Big Talk: Young Adult Author Julia Karr

A Sixteen That’s Not So Sweet ● by Michael G. Glab

 

Julia Karr had a vision of the world in the year 2150. In this vision, she saw teenaged girls buffeted from all sides with messages that they should be sexy. If they’re not, well, they’re beyond help. In fact, in Karr’s fantasy world girls who hit the age of 16 are celebrated because they are now legal; that is, they can have sex, fulfilling all expectations — really, the only expectation.

Karr titled her first book XVI. The numeral is Roman, indicating what a momentous landmark it is to reach that age, as important as our world’s Super Bowl. In it, she lays out her dystopia in detail. XVI and its sequel Truth are Young Adult novels in the speculative fiction genre. Their main character is Nina, a rebel who is certain there must be something more for her than simply becoming a sex toy.

YA books with female characters generally are gobbled up by teenaged girls. But Karr has found the boys seem to like Nina and her story just as much as the girls do.

“They do,” Karr says. “I did a Library Talk up in Indianapolis. A teacher had brought in her senior English class. XVI was required reading for the class. Half of the students that came were guys. It was an underprivileged school. The thing that was wonderful was everybody had read the book. Most of the questions I got were from the guys. There was one guy who said ‘You know I never even bothered to read a book before we had to read this and I just couldn’t put it down. Afterward, I had one kid come up to me. There is a scene in the book where the police come and tear through Nina’s apartment, looking for stuff. This kid comes up to me , and he’s like towering over me, and he says, ‘That police scene, they really do that. How did you know that?’

“First thing I thought was, ‘Well, he knows they really do that, too.’ I said, ‘You know, I’ve been in that situation before. I’ve had them come and go through my house like that. So I understand it.’”

Thus proving one of Karr’s core beliefs: The writer is always writing. “You are even if you don’t think you are,” she says. “While you’re doing other things, your mind is constantly processing.” Even when Karr is pulling weeds in her garden, she’s thinking about her feelings, her situation, and filing those thoughts away in case she needs to use them in some as yet unwritten chapter. To write the scene in which the cops ransack Nina’s home, she reached back to the night when she (Karr) was 20 and the police were tearing through her apartment. The circumstances were funny, but the feelings she had that night came in handy nearly 40 years later when she was an author.

“It had to do with a spider,” Karr says. “A giant spider. I came home, there was a giant spider in my house. It was two o’clock in the morning. What do you do? I saw it and then it ran. It was just a small apartment, a studio apartment. I called my brother in law and I said ‘Come over there’s a spider…!’ He said, ‘It’s two o’clock in the morning — call the cops,’ and hung up on me. So that’s exactly what I did; I called the police and I said, ‘I don’t know if it’s somebody’s pet tarantula or what….’ We’re talking a giant spider. The police show up and, obviously, what do they think? We’re talking 1970 or so — she’s on LSD!

They tore my apartment apart. They looked through the drawers. They looked through everything. And they didn’t find the spider. Meanwhile, I’m perched on my bed, watching the door. I did not see the spider go out the door so I knew the spider was still in when they left.”

Some friendly neighbors came by to console her after the police had rousted her apartment. One of the neighbors eventually found and killed the spider. “That thing curled up into something the size of a jacks ball,” Karr recalls.

“So, I was able to use that — How you feel when the police are there? You feel powerless. They’re going to do what they’re going to do. I was able to put that in my story. What happened to me back then resonated with a seventeen year old black kid from a disadvantaged part of Indianapolis. So, you can connect with your readers if you’re honest about what you’re writing. It all comes down to honesty, and he connected with that. All that goes to say, guys read my books, the girls read ‘em, and they all have something to say.”

Julia Karr: Every writer writes differently. But when I’m just sitting there staring off in space and there’s a blank computer screen in front of me, what I’m usually doing is seeing what happens next. Case in point: I’ve been revising my recent work in progress. Here I am, writing this new beginning, a new opening for my story, and lo and behold, first paragraph, a new character appears! He’s definitely a foil for my main character. I’m like, ‘Whoa!’

I’m not giving anything away when I say there’s fencing in this scene. We’re talking the grand art of fencing which I know very little about other than the fact that Inigo Montoya and the Dread Pirate Roberts — in the greatest scene in the world — the two of them are fencing at the top of the cliffs in The Princess Bride. So, somehow or another, fencing seemed to work into my story and I didn’t know anything about it. I went to the library and got a couple of books out about fencing. If I were maybe 30 years younger, I might consider learning how to fence — and I might anyway! Who knows? But I’m reading these books and I’m learning and I’m thinking about it and I’m understanding some things about the rules of fencing and how opponents interact with each other. It hit me that at the end of a fencing match, you salute your opponent. You have your sword out to the side and you bring your hand up toward your chin in a salute. You’re not supposed to look triumphant. You’re not supposed to look downtrodden. Won, lost, whatever; you’re supposed to have a very even demeanor. I thought about that. I was visualizing. My main character has just finished with this bout and she’s going to salute this person.

Who is this person? Is it just some nameless opponent? Or is there some kind of history going on there? All of a sudden this character just popped up and said ‘This is who I am.’

Michael G. Glab: So, the book writes itself?

JK: It does. I think it was Handel who said, ‘I’m taking dictation from God.’ I have struggled putting words down on the page, more often than not, but I have also found myself in the zone where it’s more like I’m reading what’s on the page rather than typing. Your subconscious is an amazing thing and it definitely takes over. I’ve discovered this not only from this zonal writing which is wonderful and doesn’t happen nearly as often as writers would like it to, there’s also this strange coincidence that happens, this little bit of serendipity, where you write something in your early chapters and you’re not exactly sure why you wrote it and then you end up, as you’re writing the end of the book, and all of a sudden you realize how important that one little thing that you put in chapter two suddenly becomes. If you hadn’t put it in there, you wouldn’t have gotten to this point but you didn’t even realize it when you wrote it. That happens a lot. In some of the books I’ve read about writing, people talk about that. They say, ‘If something feels like it needs to be included, include it, because you can always cut it later. But you never know if it is going to be the hinge for your plot.

It’s kind of like the seventh Harry Potter book. J.K. Rowling was explaining and bringing to fruition and closing doors and opening windows of things that happened in the first six books, that you had almost even forgotten about. She knew she was writing seven books.

MG: She wrote in coffeehouses. Describe your writing space.

JK: I usually write at my dining room table. It’s just a circular table, I plug in my laptop, sit down, fight off the cats who feel like they have to lay on the keyboard. I’ve got my cup of tea. I like to get up early before the rest of the world is up, do a little bit of journaling, and then get into whatever I’m working on. So it’s dark out, the shades are drawn.

The thing is, the minute I see the sun, I want to be doing something outside. I want to be physically doing something rather than writing.

MG: Nina, your protagonist in XVI and Truth, turns 16 in the year 2150. What is significant about 16?

JK: In the book, girls become adults at 16. They are basically primed, by the media — and if any if this sounds familiar, I’m not surprised — by shows, by radio, by advertisement, whatever the means are at that point in time, a constant media bombardment — to be sexual. That they are sexual beings before they become people. The most important thing for a girl is to be attractive to the opposite sex.

MG: It does sound familiar because a lot of that goes on now.

JK: Exactly. That was one of the things that really hit me: If our society continues on unchecked — and, believe me, I’m not a prude; people are sexual beings — but girls at eight do not need to have push-up bras. Little babies don’t need to have….

MG: Underpants that say ‘Juicy’? I saw an ad for them the other day.

JK: Right. People don’t need to be sexualized. We are sexual. It doesn’t need to be the focus of who you are. Nina’s best friend, Sandy, in XVI, has totally embraced the 16-idea. Sixteen Ways is her favorite zine. She buys into all of their how-tos. She wants all the guys to want her. And the price for that is that she has no life. Nothing means anything to her except that.

MG: But at the age of 16 you’re so desperate for an identity.

JK: You are. And if you’re being bombarded by the media that tells you that your worth is tied up in your sexuality…. And that’s the thing about XVI: It’s not just the girls who are taking this in. It’s the guys. They are taught to see girls as sexual beings, not as people. The resistance, the underground in the book, are people that want to see the whole person, but even there, there are problems. And that goes into the second book, Truth, where these guys still are having a hard time because they are bombarded with the same messages that the girls are. You’re still looking at that girl as somebody who’s a sexual being or needs to be protected from rape, from being exploited. That’s a thing our society is currently grappling with. Teens are like the opening flower, if you will. What is it that you’re fertilizing them with? It’s ingrained in our society already. Honestly, when I was writing this, I was kind of despairing. We’re so close already.

MG: XVI came out in 2011 and Truth in 2012. As I was checking all the comments from your loyal readers on various book sites, they were saying, ‘There’s got to be more!’ It’s clear to everybody. Well?

JK: I know that Nina hasn’t left my brain because she keeps showing up saying, ‘Well, what if you did this? What if I went here?’ So, I have been fleshing out some ideas for a third book. It may be more of a companion book than a sequel. A couple of years will lapse.

MG: A website called Parental Book Reviews, which ranks books for teens, has these categories: Sexual Dialogue — you’re ranked Heavy. Sexual Content — Moderate, with mentions of rape. Profanity — Heavy….

JK: That’s puzzling because, you know, slang changes. I had different words for sex rather than….

MG: Maybe they were projecting: ‘Oh that’s going to be a dirty word in 150 years.’

JK: And it certainly was going to be a dirty word 150 years in the future.

MG: Violence — Moderate to Heavy.

JK: Yes.

MG: And here’s a catch-all, Other Notable Ideas — the site writes that guys have a say in girls’ pregnancies, whether or not they can have an abortion, etc. I don’t know if that’s a problem in the site’s view or what. Have you had any problems with censorship or banning?

JK: Not that I’m aware of.

MG: High schools are assigning your books.

JK: Yes. Some of my biggest fans are teachers and librarians. People that love it, love it. And people that hate it, hate it. All you have to do is go to Amazon and the first review is one star and that person willfully chose to misunderstand everything that I was talking about.

MG: You put your stuff out there, you take your chances.

JK: And it’s not yours anymore. You write it for yourself, but when you send it out there, it’s like sending your kid to kindergarten — you can’t make everybody in the classroom like him. And you can’t stand over the other kids in the classroom and say, ‘You, What do you mean you don’t like my kid?’ Same way with the books.

MG: When I write, there’s always someone I’m writing to. Do you do that?

JK: No.

MG: It’s not the same person all the time. It’s different people. I pick a face of someone I know and esteem and say ‘I’m telling you this story.’

JK: Oh, cool. That’s very cool. I don’t do that.

Nina’s story? I’ll tell you how she showed up. One day, into my head just popped a picture of a punk rock girl. Spiky hair. Different colors. Miniskirt. Lots of bracelets with studs on ‘em. Heavy eye makeup. Boots. She’s walking down a city street and she trips over a homeless man and just keeps on walking. She’s got her earbuds in, you know? And then she stops and she turns around and she looks at him and she thinks, ‘I have to do something for him. I have to acknowledge him. I cannot just leave him there any more.’ That was just like this little picture that popped into my head for five seconds.

MG: A personality came out of that vision.

JK: Right. Here’s this person.

That year I decided to do National Novel Writing Month, which is November. You get 30 days to write 50,000 words. One of their catch phrases is No Plot? No Problem. All you need is a main character and a location. I had a main character and I had a location — but it was New York City and I don’t know New York City. I’ve only been there once. I did live in Chicago for five years and I loved it. I turned 16 in Chicago.

MG: You were a high school kid.

JK: Well, I was a high school kid until I dropped out at the end of my sophomore year.

MG: A dropout!

JK: I’m a dropout. Went back and got my GED and I’ve done some college but I made my way with a part of a high school education.

I knew Chicago so I took my character Nina, my little punk rock girl, I sat down and I said, ‘Girl, you’re going to have to tell me your story because I don’t know what it is.’

I started writing. I knew a little bit about who she was; that she was somebody who was no longer comfortable with the status quo.

During the Lotus Festival, you have a wristband on. You walk up and you hold up your hand so that the ushers will see that you have a wristband and you can go in. You don’t have to say a word. So when I started writing this it was the first of November; Lotus had been over for, what, a month? That kind of worked its way into the story. Identification on the wrist – the story evolved from there. I wrote it in 30 days. I had my basic story. And I let it sit for a while and I went back and revised, and revised, and revised. That was 2009. It was just a dream. When I wrote it I said, ‘Wow, this is pretty good.’

[At the time, Karr was part of a critique group and had been working on another, unrelated book. She eventually scrapped the other book because it needed too many revisions.]

JK: So, in order to have something to show to my critique partners, I brought them XVI. And they loved it. They were like, ‘This is your book. Start tweaking and tightening it up and making it a book.’ Which I did.

MG: When your critique partners said, for instance, ‘You know, I don’t like this or that,’ how long did it take you not to want to strangle them?

JK: I’m pretty open to just listening and trying to understand from somebody’s else’s point of view.

MG: You don’t take criticism personally?

JK: The gals that I was working with on XVI, we would sit and talk it over: ‘Well, you know. I really don’t get this part,’ or, ‘This doesn’t sound right,’ or, ‘Would she really say that?’ or, ‘This doesn’t make any sense.’ When choosing critique partners you have to choose people that you know want you to be better. They’re not your relatives, heaven forbid. Your relatives will read anything and say, ‘Oh my god, this is wonderful!’

I just recently joined a critique group that has some awesome authors in it, some published, some not published. They are hard. Which is good. They’re not lying to me. They want my work to shine and they know it’s not going to shine unless I hear the hard truth about what’s wrong with it. They’re not trying to rewrite it; they’re just saying, ‘This doesn’t work. I stopped reading here. Why are you doing this?’ They’re excellent. I absolutely love them. I don’t get emotional about critiques because I recognize I’m trying to get better. What do they say? If you think you’re a master, you’re not. I don’t think I’m a master. I just want to get better.

MG: What did you read when you were 16?

JK: Oh my! I was reading fantasy, I was really into science fiction for a while. Robert Heinlein and Frank Herbert. I also was reading Michener. I was reading Ayn Rand. I started reading when I was three. I have an older sister and she could read and I wanted to read. So she taught me how to read. She would read to me and I would figure it out.

I even got my picture on the front page of the Seymour Daily Tribune when I was six years old because I was the youngest kid to go through the summer reading club. Yes. I hadn’t even started first grade yet. I always read. The Seymour Public Library was great. I went through the children’s room by the time I was 12. I had everything in there read. Then I moved on to westerns and mysteries. There really wasn’t a lot of Young Adult fiction back then. I can remember when I was in seventh or eighth grade, I wanted to check out Gone with the Wind. The librarian called my grandmother — I grew up with my grandmother — to make sure it was alright to check the book out to me.

