In a Country East of South Chicago
It's 1933. Somewhere not too far east of South Chicago. Cubists are attacking.
The widest man I've ever seen stands in a doorway, made for him, that reaches beyond any reasonable width, the expanse of his barrel legs draped with stylish wool. His feet are resting in his perfect shoes, not exactly footwear but a platform for the launching of his next ambiguous endeavor.
He's peering inside the room as if afraid to enter it, though he must know all about it. It was made for him, clearly. He leans against the vast white wall, its unbroken landscape devoid of furniture or friendship. His nearly bald close-cropped head seems placed upon his rounded draped shoulders as if he were a geometrical figure. His hands are behind his back, and he watches us. For we are in the room, and we are all that is there. This is not a dream. This is our destination, and it will arrive at us.
The first egg rests on the wide lip of the surprisingly light plate, causing the plate to rise ever so slightly on the opposite side, which reaches towards us, just barely, balanced precariously. If nothing moves, it can stay this way a long time. The street is empty, sparsely adorned with benches, the bricks loose and occasionally missing. The few buildings visible far down the thoroughfare are small cinderblock industrial concerns. This house we have arrived at has a paving block yard. Behind an iron grating at the far end, the gate is open. Inside is the forest.
There is a sailor at the edge of the forest who gathers your thoughts and tows them home. He finds them in the theatre of reflections gathered between the waves. He can see anything between darkness and the painful glare of the sun thrown back by the sea, but there are thoughts beyond these limits. You, my friend, are not beyond. He does not understand that you are contained in the reflections, but he will soon find you there, inside something else he needs. He is a woodsman of water and air, salty and more passionate than his axe, which cleaves asunder the real from the imaginary. Much later, you will escape the difference and come back to yourself.
The machines of the sea air need no tuning. They are constantly adjusting to the movements of salt and moisture, and in this, they are aided by the wind. No one knows where they are going, but everyone knows that they are going somewhere. The machines must shake loose the mold from the machines' invisible parts, even as the parts travel from one machine to another. You cannot hear them, but that does not mean that they are not singing. Their teeth would frighten you if you could hear them.
A man in a long black coat that seems to swallow him holds his hands behind his back in front of the broken bench. Two women seated on the next park bench are watching him watch them. Is he wishing he too could sit down?
Did he break the bench? His posture is rigid. He appears to be mounted upon a pole reaching all the way to his gray fedora. He pivots toward the broken bench and back again. Was that a question? Will the two women answer? Suddenly his glasses catch the light and reflect it painfully at us. He is not as harmless as we thought. If he were suddenly to disappear, however, it would hurt us. There is a story here we don't want to understand, but we feel compelled.
I could imagine the leopards arriving with great speed and impossible grace, but it would not be true. They are overweight and lethargic, and the keepers spoil them with the choicest organs of slaughtered infidels. I find it comforting to sleep between them on the long cold nights near the solstice. The stink of their liver-breath grows mysteriously sweet as their breathing slows. They do not tremble and start at the metallic thud of the executioner's blade, as most of my lovers do, and they remain unaware of even themselves.
This kind of life has taught me to be the first to rise each morning.
Don't listen to my generosity. I have too much to offer.
Tomorrow the past will arrive, as it always does. My satisfactions remain damp. Canoes will be needed to invest the greater possibilities with a sense of leisure moving through the waters of lost time. I won't be able to live with myself. A different beast is busy collecting the ordinary future. Somewhere around the edges I might glimpse significance, but the middle of me just grows and grows and I surround all that I have accumulated with more and more useless certainty.
You see, love is nothing more than the ability to remember. I found something more promising in an empty bottle, and I drank it. It did not fail to be as perfect as a loosened pebble. Love can never be as complete as the momentary satisfactions that live in it.
Sometimes an insect occupies the moonlight of my departed day, and I become a perfume that settles on my lover's body, a mist of passages and betweens, never there but always arriving.
These, then, are the bricks that build the houses of the missing, and stack absences securely one on one. Maybe I startle into flame. I use opulence to reveal delicacy. Whatever you give away desires you.
The appearance of poverty still wanted us to feed it. There is a little white rat of sugar leaping into our mouths because decay grows sweet and scavenges our departing words as we jettison their temporary resemblances into the void between us. There's a beauty in abandonment if it's duly witnessed.
You see, once you arrived, and I smelled the appearance, I sent you away. It was a mistake, of course, but what can you do when you've been surrounded by the most accomplished imitations? You get practical, and you don't choose, you process, as nature does. From here to there is the way the wind thinks.
I had come to the conclusion that if the people were trees, they'd stand around much as they do anyway, whispering and gesticulating with their upper limbs as if some force beyond them were responsible for what they pass one to the other and some generosity involved in what they let fall to the earth.
The way I talked then was like lace, beautiful because of the holes.
I heard then a mother tell a shy daughter, "Remember that what men have in their pants, you put there." I wondered if she wanted it back. Then the mother said, "If a woman showers too much, she never gets ripe."
"There are some women in this country with a justifiable reputation for absence. Did you know that fish can drown," the angry husband said. "It's kind of like women being killed by gossip."
