.
Blood spattered on the weathered picnic table, and as the bird shook in my hands, my daughters burst out of the back door, the eldest child screaming That is so wrong!
The movie hadn’t held them, and they had watched what we had done.
It took hours to console the children. I didn’t cry that day, but I wanted to. It reminds me that when a parent undertakes an unpleasant chore, she doesn’t always show her children the depth of the unpleasantness. But sometimes she does. Or at least begins to. In 1941, my grandfather was taken from his home in Poland, thrown into forced labor, later jailed and beaten for black market dealings, and after the war moved to France where he couldn’t speak the language. Yet he found tears for kittens. Or maybe the tears were for himself, that he felt it necessary to do a terrible thing. Or maybe he did not like causing pain to his sons. Maybe his tears contained all of these things and more.
The other night as I sewed up a hole in Bun-Bun, my youngest daughter’s large and gray stuffed rabbit, the movement of needle and thread through synthetic fur brought me back to a laboratory hidden away in a basement warren of a building where, during the day, I attended undergraduate lectures upstairs. One of my professors, a man with many degrees who I wanted to impress, had invited me to see his research on craniosynostosis, a defect in some children whose skull plates grow together too quickly and don’t allow for brain growth. But the professor hadn’t told me what to expect in his lab.
Suddenly there I was, faced with cages and cages of many white rabbits of all ages and sizes. Some were kits of the sort I’d had as a child and played with for hours, making up those stories of prince and princess rabbits. All of the rabbits in the lab, the professor explained, were bred for craniosynostosis. His work with the animals, he hoped, would lead to improved surgeries and treatments for children.
He showed me the experimental surgical process on a kit whose ears were the length of the first segment of my little finger. The rabbit had a vertical slice down its forehead, and the wound was clean and straight, a length of perhaps an inch and a half. Embedded in the cut was a tiny device that kept the rabbit’s skull plates apart so that the brain had room to grow.
If I’m remembering this the right way, the professor said the rabbit’s head needed sewing up, and did I want to do it. I said yes, though my experience with sewing had only been with cloth, not flesh. The professor started the suture, showed me how to place the needle under one flap of skin, come out the top, and then dive the needle underneath the other side, emerging through flesh again, and move back to the other side. I can’t forget that warm creature in my hand, the brief resistance of flesh against needle, the slightly disturbing friction of thread pulling through skin, the creature quiet and subdued to the strange and most likely painful process. There was no anesthetic, at least not that I remember. Yet I wouldn’t trade those moments, the sensations, the slight confused pride I felt when my professor raised his eyebrows. You’ve never sutured? he asked. I shook my head and continued the sewing, slowly. You’re good, he said. There was the suggestion beneath the tone of his voices that a nineteen-year-old girl rarely had the stomach or steady hands for animal experimentation. But I hadn’t known what I was walking into, or at least I hadn’t thought about it. And when the opportunity presented itself and this man acted as if the research and the rabbits were as precious as a long-lost piece of art, I found myself in thrall, too. But the thing I most remember was a sense of wonder and sadness—wonder that this kind of work was possible, this research life-saving. And sadness that all of this good required such harm.
In the years since, my sewing has been limited entirely to toys. And I can’t bring myself to tell my daughter how I know to stitch her gray rabbit so carefully and so well.
I wonder about Abbott Thayer, and what he thought of the harm he brought to animals he loved. In order to study the creatures he painted, he had to kill them. Birds, in particular. His son, Gerald, acknowledged this by sometimes painting birds not alive, but deceased, on a white background. Those paintings, not found in Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, suggest that a creature must be divorced from its life if we are to fully explore and understand that creature. The Thayers’ practices aren’t dissimilar from da Vinci’s dissection of about thirty human bodies, which led to the first accurate illustrations of the human heart. Advancement of ourselves is done at the expense of other creatures. There seems to be no growth without pain. One summer my eldest daughter’s knees swelled because she was growing so fast. For weeks, it hurt her to walk.
I couldn’t see as a child the problem with chasing rabbits around our yard, though I was happy enough to judge my father for his butchering. I can’t recall if we chased the rabbits before or after that event, or perhaps it was both. But on some evenings in fair weather, Dad would say Let’s chase rabbits, which was our way of giving the usually caged creatures exercise. Dad would then take a rabbit from the hutch and place it in the grass. For a while, we left the rabbit alone as it nibbled greenery. Sometimes the lowering sun caught its ears, illuminating pink skin and red capillaries so that the ears became translucent lavender velvet.
As dusk fell and we needed to get the rabbit back to its hutch, of course the rabbit didn’t want to be put inside. One of us made a move to bend down and wrap our hands around the rabbit’s wide, soft midsection, but the rabbit skittered off fast, and the chase was on: through the yard, under the pines, around the rabbit hutch, through my mother’s garden. It was, at the time, great sport—my brothers and my father and me running and laughing and shrieking as we tried to capture the rabbit. I didn’t consider, back then, that our chase must have felt like a hunt to the little beast, that fear motivated its frantic sprints and skids and hairpin turns.
There is another story about chasing rabbits, and this one, in a way, involves my grandfather during the war years, long before France, the kittens, and his wife’s rabbit hutch. My aunt, the keeper of family lore, recorded a story her mother told her about the last weeks before the Allies began pouring into Germany. Air raids bombarded the country, obliterating infrastructure and cutting off supply lines. At the time, my grandmother and grandfather were Polish forced laborers who worked for the same large munitions company, but their barracks and job assignments were several miles apart in a northern town called Unterlüß. One day many of the male laborers, including my grandfather, were loaded into cattle cars destined for a different camp in Celle, twenty miles south. Germany was desperate for labor toward the end of the war: it had exhausted the population of Eastern Europe and killed through starvation and hard labor so many people that the Reich could no longer sustain production of weaponry, bombs, and machinery. As a result, the laborers who remained in late 1944 and early 1945 were moved around the country like chess pieces.
The next part of the story my grandfather later shared with my grandmother, who shared it with my aunt, and it seems my grandfather’s journey went something like this: on the way to Celle, my grandfather’s train stopped in a rail yard. No one came to open the cars. No guards came to bark orders. Through the boxcar’s wooden slats, my grandfather saw many other train cars full of men.
After a while, the men in my grandfather’s car grew restless, concerned. I don’t know how long they waited, or if they waited for nightfall or not. But there was nothing to eat, it was cold, and everyone feared the air raids. In the car with my grandfather and the other men was a small boy. It wasn’t uncommon for the Nazis to use children for intricate factory work; their small fingers were nimbler and more trainable than adults’. The men pushed the boy through the wooden slats (he must have scraped the skin from his spine), the boy unlocked the boxcar, and the men spilled out. But before they scattered, they unlocked all of the other boxcars, and what must have been thousands of men went running as far from the trains as they could. They were, for the moment, safe from bombs, but not from anything else. As foreign laborers, it was illegal to be on the run, a killing offense, so my grandfather returned, most likely on foot, to Unterlüß .
I didn’t think too much about this story and its connection to rabbits until I read in my research something else that happened in Celle around the same time. In that spring of 1945, forced laborers weren’t the only ones being packed into cattle cars and moved across the Reich. The Nazis were desperate to get rid of the human evidence of their depravity, and so they marched or shipped concentration camp prisoners to locations with gas chambers and ovens. One of the prisoners was my grandmother’s sister, Hanka, who in the last months of the war trudged through the snow on a death march from Auschwitz, but that is a story for another time. Elsewhere, four thousand concentration camp inmates had been loaded into freight cars destined for Bergen-Belsen, just fifteen miles north of Celle. When the train stopped in the Celle rail yard, the people waited in their boxcars, much as my grandfather had done. But this time guards patrolled the length of the train, and no one slipped themselves or a child through the slats.
On the next set of rails sat another train, but this one was loaded with ammunition rather than human cargo.