Right now I’m reading all the Inspector Linley mysteries by Elizabeth George. I also am on a kick: I have decided to read biographies of all the presidents of the United States, including Benjamin Harrison, if there’s something for the 21 days that he was in office.

 

The Ryder ● September 2014

Curly Little Shirley Explains It All For You

A Luminous American Life ● by Tom Roznowski

 

In a curious way, Shirley Temple’s recent death at 85 resonated with popular culture as much as her famous childhood did. While turning her back completely on Hollywood and serving in far-flung outposts as a U.S. ambassador, Shirley Temple Black somehow managed to avoid both vicious gossip and the public eye. Hiding in plain sight, as it were.

Over the course of the 20th Century, media in various forms came to direct and define fame in ways that have made this type of anonymity virtually impossible. Because her early public career coincided with the emergence of sound movies, Shirley Temple would become the first celebrity for whom chronological aging became a serious inconvenience. Her film career began in 1932, the same year that the venerated vaudeville venue, The Palace in New York City, converted itself to a fulltime movie house. In the depths of the Depression, a quarter could buy you hours of escape in air-conditioned darkness. Standing all of four feet as she tap-danced, sang, and lectured cranky adults, Shirley Temple reminded a suffering nation that daily life could actually contain joy.

As exhausting as her schedule was, starting at age 5 with 16 feature films completed in three years, Shirley Temple achieved nationwide recognition without appearing on the stage. Her filmed performances ran simultaneously in thousands of theaters across the United States multiple times every day with a brand new feature being produced every few months. By the time Shirley Temple blew out the candles on her 10th birthday cake, she had appeared in 40 separate film titles. From 1935 to 1938, she was the top box-office draw in America.

Good thing, too. Because within just two years the American movie-going public would summarily reject this beloved and bankable star for the simple reason that she was no longer a little girl. With the increasing clarity of visual film images and recorded sound during this period, every half-inch of her growth was being notched on the door jamb. Fox Studios, anticipating that their investment had a fixed time signature, had altered her birth date by a year.

From today’s perspective, we can see that even as sound film multiplied access and more accurately replicated reality for audiences eager for escape, it also encased film stars and their human personas in amber. And all of this happened within the average American life span of Shirley Temple Black. The first Oscar for Sound Recording was awarded at the first Academy Awards ceremony after her birth. In 1932, just as she was getting in front of a camera, sound mixing was introduced. Then she sang “The Good Ship Lollipop” and “Animal Crackers in My Soup,” performances so definitive no one else even bothered. She held her own dancing on with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Not backwards in high heels but rather down a staircase in Mary Janes.

Shirley Temple’s popularity began to wane even before she reached adolescence. As you might expect, it all started with some bad decisions made for her by adults. She was initially the choice for the lead role in The Wizard of Oz in 1939, but Darryl Zanuck, head of Fox Pictures, refused to loan her to MGM.  He was very confident about Shirley’s upcoming release the following year; a picture you’ve likely never seen called The Blue Bird.

It became the first of four consecutive flops for three different studios.  Shirley Temple would then marry at age 17. A measure of just how completely she had vanished from the public eye was the fact that her subsequent divorce at 21 did very little damage to either her reputation or her career. Two weeks after the decree was finalized, she married Charles Black – very wealthy and not an actor. Then, poof! Even for the still curious, she was gone. Now she could finally smoke a cigarette in peace.

As film and sound recording became more technically sophisticated in the 1930s, screen characters were presented in ways that defied the passage of time, allowing audiences to permanently project their deepest fantasies. In 1955, popular culture would freeze Marilyn Monroe’s white dress in mid-air as she stood over a subway grate. This, and her death at age 36, conveniently banished the thought that she would have been nearing ninety when the dress was finally auctioned in 2011. Its entire reputation was based on a ten second movie scene. The winning bid was 5.6 million dollars.

The great blues singer, Bessie Smith, had been born just a generation earlier and also never saw 50. She at least had the advantage of leaving her best performances in the present moment. Legend has it that her voice was capable of putting some audience members into a hypnotic trance that drew them like zombies towards the stage. Afterwards, her scratchy Victrola recordings became sepia postcards from the trip. Already been there, thanks.

Over the course of the 20th Century and accelerating every decade, technology has narrowed the breadth of our imaginations. With digital formats in sound and film absorbing more and more creative presence, the work of interpretation is now increasingly being done for us. Illusion created in print or with black and white film can gently guide the senses and the emotions. But as every shade of color and every bit of detail is filled in, illusion is becoming a thrill with diminished impact. The effects extend far beyond the artistic. While it’s true that peaches imported from Chile are camera-ready and consumer-friendly, the process of transporting them across a hemisphere in real time comes at a high cost: It turns out they don’t taste anything like peaches.

This slow fade from the imaginative and the sensory began long before Shirley Agnes Temple drew a breath, yet one could argue the process took a pronounced leap with her first flop. The Blue Bird started production at 20th Century Fox Studios in the wake of MGM’s astounding success with their own film adaptation of a popular children’s tale. The production looked good on paper, at least in the contracts and publicity releases. While Judy Garland was a discovery, Shirley Temple was an icon.

The reasons for the failure of The Blue Bird now seem so plain with the perspective of time. Stark reality collided head on with advancing technology: Shirley Temple at 12 and in Technicolor. Her hair was no longer curled in ringlets. Her pouts were temperamental rather than charming. Her talents were suddenly considered pedestrian rather than precocious. At a time when Bessie Smith’s hypnotized subjects still walked the earth, the movie star was no longer worth the cheap price of admission. It’s the oldest vaudeville adage of all: Never follow a kid act.

 

The Ryder ● September 2014

 

Pull quote

The slow fade from the imaginative and the sensory began long before Shirley Temple drew a breath, yet one could argue the process took a pronounced leap shortly after she blew out the candles on her 10th birthday cake.

Magic Steeped In The Real

Marquez

The Legacy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez ● by Will Healey

 

When Gabriel Garcia Marquez died in April at the age of 87, the literary world lost a giant.  The man best known for his 1967 masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude and the literary genre with which his name became synonymous, magic realism, left in his wake a trove of novels, short stories and essays that simultaneously communicate timeless truths of life and evoke the mysteries of the supernatural.

Garcia Marquez, from Colombia, was the most celebrated Latin American writer of his era, and one of the most revered writers of the last fifty years.  So towering were his works, that when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, the Swedish Academy of Letters said “Each new work of his is received by expectant critics and readers as an event of world importance.” Writer William Kennedy famously called One Hundred Years of Solitude  the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” Telling a friend that I was finally going to read that novel after Garcia Marquez’s passing, he said, “it’s the history of the world told through the story of one family.”

Garcia Marquez started his career as a journalist, but gravitated to fiction in his thirties.  He had many celebrated works besides One Hundred Years of Solitude – his novel about a 50-year unrequited love, Love in the Time of Cholera; the short story collection The Leaf Storm; a tale about the epic reign of a fictional Caribbean dictator, The Autumn of the Patriarch; and News of a Kidnapping, a non-fiction book about a series of kidnappings carried out by Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel.

Garcia Marquez’s works were very much influenced by the times in which he lived, and he was unapologetically political.  He counted among his friends Fidel Castro and Bill Clinton, and was outspoken in his disdain for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.  Jonathan Kandell, in a piece for The New York Times marking the death of the great author, wrote that Garcia Marquez’s work “sprang from Latin America’s history of vicious dictators and romantic revolutionaries, of long years of hunger, illness and violence.” Kandell went on to quote Garcia Marquez’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech:  “Poets and beggars,” Garcia Marquez said, “musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination.  For our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable.”

In some literary circles, however, Garcia Marquez was criticized for the fantastical elements in his writing, something Salman Rushdie (on whom Garcia Marquez’s work had a great influence), took issue with in a New York Times piece written shortly after the author’s death. Rushdie wrote that the fictional village of Macondo, the backdrop for the agonies and ecstasies of seven generations of the Buendia family in One Hundred Years of Solitude (modeled after Garcia Marquez’s north coastal Colombian birthplace, Aracataca), was similar to William Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi.  Rushdie used the comparison to argue that Garcia Marquez, like Faulkner, created real characters inhabiting a real world.

“The trouble with the term “magic realism,” is that when people say or hear it, they are really only hearing or saying half of it, “magic,” without paying attention to the other half, “realism,” Rushdie wrote.  He goes on to say that if magic realism were just “magic,” then it wouldn’t have much effect on the reader.  Because anything is possible, the stakes are lower.  But, Rushdie says, when the magic is “rooted in the real, and is brought in to supplement the real, that’s when the fun starts.

Rushdie describes a famous scene from the novel, wherein a character dies from a single gunshot and a trickle of his blood leaves his house and serpentines up and down through the streets of Macondo until it finally stops at his mother’s feet.  According to Rushdie, the passage “reads as high tragedy,” because the impossibility of the blood’s purpose-fueled behavior, juxtaposed against the plausible event of a mother learning of her son’s death, takes on a higher, even spiritual meaning.  As Rushdie puts it, “The real, by addition of the magical, actually gains in dramatic and emotional force.  It becomes more real, not less.”

In another notable scene from the novel, the death of the patriarch of the Buendia clan, Jose Arcadio Buendia, is marked by a steady rain of tiny yellow flowers, so many that the next day “the streets were carpeted with a compact cushion and they had to clear them away with shovels and rakes so that the funeral procession could pass by.”  Jose Arcadio Buendia led the expedition that founded Macondo, and was a polymath of boundless energy.  His unquenchable thirst for knowledge ultimately drives him mad, but the solemn poetry of the raining flowers suggests that the heavens were paying tribute to a man who gave everything to try to advance the lot of his people.

True to Rushdie’s sentiments that the power of Marquez’s work lay in the real, I’m struck that the passage that had the greatest effect on me in One Hundred Years of Solitude didn’t contain anything fantastic or unexplainable.  Albeit tragic, masterfully written and heart-wrenching, this passage simply depicts a man’s final moments.

“On the way to the cemetery, under the persistent drizzle, Arcadio saw that a radiant Wednesday was breaking out on the horizon.  His nostalgia disappeared with the mist and left an immense curiosity in its place.  Only when they ordered him to put his back to the wall did Arcadio see Rebeca, with wet hair and a pink flowered dress, opening wide the door.  He made an effort to get her to recognize him.  And Rebeca did take a casual look toward the wall and was paralyzed with stupor, barely able to react and wave good-bye to Arcadio.  Arcadio answered her the same way.  At that instant the smoking mouths of the rifles were aimed at him and letter by letter he heard the encyclicals that Melquiades had chanted and he heard the lost steps of Santa Sofia de la Piedad, a virgin, in the classroom, and in his nose he felt the same icy hardness that had drawn his attention in the nostrils of the corpse of Remedios.  “Oh, God damn it!” he managed to think.  “I forgot to say that if it was a girl they should name her Remedios.” Then, all accumulated in the rip of a claw, he felt again all the terror that had tormented him in his life.  The captain gave the order to fire.  Arcadio barely had time to put out his chest and raise his head, not understanding where the hot liquid that burned his thighs was pouring from.  “Bastards!” he shouted.  “Long live the Liberal Party!”

Marquez/Castro

Marquez (L) And Fidel Castro

Garcia Marquez did not invent the genre of magic realism, but he certainly popularized it.  Countless writers today employ it in their work- Rushdie, Isabel Allende, Haruki Murakami, and Toni Morrison, to name a few.  His influence carries over into other media as well.  Watching the film Pan’s Labyrinth, which juxtaposes a strange world of mythical creatures against the harsh realities of the Spanish Civil War, it’s hard to imagine Mexican director Guillermo del Toro wasn’t influenced by Garcia Marquez.  Or take the famous raining frogs sequence in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia, which depicted the mysterious intersections of seemingly disparate lives. What makes Magnolia’s famous sequence work isn’t that the events in the film are so coincidental that, sure, frogs falling from the sky isn’t so far fetched; it’s that the characters that are all strangely connected are so real to us, and the dramas that play out in their storylines so human, that the frogs falling from the sky is an inexplicable moment of wonder that somehow rings true – Garcia Marquez’s personal recipe for successful, affecting magic realism.

Just four months on from his passing, and 47 years after the release of One Hundred Years of Solitude, it is still far too early to fully measure the scope of the author’s impact on the world. But back in April, when it became known that Garcia Marquez had finally succumbed to complications from lymphatic cancer and dementia, I wonder how many of his admirers checked outside to see that there weren’t yellow flowers raining from the sky.

 

The Ryder ● September 2014

The 38th Annual 4th St. Festival of the Arts & Crafts

● by Colleen Wells

 

Labor Day calls for cook-outs and a long weekend to enjoy the waning summer. For Bloomington residents it means something more. Labor Day Weekend ushers in the Fourth Street Festival of the Arts and Fine Crafts, an event coordinated by local artists. With roots stemming from a discussion between two local potters, the inaugural Fourth Street Festival was held in 1977 with the goal of showcasing local talent. The event has since blossomed to accommodate a variety of both greater Bloomington area artisans and those from around the country. Nearly 120 artists from states as far as New York and Florida will participate.

Now in its 38th year, the weekend’s event attracts over 40,000 visitors. It will run from 10:00ama to 6:00pm on Saturday, August 30th, and 10:00am to 5:00pm on Sunday at Fourth & Grant Streets. Artists representing a variety of mediums including printmaking, wood, leather, photography, fiber, glass and ceramics will display and sell their work.

Wendy Newman of Moab, Utah, has participated in numerous festivals for twenty-five years with her handcrafted, contemporary jewelry and was a juror for this year’s event. She spoke of the advantages of art fairs created by artists. “In my experience the shows that artists run are juried more fairly and of a higher quality than other shows.”

Another factor in the event’s success is the willingness of the artists to promote their own work. Bloomington resident and contemporary jewelry artist, Marilyn Greenwood, has been exhibiting her work at the show since 1990. She has her work on display at By Hand gallery, but is able to show a wider variety and her newest work at the festival. Through her marketing efforts the artist stated she “draws on people from Terre Haute, Indianapolis, Columbus, Cincinnati and Louisville.”

There will be other attractions including a music stage with bands offering tunes ranging from classical to blues. The kidszone will provide hands on art opportunities for children, and there will be additional community booths. All of the ancillary events run through the course of both days.

The Spoken Word Stage presented by the Writers Guild at Bloomington begins each day at 10:30a.m. with writers reading from several genres. Each presentation lasts a half hour. Since joining the festival in 2011, this addition has been both popular and unique. Tony Brewer, Executive Director for the Spoken Word Stage and Chair of the Bloomington Writer’s Guild, said, “To my knowledge 4th Street is the only arts festival in Indiana that offers a dedicated spoken word stage. Chicago, Columbus, Ohio, and many many others around the country have for years, and I have looked to them as a model for how ours might work.”

