Interview by Stephanie Renae Johnson For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 7.2, June 2013 Sahar Delijani was born in Evin Prison in Tehran, Iran in 1983, the year both her parents were arrested for their political activism against the Islamic regime. In 1996, when she […]
Month: June 2013
Writer Round-Up: A Collective Interview Wherein Writers We Like Discuss Topics Related to the Craft H_NGM_N Press Authors : Jennifer H. Fortin, Russell Dillon, Nick Sturm, & Caroline Cabrera Interview by Cynthia Reeser For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 7.2, June 2013 ~ In this […]
Fiction, Vol. 7.2, June 2013
Years later, Erik would remember that dinner. He would remember the bird that flew past the terrace, as if in slow motion, taking in the details of their food before settling on a nearby branch of an oak tree. It observed the family as the sun disappeared into dark-blue night. He must have missed it when it flew off, although he was hypnotized by its presence. He must also have missed his mother going to the kitchen for dessert, but the bird remained in his memory.
It would have been about then that they realized his twin brother, John, had been in the bathroom for too long.
When they finally got around to checking, the door was unlocked. It opened to a room filled with emptiness.
It had been another warm day during one of those rare, never-ending summers in Denmark, interrupted only infrequently by a shower and then again by record-breaking heat. Long days were spent on the beach, eating lunch in the shade of the oak tree. It felt like living somewhere in the South of Europe.
The heat and the homemade white wine, produced in a dark basement laboratory, always made their parents sleepy after lunch. That’s when Erik would lead his brother, John, and their 4-year-old sister, Trine, down to the wide, sandy beach and the sea that was so cold they almost fainted when stepping into it. It was in this, their land of adventure, that they often tried to catch small fish, which they would save in old jam jars.
The twins, who had just turned twelve, quickly settled into the summer rhythm of not having to get up in the morning. Their father, a journalist for a magazine, worked from the summer house where they moved each year. Their mother had reluctantly left her job at the local town hall when the twins arrived. The children kept her busy, but she continued to spend time every day reading novels, imagining people who lived lives different from hers. She hungrily smoked her Prince Light cigarettes and drank late-afternoon cocktails, even while breastfeeding. “Those books keep me sane,” Erik often heard her tell one of her friends before swallowing more of the ubiquitous, amber-colored liquid and giving out one of her dark, hoarse laughs.
Erik sensed she was unhappy and would do anything to cheer her up—a circus clown going to extremes to make her smile. He wanted, more than anything, to see her tired face look up at him from one of those books.
Erik and John played on the swing that early evening. The setting sun cast shadows from the oak tree onto the house, where their parents were preparing dinner. Erik loved the summer evenings, when the barbecue sent its fumes up against the evening sky. It was a time when his mother and father seemed relaxed and more engaged with him and his siblings. Erik was never consciously aware of his parents’ inattention, but friends would often find it odd that they were left so often on their own. He enjoyed being in his parents’ presence when they sat down for a meal in the evenings. That’s when they would ask about their children’s afternoon on the beach: had they caught any fish, if they’d met any of the neighbors? His parents seemed to enjoy listening as he, Erik, the most outgoing of the three, eagerly presented his version of the day. He would also hungrily take in his parents’ comments about how adult he seemed, how well he carried his responsibility at his young age.
Erik noticed, by contrast, how John, his identical twin brother, would sit quietly, listening, as if he were the younger of the two, as if several years separated them, although it was only a matter of minutes. When John eventually said something, it was often loaded with frustration, and their parents would quickly turn their attention back to Erik.
In spite of their differences, people would often mistake one twin for the other. They were mostly dressed in identical clothes despite John’s quiet protests. John would leave his shirt untucked, or avoid wearing socks. He also refused to comb his hair. Subtle ways to distinguish himself from Erik.
Their mother went back and forth to the kitchen as Erik continued to chatter and his father checked the sausages and the prime rib, turned them over, and let them rest for a minute.
Their house was at the end of the road, isolated from the rest of the small community by an empty lot that belonged to the odd old man who had sold the house to his parents in 1956, the year the twins were born.
Erik and John shared a room with bunk beds and a deep, old closet. That closet was the only thing about the place that Erik didn’t like, and he would never dare open its massive doors after dark. It was as if it contained a compact version of all the dangers of the outside world. John thrived in the darkness and even made fun of Erik’s fears.
The house had been built in the beginning of the twentieth century as a summer house, although it was inhabited throughout the winters of the World War despite its lack of heating, save for the wood stove. Now the family would visit the house only once or twice during the winter to check on the pipes. It was cold and damp in winter. Spider webs and dead insects crowded the rooms. It was a small house with just two bedrooms, a tiny kitchen, a living room. A few years after his parents bought the house, they added a bathroom in the shed outside, across from the kitchen.
Erik remembered not being able to sleep the night after John’s disappearance. Being alone in the room without John made him restless and anxious. His parents kept trying to reassure him, between calls to the police, that John would be back by morning, that he’d just gone out for a walk on his own, had gotten lost, and found a place where he could sleep. It was a safe area, they kept repeating, nothing ever happened there. Nobody drowned. Nobody died. It was all about vacation, days of playing, days of sunshine.
Why, then, was his father out all night? His mother up drinking coffee, smoking? Why were they whispering so loudly? Why did he think that he heard John turn in his sleep, in the darkness in the bed above him? If he believed it hard enough, sleep would bring John back.
But sleep wouldn’t come. Erik couldn’t stop thinking about all those other times when John had disappeared on the beach. He never dared to tell his parents about those terrifying moments. He convinced himself it wasn’t important. In any case, John always came back by the time they needed to return home. Erik never learned anything about where he’d been and finally stopped asking.