Then, the air raid my grandfather had feared for himself happened for these people: Allied bombs fell onto the ammunition train and the cattle cars. The people who didn’t perish in the firestorm began to run—of course they did—away from the trains, the flames, the bodies, the smoke, the additional bombs that were sure to fall. How they managed to run, as sickly and malnourished as they must have been, I don’t know. But fear can make people run as easily as it can cause them to hide. The people ran toward a small forest. They ran out of instinct and self preservation. They ran too away from their guards, who aimed and fired at the escapees. But the guards weren’t the only ones giving chase. It seems that citizens living in Celle joined in, too. And so began the Celle Hasenjagd, or the Celle hare chase, in which the guards, party officials, state police, and town residents hunted down and captured or killed the train victims. There was no camouflage for the prisoners in their ratty, boldly striped clothing.
Celle was not unique in its brutality; hasenjagds happened elsewhere in Germany as the war came to a close. I wonder if anyone doing the hunting was exhilarated, curious, trying to prove him or herself. I wonder if any of them crouched and examined the other person, watched their dilated pupils and heaving chest. If they saw anything worth saving.
Sometimes I think freedom carries an element of fear. When you are free—suddenly released from the cage, the cattle car, the prison—what do you do? Where do you go? Where can you seek shelter, or some kind of cover, maybe just a pine branch under which to hunker, because in the wide open space of your new freedom, you’re suddenly vulnerable.
I wonder sometimes if in another time and place, to please someone, I could also find exhilaration in chasing down and harming a person. This, perhaps, is something of that dark tunnel that built itself behind my eyes when I saw Abbott’s painting of the cottontail. It was a gorgeous rendering of a creature I had loved as a child, though now as an adult, I have been trying to accept the brutality visited upon those creatures because acceptance seems the enlightened thing to do.
One night years ago during one of our rabbit chases, I managed to corner a black rabbit under a pine tree. He (for all our black rabbits over the years were male) pressed his backside against the sap-riddled trunk and crouched in the brown needles and soft earth. He seemed to think that if he didn’t move, the shadows and low-hanging branches might conceal him and send me searching elsewhere. Instead, I watched his flaring nostrils and bulging eyes, the long ears pressed flat against his head. His sides heaved from the effort of running, hiding, and responding to the furious firing of synapses and adrenaline. Of course, at age nine or so, I couldn’t have articulated any of these things. I don’t remember having many thoughts at that age; for years, I wasn’t a thinker at all. I just watched, like I watched the rabbit. Then I reached out, closed my hands around the rabbit’s soft middle, and scooped him against my chest. His heart thudded against my fingers.
I got him! I yelled, and presented the rabbit to my father.
On Kirsten Imani Kasai:
Kirsten Imani Kasai is the author of four novels: The House of Erzulie, Ice Song, Tattoo, and the audio production Flesh Hell. Her short stories, poetry, essays and articles have appeared in numerous print and online publications in the USA, Canada and Romania. In 2013, she founded Body Parts Magazine: The Journal of Horror and Erotica. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and Certification in the Teaching of Creative Writing, both from Antioch University Los Angeles. Currently, she’s writing her fifth novel and teaching creative writing workshops and English composition to adults. She lives with her partner and children in California. You can find her online or via social media: @KirstenIkasai and Facebook/kirstenimanikasai
A Snail Without its Shell is a Slug
Unclassifiable Contest Finalist from Issue 34
I want to tell you a story about a story that is not a story, not in the way that we recognize it. I want to tell you this story that has no beginning, no middle and no end, but without these things, you would not know it for a story, for it would appear as a shapeless conglomeration of words and ideas. A jumble—a feast of disconnect. We cannot understand these formless tales because when we unpack the box, uncap the bottles and outpour their contents, there is no frame of reference to give them shape, purpose, or meaning. How can you understand a story that is just a pile of words upended like so many splattered apples tipped from the unhappy cart onto the hot pavement?
I would speak to you about a society in which there was no Story, no rule or gauge by which to measure others’ deeds and behaviors. In which there were no parables, myths, folktales, plays, novels, poems or commandments. Lawlessly, these residents of un-Storyville exist in their careless, carefree way, without benefit of morality tales or the archaic convolution of Zen kōans. They have no linguistic knots to unravel, no guilty inner voices chiding them for deviating from their enforced or chosen cultural narrative. One might come home from a day of purposeful work and speak only of deeds accomplished and events which transpired (but in no certain order and lacking relation to one another). Parts were fitted together and machines set in motion. Foodstuffs were grown, harvested, washed, packaged, and consumed. Roads built and cities maintained.
Children sat in classrooms dissecting amphibians, solving equations, and evaluating social problems using a set of reason-based ethical guidelines lacking either carrot or stick to entice or punish them. Yes, they had art class (no drama, though) and worked diligently to create photorealistic paintings and sculptures of everyday objects—gleaming red apples that when sliced were simply serving platters for the good cheese, nothing more. Nice, wholesome apples buoyant without the weight of carnal sin to drag them down into Earth-cleansing floodwaters or prettily poisoned skins that made fair maidens sleep for one hundred years.
When children were naughty, they were corrected using ethical reasoning. “It hurts your brother when you hit him/take his toys/spit in his milk. We are not a hurtful people. Stop it.” They were afraid of what might be in the dark (burglars, wild animals) because that was reasonable, but not the dark itself, because night is natural and unavoidable, and allows us to gaze upon the stars and admire the moon. They did not fear frightening “monsters” which might inhabit their sleepy nocturnes because that was simply irrational and as you can guess, these placid, practical children had never heard gruesome fairytales where youths were bewitched, bedeviled, eaten by ogres, neglected/enslaved/murdered by cruel stepmothers, pursued by wolves, or kicked out of the kingdom for offending egomaniacal fathers with innocent remarks about salt. Instead, they returned home from school and spoke with their caregivers about interesting things they had learned, and pleasant or unpleasant classroom experiences that pleased or dismayed them.
Children were taught to behave via a series of age-appropriate critical thinking exercises and healthy social experimentation with a focus on outcome and consequence. Small children would excitedly participate in Buy-Back Night, wherein they would “sell” a lost tooth to a parent or loved one in exchange for a token sum to be spent or saved as they wished, thus learning a remedial lesson in free-trade markets. Because this society enjoyed throwing and/or attending parties, they would likely hold various celebrations as excuses to purchase gifts for one another simply to express affection and appreciation. (The delivery of such gifts would occur independently of consideration of the previous year’s behavioral gaffes.) Their holidays would have utilitarian handles, like “Super-Size Summer Barbecue Picnic with Fireworks,” “Giant Harvest Season Feast and Afternoon Nap Day” or “Purposeless Caloric Binge-on-Free-Candy Eve.”
When these children matured into adults and took lovers, they would likely conclude an affair by stating, “My sexual attraction to you has diminished, therefore, I will choose a different lover. Let us divide our belongings fairly and part without rancor. I wish you all the best.” Sometimes they might say, “Before I can fully participate in an egalitarian partnership, I must first heal the narcissistic wound that has fragmented my core sense of self. Therefore, I’m beginning a therapeutic course of self-evaluation and supervised behavioral conditioning in order to communicate my needs and wishes without imposing damning, unrealistic expectations on you. It’s been nice knowing you.” (But having no myth to reference vain Narcissus and his auto-erotic folly, they would use different terminology.)
When they married (reasonably, mutually, regardless of Slot A or Tab B and what goes where, why and with whom, and barring children, animals, corpses, and inanimate or battery-operated/rechargeable objects), they did so cooperatively because it is usually nicer to live with others and have someone to hug you at the end of a tiring day, bring you tea or coffee in bed on non-workday mornings, and travel with (for reasons of personal safety, entertainment value, and group discounts).
Their judicial system tended to evaluate behaviors and the results of those behaviors as first Helpful or Hurtful, and then further break it down by category: 1) causing accidental harm, whether with good or nefarious intent, or 2) deliberate harm, and so on, until a decision was reached and a sentence handed down accordingly, most likely a therapeutic course of evaluation and managed behavioral conditioning to repair the fragmented sense of self, and in worst-case scenarios, humane containment. Lacking religious tomes to read, those drifters on the road of life would focus instead on community service works, gardening, art, yoga, and practicing nonviolent conflict resolution techniques.