And the husband said, " That's not my wife, that's my fence."
First I was sick, and you were like the phlegm standing up, undressing. I spit you out. Later, you were naked and still wet and everything wrong had left you.
I have this life that lets me in when I let myself out. It was the slow next that came on me.
Don't ask me what I'd do with it if the experience were mine. You only have to think it to put it out of reach. (The answer, of course, is, in any case, only my answer.)
If you look at anything long enough, it changes.
* * *
Since I was there, I recorded it. The broken little fat girl said, "Why don't you knit me a bicycle to make up for your cruelty, for you have burned my hair, and I might otherwise erase you." Well, maybe that's just what she meant.
And further along, she said, "Go and squash him sweetly with a ripe watermelon."
And still further she said, "I shall offer my burnt hair in recompense."
And "I'll give you two coins for your single thought and take back three for its value," the fat girl furthering said. "I respect your desire to remain ignorant, but I have valuable gifts of revenge to offer."
And breaking the wooden knocker, she still furthering said, "Arrive now, bastard. I wish to honor you with my presence." And down the long hall of trees she ran with a great fat dumpling upon her head, declaiming in the manner of a show tune, "I shall smite thee mightily."
Tricks of retribution and great cabbagery shall I perform for thee my stubborn love, but do not defile me with smarmy endearments.
And where the roses bleed into the departed affections, there is my father's house, in which no one else can live.
And the wooden bride began to leak, and the wooden bride was neither me nor my loved ones.
They've named a tree after the difficulty, somewhere between a fig and a plum, sweet fruit with a heavy fermented kick when left too long to its own processes. These people are wiser than anyone thought. Already the priests are putting the fermented fruit in their porridge to start the day with drunken piety.
The little fat girl changed her name to Undeniable. (Sometimes a river curls back on itself and makes a lake, which is not a river, but sometimes seems to remember.)
In the window above the bed, a poorly lit television screen is playing a French philosophical drama. Ordinary creatures endowed with symbolic significance move slowly in and out of the scene. It might surprise you when you notice one or two of them are actually people.
It was winter and still, the earthen doors closed by a blanket crusted and hard on the outside like glass. The windows the grass made were still a mossy green and crooked. I thought about how seldom anything new wasn't straight or gently curving, a couple of ounces of tender lessening each day, the evaporation uplifting until you reached for its aspirations.
And always the girl's lovelove eyes saying, "I think I have to follow you around." That was in the days when the weapons could still be carried, and there still seemed to be some things the fire wanted to do alone.
It was a kind of tapestry that wasn't exactly waiting for me.
I decided I would no longer leave my house in my bathrobe.
I lived in a puddle of myself, the way minnows and wintering birds change whole schools of thought, instantly.
It was a foreign country. I'd lived there all my life.
Here in my historical closet, jars of toads and erotic snuff boxes of fleas. The baby has a cabbagehead, so Undeniable said, " I simply don't understand wet lips."
"She finds you amusing. Could I then be your gated access?" Undeniable wished to know. And with a wave of her lace handkerchief . . . .
"Oh, but a simple rag like me could not harm you."
That's when I decided it was a person who was talking, who was saying things she'd said before, so she only had to agree every once in a while and not listen.
That's when the snotty older woman in the story said, "I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Kurtweil Johannsen for the fine job of engraving he did on the illustration plates, which remain pleasantly absent from the delightful final version. Had they appeared, I am sure he would have appreciated the laudatory exultations that would have spilled from the astute minds of the very best book reviewers and award-winning liars." Or something like that.
And the same woman answers a question popping out of the cell phone, saying, "I was told that the natives' color was not good, but it wasn't clear if that meant too little or too much. Sometimes I found their personal space difficult to tolerate."
And the woman hangs up with a sigh.
And the woman says to the disconnected cell phone, "They thought they knew I was a stranger, but I was stranger than that."
And the cell phone says, like it always does when it wants to be heard, "Be bop a shoobledy op de bop bam boom."
And the woman's voice gets louder, saying, "How do these creatures get to where we are when we don't know where that is?"
And the woman says, "Naturally, I was shorter then. I had to . . ." stops in mid-sentence to order a grilled tuna sandwich and an almond mocha and doesn't seem to miss a word from the cell phone, which doesn't seem to be saying anything.
* * *
A head was sticking up out of the ground with a helmet of butterflies. The butterflies were so beautiful that no one wanted to disturb them to find out whose head it was. Undeniable gazed at it for hours as the many varieties of butterflies came and went. She didn't speak. She didn't respond to questions. She didn't seem to have any needs. The art of empty perfected her.
I may have been the only one who wondered about the loved ones, who may have been frantic with fear over the fate of their missing family member, although if I watch the news, I can't complain. It could be much worse, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who goes to see the butterflies, not just to watch, but to hear the music of everything leaving. I cannot say what it sounds like, but it's made with what you find every day and the butterflies are letting it through the web of what you notice.
I went to visit the cabbagehead baby, and a man who was acting like her father answered the door. I didn't know she had a father, anyone who admitted it I mean, and he didn't, but he was acting fatherly, and he was cooking some eggs and talking about how he was moonlighting as a handlebar repairman, and the cabbagehead baby was paying attention. The sputtering eggs seemed to be talking to her.