He tried to think of ways of telling his parents and the police about this history of John disappearing, but felt unable to express anything. He sensed that it could be critical, but felt bad about not having enlightened his parents earlier. They would lose their trust in him—the last thing he wanted at the time. He thought about telling them so many things during that night. Once it was over, once the sun started rising, things had forever changed.
It was too late.
A 12-year-old child doesn’t just disappear, they said. The police sent their forces to the area. Even Erik went out searching, eventually, with his parents. He went down to the beach in the days that followed. Looked around the area where they used to gather fish, taking the direction that John used to take. He tried to remember all the places they had visited together.
The police wanted him to show them the beach and the nearby woods, and asked him why he thought John had disappeared. But Erik felt overwhelmed and couldn’t think of anything to say. Although the police officer had tried to be gentle, Erik felt that it was his responsibility his brother had gone missing. The officer’s questions felt like massive accusations that blocked his mind from helping them.
Erik was still hoping, still trying to understand what had happened.
He slowly realized that there was another world in which John lived, a world he kept to himself. He did not even let Erik in. They were so different from what he heard about other identical twins.
Erik couldn’t stop recalling that last evening on the swing, hearing his parents’ voices from the kitchen as the swing took him higher and higher and higher. John stood on the ground, pushing him forcefully, until Erik almost lost his breath and felt himself disappear into the darkening sky.
John never went easily to sleep at night. He would read books for hours, using his small, powerful flashlight. Books from his mother’s library. Erik had little interest in them and would stop reading after half a page, not really understanding. He remembered waking up at night and seeing the light emanating from his brother’s bed. He never said anything. He often felt ill at ease around John, not understanding what was going on in his brother’s mind.
The moment John disappeared meant definitively having to become the oldest child in the family. His parents started to count on him in new ways. There were no more carefree walks to the beach. The outside world forced its way into his quiet life. Yet, he was no longer competing with John for attention. Momentarily, he felt relieved, then quickly caught himself.
His mother was soon hospitalized. When she returned, boxes of medication would show up in the bathroom, and Erik discovered empty whisky bottles scattered around the house. His father tried to keep them together—a family, still a family, he kept saying. “We should count ourselves lucky we still have Erik and Trine.” His mother rarely appeared and then would look blankly at him, always wearing the same faded blue kimono, smelling of hospitals and otherness and smoke.
Erik helped increasingly with the cooking and the shopping. Tried, in his way, to bind the family together. He looked for clues from their neighbors’ lives, tried to imitate their tidiness, their normality. His father eventually got better at taking over at home while his mother’s trips to the hospital became more frequent.
Almost twenty-five years later, he would still wake up, most nights, with the same dream: He was lying in the bunk bed, that summer, and looking at the window slowly being opened from the outside, someone climbing onto the window sill. In the dream he could never see who it was, but the person would then climb to the top bed as Erik held his breath, not daring to move, not daring to make any noise, hoping but not truly believing that it was John who had returned.
At some point the police had called it useless to keep looking. His parents spoke to so many police officers. He contacted some himself, without his family knowing, when he got older. He always asked the officers if they had an identical twin brother. He never met anybody who understood what it meant to him.
After almost ten years, his parents seemingly gave up hope. He still recalled how his father announced that there would be no more searches, that the police had decided to file the case under “unsolved.” His parents were finally persuaded that the best thing to do was to move on. To forget. He remembered looking at his mother. She had been trying to dress up, even put on a bit of make-up, though her face remained motionless. She didn’t acknowledge that yes, this was what they had decided together. It only reinforced the urgent sense that he must take over.
Of course he could not give up hope of reuniting with John. He had to find out why John, who looked so much like him, would have wanted to separate himself so brutally from Erik. He also knew, deep down, that his parents hadn’t really given up—they just needed to pretend.
After finishing high school, Erik moved away from home and found a small apartment in Copenhagen.
He decided that working in sales would make sense, as it would allow him to travel around the country. He found a job selling Lego toys to stores all over Denmark. He never asked anybody directly about John, but always looked for clues. In this small country, encapsulated by the sea, he felt he was sure to find him. One day they would meet, in a cafeteria, in a hotel bar. He came to believe he had a certain power to see things other people didn’t.
Erik focused entirely on his quest. He saw his peers beginning to date, develop relationships, and start their own families. But he pushed away any thoughts about living his own life. He was on a mission. He was living for John.
He searched for John in the papers, scrutinized photos of various events, developed theories. Maybe John had changed his identity, fled abroad. He was not kidnapped. He hadn’t died. He left because he wanted to become somebody in his own right. He left for many reasons, one of them being Erik, but mostly Erik thought he left because of their parents’ lack of understanding.
Nobody ever really listened to John.
The reality of it was that Erik was never any closer to finding John than anyone else. There were days when he saw this clearly and tried to forget, with a virtual toast to his mother, and another one, before he would fall asleep on the couch in his small studio apartment, his pizza half-eaten, an empty bottle resting on his chest.
One night Erik woke up, after a very different kind of dream, one in which he visited a castle. And then he remembered something.
A forgotten episode, a home movie from the sixties playing in his head, all pale, washed-out colors, a rewind to that last summer. One of the last days before everything changed. It was a cloudy day, the air heavy with the threat of rain. They drove to the nearest town, Elsinore, he and John, with their mother. In the car she was humming along to the only song that seemed to play that summer, And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson…
While she shopped, they went off to Kronborg, “Hamlet’s castle.” John led Erik assuredly through the paved back alleys behind the old houses, away from the crowded pedestrian streets. He never figured out how John knew the way. It was as if John had been there many times before with somebody else. They ended up in front of the enigmatic, history-laden castle. Once inside, John characteristically vanished. Erik wandered around, trying to enjoy the visit, but felt uncomfortable being there on his own and grew weary, going from one room to the next looking for John. Eventually the guards told him the museum was closing. He tried to explain that his brother was in there somewhere, that he needed to wait for him, but they wouldn’t listen.