These people never lied to each other, for falsifications require the construction of a convincing alternate reality which they cannot conceive. (1)
Deer were deer (pretty, majestic, fur, food). Not totem spirits, sacred messengers, an earthly manifestation of the Goddess of the Hunt, or virginal mother of men (lacking a gory and absurdly justified historical narrative that awarded one specific gender physical, economic, sexual, and reproductive power over the other, they could not even begin to comprehend this idea, thus would likely phrase it differently). Black cats were cats who should wear reflective collars if they were out at night and birds and bees possessed no special knowledge about human anatomy or reproduction.
Bodies broke down, wore out, stopped working, and decayed. No one was called to serve in (what we would term) an invisible army of righteousness/ light or “taken too soon” for that presupposed destiny which would require a sense of one’s role in a grandiose, bizarre, and macabre story (2) thus reducing the gorgeous mystery of their existence on this planet to the reductive premise of plot and characters to be loved and rewarded, or tortured and disposed of at the whim of an irrational, vindictive stranger. Without a flimsy mythos justifying the assertion of supreme domination over the Earth’s 8.7 million species of animal inhabitants, they recognized themselves for what they were—parasites. However, ethical reasoning inclined them to moderate the destruction they caused because they knew that once they’d killed their host, they would have no place to live.
Lacking dogmatic ideologies which attempted to modify or harshly repress natural human behaviors and emotions via the promise of eternal reward and total satisfaction of all earthly desires, or an eternity of physical suffering in corporeal human form, they wondered what could be done to improve human nature, for they frequently despaired and lamented the constant, destructive presence and unchecked violence of those who seemed intrinsically evil (that is, intentionally hurtful) when their greater majority enjoyed watching humorous animal videos, shopping at the do-it-yourself-assembly furniture store, dabbling in various arts & crafts, and sharing photos of delicious and handsomely plated meals.
Those who exhibited signs of radical, paranoid fanaticism and mass hysteria stemming from cultish ideologies would receive treatment for mental illness comprised of behavioral conditioning, empathy training and possibly, biochemical intervention to restore a healthy neuropathic balance.
Therefore, militaristic efforts and expenditures would be minor, as citizens were taught from birth that human territorialism is a primitive, instinctual impulse of the reptilian brain and that it better served all species to concentrate on collaborative resource-sharing than to bicker and bomb one another over property lines. Sans deeply embedded, hyper-masculinized narratives of domination and ruin as codified in “holy” texts (the “bloody lore of glory and honor”), political conflict would likely conclude in a heated exchange, possibly with fisticuffs or cheek-slapping, followed by social embarrassment, profuse apologies, and handshakes suggested by a neutral mediator.
Ergo, lacking the violent, sorrowful, and triumphant Story-motivation worn into the grooves of our own societies, these storyless folks would enjoy a much more tranquil, if (obviously) undramatic existence, resulting in a higher quality of life overall and significantly less dissent. A storyless world has no villains. No heroes. In a culture that neither celebrates nor denigrates saints and martyrs, “the One” does not exist.
Boring, you say. Perhaps. Yet “boredom” has its own allure. For example, 2.5 million viewers in Norway tuned in to watch a live, 134-hour broadcast of the “Hurtigruten” ferry sail along the Norwegian coast. (3) Similarly, their movies would detail real-world scenarios (e.g., “Unlikeable People,” or “Big Budget Disaster,” a two-hour examination of a failed construction project). Because their television stations primarily showed news programs and funny animal videos (admittedly, there are only so many times you can watch a cat get itself stuck in a vase or cardboard box before the premise wears thin), they had little inclination to stay up past their bedtimes binge-watching cable series and overeating fatty snacks. They went to bed at reasonable hours and knitted till sleepy, or cuddled their partners, or engaged in ardent lovemaking. (Because population control was necessary to help stem their parasitic invasion and maternal health highly valued, affordable birth control was globally accessible to one and all.) Existing without superstitious traditions that allowed one partner to make vital personal decisions for the other and a history of institutionalized shaming, they were divorced from pre-existing roles enforced from birth via pop cultural inculcation. They were free to exist as they were without role models/gender roles; sexuality was simply an aspect of personal expression, affection, and physical desire, minus any superstitious directives about who was supposed to be on top, or don special undergarments or avoid intercourse on certain days of the month.
There were no Joseph Campbells, Clarissa Pinkola-Esteses, Aesops, or Mother Geese because there was no need or place for them. Creatives made beautiful things of infinite practicality with no deeper meaning attached, and most people tended to be quite pleased with their efforts. (However, being merely nonsequential re-enactments of ordinary events—sometimes with intriguing special effects—their dreams were fairly uninteresting.)
To you or me, the unstoried society is unfathomably cold and dreary. There’s no magic, no mystical raison d’etre when life is based on facts alone. There is no fantasy but also no delusion, and an absence of existential suffering, for the unstoried do not worry themselves in circles analyzing the deeper cultural meanings of personal rejection or cast themselves as victims or rescuers in their own petty melodramas. Imagine: no devils to blame for your own misdeeds, failings and evils, or angels to issue afterlife passes to some great play land in the sky. No platitudinal balm or salving ethos to smooth over the tawdry ugliness of existence or take away the sting of senselessness. There simply Is What Is.
I could say that a snake without its vertebrae is a worm, or a snail without its shell is a slug. While not scientifically accurate, this may be metaphorically approximate to our society, tightly tethered to its bones by strong tendons of Story, and theirs, shapeless but contained—living but spineless. Rich and self-sustaining, each organism thrives and replicates within its own habitat, but minus the unbending rigidity of bone, the slug, the worm, is infinitely more flexible.
And now I have told you a fiction with no beginning, middle or end, no plot constructs or characters—a slug of a tale—a story that is not a story.
1. In the American South, if you are caught lying you are accused of “telling stories.”
2. emphasis mine
3. The same television company, NRK, later streamed eighteen hours of salmon swimming upstream and a live, nine-hour knitting marathon, both to much acclaim. Sweden has followed suit, airing an enormously popular broadcast of a sunset and “Piip-show,” a reality show featuring specially-built birdhouse “sets” that stars a cast of wild blue tits, great tits, nuthatches, pied flycatchers, and the occasional squirrel.
On Paige Sullivan:
Paige Sullivan earned her MFA at Georgia State University, where she also served on the staffs of Five Points and New South. In addition to publishing book reviews and essays, her poetry has appeared or will soon appear in Ninth Letter, Tampa Review, American Literary Review, and other journals. She lives in Atlanta, where she manages marketing and communications for a nonprofit in the city center.
A Genealogy of Women
Upcoming in Issue 35
Mom gave the sex talk in unplanned installments:
over coneys and Cokes in the minivan, parked at Sonic;
through the window while pumping gas at the Shell station;
between puffs of her Virginia Slims at the kitchen table.
As kids, she and her siblings slept while Gramma snuck out—
an affair with the local preacher leading to a marriage
everyone hated. Years later, I watched Mom slow dance
in the living room with my stepdad’s work friend, who
never left his wife, who stopped answering Mom’s calls.
Now I’m supine with my legs quaking and open, socked feet,
bare thighs, the modesty of my shirt and bra still on.
The nurse must be a mom: she asks me about school, if I can
recite a poem for her. The speculum cracks me, pushes out
the words The way a crow / Shook down on me / The dust of snow—
She calmly talks me through the exam to fill the quiet, to cover up
what I don’t say: that my Mom was always a hopeless romantic,
that I might be the same kind of foolish, that I feel mangrove roots
of wishful thinking winding and tangling through my blood.