I tried to act interested in what he was saying, and he offered me his vial of laudanum and said, "Just call me Bottlehead." So I did, and he laughed and held his fingers up to his head and twisted them like he was winding the gears.
After the cabbagehead baby ate the eggs, it fell asleep, and we went out on the back porch, where a big pot was bubbling away like a witches' brew. I could see some things in it that made me think it was fishbones and beetle stew. Turtle shells and snakeskins were nailed to the wall. You could tell they were older than the man was.
I don't know why I'm telling you all this, but I've noticed how a lot of us around here just act like well-trained chairs, and I want you to think of me as a surprise, like drawers full of crayfish and rows of butterflies and beetles pinned to the wall above the bed.
While working, the artist recited statistics in a soft, tearful voice. He wanted to paint "correctly" and by that he meant accurately. He had heard a story of John Singer Sargent having painted someone in such detail that a doctor diagnosed from it the disease which the man who had posed for the painting soon died of. Sargent said that wasn't enough. He wanted to paint so well that the illnesses his subjects had yet to contract would be evident.
The artist often preferred compliments on what he had yet to master.
Each Tuesday the artist entertained the children by eating his cigar. Wednesday he spent the day alone.
A man of violent passions, the artist immersed himself in theory so forcefully that it appeared he had acquired a new religion, whereupon he would then consider the alternative with even greater passion.
Even after the discovery of his masterpiece in a thief's attic and the ensuing fame, the artist was reported by the privileged few, who visited his hidden studio, to have "cooked on a woodstove in the midst of the most disorganized squalor."
Like an inchworm feeling for something beyond the limb on which it has purchase, the artist worked slowly and usually had to try several possibilities before moving on. Twenty years after the discovery of his masterpiece, the artist told me he had not had enough time to finish it yet.
The artist placed the final line of his sketch for the painting he had been thinking of, took fright, trembling uncontrollably, sat down and stared at what he had done with his mouth open, and finally got up and opened the window. He slept for two days and upon arising, asked which child had done the drawing. He wanted to ask the child for permission to paint it. "A portrait is merely a landscape in which something unimportant is missing."
* * *
Your tools look like they belong to a dentist, and I'm told you use them well, but you're designing rooms to keep the people in, and the people don't want to know what you do with those tools. The rooms are fashionable and the people are trying to be. There's a place for your grandfather clock and Uncle Holbein's beer stein. One room is filled with jazz and abstract paintings. A piano calls out in French blonde wooden decorum, and a row of horses seems to be grazing contentedly inside the ornate hardwood frame above. Don't be in a hurry. You'll get used to it. Soon enough everything will seem black and white.
Your alarm clock sleeps standing up. Somebody spits in the soapy water of the kidney-shaped sink, but it's not me, and someone might think they're supposed to soak the dirty dishes there, so I drain it. Coffee makes itself apparent. Cigarettes aren't smoldering but have been. A derby hat drives the expensive foreign car to the gas station and fills it up and collects a couple of pinstripes from the psychedelic disco club with Dixieland overtones and the silver wheels seem too large for its leisurely pace though the suit driving does not. The wheels seem to reverse direction as the car speeds up. Greening along the way at sunset, farm implements seem to have adapted well to their meaty diet. Boogie woogie piano and ragtime blue guitar from the speakers. Boxing on the rear-seat television, which looks too much like a mirror. A rear window rolls down and the sound seems to be coming from outside, moonlight spinning its own vinyl. The car stops and the music and television wink out. The pinstripes are silent. Night soundtracks the dream they are having, the driver disappearing into his seat as he has been trained. The pinstripes breathe deeply, trying to make the world enter their world before entering another. It doesn't last long. The driver has his duty.
You arrive before the pinstripes. Climb the wrought iron fence. Jimmy the ancient lock. Check the pockets of the coats by the door. When you hear a noise and freeze, do not take the annoying sound of the fly caught by the spider symbolically. It's just something that happens in the corner of the window. Nothing so obvious in real life unless you aren't expecting it. Try to fit in. That's you laughing in the mirror. Those legs beneath the table belong to Giorgio and Gyurky. Their faces have seen themselves too clearly and it shows. You wouldn't want to live there. The old woman is Madame Carlanova. The child is her granddaughter and her finger is innocent, even if it points at you. Notice the sugar bowl in her other hand. Madame Carlanova doesn't know who you are until she raises her pince-nez to the bridge of her nose. Surprisingly, she smiles and gestures you forward towards the coffee cup and the dice. Giorgio scowls and nods. The child smiles and you begin sweating. Madame Carlanova places two sugar cubes in the coffee. You roll the dice and roll the dice and you're winning every time. Your fat cheeks are red with glee. If there's another woman in the game now, she's losing. She bets her ruby ring. She bets her house. She bets whatever you want. The shadows beneath her eyes are intoxicating. The child licks the lip of your coffee cup. How will you carry all your winnings? The woman pours you a glass of absinthe. The child toasts you with the empty coffee cup. Perhaps there are two children now. Their tongues are far too red.