He walked back to the car on his own, almost getting lost. And there was John, triumphantly waiting for him. Their mother, who was smoking cigarette after cigarette, nervously ushered them into the car, telling Erik that he had let her down.
On the way home they heard that song again. Only this time it was John humming along to it, as he looked at Erik with a wicked grin from his side of the back seat.
The clouds that had been building throughout the afternoon finally burst open to a violent storm that lasted all night.
After work, on the day he had the memory, he drove aimlessly in a nearly dissociated state. He didn’t think about where he was going, still upset after his recollections in the early morning. Darkness fell. The streets were unusually deserted. He drove slowly out of Copenhagen, taking the scenic drive along the sea, facing Sweden. He looked into people’s homes and thought about his own family, torn apart all those years ago. Only Trine seemed to escape the worst effects. In fact, she hardly remembered John. The last time Erik saw her, she urged him to move on.
He rarely spoke to his father anymore, and there was no point trying to communicate with his mother. It was a miracle she was still alive.
He himself was exhausted, ready to give up. Maybe John had actually been kidnapped, killed, buried in the woods. But he desperately needed John to be somewhere, to take over. He was tired of being the older one; he needed John to explain, needed him to say no, it wasn’t your fault, but I just had to leave. And Erik needed to prove everybody wrong—show them that there was hope.
He found himself in the outskirts of Elsinore. Despite the dark, he could see the castle. A flashlight shone from inside the building. A small one. He felt sure it was that same light.
He drove into the old town, over its cobblestone streets. It was empty, a soccer match occupying the nation’s TV screens. He drove slowly past a pub and heard cheering from inside. He felt certain that somebody was expecting him.
As he approached the entrance to the castle, he looked up. The only sound came from the ferry to Sweden setting off in the distance. The beam of light from inside subtly illuminated the evening sky. The door would be closed. As he touched it, though, it opened. From the inside.
He couldn’t make out the silhouette of a person in the darkness. He tried to see the face, but the lights were off, and the moon was blocked by clouds. The flashlight had stopped its beaming.
Erik tried to speak, but no words would come. The shadow stood still before him, like a statue. When he looked at it, he saw himself. It was like looking at a mirror in the dark. He thought about the house again, about his parents and sister, and about John. He had not visited the house since they stopped being a family. He suddenly felt the need to return one last time. To try to find a way back to everything he had lost.
Erik walked backward out the castle door, which slowly closed behind him. He headed toward the car, still sensing the steely glare on him, a glare that nearly froze him as he got into the car and turned on the ignition with trembling hands.
The castle slowly faded away in the rearview mirror as he hastily left town.
The car sped toward the house—their old summer house. His parents had sold it years ago. Erik never dared to go back to that place that had haunted his dreams ever since. He had never driven there on his own, only with his parents all those years ago. He was surprised that the car could find its way in the night, taking a left after the harbor, then a right by the abandoned inn, finally continuing on a seemingly never-ending muddy path as he approached the old house.
The road was deserted; the snow had melted and it was difficult to believe anybody had been there since the houses had been closed off for the winter.
At the end of the road, he saw lights. As if he’d made a leap into another world. A house fully lit. An old car in the driveway. He recognized it, a Citroën ID, a black one. Like the one his father had sold after that summer.
He stopped the car, turned off the lights.
Faces around a dining table, his eyes growing stronger the more he looked. The wooden table, almost eaten by worms. He remembered all the holes and always looked for the tiny, invisible insects. He could almost hear the conversation, smell the food. That never-forgotten odor of slightly burned meat.
He could see the living room behind them, that pale-green couch, the black stove. There was a light in his old room; he could almost see the bunk beds, both unmade, maybe still damp from a nap in the late afternoon. The dark closet. He sensed the closet door slowly opening as it always tended to, but the darkness was overwhelming, and he tried to avert his eyes from looking in.
The door to the bathroom would be closed, but unlocked. The lights would be off. It was in back, and he couldn’t see it, couldn’t remember what it looked like.
He turned his attention to the front of the house.
A woman. A man. Three kids. Two sons, looking alike. A younger daughter.
The woman and the man were cheerful as they toasted, their eyes meeting. The man’s eyes were full of sparkle. They didn’t look out. They didn’t notice him. But Erik almost felt part of their celebration, although he couldn’t move; he was unable to get out of the car, unable to open the door, hypnotized as he was by the festivity inside the house.
He desperately wanted the man to be John and had been ready to reunite with him after seeing the Citroën. But this man looked nothing like Erik’s identical twin brother.
Everything else still looked the same. The oak tree. The garden. Nothing had aged, nothing had changed.
The swing was still there, almost hidden in the darkness. It was moving slowly, as if somebody had just jumped off.
Fiction, Vol. 7.2, June 2013 To Simon, in case the book thing doesn’t work out. I was standing in front of the Bodleian Library when she trotted down the stairs of the Radcliffe Camera, brown leather bag hanging on her shoulder, a stack of paper […]
Fiction, Vol. 7.2, June 2013
There is a magic in being Mexican; the same magic that makes poverty just bearable. When I was a child my magic was especially powerful. With it I could make trees disappear and cats howl like coyotes. I could change day into night with even the slightest effort. I kept these powers to myself, of course. No one wants such forces in their home. But one power I used throughout my life: the ability to make my mother weep.
