Dear John #3
Wild Iris is a self-taught artist based in the UK.
Anomaly, a journal of literature and the arts
Wild Iris is a self-taught artist based in the UK.
Halo Lahnert is a nonbinary artist living and working in Philadelphia. Their visual work has been shown at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, the American Mountaineering Museum, and Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop, among other places, and has been published in Floromancy and The Emergency Index. They can be found at reinterpretation.org or @best.halo on instagram.
Kathryn Smith is the author of the poetry collections Self-Portrait with Cephalopod (Milkweed Editions, 2021), winner of the 2019 Jake Adam York Prize, and Book of Exodus (Scablands Books, 2017), as well as the chapbook Chosen Companions of the Goblin, winner of the 2018 Open Country Press Chapbook Contest. Her poems and visual poetry have appeared in Gettysburg Review, Willow Springs, Fugue, Poetry Northwest, The Journal, Brink, Permafrost, and elsewhere. Find her online at kathrynsmithpoetry.com.
That night she sighted gossamer tendrils of fire waving in between the trees, and began constructing a jagged, irregular path toward the light. The fire was a tiny, effervescent hub in the midst of all the embanked dirt and dusky, wooden trees—legitimate fervor enclosed within, sound and all but an implication of its true vividness immured from the external world, only a lambent glow escaping to travel out. She sensed insects moving toward the scene like she was; they flew through the paralyzed night air and marched over the landscape in loosely regimented hordes. The insects would be respectfully ignored by all parties. When she got to the fire it would be necessary for her to engage in social exchange so as not to be immediately defined as enemy, and routed, or worse, killed, or worse.
There was no easy way to announce herself, but options that put less urgency onto those around the fire were marginally preferable. In hope: they already knew she was approaching through the forest; they had heard her footsteps; they had seen her figure; they had deemed her unthreatening enough to allow her to come this close, and closer. She was not unthreatening, but it was better for everyone if they believed that she was. She had thus far been unable to count them. They were very quiet, perhaps in apprehension of her nearing. The moon was only a thin tear in the sky overhead. It was moving in the direction of the river.
They expectedly stood when she entered the clearing where the fire had been cultivated. She insinuated herself among them by offering up recent game.
The Objective Is Disclosed
“Right. Traveling on your own for some time now, et? Lost a home or left it? Or left it in ruins of your own making? Wouldn’t put me in any sort of ethical bind by elucidating—I’ve got no spare skin to put into any games that belong to you, no offense. Any case, you’re small and you travel lightly, in all senses of the expression, meaning that you won’t be any kind of liability or millstone for myself or Alberik over there, right? You won’t be. Et? I’m a materialist. What that means is I only believe in what’s really there. One of us—any of us three—keels over, founders, falls by the wayside, deflates, stoically marches off a cliff? As soon as that man—or woman, as of now—isn’t moving, isn’t getting back up, he or she is gone, yet? Permanently. Ontologically. That goes for me too. You can hold me to that, et? And his or her belongings can no longer belong to himself or herself because he or she has categorically vacated the premises. Up until exactly that point barter and bargain is still in effect, though we all try to be reasonably friendly. Et, Alberik? I’d think it’s certainly superior to foraging alone—especially a young woman on the smaller side as yourself, if you don’t mind me being forthright. Not that I’m demeaning your dogging ability. That was a welcome surprise, if a little hair-raising. You understand. Yet. You get it. Anyway, the tracking. Either you already know, or you’ve been itching to finger-read my sulci through my scalp. Right. We’re tracking—you understand the difference between ‘tracking’ and ‘dogging,’ right? It essentially falls to me to explain all of this because Alberik decided a long time before we met each other that there’s no such thing as conversational weight and consequently that it can’t be shared equitably, so why bother. It’s fine; I’m not of the resentful kind. Just attached to my daily dose of truth-in-jest. We’re tracking the Nomophantodon on its long march over and across the Western Forest. We have been for some time. You heard me correctly. Yet. You do know? What it is, I mean. Et? Oh alright. Few months back I wouldn’t have believed you, would’ve thought you were pulling a sack over my head, but—what was it, Alberik, a month ago?—Alberik and I came across a village—I guess you would call it a village—of cave-domiciles where not a single child, mother, or man could report recollection of a single mention of the thing. And get this: we moved on and within half a day came across tracks—guess none of them ever left town, or maybe it’s the ones who did never came back, et? So I do believe you. Are you younger than you look? We’re following it for more than one reason. There are never singular reasons behind these sorts of things. There are many groups throughout this forest, you know—a lot of them much more populous than our little band. I’ve heard tell of throngs of gadrauhts, laochs, even cuauhmets moving in pursuit of the creature in nearby regions. Personally, I don’t think anyone thinks they can kill it. It’s entirely possible that the Nomophantodon is immortal; I would wager that nothing crafted by pale hominid hands would be able to pierce its hide. Guess it’s possible that some castellan on the roam unironically thinks he can take it down, if he were ever able to get his army close enough. That’s a big ‘if,’ et? I’ve never been under any such illusions. No shells, scales, wool over my eyes. I just want to see it in person. Set my eyes upon it as the sun sets its mythic fire upon the sky. Maybe touch it. Maybe try to sink a knife or a polearm into its hide. If I can. And I’ve invested so much in the journey. Lost so much, you understand. Uprooted me. Deterritorialized me. I’ve made it my grail. You could say that, yet. Alberik—I don’t know too much about his motivations. Don’t know much about yours, for that matter, so the two of you are nearly on level ground. He’s a quiet one. Yet. But he’s dependable; the type where you never have to worry about accommodating the potentiality where he doesn’t fix his task when yours depends on him fixing it. Watch out for the little drop off ahead. We’re going to maneuver around. I just wish you spoke more, Alberik. Et?”
Put Another Way
“Ceterum autem censeo Carthaginem esse delendam.”
They Set Up Camp
She foraged dutifully for dry wood, striking down the impulse to confirm whether either of the men were watching her in order to verify that she was indeed working, or for another reason. A state of confidence in her ability to contend with any unprompted aggressions they might ostend toward her did not mean she was wholly free of uncertainty. She was naturally inclined toward permanent vigilance, especially toward human beings. These were the first human beings she had encountered in some time. She entertained a mental perspective of their party as microfauna, perhaps in search of a sufficiently bountiful source of water. The Nomophantodon, regardless of its current location, diminished them, cosmically, on account of its own prominence.
They used severed vines to tie themselves to tree branches, in apprehension of the sinewy amphibian prowlers who were known to make their way inland during the nights in this region. She wondered if Ryker was aware that Alberik seemed to know his navigational decisions before he declared them. She made sure to always let the men carve and distribute, to avoid showing her own blade. Even if they probably knew, given her initial peace offering—the sack of deboned rabbit husks.
“Now that we have a new companion,” said Ryker, “We can begin to trade atavistic and spiritual tales in earnest. May the best man—or woman—win!”
Definition of Ryker
You notice that the face is at war with itself, the hardness of toil and labor nullified its alliance with the weathering of age and now the two no longer complement one another but embarrass and discompose. The whole face is discomposing—the whole face is decomposing, but so is everyone’s; but it can be more painful to honestly look such a face (in the face). You can’t tell for certain whether there is sadness mixed into the canvas somewhere, or whether the juxtaposition of other qualities encourages the mind to conclude sadness. Either way, you feel a bit sad, looking at him, occasionally, for the odd moment. Then it passes. You know deep down that he probably experiences sadness—if he experiences sadness—in the exact way that you do, when studying him. His footsteps in the brush are plangent. He reminds you of what your brother might have become, if he had been granted the chance to age. Does that scare you?
He looks as though his joints pain him when he moves, but he moves regardless. He marches. Always marches. He sometimes has tremors in his hands that cause him to drop what he is carrying. Nobody has brought it up (including you), presumably because it would be his own responsibility to do so. You deemed that just at some point without cogitating deliberately on the issue. He does an impressive job of keeping his clothing relatively clean, as well as his skin, though you have up until this point never seen him bathe. You expect you will, eventually.
You find yourself dressing him down, out of what is a totally nonsexual curiosity. His body would be purely functional, his organs full and vigorous. He seems to be emotionally in his element standing on the tops of rocky outcroppings. You wonder what he was like, when he interacted with the cave-dwellers, if he spoke to them the same way he speaks to you. If he speaks to Alberik the same way he speaks to you. Compared to yourself, or your idea of yourself, he is uncommonly civilized for someone roaming the forest, yet he is respectful of the ecosystem in a manner you believed to be inaccessible to civilized individuals. His face is kind. He must cut his own hair. His accent is minimally invasive, restricted to only a small set of disturbed phonemes. It’s utterly impossible to imagine him drinking or smoking, though it is certainly possible that he may. It’s utterly impossible to inquire about his home without being impelled to divulge information about your own. You know some things: believes in an afterlife; is unafraid of encounters with sizeable lizards; has at one point been a father.
In Which the Girl Experiences an Acceptable Kind of Fear
“Saw a bear out in the woods. Relatively big.”
“How many legs?”
“Six. At least.”
“We’ll strafe west. Get closer to the river.”