Upstairs the woman draws you a bath, squeezes scented water onto your chest. Madame Carlanova begins your manicure. Giorgio needs to do his eyebrows first before he shaves you. The candelabra seems to make the bowl of melon slices glow.
How do you know this is yours? Your nightdress leaves sparkles in your hair as you dance to the bedroom. Now the nurse wheels in the bottles and tubing. Your blood looks thin on the way to the purifier. You can hear the applause just before the cock crows. and the golden paste that holds you together comes back down the tubing. The way the fog is such a soft blue as the morning light struggles to break through seems still to please you. Why not? You have no better life to attend than your own. Gyurky will see to it that you are adequately propped up to see the morning struggle. The gears of the landscape are turning. Deep in its Gothic castle the pendulum keeps its reliable score. Pulleys and chains draw the moon and stars closer. The numerals of the sundial remain in the shadows of the overgrown garden. Bat-winged gargoyles hold the crest above the gate, a thick green fluid dripping from their mouths, which seem to emit the muffled screams of mice. Their wooden eyes turn towards each other, questioning the intruder's disruption of their conquest. Rats are hammering a tiny bell in the clock tower. It sounds like water ringing a chime. An old woman cutting staves from the birch trees next to the marsh hefts her bundle on her bent back and passes without any sign of life, as if she were made of carved wood. A bucket full of water waits for someone along the path. Did the old woman scare you?
Down the hill in the town metalsmiths are hammering out a new voice for the river. More wooden people have gathered in the square to discuss its beauty and the changes it will bring to the village. The pinstripes continue riding in the limousine, never arriving.
In the meadow a limberjack is splitting wood for a canoe. His axe rings with the cry of a large bird, cracks the tree loose from its foot, and takes in the satisfying thud of the body before stripping it and breaking it open.
The torturer advances, looking neither to right nor left, eyes focused as he crosses the vast plain between he and the great chair, plagued by wind and storm, restrained by mud and ice, to that distant location in the room where the great chair resides with a black rubber tube sticking out of the bottom of the chair, and thus seated, the torturer witnesses the advance of the weather, normally kept outside.
Next to the square the church hums quietly. Inside, women with needle fingers are finishing the bishop's cloak. There is a spiral staircase down to the scales and stamping tools of the metallurgy room. The hands of the workers are clawed and efficient, shaped by their work.
The roads to the village are choked with traders this market day, and the merchants arrive before dawn. Sheep can be heard calling for attention they don't want at the market, where a single golden pear commands a hefty weight of coin and baskets of toasted mice change hands freely. The butcher and the owner of the vineyard have set up next to each other. Wine and blood flow freely, and the bright gutter attracts a crowd. A smiling pig's head on a stake makes the customers laugh. The haggling over prices sounds like chickens chastising their own barnyard, as chickens are wont to.
In the fermentation room, a set aside bowl of salted porridge and a loaf of curled bread tempts the rat hiding in the bag of wooden roses. Amorous mice wait their turn behind the wooden barrels, where it seems safer. A guard wipes his beard and burps like a soft cannon, remembering his days as a soldier.
At the edge of the city square, the rug merchant admires the fleece of a fur bedspread. A veil of yellow lace shades his burdened eyes. A sack of potatoes disappears into the coffin-maker's cart as he discretely retreats. The salt seller thumbs the scale as he laughs and entertains the flirtatious farmwife. His apron is stained with a smeared dusting of gold. Coins and jewels pour from the mouth of the magician's trunk and just as quickly disappear. The smooth face of the tailor's wife glows. The jeweler kisses her neck as he lays a golden chain upon her bosom and gestures to the naïve husband to suggest how worthy she is of such treatment, and his is only temporary. A long blue feather bounces from his jaunty hat. His delicate fingers tease her ear, her wrist, as more golden trinkets begin to weigh her.
Across and down the cobbled street from the market, the theatre sits idle until evening, the prisoners jailed in its basement sleeping off last night's excesses. Someone's hiding under the stairs.
Rats are tunneling beneath the village where seepage from the sewers has softened the earth. A blood sausage stored in a cool basement disappears down a rat hole. A red handkerchief helps line a rat's nest full of blind babies. The fur on the mother's head has been greased back by a meal inside a horse drowned in the river. An angry husband chases an emboldened rat with a meat cleaver. "I'll show you," he says, having cornered the rat, and slices a corner of his foot.
A surprisingly large battery of French Country Folk begin dancing about on the frontispiece. "It'd give 'em a tinkle 'en, wouldn't it?" says one of the actors. "'ello then, I'm yer new Vicar, and this here's me elderly Pouff," says the other. Born near Newark, New Jersey in what appeared to be a Martin Scorsese accident, although charges were never brought due to the disappearances of the injured, he himself had appeared to have been throughout much of his early life a rather tedious ponce.
He had him some rather large legs for a man with such a foreshortened torso, which might have been unfortunate indeed had he not needed them for all the running he accomplished at the expense of his commitments, and he was, it later proved out, the real inventor of the appendage storage system previously attributed to a now forgotten contortionist.
Claims to the contrary concerning the administration of the subject, "naughty bits" have now been thoroughly disproven although the control center limitation theory remains suspect.
