his rough, calloused, thick-fingered hands; he comes home
from the slaughterhouse where the government places him to kill
old, useless horses that arrive from all over the island. On his hands
it comes, encrusted and etched into the prints and wrinkles
of his fingers, under his nails, dark with the dirt too, the filth and grime,
the moons of his fingers pinked by its residue, his knuckles skinned
from the endless work. Sticky and sweet-scented is the blood
of these horses, horses to feed the lions in the new zoo which is moving
from Havana to Lenin's Park near where we live. Dark blood, this blood
of the horses my father slaughters daily, and loses himself doing so.
I, being a child, ask how many horses it takes to feed a single lion.
This, of course, makes my father laugh. I watch as he scrubs and rinses
dried blood from his forearms and hands, those hands
that kill the horses, the hands that sever through skin and flesh and crush
through bone because tough is the meat of old horses. Feed for the lions.
So my father, the dissident, the gusano, the Yankee lover, walks
to and from work on tired feet, on an aching body. He no longer talks
to anybody, and less to us, his family. My mother and my grandmother;
his mother. But they leave him alone, to his moods, for they know
what he is being put through. A test of will. Determination. Salvation
and survival. My father, gloomy, under the new zoo tent on the grounds,
doesn't say much. He has learned how to speak with his hands.
Sharp are the cuts he makes on the flesh. The horses are shot in the open
fields, a bullet through the head, and are then carted to where my father,
along with other men, do the butchering. He is thirty (the age
I am now) and tired and when he comes home his hands are numb
from all that chopping and sawing. This takes place in 1969. Years later
when we are allowed to leave Havana for Madrid, to the cold
winter of Spain, we find ourselves living in a hospice. The three of us
in a small room. (My grandmother died and was buried in Havana.)
Next door lives a man named Izquierdo who wakes
us with phlegmy coughs. From our side of the clapboard walls,
his coughing sounds like thunder. We try to sleep; I try harder but the coughing
seeps through and my father curses under his breath. I listen to the heat
as it tic-tacs through the furnace. My father tries to make love to my mother.
I try now not to listen. The mattress springs sound like bones crushing.
My mother refuses without saying a word. This is the final time
she does so tonight. My father breaks the immense and interminable silence,
saying, "If you don't, I'll look for a Spanish woman who will."
Silence again, then I think I hear my mother crying.
"Alguien," my father says, meaning someone, "Will want to, to . . . (fuck him.)
And I lay there on my edge of the mattress, sweat summoned by the heat.
My eyes are closed and I listen hard and then everything stops.
This, I think, is a sound like death. Then my father begins all over again.
The room fills with small noises . . . the cleaver falls and cuts through skin,
tears through flesh, crushes the bone, and then there is blood.
All that blood. It emerges and collects on slaughter tables, the blood of countless
horses. Sleep upon me, I see my father stand by the sink in our Havana house patio.
He scrubs and rinses his hands. The blood whirls and dissolves
slowly in the water. Once again I summon the courage to go ahead and ask him
how much horse meat it takes to appease the hunger of a single lion.
-Virgil Suarez Roman Holiday
By Elizabeth Howkins
Roma. In Winter, it seldom ever snows. The rainy season starts in November and lasts through January. Night time temperatures rarely dip below the low 20's. There are umbrella pines, palmettos and palm trees, reminiscent of South Carolina. In late Spring, strawberries appear and last through mid-summer. In mid-fall artichokes appear. Traditional Roman cooking is simple and hardy, but never heavy.
Rome has seven hills. The Palatine Hill is marked by a large statue of Victor Emmanuel. Legend says that Romulus and Remus were brought to a hut on the Palatine after they were washed up in a basket on the banks of the Tiber.
Pollution in the city is severe and in April, 1990, many large bronze statues were moved to the Capitoline Museum.
She has been here fewer than five days, having arrived from New York with a group of students to spend a semester studying the Italian language. Now she sits alone in the piazza twirling her cigarette between her fingers like a little baton as she takes short, nervous puffs. She is asthmatic, and smoking is therefore a defiant act, the strongest of statements, like a sharp stab of perfume in an over-heated room. She feels her chest tighten as she struggles to cough up each breath and expel it like a single pearl. The act makes her feel anchored somehow, more firmly rooted in space.
She needs the cigarette to smooth the edges of a little flutter inside her that makes her feel as if her heart had loosed itself from its moorings. Yet she hates the smell of it, the soiled, used-up air, the way the spent smoke settles over her like ash; the way the day turns pewter and loses its luster, the way the buildings lose their sharp definition as if viewed through the slats of a cirrus cloud. At night, she scrubs the smoke from her skin with brushes.
She crushes out her cigarette and begins to walk. As she passes through the city, she feels the city passing through her, soaking her bones with its colors, its dark pewters, its alizarines, its heavy Prussian blues. For several days now, she has been able to sleep only in snatches and now she has crossed some border, hard and final as graveyard stone, and she cannot sleep at all.
Daylight has become too sharp, too raucous, its shapes painted garish yellow with a palette knife. She prefers the oblique softness of night when she walks the streets endlessly, casting her somber light into the alleys like a little tin star and watching her shadow rub up against the doorways like a softly purring cat.
Her head is filled with thoughts like a nest filled with birds. Images are disjointed, ragged, pierced with quills. There is no progression, no continuity. Sentences break apart and rearrange themselves into strange new patterns. Verbs disappear completely. Nouns and adjectives prick her skull like little knives. Syllables break off and clump at the ends of words. Paragraphs spin about and sting each other like bees.
Every morning she sits in the piazza. Large sunglasses smooth the edges of the city and keep her secret and apart, like a maja behind a painted fan. The rosy point of her cigarette burns down against her palm and leaves a little nipple of ash. She drinks the coffee, thick as river mud and laced with an airy fichu of hazelnut and cream.
She watches the family at the next table and knows that they are talking about her, whispering behind the silky snakes of their fingers. She feels powerful, Medusa-like, as if her mere glance can turn their thoughts to stone.
She remembers that tomorrow they will go to Venice and she thinks of red gondolas, their pews carved and bent like the necks of painted swans, gliding on dark waters lifted gently on prongs of light. Suddenly she is distracted by the voices squabbling inside her head, the skullful of strident sounds juggling for position.
She leaves her seat and approaches an old woman at another table. She seeks to make some contact, to throw down an anchor with her voice. She watches the way the woman’s face catches the light and holds it like a smooth glass bowl; the way her eyes begin to shimmer and glisten like shells backlit by a single bulb.
She roots her head desperately, looking for words, as if rooting in a purse for loose change, but she finds nothing. As the woman’s face goes out like a little candle, she is overcome with panic and falls back into herself like a collapsing star. Little bits of her life swim past her like painted fishes.