List of Things Which the Nomophantodon is Not
The Nomophantodon is not that which holds the sky aloft
The Nomophantodon is not malevolent
The Nomophantodon is not powered by natural gas
The Nomophantodon is not heartbreak, America, or anything equally vulgar
The Nomophantodon’s steel caterpillar treads are not less than 6.26 meters in width
The Nomophantodon is not non-Euclidean
The Nomophantodon is not agriculturally insignificant
The Nomophantodon is not a McGuffin, nor is it an instance of Chekhov’s Gun
The Nomophantodon’s idea of courage is not so different from ours
The Nomophantodon is not political, and shame on you if you ever thought it was
The Nomophantodon is not referenced (at least not explicitly) in King James VI’s Daemonologie (1597), nor is it referenced (at least not explicitly) in Arthur Prior’s Formal Logic (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955)
The Nomophantodon’s pincers are not its primary means of attack
The Nomophantodon isn’t going to be the end of the world, if you ask me
“What I’m getting at is: what is the least that can belong to a living person—not shared, right—for that person to qualify as an individual? We talking a brain and a spinal cord? The brain alone? Et? How much can one lose and yet remain whole?”
“A long time ago, I knew someone who was two people—a little girl and a little boy sharing a body. Their mother told us that they were twins who had rejoined inside her. Before the birthing. I thought that was backwards—that twins begin as one being, when they’re within, and that they must have not succeeded in separating from each other before the birthing. They never successfully became two. When they died, I heard about it—two spinal cords, two brains.”
“How old, when they died?”
“Young, still. Maybe seven.”
“Seems like they were each individual personalities?”
“They seemed like it.”
“Right. So we have evidence, up to a certain point, yet? That point being a brain and a spinal cord. Maybe it’s less, even.”
“I don’t know. I only remember what I saw.”
“Fair. What do you think, Alberik? The minimum needed for psychic individuality. Consciousness. All that.”
“The capacity to feel deprived.”
Definition of the Girl Herself
Girl because she is still lithe and strong and quick, not because she is premature or prepubescent. Girl because accepting womanhood is an equivocation for accepting motherhood, which is an equivocation for taking root and becoming stationary, permanent, extending in vertical bidirectionality as a tree, taking on nature’s inherency. She has known women like that, and she has loved them, but she is not as they were, at this point in time, and if she is to some future day become like them, such a metamorphosis is concealed perfectly behind some fourth-dimensional curtain, and therefore cannot not be accounted for or factored into decisions present and world-stoppingly pivotal in their presentness. If nothing would promise to ever change for her, she would run and sneak and throw herself apocalyptically from cliffsides onto still waters and laugh and scream savage jubilation at the night and hide away food for the winter and ice for the summer and fire from the Gods—
Image of Crocodiles
The small village, an untethered satellite which had managed to become stuck on and sink into a tributary at some time during its wafting through the ephemeral forest, was structured centrally around a single watermill, about the height of tall man with another half of a tall man standing atop his head, which was no longer in use. The three of them unfolded as they entered the demesne: Ryker far right, Alberik center, Maya on the far left. She was the first of them to come across a body: a bruised, ugly corpse missing fingers, pierce-marks discharging thick webbing, a head wound which probably had been the decisive blow, indentations suggestive of a mace or mace-adjacent bludgeoning weapon. She signaled to the others and they proceeded, cautious and alert.
The houses were small and spare semi-trapezoids built out of the ochre wood of the massive trees which towered toward the sun and dwarfed below them everything save the great Nomophantodon, which was carrying forward as if by inertia somewhere in the distance. Maya pushed through a door and was met with a greenish, mouldering meal, and cutlery on the floor; there were florid stains on the miniature pitchforks, clotting on the wood base. No residents.
“Been a battle here,” called out Ryker from far to the right when she had escaped the hollowed house. “Found any food that’s kept?”
Maya responded in the negative.
Some paces later: another corpse. Eyes noticeably smaller than the last, with high cheekbones and a pallid, capillary-streaked face. Sections of skin dyed blue. This one was armored in dull cobalt, which had been shorn open around his midsection, as if someone had managed to skewer him precisely between the abdominal plates and blast his lower viscera out the other direction. The wounds had been suppurating. Unlike the last body, however, this one was twitching around the pectoral area. Softly, she applied her knife, and opened the ribcage. The inner sides of the curling bones were red with cruor—from the front of the heart protruded two aortas, one fully formed and the other only partially; the two spouts alternated in glopping up short hemoglobic splashes.
Closing in on the center, where the great big wheel was arrested in the stream. Sunlight refracted up from the water gorgeously, and there was a nice breeze. At the end of the little wooden bridge to the watermill structure lay an injured woman, propped up against the side of the building, with broken arms. She began to move uncoordinatedly when she caught sight of the three of them coming toward her. Maya looked to Ryker, who was looking at the woman. She was probably a few years older than Maya herself.
To Maya’s confusion, Ryker said “It’s going to be alright, et?” The woman said that her name was Thaïs.
Ryker asked her what had happened to the village.
“Gauls more like Ghouls—raiders painted in woad ’scended on us. It weren’t like any I’d seen before, in the wildeswald—eyes were sunken, and bleedin’ blight. It were a sickness to them, like plague-form manifest. Everything’s been uncommon after the passing of that great huge thing past winter. They stormed us in automatic testudines with peltae and poleaxes and carried some off, but they tossed most in the river. I dragged myself over to the mill when they were gone and couldn’ notice me here. To see if any of them were still living, down there. If they were living and in need. I don’t know how I’d help them if it were—I can barely move anymore, and it’s too difficult to get up.” Her voice was soft.
“Can I touch you?” said Ryker. When the woman nodded, he pressed down several times around her shoulder joints. Maya was perplexed by the projected implications of what seemed to be happening.
“If I’m ’live, there could be others,” Thaïs uttered. “The raiders weren’t so thorough by the time they’d got most of us. And they were with some sickness—even I could tell.”
Alberik, who had been standing over the three of them, departed to explore the remaining buildings.
“Right, well first things first we’re going to fix your arms,” said Ryker, “Maya and me.” Maya stared at him in consternation. Even if she healed, the woman would be weak and parasitic for some time. Ryker didn’t seem to care. Then they went about re-socketing her joints. Maya held the sockets steady as Ryker wrenched the limbs into place. The woman breathed out soft screams. It took several minutes.
They consolidated with Alberik on the way out of the village. Thaïs certified that there was no food left worth taking. Maya observed Alberik cleaning recent stains off his knives.
Meanwhile, Maya is considering that Thaïs’ thighs and breasts are much fuller than her own—a much more voluptuous figure. This would be advantageous to her; in terms of consumption, most people are likely to eat those parts of the female first, for practical reasons of accessibility and efficiency. Where those of Thaïs are evidently tender and filling, her own breasts are small and high, and her thighs are thin and tawny from running hours a day. She wonders whether it would be appropriate to thank Ryker in some way. If he knew.
Definition of Alberik
An unbreakable alloy frame coated in molecularly-binding liquid skin—catalyzed upon initial oxidation once model is released from the assembly into the greater compound. Allow the model to settle for 5 to 10 hours before attempting to touch, as external temperature may reach temperatures of over 450K before superficial cooling can take effect. Once fully adhered, the solidified skin will soften and become indistinguishable from standard tissue. Both secondary and primary external reproductive organs of either sex (or neither/both) may be induced to develop at the user’s discretion.
Internal structures are predominantly vitreous; microscopic fiber threading constitutes a protective cage around each vat-grown organ, decreasing the probability of internal rupture and/or functional collapse of organs when the model is externally traumatized. This feature has been tested against ballistic weapons up to and including M870 Modular Combat Shotgun and B&T APC9 Pro-K Sub Compact Weapon from a minimum range of 20 feet, as well as various vehicular collisions. Current research indicates that the maximum weight that can be loaded onto the model before irreversible damage begins to occur is around 4,000lb, for a duration of no longer than 35 minutes. Nervous system resembles standard, but efferent division between the somatic and autonomic systems should be regarded as strictly arbitrary, given that the nerves are individually programmable, and may be customized by location, access to certain structures, or any other criteria.
Also programmable for the model are the ethical and aesthetic inclinations, religious venerations, metaphysical presuppositions, curiosities, and other cognitive motivators. New models come preset with a database of over 100 virtues (Nichomachean model), or the user may code his own. It is recommended that introspection be relegated to minimum settings if major cognitive alteration is induced, in order to prevent anti-socialization. However, preliminary testing has indicated that the probability of major psychical malfunction for any reason—internal or external—is less than 3%.
“My given name at birth was Albertus II. Albertus was my father. He was a great and respected man. During my childhood they adorned his name with honors.”
An Ornithopter Is Sighted Over the Trees
The sky was a warlike orange.
“That’s important isn’t it? Isn’t it significant?”
“You don’t think it’s important?”
“It could be important eventually, but it certainly isn’t important right now.”
“What is it then?”
“An ornithopter which we’ve sighted above the trees.”
“You don’t think that’s meaningful? You don’t think that means anything?”
“An ornithopter flying above the trees?”
“I’m not really seeing what you’re getting at.”
“I think it looks really pretty up above the trees in front of that warlike orange sky,” said Thaïs. “Those spinnin’ propeller-blades… It were like fine flower petals combined with iridescent insect wings all ’holstered together into a helix. It’s gorgeous. I’d like to see a sight like that every day.”