My father says I was born without faith in God. The oils rubbed on my body at birth indicated this much. They turned frothy, yellowing, and festering in the moonlight. My mother wept knowing spells and curses would follow me. She vowed to keep my soul in a blue bottle; hanging from a mesquite growing at the edge of Paradise Hill—the garbage dump we live next to.
With no powers at all, my father was the weakest and saddest man in Paradise. “Why did you leave them to your first wife?” my mother would complain. In response, he would put his hands in the air, almost singing, “I don’t know. I don’t know why I gave away my fortunes.”
“If you breed crows they will gouge your eyes,” my mother said sharply, a favorite saying of hers.
Such talk made my father sadder, weaker. It seemed his only joy was to sit by the radio and listen to a preacher from Nogales. The end of the world is near, the preacher growled. My father, his eyes blazing, as if he were watching the world bathed in great flames through them, would point at the broken radio dial, muttering, “Yes, yes, it is, it is. Listen.”
But back to my mother’s tears, which were not always tears. Sometimes while weeping she made mooing noises, like a cow being led away from its pasture. Over the years her crying evolved. It’s said that as a young woman, my mother would wail; an awful sound causing birds to fall dead from the sky. At one point her cries were powerful enough to attract storms, ones that raged for days, flooding the streets and driving people from their homes.
I’d make my mother weep. It’s true. And I’ll go to my grave bitter-hearted for this. Adela—it was for Adela, a girl from the North. My mother was furious when she heard I’d loved Adela. Not since I gambled away her slightly-used false teeth had she been so upset. I met a beautiful woman, I remember saying. She has deep red lips, olive eyes, and a smile sadder than fire.
We were in our home the day I told my parents about Adela. My mother sat on the ground shucking corn and my father fixed the leg of a table made from wood scraps. The roar of garbage trucks going to the dump were in my ears and dust floated through the windows, lit by rays of dirty sunlight. I’ll never forget waiting for their reaction to my news and watching a strange silence develop between them. In a voice that grew louder with each syllable my mother finally said, “Who is she and what does she want of you? You have nothing to give to her.”
She kept her face down while speaking, choosing to concentrate on stripping the ears of corn. My father lifted his head but said nothing, sharing only his ghostly stare. Before I could respond, my mother snapped, “She’s no good. She’s got bad intentions. I’ve seen this before. Believe me, Northerners promise everything but give little.
From then on the room, already small, shrank and at its center was my mother groaning. How I hated that sound, so inhuman it was, like the pained screech of a captured animal.
Later that day I saw my mother walking through Paradise in the direction of Don Faustino’s store. Her grey hair was a mess, unbraided and wild. With clenched hands and the scent of sour milk trailing her, she quickly walked by me, her eyes drained of color, looking like empty sockets.
When my mother returned home she was oddly calm.
“Where is your father—gorging on his sighs again?”
“Why insult him? He’s just a helpless old man.”
“Helpless? He’s as helpless as I am. Don’t worry about what I say, he’s tougher than both of us; nothing bothers him. When he was young everyone called him the Armadillo. Abuse just rolled off his back.”
“I don’t know where he’s gone.”
“No matter, he’s around somewhere. And you? You’ve talked to that woman?”
I scanned the floor, saw it littered with all sorts of potential responses; all sorts of possibilities were living there, most unclean and none usable. A voice ordered me to face her. Now is the time, it said.
“What should I say to Adela? That you don’t like her and want her to leave?”
“Yes, and why not? If the sun rises, the rooster must crow.”
The old woman stood firm. The wattle of her neck tightened and her lips thinned. I even thought I saw her face ridding itself of skin. Just then, my father surfaced from outside. He sat next to the radio and began to work the dials. She sat beside him, helping him find the religious broadcast from Nogales. He gets easily confused, my father does, especially when he returns from work empty-handed. There is always a bit of shame on his face, moving within his grey, shuffling form.
“Mother, please, see Adela as I do. Meet with her. Get to know her. You’ll see she’s a good woman.”
“Hah! Meet and get to know her? I’ve seen all I need to see at the markets. She dresses shamelessly. Remember, one does not have to eat an entire egg to know it’s rotten. How long have you known her—a month, two? Listen to me, don’t be bullheaded. I’ve seen it before. She’ll leave you. Her kind plays men for her own amusement. When she tires of you, she’ll move to the next one. That’s why she’s here at Don Faustino’s.”
“Lies. I love Adela and I know she feels the same way.”
But in truth, I didn’t know how Adela felt. I assumed she loved me because I loved her.
And yet we made love or tried our best to. In an abandoned 1953 Chevy we groped and kissed. So deeply that we didn’t initially see the family of possums: mother, father, and their many children, staring at us from the car’s rear window. When one coughed, Adela screamed, which made the small possums shriek and the larger possums hiss. In all the excitement my penis jumped to attention and I ejaculated on Adela’s new red dress, making her angry. She demanded I drive her home. I had to remind her that the Chevy hadn’t moved since the big earthquake of ‘85.
But the fact is that when you’re in love, the word “love” lives everywhere, usually in overstuffed letters, selfishly crowding out anything else. That’s its magic. Adela may have said I love you. I may have dreamed it. Either way, it lived, disturbing the atmosphere by waking sleeping flesh.
Experiences my mother was ignorant of.
“Ah, you know so much, but understand nothing. If you understood anything, you would know to look for someone else. She’s no good. I’ve seen her kind before: beautiful on the surface and made of lies underneath.”
