from issue #6: ‘Dear Jesus’ by R. Zamora Linmark

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DEAR JESUS by R. ZAMORA LINMARK

for Ku’ualoha Ho’omanawanui

Dear Jesus:

My worst nightmare is about to come true. Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor approved the same-sex marriage legislation bill. 20 to 4. And now it’s up to the House of Representatives to kill the bill. But what if they, too, flew over the cuckoo’s nest? That’s why I’m flying there tomorrow. I’m going to withdraw whatever money I have left in my checking account, take the first flight to Honolulu and give these loonies a piece of my mind. That’s right. Hold on, Jesus, I’m now on the line with a Hawaiian Airlines ticketing agent from, of all places, Philippines. Dear Lord, Honolulu is only half hour away by plane from here and I have to call someone in the Philippines to book it…. Just got off the phone. They’re charging me four arms and six thousand legs as if I’m Imelda Marcos. What a rip off. And they don’t offer Senior Citizen discount. So much for Aloha Spirit… Calm down, Marie, calm down… Screw it. I’m willing to overlook the astronomical cost of this ticket due to the gravity of the matter. Otherwise, I’d tell them too to go choke on my monthly SS! I’d rather go hungry for the next couple days than allow this bill to be passed. I don’t care if I have to testify three, four, five thousand times. I won’t stop until these so-called progressive legislators wake up and realize that they’re doing more harm than good. This is not in the best interest of the peoples of Hawaii. I know it. The majority knows it. Come tomorrow, they will know who Marie Machado is and what she stands for.

Marie Machado, Hana, Maui.

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 Dear Jesus:

I have two mommies. Am I greedy?

Alexander Rosales, 3rd grade, Kapalama Elementary.

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Dear Jesus:

Did I wake up in the wrong state? Is today Halloween, October 31, 2013? It is, right? All this talk of gay marriage makes me want to puke. That’s what I want to do right now. Puke the bowl of kim chi chigae I ate last night all over the grounds of State Capitol. This Senate Bill 1 makes me sick to the bone. I should call in sick. But I can’t afford to miss a day’s worth of work. I already got written up twice for being late. But this is more important than ushering losers to their seats or telling them to get their toe jams off the seats or picking up their trash or shining the flashlight on their faces to shut their snoring up. If that fat cow Shawna fires me, so be it. I’ll miss the free movies and fifty percent off of popcorn and hot dogs. Fuck it. This is not the only job in the world. There are a thousand more out there I can get fired from. My sick call is legit. It’s an act of sacrifice, me as the lamb willing to sacrifice his bread and butter just for you, Jesus, because I love and believe in you. All I ask is that you help me write the most convincing testimony, because I’d hate to make a fool of myself in public, especially since Olelo cable TV is live-streaming the entire hearing.

Charles Kwon, McCully.

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Dear Jesus:

My church says if gays free to marry in Hawaii, I going have to pee in one gender-neuter toilet. What that mean?

Jonathan, 8, Island Paradise Nursery.

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Dear Jesus:

Deep in my heart, despite my break from the Catholic faith at age twelve, a separation I attribute to this day to my parents who showed me step-by-step how to shatter love in fifty-plus ways, I still believe that you never really left me, that, through all these years of more downs than ups, you were here all this time to witness my faults and flaws, guiding me in your own peculiar way out of my bleakest hours and reminding me over and over how infinite and powerful love is, how it goes beyond borders and limitations regardless of who we choose to love and grow with.

Brendalyn Chadwick, née Brandon Terada, St. Louis High alumni, class of ‘86.

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Dear Jesus:

Same-sex marriage is not right. It’s not pono. It’s not Hawaiian. It’s pilau. I repeat: IT’S NOT PONO! It’s PILAU!

Joshua, Papakolea.

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Dear Jesus:

Why is Governor Abercrombie making such a big fuss over this bill? What’s the rush? Are we on fire? Why is he insisting on resurrecting a dead bill? This SB1 hearing is unconstitutional. It’s undemocratic. A similar bill was already passed, favoring civil union among same-sex couples, back in 1998. Senate Bill 232. It went into effect in 2011, February 23, to be exact. It was amended in 2012 by the House and, as Act 267, was signed into law by Abercrombie himself. July 6, to be exact. I know that date very well because that’s the birthday of my daughter Caprice. If this is what they really want, then they should open it to the public and let us, the people of Hawaii, decide.