The four of them trickled down a declivity to the low grounds along the river’s edge, moving gingerly between humongous rhizomes which burst forth from the sloping ground. They traveled along the bank for a time, carrying thin spears which Alberik and Maya had fashioned just in case they were to spy any trilobites that had gotten themselves stuck in the shallows. The hypnotic whine of the ornithopter faded beyond, but after some time it was replaced by the sight of geobukseons crawling across the current. At the center of the entourage was a larger ship, a ziggurat made buoyant, atop which several figures interacted, though much too far away to hear. They hid in the brush until night came, and did not set any fires; the only light came from the gasoline torches fastened to the top of the ziggurat, where a single person had been chained in a reproduction of the Vitruvian Man. His screams evaporated into the cool night air, and though she could not see the colors in the darkness, Maya knew that his blood was pouring down the steps of the edifice and into the dark water. They took turns keeping watch until morning.
The next day she set traps and came back to their camp with three rabbits, though none of them had much meat on them. None of the others had been lucky enough to catch anything at all. They were running out of food, now, going day by day. She watched the shadows of the trees moving across Ryker’s face. At one point he started to shake until spittle came out of his mouth and he held tightly to the stone he was sitting against; the rest of them enacted the custom of refraining to remark.
Later, Thaïs said to her: “It were really impressive how you caught those rabbits. My brother was able to do that, it used to be. I was thinking that maybe you could show me how to. My arms aren’t so strong yet, and I’m having pains in the cubital tunnel, but I maybe might be able to tie together knots or whatever it is you do to catch ’em. And I bet you’d ’ppreciate someone else helpin’ you with it.”
“I probably couldn’t teach you how,” replied Maya.
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Covertly Aberrant Psyche
“Should I bring Thaïs with me to scout the bluff?”
“You should do whatever you want.”
“I already do.”
“But what I’m asking is, would it bother you if I did? Would it make you upset? Et? I’m just asking because I’d like to know.”
We mustn’t forget about the Nomophantodon. The creature continues to tread across the forest whether we ignore it or not, and it would be much more intelligent to pay attention, because it isn’t going anywhere. It has been suggested that by preoccupying ourselves with the Nomophantodon, we put ourselves into some sort of bondage to the creature, make ourselves its slaves. I acknowledge that this may be true, but then I ask: what other option do we have? What other path could we take, could we have taken? We’re inevitably going to come across the trail left by the Nomophantodon, no matter which direction we’re moving in, and once we find ourselves on the edge of that trail there is little we can do but follow it to its inevitable denouement. At this point, we’ve tried everything: we have attempted to leverage our own symbolic authority over the beast, by tethering it to names of our own creation, as though fixing the referent of some phrase would truly define it for us, as though we could enslave it semantically and then knock its knees out from under it; we have attempted to battle it, to worship it, to unify with it on the astral plane; we have achieved nothing through these endeavors. It still moves inexorably forward, and we are towed behind it like discarded toys. Even as we live out our short lives, as we arrange and violate our marriages and repair our guitars and hallucinate wildly and stop at windows to view our reflections overlayed with whatever machinery churns inside and return to school at the end of the summer, the Nomophantodon continues on, and we pursue it, whether we admit to that fact or deny it in all our amassed impudence. So you see: we are not the masters here. But despite all this, I beg you, I beg you, I beg you; please do not cease to remember what is undeniably still here, somewhere just beyond the horizon, mind-flattening in its magnitude. We cannot allow ourselves to masquerade ignorance as self-determination. We must never, ever forget about the Nomophantodon.
At which point Ryker said, “Right. So before I met you, Maya, Alberik and I had been traveling alone for—what was it, four months? Three? Right. Yet. Been traveling on our own for three months, just the two of us as a duo. I’ve known Alberik for a year and a half abouts, now. For the first year—well, more than a year, if it was three months—we had a party of five total. Yet, one more than our party now. Except it all wasn’t quite so equitable, as two were children. Yet, kids. Little larvae. You know. Probably lost a lot of kids when your village was sacked, et? They throw ’em in the river or did they take them with them? Fucking flower wars. I’m sorry. Sorry for cursing too; I don’t usually curse, usually, under normal circumstances. The two little ones were my daughters. Yet. Eight and ten. Probably won’t say their names. It would taste funny. We also had my wife with us. What a trooper she was, et? A real trooper. We came about Alberik when we got—well, I won’t say where, actually. Hippocratically bound, in a sense, you could say, et? Confidentiality. It’s a respect thing. Don’t mention it. Alberik has done a lot for me, over the last year and a half. Where was I? Right. So we all got to know each other real well, and we were making good time, tracking the Nomophantodon. In those days we still had a lot of the supplies we’d brought from where we came from on us. Very different part of the forest—trees were a lot lighter-colored. The trouble materialized when we found out that we had to go through part of a mountain range in order to keep up the pursuit. The tracking, yet. An art to tracking. Yet. Well, we got a good part of the way up, except then it started to get cold. And craggy. Whoever’s aegis we’d been operating under up till that point had apparently expired, and Alberik and—and my wife, yet—realized that we were going to have to adapt to the climate, so to speak, and there weren’t really so many options for how to do that. You’d say that’s accurate, Alberik? Good. Well all of the adults came to an agreement, and we sat the girls down and explained to them—explained to them that anyone who keels over, founders, slips on a specious sheet of ice and cracks his or her head open on the stony ground, receives a knife through the carotid artery cutting off blood flow to the brain and so on and so forth is for all intents and purposes expelled from social existence and becomes a non-thing, of which non-person is a subclass. And after that there’s a nice large, complete body, et? Even kids are sort of large when you consider them as esculent material. So I took each of my daughters in turn—and I told Alberik that I wanted to do the killing myself for both, because up until they were gone they were still my daughters and I loved them more than anything in the world—and took the life out of them. And that’s when my wife became animalistic, and Alberik had to hold her back while I tried to reason with her about how there was no point in losing it now, and how I’d absolutely felt like desolation personified while I was doing it, and how I’m not strictly a utilitarian, but there was no morally superior option offered in the situation we were in, because if we had let them eat us instead they probably wouldn’t have made it down from the mountains regardless. Yet, well that’s the thing, too. She consented to it, before we did it. She agreed. I don’t know. I thought she was more like me than I guess she actually was, fundamentally. No way of knowing that sort of thing, et? Not until something happens to show you what’s past the veil. But to close off, my wife wouldn’t let up, and was trying to injure Alberik, and we had to demap her too, ultimately. The whole process was awful. I’m sorry. Yet. It’s hard, yet. Alberik remembers how difficult it was. But after that we had quite a lot of food. Ate essentially every part of them. Would last us through the remainder of the mountains and some time after that as well. Didn’t mean to make you cry, Thaïs, I hope you know that, et? My girl. It’s alright. Right.”
Do you know what love is?
No one has found the fulcrum.
“We’re all much more different than we are alike. We have nothing in common.”
“That’s untrue; we’re all tracking the Nomophantodon. We have that in common.”
The Horizon Collapses Perfectly Inward
They tie her to a tree, arms bent backwards around the round trunk. They nearly have to dislocate her arms again in order to fasten the wrists together in the back. Ryker offers Maya the opportunity to kill the woman, but Maya says she doesn’t care much who does it either way, so Ryker is the one who cuts her throat. The blood makes a stripe down the middle of her body. The body is apportioned into three dinners, and the other parts are collected to preserve for later. Ryker is shaking and vomits once during their meal, but Maya understands that this is not a result of some philosophical apostasy. She asks him if he is sick, and he answers yes, he is sick. Alberik produces a disyllabic sound that includes the voiceless velar plosive and the repetition of the close back rounded vowel, says something about prions. While she does not recognize the word, Maya understands why, essentially, Ryker is sick, and has been for a while. She thinks about the past. Meanwhile, the forest continues on, like waves, in eternity.
Will Dempsey is currently a graduate student in Philosophy at Brandeis University. Before moving to Boston, he has lived in Northern Virginia and St. Louis, Missouri.
A Black Hole was discovered on the edges of town, in the woods. She started very small; you could barely see her unless you were standing in just the right spot, looking for the bugs and leaves she would suck inside. You could barely hear her unless you were listening intently for her polite burps, which created the softest of breezes and made your arm hairs stand up as they brushed over you. As citizens learned of her existence, more people were pulled in by her magnetic energy field. With each passing day, she grew larger and more powerful. And then she needed to be fed.
Her inky ripples never stopped moving. We soon adopted her way of life ourselves, so as not to displease her. In our sleep, we wiggled our toes so she would know we were always ready for whatever task needed completing. The neighborhood council hung signs promoting the benefits of lack of rest. Loitering, lollygagging and laying about are all against the law, punishable by death. There are only two ways to escape this fate if found guilty: give something you love dearly to the Black Hole and thank her for the opportunity to do so or sign up for a program giving all your earnings to the Black Hole until she feels she has been repaid properly.
I do not want to say what I had to throw in. I will say I miss it every day, which pleases the Black Hole until I feel her calling out to me again. It is always more, more, more. It is never enough.