On Richard Garcia:
Richard Garcia won the 2016 Press 53 award for his book, Porridge, which was published in March of 2016. His book, The Other Odyssey, from Dream Horse Press, won the American Poetry Journal Book Award for 2014, and The Chair, from BOA, published in 2015, was chosen as the best poetry book of 2015 by the editor of Poetry Magazine in an article that appeared in Lit Hub. His poems have been in many journals, including The Georgia Review and Poetry, and in anthologies such as The Pushcart Prize and Best American Poetry. He lives in Charleston, S.C. He is on the staff of the Antioch Low Residency MFA in Los Angeles. Garcia is also our poetry judge for this year’s Arts & Letters Prizes.
Capriccio of the Imaginary Prison
The faded remains of ancient advertising —
captives on parade in native costume.
Now the whangam, that imaginary animal
led by Wharfinger, keeper of the wharf.
And you, my puce, sitting between the paws
of the mechanical lion, his brittle heart of glass.
The regiments of holiday shoppers,
in formations two-by-two, are borne
along the sliding pavements between displays
into the Pavilion of the Encrusted Compass.
O hub of panopticon, each moment on display,
from the central monitor there is no escape.
This is all accomplished, even the symphonic
wrecking of the antique locomotive, in silence.
I have misplaced my whipcat and whinstone.
I try to recall something that I know.
A westing is a space of distance westward.
Wheep: the sound of steel drawn from a sheath.
What was the name of the Babylonian sidekick
of Sir Thomas More’s lead warren?
Time for the steam-driven, slow reckoning,
for the chains and block and tackle dangling
from the eternally unfinished dome, the chrome-
plated waterfall and the ascension
into the arcades, the arcades and their broken promises.
Source: Poetry (March 2017)
Now, when they remember it, they think that perhaps they had heard the approach of the sublime—like a distant hum of huge machinery, long before it arrived. As it drew closer there was no mistaking it as hundreds of swaths of trees in the forest across the valley lay down in supplication. Some of the survivors describe it as an approaching shadow. Some say it became midnight in the afternoon, and they saw constellations they had never seen before or since. Others say it was a conflagration, the air was on fire, houses and trees exploding before the flames even touched them. Some say the sublime was ice, or even just a deep silence. They only thing survivors agree on is that they could not take their eyes off of it. If there had been music, and some say there was, it would have been The Ride of the Valkyries. And they stood there, their weapons like toys dangling from their hands, staring up at the advancing sublime. Shit, they said, and fuck, and God, they said, my God.
Source: Rattle – Poets Respond (January 2017)
On Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas:
Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas recently received a 2016 Writer’s Award from the Rona Jaffe Foundation. Her nonfiction book, Don’t Come Back, which will include the essay, comes out in January 2017 from Mad River Books, an imprint of the Ohio State Press. She has MFA degrees in both creative nonfiction and literary translation, both from the University of Iowa. She is also the author of Drown Sever Sing.
“BOG-MIA-CID” appeared in Arts & Letters Issue 30.
In Miami I sweat. Partly because it’s Miami, partly because I have a fever. I’m asked to step out of the line and go up to a table where officers wait for people like me, and then they ask “Why are you sweating?” Partly this fever, partly this coat I’m wearing. Because it’s heavy and my bags are close to the weight limit.
They ask me to open my bags and take everything out, please, so I do. They don’t look at anything, they don’t look at me, and I’m so tired of traveling, I can’t stop thinking of other things. It was the eighties and then the nineties, my parents were young, and Bogotá was always ticking. Every doorman had a mirror at the end of a stick, every guard a sniffing dog, everyone knew to check the trunk, and never go near police stations because that’s where they liked to park their cars, tick, tick, boom. In Miami I pull out socks and shirts, little sweet things my mother has packed for me to find later. The officers stand a few feet away and occasionally look over their shoulders in my direction.
I imagine they see me, all of me. The small, the stupid, the no-sense-at-all look I can’t shake when I’m this tired, and dressed from head to toe in black. I feel swollen, discolored, and rank. Like something left out too long, soaking in the gutter and drying in the sun. I feel it, know it, and I know they see it too.
Bogotá was once a city of shattered glass, and repair shops thrived. Bombs are loud and cities are full of windows. Paula remembers too. Once she told me, “Bogotá was the place where bad things happened.” We remember these numbers under photographs on the screen between cartoons and telenovelas. Ones followed by zeros that went on forever. Bounties for information leading to the capture of, of, of, of… New names and old names and always, Pablo Escobar Gaviria, the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers, and José Santacruz Londoño, alias Chepe. It was the time of the Narco-state, the narco-tapes, the narco terrorists. It was the eighties in Bogotá, and the nineties in Cali that convinced my parents to get their three daughters out of there. Because it’s not just the bombs that do it.
When there are bombs it’s harder to care about the guns, and the knives, and little sharpened sticks and fists, and the limp bodies of those kids that started showing up all over the country with empty eye sockets. In the news they told us they sold the eyes for transplants, wealthy gringos and Europeans with envelopes of cash and red coolers, but we know better now—no good for transplants.
In 2011 in Miami, I watch from afar a beautiful black woman tell a beautiful Hispanic woman something I can’t hear, and then they look in my direction and nod. “Please pack everything back now.” They glance over the stuff and back at the planes. Mine was the last flight, no one is behind me, no one is coming, but they pace like I’m taking up their table and time and space, so I stuff these little things my mother wrapped so carefully in the corners where they’re sure to crack, and finally I take off my coat. Cali was full in the nineties; I wish these officers could have seen it. The stores were colorful mechanical wonders, everything moved, everything new and getting newer by the minute. Everyone had a marble fountain on their lawn; everyone wore gold and fur coats over tank tops in ninety-degree weather. My friends had bodyguards and chauffeurs, and every week some family member would fly back from Miami with a new little trinket, a new little nothing, new little everything just for them. Cali wasn’t like Medellin, Cali didn’t want to own the world—it just wanted a fair piece. So the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers never declared war quite like Pablo did. Though the city was still sharp and pulsing, and I remember the helicopters.
After I’ve packed everything back I’m told to wait, and they motion for me to clear their table. I ask again why I’m being detained, and they say things that make me feel conditioned, because they know exactly what to say, because they’ve practiced and I haven’t, so I nod even though I neither understand nor agree. The words get stacked into perfect little towers, protocol, procedure, only a minute, please wait here, let me check with my supervisor, don’t move, and I nod, then try again, but what was it that did it? I only manage to sound guilty. They tell me not to wander off, to stay put, to wait. They ask me, “Why are you sweating?” and “Are you on any medication?” I feel like we are dwelling on the matter; I don’t know. Why aren’t you? “What is the weather like in Bogotá?” I tell them it’s beautiful, so they ask again, “What is the weather like exactly?” Really great, like autumn all the time, and the rain, you should totally go, and I completely mean it. Sometimes people refer to Bogotá as the fall city, Medellin as spring. Cali is summer itself. When my family was there we swam every day, my mother drove my sister Paula and me to lessons, and we’d sing little songs about Daniela on our way back. We sang about that time she had worms, and we saw one squirming in her diaper, about how she reached out for my mother’s breast, about the time she stole and hid all the candied almonds, “Just like Chepe,” and then we sang another song. One day we were singing, and I saw soldiers springing up from bushes by the side of the road. Black helicopters overhead. Then, all these people running through the street—soldiers towards us, people away—while I yelled for my mother to turn on the radio. “It’s nothing,” she said, “it won’t tell us anything,” and we sped away.
There is a little statue my family members always have at home. It’s a plump, short, pig-faced man with a million bags around his arms, waist, and neck. He is El Equeco, god of abundance, and that’s what I look like now holding poorly packed bags and carry-ons and coats—one little bag with Colombian pastries because “You might get hungry, you never know.” The officers don’t tell me if they’ll be back, they don’t tell me anything and I understand, I do, it’s a job, but I’m so tired. I wipe my forehead, I feel like shivering but I’ve stopped sweating, so I tell them, “I’ve stopped sweating now, can I go?” Mostly to say something, mostly to get them to say something back. I ask them one more time why I’m being detained, if I did something wrong, but they don’t answer, they only ask me again like a nervous tic, “Why were you sweating?” The day with the helicopters and the soldiers was June 9th, 1995. I know because that’s the day they captured Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, just a few streets away from where I saw the soldiers popping up like weeds. Gilberto is here in the US now, extradited in 2004. They flew him in through Miami.