She can no longer bear the openness of the piazza, the crushing weight of space, and she returns to her room. The casa is staffed by an order of brothers whose long robes swish softly through the halls, brushing the walls lightly like the fins of mermaids. Each night a single brother sits at the desk with a book, his profile sharply outlined in shadow against the wall like the sharp edge of a Balinese puppet. But their language is alien to her with the soft voluptuousness of its phrasings, the sensuous curves of its vowels.
Finally, the director of the school asks to see her. He is solicitous, concerned. She sees him sitting at his desk, his head a coin of light, his arms dissolving slowly into a wall dark as milkless tea, his body cut off at the waist like an ancient statue buried deep in sand. His words enter her like thin cardboard letters dropped soundlessly through a skinny slot. Inside her head, they become louder and louder, opening inside her skull like crocuses.
She is sitting once again in the piazza. A lady in a red silk dress passes. As she turns the corner, she dissolves into flames. Sounds fill her head like the rush of bells, hard geometric cadences -- trapezoids, rhomboids, oxagons, hexagons of sound. Nero, she remembers, fiddled while Rome burned. Then she feels the flames, hot and lacy beneath her skin, as it slowly takes on the crisp colors of an illuminated manuscript. She thinks of Romulus and Remus and the dull yellow teeth of wolves. On the Palatine Hill, strange night birds appear and draw new shapes with the quill tips of their shadows. Light splashes on the stones of the Coliseum. The Trevi Fountain casts up a single bouquet of stars.
She is overwhelmed by the intensity of imagery, as if with one sudden, unexpected lunge her life had been switched from black and white film to color. It is no longer necessary to sleep to dream. Life itself has now become a dream, a floating world within a world, many worlds containing and sheltering each other like a series of Russian nesting dolls that shrink into progressively smaller knobs within each other’s skirts.
Across the piazza, a man is exiting from a car. His opaque body, the color of milk spilled on white marble, bends slightly and his limbs arch out from his torso like waves as if his wrists and ankles were scarves instead of bones. He is so long, so thin, so pliable that he seems to lap back against himself, to flow out from his center and return.
She sees him coming toward her, cleanly, like a shark propelled through the water by a single fin. He comes closer, until his eye, a hard scarab of color, a lozenge of light, opens its pupil and she swims through it into darkness. She is crushed by sound. She does not know whether she is perpetrator or victim, predator or prey, whether she is bullet or gun, whether she is creating light or expelling it like a retracting star. The shrill sounds pierce her like a bouquet of arrows loosed from their quiver.
Under Julius Caesar, the Romans conquered Gaul. Travelers to Rome are advised to guard their pocketbooks carefully. The Trevi Fountain, one of Rome’s most popular attractions, was built between 1732 and 1762 at the spot where three roads meet. It is said that those who toss a coin into its waters are destined to return one day to Rome.
I didn't want to wash.
But how could I keep you here,
when you flew from the ash,
from these hands...
leaning over the side
of this boat,
outstretched in offering-
dropping into the water below.
-Jennifer Michelle Hoofard
Poem for Angela
I wish there were more words
for courage because I need them
here in this hard plastic chair
outside your antiseptic room, waiting.
Five months was the guess,
and we're two days short of eight.
After years of whirlwinding the globe
you realized stars are constant;
they can be worshipped, or ignored,
as easily from my wicker porch-swing.
You said I curbed your spiritual longing,
but I'm not deceiving myself--
this isn't the mystery of the cocoon,
or the archaeologist's dream of old stones.
This is charcoal which blackens everything it touches.
This is the moment I don't want to write about.
You are the vanilla wax
of a single votive candle;
sleep atop your altar, Angie.
The flame is on its way.
-Ryan G. Van Cleave
In the Shadow of Mount Fuji I shall breathe serenely in the shadow of the mountain
my black lacquered hair and softest silk ebony Kimono
the one you buried me in.
I shall walk through the paper walls of the palace
to where you and your concubine conceive a destiny
a dynasty to rule.
I shall watch as you breathe, laboring in your nightmares.
Does the vision of your first wife abandoned to the night
still haunt you?
I have met ghost samurai, they are loyal and sharp
their cold arms embrace me as their chosen queen
We shall bide our time, watch your children grow in the shadow of Mount Fuji.
I will return when they are almost of age and claim them as my own.
I shall kiss them deeply, like their mother never could
and teach them to spin the black silk kimonos.
The new dynasty, in the shadow of the mountains
lingers until night brings us to flight
tread softly in the moonlight, as paper walls fall...
Waiting on Wet Grass
By Michael Mahns
An old man lying in bed, his once lush white hair whittled down into a borderland of grey scrub and those harsh patriarchal eyes that once took their blue from the sky, now faded like twilight and Zeus knew no more time existed. For him, the pulsing of the universe had waved out beyond his reach, left him to float here in his two story mountain A-frame, the yard awash in a winter's crust of high weeds and brown grass the color of dried seaweed. His wife and sister had left him, his favored son dead and the rest of the family, his daughters, and the crippled son, refused to acknowledge his existence. Except for an occasional visit from the Fates, he had no contact with the rest of the family. But a visit from the Fates was portentous enough and he had decided that the next time they arrived, they'd find the doors closed.
The only one he missed was Athena. Tall Athena, the sheriff, who had told him she was sick of him and it would be a cold day indeed when she talked to him again. That day was bright, noon, and the shadows had caved into themselves. Zeus had never cared for the light at noon, when the sun shone from high, almost straight above, shining upon his thrawning heart while Athena stood above him, her fingers still wrapped into a fist that she had used to strike her father in the face, so hard that he had lost his footing, fallen to the ground. He preferred the softer contours and shadows of morning light, or even that of dusk, as the shadows lengthened and stretched until they might pop, releasing their energy in cool grace.
Lying in bed in the grey seeping light from the window, bleak curtains still against the fogged glass, he heard the muted tip- tapping of rain falling on the metal roof. Light flashed and he waited for the pealing thunder to drive home again the mad rush of his glory, lost in a littered landscape of women, drink and squabbling children, most bastards. They, at least, had the common sense to keep their distance from him, expecting nothing, which is exactly what they'll get, Zeus thought, I gave them the most precious gift, life, shaped their destinies like soft clay. What more could they want? immortality? Well, that's a joke, he knew, feeling the ache in his bones, the tired flesh ready to slide from his pale skeleton in a slow, slogging manner. Skin slipping, smoldering into the moist ground, that hard rebuking earth that he had fought out from under so long ago to be free.
Free and now he was ready to return , to sink beyond the ken of his life, the reach of his hard scrabbling children and return again to his brother's house. But beyond that too, because he knew the cold satisfaction he would receive from his brother, that damned ghoul licking his chops in the halflight of his house, slicking into his dark maw the remnants of life. That bastard would be sorely discomfited to know that Zeus would pay no more than a social visit when he left here.