Because of this, some people feel like they can never win with her. They make a conscious choice not to adapt. They choose a spot in a field to take a break and breathe deeply. We all know what will happen at the end of this silent protest. Moss collects over their limbs and eyes, torsos sewn to Earth, bones piling into dust. The Black Hole pulls them towards her gradually. The whole process can take days or weeks or years depending on how far away the field is from the Black Hole. They are sucked in for their indolence. All records of their existence are thrown into the Black Hole: children, pets, college degrees, cars, books they loved, albums they memorized, t-shirts from basketball camp they had kept since middle school, an oil painting by their grandfather that hung in their living room and made them smile every day, a half-eaten turkey wrap left in their fridge, encouraging post-it notes they’d scrawled to their partner and stuck to the bathroom mirror, a jar of sand their mother sent them from Jupiter Beach. The Black Hole and most everyone else forget them instantly. A few times I have seen their confused and lonely spouses wandering the fields where they were last seen. I assume they are wondering if this type of sacrifice was worth it if no one remembers anything of the person except them.
Men talk about the Black Hole as if she is magic. What did we ever do before she told us how to live? Now we have a reason to get up in the morning. Now we have no excuse not to be lazy, unlike those other people in other towns who know nothing about commitment to something greater than themselves. Sometimes I feel deranged because I cannot tell anyone I do not worship her.
Someone comes up with the idea to start charging everyone to see the Black Hole. It is a natural wonder of the world; you can’t just give those types of thing away for free. Even though it is a requirement that we see her, we still have to pay. If you forget to send in your payment, you will be charged extra when it comes time to see her. It is hard to keep track of when you are supposed to pay whom and how much and I wonder if the Black Hole planned it this way.
Deep inside my chest cavity, there is a yearning I cannot explain. It has been there in pieces ever since this whole thing began. Longing for something that is not there. Craving for doing things differently. Obsession with emptiness. My own personal Black Hole.
Vanessa Mancos is a television and short story writer living in Los Angeles. She enjoys hiking, finding new and inventive ways to destroy the patriarchy, and hanging out with her fluffy Calico cat, whose quinceañera recently went viral on Twitter.
Jacques was a person in history.
Jacques had a little cat.
One day, the little cat crept into the bathroom while Jacques was bathing. The cat walked up to the tub, sat down on the floor, and watched. Naturally, Jacques was naked. Jacques saw the cat see his nakedness, and Jacques felt shame. The shame was unusual because it was complex. The complexity took a long time to unpack when Jacques told the story to a room of scholars in 1997. The story was original and emotional, humbling and pathetic—but not too pathetic. The scholars argued that Jacques’s story was appropriately pathetic. Also, it was lovely. It was a lovely story. But it wasn’t true. I know because I was there. I was in the bathroom, next to the cat. Jacques did not account for my presence.
Throughout the history of the West, people have treated animals like garbage. The difference Jacques makes is he said he felt bad about it. He felt shame. He was naked.
He was ready to exit the bathtub.
He had risen to a standing position and was issuing the signal. He was using one of his tan fingers, which was bent and dripping, to point at the towel on the rack. Except he wasn’t pointing at the towel on the rack: the rack was bare.
Fuck, shit. Where was the towel?
Fuck my face off my head. Run a sword through my neck because I’m an asshole. I’m an asshole and I’m stupid. I’m so fucking stupid—
The towel was in the dryer.
The towel was in the dryer, and the dryer was in the laundry. The laundry was in the alcove, which connects to the kitchen, at the opposite end of the estate.
“Be right back.” I turned, and I ran.
What is a TA?
The stick isn’t universal, you know. It’s not even standard. It’s his, and you don’t really know him, do you? No, I think you do not. You know the one you serve. You know the one you serve, and I know the one I serve, and the sticks are different. How then can I present myself to you without disappearing behind the shadow which is cast by the thought that your master did build in the miserable fist of your vision? You’ll have to take me at my word when I tell you what I am. I’m worthless.
Some days get fucked, so what. There wasn’t a towel on the rack. And I suppose there was nothing to be done about it, no action under the fucked-open sun to make up for the one I should’ve remembered to accomplish an hour earlier, i.e., retrieve the towel from the dryer, and return it to the rack.
Jesus, fuck. The TA handles basic tasks, okay? Such as grading papers or working directly for any professor who by virtue of excessive fame and/or age requires day-to-day assistance and emotional support—and I told him not to worry, didn’t I? I told him to stay put. I said I’d be back in a jiffy.
Well, no. I didn’t really use the word “jiffy.” I would never use that word. I cite it now because it’s kinda cute and very casual, and that’s the way I want you to see me. That’s what feels comfortable, you understand.
I ran in the direction of the laundry, which connects to the kitchen, and since I’d already fucked up the day, I stopped at the fridge, and I grabbed a can of beer. The beer was a Dale’s Pale Ale. I really liked that beer. I stored some in Jacques’s refrigerator. Jacques didn’t care, and he never touched it. He didn’t drink much at the end of his life.
I went outside by way of the sliding door in the breakfast nook to sip my beer on the patio. I smoked a cigarette. The cigarette was an American Spirit from the goldenrod pack. Upon reentering the house, I felt looser. The beer had mattered because I hadn’t eaten. Plus, I’d already ruined the day, and the ruining felt like relief, you understand, and so I strode like Goliath over the expanse of the kitchen to the alcove with the laundry in it, feeling good in the place where my body was meant to exist, or where it supposedly endured, or whatever, it just wasn’t there.
The alcove was chilly, which gave me an idea: I should warm the towel in the dryer. If I warmed the towel in the dryer, then I’d produce time, perhaps ten minutes or more, which means I could have another beer, and I could smoke again.
There’s no such thing as a good decision, right? And Jacques was exactly where I’d left him. He was staying put. He didn’t want to slip on the way out of the tub (not again). Holding steady, he was clenched and curved and cold and probably very angry. Cold anger should be enough to make a man want a warm towel—I’d want one—and so I speculated that Jacques was wanting, probably. Meanwhile, the cat was just watching. It was spying on the shape of his sex.
The word “sex” belongs to Jacques, by the way. Perhaps I should mention that I don’t care for the body of his work. I loathe the entirety of his scholarship, pretty much. It itches me. It itched me. All the time, I was itching.
What. It’s not like the wait would kill him.
Do you need me to say it outright? I was not trying to kill Jacques Derrida. I’m a fiction writer. I write novels, which, defined by word-count, are really short stories that resemble scholarly essays about literature, but given the state of the academic job market, see—whatever, fuck you.
This story is not an impotent attempt to channel Poe.
Okay, Poe’s an influence for sure. I’m drawn to his style, mostly the hair and coats. The neck ties turn me off, but I love the pants in that photo. The one where he’s holding hands with the model skeleton?
Look. I wasn’t equipped to pull a Poe. I was a TA, you understand: a loser. And I wanted to be looser: a looser loser. So I activated the dryer, setting the timer for fifteen minutes, and then I grabbed another beer from the fridge, strode like Goliath to the patio, smoked a cigarette, et cetera.
When I returned to the bathroom, I saw the cat. It was watching Jacques’s nakedness. The bit about the cat is true. The cat was there, and so was I, and Jacques was blushing. I had the warm towel in my arms, and I presented it to Jacques—my arms with the towel draped over—I held out that entire apparatus, so Jacques could grab onto it; that way he would maintain his balance.
He lifted one foot up and over the lip of the tub. “Rachel,” he said.
I called myself Rachel then.
Maybe it was due to his accent, I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter, but whenever Jacques said, “Rachel,” he managed to cram the whole name into a single syllable, as if the name were a curse.
It was like he was saying, “Fuck!” And yeah, I love the name Fuck.
If I didn’t have a quote unquote career, but—
Well, if I didn’t need it, you know, the money, which I funnel into the rent and all the fucking foods that only serve to prolong the youth of it, the youth of the husk, and the husk will not end, the husk will not end, and by now it should’ve ended, I swear, it should’ve ended, but it hasn’t because it endures, it endures, endures, et cetera.
Well, I swear. I swear I’d change my name to Fuck.
I really love that name.
Jacques was much colder than I’d wagered a person could ever become. He was remarkably stiff, so I helped him walk to the closet. I invited him to point to the trousers he desired, and I pulled the trousers from the hanger and then up and over the lower half of Jacques. And Jacques wore slacks, mind you, high-end slacks, which were not ideal to work with, even on a good day—and that day was a fucked day. Jacques couldn’t bend, okay? Like his joints, they were not operative.
But I triumphed: I dressed Jacques.
Afterward I said to him that he really should, at this advanced point in his career, you know, I said he really should consider getting himself a pair of joggers.
Joggers are user-friendly menswear (pants) that have elastic bands at the ankles and waist. They are baggy, yes, but not in a way that looks bad. They’re baggy in a way that’s comfortable and forgiving and easy.
“I actually think joggers look great,” I said.
Well listen, whatever, I’d had a lot of beers, so I spoke at length on the greatness of joggers.
“In conclusion,” I said, “joggers are great. They’re fucking great, and we could get you a pair. Two pairs, even.”
Jacques frowned. He said he had work to do.
“That’s okay,” I said. I told him he could work.
“You’re wrong,” said Jacques. “I can work. Or I can go get joggers. I cannot do both.”
“But you can do both,” I said, “because you have me.”