Talking was useless, so I approached her directly, trying to brush away her resistance by placing my hand on her check. But she’d have none of that nonsense, turning instead toward a man’s voice on the radio who sang “La Llorona”:
You were coming out of the church one day, Weeping Woman,
Beautiful you were, The Virgin I saw,
You say I have no pain, because you never see me cry,
But there are the dead who never cry,
and my sorrow is greater than theirs,
Walk with me, Weeping Woman, take me to the river,
Cover me in your arms, because I’m dying of cold
Because I love you but you want more love than I can give
I have already given you my life, Weeping Woman,
What more do I have?
I’m going to marry her and there is nothing you can do or say to stop me.
I awake with these words groggy in my skull, pounding against their bony walls. I wonder if this was said to my mother or just a false memory. Maybe both, as I’m often accused of mixing facts with fantasy. Still, my father recently saw my mother cry while working in our garden—cries that only I could have set off. He described her cries simply as the sobs of an unpleasant mule.
“A magpie entered our house and robbed us of human tears.”
That’s the story my mother told a neighbor; the reason why her cries were so much like a donkey’s. It was a misfortune my mother blamed on picking guayabas from the magpie’s nesting tree. Just for the hell of it I made the call of a magpie. To see if, through chicanery, I could change our fortunes. Nothing happened, outside of a rabble of hummingbirds shitting near our front door.
The night before I asked Adela to marry me I’d slept poorly. It had grown hot and the heat kept me awake. Once it cooled, a neighbor began bellowing. Crying over their rotten tooth or rotten marriage and not having enough alcohol to deaden the pain. I lay in bed and counted the stars through a hole in the roof. The hole was small and so I ended up counting the same star till dawn removed it from the sky.
The next morning as we walked beyond the gates of Paradise, I asked Adela to marry me. She said no immediately and not much else. It turned out she didn’t love me. That’s all I can say about Adela. No love, nothing for me. I loved her. That’s all.
When I returned home my mother gave me a note. It read: Love does not survive a woman. Love will leave you ill and in rags, written neatly three times on a scrap of butcher paper. I laughed it off, of course, believing such magic useless. Still, I responded, writing: What do you know of love, you unloved worm? Take your warnings to hell and feed the other demons with them.
Soon after Adela refused my proposal, she left Paradise on the evening bus. The day I discovered she had gone was the day I made myself crazy with thoughts about her: she could have said goodbye; she could have stayed and continued to smile my way; she could have even refused me with gestures that hinted love was still possible. But instead she disappeared. I don’t know why. As much as I tried, I couldn’t make her happy. I didn’t have enough magic for happiness.
I’ve begun to think that maybe magic offers only its crumbs.
Early one morning I visited Don Faustino to find where Adela had gone. Don Faustino had a long-standing reputation as a flashy dresser, like a military man, and insisted on being called the Colonel. Until recently he was fat like a pig, but now is thin as a rake. It was said that surgery reduced his large belly and appetite, leaving him room for only two daily meals. Everyone joked the doctors missed removing the pig from Don Faustino. So we called him Colonel Pig. Only it was said quietly, behind closed doors, for who knew when, as my mother had whispered, the Colonel’s hunger would grow again.
“Where is Adela?”
“This is how you talk to me, compadre? No greetings? Have we become animals in this day and age?”
“Forgive me for my lack of manners, Colonel. I meant to ask you about Adela. She is returning, no?”
“As you may know, I’m her padrino—a great responsibility, one I take seriously. But wait, you’re here to ask permission of me and honestly, there is nothing to say about it. Adela is gone completely, compadre. She’s left for good, returned to her mother. I drove her to the bus station last week. I remembered the soldiers on the road blocked our way—searching for narcos, they said. Can you believe two severed heads were found by the roadside? Such times we live in, such bad times, compadre. Why even the rats are looking thin and scared. Keep an eye on your back is my advice.”
“Why…why did she go?”
“Who knows why women do anything, especially the young ones. Their heads are in the clouds. But try to tell them that and you’ll get some lip.”
“But, why did she leave?”
“Have you not heard me, compa? Look around you. Drink it in. Your eyes work, don’t they? There is your answer.”
The Colonel took a deep breath, filled his lungs with air that tasted of sulfur and continued to stare at me, his face deeply furrowed.
“Ah, come on, joven. Don’t look so forlorn. It’s bad for you, compadre. It threatens the movement of your blood. You’ll get sick and your friends will call you queer for crying over a woman.”
“I’m fine, Colonel, I’m okay.”
“Good. Before you leave, remind your mother she needs to see me. Don’t forget. On your way now, compadre.”
“Yes, thank you, Colonel.”
Days after I learned Adela had left, I hid among the trees above the town plaza. Many begged me to come down, saying, “We have the sweetest tamales here for you, spiced with cinnamon and filled with walnuts and wild raisins.” They’d uncover a pot filled with steamed tamales, releasing the aroma. But I didn’t care; I didn’t care one bit for their food. Later, the police arrived, looking grim and unkempt in khaki. They shouted, “Get the hell down before we send a monkey with a club after you.”
I shouted back, “I see plenty of fat-assed apes with sticks but none who can climb a tree.”
They grumbled, went away, and returned with a cage. Inside was a monkey about the size of a cat. One policeman, a chunky guy we called Bullfrog, opened the cage and gave the monkey a large stick. Pointing to me, Bullfrog instructed the monkey, “Get that stupid boy. Give him the thrashing that his parents should have given him long ago.” The animal, apparently more intellectual than brute, took the club, and after examining its size and heft, threw it down, choosing instead to study the newspapers lining its cage.
After the police had given up, I continued to sit in the tree, showing my contempt for love by throwing large palm seeds at the heads of lovers taking their evening walks and eating only the food brought to me by owls after their nightly hunts.
My father, smelling as old as the earth, eventually climbed the tree and sat beside me. For a while he was quiet, sharing a meal of mice and lizards and appearing truly at peace. Late in the afternoon, he revealed his thoughts.