"Mother," he whispered, "silent whore, green goddess,wake from your bed and bring me home to your lips, your flesh singing in drops of water," and he fell silent, saw a vague echo of himself in the dim light needling in from the square pane of glass. He looked at the wall, at the photo there of his son, Apollo, guitar across his lap and the warm smile on his face. He shuddered at the thought of his son, his throat slashed like a piece of meat, the razor in his hand still when the Paris police found him and Hera leaving him after that, saying that was enough, enough and she did leave. He sat on the sofa, watching as she packed her bags, called a cab, stood on the porch smoking a cigarette while waiting for her ride.
He watched as she climbed inside, feeling only then a wash of emotion, brown and thin like bile, rise up inside his veins and too late called out for her as the car backed down the drive. The smoke from Hera's cigarette slipping out the cracked window of the cab, and the image of his son lying on a blood drenched carpet, his honey wheat hair turned red while his throat gaped madly in a jester's wide smile, twin monsters of the mind his only companions when he slipped beneath the frail bedsheets.
He did not go to Paris, did not bring the body of his son home. They had no home he knew, so what matter where his ashes scattered? The earth, the wind and the rain would take them, pick them up in the bits and pieces in which they had been sent. He did not attend a service, did not send his regrets, gave no public acknowledgement of his sorrow, either to his family, or to any of the inhabitants of the town where he lived: and what had Hera left behind he had burned himself in the backyard, making his own tall pyre against the waving of time, watching as the dark embers shot out, pulsing, into the far reaches of space.
He closed his eyes, rolled on his side and drew his knees to his chest against the cold of the house, snugging the comforter to his chin. This place had been built in the 1800s by a German immigrant and his pregnant wife one summer. They had help from other emigres before them. All an example of chain migration Zeus knew, that had, if one forced the image, an air of romanticism to it. Long threads of humanity aching across the hard seas in unbreakable bonds of travel, stretched from a point of departure, a point of reference really, say when one member of the chain arrives, glass-eyed, fatigued from the long journey, covered with dust and grime from his trip, the first thing he or she is asked, is how is so and so back home. Forever using conditions back home to measure the reality of the new place.
They have lived here years. Built communities founded on beliefs, transferred their icons, organized politics, schools, jobs, businesses and they still think of the place they left as home. How is home? they ask. Really wondering, is it as sweet as we once thought this place to be? Do the birds still sing, the flowers bloom, the cattle loll and call to each other in the night softly still? The way they did when spring rolled softly out across the hills and the backyard gardens? How is home? Gone, he thought. Drifted like smoke, scattered like ashes.
Even the next generation, and the one after that, their heads filled with the batting of home's soft remembrances. Then, three, four generations later, someone makes the pilgrimmage. See they tell their spouse, this is what my great great so-and-so left behind, born here in this farmhouse.
Why, he wondered, was the house so damn cold? He had not heard the furnace kick on. He had been convinced by the man at the hardware store to buy a digital thermostat. He could set the device to automatically switch on and off the furnace, saving himself twenty percent a year on his heating bill. His thoughts often concerned the best way in which to care for the house since she had left. This summer he planned to apply a winter's worth of reading to his yard and would make the place shine with a verdant hue.
His heart had gone far inside.
He sensed a growing pressure in his bladder and knew he would have to leave the bed, set his old man's feet to the creaky floor and venture out into the day, when he felt a release, a warm flood in the bed from his bladder. There was no shame; he was old and the body gives out slowly. Like this, the unremitting of flesh to do what it will. He enjoyed the warmth and breathed easy, scrinching in the sheets until he was positioned just so. There was only him after all.
He had been trying to get back to a dream all morning, waking from it in the dark, not knowing who he was or where he was at. A dream of fair towers, bright banners snapping on a steel-dipped breeze, bathed in the hot yellow blood of the sun. Golden ladies, to make your blood roil walked along the stone ramparts, drinking from cups kept full by silent servants. A liquid his tongue yearned to taste, knowing it would be all he thought, more. Far below the city walls, a rough jumble of men shining in their strengths, their armor honed, beat at each other in heroic choreography, driving against one another harshly with the neat snap of their weapons while raising their shields to thwart assailants.
Bending, grinding, heaving to ward off mortality, old age. They scurried with a zealot's drive and Zeus could hear the keaning of a death drum. He looked around the city, the enemy encampments, the ramparts, and the surrounding houses of the country. Nowhere could he find the source of the sound. He could only smell for the first time the acrid sting of sweat and death rising from the fields, the haughty odor of abuse from the ladies a top the walls, the glaring malevolence of their servants like the dry aroma of barren earth, waiting for a turn to flourish in its own right, on the occasion of a sudden rain, unexpected in the moment, but waited for an eternity. And then he awoke in the dark, still shielding his eyes against the flood of light in his dream, casting the thoughts of his mind in a sharp sepia tone of relief.
Consciousness slipped across his sleeping mind like a dull knife, opening the skin slowly and in agony, waiting for the shocked nerves to register the intrusion before sending out an angry army of blood, rising up like a river on command to flood the intruders away. That was waking, and he found his heart to be the cause of that morbid beating, an uneven systolic thumping as it slipped in its casing of bone, tissue, blood.
The bed then was no place, so he dropped his legs over the side, standing on the floor and stripped the bed to the mattress. Using the strength still in his arms, he turned, twisted and danced the mattress over on its side, lugged it till the underside faced him. He kicked the pile of sodden sheets down the stairs, dropped his wet bedclothes with them. He felt heat in his muscles from the exertion. He brushed his teeth and washed his urine stained body with a warm wash cloth then dressed in worn slacks the color of mud and a sweater given to him by one of his sister Fates, so old, loose strands of thick grey wool dangled from the bottom, waiting to be snipped.
Downstairs, he made coffee and toasted a slice of thick wheat bread. He checked the thermostat, thumping it soundly with a flick of his forefinger. I'll have to change the damn filter he thought, hating the idea of coaxing his body into that dark space under the house, rooting around in the furnace's interior just to change the filter. He cranked the thing up, hoping that by turning ten degrees or so past the programmed setting that it would flame on and so it did. He heard the clicks of the pilot lighting the rails of thin blue flames. Heard as the sudden exasperation of air pushed through the scattered oasis of grates in the floor. The sudden flood of hot air caused him to look with derision on the wet weather outside. Winter's last charge. The rain had ceased, a heavy fog curling through the pre-bud limbs of the empty trees. Small pockets of snow lay like the wounded across the lawn. The scene reminded of him of earth before life, before clay men strode across the land and tilled the soil with their crude stone implements. The mist with its sinuous flow soothed his aching mind. He forgot his cold body, mumbled a clumsy incantation of power, from ago, when youth stretched out across his bones like a well tanned animal hide across the mouth of a war drum. Fire glossed in the snap of his fingers instead of this wretched form, bent over with stiffness and sudden bouts of shaking, bedwetting.