Well, okay. Basically, he replied that one cannot acquire slacks without going to the store and trying them on. That’s what he was taking issue with, trying them on. He didn’t have time to try them on because he had to work.
Naturally I replied that joggers come in three sizes. “Don’t you get it? You don’t have to try them on.”
No, he didn’t get it. Jacques was totally dumb. Often, whenever he’d slip into that stuck state, I found myself wishing for the strength to handle him like an old console. You know, just hit him with the flat of my palm.
“Three sizes, period,” I continued. “Fuck man, I’m telling you the truth. I’m saying the pants will fit your body. And they’ll look great because they are great. Plus, they’ll be so easy for you to manage by yourself. To pull them up. See?” I mimed Jacques pulling them up all by himself. “And they’ll look fucking great.”
“Fine,” Jacques said. “Take my card. Get yourself a pair, too. I think you need joggers.”
“No,” I said. “I think you need joggers.”
“You need joggers,” he said.
“No, you need joggers,” I said.
And then I—
Well okay, what I did next was I attempted to explain that I did not need joggers by explicating the difference between want and need. Then I realized that Jacques already understood the difference between want and need because Jacques was a philosopher. Well, he was basically a philosopher-adjacent person, according to some people? In any case, I reasoned, if there should be anyone in this closet who doesn’t understand the difference between want and need, then that person is not Jacques; that person is me (probably). Therefore, reality is, it’s somewhat likely that I am the one who doesn’t get what Jacques is saying.
Turns out, Jacques was saying he could see my want. He saw that I wanted joggers. And he was offering to pay for them, the joggers. Which hello, he should pay for them, absolutely. I made sixteen-thousand dollars a year because I worked for Jacques.
“Cool, cool,” I said. “May I borrow your car?”
“Go,” he nodded. “I have to read now.”
Then I laughed in his face. Because he didn’t read.
Jacques never read.
Jacques placed opened books on tabletops, yes, but he didn’t look at them. What he did was he paced wildly in their general vicinity for roughly five hours whilst kicking and/or stepping on the cat. That much is obvious, though, right? That he never read anything? That he didn’t give a shit about animals?
I took the card and the car, and I drove to Target. I bought, like, eight pairs of joggers, plus a case of Dale’s Pale Ale.
Jacques and I wore the same size (in joggers), and so we shared the pants until the day he died. Or look, whatever, I wore some of them too. I was right, they looked fine on him. They looked fucking great. I was grateful. And so, yeah, I want to use this time to thank him. I want to thank him and pay homage and—
I was a TA, fuck you. And Jacques didn’t tell the truth because Jacques was vain. I hated him. I hated his entire body of work. I hated working for him because it permanently reduced my earning potential, and I had no family to bail me out, which was terrible because it was terrifying, but I will not make my fear your burden because you don’t care. You don’t care, and yet you know. You know the only job a person can get once they’ve been a TA is—well, they can be a TA again, basically. The life is shit. The pay is shit. Sometimes they don’t have enough for the rent. And I’m “tenure track,” mind you.
Still, I believe it is necessary to give thanks because that’s the protocol, you understand. And sure, look, I did want them. I wanted the joggers. I’m being serious. When was the last time someone like Jacques—you know, someone who controls every aspect of your life and your death and your pay—when was the last time someone like that gave something to you? But not just something. What I’m trying to say is has a person like Jacques ever given you the thing that you wanted?
Yes, this story is dumb!
Jacques said I could use his car and his credit card to get some joggers, and I got the joggers. That’s my story. My story is dumb. In contrast, Jacques’s story is false. Jacques wasn’t honest, you see, and—
Whatever, he died. The death wasn’t noble. I was there for that also. I was there for the dying. I never liked his style. Jacques wasn’t Poe.
Jacques wasn’t Poe because Jacques wasn’t smart, and he wasn’t talented, and his proclivities were mainstream, and he never read a single book. But fine, none of this is news to you because you know how to read, and you’ve read Jacques’s books. I’ve read Jacques’s books. I’ve read everything. I’m serious. I’ve read everything, and they pay me shit.
Okay, Jacques is dead. Also, Jacques was wrong. Jacques was wrong about sex because he was dumb, but once upon a time, his money got me joggers, and I wore the joggers, and it felt good. And it still feels good. Because it exists. Supposedly, it exists. It exists, it endures, or whatever it’s just there. It’s there, alright? It’s there. So thanks. Thank you. Thanks.
Pay me shit and give me tenure now.
Ray Levy is the author of the novel A Book So Red and the prose collection Necessary Objects. Their short fictions appear or are forthcoming in Atticus Review, Black Warrior Review, DIAGRAM, Fence, Tarpaulin Sky, Territory, SPORAZINE, Western Humanities Review, and others. The recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Prose, Levy is currently Assistant Professor of English at the University of Mary Washington and a founding editor at Dreginald.
A week out the hospital and your piss is cloudy as hell. As you tower over the toilet with your head craning downward, forcing the stream out of the tip, as the lips part just so, you notice it seems to fill up the whole bowl with this sludge, orange and thick, never-ending, just a fountain of urea and protein and bilirubin, contents from your liver just spraying endlessly into the bowl, you don’t realize it just yet (will you ever?) but you are falling apart, the contents of your chest and stomach dissolving and flushing through the corpus so as to be one with it all again. Dehydrated, you think, maybe, or it could be the new meds they put you on when the police took you down to Bryan’s emergency department after your psychiatrist said you were unsafe, 911 and strapped in the back of a cop car, she towered over you and fumbled for the seatbelt for what felt like 10 minutes, your breath fogging up your glasses through the cloth mask (it was pink, the mask; a poof). And at your first dose of Effexor, they said, Side effects include urination difficulty, who exactly they were, you couldn’t tell, all the faces blurred together, but you supposed now that it didn’t matter, after all, it’s pitiful, just you and your piss in your apartment all alone after your roommate tells you he can’t move in, It’s just too dangerous to live on campus, maybe next semester, a string of texts you know are lies, nothing to be responded to, so anyway you’re alone with the door wide open, or not alone, really, since there are two biotic masses, you and the yellow ooze at the bottom of a bowl, connected to you through a stream for just a few moments, momentary, transitory, you know how it is. And when you start running on empty you think about shelling some city in the Mideast, it doesn’t matter where it is, really, but it’s the Mideast because where else could it be, the news is all about the Mideast and there’s no other place for us to go to war, and you just think of sitting behind an artillery gun as it rattles off these huge bullets indiscriminately into the core of the city, destroying some kid’s school before his family literally rips apart right in front of him, the intestines spurting out of the abdomens, imagining there were two parents, a mother and a father (you don’t imagine they had gays there, and certainly not ones with kids), and a younger sister, maybe three years old, holding a doll and her blanket, purple, you think, because purple has to be a Mideastern color, and the print is a smattering of hexagons, also Turkic in nature, they’re all Turks one way or another to you, and anyway, you’re there shelling, right, and the contents of their stomachs just explode and coat the walls as they, too, evaporate into nothing, and he, this kid you’re living vicariously through at the same time as you’re destroying this ancient and stony city, blacks out from the explosion, and now back in real life, your dick is in your hand, an inch and a half soft with the hood sliced off in the first moments of life (you told your middle school boyfriend you were uncircumcised because you were cut loose, but when you started watching guys go at it on your mom’s laptop, you realized just how little you resembled the ones with Czech or Polish or whatever accents, they all blurred together, Eastern European at least, but either way, the jig was up far long before he put it in his mouth in a playground slide on the last day of school and throughout the summer), and you start convulsing, sending a pulse of spasms to your bladder so the last shells are shot out, landing on the rim and the seat, so cloudy, so mealy, so orange so as to, you image, stain the porcelain, irreparable and permanent.