New this year is an installation located at Fourth Street between Kirkwood and Dunn. The piece is constructed of plywood with a waffle-like structure held together by friction without any bolts or screws. It was created in a workshop with mechanical engineering students at IUPUI-Columbus. Instructor Jonathan Racek, a Bloomington architect with a focus on sustainability and digital fabrication who teaches interior design classes at Indiana University, had spoken with colleagues about building a set piece for a fashion show put on by IU students. The arch was created with 3D software and fabricated on a CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) router which Racek said is “like a robotic cutter.” The creation is approximately 8 feet wide, 8.5 feet tall, and 3 feet deep.

Of being tasked with making the piece for the fashion show, Racek said, “We really weren’t sure what that was going to be.” Soon to be exhibited at the Fourth Street Festival, the structure simply called “the arch,” will be at home alongside many other creative pieces.

Whether you are a regular visitor of the 4th street Festival, or plan to attend for the first time, you are likely to find something that resonates. It may be an intricate piece of metal jewelry, or a painting that speaks to you, but the 4th Street Festival is a place where artists and art are appreciated.

Brewer stated that the Poetry On Demand portion of the Spoken Word Stage “offers festival goers an opportunity to interact directly with artists in the act of creation.” This fits with the organizers of the festival’s vision of community involvement.

Commenting on shows where a dedicated staff works closely with the community, juror Newman stated, “These shows are a labor of love for the people who put them on and focused more on the art which is a treasure to have.”

 

The Ryder ● September 2014

Introduction To The Fiction Issue

Fiction Issue

A word about the words in this issue ◆ by Justin Chandler

It was a little over a year ago that we got the idea of putting together an issue that would showcase Bloomington fiction. I was immediately interested, not just because I write fiction myself, but because I knew that if anywhere could offer up an eclectic and brilliant collection of work, it was here.

I saw the fiction scene as existing in factions. I had been involved in the undergraduate and graduate writing scene at IU through various workshops and as an intern at Indiana Review. And I knew of other factions, like the writing group at Boxcar Books and the Writers Guild. I also envisioned some secret faction, writing in the shadows, plotting the upheaval of all we know.

I’m not so sure we’re ready to start soliciting work from that last group. But what intrigued me about a fiction issue was the chance to reach out to all these groups and see what kind of amazing kaleidoscope could be created when we put them together.

So, with way less time than we should’ve had, we set out to make that issue happen. Two weeks later, our deadline passed with zero submissions—not because no one submitted, but because our site had been hacked and our email accounts, perhaps due to protocol or maybe out of some existential dread, ceased for a period of time in the laborious struggle of being. When they came back online they were empty, and what I’m really afraid of? Is that in some alternative universe, maybe they still are….

Whatever. We pushed the fiction issue back to July 2014, to well, for you, right now. And this time around we, and the hackers, did it right.

I knew that we would get a unique mix of work. What I didn’t know is that picking such a varied set of stories would be so easy. I still find it kind of hard to believe we got this lucky. These stories are wide-ranging in their concerns, their characters and themes, and they are all really good. They deal with love, its possibility, its inevitability, and what happens in its terrifying absence. They deal with life, with the beauty of the known, and the provocative specter of the unknown. I think most of all they deal with people, trying to figure out what it all means, or for the first time realizing that they might not know.

A drawing by Ali Maidi accompanies each story. Ali is an artist and a Bloomington native who graduated from IU with a focus in Jewelry and Metalsmithing. Although he works with several different medias, he prefers drawing. Maidi currently works for the art and signage company, Moda Industria. Ali also drew the cover which presumably, you’ve already seen. Take another look. See — he’s good.

I’ve said way more than I wanted to already. Turn to page 14 and you’ll find the first of five stories by Bloomington artists. For you.

Illustrations by Ali Maidi.

The Ryder ◆ July 2014

Fiction: Ahmed’s Spring

Illustration by Ali Maidi

by Cara Prill

11:11:11 on 11/11/11 was a long time from when they first met. Sarah had been barefoot, sitting on the back of a couch, when Ahmed fell in love. Of course, he’d been in the States awhile and seen plenty of feminine toes exposed in flip flops outside or trotting naked across the dorm’s lounge. Sarah’s, though, were smoothing the couch cushions beneath her, and Sarah was laughing in a way that gave him shivers. He watched her light hair fall across her mouth and stood too long staring.

David knew Sarah already and, for some strange reason, suggested to Ahmed that she would make a great match with Steve down the hall. They spent an afternoon deciding how to set it up, which meant Ahmed got to ask David lots of questions about Sarah, all for the purpose of helping out Steve.

That evening, after David invited Sarah and Steve to Ahmed’s room, the four of them spread out. David was in the chair, Steve against the desk, Ahmed on his bed, and Sarah on the floor. No matter how often Ahmed offered a pillow, Sarah just smiled and said she was fine. Pizza was delivered, late night talk shows ended, and Steve left to finish a paper. Eventually, David got tired and took off. Then Ahmed and Sarah stayed up through the night; she was still on the floor beneath the edge of his bed, so Ahmed hung his head over the side. Her face, below him, looked angular and perfect.

Ahmed liked counting the freckles on Sarah’s nose, twenty-four, twenty-five. He planned to be an accountant. Sarah studied religion. She said she liked knowing how people answered the big questions about life and death. Lately, she had a lot of questions about Islam. Ahmed prayed five times a day, or tried to. She said she loved how Muslims touched their heads to the ground in prayer. But he couldn’t pray in front of Sarah, and the only time he misused his prayer mat was when they sat by it together.

Sarah was doing her homework on Ahmed’s back while he bent over his laptop. He studied her feet against the black and gold corner of his mat. They were like shells, those pearl shells that shone. He touched them again to feel how soft they were. She readjusted her legs around his waist and tapped her pen on his back.

“Are you bored?” he asked her.

“No. This is nice, doing homework. Like this.” He felt her arms sneak under his elbows and around his waist.

He said, “You’re like a turtle shell on my back, you know?” She wiggled her toes and fingers in front of his computer. He felt completely crazy. “Sarah, do you want to kiss?” was what he’d been thinking of asking for a month.

“Yes.” She put her head on his shoulder.

“What?”

“Yes, I want to kiss you.” He stopped breathing, and she added, “That’s what you said, right? Under your breath? Oh, I mean,” she stuttered, “I’m sorry.”

He pulled her right foot off of his crossed legs, set it to the side, leaned over, and brushed his lips against her toes.

Ahmed had never been on a date before, not exactly, and not American style, so he studied up. David said that it wasn’t much different than in the old movies that Ahmed watched in his film studies class: take her out to a movie, out for pizza or a sandwich, pay for everything, maybe get ice cream. If it gets cold, offer your jacket.

So Ahmed wore his best leather jacket. He walked Sarah across campus and bought tickets at the little theater that played “artsy flicks,” as Sarah called them. But he was afraid she didn’t like the movie much. It was more serious than he expected, and she only laughed once. He wasn’t sure if he was holding her hand right either.

At the pizza place she ordered a sandwich, so he did too, except that he ordered the beef. She’d taken three large, adorable bites and had a mouthful of ham when he couldn’t stop himself and began to laugh. She reached up to her lip as if she had some sauce on it.

“No, no. It isn’t that.” He explained that he loved how she could be herself around him and order whatever she wanted.

Her eyes opened wide. “Oh, God,” she said, setting down the sandwich. “I forgot about ham!” He asked her to please not stop eating just because of him. He wasn’t sure if kissing an American who had eaten ham counted as eating ham yourself, but he was certain, ham or no, that kissing was forbidden in the first place, and he decided to think less.

He kissed her on the mouth later anyway. She was wearing his jacket, and they were hiding in a classroom on campus to get out of the cold. She smelled like leather, ham, and shampoo.

“You missed seeing Hamid and Zaynab. They came to your cousin’s wedding.”

Ahmed switched the phone to his other hand and turned his back to the bed. He started speaking in Urdu.

“How was it?” he said, trying to change the topic.

“Fine, Ahmed, fine,” his mother replied in Urdu, and then continued in English, “Why aren’t you calling Zaynab? She says you haven’t talked for a while.”

We haven’t talked for six months, Ahmed thought. “I think we’ve both been busy, Mom.”

“Well, I hope you’re not too busy to plan your wedding. We went to a lot of trouble, convincing her family that a Shi’a was welcome in ours after you two begged us to match you.”

Ahmed looked behind him at Sarah, who smiled before hiding her face under the sheet.

“I’m sorry, Mom.”

“You should have come home this break. If you’re not careful, Zaynab will forget what you look like and marry someone like Hamid!”

Ahmed wondered if his mother knew already. “Hamid isn’t bad looking.”

“Really, son, come home for your spring break. Don’t spend so long away. We can pay for your ticket.”

“I know. OK, I’m sorry,” Ahmed stammered, then said that he needed to eat breakfast before the sun came up. She sounded relieved that he was keeping Ramadan, and let him off the phone after that.

When Sarah said she thought he was speaking Urdu with his family, Ahmed relaxed, but then she laughed a little, telling him that eventually she realized he was just speaking English very fast. He didn’t get back into bed. He tried to remember what he’d said in English. Sarah answered that for him: “Hamid must be hard to talk about.”

After an awkward moment, they managed to discuss it, seated together on the edge of the bed. He was relieved to learn David had already told Sarah about Zaynab and his best friend. Instead of being jealous, Sarah seemed sad for him. She took his hand in hers. “Losing your sweetheart to your best friend,” she said, “is a good reason to not want to go home.”

Ahmed thought to himself that Sarah was a good reason to not go home. They hurried to the cafeteria to beat sunrise.

Not having homework over semester break and having the dormitory to themselves was bliss. It was going to be “Oh-one, Oh-one, Oh-one,” as Sarah liked to call New Year’s, 2001, and she was cooking dinner for him. He assured her that Ramadan had ended three days ago and he could eat at a normal time. Besides, he was very hungry. But she insisted they have a late night meal to stay up for the New Year. He was supposed to show up in the lounge at 9:30 p.m. sharp, with grape juice—“the kind that’s not fermented,” she said.

To pass the evening, he walked to the grocery store and back. When he went downstairs at 9:30 the lights were off, the TV—showing Times Square—was on mute, and Sarah had tall candles burning. Chicken legs and rice were on the end table, and she had arranged throw pillows on the floor. He held out the grape juice to her like a prize, for which he won a smile. He had never seen someone in blue jeans, a sweatshirt, and oversized socks look so beautiful.

After the ball dropped in Times Square, after they kissed for 01/01/01, after they cleaned up the dishes and lit more candles, Ahmed held Sarah on the couch. He lifted up on an elbow and took off her socks to count her toes.

“I have ten, same as you!” she said.

“I know, but these are special.”

She twisted around to face him. “What do you think you’ll be doing ten years from now?”

“I don’t know.” Ahmed thought about it. “Maybe I’ll be a wealthy accountant by then. Or maybe I’ll go into computers.” He wadded up her sock and threw it at the TV.

“Hey!” she said.

“It’s binary today, Oh-one, Oh-one, Oh-one,” he said, wadding up her other sock. “Maybe it’s a sign I should go into computers.”

She went to grab his hand, but he tossed the other sock across the room too. “My feet’ll be cold, computer guy!”

He smiled, “Well, I can keep them warm.”

She turned back around and spooned up against him. He maneuvered his legs around her toes like a sandwich.

“The coolest date,” she said, “is going to be all ones. Eleven, eleven, eleven.”

“That’s about ten years from now,” he said into her hair. “It’ll even have eleven-eleven, like the time, twice in that one day.”

“Ooh, you are so good with numbers,” Sarah replied.

He loved every compliment she gave him, even if he didn’t deserve it.

A ticket home showed up in the mail a couple of weeks later, and Zaynab called a week after that. It wasn’t so easy to talk with her again, not as easy as with Sarah even though Sarah and he could only speak English. Hamid had broken up with Zaynab because he wasn’t supposed to date, and Hamid, or “Chicken-Shit” as Ahmed began referring to him, still hadn’t returned his calls. No way would Ahmed want him at his wedding now, assuming he had one.

“I always thought I would have two children,” Ahmed replied to Sarah’s question. “A boy and a girl, or two girls. Because people don’t always value girls at home, but I would.”

From the chair behind him, Sarah rubbed his shoulders and kissed the top of his head.

“What about you?” he asked, as he tilted his head back to look at her.

She squeezed him with her knees. “I don’t think I’ll have kids.”

“Really?” He turned all the way around. “Why not?”

“I don’t know. I guess I never saw myself with kids, you know, as a mom.”

Ahmed shifted back into position between her legs and thought about it. “You are lucky you’re American. A Muslim woman in Pakistan would be expected to have children.”

“Yeah, I don’t think I would make a good Muslim woman.”

They sat quietly for a while, hands entwined. Then Ahmed laughed lightly after the silence. “I don’t make a very good Muslim man.”

Sarah said, “I don’t know about that! You observe holy times, and do prayer. You even pray in the stacks at the library when you have to.”

“That’s not what I mean. I always think I am too liberal, you know? Like I think Bush is wrong about abortion. I think women should be able to decide if they want to be pregnant.”

“You’re awesome,” she replied, giving his head a bear hug from behind.

Ahmed blew out his breath from underneath her forearms. Sarah released him and went back to rubbing his shoulders.

He said softly, “It’s just that I always thought I’d be too liberal to raise my children up as good Muslims, but I thought Zaynab, as a Shi’a, she would be more strict. She would make sure my children don’t end up too American.”

Sarah’s hands kept going, but she didn’t speak for some time. Then she said, “Would you raise them here? In America?”

“I’m not sure. Wherever I could get a better job. Probably here, but I’d like to be near my family too.”

Sarah slipped her thumbs under the neck of his T-shirt, caressed the hair along his spine, and pressed deeply into his shoulder blades. Someone knocked on his door, but Ahmed ignored it. Then he asked, “Why do American women hate hair on men’s backs?”

Behind him, he heard Sarah sniffle, and then say in his ear, “Because they’re stupid.”

The night he said what he had to say, Sarah made it easy for him. She didn’t cry or say he was making a mistake; she didn’t even get mad. There was one thing she did ask, though, after they stared at each other from opposite ends of the bed. She wanted to keep seeing him for one more month, up until Spring Break. Then it would be over.

And Ahmed agreed right away. He didn’t want it to end, not really, not with how he felt when he was around her, the way her face lit up. So for a few days they kept going. Eating at the cafeteria, watching some TV.

But he couldn’t stop thinking about the numbers. They were always there, counting down. He kept eyeing the leftover dates on his calendar, feeling as empty as each tiny square.