The fog fought amongst itself, coiling over the grass, coloring it grey and wet. He knew the channels such waters made in the air, the silent passages into nothing when you step outside the door and walk, the world you knew gone, covered over with this filmy stuff and giving shelter to the longings that he carried, that he knew they all carried . Dark twistings and rivalries replaced in most of them with gratitude for a mortal simplicity. Only Zeus knew now what lay in store: old age and loneliness stealing the colors from his mind as slitheringly as the fog outside.
He rubbed his eyes, poured a mug of coffee. Setting the mug down, he spread a thick layer of preserves onto his toast and took a bite. Red jam splotched his grizzled beard, lately grown back from the fire that had burned it the past summer.
That was damned foolish he thought, wiping his face with a soiled hanky. But he had been listening to an especially attractive birdsong, one he had not heard before, pouring the fluid over the black charcoal the while, absently striking a match, stepping closer to the metal urn in an effort to hear the whistling chirps the better. Not even hearing that initial rush, the whomp as the fire leaped up grabbing at the air greedily gorging on his clothes, his hair and beard, and then he felt the faint tingling, growing stronger, saw the flames dancing before his eyes as they coursed around his face like a lion's mane. Zeus smiled feeling the caress of the flames, the warm hunger that lived in them deep down, before feeling the first shard of pain breaking across his nerves like a tsunami.
He howled, not knowing from where it came, this god of the element fire, who had stood naked many times within the flickering forges of Hephaestus, overseeing some work of his, some carefully wrought piece requiring even more heat than the god of metallurgy himself could coax. Zeus, urging the volcano upward, telling his deep mother of the desperate need to shed her warmth for him to embrace him in that heat and consume him. Crying out in his power, his need, mother, my need. The great flames rocking the stars, heating the universe while he, Zeus, stood in the center, arms aloft laughing in victory because he was the one, the one who did it all, staring outwards, seeing the lame Forger sweat in rivulets, his one eyed aids bending at his commands, the pound of his hammer sucked into the maelstrom of the fires raging in Zeus's heart.
The memory of all that was the source of the pain, pain growing sharper as flesh fell from bone, giving up its life and reflexively, he slapped his face with rough hands until only smoke was left and a dull throb, blacking his face and scalp in an ever increasing crescendo of screaming nerves. He drove himself to the emergency room, passing out just as he walked in the doors. He remembered waking up once, his skin seething beneath a loose sheathing of gauze and saw Athena turn and leave. He awoke again to the chatter of the Fates sitting around his bedside, knitting and talking, cooing excitedly when he awoke, then they too had left, leaving him and his fresh scars alone in the hospital room, the television softly broadcasting a staccato haze of static.
Athena sent one of her deputies over to drive him home upon his release, the scars already fading from his skin. The deputy had pink skin the color of the dawn sky over the ocean. Zeus remembered thinking how clearly beautiful the man had been, statuesque and true, like an arrow. He knew Athena had been trying to tell him something by sending him. He tried to start a conversation with the man, but he drove carefully, never once turning to look at Zeus as he gave blunt, dry one word answers when a simple nod wouldn't suffice. He drove off before Zeus could close the door. Then he figured it out, the man was Athena's lover, if not married to her already. The thought of his grave daughter with a family of her own chilled him on the spot. A child on her hip, guiding the youngster through a maze of adolescence and then into adulthood, guiding clearly the growth process into a long life of work, troubling toil and nonsense.
That was the moment he had actively decided to turn his back on his children never mind that they had already done the same to him. He disconnected phone service. Kept his trips into town at a minimum. What was there anyway? Bars, restaurants, social places he didn't frequent, needing only the grocery store and post office, sometimes the hardware place out on the edge of town. Long ago he had given up all the troubles of his past, the liquor, the affairs. They had faded from his blood as easily as fall's dead detritus from the bare limbs outside his kitchen windows.
Sitting now in the old house, the fog outside in the gathering calm, he felt how the sun tried to break through the low clouds. Slapping a hat to his head, the old man shuffled outside carrying his coffee with him. Above the clouds he knew the sun drove across the skies in a resplendence that once existed in the smiles of his children, of his son Apollo. He sat upon the rain rich grass, feeling the wet bite into his trousers. Softly, he called out, singing in a voice that wasn't his, calling to his mother, placing his hand upon the earth and stroking in time to his heartbeat. The silky texture of the lawn, the dark wet, the aroma of life from deep below him.
Overhead a hole in the fog ripped outward, spilling warm light on his face and he closed his eyes to feel the touch of his son's warmth, caressing the lines that marked the passage of years over his dry, pale cheeks and balding head. He opened his eyes, sighing in remembrance and in full knowledge of his place now. That moment of being alone with the sudden reality of his life, all too sudden when considered against the bulk of years before, bloomed open in his heart slowly.
Having that knowledge, he had to concede the vagrancy of his long years against the span of geologic time, knowing that all of humanity's history, from the first reluctant scribblings of hard stone on bone to the potential of space flight was nothing more than the thin scraping of a fingernail along a file, itself attached through sinew and muscle; bone and strength, to an arm that stretched back into waiting blackness, waiting to swallow up what had been extended. He sipped his coffee and waited, the wet stain growing colder.
By Jane Drichta & Leah Sturgis
This can't be happening. Not again.
And yet, here I was once more, watching an innocent woman die before my eyes. Another death, another blow for my conscience to absorb. It was almost too much to bear. In my mind's eye the golden meadow darkened into an apocalyptic black, and I would swear the peaceful stream beside me ran with blood.
At least it was mercifully quick. "You're getting better, Daria, " I thought ironically. The others I'd killed had not gone so peacefully. They had shrieked as only the damned can, seizing my arms, looking into my eyes, silently begging me to end their agony. Or perhaps, to share it. After the first one, I tied them down, and stuffed my ears with milkweed cotton, but it hadn't helped.
Nothing helped. How far can one go before the price for the goal becomes too high?
A simple peasant girl am I, not used to such eternal questions. Ask me how many hens it takes to feed a family of seven, or how to make Jonny Dobb turn red when I send a smile his way. These I can answer. But I'm out of my depth here, an unwilling patriot, trying to free a people not even aware of their captivity.
There are no other Bearers in my family, so my parents were more than delighted when my aptitude was discovered. Bearers and their kin are supported well by my village, unlike some others. I've heard that in the Southern Strands, the Bearers are expected to work their own fields and even contribute to the Common Fund. Unbelievable. Their wizards must be weak if they cannot support both their villages and their Bearers. But then, weakness is sometimes found in the most unexpected places, and in the most unexpected wizards.