Time slips and you’re out of the bathroom, laying on the couch trying to sleep, wondering to yourself, Why the living room, but it’s the paranoia, the idea that cameras are installed in the bedroom smoke detectors, the office lady offering to have the repairmen come, let you watch them be replaced, investigate the hardware and their tools, but you decline. The delusion does not make sense. You are unmedicated. You have been off of Loxitane since you got out a month ago, your first hospitalization (not the second), the one you missed about a week of class for, missing your writing class, your math class, you were so behind, you are so behind, you are making up for lost time and you will never get it back, some queer theorist said something like fags experience time differently and you think this to yourself every so often, you mocked it when you first read it but you knew they were right, coded behind the language and the mystique and the allure of academic parsing, you were a fag, and you felt time accumulate differently on your slumped, so slumped, shoulders. But as to unmedication, you realize that this does not make sense, the idea that there are cameras in the smoke detectors, nobody would want to watch you sleep or jerk off, you’re a nobody, worthless and not notable in any way, and the smoke detector above your bed sits there, not bothering you at all, but you remain steadfast in this belief, unshakeable. You just got your script for Trintellix filled, a name-brand antidepressant you got on the cheap by some miracle, your mom’s insurance and a manufacturer coupon coming together, but you haven’t started, you’re supposed to start and it’s just sitting there, 30 tablets of 10 milligrams each and you can’t bring yourself to do it, it’s too much, the risk of side effects is what you’re telling yourself as some great excuse to leave them alone, but maybe the real risk is feeling better, getting good enough that you’ll have motivation and not think they’re out to get you, or maybe it’s not that, maybe it’s that swallowing tablets reminds you of the post-exposure prophylaxis they put you on when you came to the hospital the first time, being fucked by some old dude whose name you never caught and who kept going when you said you weren’t into that, the tablets falling apart and you vomiting on the SANE nurse saying, Sorry, I’m so sorry, but you weren’t, and she never forgave you, the uniform was new, it wasn’t your fault but it was new, you should have told her before you did it, it’s your fault this happened to you, so much so the lead detective told you that at his office, Stay vigilant and don’t go home with people you don’t know, as if you’re stupid, as if you don’t deserve to feel your cock rub against a man’s flesh as he does the same, but suddenly an image comes over you, your eyes closed on the couch, the fan whirring, cold air being blown over your naked body, partially exposed under the thick comforter on top of you, but now they, your eyes, detect something, indescribable and pure but it appears to be light, an image of light, refracted, kaleidoscopic, but just there, emerging is some form of—
Paweł, wake up. The voice is Frank’s. (It is not clear who Frank is. He could be the boy you kissed the day after your mom said to you, You know, if you’re gay, I don’t have a problem with that, to which you responded, I’m not gay, mom, I don’t know why you think that. His, that boy’s, lips were chapped, flaky and yellow and a fragment found itself torn off, landing in the back of your throat and you swallowed him, you really did, you swallowed this boy and you gagged on a boy’s body for the first time, though it wasn’t the last, gagging to make a boy feel good, to let him experience something great. Or Frank could be the man you saw at the supermarket today, his mask looking something fruity like rainbow or purple, he was making eyes with you in the line, just ahead of you, checking you out, until he said, You know, his voice was deep and scratchy, the kind you love, the kind you wish you had, but yours was nasally, it was twinky, your s’s were sibilant and you articulated too much, unnatural, but he said, If you want to go ahead of me, feel free, I’m in no rush. And you went ahead with your small basket with a douche and some food, it didn’t matter what you were buying, you just had to buy something to offset the image of the douche, your hand grazing the hair on his arm, so hairy, so rough, making eyes with him, too, smiling under your mask which was pink, the same as before.) You open your eyes and Frank is not there, but you hear his voice once more, Paweł, wake up. The voice is just ahead of you, a foot or two, but really, there’s nobody there and the voice is internal, it’s an apparition, saying someone’s name you can’t make sense of—you are not Paweł, your name is nothing like Paweł (your name is yours), but you know it’s referring to you, you know this figure, wherever or whenever it is, is calling to you, telling you to wake up.
I am awake, you yell, naked, standing up.
I’m up, I’m up, just take me already. You don’t know why you say this, but you know it’s true, they’re here to take you, make you nothing at all. And then you’re out cold, falling to the ground and feeling nothing at all as your head smacks against the sharp corner of your too-expensive coffee table, there’s no sound, just the feeling—or the apparition of feeling—of falling, of falling, your legs giving out till there’s nothing at all, falling.
Lexus Root is a poet and scholar of queer studies living in Lincoln, Nebraska.
We remember the day Cecilia arrived because the sky uncapped itself and shook a storm against the classroom windows till Sister Margaret told us to duct tape the glass. For safety, she said, her fingers roped with rosary beads, and we bowed our heads and said yes, Sister, but secretly we wondered: Why? You always say that Jesus will protect us and that God will save us and that the Holy Spirit moves within us. That’s when the principal walked Cecilia in, trotted her across the room like a fighter cock, which made us laugh because that’s what Cecilia looked like: a fighter cock sent to the butcher’s block. Wrong place, we wanted to say. This classroom isn’t for you. Cecilia didn’t care. She gave us a spur-toothed smile and said her name all pristine-like: Ce-ci-li-a. Syllables like fishbones, we whispered, because Jenny Wong’s Yeye had been cottoning our heads with fairytales, and the way Cecilia said her name sounded like a secret, the kind made of fishbones buried in four pots underneath a bed, the kind with a heroine and a cloak of kingfisher feathers and cave-dwellers who didn’t know better. Yes, we nodded to each other, Cecilia thinks she’s Ye Xian, our Chinese Cinderella. She thinks she’s better than all of us.
Cecilia wasn’t beautiful, but we dreamed of her anyway. We’d swap stories before Kumon or when Sister Margaret was busy praying for our souls. She ate my toenails, Kevin Tsang would say, and then Tiffany Lee would say, no, she was piercing my ears the way my sister did. Jenny Wong dreamed of Cecilia’s incisors because Cecilia’s teeth were perfect like a kitten’s – sharp and cute, hidden by lips so fine we joked they were twin papercuts, sucked lemon-thin. We even told this to Cecilia, just to see what she would say. Maybe it’ll scare her, Jenny Wong giggled, but she was wrong. Cecilia just smiled and said: Of course you dreamt about me.
Her unflappability irritated us. Who do you think you are? we thought, and then one day Kevin Tsang actually asked Cecilia during lunch, his spit anointing her glass-blown forehead. But Cecilia only stared back, her eyes gazelle-intense. She gripped her pre-calc binder like it was holy and then she said: Meet me after school tomorrow. Where? The forest behind the 7-11. Which 7-11? The one closest to school. Sure, you better be there.
Cecilia wasn’t in class the next day and so we thought she’d bailed on us. Still, we skipped Kumon and headed towards the woods once school let out. Just in case, Kevin Tsang said for all of us. We shouldn’t have doubted because Cecilia was there, just as she’d said. What did she look like? A pale thing beneath a tree so wide we’d have to ring it with our bodies to hug it. Here amidst the green, she seemed to flicker – her face a wound, her body a snake, her fingers tadpoles swimming in the dusk. Who are you? we asked, feeling something in our stomachs ripple and flatten. Nuwa, Cecilia said, and we shivered because the name rustled the edges of our minds. When we remained silent, Cecilia opened her mouth again, and where we expected teeth and tongue and gums we found instead a deep emptiness. Why are you here? we asked not with our voices but our minds. Cecilia answered us with a sound like the floods in Zhengzhou – a terrible hum-swoosh-chug – we knew because we’d watched the news the night before as our parents fretted about our cousins’ cousins and their sunken homes. Call me Nuwa, Cecilia said in that primordial voice, and then she sang to us about how she missed us and how once, long ago, she’d made us by lashing mud with a rope like a John Wayne cowboy. The story scared us. We weren’t used to thinking about ourselves as anything other than fully formed, and we trembled. Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway, Kevin Tsang thought aloud, and Nuwa laughed out static and told us that she’d made the horses that the cowboys rode, too, had shaped them with her fingers and warmed them with her own belly.
What do you want from us? Tiffany Lee asked then. After all, she was the kindest of us, the one who’d dreamt of Nuwa as a body seamed with sisterhood. What might we do for you? This question must have been the correct one because Nuwa nodded, her long lobes wobbling. We bowed our heads in shame, caging our tongues as we realized our mistake in addressing a goddess with our typical brashness. If only we’d asked Nuwa what she wanted! We hoped with our hearts that Tiffany Lee’s kindness could make up for our vulgarity.
But Nuwa said nothing. Instead, she butterflied her hands along our shoulders, pressing us down until we knelt in the dirt. Like praying, Kevin Tsang thought, and we shushed him mightily with our minds even though Nuwa shook her head. She said: Prayer and formalities aren’t necessary. I just want to be close to my children. And then she filled our mouths with her fingers, unhinging our jaws so they buckled around her knuckles, round and bright as garlic bulbs. Ashes to ashes, Sister Margaret liked to say, and we thought of how useless she and her God were, because here was our goddess, our mother, our Nuwa, planting us in her earth. We tipped our faces up towards the familiar zip-unzip of rain. How slick we were for our Nuwa!
My children, Nuwa said, and we shimmied our shoulders, knowing what she said to be true and right. Nuwa bent down and suddenly her fingers turned into steam that filled our stomachs and made space for her mouth against ours. She took turns with each of us like that, even the girls, jackknifing our lips until our tongues were sundae-numb. My children! Nuwa said again, her girl’s face a cut pear, her eyes twin pips. We sighed into her nostrils and our breath misted back into our faces. My children, Nuwa said a third time, and then she stretched open her mouth, wide like a pond, as we coughed up a curling gas that condensed into pebble-like seeds. Nuwa looked at us with something like yearning, or maybe it was pity. We don’t recall this part, because she dug her impossible hands into the ground and we were too busy staring, hook-lipped and fish-mouthed, as Nuwa turned our spat seeds into stone teeth. She used them to fill in the holes in the sky, the same holes that Sister Margaret had us pray about after storms, the ones we’d been told were angels’ peepholes but which we now knew to be something older and more sacred than winged infants with their fat sectioned off like bugs’ bodies. Mother! we cried. Our voices caroled in the air, and Nuwa gave us one final smile before stretching herself membrane-thin, so thin that we breathed her in and felt her plaster along our lungs and bellies. She laughed inside us, yawning our guts deep with longing, and we ran home as the land belted out our names. Jenny Wong, Kevin Tsang, Tiffany Lee, it sang, carouseling the syllables until they spangled the night.
At home, our parents fussed at the sight of us, pulled strips of land from our forearms and spoke to us with fogged eyes. Where did you go? they asked, their voices half-stern, half-reverent. We told them: We went to see the earth. We went to see our mother. Our mothers frowned. We’re right here, silly, they said, but we shook our heads until we were sent to bed.