“The radio preacher has died and his daughter took over his sermons. She is not very good.” He said this unhappily while making little whistling noises through his nostrils. “She refuses to say the world will end; she says it will go on and on, and it is only through embracing God that we will live forever.”
My father paused, so long that I thought he had fallen asleep. “I don’t want to live forever,” he finally said.
I replied, the only way I could, “You know, God does not exist.”
My father, tugging at the bright orange cap he wore, the one he’d recently fished from the dump said, “Yes, of course, I know.”
It seemed natural for such ideas to own my father’s head. Without magic he was parted and those portions split further. It took all his earthly strength not to fade into random particles or wandering cells or waves of phantom light.
“Your mother is an unguarded spirit. I once saw her become a fire salamander.”
Sweat ran down my father’s face as he spoke and as the last rays of sunlight flashed around his head like a crown. At that moment, he seemed like a great king overseeing a ruined empire, one made of childish blue visions.
By now most people had forgotten about us. Snot-nosed kids sometimes pointed their fingers in the air, saying, “Look at the crazy men, they think they’re birds.” The boys playing soccer in the plaza once threw rocks at us, angering my father, who threatened to take their ball. But the boys just laughed and made wild flapping gestures.
“Are you sure? You saw her change into a fire salamander?”
“Well, it may have been a dream. But dreams, too, are phantoms. Anyway, I smell rain.”
“There are no clouds for miles.”
“Yes, but my nose has an eye for rain.”
Afterwards, we sat and let silence direct us, responsible only for watching the evening world rise, moving to great heights. From the tops of the trees, everything slept in undisturbed dream: the children playing below, the new sky exhaling stars, the city lights returning after dusk. It appeared as a magic so common it’s rarely seen.
“It’s time to get down,” my father said. He tapped at his watch, the one with Mickey Mouse on its face. Mickey’s hands are forever locked at 8 o’clock. Even so, my father prizes the watch and would show it to all if he didn’t obsessively fear its theft. Like almost everything else we own, it’s from the hill, found still attached to the wrist of a dead man, shot in the head. A handwritten note pinned to his chest read, This is what happens when you take too much from the cookie jar.
We climbed down. I went first and then my father. He stumbled and his arm whipped against the tree, breaking the watch. The body of the cartoon mouse fell to bits on the ground. “Shit,” my father said. I felt bad and tried to make my father feel better by saying,
“Maybe you’ll find another. There are plenty of dead men left at the hill.”
“Yes, but how many have the good sense to die with a talking rodent in red underpants on their wrist?”
The next few weeks were foggy. I couldn’t decide if the mist was real, cut from my disagreeable thoughts, or from recent events. A month ago, for instance, someone’s house caught fire the day they refused to pay the Colonel. The house bled smoke for days. The children mourned their dead parents. The police came and lit their cigarettes with the smoldering embers.
And the people of Paradise? We covered our eyes and walked on.
Outside the gates of the city dump, a man without legs appeared. He sat in the sun, relaxing, doing very little begging. Next to him was a small dog, unusually white with a streak of brown near its chin curling toward its nose. Every day since his arrival, he shouted at the dog,
“Pepito come, come here, you lazy son-of-a-bitch. You have four legs, moving only to bite at horseflies. Look at me, Pepito, zero legs and yet who would win at a race?”
As I passed him on my way to town, he called out, “You’re in my heart, Memo, right here.” He then pounded at the center of his chest twice, like a flea-ridden gorilla.
“Memo? That’s not my name.” I said to the shabby man.
“What is your name then?” he laughed and there was a strange feeling to his laughter, as if it came from a spiteful child.
“I’m not telling you my name.”
“Then you are called Memo and I knew your mother. So I know you.”
“How do you know her?” I asked with some caution. I sensed a danger to this man, as if something awful once strayed into his soul, gave it a beating, and never left.
“We loved once.” He paused to swat at a fly and scratch at his bearded neck. “She was responsible for my legs being taken.”
“Liar,” I said, as I doubted my mother was loved by any man. Although she may have been responsible for this man’s missing legs.
“You don’t know anything,” I replied.
“Salt. She avoids salt. True, yes?”
I didn’t answer. Not because he was right or because I had no interest in my mother’s choice of seasonings. Clearly, this man was crazy, and yet I was curious to hear the story of his missing legs.
“Salt? I don’t know. She eats so little.”
“It’s guilt, Memo. Guilt over what she did to me. That’s why she eats so little. Years ago, she poured salt on my legs while I slept, but first gathered hundreds of caracoles and all over my legs they went. When I awoke, the snails had mixed with the salt and melted my legs away.”
The science behind his claims seemed shaky. And yet I remembered a story of how an entire village disappeared, sucked into the heat of the desert when a child uttered a forbidden word. Luckily, the word vanished along with the village.
“Where are my legs? Is this not proof enough?” He gestured with his head and hands to the empty space where his legs should have been. Pepito sat up and jumped in the lap of the legless man, nestled in his crotch and dozed off.
“So you see, Memo. You’re in my heart twice. Your mother took both my legs.”
“I still don’t believe you. How did you get here? How did you find us?”
“There was a boy. He owed me a great debt and paid it through being my legs. He repaid his debt and I asked him to leave me at the gates.”
“And how did you know to come here?”
“Where else would your mother live but near a garbage dump named Paradise?”
The next day I returned to see the legless man. I brought him some tortillas and a hardboiled egg, since it seemed he had no food. On seeing me he called out twice:
“Memo, be my legs and carry me to your mother.”