The black officer comes back and tells me to put the bag on the table, so I do. She tells me to open it, so I open it, and then “Please unpack it.” I stare sort of blankly. Why? “Please unpack the bag.” Why again? What are you looking for? Where are the dogs? Bring them over, I’ll let you bring them over, what do you need? But she doesn’t answer. Instead, this severe look on her face and she repeats, “Please unpack the bag.” I’m suddenly aware these bags have already been sniffed by dogs, been X-rayed, been searched. I’m far away, I am alone, I am not from here, I have less than twenty dollars in my bank account. Almost everything of value that I own I carry with me, it doesn’t take much, so I start again, bit by bit almost everything I own on a table. She doesn’t look at anything, she doesn’t look at me. I lived in Cali for three years, and then my parents sold almost everything we owned and bought tickets to the US, “Where the middle class lives like our upper class and things aren’t so hard.”
The second time I know better. I unpack slowly and re-pack carefully. It’s been a few hours now, I’m getting cold, but I won’t put my coat back on. They come back and say, “Please come with us.” They watch me struggle with my bags, and I figure the beautiful black officer must be training the slightly less beautiful Hispanic officer because she tells her what to do. “Now tell her to take off her shoes,” and she tells me to take off my shoes. “Now tell her to sit down,” and she tells me to sit down. “Tell her to wait here,” and I’m left alone a few minutes to rethink my answers so far. For example, what is the right thing to say when asked, “Did you meet anyone while you were there?” Or, “Why was your passport issued in San Francisco?” Or, “Why so many books?” What is ‘so many’? Or, because these are the ones that fit? Or, you should see the ones I left behind. Or, you should read this one; it’s about the drug war in Colombia.
I leave my bags unattended to be interrogated, and I wonder about these protocols. I wait in a little room, on a little bench and the colors are all wrong. To begin with, there are colors. Worn out greens and blues, and the paint is peeling off. There is no two-way mirror, and no one looking in. I slump, feel the salt of dry sweat on my skin, close my eyes for a second. My family left Colombia in 1995, and it was 1998 when we went back, when things were already getting better, as they’ve kept getting better since.
When they get back the one doing the training tells the other to check my feet.
She tells me, “Spread your toes please,” and I don’t know what that means but I try anyway. The Hispanic officer feels between my toes, I stare down at the socks Daniela gave me for Christmas, this little owl head smiling at the woman as she presses down on its face, as it stares back and exclaims with the knitted writing across my ankle, Genius. “Now stand up against the wall.” Somewhere inside the black woman’s brain, she is making the decision whether or not my cavities will be searched more thoroughly. “Against the wall please, arms out.” I put my arms above my head, and she repeats, “Arms out, out!” The officers are tired too, and I understand, I do, but I’ve stopped registering any of it. “Not above your head, out like this, like this!” She motions but I’m facing the wall away from her, and I can’t really see. “By your side, like a plane, like a little plane!” So I finally get it and then I stop getting anything else. Because I’m against a wall pretending to be a little plane, and I’ve started thinking of Wilson my high school English teacher. “That’s what I used to do,” he said, “checked planes for drugs and Uy! You can’t imagine.” He told us he worked in Miami, security. He used to go through planes after they’d landed, looking for the stuff. Between the seats, under the chairs, along the walls, “You can’t imagine.” Little white bags, latex glove fingers cut off, stuffed down the side, hung like sausages, swallowed like pills. “If this is the stuff they leave behind, imagine,” he said, “just imagine how much gets in.”
The Hispanic officer runs her fingers down my back. Between my breasts, as deep inside me as clothes allow and I’ve stopped asking questions. Then they have a little moment, the two beautiful women—and I’m a mushroom growing on this tiny green bench in an interrogation room. The officers whisper something and then exchange glances. They decide I’m not a little plane full of cocaine and they are going to let me go. Or maybe they are as tired as I am, or this is just an exercise. I don’t know. All the same they’ve decided to let me go, so I thank them and drag my bags up an escalator. I sit by a Subway restaurant drenched in the smell of disinfectant and meatballs.
I was thinking about my aunt before they pulled me out of the line, and I’m thinking about her now. About how she held me tightly my last night in Bogotá. Her chin on my shoulder, the cigarette smell I love, and her colostomy bag against my hip, warm, like her, warm like Cali. “Come back, Lina. Please, please come back.” She cried into the fabric of that heavy coat, she told me I had to see her again, and she nearly crumbled in my arms, my beautiful aunt, decimated by cancer, and lupus, and history, and herself.
The next day my mother held me tightly too, by the international gate I know better than some apartments I’ve lived in. She choked but didn’t stutter. She pulled me close and told me, “There’s nothing here for you Lina, don’t come back.”
On Melvin Adams:
Melvin Adams is a retired scientist and technical manager. His poetry and prose have been published in a number of journals and have won several awards. He is the author of Netting the Sun: A Personal Geography of the Oregon Desert and Remote Wonders: An Explorer’s Guide to Southeastern Oregon, both published by Washington State University Press. His book Atomic Geography: A Personal Geography of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, will be published by WSU Press this fall. Mr. Adams lives in Richland, Washington with his wife Onnie.
Stoning the Porcupine
“Stoning the Porcupine” appears in Arts & Letters Issue 32
A few years ago, I attended the reunion of my small high school class. Seeing the faulted mountains, sage flats, and rangelands where I was raised prompted some reflection about how the geography of that place formed my concept of the sacred. Thinking back on some of my experiences growing up, I was reminded of the poetry of Rilke: the gods of nature are wild, some are beautiful and some are terrifying. There seems to be a constant tension between the terrifying and the beautiful in nature.
I grew up at a time in eastern Oregon when the hunting culture was even more pervasive than it is today. I remember hunting deer with my father, ducks and geese alone, and pheasants and quail with my friends. Often on the first day of hunting season, school was let out because so many of us would be out hunting. When times were hard my father, a sawmill worker, poached deer so we could eat. The economic culture was extractive. For a time during and after World War II, the Ponderosa Pine forests were overcut and were producing more lumber than the much wetter forests on the west side of the state. Since the settlement of the area by Irish sheepherders and cattlemen, the rangelands were overgrazed. Only the intervention of the federal government that owned much of the land eventually led to more sustainable use.
On my trip to the reunion I realized that my life on the Oregon desert was by turns extractive and violent, but I also realized that the beauty and mystery of the desert had led me to know a numinous dimension and impulse in nature that as a scientist I could not explain, but as a poet I could attempt to describe. Nature is in a tension between the violent on the one hand and nurturing, even loving, on the other. These two impulses are not in tension like two ends of a spring, but perhaps more like a symbiosis, or even a quantum entanglement where one atom can change its spin at any distance instantaneously when its original partner changes its spin. Maybe Rilke was right: are beauty and terror the same, two faces of the same reality?
One of the formative experiences I recall was the day when the cougar was a god. My father and I were fishing a small stream in a meadow. I was probably about ten years old. He was upstream casting flies while I stood near the bank with my pole. Suddenly my father dropped his rod and began pointing to the east while starting to run towards me. Out of the tree line I saw a large cat bounding towards me across the meadow. I do not remember being frightened at all, just curious. The cougar got to my part of the stream well before my father, suddenly veered and jumped clear across the stream between us. I am astonished that any living thing can jump that far. Later in life I asked my father what he was thinking at that time. He said that the cougar was beautiful but terrifying. The wild god of that day in the form of a cougar, for some reason I will never know, chose to spare me.
I learned about violence from another experience from my youth. The Forest Service had decided that porcupines were killing too many trees and offered a bounty on them. Never mind that a logger with a power saw could kill more trees in a day than all the porcupines in the county in a year. Our scout troop was driving home from a camping trip when we saw a porcupine at the edge of the road. The troop jumped out, picked up rocks and began stoning the porcupine. The porcupine began screaming and crying just like a human baby in distress. I will never forget the sound of the porcupine pleading for its life, or the sight of blood seeping from the mouth and ears of a helpless being.