Ahmed sat at his desk with lined paper and his best pen. He had written a page already, trying to explain. If he saw her in person, he would never be able to do it. Or he wouldn’t do it right. He let his pen tell her that. He let his pen say how much he wished she could find a nice American boy to marry someday. But the whole thing seemed cold to him, like the weather outside. It was so cold and he was so lonely without her. She deserved something better. She deserved better words, better English, something that truly said how he felt about her and how he would always remember her. Because she was—had been—his life these last few months. She was warm, like spring. She was, she was….

Sarah believes in lucky days and lucky kisses, and she isn’t about to miss a New Year’s style moment on the luckiest day of the century.

“Meet me at the front of Eagan Hall. I’ll be there at 11:05. Be there, or be square!” she types, adding, “Oh, yeah, you already are square.” She hits enter, and wonders if his boss will read his Facebook. They might get caught!

She grabs her coat and house keys and heads to campus. A half hour walk from home, she is sitting on the steps outside their rendezvous point and grinning in the chilly weather.

“It’s your lucky day,” Sarah says when Josh takes her hand and lifts her off the steps. She hugs him and whispers, “Come on!”

They pretend to be nonchalant as a group of undergraduates passes in the hall.

“This one’s empty,” she says. “This was my old classroom when I took Buddhism.”

She sits Josh in the last row of the auditorium-style seating. They remove their gloves and coats, and he pulls out his cell phone which has the date spelled on its background.

“Hey! It says eleven-eleven!” Sarah beams at him. “Can you get it to say the time too?”

When that doesn’t work, they settle for watching the little time marked in the corner of the phone, but it can’t count down the seconds or rather, in this case, count up seconds. This means that to get their good luck right at 11:11:11 on 11/11/11, they have to start kissing at 11:11 and keep on kissing for at least eleven seconds. Josh kisses Sarah for longer.

Sarah kisses Josh again outside before he sneaks back to work. Then she wanders along the campus paths that connect her with the road home. Campus has changed a lot, she thinks, but this is the same brick path she took on a date with Ahmed ten years ago.

The last time she heard about him was from David the next school year. It was after 9/11, and Sarah had worried that Ahmed would have trouble flying home from his summer internship in Atlanta. But David said Ahmed called him in October, soon after the wedding.

Sarah knows that Zaynab has married well. There was a letter Ahmed wrote that Sarah keeps in her boxes from college. Before she met and married Josh, she would pull the letter out from time to time, especially whenever some dumb American boy had dumped her. Now, she doesn’t need to go looking for it, because she has read its last few lines so many times, she has them memorized. She wraps her coat tighter around her body and smiles.

You are the fresh spring breeze that breathes new life into all species. You are the rainbow after the torrential storm. You are the face that makes me smile. You are the reason someone, someday, will be glad that he came home.

Cara Prill grew up in southern Indiana, and like many others who have attended IU, she stayed put after college. Bloomington has been her home for 20 years. She leads creative writing workshops through Ivy Tech’s Center for Lifelong Learning and enjoys participating in the Bloomington Writers Guild.

Illustration by Ali Maidi.

The Ryder ◆ July 2014

Fiction: At The Edge

Illustration by Ali Maidi

by Richard H. Durisen

“When angels fell,

Some fell on the land,

Some fell on the sea.

The former are the faeries,

And the latter were often

Said to be the seals.”

Orcadian Folklore, Anonymous

The drone of approaching Heinkel bombers echoes in the fjords. A fireball erupts when the first bomb hits, flinging bodies into the sea….

Rose awoke on her lumpy mattress, startled and sweaty. Large waves boomed against the rocks, and the grief that had clotted around her heart during a night of intermittent sleep melted and flowed back into her veins. It was the dream about the bombers that had awoken her. Previous dreams had presaged discoveries on the beach, and climbing out of bed, Rose asked aloud, “Mum, do ya have a gift for me today?”

After putting on her work clothes, Rose took the hemp sack with rope shoulder straps down from its hook and, in it, put a jar containing a rag moistened with vinegar. She slung the pack on her back and walked toward the ocean. Today, the fog had drawn back from the coast after dawn, and the sky was an unusually deep blue. Far out to sea, a Vickers Vildebeest biplane flew along the coast, patrolling for U boats.

The rolling hills of scrub and verdant grass ended abruptly at the water, as if loaves of bread had been carved in a ragged line. Rose’s house topped one of the nearest hills. The closest other visible building, Old Tom O’Malley’s house, was about a third of a mile away up along the coast.

Rose stood at the top of the precipice nearest her house. It dropped straight down into Donegal Bay off the Irish Sea and was part of the Slieve League cliffs. The locals called this particular cliff “Imeall”, which in Gaelic means “Edge” or “Margin.” Many an afternoon or evening, long before the troubles began, she and her sister would sit here to ponder the mysteries common among young Irish women –their bodies, men, America.

Something glinted below her, where the waves foamed over a rocky beach within the steep sides of a cove. The path down to the cove was treacherous, but Rose was well practiced from her childhood days. When she saw up close what was caught in a rough edge of the tide pool, a mixture of horror and elation raced through her body, and she wept.

She tied the cloth dampened with vinegar over her nose to mask the stench, hefted the object into the sack, and then began the climb uphill. As she approached her house, she recognized her brother in the distance, bicycling along the coast road for one of his frequent visits. Anxiety crackled through her. She could not let Sean reach the house before she did. She ran.

Back home, she retrieved the sealed container of lye and the key that she kept near the Book under her bed and hurried to the back of the house, to the large trunk beneath the eaves. She unlocked it and swung open the lid. The pungent air made her wince and cough a little. She unloaded her sack, took off the military cap, gazed longingly at the decomposing head festooned with seaweed, and laid it gently in the box. She sprinkled some lye on top of all the trunk’s contents and closed the lid. She also scattered some lye over the fluids leaking from between the thick wooden slats and paused for a moment. “They’re back together again, Mum, like ya said.”

Once back inside the house, she hung the hat behind a curtain that partitioned off one corner of the main room. She shut the windows on the trunk side of the house, cleaned up as best she could at the basin, and put water on for tea. Moments later, Sean’s wheels clattered on the path to her house.

“Darlin’ sister, ya need to take better care a the place. It smells to High Heaven, ya know.”

“The compost needs a bit a straw.”

“Straw? A healthy dose of buryin’ it needs… Well, I brought what food I could, an’ some laundry. Ya know how bad ‘tis with the Emergency an’ all. U boats. Patrol planes. As if a fisherman’s life isn’t hard enough. We ought ta leave this damn place. Go North.”

“Never.”

“People talk, Rose. ‘Tis hard to find customers for yer washin’ anymore.”

“Oh, they talk, do they?” Rose said, with a forceful “Heeeck!” at the end, a guttural sound, like a cat choking up a hairball. Her eyes flashed, “And what is it they’re sayin’?”

“Feck, ya know. Dumb rot. Yer a witch an’ all. Or a Selkie.”

“Selkie, me arse! Ya mean Finfolk! Sami! Heeeck! Like Mum!”

“Yeah, Rose, like Mother. God Rest Her Troubled Soul.”

“’Er soul isn’t troubled, Sean. Not the way ya mean it, anyhow.”

“An’ how would ya know that? She jumped off the damn cliff, she did. She’s as lost as Father was in the Great Storm a ’38, a Godfearin’ Man, Bless his Soul.”

“Ya don’t know it. No one saw ‘er. Went back to ‘er home is all she did.”

“Aw, Rose, ya know what they said about ‘er. They’re sayin’ the same about ya now. I fear someone’ll get a notion. And where’s Mother’s home, if not here?”

“Ya know’t in yer heart, Sean. Ya just won’t admit it.”

“Rose, ya talk crazy. She’s County Donegal right through.”

“Where’s ‘er folk then, Sean? How come Mum an’ Dad never talked about’m? Ya heard the stories of him goin’ out in the boat and comin’ back with ‘er. Mum’s from Inse Catt way back, an’ ‘er Folk are Lochlann Sami, the Finnar, belongin’ to the sea.”

Sean ignored Rose’s occult version of their family history and continued, “Rose, ya wander around all day mutterin’ an’ givin’ folks the eye. Ya sit on the beach whisperin’ to the seals. An’ at night ya stand on Imeall there keenin’ like a Banshee. Just like Mother, when Father died. Folks talk, Rose. Ya know what they think? About Mary?”

“Sean, I didn’t kill Mary. Heeeck! I’m guilty a other things, but not that.”

“Aw, Rose. Ya know. It’s people that’re saying, not me.”

They sat in silence for a while. Then Sean reminisced a little about their childhood and was surprised that she smiled thinly and even chuckled once. Before today, the weight of everything had seemed to crush the joy right out of her. They fell into a reverie and stared out the window at the horizon.

When Sean spoke again, it was to update her on the news: another volunteer from the village wounded, more difficulties with the food supplies, another Luftwaffe bombing of Dublin, rumors about when the Americans might enter the war.

“Oh, an’ Joseph says he needs his wash done quick this time, for Sunday Mass. He’s still sweet on ya, ya know, no matter how daft ya be, an’ even with all that’s happened. An’ I added me own best shirt to the load. The stain is a bit a blood from a scuff at the pub. Defendin’ yer name, if ya must know.”

“Certainly nothin’ new, that. Thank ya, Sean, but I don’t need defendin’. Tell Joe I’ll get his cloths to him quick this time. Tell’m he’s a good man too.”

They lapsed into another silence filled by the surf and by the distant barking of seals. Sean sighed and stood up to leave.

“Bless ya, darlin’ sister! May God Look Over Ya!”

“I don’t know about God. Heeeck! But Mum does.” Rose held up the wood carving of the Celtic knot that her mother had given her and that she always wore around her neck on a leather strap.

“I worry about ya being alone an’ all. I think it’s makin’ ya daft.”

“I’m not alone, Sean.”

Sean creased his brow. “The way ya talk, it scares me, Rose. I swear. Ya’ll make me a drinkin’ man for sure.”

“Yer already a drinkin’ man, Sean.” Rose paused and added, “An’ bless ya too. Yer concern touches me. Ya have Dad’s soft heart, but deep in yer soul I think ya got more a Mum in ya than I do. Ya just don’t know it.”

With that, he smiled, gave her a long hug, and left. Before he rode his bike down the hill toward the road, he yelled, “May The Saints Have Mercy, Rose, it stinks like the docks out here! When next I’m back, I’ll help ya with the compost!”

“Thank ya, Sean. Yer right. I’ll need a bit a help with that.”

Rose sat back down in the kitchen after Sean left and ran her fingers across the rough tabletop. Splinters poked at her fingertips, and she toyed with the hints of pain.

It had begun two years back, in 1939, on the night of Paddy’s send-off party. After mourning the loss of their parents for a year, Rose and Mary were ready to let go for an evening. When they arrived at the pub, they seemed, even to Rose, to be an unlikely pair. Each was beautiful in her way, but Mary was tall and solidly built, robust, with red hair and a ruddy complexion like her father and brother. Rose took after her mother – dark, exotic, and elfin. Her protruding almond-shaped eyes slanted slightly downward at the edges, and she had unusually pronounced webbing between her fingers and toes, a trait she shared with her mother.

Mary spent most of her time at the gathering sitting near the bar, talking and laughing with Paddy. Rose was the more spirited and mischievous of the two, and her deep brown eyes and long shiny black hair flashed with inner fire. She let herself be carried away by the music and drink, spinning her skirt out shamelessly on the dance floor, hissing into young men’s ears, and downing all the beer and whisky she was offered.

Paddy was going to war, one of the early Irish volunteers. He was the handsomest man in the village, desired by all, and betrothed to Rose’s sister Mary. Rose had been happy for them, despite the grim reports of war coming from the Continent, but tonight her spirit was set free by the alcohol. When Paddy left Mary at the bar to join the dancers, Rose whirled over to him through the crowd. They danced a vibrant reel together and everyone cheered, including Mary. Once the music stopped, Rose and Paddy laughed at each other through their drunken fog. Later, as the whisky overcame Rose, her legs began to buckle and she could barely stand. Paddy told Mary he would take her sister home and then come right back to the pub.

Since the loss of their father at sea and the subsequent disappearance of their mother, Mary and Rose had been living alone on the hill near Imeall, well outside the village. Paddy borrowed the baker’s lorry and drove it somewhat recklessly along the coast road. The final walk up the path to the house was strenuous, but Rose was light and Paddy strong. Her warm body next to his and her arms around his shoulders stroking his broad back stirred a sweet and dangerous yearning. At the house, he laid her tenderly on her bed, and she smiled up at him with half-lidded eyes. The Celtic knot lay between her breasts. He professed in tears that it was she he truly loved, not her sister. He had courted Mary just to be near Rose, but had been too afraid to approach Rose directly because of her wildness.

As she listened, Rose knew that she had wanted this to be true. She had often lingered over elaborate daydreams that ended with the two of them entwined like vines. She had even muttered to the Book a time or two, at the page of forbidden love, but never really believed there was any harm in it. Mary was her sister, a soul mate, and Paddy seemed totally devoted to her. Despite the spinning in her head, her stupor cleared enough that she could remember giving joyful consent. Their love was fierce and deep, and quickly consummated. Paddy had to reappear at the pub. He promised to write and straighten it all out, and she gave him the Celtic knot as a token of their new commitment. Paddy went back to his sendoff party and left early the next day for the Irish Guards.

It was a few months before Paddy’s first letters reached Mary and Rose, and they ignited a firestorm. Mary left the house in a fury to live with Paddy’s mother. She took to shouting dangerous things in public about the Book, about ancient chants and spells, about their mother teaching Rose the old Sami ways. Even though Paddy’s letter asked Mary to give the betrothal ring to Rose, Mary refused, appealing to Father O’Connell to exorcise the Devil from Rose and release Paddy from her spell. Rose ridiculed the priest but knew in her heart that her defiance vented from deep levels of shame and remorse.

The conflict raged for the better part of a year. In an effort at reconciliation, Rose asked Mary to meet her at Imeall one afternoon, and, to Rose’s surprise, Mary agreed. The sisters sat at the brink of the precipice and looked out toward the seal rock, trying to let the ocean breeze blow away some of the bad feeling. The betrothal ring on Mary’s hand sparkled in the Sun.

“How could ya do it, Rose? ‘Twas the Book, it was. Mother’s damn Book. Ya should burn it.”

“Don’t speak so a Mum’s Book, Mary. ‘Tis dangerous. But in truth, about Paddy, I love’m. ‘Tis no more Magic than ‘tis a human thing, ya know. I couldn’t help it. I feel a twistin’ in me gut about hurtin’ ya, but ‘tis in the world now. The Book only helped t’show what was.” Though her words held conviction, Rose felt mostly helpless as she stared out at the sea. A lone seal barked far away.