The torturer wishes to see the singular atrocity complete itself, and so the black rubber tube stretched and stretched itself further out of the chair by way of the torturer's intestinal system, which has already leaked but accomplished its purpose. The tube has stretched to the table, drained the water glass residing thereupon, and the tube appeared then to look under the chair, finding nothing, and the tube continues until one of the officials places a pair of plastic joke-shop teeth upon the violated table where they click and they click and they click and while the noise continues, the torturer opens his mouth and more plastic teeth are there inside, and he clicks them and clicks them and clicks them, in consequence of which an official solemnly shaves the surprised hair off the doorknob which, at this point, remains conveniently on the door, and he puts on a clean shirt, pours a bowl of dirty water all over it and attaches a timer to the bowl of dirty water, whereupon his head shrinks and falls in the bowl, and a bare-branched winter tree appears on the back wall. The remaining official tries to examine it. His chair sticks to his bottom, and he walks with the chair attached, leaning over.
The stranger arrives in a cloak and leather pants, his shirt soft and flowing against his muscular frame, his fingers long and thin, nearly malnourished some might say. His pointed beard denotes purpose and the villagers speculate, wrongly. A fisherman watches him cross the bridge and suffers yet another idle fear as he drifts in an eddy. Leaf shadows play upon his shoulders as he waits in the shallows for the man to pass. He does not allow anyone to witness his methods. His bag is full, and he may be the only one in the village who feels satisfied.
The stranger lives in the mountain beyond the river. That's what they say. Or they say that he lives in the moat that surrounds the castle. Or they say that he lives in the sea.
The stranger falls in love with the creek that flows past the theatre. He climbs the spiral staircase and gazes longingly down at its passing. The stranger stops the pendulum, and the creek waits for him. He enters the creek and lives out his life inside its suspended flow, a long full life that none of the villagers even notice. To them he has simply drowned himself in the water, and all that has happened in the pause of its flow has happened so quickly it is not even there, much like the rest of their lives.
"Bit of a nipper 'e was," said the first actor, apropos of nothing, and apropos of less added, "two dolphins on a Moped and a bit of Porcine aviation, I'm told. Nearly destroyed the Reptiles on Wheels program, what with those little bobblely-headed dogs he mounted on the dashboard."
"Fish, salt and plaster was all I ever knew the cheeser to come back with and now he's mowin' 'is floor. Got him a little dachsund pulling a Dutch milk cart, he does. You can stop now. The cream-shirts ain't havin' a bit of it."
Now we must enter the water, but not to leave these people behind as the stranger has done. We must enter the water and let the water enter us. It flows inside us as we would flow in it if we gave ourselves to it.
And the fisherman watches the stranger in us disappear into the river as he continues pulling what he needs from the place of his birth. Sometimes he walks through the village looking for the people who live there, and he cannot find them as they go on about their inconsequential behaviors. Once he heard a baby crying and took it to the river where the creek flows into it. That child was not a stranger for long.
A small coffin skitters across the room on tiny legs. On the table a hammer and some large square nails have appeared and seem to be watching. Beneath the silver wheels of the limousine, the village waits, sunk into the cobblestones paved over and quietly sleeping, just as the two young maidens in pinstripe pants and creamy silk blouses will sleep at the end of their evening, having traded and bargained and offered themselves up to their dreams and their sense of adventure.
Someone's hiding under the stairs.
Your tools are there.
* * *
Think of it as I do, one scene at a time, as if a roomful of the curious were watching lantern slides projected on the wall by the old man who collected them, the room as silent as the night they found the body of the first young boy. The only sound coming from what the slides make the viewers imagine. Dutch villagers begin gossiping, smoking long-stem pipes and knitting outside the community center. They refer to the thief as The Ogre and try to imagine how he has managed to steal two children. The village is not yet a modern place and many folktales influence their understanding. They seem to think these tales make events easier to understand, even if more frightening.
A little boy pees in the straw in the loft of the old barn. Something that sounds like a faint theremin whispers in the background, as if there were a soundtrack. From here the boy can see Roderick kissing his sister goodnight, as he has for more than a year now. Stealing through the night, is there some secret meaning a brother should know? Near the mouth of the inlet, hippie nymphets cavort in the ruins, led by Luna, ex-wife of the landowner, who arrives on horseback with whiskey and her latest conquest, a huge man with flowing red hair, and she wails like a banshee at play, scattering the mock-frightened clan into the woods. A chicken sits perched on the whipping cart that pulls her through the streets, the laughter of villagers as she is set in stocks. A piper plays while the banshee howls.
No, it didn't happen, but their mood is the same as if it did.
The hanged man is gentle now. Death is a fine magistrate. Heathen charms. Consorting with witches. A wild dog, frothing at the mouth, calmed by a stranger. A gravedigger swilling grog. I must think on how you've been calling the stranger to a meeting of the faithful. Can't you see he's dead, bully boy? Stepped down from his carriage in his velvet hat and bent slowly over like a willow. Rolled onto the ground and never moved again. Unentombed by the believers, the dead man had nothing to say. No scratching on the inside lid of the coffin. No telltale stains on his burial cloak. No gestures but resignation on the features of his fallen face. His widow watches him bound from the carriage that carried him to the graveyard three years before, her hair gone white in a single day.