Volshebnitsa. That was her title. And a grand one she was too. At one time a Bearer herself, she was now a leader, a respected personage in the community. She stretched her well-made arms into the afternoon sun and gave the trim, winter garden a sharp, quick glance. Dvorkin had been here today. His shovels and wooden picks were displaced. The topiaries showed signs of recent pruning, gleaming softly in their places.
She shook her head. She would have to inform him, again, that she preferred all work implements to be out of sight when not in use. She was a little surprised, though. Usually, young Dvorkin was more than attentive.
She stood, rising into a prestigious height. She was tall for a woman, which made her very tall for an old woman. Her hair was grayed by the passing years, but her limbs were as straight and beautiful as when she first took the mantle. A breeze crept up through her bones and trees rustled. This turned her attention to a chittering gathering of crows and, distracted, she shifted her weight, a careful half turn. In a fallen instant the light changed. The robes following this labored movement were threadbare, and there was dirt in her insubstantial shoes. A knifed blade of sunshine cut through her mind. Shame came and went, a sudden stain on the perfect setting.
She had been asleep in her resplendent chair. No longer vigorous, she spent the afternoons basking in the weak sun, like an ancient, yet dangerous, wolf. And a forgetful one, at that. Dvorkin, of course, was no longer young. He was a middle-aged man, bent with rheumatism and the burdens of several children. The gardening implements had been left out since Summer. She sighed and pushed these fuzzy images away.
It was much better to think of herself as young. All she had to do was concentrate and that fiery woman with the tar colored hair and the straight limbs so admired by men (and some women) in the region returned. Once more she could walk freely though the great woods, striding the windswept hills with all the careless strength of youth. She would again conquer all with her keen mind and matchless beauty.
The Volshebnitsa muttered and turned in her sleep. The skimpy, tattered blanket was thin and threadbare. Setting sun flashed a dying finger through a wooded grove and into the deserted garden. In the gathering darkness, she awoke, shivering.
But it was not the treasured memories which awakened her.
"Volshebnitsa! Volshebnitsa!" The smallish boy running towards her nearly tripped over a ridge of barren dirt, long overgrown with the encroaching weeds of long neglect. She struggled to remember the lad's name. Anton? Yes, that was it...no, surely Anton was his father.
"What is it......, " She paused, struggling for clarity. "Nikolas?"
"My lady, there be another! Another body by the brook! Come, you've got to come!"
The Volshebnitsa stumbled out of her listing chair. "Another Bearer? " she demanded, already knowing the answer. "Who?" Who indeed. And more importantly, what. What information had she lost this time? What spell could never be performed again?
"It be Katya, Lady." Death was still an excitement for this young boy, a diversion from carrying water for his mother and sneaking puff on stolen herb sticks behind the barn. He could not be expected to fully understand the tragedy consuming his village.
Katya, Katya. The Volshebnitsa stumbled out of her rotting chair. It was no good. She couldn't remember which spells Katya had carried around inside her pretty head. Not for the first time, the Volshebnitsa cursed this arcane system. Why couldn't the spells simply be written down? Why must they be stored in a human mind, available only to those who knew the words of retrieval?
She knew the rote answer of course, drilled into her years before. Words are the essence of power, as every word affects change. If a cheerful greeting can change dark day to bright, it should not surprise that a word can change rain into sunshine. Change is the only stability, thus the spells must be stored in a matrix which is constantly, even if unconsciously, evolving. The human mind. Only in this way can the words be used with the correct intent. For if words are the heat of the sun, intent is the magnifying glass, focusing and directing the heat. As her preceptor had been fond of reminding her, writing cannot change its mind, and the collective mind of the village was always changing.
The Volshebnitsa shook her head, no longer groggy with the disorientation of senility. She had avoided this for too long, hoping that the previous deaths had been some sort of evil coincidence. But now she would have to check the index, see what irretrievable knowledge was lost with Katya. And then, then she would find who was responsible for the deaths of so many of her precious Bearers.
"Nik, send Yelena to me." She needed the spell of seeing, and for once she was absolutely sure which of her Bearers was needed. This was one of the few spells which had not yet failed her, which she had not been forced to supplement with experience and illusion. Soon she would see who was to blame, who was tearing her small kingdom apart. The Volshebnitsa bowed her head for a moment and then turned to gaze into a malevolent dusk.
I am still close enough to childhood that creeping through Volshebnitsa's hedgerow seems fairly natural. I needed to get close to her, see how she spoke the retrieving spell. I needed practice at it, that was blatantly obvious. I am not a honey bee, born to dance my feelings, or a duckling paddling instinctively through the water. I spoke the words of retrieval correctly all four times, and yet, instead of giving my friends the gift of autonomy, I killed them. For the Mistress's sake, the Bearers OWN these spells! They are embedded in their minds as surely as their favorite color or their favorite lover.
But by some asinine twist, this information is denied them. They have to go through the Volshebnitsa, that insane old hag, to get anything done. Our healer is not trusted with the banishing spells, which cure ten times quicker than his old fashioned herbs. And our crop yield could be increased a hundredfold if the farmers could sing the weathering songs. But no, the Volshebnitsa must be begged to come, implored to reclaim the old knowledge from the Bearers, bribed with the promise of money or gifts, which most of the villagers can ill afford. She holds all the power, all the words, and we hold none. And this is never going to change unless I can learn to release the spells from the Bearers safely.
I found a spot in the corner of her garden, hidden behind a grotesque combination of blue climbing rose and iron trellis. The straggling tendrils snaked their way around the cold metal, grasping, choking, but surviving. Lucky for me Volshebnitsa seemed to view pruning as a sin. I was prepared to wait as long as necessary, but suddenly she was there, in the center of the garden with Yelena.
I had never liked Yelena, the simpering, whining little brat, but I was glad enough to see her then. I almost forgot how much I hated her clumsy flirtations with Jonny and concentrated on the tableau before me.
The old woman placed her hands on the young girl's head, but avoided looking in her eyes. Yelena began to jerk unnaturally, slowly at first, then more frantically, like a fish on a line. I was close enough to hear a thin wail come from Yelena, so high pitched as to be almost inaudible, and to see a thin stream of urine run down her leg.
I covered my ears to shut out the noise; it had permeated every cell in my body, until I thought the vibrations would tear me apart. This was the part I had always hated whenever the Volshebnitsa had called me to her, to retrieve the spells I held. Who would have thought a noise could cause so much terror, so much hatred? I shivered, although evening had not yet thrown its chill cloak completely over the garden, and I was having trouble controlling my stomach.
How could Yelena let this happen to her? How could I let this happen?
And then the Volshebnitsa looked up, straight through the roses, into my eyes.