“Nae, Rose, by all that’s holy, Paddy’s mine. Father O’Connell, he says it. The whole town says it. Ya know what’s right, Rose. Ya know what our Father woulda said.”

Rose stood up. “Father were a good man, but I spit on the feckin’ priest. Heeeck!” And Rose spat on the ground. “Look a the sea, Mary. It don’t owe a thing to the Christ a Galilee. ’Tis the heart an’ spirit in all things, Mary. ‘Tis what matters. ‘An the sea says Paddy’s mine now.”

“The sea. Priests. Books. I spit on’m all, I do. Family, Rose! Yer me sister. How could ya betray blood between us? All me life, I thought ya loved me.”

“But, Mary, I love ya true, but what I feel about Paddy, it’s real too… If Paddy loves us both, maybe we both can have’m. ‘Tis a more common thing then people like t’say. ‘Tis only priests and matrons say it can’t be.”

With this, Mary’s face flushed crimson, and she jumped to her feet. “Rose, I won’t have any more a this crazy talk. If yer thinkin’ like this, yer no sister I know. ‘An I curse yer Mother’s Book. ‘Tis Devil’s work. She should not have given it to ya. It’s made ya witchy and dark like ‘er, it has. She’s no more me Mother, too. Poor Dad, God bless his soul. I’m goin’. I won’t speak t’ya no more.”

“Heeeck! Mary! Ya don’t know what yer sayin’!” Rose turned to the sea, “Mum, she don’t mean it!”

Mary started to leave. Rose, in desperation, grabbed Mary’s wrist and begged her to stay. Mary screamed and yanked her hand back. The cliff shifted beneath them after a particularly large wave. The rocks under Mary’s feet suddenly gave way. At the same moment, Rose lost her grip on Mary’s arm, and Mary toppled into the void beyond Imeall.

“Oh, Mary! Oh nae, Mum! Nae!”

The seals on the rock began to bark loudly, then jumped into the sea and swam toward the cliff. Rose collapsed, sobbing.

After heating a piece of toast over a burner of her stove, Rose began to work on the laundry that Sean had left. Being occupied with this mundane task kept her calm in the face of what she intended to do.

As she cranked the clean clothes through the wringer, a gull came looking for a snack in her compost pile and called out as if in answer to the squeaky rollers. Tears formed at the corners of Rose’s eyes. For someone with so much life squeezed out of her, Rose was amazed at how much and how often she was able to cry. She made a quick and thorough job of the washing before she lost the afternoon sunlight for drying. The clothesline was well away from the house, and a strong wind was blowing out towards the ocean. One by one she fought to attach the clothes to the line. It was as if all of them were trying to reach the sea.

Old Tom O’Malley had claimed that he saw the whole argument from his house and that Rose had bodily thrown Mary to her death. This seemed preposterous to some, because Rose was so much smaller than Mary, but it confirmed the worst thoughts of those who believed that Rose could summon unnatural powers. Rose pleaded for people to believe that Mary slipped on loose stones, and, in her grief, she swore it on her father’s honor. Although disconsolate at the growing losses in his family, Sean defended Rose, with his fists if he had to. He, with other fishermen, searched for Mary’s body by day, and by night he drowned his sorrow – for Mary, for Rose, for his parents – in generous amounts of Guinness and whiskey, to the point where Avril, his wife, left him and moved back to her family in Letterkenny.

Rose wrote to Paddy as clearly as she could about what had happened. She trusted in her pleadings with the Book and in Paddy’s love that he would believe her, but Paddy’s feelings became twisted by his own guilt, and in the end he accepted the version of the story written to him by his mother. In his last letter to Rose, a few months after Mary’s death, he condemned Rose for a witch, renounced his vow, and returned the Celtic necklace. A monstrous anger ignited within Rose, and she said fiery and explosive words, by candlelight, over the darkest pages of the Book.

Soon after, in June 1940, official news of a calamitous event cast the deepest shadows over the village and blackened Rose’s soul. As reported in The Donegal News & Derry People:

“Shortly after midnight on May 15, while carrying the 1st Battalion Irish Guards of the 24th Brigade, the H.M.T. Chrobry was attacked and set ablaze by German bombers near Skaanland, Norway. Paddy Maquire of the Slieve League region, originally of County Fermanagh, is officially missing at sea, presumed dead. All other volunteers in the 24th from County Donegal survived, but the following were injured…”

Paddy’s body was never recovered, but an eyewitness from the village said in a letter home that he had seen him blown clean off the vessel.

When she heard about Paddy’s fate, Rose detached herself completely from the world of ordinary folk. She wore the Celtic knot always, even when swimming in the sea, and she spent much of her time wandering alone on the beaches and cliffs, talking to the seals in the water, sometimes with the Book in her hands.  After the first time she had the dream about the bombers, a gift for her arrived on the beach in the cove near her house. A voice coming from the water told her then what she had to do to put everything right.

The clothes dried quickly in the strong breeze. Before sunset, Rose ironed them, wrapped them tidily in brown paper, and penciled Joe’s name on the bundle. She put Sean’s shirt on top and left it all on the shelf by the door. Then, with heavy heart, she turned to the task ahead.

“Mum, give me strength.”

Before the sunlight faded, a Waxing Moon, almost Full, rose over the hills and shone into the East windows. Rose gathered cleaning liquid and a candle for extra light, retrieved the army cap from behind the curtain, and sat at the table. She carefully removed the tarnished cap star of the Most Illustrious Order of St. Patrick from the hat and cleaned the wool and the metal star as best she could. She rubbed some grease on the visor to bring out a shine. Rose walked, with the hat, back to the corner of the room and pulled the curtain back entirely.

Hanging there in the corner was an essentially complete battledress uniform of the 1st Irish Guards. It had rips, holes, burns, and stains that Rose did not have the material or skills to fix entirely, but she had done well enough to honor who and what it represented. She even had the boots and the Sam Browne belt with cross strap. She put the hat with the uniform and left the curtain drawn so she could see it all hanging there. Then she reached in the jacket pocket and pulled out Mary’s betrothal ring.

Rose went into her bedroom and brought out a sheet of paper, an envelope, her mother’s Book, and the key to the trunk. She set the cap star and Mary’s ring next to the Book in front of her. She paused a long time, not sure what to say. Sean would have a difficult time no matter what she wrote. By force of habit, beat into her by the Sisters of Mercy, she put her best Catholic schoolgirl English into the letter.

Dearest Brother,

I’m sorry to burden you, Sean. If the sea doesn’t keep me, bury me here, near Imeall. I’m leaving Paddy’s St. Patrick’s star and Mary’s ring. These were gifts. I didn’t steal them. Some night soon, nail them to the trunk out back, weight it with stones, and throw it over the cliff. I am not strong enough, but it must be done. I won’t rest in peace unless you do it. Please don’t look inside. You don’t need to know what’s in there. Bury Mum’s Book with me, so it causes no more harm.

Sean, you’re a blameless soul, like Father. Pray for us all in your own way. I hope Mum helps you like she helped me. If all goes as I’ve been told, there will be signs of healing, and you’ll know I’m happy.

Love,

Rose

When she was done, Rose put the letter, the star, and the ring in the envelope and sealed it. She picked up the Book. It glowed in her hands as she opened it for the last time and turned to the last few pages, the ones that dealt with the hardest things. She read the old runes in a whispery chant and invoked the names of her mother, Mary, and Paddy. She paused for a minute, added a few whispers for her father, and then surprised herself by reciting the Lord’s Prayer for him dutifully, like a good daughter.

The Moon was approaching the meridian in the Southern sky. It would soon be midnight. Rose got up from the table and went to the basin, in which there was still grey rinse water from the laundry. Leaving the Celtic knot around her neck, she undressed, got a washcloth, and fit herself into the tub. She cleaned herself slowly and thoroughly and brushed her hair clear of tangles.

When she stood up, with bubbles of foam slipping down her back and thighs, her skin shone like varnished wood in the combined light of the candle and the Moon. She dried herself and walked to the corner where the uniform hung. After gazing for a while at the marvel of it, she began to put it on. The wool felt scratchy as a hair shirt on her bare skin, and she relished the faint odors that clung to it, odors of death and the sea.

The uniform was oversized for her, but she cinched it up with cords. She grabbed the trunk key from the table and put it in the jacket pocket, hoping to make it more difficult for Sean to look in the trunk by taking the key with her. She wore several pairs of socks to make the boots fit tight, and, even with her hair folded up into the hat, she had to stuff in wads of paper to set it firmly on her head. When she judged by the location of the Moon that it was midnight, she went outside and walked to Imeall.

Lingering above the roaring surf, Rose poured out one long howl. As the echoes died away, she felt finally at peace again with the cliffs, the stars, the Moon, and the sea. Rose murmured the Sami words for Moon, Sea, and Mother. “Mannu… Mearra… Eadni.” As she leaned over Imeall and surrendered her balance, she called out: “I’m only half Finfolk, Mum, but let me be near ya always!”

At about noon the next day, Sean found and opened the envelope. When Mary’s ring dropped out, he felt a chill run down his spine. After reading the letter he started shouting his sister’s name and ran to the cliff. He scanned the coast until he saw Rose’s body wallowing in a tide pool in the cove. As he scrambled down to the beach, his adrenaline rush turned to dark bewilderment when it became clear to him that his dead sister was wearing an Irish Guard uniform. Although he knew that she had probably been dead for many hours, Sean dragged Rose from the pool and tried to revive her. Then he rocked her in his lap and let the tears stream out.

A plan solidified in his mind. He knew that if any of the villagers saw her dressed like this they would believe it to be a truly horrible form of devilment, confirming the worst that they had always thought about Rose and his mother. Although he was now thinking the same dire thoughts, he could not allow others to dishonor them.

Fortunately, Rose was relatively light, even wearing a wet woolen uniform. He slung her over his shoulder and held her there with one hand while guiding himself up the treacherous path with the other. When he got to the house, he laid out some rags and towels and put Rose’s body on the floor. He then gathered some of her work clothes, which he found lying next to the half full washbasin, and hurried back to the cliff and down the steep path to the beach. He drenched her clothes in the surf and returned to the house.

Changing Rose’s clothes was a challenge to his modesty, but he treated it as a funeral rite and tried not to dwell on her body. He did notice, however, that she had remarkably few bruises and contusions for someone who had jumped from a cliff. It also surprised him that she was not wearing the Celtic knot he had always seen around her neck for the past year.

The military hat came off easily in his hands. It was hard for Sean to believe it could it have stayed on her when she hit the water or when the violent surf tossed her about on the rocks. He found the key in the jacket pocket as he was folding the uniform, and he laid it on the table, with a passing hint of curiosity.

When Sean was done, he gathered up anything others might find suspicious – the uniform, the Book, Rose’s letter, the star, and the ring – hid them next to the trunk out of sight, and then pedaled into town. Sean knew that Rose wanted to be buried near the ocean and not in the Catholic cemetery, but he could not show anyone her strange letter to confirm her suicidal intent. Fortunately, although he had no concrete proof that he could share, it turned out to be an easy thing for the villagers to accept.

Rose was buried the next day, during a light drizzle, on a flat area down away from her house in the direction of Imeall. About a dozen people attended, mostly men showing their support for Sean. Several of them, like Joseph, had also been sweet on Rose, attracted by her exotic darkness and flirtatious nature. Three of the swarthy fishermen who had helped dig the grave, including Joseph, offered to shovel it in, but Sean declined. He told them he wanted to finish the job by himself, and he promised he would meet his mates later that evening in the pub for a proper grieving.

Once everyone was out of sight, Sean took the pile from next to the trunk and sat with it at the kitchen table. He put the letter, the star, and the ring aside, next to the key. The Book was bound in brown sharkskin leather, now splotchy with age. Celtic patterns lavishly embossed on the cover were interwoven with other symbology, embellishments that had a more eldritch look and seemed disquietingly familiar, as if from memories of childhood dreams. The pages inside were richly illuminated to suggest what the ancient runes on them might be about. What had seemed at first to be pages drab with age began to sparkle in extraordinary colors that shone from inside with their own radiance.

Sean’s trance did not snap until some time later, when he turned the last page and closed the Book. Although he could not read the runes in a conscious way, somehow the Book had made sense to him. “Mother a God, protect me,” he murmured. Then he heard the patter of a hard rain on the roof and remembered the uncovered grave. “God in Heaven. Feck! The time!”

Sean jumped from his seat and wrapped the uniform, the letter, and the Book in a dry cloth. Outside, he eased himself down into the muddy grave and laid the package gently on top of the coffin over where he judged Rose’s heart to be. He paused and surprised himself by whispering some sounds that came to him in a language he did not know. He got out and started filling the grave.

It took Sean a couple of days to sober up enough to honor Rose’s peculiar request concerning the trunk. He had already assessed that, in addition to stinking, it was extremely heavy and in some danger of falling apart due to a dampness that saturated the wood and oozed through the planking. So he showed up mid-afternoon one day in old clothes with a dilapidated wooden cart, material from old sails, lengths of rope, and pieces of netting. He went into the house to take care of a few things and noticed the key from the pocket of the uniform still sitting on the table. He stared at it for a while before realizing that it must be the key to the trunk. Up to that moment, curious though he was about the trunk, Sean had never dreamed of violating Rose’s wishes by looking inside. He had not forgotten about the uniform, and had ominous thoughts about the trunk’s contents, but had not wanted to know. Now, seeing the key before him, he decided maybe he was meant to.

Sean brooded over the trunk for several minutes, then finally inserted the key and turned. With a little jiggling, the rusty lock popped open. When he lifted the trunk’s lid, appalling sights and smells assaulted him. He stepped back and turned away, shouting “Jesus, Mary, an’ Joseph! The Fecking Devil, Rose!”

As best Sean could tell, the trunk contained the disjointed pieces of one or more human bodies, badly decomposed and partially liquefied by the lye. Sean grew dizzy from the gory bizarreness of what he saw. His lightheadedness was aggravated by the smell, which reminded him of the stench wafting from heaps of dead fish after a Red Tide.

As he stared, what he saw seemed to rearrange itself, with scintillating outlines tracing the shapes of the pieces as they once were. He could sense, without knowing exactly how, that there were two bodies, one male and one female, intimately commingled. A horror gripped him, even through his preternatural trance, as the skulls assumed the contours of Mary and Paddy’s faces.

Sean needed several hours over a quart of whisky, which he had providently brought with him, before he could act again. By the time he stirred, it had grown darker. The Sun had dipped down and the Moon, waning now, had not yet quite risen. Conventional morality and his unequivocal devotion to family, especially to his sister Rose, were at war within him. As he was about to take the last swig of whisky, a vision of Rose holding the Book appeared suddenly before his eyes. “Mother of God!” He put the bottle down. The vision faded, but a single compelling idea crystallized and pushed all others aside: his obligation of blood loyalty to carry out his sister’s last wishes.