Not long after that in the winter I went hunting alone in the grain fields north of Goose Lake. It was a cold, clear morning. I had put out the goose decoys and was trying to stay warm in my blind when just before dawn I heard flocks of ducks overhead flying north, the sound of their wings making a distinctive whistle. As soon as the sun rose, the geese began rising off Goose Lake and began flying north. The flocks were literally stacked up over each other and filled the sky from horizon to horizon. The racket was pervasive. A few flocks landed in the decoys, and I took a shot or two with my ancient single-shot twenty-gauge, but soon I just dropped the gun and stood there in amazement. It was as if the cold waters of Goose Lake had spontaneously generated thousands and thousands of living beings flying off into the clear sky of the brisk blue day in a vast proliferation of life, a release of energy from the primordial waters of cold, inanimate night. It was as if the Pleistocene had become entangled with the 20th century; vast flocks of the ancient lakes had returned once more. I have come to realize that there is no difference between the inanimate and the animate, between life and death, between the past and the present. They are simply different spins of the same fundamental atoms and fields in entangled connection. The gods of that day were geese, and they were beautiful. The day was an episode in the beginning of the end of my interest in hunting.
Goose Lake is a large, shallow, alkaline lake on the west side of the Warner Mountains on the Oregon—California border. It is a pluvial lake that formed from precipitation and melting glaciers during the Pleistocene epoch.
A frequency of a complex wave that is a multiple of a fundamental. Attuned and symmetrical vibrations. Living in peace with a place by caring for it. The harmonic chemistry of the periodic table relating elements to each other. Profound bonds as between parents and child.
I went to my buried mother and father near the wild plum patch overlooking Goose Lake where one hundred years ago the pioneers came out of the desert to find the Eden of the Goose Lake shore. I went to them and dressed their ground with paintbrush, agates, and purple sage. I offered them what I had, what was native to the place, what they loved.
The relationships between light, time, space, gravity, energy, and matter. A difference in viewpoint between two people looking at the same thing. Viewing the same thing from a different vantage point of time or space.
Walking home the field white and barren as the moon, bathed in cold light. My boots squeak in the snow leaving tracks for spring. The road blurred with drifts. No lights, skeletal trees show me home.
A barn bleats cold breath from huddled sheep. The sawmill burner throws sky sparks—temporary stars—the moon too bright for real stars.
Why do I remember the steppe now with childhood so far back, think of the moon before man walked it, think of the Oregon steppe, cold space, the dog, warm house?
How you loved the moon and hated snow. I left you without a choice beneath the snow bathed in the moon—your life always a cold compromise.
My father and I shared many trips into the backcountry of the Oregon desert. Some were eventful and even frightening: being caught on open rim rocks during a lightning storm, hiking through blizzards and drifts when a sudden front came in on a hunting trip, being flooded out of camping trips, having tents blown over by sudden gusts of winds on clear days, getting stuck in mud or breaking an axle far from any help, using pliers to pull porcupine quills out of our careless dog’s mouth, being startled by a rattlesnake on the next rock over. But there were times of inexpressible joy and peace: baking freshly caught native trout on a campfire, listening to my father play the guitar by a campfire many miles from any human light or habitation when the stars seemed to come down from the high dry air and hover right above our heads like a billion sparks, taking a nap under a quaking aspen grove with the leaves rustling in every desert breeze on a lazy summer afternoon, watching the trout come up for a fly on a beaver pond.
I remember one such evening of perfect bliss. It was on a desert stream on a warm evening. Nighthawks were darting and dodging overhead collecting insects in the warm air, the creek was murmuring as it ran over rocks and around boulders, trout were dimpling the water as they rose for flies, the Milky Way came down close, and a beaver came along and sat with us by the campfire. My father serenaded the beaver and me with his guitar and the Gene Autry songs he knew while the beaver just sat there taking it all in for the longest time. My father said later he should have offered the old boy a cup of coffee. Each of these days was a beautiful god—the god of beaver, the god of trout, the god of the Milky Way.
Chemical processes maintaining life by synthesis of needed biochemicals. The release of energy in cells and tissues by chemical decomposition of nutrients along with the release of waste. The energetics of life. The slow burning and oxidation associated with life.
Today is the god of orange and red, autumn flames of marsh grass and cattail.
Red flaming trees scattered on golden hills. Orange meadow armies,
crossed blades of red botanic swords.
The god of today is dying.
Summer photosynthetic green is burning away day by day.
The god today will die and lie in the snow.
The god today knows he is dying— knows he is beautiful.
He sees his hot image in the cool ponds.
He reflects back to himself, I am a god, I am on fire and I am dying.
I realize now that everything on the desert is in a sort of symbiosis, a communal metabolism, an entanglement of violence and death and life and creation and rebirth.
All living things are in a vast communion, made from the same template of fused atoms from the same suns, all embraced by the same gravity. But the mysteries remain. How could the lichens live on such exposed surfaces with the incessant winds and heat and cold, how could a tiny chub species survive in an isolate spring on a dry playa that was once a vast lake, how could tiny shrimp live by the billions in a lake much more saline than the ocean? How can the Ponderosa pines seem to glow when the light hits their orange bark? How can a whole grove of aspens grow from a common seep root? These questions tantalize me still, and they are all places in the geography of my soul.
These layered, high clouds form in the prevailing Westerly winds in the lee of the Cascade mountains. These clouds were visible at sunset in the high desert east of the mountains.
A symbiotic organism of fungi and algae. Considered a “pioneer” plant by its ability to grow on and form soil from rocks in dry, windy, and extreme conditions.
A discrete amount of light, energy, or charge in nature.
Standing on the bluff of the flaming autumn with red and orange dancing below,
in the grassy wind of the ice blue day,
stabbed by the shafts of the sun burning hills, amid the cold sloshing ponds
darting birds, circling birds in swirling columns of invisible air,
crying salty marsh tears, not wanting to leave but being called by far off cranes.
Lord let me come back here if only a mote of dust, a mole of wind, a quantum of light.
Let me crawl in the grass and be a feast for a red tail or speared by an egret,
even the howl of a coyote would be enough for me,
in this mystery, this sacred ground, this all.
Salty. A solution of salt. Ocean water. The water of an alkaline lake. A primordial substance critical for life. The medium for halophytes—salt-loving animals like brine shrimp. The basic composition of human blood.
I look back to you buried on a gold dredge pile, softening to trees,
look back to your sadness, too soft for a hard land.
I look to the salty lake where I will be next to Warner Mountain, at the end of Pine Creek.
I imagine the forever of ice and wind, the endless wetting and drying of the soul.
Can a speck of consciousness survive this elemental harshness?
Moonlight inscribes the lake in gold, a goose call ascends, my heart beats for you on the shore of night.
Lake Abert is a highly saline lake in the arid region of eastern Oregon. It hosts an abundant stock of brine shrimp and brine flies and is a major habitat for migratory birds on the Pacific flyway and for a variety of shore birds.
Weak or tired. Near death. Having a tragic demeanor. Wounded.
In the rigid blue sky of the dying year,
the weight of autumn sage on the deer’s body,
I saw in his black eyes the tragic pool beneath all existence,
like my father’s eyes in the end, his rifle never used again.
A ubiquitous species of deer on the rough Oregon steppe in eastern Oregon.
I remember the last time I went deer hunting with my father. I was finally able to write a poem about it. His hunting rifle is still in my closet and has not been fired in fifty years. I sometimes wonder what my daughters will think about it when they find it after I am gone. But I hope they will find the pictures of a young boy out in the wilds holding up a rattlesnake longer than he was tall or the picture of my father with his guitar in front of a tent on the desert or the picture of me holding up a large trout with the rim rock and a stream behind. Each day was a different god; some were beautiful and some were terrifying. The West of my youth was a tension between the frightening and blissful. But in the end, one cannot see god and live.