"You!" she spat through clenched teeth. All youth had fallen away from her form so that now her face showed its seasons. Her skin was pale and clammy, the mouth twisted and dry. Yelena was forgotten, left in a heap as the unkept sorceress strode towards me.
"Why are you killing the Bearers?" The teeth, though still intact, showed a lifetime's wear as she bit through her words.
I choked as she hauled me to my numb feet, suddenly afraid of her. I had never been afraid of her before, only fascinated. "I..... I didn't... haven't...." I stammered in a vague attempt to release the lie.
She shook me, her strength unsuspected and therefore terrifying. "You are foolish, young one!" she hissed, her words now strangely accented. "You are destroying our traditions, our culture, our very mind!"
"I... I don't know what you're talking about," I managed to reply, fear rattling my teeth. "Do you mean Katya?"
She gave me a steady look, full of impenetrable shadows. "You have been here before, haven't you? Been here to watch? Perhaps to learn?"
I merely nodded, suddenly too frightened to speak. Something about that haunted look bespoke eternities long past, strangely familiar eternities. In her turn, she set me firmly upon my unwilling feet and led me into the ramshackle house which had once been so grand.
She showed me a chair, her gesture now that of an imperious, old woman. I sat down, flatly ignoring its unstable wobble. The walls were bleak, curtains over the windows half rotted. A small pane had broken out of the door, and shards of colored glass spread in a crescent of disarray over the weary threshold.
Disgustedly, she scraped her boot over it, shutting the door. It creaked to closed, shunting the light of the sinking sun back into the needy garden. "I must tell Dvorkin..." she murmured in sudden forgetfulness.
But, birdlike, the involuntary words fell to silence as she let her gaze rise to mine. And, as if that were a signal, she sank regally into another wobbly chair. "I have seen you before," she said in a strange, almost courtly manner.
I shivered. "I come here at sunset, sometimes sunrise or noon," I admitted, dropping my eyes. My words, soft though they were, slipped harshly through the still formal room.
That last prompted a smile. "And well you shouldn't, young one," she replied, smiling at me in a grand, if slightly sly, manner. "You are wise to admit your trespassing. But you were unwise....." Her words faded, shimmering into the stale air.
Feeling a little more confident, I faced her. "Unwise?"
Instantly, her face changed. Instead of well-brought-up serenity it now registered anger. A very substantial anger. "Unwise to anger me. Unwise to speak the words of seeing, even to oneself." She shifted in the chair and for a moment I feared it would fall into the sticks from which it was made. By some miracle, it held up. "It is because of you."
My brow furrowed, and I resisted the urge to jump from my seat. "What's because of me? I come here only to set eyes upon the village curiosity! To learn that which was denied me! It's just a bad habit -- that's all."
She positively cackled. "So you believe. But you have heard things..... seen things." She let the words fall into the floorboards. A short draft propelled itself through the broken pane and glass tinkled, delicate and ominous.
She let the wind speak for a while, gazing at me. I began to fear she was putting some sort of spell on me, but she made no move to touch me, nor to use her implements of power. The seeing square, the heavy iron divining scepter with its sharp tip, and several other objects I didn't recognize, lay in a tidy row across the table, a startling contrast to the rest of the disorder in the house.
"Nothing of any importance," I protested, controlling my suddenly wayward voice. "A word here, a cadence there.... none of it, none of it, made any sense."
She stood, and her face took on a timeless cast. Momentarily, she seemed a relief cast upon an intricate grave marker. Her deep eyes held, effortlessly, the obscure tale that is the history of our strand. "You must have made sense of something, child," she said quietly. "You have come to conclusions, taken action, or else the realm would not have been so disrupted."
She sighed and the sense of eternity became more subdued. She rose from the chair and moved to the ancient stove. Expertly, she lit it. And, although I saw no fuel there, a comforting flame flared strongly. It glowed like a jewel as she cupped her ragged hands around it. For warmth, or so I thought.
"You don't understand what you are doing."
I almost smiled at that. Of course I didn't -- that was the point. "I understand the realm needs changing. That the people have a right to your knowledge, even if it causes -" I paused, the full force of my revulsion encapsulated in the last word, "disruption."
She let her eyes rise to mine again, and she looked suddenly exhausted. "But it is our way. The only way."
It was only my youthful reflexes which saved me from the initial blow. I hadn't even seen her reach for the divining scepter, only heard it swish past my right ear, as I instinctively jumped from my seat searching for a weapon. If it was a fight she wanted...
I ducked a second time as she came at me again, her face contorted with rage. She swung the thick rod wildly, inadvertently smashing a huge brass mirror which had the unfortunate luck to be in range. I leapt behind the table, upending it, scattering its contents across the room. And still she kept coming, a savage she-wolf, fighting the only way she could to protect her cubs, her way of life. I cowered behind the table, aware that I had erred, had cornered myself, and that there was no escape. I waited for the inevitable, for the spell of destruction that the witch was sure to call down.
But it never came. She just kept swinging the scepter, intent on smashing the solid mahogany above my head, and sending me into the great oblivion. Her blows were growing weaker now, the heavy iron taking its toll on aged muscles. Then somehow I knew. She couldn't cast the destruction spell. Or the protection spell, or any other. She didn't know them. She only knew how to retrieve them from the minds of her Bearers. Alone, the Volshebnitsa was nothing, just an old, weak woman, a she-wolf no longer.
Renewed, I scurried backwards, just as the iron crashed though what was left of the table top. "You cannot win!" I screamed at her. "You have no power! None!"
And then she was still. Staring at me still on the floor, she silently drew herself up to her full height. I felt a lost gust of wind pass over me, ruffling my hair and bringing out the gooseflesh on my bare forearms. The Volshebnitsa inhaled slowly, and the years seemed to fall away from her. Her white, spidery hair grew lush and full, the shadows beneath her checks and eyes faded, and for the space of that one breath she was once again powerful, a potent force. I almost didn't notice the crimson stain soaking her overtunic, spreading languidly across her chest. I had not seen the scepter's tip pierce her body, with what must have been the very last of her strength. Distracted by her final illusion, I had not seen the ultimate blow.
So now the spells are gone. I suppose the Bearers still carry them, but I no longer even contemplate retrieving them. No one else will die by my hand. Our farmers reap and sow, slaves now to the whims of nature rather than Volshebnitsa's weathering spells. Disputes are settled by men rather than the completely impartial judgment spell, and enemies are discovered by scouts and spies, rather than the spell of seeing. Is this a better realm? Or is it worse? I cannot say. I live here, amongst her books full of words I cannot read, and questions I cannot answer.