Sean went outside, locked the trunk without looking inside again, and nailed the eight-fold St. Patrick’s star and Mary’s ring securely to the lid. He swaddled the trunk in the old sails and tied it tightly with ropes in the hope that it would not fall apart when it hit the water or was tossed by the waves onto the rocks at the cliff’s base. It was difficult, but he leveraged the whole thing onto the small cart. He pulled the ropes attached to the front of the cart like a horse. The Moon was now just clear of the hills in the East. Sean stopped the cart several meters from the brink, and he gathered up big rocks, put them in the netting, and secured them to the trunk to ensure that it would sink. He walked up to Imeall and looked over. The cliff shadowed the water from the moonlight. He could only sense the tumult below from its sound and from the saltiness wafting upward as seawater battered into tiny droplets. He walked back behind the cart and gave it a running start. There was no sound until the final splash.

Over the next few days, pieces of the cart appeared as driftwood on the neighboring beaches, but nothing of the trunk or its contents washed ashore. Sean eventually moved himself into Rose and Mary’s house. Rose’s grave was still unadorned, and he felt an urge to make the marker himself. He got a rectangular board of kiln-dried ash heartwood. It had a dark olive-brown color that made it look like leather. Sean borrowed some woodworking tools from a friend and began carving elaborate decorations around the name “Rose,” which itself was fashioned out of curving branches that sprouted leaves and braided vines to join the bordering patterns. Except for Rose’s name, it resembled what he had seen on the Book’s cover.

He had never done carving like this before, but he could somehow discern the pattern lurking just beneath the surface of the wood. All he had to do was trace it carefully with a newfound deftness in his fingers. As he worked, he couldn’t help noticing—with not a small amount of unease—that the webbing between his fingers looked more pronounced than it used to. “Feck! For sure, I’m goin’ daft, I am.”

The Third Quarter Moon rose up from behind the hills as Sean worked on the plaque well past midnight. Glancing out the window at the newly illuminated view, Sean was startled to see five figures standing over Rose’s grave, one at the head and the other four around the foot. Two of them had a smaller stature than the other three, with the shortest standing at the head of the grave. He watched, mesmerized, while each figure in turn bent down and seemed to touch the grave.

It occurred to him, through the amber haze of his drunkenness, that they might be some local hooligans bent on desecrating the “witch’s” grave. He jumped up and grabbed the oil lamp from the table, but by the time he got to the door, they were gone. He cursed aloud, “Bloody Wounds a Christ, what’s this now?” As he approached the grave at a brisk pace, Sean swung the oil lamp back and forth every way the visitors could have gone or might be hiding. When he reached the grave and shined the light on it to see whether any mischief had been done, he was brought to his knees.

There, on the otherwise undisturbed earthen mound, were five things: Mary’s ring, the cap star of the Irish Guards, Rose’s Celtic knot necklace, the rosary beads their father carried when he went to sea, and, at the very head of the grave, the Book. Despite all he had seen and experienced so far, Sean had managed to keep his inner keel fairly even. Now, he was pulled from his moorings by a tidal wave of new feelings.

The Book radiated brightly as if touched by St. Elmo’s fire, and it drew him in until he could see little creatures dancing in the flames. His senses heightened a hundredfold. He could discern every rock and blade of grass on the distant hills, feel the slight breeze lifting each hair on his head and arms, hear Old Tom O’Malley walking in his socks on the squeaky floorboards of his house.

Sean felt his capsized spirit right itself within these powerful new currents. He was at home in the world for the first time. The many arcane things his mother had told him as a child returned with a new significance. She had warned that if he let himself enter the Real World, he would never be able to leave it. Now the voices of his ancestors, going back to the dawn of time, whispered on the wind and filled his soul.

Seals barked in the distance. Sean got off his knees and walked to the top of Imeall. The rumble of the waves vibrated up through his feet and into his chest as if his pulse were just an extension of the churning sea.

With acuity he would not have believed possible before, he could see a small pod of seals in the water out beyond the edge of the cliff’s long shadow. They were all looking directly at him. He could even see the tiny images of the Moon glinting in their eyes.

They continued to bark. Sean smiled and called out to them, with a hearty laugh, “All right, all right, on with ya then.” As they swam away, Sean sat down at the edge of the cliff. Letting his legs dangle over, he watched the moonlight play on the waves until the first soft glow of dawn.

Richard H. Durisen has lived in Bloomington since 1976 when he joined Indiana University’s Department of Astronomy as a theoretical astrophysicist. He retired in the summer of 2010 after 34 years on the faculty, with over a hundred refereed scientific publications. Since retirement, after family, friends, and travel, he has devoted his time mostly to creative writing, including poetry and short stories. His work has appeared in 713 Flash (Kazka Press), Disturbed Digest, Illumen, and The Sentinel, the newsletter of the Monroe County Civil War Roundtable).

Illustration by Ali Maidi.

The Ryder ◆ July 2014

Fiction: Animals Begin On The Porch In Days And Nights Of Dark War

Illustration by Ali Maidi

by Willis Barnstone

For Bruno Shulz (1892-1942)

Animals begin on the porch. My daughter sees them first and she says they come in all sizes and they are goats, but my son says no they are deer, perfectly-formed deer who have come in from the forests and their coats are immaculately clean pelts of Irish setters but they are certainly not dogs, and I wonder what is happening to my son’s and daughter’s eyes, because I can see they are horses, and possibly Egyptian animal deities of revenge and resurrection, and I wonder why these live statues have settled here on our porch in days and nights of dark war in far continents, live gods in our house in 1942 when our people are also contending; and while we are descending the porch the animals we’ve just spotted vanish yet we are all now in the sloping fields, family and many more animals or maybe deities, and we are walking slowly up these meadows of grass and wildflowers, and I am frightened, not of the still horses who are certainly figures of grace but of my own body, because suddenly they take all the juice out of me, and I am thinner than usual and can barely stand and ask my daughter if I can hang onto her, and my son comes to my other side and we move a bit higher when we notice a car, an old-fashioned car for the year 1942, since it is a rich man’s car from the Packard or Hudson or Pierce Arrow days of fancifully named mechanical masterpieces, and outside the vehicle stands a veiled attractive lady, very dark because of her black triangular dress and her triangular hat, and she and her husband, surely a ruddy Irishman with panther eyes, are huddling around their Packard with its red leather interior, trying to coax sunrays against the black enamel of the doors to make them sparkle with purple haze like princess trees in the afternoon.

Under the couple’s feet the fields are violets as on an English king’s speckled overcoat, but they glance forlornly at us, and they are bored and we are penniless, which alarms me because we have come from a house, our big chic house, yet those horses, the perfectly tiny ones and the huge ones who look at us, seem to sap all my energy and wealth, though not my hunger to be alive, and I suppose that, being bored, the curious couple wants our company, and Tony tells me they have asked him if perhaps we would possibly like to eat with them, and my son says yes we would be delighted, and I am pleased because the horses leave me emaciated even though they are creations of grace and beauty, without cruelty or malice, with no desire to see us murdered by famine and poverty or so wasted that we can’t move.

So we all begin to walk, still with pleasure, up the hill while the horses remain in place, but there are always more good beasts ahead of us, greeting us with pleasant silence. I’ve turned as skinny as a child but am happy that they bring adventure and wonder into our existence until I recognize that we are rambling in another continent since right ahead of us are young Gestapo officers blocking our way, and they do not appear horrible as in the films and they have no intention to burn us alive or have us dig death pits and pop us off, one bullet per body, in our open graves, but it is not as if they want to speak to us about art and poets, which, after all, many Germans like to do when they remember good old days and the celestial imaginations of their syphilitic lyrical creators Hölderlin, Heine, Schubert, and Nietzsche.

Most prominent about the officers are their glimmering jackboots, not in strict goosestep, since wildflowers are stuffed just below the knee in their combat boots and petals are flittering in the wind and the knife-eyed SS can’t see these meadow wildflowers, nor the Tibetan vultures and Mongolian ponies nibbling funeral carnations also stuffed in their boots. Humming black hymns, the surrounding animals are busy burying bundles of boots together with funeral carnations in the sky and also right under the soldiers’ romping feet. In a flash the captains and lieutenants are naked, hairy all over fat bodies, their jockstraps stuffed in their mouths, and from their tiny brown penises hang bags of creamy foreskins and white scorpions. The sun turns into black sackcloth and the full moon into blood and the SS vanish like a scroll rolling up and disappearing beneath the Black Sea. But then in a flash everything is normal. The Tibetan vultures and the Mongolian ponies around the Nazi warriors disappear instead, the afternoon is its weird self, and the reclothed officers go on doing nothing in their regular shit-brown uniforms and glimmering jackboots.

Amid a few stone horses, Heinrich Himmler’s racially elite SS are in our way but they ignore us. The paramilitary death squads can’t see us. We walk through them as if through a wall. Perhaps our protector equines intimidated them, grabbed some of their powers and made us invisible too. The Einsatzkommandos in Poland are known for on-sight shooting of musicians holding their instruments and of painters holding their brushes yes in the middle of performance or creation or house-building, but for now one might suppose they are innocently confining their curiosity to looting famous paintings from museums and enjoying the sun. The off duty SS are horsing around on the meadows, letting go in slow motion, drowning in lager, unaware that invisible equine beasts are observing them and that in the future—in five years—the horses will perform their own withering nightmare attack on Einsatzgruppen executioners on the run from the law, in safehouses, in Berlin, Buenos Aires and Assunción, Paraguay, and that with Jehovah’s anger these equine demiurgic foes of the humorless brownshirts will spit out fire and abominations on the skulking boots, and inflict on them a trial, a cell, and a noose in Warsaw.

The casual loafing around outside a town, a major town in southeast Poland with a large Jewish population, does not seem to match the hidden snapshot of German command officers, and I hardly imagine that being cool and nonchalant can be the perfect uniform for SS (Gestapo) and SA (Storm Troopers), whose mission is execution. More, they keep good records, proving how commonplace they are when they are doing their job. Take SS captain Felix Landau, who will be of special interest. He writes in his diary about daily routine three months before our gang of five happen into his command terrain:

12 July 1941. At 6:00 in the morning I was suddenly awoken from a deep sleep. Report for an execution. Fine, so I’ll just play executioner and then gravedigger, why not?… Twenty-three had to be shot, amongst them … two women … We had to find a suitable spot to shoot and bury them. After a few minutes we found a place. The death candidates assembled with shovels to dig their own graves. Two of them were weeping. The others certainly have incredible courage… Strange, I am completely unmoved. No pity, nothing. That’s the way it is and then it’s all over… Valuables, watches and money are put into a pile… The two women are lined up at one end of the grave ready to be shot first… As the women walked to the grave they were completely composed. They turned around. Six of us had to shoot them. The job was assigned thus: three at the heart, three at the head. I took the heart. The shots were fired and the brains whizzed through the air. Two in the head is too much. They almost tear it off.

Who are those equine ghosts who drop us into the demon’s jaws? I don’t know. Are they salvific friends? I suspect them of fable. Somehow they come at a time of stupid slaughter by the brain-damaged Goths. I bought a book of short stories by a nameless Polish writer, who caused uproar in my blood and a primal walk into hell. Call him Bruno or Bronislaw or Bron. A child of passion from a mother who dies at his birth, Bruno Schulz possesses genius, he is a natural, but at the peak of his brief literary career, the Luftwaffe is air-bombing Poland brutally and Storm Troopers are black cobras spreading over the countryside, including Bruno’s birth town. Bruno writes and paints until his art vanishes on a whim.

But to be fair, the actors playing Gestapo in these scenes don’t invent terror. All religious scriptures are soaked in the blood of death squads upholding the faith. Death squads are the noble protectors, the enforcers for a sojourn of torture in hell, on the Buddhist walls of the Potala in Lhasa and in Dante’s cold chambers of the Inferno. In Rome, the Italian astronomer and mathematician Giordano Bruno dares to write that the earth circles the sun. Declared a heretic, Bruno is gagged and bound to a stake and he tastes papal fire in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome in 1600. In keeping with his noble precursors, my companion Bruno is a target of Gestapo fury; he is guilty of being a Jew.

My Bruno is real yet I see him as a birdman, a mythic condor with immaculate feathers made of lace clouds, who passes his years as the overhead watch eagle, an ancient dirigible below the clouds, who is the benevolent and beautiful master of all rosewood-colored horse deities in Poland, Belorussia, and Ukraine. But that is Bruno speaking, not me. The author is a temporal mortal born in 1892 in Drohobych, by the Ukrainian border, a town in the Austro-Hungarian Pale whose inhabitants are forty percent Jews, the remainder Poles and Ukrainians. Of the eighteen thousand prewar Jews, four hundred survive the multiple massacres. After the war they immigrate. The town is clean. In his youth Bruno studies architecture in Vienna, and thereafter remains in this Galician city that keeps changing name, nationality, border, and language.

Bruno comes from a family of assimilated Jews and, unlike the Hasids who stick to Yiddish, which is medieval Alsacian German, he composes in Polish, his household language. Modest Bruno—or is he Bron or Bronnislav?—evasive Bruno is black light and illumination. This high school art teacher is solitary and shows his stories to no one near him, but does write to a faraway secret reader, to a poet medical doctor in Lvov, Deborah Vogel, the bird. It doesn’t make him nervous to write secretly to a songbird he doesn’t know (he never tells his high school colleagues he is an author) and he composes, each mythic letter about his town and its orphans and its grandfathers, and his father, a fantastic scientist, who sits each night on the broad cobbled bricks at the bottom of the chimney and discovers and tracks threatening wild cosmic comets hurtling toward the earth. He warns people to stay at home until the sky dinosaur hits devastatingly on the planet or hops off into the infinite pleroma.

His pen pal Lily Vogel pieces his epistolary masterpieces together, encouraging him for more. She nourishes him with manna. Eventually, he gives his wisdom tales to a leading novelist who gives them to a publisher, and thereby his mythopoetic letters of unknown eccentric loners in a demiurgic world are published and to grand success. Critics say he is the best between-the-wars author. The Polish Academy of Literature awards him its highest prize and he is no longer alone but acclaimed by a coterie who threaten his solitude, yet he remains the hermit, the great heresiarch of central Europe. Even when the German troops enter and Polish writer friends give him false papers and money to escape, he does not escape from the ghetto where he is imprisoned with the other Jews, and his writing frees him from self-captivity. The same SS officer Felix Landau likes his drawings and paintings and protects him for a season.

Ich persönlich werde Ihnen eine Genehmigung zum Verlassen des Gebiets, sagte Laundau. 

I personally will give you a permit to leave your area, said Laundau.

Ja, Bruno antwortete.

Yes, Bruno answered.