Petroglyph lake is a vernal pool—a lake that as it dries in the summer leaves rings of different types and colors of vegetation around the edge. This particular lake has a basalt rim rock surrounding the pool that is an important petroglyph site. The petroglyphs were made by shamans to depict various stages of their trance flights to the heavens. The plants in the foreground are sage and yellow rabbit brush. Both rabbit brush and sage brush are members of the Aster family.
On María Isabel Alvarez:
María Isabel Alvarez is an MFA Candidate in fiction at Arizona State University. She was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala where most of her fiction takes place. Fruit, plants, and other objects of the natural world are common symbols in her writing. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, Arts & Letters, The Gateway Review, and Agave Magazine. She is the First-Looks Editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. Follow her on Twitter: @maria_i_alvarez
“War” appears in Arts & Letters Issue 32.
I travel through North America at the expense of strangers. In Massachusetts, I sleep on the twin bed of a little girl who never reached the age of ten. Her mother receives me in her arms and leads me to the tiny second floor bedroom, wood-plank stairs creaking beneath her pale bare feet. The room appears dusty yet tidy. The silhouettes of floating ballerinas border the blush pink walls, delicate lace the color of bone drapes the single bedroom window, and a floral comforter lays stiffly over the mattress as if handwashed in starch. The mother points toward the direction of the bathroom and offers a set of towels, a spare key dangling from a lanyard, and a gentle reminder that she’d prefer if I return each night no later than eleven. I ask this question of every one of my hosts and each time I receive a vastly different response: What compels you to open your home to strangers? The mother’s answer echoes how I feel about the home I’ve left in Guatemala, that through the continual exchange of strangers she has learned to overcome the residual madness of grief.
In Texas, I toss and turn from the humidity, my neck and thighs seeping in sweat. In New Jersey, I fall dormant to the angry screams and then savage lovemaking of an Italian couple. Then in Louisiana, I never sleep. I lay immobile among the cotton sheets, my forehead pressed flat against the cool plaster as I attempt to decipher the language in which my host is weeping. And though I never discover what heartaches ail her, or what tragedy visits her dreams, once dawn casts its nuanced indigo light, I conclude that her sorrowful crying sounds as haunting and harried as mine once had.
I learn to sleep on sofas and loveseats, some clean, some covered in dog hair; down comforters spread in layers across the floor, leaky water beds and children’s bunk beds—sometimes vacant, sometimes not; day beds and trundle beds and outgrown racecar beds, canopies slung heavily in curtains, rubber air mattresses, a single army camper cot, the rear seat of a Cadillac sedan, and an eco-chic, Japanese-inspired platform bed made entirely of faux bamboo.
My favorite remains the hammock strung between two California palms, the crosshatch twines pressing against my arms and legs as the repetition of waves rippling like black silk hypnotize me into a sleep so deep and continuous that I wake the next morning as though I am finally well-rested.
When I arrive in Minnesota it is spring, and I am unprepared for the sleet that pelts the pavement. My host’s name is Reta, an Ojibwe woman of the White Earth Nation of Northern Minnesota, and she is as simple and quiet as the house in which she lives. The interior is coated in a deep shade of crimson and unlike many of the other homes suffocating in family portraits and opulent pieces of art, her walls are void of any distractions. The house possesses a kind of uncontaminated spirit, as if those whom have lived within its corridors summoned every known indigenous ritual and cleansed it of impurities.
Reta speaks curtly and selectively, in a low and smoky voice, and relies heavily on hand gestures to relay emphasis on certain key phrases. The kitchen is there. The bathroom is upstairs. There is no telephone. I am intrigued by her economic way of speaking and feel it imprudent if I don’t employ the same courtesy, so I simply nod in understanding and thank her for her hospitality, never asking what had motivated her to open her door to a nomadic Latina woman with nowhere to sleep.
She shows me to the bedroom parallel to hers. The room contains only three pieces of furniture: a twin bed swathed in a vibrant indigenous blanket, a cherry wood bureau affixed with brass hardware, and an old wicker rocking chair that seems to mysteriously sway.
I unpack my duffel bag, extracting toothbrush and travel shampoo, washcloth and hand soap before submerging myself into the well of a clawfoot tub. I rub the bar of soap under my breasts, lather the crevices between my thighs, scoop water into the cavities of my collarbone, rinse the oil from my roots with baby shampoo, my brown skin pruning like dehydrated fruit as the minutes turn into hours and the hours turn into sleep.
I dream about my family, remembering how we bathed with buckets of cold water drawn from a well. My mother had washed all six of us in a large yellow tub outside our tin house, taking a kitchen cloth to our baby skin and scrubbing the dirt between our toes, the sweat from under our chins.
“My children are clean children,” she’d say in our native Spanish. “Because my children are God’s children.”
During the summer, she’d boil a stockpot of water and wait for it to cool before draining it over our mosquito-bitten backs. Then she’d leave us to play and we would splash each other and poke each other and huddle against one another after the leaf-laden water had lost its appeal, oblivious to the fact that half of us were girls and the other half were boys and we were all naked.
And then our bodies became less like taper candles and more like kerosene lamps, shapely and heated from within. Us girls were forced to plead with our neighbors about bathing in their private showers, offering to sweep the dust from their floors, feed rice to their many wailing children or stir their simmering pots of homemade recado. And sometimes they’d oblige, immediately propping their colicky babies into our arms, but other times, because these were war times, we were left to wander outside the city and into the lush countryside for fresh river water, only to discover that the rivers had become bloodied with bodiless limbs.
After the war, after the Ixil and the K’iche and the Q’anjob’al had been wiped from their communities, after their homes had been set ablaze and their children trampled like stalks of weeds and their wives and daughters raped as repeatedly as shells are shot from a submachine gun, we found that the rivers could no longer sustain the sins of our country, could no longer dilute the transgressions of war, so we stopped bathing altogether.
My brothers were the first to succumb to the bloodshed; one after the other they were slaughtered like pigs with corroded machetes, dropping to their knees into the wet earth, their carcasses devoured by ravenous white maggots.
My mother and sisters—they weren’t nearly as lucky.
Our neighbors, church fellows and distant relations, they fled to the mountains, believing the myth that the highlands would save them, that the closer they were to God, the better they could evade death.
Death found them faster than sound travels.
I dream these things each night. Each night the dead haunt me for having survived; each night their cries strangle me in my sleep.
On Carol Frost:
Carol Frost’s latest collection was published in 2014 by Tupelo Press (Entwined – Three Lyric Sequences). In 2010, The Florida Book Awards gave her their gold medal for Honeycomb. She has new work in Poetry, Kenyon Review, The New Republic and Shenandoah. Frost teaches at Rollins College, where she is the Theodore Bruce and Barbara Lawrence Professor of English, and where she directs Winter With the Writers, a Literary Festival. We’re very pleased to welcome her to the Georgia College campus on March 15th to read from her most recent collection. Frost is also our poetry judge for this year’s Arts & Letters Prizes.
Lucifer in Florida
I Lucifer, cast down from heaven’s city which is the stars,
soar darkly nights across the water to islands
and their runway lights — after sunset burning petals;
sights, sorrows, all evils become the prolonged shadows
and lightning through palm trees and the ancient oaks.
… And ride with darkness, dark below dark, uttermost
as when the cormorant dives and the fish dies, eye-deep
in hell; the bird is I, I hide in its black shining
spread of wings raised drying afterward on a tree bough.
Nothing more onyx or gold than my dark wings.
Yet Venus rising, the off chords and tender tones
of morning birds among the almonds, small flames
of lemon flowers, phosphorus on the ocean,
all I’ve scorned, all this lasts whether I leave or come.
The garden fails but the earth’s garden lives on
unbearable — elusive scent on scent from jasmine
mixed with brine, the smell of marshes, smells of skin
of fishermen, burned rose and a little heroic
while leviathan winds rise and darkness descends.