By Stanley Rice
I really didn't mean to kill her. It just happened. By the time I arrived, as quickly as bus and taxi could bring me, she was delirious and nearly unconscious with the cancer. When she saw me and smiled, a burden spilled from her face and soaked into the bleak counterpane landscape. I kissed her. I had kissed her only once before, but I could tell that the taste of her mouth was now different, long unaccustomed to either food or brushing since the intravenous feeding had begun. While our lips still touched, she breathed out, and kept breathing out, evacuating every little alveolus in her lungs, not a forcible ejection but a collapse of utter relaxation. I was aware of a white fluttering around me, as of white pigeons in a concrete park, as of swift angels, as of frantic nurses; and of a continuous tranquil hum of the monitoring equipment. I lifted my face and beheld her unfocused and totally peaceful gaze. I felt a sudden pang of guilt, as if I were a succubus hovering over my virgin-linened victim. A nurse pushed me out of the way and clamped an oxygen mask on Lucie, like a bizarre medieval constraint to tether her spirit, while another nurse ripped back her hospital gown and buried an electrode like a dagger between Lucie's breasts, sallowed and sliding off of her body, just as science had always brushed aside, clamped, and slain the peregrinations of the spirit. I floated like a discarded stained-glass insect shell on swirling sterilized waters.
I am nowhere, floating in my own blood, blood of a color that I have never seen before and that has no name, as different from the rainbow colors as blue is from red. A fragrance penetrates my body, if I have one, totally unlike any scent I have known. I briefly realize that color and fragrance do not really exist, they are the brain's interpretation of nerve impulses set up by photons and molecules. Red light isn't red, it's just a different wavelength than blue. We see, and smell, with our brains. I try to remember where I had learned this, but cannot remember learning anything. I cannot feel my arms as I try to wave them or my feet as I try to kick. I sense that I have wings, coming out of my shoulder blades in a mechanically impossible position, lifting me by pushing against nothing. I look in the direction I think is down, and see my body, pure in linen, in the hospital room, being attacked by linen-clad hyenas while a lion in a trenchcoat, who has just arrived, watches helplessly. Let them eat my body, donate my organs, don't let them go to waste. That lion -- who is he? I can remember only that he released me from whatever had confined me.
There it is, above me. The tunnel of light I have read about, the tunnel you go through when you die. I would laugh but I cannot because everything is already laughing. Laughter is my environment, and my own laughter would be no brighter than a candle on a beach. Jacob's ladder to heaven. Only it isn't to heaven. It is to the universe, and I feel that I am everywhere at once. How silly of me to have expected heaven to be somewhere. How could an omnipresent God sit on a throne?
Now I am aware of my legs again, all eight of them, hard shelled and jointed, as I sit on a rose petal under a rose canopy. I taste rose with my feet. I want to laugh but can only wiggle my palps. A sudden sharp noise makes me squirt out a little silk. Reincarnation? Not really. It is just that my consciousness has condensed into the body of a spider for an eternal moment. I am in a church, with an open casket before me. I remain hidden, because that's what spiders do. I do not fear the body that had been me in the casket, not only because the body is dead, but also because Lucie had never killed spiders.
I see two men walk down the aisle backwards, pick up the casket, and carry it backwards out of the church. Then a man, the florist, walks backwards to the base of the dais and picks up some of the vases of flowers, including the one I am in.
I am a crab spider walking sideways through time.
"Nice roses you ordered there."
"It was the least I could do for her."
"Well, thanks, but listen up. You just stay away from me. I know all about what you and my wife were up to."
"Wait. You got it wrong."
"That's what you fucking intruders always say."
"No, you listen to me. Lucie and I never had sex."
"Sure. Probably everything but."
"No. A friendly hug now and again."
"Well, like a kiss you would give your sister."
"Don't give me that shit. And I'll bet whenever you were together, your spirits were all over each other. Am I right?"
"Now there you're right! It's not like you ever shared that territory with her. The spiritual realm. The realm of mind. What's wrong with..."
"I gave her everything she needed and asked for..."
"She didn't verbalize all her desires!"
"I was a loving husband. I took her to bed, but her mind seemed to be somewhere else ... probably fantasizing about you..."
"But not sexually..."
"I wish I had a dollar for every bullshit statement you've made. Not sexually, my ass. But I was gentle, give her all I had, clung to her like I got nothing else, which is true, I don't..."
"She needed a mental companion..."
"You remember the Bible story about the rich man who took the poor man's one little ewe? You professors think you're a privileged class, rulers, like Solomon raking the cream of the crop of Israel to be his concubines..."
"I didn't take her from you. You had all her carnal attention..."
"Did you do it in my bed or yours?"
"You just don't get it. You wouldn't know anything more about the meeting of minds, the love of spirits, than that little spider does."
"There on that rose. Same color as the rose. See, you don't look closely enough at anything to see things like that. Lucie did. Don't kill it! It's not hurting anything!"
I think I remember now who he is, the lion. Eric, that's his name. I walk back to listen to a conversation we had, in a garden in the municipal park.
"I'm never happier than when I'm writing."
"Yeah, Lucie, I know what you mean. I feel the same."
"So, you liked my story?"
"Yes, very much. I could really see your soul in it. I know you, so I recognized the soul as yours."
"What is your scholarly opinion?"
"There's so much good stuff here..."
"Just tell me what it's like as a story, as a body, not just as a pile of organs and bones."
"That's a good analogy. Write that down in your notebook."
"Eric, answer my question. It stank, right?"
"No! Fragrance is what it had. And color. A new fragrance and a new color I don't remember having seen anywhere else. As if you were smelling a scent from another world."
"Eric, get to the point."
"You ... are an impatient angel. Okay, okay! I ... I couldn't understand it."
"I know. Every direction at once. That's the way my mind works. As soon as I start to learn something, I start to see connections to other things, and my mind rushes off to those other things. Chaos, disorder ... it must be some kind of mental disorder..."
"Not a disorder, necessarily. Maybe a gift."
"It really was a pile of bones and organs, not a motile body. Tell me, honestly, what you were thinking when you read it."
"Okay. It was as if, while the story was en route from you to me, Scotty got the wires of the transporter beam crossed and all the organs arrived but..."
"No, Lucie. I know, I'm a scientist, and have my professional biases, but ... the world has structure. Time, space, matter, are all orderly and lawful. They don't flow around."
"I'll bet you're wrong. I'll bet when we're dead we'll find out that just isn't true. Maybe that's just an artifact of human thinking. That spider there probably doesn't see reality as straight lines and arrows."
"The one on that peony. Same color as the peony. You would insist that the spider is a separate entity from the peony, separated from the peony by billions of years of evolution. It's an ... what was that word? Arachnid. And the peony is a ... that word that sounds so sexy ... an angiosperm. But to me, the spider is part of the peony while it's on the peony, then it goes somewhere else and becomes part of a different flower. It eats a little insect, and the little insect becomes part of it..."