And Landau gives the teacher a permit to leave the ghetto and comes to his house and paints a grand mural for his children’s room.

By now Bruno is fifty, one year older than my father in 1942, and there is terror in the air and Bruno has no tiny or behemoth horses to take the energy or jackboots away from the ordinary SS soldiers who are slaughtering Jews in the streets, any Jew face they can find. That strange appearance and disappearance of the horses is ominous and comic like the high octave of Bruno’s tales and when the planet is collapsing the octave drops with tragic hilarity as when before a shower you kill a stray ant on the tub. As we walk I see that Bruno is my father, but I grow up in other continents, yet he is my father, and I am lucky to have him as a father, unlike Bruno who has a faraway fiancée and no children. But why feel sorry for Bruno the mythic visionary, who is not alone since no one is alone, and the recluse Bruno reads Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, and knows what it is to be a kidnapped brother. The Pole adds many stories about quadrupeds, reptiles and birds to his collection and they crawl out of his collection into the meadows and bellow a secret music that deafens ears of even the friends he creates and the animals in the field fall asleep, yet in the end he weakens nobody who lives in his stories.

Bruno has written a novel called Messiah, which is of a man who is always a child, a youth on the earth whom we should emulate by maturing into childhood, but the boy is himself, not the heavenly messiah and therefore he is the earthly messiah, and Bruno entrusts all his papers to a friend, including his novel, just in case something happens to him.

My daughter and son and I keep walking, and we are glad that now we are a comforting group of five and there are all these tiny and big horses near us, though I wonder if they can truly protect us, and after all we aren’t Poles or Russians or from Ukraine and why would we need protection? But suddenly the horses start to disappear, the elephantine ones and the delicate ones, and their color remains in my eyes, and I regain my physical strength again, yet I realize that there is at last no hope for us, for any of us to tell this story, because all our rising meadow leads into a street and the street into a town, Bruno’s provincial town of Drohobych in southeast Poland, now Ukraine, and I remember with fierce intensity that my grandfather Michal was born in 1860 in Drohobych, finishes the yeshiva there before he floated over the Atlantic to Boston, and yes unlike sixteenth-century Bruno, who never is released from his dungeon, Bruno the art teacher has a protector and can leave the ghetto and paints and he isn’t burned alive. Nor is Bruno burned alive like all the Jews herded into huts and temples in the Ukraine, since my hero falls when he ventures outside his SS officer’s house to buy a loaf of bread, when a rival SS Kommandant jealous of his protection fells the philosopher Bruno in the street with two bullets to the head, and on this “Black Thursday,” 19th of November, 1942, there are another one hundred forty-nine Jews shot in the streets, and when I see the bodies I discover with disbelief and displeasure that my son and my daughter and even our rich hosts, who are to buy us a fine meal for sharing our company since they are bored and we are talking art and poetry, they are all lying on the street with me shot dead in my grandfather’s town, but fortunately one of Bruno’s good friends has seen the writer’s body and at night when no one is there takes the body and buries it in the Jewish cemetery, though the cemetery disappears along with the Messiah and all the other writings given to a writer friend because she too disappears like the rest, and the animals on the porch and the meadows and in the city streets begin to howl night and day, and, behold, later a museum is built by the Poles to house Bruno’s celebrated letters and whatever saved stories are found in magazines and his drawings and even remnants of the mural he painted for his protector the SS Einsatzkommando, and the Poles are good and honor the Polish violoncellist of the word Bruno as a visionary, their grand mythic fabulist in the decades between the wars, and hearing the animals still howling I am sad to be dead near him and sad that he cannot fulfill his myth of the novel, and infinitely more than sad it breaks my heart, I am heartbroken that Bruno can’t live a long life and waken us to the hermitage of a comic mind that is more cosmic than an orphanage on clouds, and if he had lived he would have unraveled the knot of the soul and informed us of the image, but Bruno knows that art must never assume a knowledge of revelation, only an ignorance that keeps us moving, that makes us go further inside and color the darkness, and isn’t that salvation enough? And so I am not that terrified or sad because I hardly know him when I start seeing the horses which my children think are goats or deer and that lead us to discovery, and we don’t seem now to be truly dead because I am telling you of a new voice, which is always wondrous to discover, and I am thrilled and hopeful, but know I am dead because we are also shot and we are lying very still with our beautiful hermit Bruno, the secret and solitary Bruno, whom I envy for his purity.

Willis Barnstone, born in Lewiston, Maine, and educated at Bowdoin, the Sorbonne, Columbia and Yale, taught in Greece at end of civil war (1949-51), in Buenos Aires during the Dirty War, and in China during Cultural Revolution, where he was later a Fulbright Professor in Beijing(1984-85) Former O’Connor Professor of Greek at Colgate University, he is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Indiana University. A Guggenheim fellow, he has received the NEA, NEH, Emily Dickinson Award of the PSA, Auden Award of NY Council on the Arts, Midland Authors Award, four Book of the Month selections, four Pulitzer nominations. His work has appeared in APR, Harper’s, NYRB, Paris Review, Poetry, New Yorker, TLS. Author of seventy books, recent volumes are Poetics of Translation (Yale, 1995), The Gnostic Bible (Shambhala, 2003), Life Watch (BOA, 2003), Border of a Dream: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado (2004), Restored New Testament (Norton, 2009), Stickball on 88th Street (Red Hen Press, 2011), Dawn Café in Paris (Sheep Meadow, 2011), The Poems of Jesus Christ (Norton, 2012), ABC of Translation (Black Widow Press, 2013), Borges at Eighty (New Directions Press, 2013).

Illustration by Ali Maidi.

The Ryder ◆ July 2014

Fiction: To Build A Playset

Illustration by Ali Maidi

by Christopher David

“Her brain’s swollen. They doubt she’ll fully recover.”

“Her parents are insane.  How do you let a seventeen year old girl go out, all alone, to California?  Even if it is with a Christian biking group, I mean, who knows what kind of sick people are just out there, you know, waiting….”

Your left hand tightens on a spaghetti-smeared plate, your right a fresh new sponge.  The other parents talk at your kitchen table.  You frown at your wife.  She doesn’t notice.

“Her parents should have seen it coming,” Ashley continues, “High school senior or not, you can’t just let a teenager do whatever they want!”

In your backyard, the girls sprint across your well-manicured lawn.  Your daughter Danielle chases after Kayla and Josie, who run hand in hand, crying out shrilly, evading Danielle’s grasp.  It’s dusk. You’ll give them fifteen more minutes.

At the table, some sit still, others nod or shake their heads. All are silent, lost in the horrible thought of one of their own careening down fifty feet of seaside cliffs.  Ashley’s grin of faux solemnity can’t hide what she, what you, what everyone must feel. It happened to someone else.

Jim speaks up. “I don’t know, Ash. How could anyone have seen this coming? They’re good people. Good Christian people. Valerie was Kayla’s Sunday school teacher.  I mean, I see what you’re saying, but….”

You try to catch Jim’s eye, offer him your silent approval, but he doesn’t see.  He is silent now, playing it out, watching Kayla instead of Valerie slip over the edge, watching her fall, her bruised and pulped body, strapped to a stretcher, and him, forced to sit through a plane trip to California that lasts forever, rushing into the hospital room to find her covered in bandages, comatose, wondering if she will ever wake, if she will ever speak again.

The girls swing on the eight-years and up playset you bought in April.  Josie plays boss, pushing Kayla and Danielle.

You still worry there might be some flaw, some defect in the contraption. You didn’t assemble it. You wanted to. But the store sent a young Arab man to do the work.  He was nice. All smiles. You knew you ought to be building your daughter’s playset, and said as much.  He nodded and smiled. When you asked him his name he was silent for a moment, wrenching the monkey bars, and then he said, “Mohammed.”

“Ah, that’s easy to remember. Like the boxer?”

“Yessir,” he said, tightening the crossbeams onto the longer, hollow beam. “Just like the boxer.”

“I’ve heard that’s a pretty popular name over there.”

Mohammed wiped his sweaty hands on his coveralls. His eyes search the piles of steel poles, nuts and bolts. “Wouldn’t know myself. I haven’t been to Algeria since I was about four years old.  I don’t remember much.P

“Ah, yeah I guess that’d make it difficult.” You watched him work, felt stupid. “Sorry about assuming, you know. I thought because of your accent and all. I’m sorry.”

“No worries, sir.  I take my accent from my parents, uncles, and close friends.  We’re very close.”

“Well that’s good.” You smiled and nodded. “As I understand it, you all have been getting the short end of the stick, what with the discrimination and all. Pretty unfair, if you ask me.”

His low smile told you that he’d heard this plenty of times from white people. But it was still a smile, and he nodded. Jittering your empty hands at your side, you went inside and grabbed two cold ones. A gesture of solidarity, or kindness, or maybe just a beer.

Mohammed was absorbed in his work when you returned. He didn’t notice you. For a moment you stood above him, staring down on the balding whorl at the crown of his head. “Here you go,” you said. He turned quickly and you held out the cold can of beer. “How can I help?”

He didn’t take the beer.  He looked at it, then at you, and then looked away, still smiling. “Sorry sir, we’re not supposed to let our clients help with the construction.  It goes against some insurance policy or something.  Same goes for the beer.  I’d lose my job.”

“Well, I won’t tell anyone,” you said, your arm still outstretched.

“It’s also against my religion. To drink alcohol.”

You stood there, still holding the beer out to him, as clarity came. You nodded, but much too fast. “Right. Of course, yeah. Well, can I get you anything else?”

The table kicks and chuckles. You’ve missed a joke.  Your wife catches your confused glare. “Jim was just telling us about Mrs. Donavon’s hysterics down at Sir Tans-A-Lot.  You know, they just added that indoor suntan tan.”

You nod, lower lip protruding.

“I don’t know,” Ashley says. “Seems pretty ridiculous we let our government tax us so much.  I mean, aren’t heavy taxes the reason we left Britain in the first place!”

The others roll their eyes or lower their heads.  It’s bait, too plain and easy.  No one bites.

“I’m serious!  I was talking to Josh about it just the other night. We were thinking of going out to one of those Tea-party rallies.  The property tax here is thievery!”

Ashley’s words wriggle like a malnourished worm. The gleam of the hook shines.  You fantasize chucking a coffee mug at the back of her head.  As you walk across the kitchen, kettle of lukewarm tea in hand, your eyes catch the girls outside, no longer on the swings. They are standing together now, in a line, all facing the same direction, staring into the darkness of the woods beyond the yard.

A form comes out of the shadows, takes a step and then another. A dog, you think, stepping toward your daughter. “Dani,” you say, though she can’t hear you. You set the kettle in the water, slowly, too slowly, still thinking through what you’re seeing and what it means.

“Miranda,” you say slowly, and then, rushing, “Miranda! Whose dog is that?”

The parents rise and look outside.  Swift steps bring Jim’s hand to the sliding door’s handle.  The glass doors part and you step through first.  It’s about the size of a collie, but its fur is brown-grey, matted and greasy.  As the others back away, Danielle steps closer, holding out her hand.

“Dani, no!” You yell.  The creature and the girl both look at you.

You rush forward as the animal quickly sinks back into the dark woods, and you take your crying daughter in your arms. The parents, your friends, flood behind in a swirling flurry, trailing the chill of AC.

“That was a coyote!” you shout.

“It was?”

“Did you not see the teeth on that thing?”

“Must be separated from its pack.”

“Holy shit, we have coyotes in the suburbs?”

“How do you know it was a coyote?”

“Oh my God, we are so lucky.”

“Did anyone else get a good look?”

“Can you imagine if he hadn’t…?”

“Jesus.”

“Keith, how do you know?”

The question silences all but the muffled sobbing of the girls.

“How do you know?”

“I don’t,” you reply. You don’t.

Christopher David was born in Bloomington, left months after, and returned the summer he turned ten years old.  After graduating from Bloomington High School North, he stuck around to double major in French and English at Indiana University. Christopher currently lives in France teaching English at l’Université de Strasbourg.

Illustration by Ali Maidi.

The Ryder ◆ July 2014

Fiction: The Watchmaker

Illustration/Ali Maidi

by Sara E. Leslie

A dozen watches ticked, some within a hairlength of one another, but all together, somehow, as if in the same key. The watchmaker’s steps moved measuredly toward the front desk, where an open watch lay carefully positioned from the night before. His mind was already elsewhere as his hands took the watch up and fingered it, gently, with the inborn skill of two generations of repairing watches. The quiet ticking of the watches on the shelves no longer startled him. In fact, he could almost no longer hear them.

He stopped, suddenly thirsty, his hands still involuntarily moving, hovering over the watch’s open back, twisting and gliding in the rivulets of intricate muscle memory. There was a ham sandwich and a drink waiting on him in the back. He carefully laid the watch down on the glass counter, rose, and headed for the back room, giving one final glance at the watch’s positioning before the sudden, loud sound of the bell at the door.

He saw the shape of a woman and immediately turned on his heel and strode back over to the counter, pushing the watch he had been working on neatly behind the cash register. “Good morning,” he called out.

Halfway across the room, the woman was already fumbling with her purse. She pulled out something, and the watchmaker saw the glint of slightly dulled silver. “Here,” she said almost inaudibly. She raised her head and began to approach the desk, holding out the watch for him to examine. “It’s a bit battered,” she said by way of apology. “It’s…it’s come by a lot over the years.”

The watchmaker did not need to look twice at the watch to see that it was cheap, a mere bauble, but probably easily fixable. The glass wasn’t even scratched. The hands had stopped, but that was the case with almost every watch brought in to the shop. In fact, this one didn’t even look that “battered,” save a little rusting and dulling of the silver band and end piece. He held it by both ends of the band and placed it carefully on the counter.

“Do not worry, Madam. I will have the problem fixed in no time, whatever ails it.” He smiled, a courteous, easy smile, his eyes already flicking to the other side of the room where other, more important matters awaited him. She was still standing there, still looking at him. She did not seem satisfied. He grunted, cleared his throat, and then picked up the watch again to briefly examine it in the shaft of sunlight coming in through the door. “It looks like it will need some minor repairs, perhaps a little oiling to get it back to its original shine. I can have it ready for you first thing Friday morning, yes?” He smiled again, at the watch this time, placed it ever so lovingly back on the counter, and looked up at his customer. Her eyes were still on him.

“I can tell it’s got a few things wrong with it,” she ventured. “I think, in fact, that it’s been stopped for quite a while now. It’s just that I only took it out recently, which is when I noticed it had stopped.” She looked away, and the watchmaker was surprised to see a look of something close to shame flit across her face.