You must lock yourself in. I will kill as many of you as necessary to protect the secrets. What do you want for the return of our peace? I will give you a silver dress. I will sacrifice a rooster on the block to foretell the dangers. Watch the two children on the hillside looking out over the cut field of wheat stubble to the stone house in the middle of nowhere.
Finally they notice the stone well, and it makes them thirsty. They run towards it, coats flying, and it takes longer to reach it than they could have imagined. The boy goes first to see if it's safe while the girl watches, holding her satchel. The boy approaches slowly and disappears around the other side. The girl waits for him to reappear, and he doesn't. The girl can tell from her patient vigil site that the stone house is deserted. You can hear the wind walking through it. Still the boy does not reappear.
There is a pulley above the well, but no rope and no bucket. The girl is very thirsty. Finally the boy steps out of the house. How did he get from the well to the house? He will not tell. The girl looks down the well into the deep darkness. She throws a stone in and hears nothing at all. Later she returns alone. She calls down the well, and the wind answers with a low howling that does not stop. She retreats to the house.
Inside the house there is nothing but a stone table and the bones of a dead animal. The girl tries to assemble the bones on the stone table. It appears to be the size of a small dog, but she cannot discover what it is. She places the bones in the basket on a bed of straw. The young boy is teaching the young girl to shave. He touches small pieces of toilet paper with lipstick to simulate cuts. The young girl is listening to the railroad track. In it she hears a story of a fox and a story of a goat and a story of a weasel and pretty soon the rail is so busy she cannot make out any of the stories anymore, and then the train comes and erases them.
The boy returns to the well and sets his satchel on the edge of it. He searches the earth floor of the house, believing there will be a rope under the dirt. When he returns empty-handed to the well, his satchel is gone. She licks the wound and kisses the boy on the forehead, leaving faint lip marks of blood. The boy does not seem to realize that he has been marked. The girl is dead.
The boy raises one of her arms, lets it fall, raises the other one, pauses, afraid to prove she is dead. Where the girl's body was the bones have been laid out in an exaggerated larger version of the animal they once were, just as soon his memory will do, but for now he closes his eyes, and the shadows of the bones dance across the stone walls. He watches them all night until the bones stop and whisper. Let me sleep. Their shadows dance across the stone wall. The ring of a bicycle bell tinkling across the field invades the quiet. There are rose petals where the bones were that replaced the girl's body. In among the red ones are three yellow ones.
She ties the stranger's shoelace. It's dark and the dogs are coming. Dogs barking in the distance, the owl calls her name before carrying around so much baggage there's no place big enough. The egg gets out of bed and dances in front of the mirror. A large block of blue wax sits on a table in the middle of the room. A spoon lifts the egg up to the ceiling, and it keeps right on dancing, from edge to edge, bumping itself against the ceiling, until the spoon tilts and the egg rolls off. The egg rolls up against the television set, and it turns on. There is the egg dancing on television. A drawerful of spoons appears on the television set, and the drawer opens and closes, opens and closes, the spoons getting more and more excited each time. The egg climbs inside a corrugated cardboard box, and the box moves around the room like a small automobile. Finally it nuzzles up to the television set, which contains now frantic spoons and pushes it out the door.
The cardboard car tries to back into the room again, and it can't, it's caught in the door, which will now neither open nor close. The top opens, and the egg appears, rocking back and forth as if mounted on a spring. Each time the car tries to move forward, the egg rocks back and forth. Each time the car tries to move backward, the egg rocks back and forth. The egg starts to sway a little from side to side as it rocks. It's getting dizzy. A small noose descends from the ceiling and circles the egg. It holds the egg steady while the car tries to escape the door until the car gives up. Suddenly the car drives off forward, and the egg is left suspended in the air, dancing. The noose lowers until the egg reaches the floor, and the egg continues dancing. The egg dances and dances and soon it nears the block of blue wax and dances around it, gradually shaping it into a blue egg. Suddenly the door opens, and the television set slides back into the room. There are photographs of eggs appearing on the screen, egg after egg after egg, each one emerging through the middle of the one before. A photograph of a blue egg appears, and the next photograph bumps it from behind again and again, failing to replace it. The photograph of the blue egg dances and dances. It seems to be moving along a path. The path arrives at a door, and the door opens. The photograph of the blue egg dances into the room. The photograph of the blue egg dances to the mirror and there's a blue egg in the mirror. It dances over to the wax blue egg and looks back. Still a single blue egg in the mirror. Suddenly the wax blue egg begins dancing. The television's blue screen is suddenly again filled with excited spoons. A hand wearing a black leather glove descends from the ceiling and offers the dancing wax egg a stage, which it accepts, continuing to dance. The photograph of the blue egg is getting agitated and paces over to the television set to watch the excited spoons. The door opens and a spoon enters. It dances to the black leather glove and begins beating itself against its fingers. The glove pulls back and the wax egg rolls off, rolling over the photograph of the blue egg. The spoon beats the photograph, and its egg cracks, spilling yolk. Everything stops moving in shock.