"Okay, okay. Lucie, I'm just trying to help."
"To help me get it published."
"You do intend your story to be read by the living, not by the dead to whom time is not linear."
"Maybe you can rewrite it for me."
"No, I'm not being sarcastic. I contributed my talent, the color and the fragrance, now you do your part, the structure. Like Janus with two faces. Then it will be a good story. I just wish I could see it before I die."
"What did you say?"
"I went to the doctor today."
"Eric, I have cancer."
"Oh my God. Listen, Lucie. Don't just give up. A lot of people recover from cancer..."
"Eighty-five percent of skin cancer victims die."
"Don't give up yet ... Lucie, what are you doing?"
"We're alone. Nobody will see us except that spider. I know. Our souls have been so close but you've never seen my body. That's okay. When I hit forty, I stopped being so hot-blooded. No big deal, who needs sex. But I do want you to see what's going to kill me."
"See that little spot? I thought it was a mole, like my others. But it's splotchy and has an irregular border. I didn't notice at first it was growing."
"Didn't your husband notice?"
"He doesn't look at me that much. He just digs in."
"You haven't told him?"
"I will, of course. It's his medical plan. But I had to tell you first. That little spot, so small. No pain, no itch. But that's what makes it dangerous. Pain and itch are symptoms, the body's way of fighting an invasion -- right, professor? But this little spot is welcomed by my helpless body. Strange place. My bathing suit always covered that area."
"Lucie ... Lucinda, Light..."
"Radiation. Ultraviolet. Carcinogenic."
"Sunshine! Lucie, why have I waited until now to tell you what I really feel about you..."
I didn't stay for the rest of the conversation.
Now I remember where I first met Eric. He probably doesn't remember, but he will someday. It was in Istanbul, in the court of Suleÿman the Magnificent. Out in the garden, actually.
I materialize as a spider on a flower. Suleÿman's concubines are all lined up, in their diaphonous garments, waiting while the sultan walks among them to choose which one he will sleep with tonight. I am a spider and I can't count high enough to know how many concubines he has, but Suleÿman wants to rival Solomon. He acts as if he is in utter control, as he is with his jangling armies of Janissaries. He likes to think his long beard is a lion's mane, and he pretends that his endowment is too heavy to carry. His attendants have the book open, ready to record the name of the woman he chooses; in the event that she conceives, accurate records must be kept when a successor is to be chosen.
But the women know that he is not in control. They exude the potency of sex, and thicken the air with their rivalry. They know that when Suleÿman disrobes, he is just a scrawny human, with none of the lion's pelt or turtle's carapace, helpless before the abrasions of the rocky soil and the pus of rot, when he no longer wears decorations and armor to intimidate other men. And he will listen to whatever you whisper in his ear. He will kill his Grand Vizier if you tell him to, at enough of the right times. He will kill another concubine's son. He will surrender his own authority. This man who slaughters thousands of Hungarians will pass out drunk and helpless just inches away from your fingernails.
He chooses the Russian girl again. They disperse to their chambers.
I am not alone.
A male spider approaches me. He lifts a front leg, an arachnid howdy. Looky what I brought. With a palp he holds a glistening crystal ball, the ball in which I can see all dimensions, the balm for the healing of the nations. He creeps closer. I realize he is friendly, but I just can't help myself. I attack, to inject a venom that will melt his guts and then to suck him dry. But he grabs my fangs in his chelicerae, which is what spiders have instead of lips, and dabs the little ball of sperm into a pore in my body. When our long kiss has ended, Eric hastily retreats.
Next I can see my old self, Lucie, at home. She keeps a clean home, but she has so many bookshelves that a spider can always find a place to set up shop. Back-to-back bookshelves serve as room dividers. She will never read all of these books, or even very many of them, as I know but she doesn't. But she stops and inhales their fragrance like tea or a Turkish incense or like Eric's herbarium specimens. They bring her comfort, just being there and absorbing little noises. Her husband complains that the tall shelves will fall and crush them. He feels oppressed by the vastness of old knowledge that he can never explore, written by people most of whom died anyway. No bookshelves in the bedroom, he insists, joking that his athletic humping would knock them over. He made all the furniture, except the bookshelves.
She is surprised how big the living room is when she has to move, after she boxes up the books and the movers take them and the shelves. She keeps a couple of crates of books to take in the car with her, and a beanbag chair. She is now running a vacuum cleaner over the carpet, still dented from the bases of the shelves and the pieces of cardboard that kept them from falling on their faces. She removes the carpet attachment from the vacuum cleaner pipe, and begins raking the pipe around in the corners and crevices. In one crevice is my web, where my fuzzy egg chamber has hatched into dozens of spiderlings. She looks at me, and I know what she thinks. She regrets what she is about to do, but it is no longer her house, and she remembers what the professor told her about exponential growth of populations and how if every little spider survived the world would become a ball of spiders increasing in diameter at the speed of light in just a few months, or something to that effect. Her vacuum cleaner created a vortex into which I whirled.
Now I am inside a toilet. Three males are looking in at me. This time I am a big hairy spider that they caught. One of the males is the teenage uncle, and the other two are the older brothers, of the little girl Lucie who is on the other side of the door outside of the bathroom, listening.
Three penes point towards me, young and tender and pure. Darrel's was not yet infected with the virus that would kill him. I am surprised how sticky the water is, not because it is filthy but because it is water, which clings to little animals like spiders the way a coat of mail would to a human, and how powerful are the jets of urine that pummel me. Next they spray shaving cream on me, clogging yet further the little pores through which I breathe. When at last they flush the toilet, I do not swirl around with the flotsam, but make a bold dive and swim right down the drain.
But I find myself still swirling in a maelstrøm, as in a toilet bowl, only the sides of the toilet are formed by what looks like cupped hands. I swirl around and around, and water drips through what looks like nail holes in the hands, but I feel secure that I will not slip through the bottom into oblivion.
On the other side of the bowl is Eric. We remain on opposite sides as we swirl around. He looks old, and much more professorial than ever. I am confident that he will join me soon.
Don't these blasted young people ever clean anything up anymore? This is a cemetery, for crying out loud, but it looks like an overgrown weedlot. Other graves are covered with weeds, but I have taken care of Lucie's. I can recognize the weeds and pull them up even when they are still little seedlings. The pigweed amaranth seedlings already have red stems as soon as they germinate. The word dandelion, dent-de-leon, indicates that the older leaves have cusps like lion's teeth, but the baby seed-leaves are smooth. I do not disturb the strap-shaped baby leaves of the maple seedlings, so different from the sharp-lobed adult leaves that develop as the seedlings grow.
I keep the grave clean, except for a spider that lives under a pokeweed leaf right next to the gravestone. I even fed it a moth one time.