“Memo, I’ve asked twice. I won’t ask again. But if you refuse, I vow to die right here and haunt you after death—Pepito, too, although I have no say when he dies. But a dog haunting is worse than a human one, let me tell you.” The dog whimpered at the news.
And so I carried him past the tiny shacks and bare concrete houses toward home. Without legs he weighed almost nothing. Pepito slept on his master’s crotch during the journey with the legless man dozing, too.
Reaching our shack, I heard my mother shout, I want a papaya. It was much too late to find one, of course, since the market’s discarded fruits were scavenged long ago. My mother claimed the fruit preserved youth and rubbed its juice across her lined forehead, on her ancient cheeks and into the ashy parts of her elbows and knees. This was how, she would say, she had gathered so much beauty from the fly-born dust of Paradise. Father and I saw little, if any, change in her: a skinny old hag she appeared to us, blind in one eye and too much vision in the other.
I entered the house with the legless man in my arms. My mother stood over the small, newly fixed table where dried red peppers were set in a line next to a heavy round bowl cut from volcanic rock. She acknowledged us by saying,
“That’s a sorry-looking papaya.”
I shook my head as if to agree with her. The legless man woke.
“It’s you. Legs haven’t grown back yet I see?”
“Vile woman…snake-hearted…my legs…you took.”
“Such foolishness, such senselessness from what was once a bright and handsome man. I have little time and even less patience for you. So what is your business here after so many years?”
“I want my legs back and…justice.”
“Only God can give either. But what is this foolishness to do with me?”
“I wanted, I wanted to see you, to tell you…”
“I’ve been seen and told. What more is there?”
“No, listen to me. I wanted to see you; so did Pepito. I have struggled in life, yes. Who hasn’t? Your son seems kind. He seems like a good man.”
“Don’t drag him into this.”
“We were in love once; you and I were bound by love.”
The muscles on my mother’s face softened. For a moment she appeared youthful, as did all she looked upon: me, Pepito, the legless man, even my father, who sat in the corner cursing the radio. We had entered her past, when she was a young joyful girl, before tears had made such an enemy of her eyes.
“Bound by love, bound by love. Such childish talk coming from the cracked lips of an old man. What things you say, after so many years, such things. This love, whatever it was, is as solid as yesterday’s breeze.”
Her voice trailed off, softening to whisper as she continued to grind dried pepper seeds and skin with a rough stone pestle into peppery dust, never changing the pace of her movements: pressing and turning, pressing and turning.
“And let me remind you of what is clear: you falling off the train, trying to cross north. That is what took your legs, not me. And from the looks of it, too many nights with the bottle got the rest. Go plead your case before the railroad tracks. Tell your stories of love to God. May He have mercy and prevent the Devil from taking what’s left of you.”
“What lies, what lies. It was the snails, the salt, your evil…plans, leaving me for another.”
“You’re still telling that fairy tale about the caracoles? You’ve lost your mind. Get him out of here. Feed him to the jaws of the dump.”
This last part was said to me. I had been sitting at the table, petting the dog, eating pumpkin seeds, attempting to calculate the costs of finding Adela. The old man was balanced on my legs as I had neglected to set him down, which was okay until he urinated. It may have been Pepito but I don’t think so, since the piss smelled of despair.
“Memo, please take me home.”
The legless man, listless and defeated, had me carry him through the door. Once outside he pointed in the direction of the largest spire in the city.
I carted them for several miles toward that spire, him and Pepito, who never moved a muscle. Every once in a while the legless man mumbled, “Your mother,” never finishing the thought. Or maybe what he felt was too deep for words, too deep even for tears, for he never, not once, cried. What he felt, I thought as I walked with my burden, was inexpressible within the span of one man’s dusty and bitter life.
“Here, leave me here.”
We stopped at a small, tree-less plaza. Several weather-beaten park benches surrounded the bronze bust of a 16th century Dominican friar, Antonio de Montesino. Setting him on a bench, the legless man sighed one final request.
“Memo, before you go, read what’s written below the statue.”
“West-side Changos have the longest—”
“Not the graffiti. That, cut into the stone.”
“I am the voice of one crying in the desert. I have ascended here to cause you to know your sins, I am the voice of Christ in the desert…”
“Here, Memo, is where I belong.” He tapped at his chest feebly, just once. A drowsy Pepito raised an eyelid, giving me a one-eyed stare.
I left the legless man in the park and returned to Paradise, wondering if magic was implicated in any way. Smelling of the cripple’s urine, I went to bathe but found it impossible to remove him entirely from my skin. Strangely, it rained that night and for six nights after. I couldn’t help but think that my mother’s cries, their ferocity, had returned.
For, that week, the rain fell without end, flooding the streets and burying six people in an avalanche of city garbage. The flood also toppled the tree where my soul was supposedly kept. Before the storms, I’d searched my mother’s room for the blue bottle containing my soul, just in case it had been moved from the tree. Instead of the bottle, I found loads of papers. Hand-written love notes I assumed my father had given my mother. In them were detailed descriptions of their lovemaking.
Reading them made my eyes burn. Had my parents no shame? Fornicating like toads, hoping to create children who have a love for a God that never was.
I asked my father about the notes. He denied writing them.
“Although the priests taught me to read they said I was too stupid to write,” he confessed.
I believed him and on my walk home from work that night I noticed how dirty my tears had turned. It’s true they’ve not been clean for a while. I performed the absolutions of a non-believer but the filth remained.
I made my mother weep most recently when I announced I was heartbroken. Still dirty from my work on the hill, I said to her, “I’m sick, I’m sick every day. I cough and am pained, my hands shake and my head burns. My eyes water and I can’t make it stop.”
“You’ve been cursed, my son. My poor son was born a cursed man.”