That night, we dreamt of Nuwa shaping our bodies with silt and salting our faces with her tears. We grew fingers of mud, which hardened into clay, and when we opened our mouths to speak, nothing came out except the rumble of earthworms and strings of shit. Waking up was difficult, and we trudged to school with strangeness along our gums. Did we remember our dreams? Maybe not right away, but they soon came back, swirling behind our eyeballs once Tiffany Lee coughed up a tooth and then a seed. When Sister Margaret screamed and ran to fetch the holy water, we gave each other secret looks and licked our lips, sucking on them as if they were pith. The taste of our mother still hung in our throats, and we smiled as we swallowed in unison, tasting earth in our mouths, Nuwa on our tongues.
Celeste Chen lives in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in A Velvet Giant, X-R-A-Y, The Blood Pudding, No Contact, Shenandoah, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @celestish_ and online at celesteceleste.carrd.co/.
I take the mosh pit, lime
Juuls on hardwood, the nice
smelling white girls wearing
hoops just big enough
to be questionable, tired
metaphor of me limericking
your belt loops. you speak
like the halted development
on Madison & a kidney
is just an organ
with an important job. in catechism
they told us Saint Barbara
fled her steeple, read
all the forbidden books. the luxury
towers on Park shimmer. we
were told this was revolutionary –
a girl cornering God
in a cramped room,
availing herself of him
in the dark. we watch
cranes smear the horizon &
a jellyfish, even when determined,
is really just a blot of ink. I was
raised to love resurrected things
& the junior college across the street
is full of juiceboxes, blue
pens, puritan dreaming. like opium,
you smile for no reason. like homily,
I sing for us both.
|func(fraction)||your grandmother is a quarter Armenian &|
your father once denied he was from
Trablos. we are not really “Arab.” who is really “from”
|func(weight)||I was always a skinny girl ÷ we fry yolks|
|func(loop)||desire is an old family heirloom none|
of the women in my wall
approximately jacarandas on my dress
|func(autopsy)||my mother in her emerald swimsuit|
|func(anaphora)||clothes are about waiting growing|
into the jacket coat sweats
|func(Thomas)||jiddo the numismatist & me quarter the|
girl I should be ÷ I make odalisques in
the mirror I cover my face in yolk
|func(fraction)||I am an approximation of jacarandas|
|func()||clothes are about waiting my baptism|
name is Maryam
|func(sacrament)||the priest wrings the solar system from|
Maya Salameh is a poet fellow of the William Male Foundation and a 2016 National Student Poet, America’s highest honor for youth poets. She is the winner of the 2022 Etel Adnan Prize, through which her debut poetry collection, HOW TO MAKE AN ALGORITHM IN THE MICROWAVE, will be published in 2022. Her poems have appeared in POETRY Magazine, The Rumpus, and Asian American Writer’s Workshop, among others. Maya is the author of rooh (Paper Nautilus Press 2020).
Chest a mortar for the pestle, stippled like marble. Miracles, the statues that appear soft. My name in the earth, my form wet and new. We give ourselves back to ourselves – I place my present atop my past like a salve. The bruising and swelling have waned. At night, I wring callouses from my hands.
Trans bodybuilder & performance artist, Heather Cassils, Becoming An Image, Performance Still No. 1 & No. 4, National Theatre Studio, London
Binder a shadow I press to my skin with a soft bar of soap in the morning. At night, it is always molting season. I shed and say, “Ta da!” but don’t know which the trick is. I try scratching my back like my mom used to. My hands scamper like animal feet. My nails cross the lines left by the hem of the binder, and we cancel each other out.
The Saint Bernard catches Peter’s shadow between her teeth. It tastes like charcoal and hosiery. The Darling Mother pulls it out and hangs it up to dry on the laundry line outside. Shape of a scoundrel, the Darling Father says, but no one recognizes it. The shadow squirms, thrashes its thin arms, but stays pinned by the shoulders beside other creased outlines of men: dress shirts and overcoats. All the world asleep, silhouettes pressed between wool sheets and heavy bodies, this is the first night his shadow sleeps alone. Worlds away, Peter feels the English wind wander through his body, as if his skin were a silk robe, but he cannot tell the texture or temperature of the hands that reel him in, roll him up, keep him in the bedside drawer.
One winter, every stranger in Ohio takes me for your son. You correct them. The man shaking hands outside the chapel, the little girl in the elevator, the bowling alley owner dressing our soles soft enough for hardwood.
When we played Peter Pan, I was Wendy in the nightgown, down the railing. I buried knowing this. I wanted the myth of my body to stretch ahead and behind me— boy all along. These were the stories I heard others tell: I’d wear my mother’s dresses around the house when she went to Sunday service. / I’d pee standing up, aiming toward tree roots. / I’d walk shirtless, flat-chested, and proud on the beach. But the body has no origin point. Wendy is as much a slip-on as the underslip. When the full-time Peter left, I wore his green slippers everywhere, up and down the stairs that creaked like the buckled backbone of the house. Everyone knew the sound of my footsteps quietly coded daughter, coated green.
I sit my parents down at the kitchen table and tell them my name. Reintroduce the body they lent me. Tall tale in green slippers, ankles pouring out. The silhouette of a ship passes in the window. I read in the newspaper horoscopes on the table that the moon is void of course. Wandering between signs, there is meaning.
Through its drifting etymological history, shadow has referred to “a ghost” (mid 14c.), “a prefiguration” (late 14c.), “an imitation” (1960s), “anything unreal” (early-13c.), “the faintest trace” (1580s).
One night, I take a metal detector to my childhood bedroom. There must be something in the layers of dust, carpet, and floorboard. I set up an infrared camera. There is nothing on the tape but my own body. I pace the room with an EMF meter. The air wavers and shakes like heat, like there is something almost there. I stretch my arms in front of me, a gradient of skin touched and untouched by the moon.
From Michel Foucault’s essay, utopian body: “Utopia is a place outside all places, but it is a place where I will have a body without a body, a body that will be beautiful, limpid, transparent, luminous, speedy, colossal in its power, infinite in its duration. Untethered, invisible, protected—always transfigured.”
Mom texts me the names of the flowers in her garden: Coreopsis (grafted from her mother’s garden after she moved from her childhood home), hosta, iris, lamb’s ear (my favorite), heather (grafted from my father’s mother’s garden), sedum, sometimes portulaca (another from my mother’s mother), butterfly weed, blueberries, and chrysanthemums.
“But there are so many ways to be a woman,” my mother says.
Mint leaves split the zipper of my mother’s black purse. This is what our breath smells like after every meal, state lines and bridges between. At the same time, our mouths go clean.
Socrates in Cratylus considers, without taking a position, the possibility whether names are “conventional” or “natural,” that is, whether language is a system of arbitrary signs or whether words have an intrinsic relation to the things they signify.
The window is shut. Mom sits in the yellow bedroom. My body a stranger. My name a shadow on the underside of her tongue. Peter.
What does it mean to mourn those who are not gone? What does it mean to mourn that which never was?
“Peter Pan syndrome” is the psychological theory that DFAB gender non-conforming and transmasculine individuals desire a flat chest in order to deny the death of childhood.
In Second Skins: The Body Narrative of Transsexuality, Prosser writes that in 1980, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuscript of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) categorized “transsexualism” as Gender Identity Disorder, forcing trans people to “author a history of transgendered identification” in order to receive the proper diagnosis from a clinician to be approved for hormone therapy or surgery. “The diagnosis acts as a narrative filter, enabling some [trans people] to live out their story and thwarting others.” The doctor sentences you to life inside this body. The vessel ages, the shadow plays atop the asphalt, but you do not become.
Derived from Latin to mean “across, over, and beyond,” trans indicates motion. According to Susan Stryker, this means movement “across a socially-imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place,” not necessarily toward a firm destination. It is the propulsion of the self towards a future we can only imagine.
From Foucault’s utopian body: “From that place, [the body,] as soon as my eyes are open, I can no longer escape. Not that I am nailed down by it, since after all I can not only move, shift, but I can also move it, shift it, change its place. The only thing is I cannot move without it. I cannot leave it there where it is, so that I, myself, may go elsewhere. I can go to the other end of the world; I can hide in the morning under the covers, make myself as small as possible. I can even let myself melt under the sun at the beach— it will always be there. Where I am. It is here, irreparably: it is never elsewhere. My body, it’s the opposite of a utopia: that which is never under different skies. It is the absolute place, the little fragment of space where I am, literally, embodied. My body, pitiless place. And what if by chance I lived with it, in a kind of worn familiarity, as with a shadow?”
Some transmasculine people resist being called a man. Boy is lighter, carefree, brimming with youth and charm. “Is this to avoid complicity with patriarchy and misogyny?” someone asks on a forum called empty closets. Yet boys can be just as complicit. Some transmasculine people recoil at being called a boy, not wanting to be infantilized, kept from growing up. Sometimes starting t feels like a beginning. Sometimes it feels like finally being able to keep living.
Shadow from the Old English sceadwian: “a screen or shield from attack.”
“This won’t heal you,” my mom says as my ribcage contracts.