Sin and death stay near, black with serenity,
calm in dawn’s light suggestions. If the future is
a story of pandemonium, perfection’s close —
from the sea the islands at night, from the island
the sea at night with no lights rest equally, lit by
a wanderer’s memory bringing dark and light to life,
luminous and far as dreams endure, charcoal and flame
in a fire, the embers of pride and pain in each breath.
From the somber deeps horseshoe crabs crawled up on
Man-of-Wars’ blue sails drifted downwind
and blue filaments of some biblical cloak
floated below: the stinging filaments:
The cored-of-bone and rock-headed came near:
Clouds made wandering shadows:
Sea and grasses mingled::
There was no hell after all
but a lull before it began over::
flesh lying alone: then mating: a little spray of soul:
and the grace of waves, of stars, and remotest isles.
On Kirun Kapur:
Kirun Kapur grew up in Hawaii and has since lived and worked in North America and South Asia. Her work has appeared in AGNI, Poetry International, FIELD, The Christian Science Monitor and many other journals and news outlets. She is the winner of the 2012 Arts & Letters/Rumi Prize for Poetry and the 2013 Antivenom prize for her first book, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist. She is co-director of the popular Boston-area arts program The Tannery Series and is poetry editor at The Drum. Find out more at www.kirunkapur.com.
From the Afterlife
“From the Afterlife” first appeared in Arts & Letters Issue 27.
I wanted to be a bone—white like
the Taj Mahal, hard as a puritan—
when vein and wish are stripped
still able to rattle the essential notes.
But no music gets made when you pit
your self against ideas of yourself.
Dust suits me better. Grey-brown fleck—
I can mix, move into the smallest space,
spark the grittiest tunes. Divide me
into fifty states: winsome, wondering, crazed, my face
scattered by teaspoon. Over the Great Basin
of played out mines and salts rising in a haze,
over hard farmed heartland, the bent
fair-headed wheat, the combine’s cloud,
silt along the fat lip of river bed. Semis
hissing and grumbling in tongues.
I can still feel the hum of the telephone wires,
running from one life to another. I filled the lines
in case a story is a body, in case we lose our place.
Hello? Friend? I can touch everything,
but can’t stop thinking. Turns out, thoughts
granulate. Turns out, I never was a girl, I was all
those girls, a girl statue, torch raised, you know the one—
standing in the harbor, wearing a sari.
The tide foams up. Now, I’m so much dust,
I am a continent, absorbing—a thimble full
of mother, angry powder, laughing specks, froth,
filth, lover, crying cinders, particles of mineral wind.
I’m proof that nothing is lost.
You can breathe me in.
On Bret Lott:
Bret Lott is the bestselling author of 14 books. He has served as writer-in-residence at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, spoken on Flannery O’Connor at the White House, and was a member of the National Council on the Arts from 2006 to 2013. He teaches at the College of Charleston.
“Halo” first appeared in Arts & Letters Issue 5.
He gave the cashier his money—a twenty and a five—and waited for change, the blanket already in the white plastic bag.
He needed the blanket because he knew it would be cold tonight, sleeping in the car. Of that much he was certain: the cold, him in the car, this blanket.
His wife, the woman he’d loved all these years, had kicked him out over what he’d said once they had arrived at the end of the argument: “Whenever I tell you something and you can’t remember it, it’s because I never told you,” he’d said there in the kitchen, certain of the words lined up, certain of the sense they made. Certain, certainly, of the truth they would speak of the way their lives worked. “But whenever you tell me something and I don’t remember it,” he went on, “it’s because I wasn’t listening.”
He’d said it, there in the kitchen, and he’d nodded hard once at her, put his hands to his hips for the certainty in the world he’d outlined with just those words.
She was quiet a moment, a moment filled, he was certain, with her recognition of his keen and convicting insight into the injustice of her perceptions: she believed her words went unheeded by him, and believed his words had never been spoken. He was certain of all this in just that moment.
And in that moment he was certain he still loved her. He loved her.
But then she spoke: “You understand,” she said, and put her own hands to her own hips, and in that movement, a movement that bore extraordinary witness to her own certainty, he’d seen that his own certainty in his own words had been only a vague notion, a moment of smoke. Nothing more.
“Now you understand,” she said. “Finally,” and she nodded once at him, but gently, carefully, the care she gave the gesture all the more proof of how certain she was.
That was when she turned from him, took the requisite steps to the kitchen door and opened it wide, swept her hand toward the darkness outside like a game show girl. She said nothing more, so certain she was he knew what she meant by this move.
And he knew.
He watched the cashier’s hands in the drawer, watched the efficiency and certainty with which her fingers extracted the correct number of coins, the single dollar bill, then tore from the register the receipt, handed all of it to him in just one moment. He looked at her hands a moment more, then her face, in him a kind of unbidden awe at the sureness of her hands, of these moves.
Then, the moment over, he took the money, the receipt, lifted the white plastic bag from the counter, and left. She hadn’t noticed the moment her hands had been held out to him, or his moment of watching her, and he wondered if in fact there had ever even been this moment between them. Maybe he’d imagined that instant, he thought.
The automatic doors opened, and he stepped out into the night air, felt the chill and the damp. It would be cold tonight. He was certain of that.
He started off, away from the store, and into the lot. His car was here. He was certain of that, too. He would have a place to sleep. And he had this blanket.
He walked, and walked, passed beneath first one parking lot lamp and then another, each lamp casting thin halos of light down around him while he looked for his car.
He knew it was here somewhere, here on this aisle, ten or twelve slots down. On the right. Or maybe it was the next row over. Maybe a few more slots down.
But the lot was nearly empty for how late it was, and he did not see his car here.
He felt his skin prickling over for the damp out here then, and for the dark, felt how strange and alien this feel was as he walked, as though his skin were that of someone else, moving on its own in reaction to things out of his control: the temperature of the air, the turn of the earth away from the sun, the ability of air to hold water within it.
He stopped, just inside yet another thin halo of light.
Where was his car?
And did he love his wife still, despite the way words worked in their world?
And then, in the feel of his skin prickling over, and in the growing recognition of his misplacing an item as large and important this night as his car, and in the weight of the blanket in his arm, even in the vague halo within which he stood—a halo, he saw, like words lined up believing in their certainty, only to be found as hollow as his hands on his hips, as empty as a solid single nod—inside all this, he began to wonder:
What made me believe it might be cold at night? And when did I come to believe night would come?
Of what am I certain?
He breathed in, breathed out. He felt himself swallow, though he could not be certain that was indeed what he felt.
Quickly he took the white plastic bag from beneath his arm, held it and what was inside it out in front of him, held it with both hands, his hands trembling now in the smallest way but holding on tight, as if the bag and what was inside it and even his hands, his arms, himself might all disappear this moment.
What do I know?
And now he felt even truer, even dearer the earth turning upon its axis, felt deeply and dreadfully himself hanging from this round planet head outward and into space, felt too the wind of all space blow unforgiving and uncaring through him at whatever speed this unheeding planet revolved around the sun, and at whatever speed this unmerciful galaxy blew from its beginning toward its ever-expanding end, felt all of it in just that moment.
Then finally, horribly, he felt fear move inside him, rising, unbidden and awful.
He looked at the bag and his hands and his trembling, looked and looked, and wondered with a deep and incalculable wonder:
What does the word Blanket mean?
And what is Car?
He looked then to the circle of light in which he stood, saw the asphalt and white lines in this thin light begin to tremble of their own, the world shivering beneath him as sure and certain as the cashier’s hands had measured money.
What is Halo? he wondered.
He looked up to the parking lot lamp then, felt himself go blind for it, as though scales were being settled into place instead of falling away, while still the earth shivered beneath him, and now the air around him began to swirl, and swirled, and lo! he felt himself lifted, felt himself rising into the pitch and twirl of the air, felt himself lifted and lifted into the vortex of swirling air and shivering earth and incalculable words that surrounded him, until he felt at last each molecule—if there were such a thing, or a word for it—explode into nothing, himself at its center, and nothing. Nothing at all.
What is Love? he wondered then. And finally. Finally.