She immediately took to her bed while I tried to nurse us back to life. She instructed me to tear pages from the Bible and boil them, doused in vanilla and the skin of roots with names only animals could pronounce. My father, who still believed the end was near, went from house to house like a beggar pleading for bits of magic. People turned him away as they were poor and had no use for such talk. Each night my mother and I drank a tea made from the word of God. Each night we played chess, the only game my mother could play without getting neck pains. We both cheated, but her deceptions bested mine. After a week, my mother, burning with fevers stronger than my father’s visions of the apocalypse, insisted I dig through the city dump, along with the rest of the rag-pickers.
“Amongst the filth are the bones of angels. Use them to make yourself well.”
That next morning the sun glowed orange. My father called it a star that’s burning away and when it does the world will truly end. We walked up the hill in search of magic. My father talked of the magic of food and money needed to scrape together another day. I evoked the magic of love, which is to say I remembered holding Adela. We both avoided discussing the magic of tears, in fear of its power and authority over our lives.
Picking through the garbage, I hoped to find a jewel, a rare stone, a blue piece of glass to shelter my soul. I found the bottle that contained my soul and gave it to my mother. She smiled. Something had touched her. She called it God.
I replied, “There is no God. Don’t you see through the lies, mother?”
“Lies? What are those? How much of life is lies; ones we spend our days dressing up to look true. Go. Let me sleep.”
As I sat beside her, I shut my eyes. Because to see as my mother does, I must close them and weep with her in the darkness.
Fiction, Vol. 7.2, June 2013 By Monday morning’s end, the torrential deluge of e-mails and phone calls had eased to a steady drip, one that Walton hoped to syncopate with coffee sips and fantasy baseball substitutions for the remainder of the afternoon. If all went […]
Fiction, Vol. 7.2, June 2013
We thought they wanted what we wanted—a kind ear, a shoulder, a helping hand, romance maybe, if we were real lucky. We’d vetted them as best we could—friend of a friend, classmate, co-worker, former professor, neighbor’s son. They were rarely strangers.
We were educated. We read the news, the statistics. Our mother’s admonitions never to get in the car with a stranger, never go back to his house/apartment/condo and to never kiss on the first date, always alive somewhere close to the surface, never forgotten.
But we were modern and not yet removed from that rebellious stage of life. We saw our mothers as naïve, clueless, and hopelessly out of touch with the real world we were living in. Nevertheless, their voices were never too far from our close remembering. Their whispers were the white noise always there, that, if we wanted, we could tune in to at any moment. But we rarely wanted to. We knew it all by heart.
So when they took us to eat or to a movie or to a club or a bar, we sallied forth with all of recorded female history known to us. Each step we took we walked on the palms of those who had come before us. We’d all read My Mother/My Self and listened to Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Naomi Wolf. We felt empowered every day of our lives, and could not envision that ever changing or being disrupted or disputed.
So when they offered to drive us home and we’d had maybe two or three beers or two or three shots or two or three hits of the bong, we took their hands and allowed them to ease us down into the plush leather of their Audis, Mustangs, or Hondas. We allowed them to help us into their Dodge Ram, Ford Explorer, or Escalade. We allowed them to help us into the seat belt and allowed the stretch as they reached across us to lower the back of the seat.
So when they took the wrong off-ramp we laughed and thought, well, they’re silly, they must have had a little too much to drink. But we didn’t worry too much yet. They kept talking in such a soothing and mildly flirtatious way. We were blushing. We could feel those beers/shots/pot rumbling through our bloodstreams/lungs and we cracked the window to let in the cool night/early morning air. We had trouble removing the silly grins off our faces.
So when they pulled into a deserted dirt road/the long drive to their parent’s place/the secluded parking lot of their apartment building we were just happy to be there. We were getting the distinct impression that they must really like us: visions of hand holding, neck massages, and lazy Sundays reading the Times and staying in bed all day danced before us.
So when he steered us into the woods/out behind the barn/up to his place, we knew this was going to be something special. We knew this was the night that would change our lives forever. We knew this was the moment we would know real love and devotion, know what it was to be a woman, see the flutter of our dreams becoming true life right in front of us, and nobody was going to deny us the fulfillment of our most cherished and most often burnished fantasy. Nobody.
So when he held us down and showed us the strength in his arms/legs/will we thought, this is how it must be for the loved, for the cherished. This is the world our mothers hinted at when they taught us about tampons and men and desire. Except for those of us who had no lessons on the topics and didn’t know what to expect. Still, it was all playing out like every movie/romantic TV show/romance novel we’d ever seen or read where the man is strong and the woman bends and bends, and.
So when he was done and he pulled us up off the bed/couch/back seat of his truck, still dressed minus pantyhose/panties/pants, the cool rush of expectation left us and the hot realization started somewhere down around our toes.
So we picked up our shoes and purse and followed him out of his parent’s basement/his brother’s garage/a nondescript shack in the woods and there are no words when he drives you back to your car/back to the bar/down to the corner and makes that long stretch over you to open your door, no words as you step out onto the concrete at 9:30 p.m./midnight/5 a.m. and all you smell is the exhaust of his car as he pulls away.
So you walk back to your car/closed bar/corner store to call a cab because you’ve lost your keys/your phone/your will and maybe you’ll wake up before you get home/in an hour/in a week and think back to the initial invitation/that first glance/that first touch and wonder how this happened, you being a modern, educated girl/woman/female in the 21st century and you will wait until morning/a week/a lifetime for that answer.
Poetry, Vol. 7.2, June 2013 The trees are filled with rustling, brown pods that rattle like wind chimes in the Kabul spring. The trees are mostly dead and the camp in the center of the city is filled with refugees making homes in the mud. […]