My friend tells me of a “regendering” website. You send in your childhood pictures, tell them about yourself, and, after some digital manipulation, “receive a visual representation of how you felt inside the day that photo was taken.” Ta da! Like an aura reading, photographing the swell of captive energy. “This is not a science,” they say on the homepage.
On a long walk in Montana, Lena and I talk about starting t— I’m a month in and I’m worried about becoming unrecognizable to myself again— and they say testosterone only unlocks a future that is already inside you, a blueprint embedded down to the cells, the molecules. Months later, we see each other for the first time since then, we’re on a walk in California, and they say my voice is deeper, but still distinctly mine. We both think my face has changed, but can’t describe the difference. The future catches sunlight on my face.
From Foucault’s utopian body: “But to tell the truth… [my body], too, possesses some placeless places more profound, more obstinate even than the soul, than the tomb, than the enchantment of magicians. It has caves and its attics, it has its obscure abodes, its luminous beaches.”
I’m in New York again and today the doctor took measuring tape to my chest to map out how to make it flat, as flat as I’ve bound it for years, flatter even, how to make it look like it’s always been that way.
From André Bazin’s The Ontology of the Photographic Image: “The image of things is likewise the image of their duration, change mummified as it were… [Photography] produces an image that is a reality of nature, namely, a hallucination that is also a fact.”
Every day, the front page of my chest peels, and I press it flat into a notebook.
In 1904, a woman played the first Peter Pan. The director suggested a woman for the part largely due to child labor laws in England stating that minors under the age of fourteen couldn’t work after 9 p.m. The forever boy could not be a man, so a woman instead. It is called a breeches role when an actress appears in “male clothing.” In opera, when a role is sung by “the opposite sex,” it is called a travesty (from the Italian, travesti, disguised).
Nina Boucicault, 1904 & Veronica Lake, 1951
Peter stopped growing, and what happens when you stop growing? Do you have the same skin cells? Do you keep your baby teeth? I know his hair grows long in the winter. I haven’t seen him in years, but when I see him again, he will be the same as I left him. Sometimes you wish for this in a first love, a friend you no longer recognize, a cousin you used to play magic with, a daughter. Is Peter just the echo of his former self? Before his mother shut the window on him on his way out, left him floating, what was he becoming? When I see him again, he does not recognize me. The light that followed him for years is gone, and he doesn’t remember her name.
In Jewish folklore, demons assume the shape of men, but cast no shadow. No law follows them, no conscience grounds them. To stay disguised, they attach their shadows like tying their shoes. When the Darling children fall asleep in the sky, dropping like shot birds towards the sea, Peter laughs so hard he nearly forgets to cut the joke short. His shadow a kite flying alone in the sky. Tinker Bell, his small glowing soul, sticks out her tongue.
In Jungian psychology, “the shadow” is the unconscious, what is hidden and unknown. The ego does not see itself in the unconscious, as this is where the least desirable aspects tuck themselves away. My shadow a pool reflecting.
In Gender Outlaw: On Men, Woman, and the Rest of Us, Kate Bornstein describes the Third Space, an expanse outside the given dichotomy of male and female, outside the suffocating compartments of the binary where “the choice between two of something is not a choice at all, but rather the opportunity to subscribe to the value system which holds the two presented choices as mutually exclusive systems.” I see myself in and I see myself out from the Third Space. It is not just carving space between male and female. It is a space where male and female do not exist. The Third Space is breathing room. A space between, around, and beyond gender. An ambiguity fought for, dreamed of, journeyed to, arrived at, and lived in. A wildness.
From José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity: “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.”
Yet wilderness is a fantasy, as much as Neverland. It is a tool of forgetting. After the mass displacement of Indigenous peoples in the land currently occupied by the U.S., colonizers set fire to houses and food stores, inventing wilderness to feign the idea of “untouched,” Edenic land. The myth of “the New World” and its “virgin land” constructs a vision of emptiness and idleness in order to make room for the myth of the pilgrim. The shadows bend over backward.
In “The Colonial Origins of Conservation,” Stephen Corry writes of the 1864 Yosemite Grant Act in the conservation movement, how it legalized the eviction of Ahwahneechee people from the land— all except those who were forced to serve tourists, adorn racist costume, and perform caricatured dance and rituals that were not their own.
Neverland is a colony. Stepping out of the window in Kensington Gardens, Peter floats on his back like an otter over the city, past the second star to the right, to invent a utopia of perpetual war, eternal childhood, and ever-replaceable dead. According to Barrie, every child sees their own version of Neverland. It is where imaginings come true. “A lagoon with flamingoes flying over it” or “a flamingo with lagoons flying over it.” The lost boys flit over eagerly and form a militia at first light. Clad in skeleton leaves and cobwebs, the lost boys’ bodies are bodies of forgetting, rewilding over their own origins. Neverland, outside of spacetime, blunders on outside the colonial idea of progress. A still image of empire. The first bloody battle, over and over. Violence laid bare, violence of pure entertainment. A clock ticks inside a crocodile. Peter terrorizes, and time turns over again like pulling taffy.
From J. M. Barries’ Peter Pan: “In [Peter’s] absence, things are usually quiet on the island. The fairies take an hour longer in the morning, the beasts attend to their young, the r*dskins feed heavily for six days and nights, and when the pirates and lost boys meet, they merely bite their thumbs at each other. But with the coming of Peter, who hates lethargy, they are under way again: if you put your ear to the ground now, you would hear the whole island seething with life.”
John Locke’s theory of acquisition is the founding liberal law that states if one uses land “productively,” for profit, one is granted private ownership of the place by the grace of God. This theory underlaid the legal ruling for the forced displacement and genocide of millions of Indigenous people. When Peter returns to Neverland, in the absence of war, he sees idleness, lethargy. He makes it his again. The lost boys busy their hands with blood.
Fences jut out from the grass like white teeth. When the Darlings reach Neverland, the lost boys have built a house for Wendy: adornment of roses up the walls, knocker on the door, chimney atop. But flies come in through the windows and doors. Sparrows take apart the thatched roof straw by straw for their own nests. The seasons don’t change, the wind doesn’t let up, and eventually, at the turning point of the house becoming a project, a settlement, Peter abandons his fatherhood. He flees into the heart of Neverland, the safety of the neat binaries of war: good versus evil, self versus other. Meanwhile the rest finish what they started. The lost boys fly off, and on the other side of the second star, they morph and twist into men: lords and judges and office workers. Wendy becomes a mother somewhere else. Peter comes by sometimes to ask her and her daughters to clean the cottage. Neverland errs on without a past, without a future.
From Kyle Powys Whyte’s “White Allies, Let’s Be Honest About Decolonization”: “Allies must realize they are living in the environmental fantasies of their settler ancestors. Settler ancestors wanted today’s world… [F]or many Indigenous peoples in North America, we are already living in what our ancestors would have understood as dystopian or post-apocalyptic times.”
I sat at the top of the staircase and batted those green slippers back and forth. Embodying boyhood for me meant embodying white boyhood. I followed where I thought I saw my body. Was to slip on boy to step further into the lineage of those who strung up the binary in the first place? A transgression or submission?
Colonialism is not a shadow sewn to the feet. It is the pale feet. It is the colony that each day makes and remakes itself. Memoryless. A body intent on forgetting.
I sit and watch Peter somersault through the air and never get dizzy. The ivy sewn across his chest never crisps or browns. He sings high notes from the diaphragm when he wings over rooftops. His feet never fully touch the ground. I’m seven years old and he’s an idea in my back pocket like a faerie, he’s a small light I conceal in my small fist. He’s a whisper that goes: I could be boy, I could be. Poster child of children, there had to be something enviable too in his innocence without innocence, something truly boyish about it. By this I mean his untetheredness, his lack of responsibility or tie to anyone or anything, the fantasy of being a young white boy. But it only takes til the end of the play to realize the tragedy. Peter flies alone over his wilderness, his shadow straying behind in the wind, remembering everything.
Is the formation of a thought the act of pulling a knot tight or unraveling it? Is the way out both the practice of knotting together and coming undone?
Knots & Hitches from Boy Scouts of America Handbook, The Handbook for Boys (1910)
From Google: Are shadows real? Are shadows made of atoms? Are shadows longer in winter or summer? Do shadows have color? Do shadows have weight?
Unmooring: the act of releasing all ropes and anchors from a vessel. I have dreams where I unmoor everything from its name and I leave my body for the time being. This is a fantasy. There are times I see myself stray toward Neverland. There is fluidity in gender, in my body, but at the same time I am tied to my materiality, the history I am embedded in, and what it demands of me.
Queerness is not white, cannot be assumed white, must not be controlled and regulated by whiteness. Queerness is a devotion, to ourselves, to one another, in friendship and solidarity. Sometimes our eyes slip into each other’s on the street. An eclipse— a glow visible at the edges.
We cast and throw our shadows. They run through a forest of language from which we’ll never find our way out. But we call our shadows in at night and find they are our bodies exactly, lovingly, even stretched, stout, visible or discrete. Yielding and unyielding. We soap and stitch the dark to our feet. When I bind my chest, my silhouette records the difference.
Fox Rinne is a trans poet living on occupied Lenape land. Their writing can be found in Baest, tagvverk, Jacobin, and more.