A rabbit climbs a steep rock cliff. At the top is a table. Perhaps he will be having tea. On a shelf attached to the ceiling is a mousetrap loaded with white cheese, a small fortress built of wooden blocks, a paper boat, and a tipped teacup. Browning apple cores are lined up on the windowsill. A drawer is open under the top of the table, and the rabbit hops into it. The drawer closes.
A young girl arrives. Perhaps she is looking for the rabbit. She hops into the drawer, and it closes behind her. Inside the drawer the rabbit is eating a bowl of oatmeal. Now he is wearing white gloves and a silky blue vest. He puts on his blue top hat and offers her oatmeal.
The young girl begins to eat, but the bowl is filled with grasshoppers, and as she looks up to complain, she sees beetles spilling from the rabbit's ears. The beetles fall in a wooden bucket, getting smaller and smaller until they cannot be seen. Suddenly the bottom of the bucket is gone and she is falling.
She falls past shelves full of ceramic dolls and soldiers, she falls past jars of canned fruit and vegetables and blocks of cheese, she falls past coal and wood, she falls past sausages with rusty nails sticking out of them, she falls past jars of mushrooms and rabbit's feet and buttons, she falls past jars of amber liquid with elephants inside, she falls past a jar of live frogs, she falls past a stuffed eagle about to leap on a painted turtle, she falls past a wooden hummingbird hovering inside the skeleton of a cow, she falls past a jar of sea urchins and a jar of eyes, she falls slower and slower, she falls past people mowing lawns and catalogs of antiques, she falls past dollhouses and tricycles, she falls past kitchen windows with mothers washing dishes behind them, she falls past a rocking horse, she falls past a pair of shiny black shoes, and when she finally reaches the bottom, there is a room filled with teddy bears, and there is another table at the bottom and a door that seems to be locked and a window that looks out on a meadow and a window that looks into the next room.
The young girl tries to open the windows, and neither one will budge. Angry now, silently crying, with tears dripping down here cheeks, she pushes the table over and breaks off one of its legs. She smashes the window onto the meadow and climbs out, but it's only a large painting set a few feet back from the window into a solid wall. She shrieks and climbs back in the window and does the same to the window into the next room, which is large, and for a moment gives her hope, but there are no windows, and the only door is too small and as she cries, she begins to shrink. She moves now in ragged, abbreviated turns and starts, her face looks like porcelain and has only one expression although it is a complicated one.
Finally the young girl is small enough to go through the door, and when she opens it, water pours into the room and begins to fill it up until the young girl has to begin swimming. A mouse in a top hat swims onto the young girl's head and begins a fire in her hair. He is cooking sawdust and stroking his whiskers. The young girl lowers herself under the water, and the mouse swims off. The girl swims to the table and climbs on. She falls asleep, exhausted, and when she wakes, there are no walls and no room and nothing at all to see. She closes her eyes and dreams of food. After a while she feels the table bumping against something. The young girl lies in the grass. Exhausted by a button that rings when you push it but nothing else happens and another button that opens and closes an empty drawer and another button that spurts a thick green liquid that smells like mint and another button that makes all the buttons disappear and there's another table the same as the first two with a large bird-cage shaped like a house on top of it when the girl climbs up the ladder a bell begins ringing under the bed is a pile of toothpicks she pries the door open with a pair of scissors and in the drawer are more scissors a small black carriage pulled by white chickens fish and bird skeletons marzipan cookies falls in the vat of milk that's inside a doll looking out through a porcelain mask a jar of light-bulbs nails sprout out of the sausage she finds a sardine can opens it and out spill large wet beetles the sailor mouse climbs out of the sugar bowl his body growing longer and longer as he drinks from each tea cup the sailor mouse dead in a mousetrap holes in the floor with sawdust around the edges long slippery creatures like stuffed eels sliding in and out of the holes a rabbit drinking the baby's milk baby climbs out of its blankets and it's a piglet and piglet begins crying like a human baby sailor mouse butters his hat and offers it to the young girl sews an extra eye onto the rabbit pulls the rabbit from his hat with a disgusted look tosses rabbit aside among playing card figures sword-fighting baby playing cards a wooden man wearing a chest full of pocket-watches playing croquet with petrified flamingoes and hedgehogs three bearded aviators earwigs can pinch/bite and secrete vile-smelling secretions back wings ear-like in shape don't climb in human ears don't really fly but glide from higher locations stowaways on ships one species first reported in Seattle in 1907 adults emerge from underground nests in July 30 eggs closely watched by mother like corn processing plants "starch bugs" eat other small bugs including fleas and
* * *
Back home, Gyurky is in the first square, which contains the damp smell of leather and aging sweat. There is very little about this square that suggests geometrical balance. There is no inclination on the part of its participants to involve themselves in numbering. The first square is not the first square but perceives of itself as the first square. I am, for the moment contained within the smells of the first square, several of which I cannot yet identify. I know who I am, but not what I am. The brothers do not approve of this. The brothers are not brothers. The brothers worship only brotherhood.
The entrance was there when we arrived, but it was slower than I was and had a wooden flap with a knob on it that got in the way if you didn't give it the right kind of attention.