He had seen many women walk into his store over the years, kerchiefed and housedressed, ogling watches for their husbands. He was dismissively polite to those women, but for the most part let them wander about, alone or in groups. They never ended up buying anything. And then there were some who would bustle in, all brisk and domestic-like, and hand him the broken or stopped watch just as if they were handing in a dress to be laundered or an order for a cut of meat for dinner. “I’ll have it ready for you by Friday,” he’d say, without looking up, and these kerchiefed women, already thinking of the night’s dinner, would nod, turn swiftly on their heels, and leave without another word.

This one, however, was leaning over the counter, scarcely two feet away, staring at him openly. “Well, I might as well tell you,” she said after a pause, “I haven’t looked at that watch for thirty-eight years. For thirty-eight years it’s been lying in my bureau drawer, under a few old things of my mother’s. Only yesterday did I bring it out to examine it, and saw that it had stopped.”

The watchmaker’s eyes moved expertly over the open watch, flitting in and out of its contours. He had to pause and blink a few times as he adjusted his vision to the smallness of each piece. Most of his customers were men, so he was used to fixing men’s watches. This one, though, was clearly a woman’s watch—every piece so delicately crafted as to almost be invisible. A cup of warm soapy water and bottle of clear acetone lay at the ready next to his cup of coffee. He sighed, settling down in his chair. It was an old watch, as she had said, but an easy fix, and he had until Friday.

This was the sort of rhythm he liked—complete silence, save the universal hum of ticking in the next room, steaming hot coffee to warm his body and clear his head, and the neat parts of a coil watch spread out before him. He had seen his last customer of the day an hour ago, and now he could concentrate solely on the perfect geometry of the tiny designs before him.

He held the coils up to the size chart, spread out like snakes against the flat wall. They were the right size, and he put them aside. Next, the connecting pieces, which were perfectly linear. The gear box opened like a mouth, the gears comfortably side by side, gently touching like a full set of teeth. He readjusted his position in the chair, but upon further thought, got up and stretched.

Now came the calming part: soaking everything in a miniature hot soap-and-acetone bath, which warmed the tips of his fingers until they tingled. This took a full hour, and three more cups of coffee. Next, a slick, shiny oil bath. He oiled each piece so gently he may as well not have been touching them. At nine o’clock, he put everything back in, and then wound the watch. The tiny animal, cold and glistening-bright, like a made-up corpse newly laid in a casket, smiled silently up at him and did not utter a sound.

He grunted and turned the watch over. A whole evening’s work had yet to reveal anything wrong. Well, old watches were seldom easy to diagnose or fix, but they were still a loveable challenge. The day’s project fit neatly in his desk drawer, cushioned in a velvet cloth. The darkness of the shop finally matched the darkness outside as a flurry of gentle clock-voices bid him goodnight.

She was at the shop the next morning, at 8:33 according to the clocks on the wall. He stood in the back corner winding his favorite clock of the moment, an early 19th century French Empire mantel clock he fondly called “Napoleon Bonaparte”. He tried to mask his surprise at seeing someone in the shop so early, and walked over, his silk trousers rustling ever-so-slightly. He smoothed his hand over his impeccably-combed hair.

“How is the watch coming?” she asked as she approached the counter.  As if she hadn’t just left it with him the day before. Did she expect him to have finished? Perhaps she was confused as to when she was supposed to come back for it.

“Madam,” he said, “I assure you I am doing the best that I can. The watch still needs a few more repairs—”

“The watch was given to me when I was seventeen,” she said. “By a boy named Tico Miranda. I was seventeen, he was nineteen. Tico found the watch at a shop somewhere, thought it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He said he knew I was meant to have it. Whenever he stroked my arm he would always stop and stare at the watch, unfasten it from my wrist and hold it up to the moonlight. Sometimes he’d playfully put it on his own large wrist. ‘How did someone ever make something so small, so feminine?’ he’d ask the sky. Then he’d take the watch off and kiss the glass, kiss the frame, run those kisses down my arm to my hand. The watch’s face, the glass would reflect the glint of the moonlight. It glinted in his glasses too.”

He had never had so many words directed to him by a customer. The women that came in usually gossiped amongst themselves, and with him they were all business. He was a watchmaker, after all, not a hairdresser. He was at a loss for what to say, so he stared fixedly at the counter, feeling her breath on his sleeve. Then she spoke again, more softly this time.

“Tico left me for another girl he had met on a trip to Amsterdam, where he was going off to study that same year. I was seventeen. I had a lot of growing left to do. I took the watch off, put in a drawer under some of my mother’s old shirts, determined not to look at it or think of him. My arm felt bare and fresh for a while. The skin there felt cool and strange. I was determined not to think of Tico. But then, a year in, he came back.”

She paused: for effect or because she was out of breath? The watchmaker realized that he had been staring at a vague point below her left earlobe, and it was now making his eyes hurt. He cleared his throat.

“Ah, I see.” What did he see? Well, never mind. He couldn’t look her in the face. He should never look directly at his woman customers. It might give them the wrong impression. She seemed, though, not to care whether he looked or not. She continued talking, rapidly, almost leaning in to grab his arm as she did so.

“Tico came back, and this time he wanted more. He wanted me again, but it was different. The girl had broken his heart, and so he came back looking for me. He called the house many, many times. But I wasn’t home. Ever. He finally stopped calling. But, you know, I was sort of hoping he would never stop.”

Out of the corner of his eye he could see her hand, thick, work-worn fingers outstretched, very near to his sleeve where he was gripping the counter. He felt himself stiffen.  “Madam, I understand this watch is very important to you. It’s currently in the back room, and I’m working on it, but like I said, it won’t be ready till Friday morning.”

Her face betrayed a look of clear-cut disappointment, although he did not know what he had done wrong. “I understand.” She turned away. “Thank you again.”

Nighttime. The clock voices in the shop chimed eleven before he registered it, the sound pulling him out of the watch’s body and back into his shop. His stomach rumbled. He had rechecked the coils, checked under the glass for any small bits of dirt that might be obstructing the hands.  Checked again for rust. There was some still lingering on the bolt. He soaked the bolt in acetone again and replaced it.

As usual, he began to review memories in his mind. He had, as he long ago discovered, an exceptional memory. He could look at a picture one day and think, “Ten years later I’m going to be able to see this very picture again.” And then, thirty-seven years later, he could still remember that very moment, the square white farmhouse in the picture, the cheap gold-colored frame. Over the years he had stored up dozens of these mental pictures, and he took pride in the organization and efficiency of his brain.

Reviewing these memories one by one as he fixed his watches comforted him. Just as each little cog fit into place, so the cogs in his mind fit together, pulling out pictures from the compartments of his memory to review, over and over and over. Over and over anD….

Suddenly, his body jerked upward and his feet, already knowing what they were doing before he did, went over to the file cabinet where he kept the receipts from his estimate charges. He pulled hers out and glanced it over. Her name did not ring any bells, but it was a nice name, aforeign-sounding name. He smiled and whispered it aloud to the dozen or so clocks that listened steadfastly from the next room. Then he crept back to the watch on the desk like a guilty man.

When Sylvie Schollstein walked into the watch shop the following morning at nine o’clock, the watchmaker was ready. He was ready with an explanation of everything he had done up to this point, a detailed account of the watchmaking process, anything that would distract her from the fact that the job was not yet complete. He had arrived a half an hour early that morning, in such a hurry to get to the shop that he had forgotten to comb his hair or pack a ham sandwich. He stood at the counter because it was the only place he could think of to stand, winding and unwinding a watch coil because it was the only thing he could think of doing with his hands. At 8:34 he began to feel panic rising within him, so he went back and made himself a cup of coffee and, setting it on the desk, accidentally walked back into the front of the shop with a bottle of acetone. He remembered the clocks, and began to wind Napoleon Bonaparte.

The bells jangled as she came in. He did not turn around.

“I’m fifty-five years old,” she said. “Fifty-five! Think of it. I was married once, to a hideous man, a German immigrant. I have a son named Raúl. He’s a doctor now. That’s the family practice. He lives in Spain now, in Barcelona.”

Her heavy frame couldn’t have been more solid, more imposing, distorted slightly behind the glass counter. He was surprised she hadn’t bypassed the counter and just walked right up to him, deftly swiped the clock from his hands, and demanded ownership of the whole place.

“Back again?” He wanted to keep his tone light and airy, but it seemed like all the air had been sucked out of it, along with the air in the room. “Is there something else I can do for you, while you’re here?”

“Yes,” she said. “Make me seventeen again.”

“I… I beg your pardon?”

“When I wear that watch again, I’ll have come full circle. Fifty-five to seventeen, all in a night. Just ready for something to happen.”

He opened his mouth, ready to ask a question, if needed, although he didn’t have one in mind. He realized Napoleon Bonaparte was still lying inert in his hands and set the clock back on its shelf. Without something to hold, he realized his palms were sweating.

“I’m all alone now. No husband, thank God.” She put a hand to her forehead. “My son is all grown, and Spain’s so far away… he’s engaged, did you know? She’s from a good family, Catalan, I think, but he’s never even given me the chance to meet her. They’ll probably get married in Spain, not here… I’m alone, sir, just like when I was young, for the first time in thirty-eight years. Maybe this is the right time. To find him, I mean. Or else….”

Her voice drifted off, but she resumed quickly, looking him straight in the eye.

“Maybe it’s just as well to continue living with ghosts. His, I mean. I’m not who I was at seventeen, that’s very clear. I’ve been through a lot. But…if…were to see him again, God knows where he is…” She reached out a finger and lightly touched his arm. “Is it… like trying for something impossible?”

Her touch was warmer than he expected, and he realized that he had been wondering what it would feel like.  A faint but recognizable pulsing began at the spot she had touched, and spread lower until it had buried itself like a fleck of sand deep in a tiny crevice. He watched her finger as it dropped to the top of the glass counter and traced what appeared to be a watch outline on the surface. She sighed and turned, not waiting for a response. “This means so much to me,” she said as she left.

The watchmaker finally raised his eyes at the door clanging closed, the bell jangling wildly. His breath returned, loud, discordant. “This means so much to me,” he repeated aloud, embarrassed at the croak in his voice. “This means so much to me. This means so much to me. This means—”

“Shut up,” Napoleon Bonaparte ticked crossly.

Four-forty in the afternoon. He stood up. “Damnit!” The anger in his voice surprised him. He sat down again, sipped his now-cold coffee, took out a new set of coils and laid them all out before him. She wanted to do the impossible… and yet he found it impossible even to fix her watch. The tiny thing seemed to have taken on the hue of Sylvie Schollstein’s deep grey eyes. They were there, the more he looked. And when he tried to conjure up mental images, to distract himself, all he saw were her bare hands, work-worn, her surprisingly thin wrists. Thin and soft, vulnerable, where the flesh met the hand.

He straightened himself, rubbed his eyes, massaged his temples. After thirty years in the watch business, and his father before him, he was finally losing it. He sighed, looked for the acetone, and began to disassemble everything again.

At ten-thirty that night, he finally discovered what was wrong with the watch. One of the gears had a tiny chip on the end of one of its teeth, nearly invisible. It was a usual occurrence, but as he replaced the gear he wondered why it had taken him so long to find it. He reassembled Sylvie’s watch, gave it a once-over, and carefully wound it. The graceful, almost inaudible ticking struck up as if it had never stopped, as if it were talking to him, carrying on a one-sided conversation of its own.

The watchmaker thought about people who talked out of habit. People who talked out of nervousness, to fill the silence, to reassure themselves with their own voice. These were lonely people who paraded under a mask of confidence, who just needed, above all, to be listened to. Who said too much to avoid having to think about what they said.

And here he was, sitting in his chair, unable to get a word out to anyone.

He thought of Sylvie coming in tomorrow, overjoyed at finally getting her watch back. “This is it. I’m off to find Tico,” she’d say, or something to that effect. She’d snap the watch on her wrist and prance out like a seventeen-year old girl, her eyes shining, ready to find her long-lost love. He would watch her through the glass in the door as she turned the corner.

He would fix Sylvie Schollstein’s watch. He would give her a wonderful gift, and she would leave happily, not thinking twice about the watchmaker whom she had spilled her life story to. He was just doing her a service, after all.

After all? Panic suddenly rooted him to his chair. Tomorrow she was coming, coming to open her wallet and pay him what she owed for a service well-rendered.

“I am more,” he said aloud, “than a service well-rendered.” He clutched the watch to his chest. “I am more,” he murmured, “than just a pair of hands that fixes watches.”

He held Sylvie’s watch gently up to his ear and closed his eyes.

At 8:30 on Friday morning, when Sylvie Schollstein walked in the door of the shop, the watchmaker was waiting for her, his hair combed back and his shirt neatly tucked into his dress pants. He smiled at her from behind the counter, where he had set out her newly working, polished watch on top of a red velvet cloth.

His heart was pounding, but he felt strangely elated. Throughout the store, the clocks were ticking in perfect unison. Napoleon Bonaparte, over in the corner, was sounding especially triumphant. As Sylvie approached the counter, the watchmaker held up her watch for her to see.

“It’s as good as new,” he said. “All it needed in the end was a change of one of the gears.”

Sylvie opened her hand; let him drop the watch into it. “Oh, it looks beautiful,” she murmured. She carefully fastened it on her wrist, as he had anticipated, and the watchmaker felt his breath quicken. “I’d be happy,” he said calmly, “to charge you a bit less than we had discussed, for such a small service.”

“Oh, that’s perfectly all right,” she said. “I’d much rather pay what I feel I owe you. After all, I did come in here and bother you every morning for three days straight.” A soft, nervous sound issued from her lips, and he realized it was the first time he had heard her laugh.

“Oh, no, you didn’t bother me,” he said. “Not at all. I assure you, it really wasn’t a bother.”

She looked up at him, suddenly wistful, and he would have seen it had he dared to take his eyes off her wrist. “I’d really like to thank you, sir,” she said, “thank you for… for being… well….” He saw her wrist tremble slightly, and felt she must have been blushing above it. “I… how much do I owe you?” she asked, taking her hand off the counter and reaching in her purse for her pocketbook.

He told her, and she paid. Afterwards she stood there, wavering, her eyes suddenly too bright, her hands suddenly too eager to fidget with the buttons on her dress. Looking for all the world, suddenly, like a seventeen-year-old girl, confused and stirred and open. “Sir—” she began, then stopped. “Sir, I….”

He watched her reflection in the glass countertop.  He watched her look at him, read the unmistakable expression in her face. That was all he needed to know. He felt his fingers relax. The perfect, geometrical ticking of the clocks echoed distantly in his ear. He finally, slowly, raised his eyes and looked her full in the face.

“Thank you, Madam,” he said. “I hope you have a nice day. Goodbye.”

Sara E. Leslie is a first-year graduate student at Indiana University, studying French Linguistics. She grew up in Miami, Florida, and finds the existence of all four seasons somewhat miraculous.

Illustration by Ali Maidi.

The Ryder ◆ July 2014

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