Undeniable's house only had one door, so we called that door the other door. There was someone on the other side of it sometimes, and it wasn't Undeniable. That's how we recognized the party. It helped our attitude for the times when it was a bill collector.
The second square makes me realize that when I break the tender bones of the cabbagehead babies, I do not know if their hollow crunch bears any relationship to the conclusions I draw from the passing of a guillory cart on the bridge above my attentive head. The emptiness in my bones grows heavier with marrow from the results of my self-seeking journey. Each step brings me closer to a different version. The darkest part of the journey is not just before the end. It is the end.
Gyurky was another word that sat there like a rock, but sometimes I sat down on it. Or kneeled in front of it to get a closer look. Or thought about it when it wasn't there. I guess it influenced me. I guess it was in my life like Tuesday was. I guess I was about up to the edge of it, and I wanted to see what was on the other side. I wanted to get closer to the danger.
This thing I do, with words, it's a little like talking to clouds, only dirtier, and it keeps me busy. The widest man used to think that was important. Now he doesn't think anything, as far as I know, which isn't too far, which is why I talk to clouds. They've been around a lot more than I have, and it makes the words lighter. Until you do this thing I do, you probably don't think they can get so heavy. Sometimes I only carry around one at a time, and if somebody asks me something, like what time is it, I might just say, "rust," or "atavistic", or if you're lucky, "pollen shoes."
In the third square, I thought the reason I was there was actually the reason I was there. I taught the wide man everything I know, so now I don't know anything anymore. I'm doing something in the attic now, but there never was an attic, and I've forgotten how to come down.
If you ask me what I do, I'm happy to say I don't know. One time I thought I knew and then I said it and it was wrong. I wondered if it was wrong to say it, and then I said that, and it was wrong.
I'm trying to say that there's something final about what I'm saying if I could ever say what I'm saying right, and sometimes I get a glimpse of it, around the corner, going the other direction, but it's not as hungry as I am, and it doesn't need me. It's got something better to do, and I want to know what it is.
In the fourth square, the people that are left look so purposeful, always on their way to something, and I guess I am too, but I'm easily sidetracked, which is why I notice how purposeful others are. I wonder if they notice how I don't really have to be where I'm going. They don't either, but they don't think about it until they see me.
There was something going on in the wide man's head, but it kept the blinds pulled. I couldn't tell if he was enjoying the solitude or not. The wide man was an affirmative kind of guy. I hadn't noticed yet that he lived in the mirror I had been eyeing, but I was watching him realize this.
There is a door to each square, but it is not available to any of the four equidistant sides. The meaning of the square must be understood realistically.
The fifth square is actually a repetition of the first, but it sits in the mind as an idea, which makes it a possibility. It contains something incongruent and tasty like a juggler made of cheese. It's only by accident that it smells like a barbershop.
The most serious of the many misconceptions of the square is that it is, by nature, fair.
Gyurky, however, was not one of the misconceptions of the square. Gyurky was irresistibly arranged as an uneven wandering line. Gyurky drew himself from one person to another as if his life depended on illogical associations. Perhaps it really did, but later, much later, I realized they had all occurred within the square.
* * *
There is an empty jar within the square now. It contains memorabilia of Gyurky's visit to his former lover — three pearl buttons, a Superman tie clasp, two tickets to the opera (La Traviata, I think it was), an uncooked curl of macaroni, three blue shoelaces (Gyurky never explained this), a tiny locket photograph of Rastus, a former neighbor's miniature poodle, a pink toothbrush, a piece of rice paper with the date and the exact time of Gyurky's mother's death. These things were poured into the ocean from the ferry during our second year together, the day after his father's death.
The square is now six squares, a box actually, each providing access to the other five, all sealed shut now, with Clifford inside. Clifford is what I call all my friends when they come together. There is a door, of course, to Clifford. Clifford opens it easily, but I do not.
I am not the artist of Clifford I once was. I no longer have the fortitude, for example, to continue crunching the bones of the babies, even if they are naturally expired sea creatures intended for medicine, because it now cannot benefit Clifford directly. I know there are others who deserve the babies and the attention I learned to lavish upon their passing, but I cannot continue without Clifford's health at the end of my ministrations. I can no longer make the connection between grinding the pigments for my paint and grinding the bones of Clifford's continuation.
Inside the box is another box. It is exactly as the first box, but it is another box. There is a door, of course, to the other box, but it is the same door, and the box is still another box.
Rich Ives has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, Seattle Arts Commission and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines for his work in poetry, fiction, editing, publishing, translation and photography. His writing has appeared in Verse, North American Review, Massachusetts Review, Northwest Review, Quarterly West, Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, Virginia Quarterly Review, Fiction Daily and many more. He is the 2009 winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander. He has been nominated seven times for the Pushcart Prize. He is the 2012 winner of the Thin Air Creative Nonfiction Award. His books include Light from a Small Brown Bird (Bitter Oleander Press — poetry), Sharpen (The Newer York — fiction chapbook), The Balloon Containing the Water Containing the Narrative Begins Leaking (What Books — stories) and Tunneling to the Moon (Silenced Press — hybrid).