Atty. Amy Chun-Goldstein, Kailua.

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Dear Jesus:

Tell the bitches to stand in line because once this bill passes, I’m proposing to Rep. Kaniela Ing. What a fox! What a babe! And what’s more—he’s a Christian!!! He had me when he quoted the great philosopher Macklemore. In case you were busy listening to the gang of dumb and dumber, this is what he said during the televised interview: “To me, this bill is about love and acceptance. In Hawaii, we call it aloha. One person in the audience stated that it’s the wrong love. I don’t agree. I agree with Macklemore: It’s the same love.” Triple sigh, Jesus. Lead the way, Kaniela. I’m right behind you.

Kendrick Shibata, Kapahulu.

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Dear Jesus:

Same-sex marriage in Hawaii? OMG, OMG. It’s going to happen, isn’t it? It better not. But it might, oh, shit, it might. Then again, I might be wrong. I still have an ounce of faith left in the local government, like my representative for Ewa Beach and Iroquois Housing, Mataele Mataele. But what if I’m right? What if they pass this godawful bill. Oh, Jesus, prove me wrong. I’ve been wrong many times. I’m a walking mistake, so let me be wrong again. Go give ‘em hell, Rep. Mataele. We got your back.

Kapono Lum, Ewa.

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Dear Jesus:

What more do they want? We’ve already included them in the Hawaii Civil Union Law. They already have the same rights, benefits, and protections granted to married couples in Hawaii. Talk about G-R-E-E-D-Y. No surprise, considering many of them are capitalists, hold several college degrees, and lead lascivious lifestyles. They’re not outcasts like you, Jesus. No, siree! They’re Sodom and Gomorrah in Mini Coopers and designer labels.

Braddah Billy Jo Cruz, Waianae.

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Dear Jesus:

Please, pretty please, pass the same-sex marriage bill already so my Uncle Jimmy and Uncle Arnold can get married. Twenty years they’ve been together. Don’t you think that’s long enough to be living in sin? Uncle Jimmy said that if Hawaii wakes up to equality, they will definitely move back from Glacier View, Alaska. Population: 249.

Carlton Cho, Roosevelt High, alumni of Bruno Mars.

P.S. I think I may be like my two uncles.

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Dear Jesus:

Please remind your homophobic believers that the Civil Union law that went into effect two years ago is a law that “makes same-sex AND OPPOSITE-SEX COUPLES eligible for civil union recognition.” I put “AND OPPOSITE-SEX COUPLES” in bold because I think you need to yell it into their deaf ears.

Iwalani Aweau, Waipahu.

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Dear Jesus:

If you love your children, you would make Governor Abercrombie stop being a hippie and see the light. Not broad daylight but the real light, like yours, you know, the kind that makes you blind but shine.

Sandra Watabayashi, Washington Middle School.

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Dear Jesus:

This whole legal is so complicated so confusing I no understand why anybody in their right state of mind like be one lawmaker. I watching these guys on TV right now and I feel like I watching one kung fu movie without subtitles or David Carradine in it. But I a curious human being. I like know what the heck is going on so these guys no can pull their wool over my eyes, you know what I mean? Plus I a responsible kamaaina. I voted in the last election. I even made my own bumper sticker. NOBAMA. Yup, that was me. Anyway, let me see if I understand what the heck is going on so far. Feel free to stop me if I wrong, okay? Okay….Yesterday, the state Senate approved the SB1 bill 20 YES to 4 NO. This bill is now in the hands of the House of Representatives. Apparently get all sorts of committees in the House, which I never knew until now but which also kinda make sense if you see these committees as bedrooms in one big house. So for this bill get two committees in charge—House Judiciary and House Finance. This part I not going even attempt to ask why them and not the other bedrooms. I figure these legislators know what they doing. I pray so. That’s why they on TV and I not. If the majority of the two committees vote NO, then it’s as good as a mongoose trapped in a highway of road rage drivers. If they pass this bill no mean it’s a done deal. The rest of the House members gotta vote, which is kinda like back to square one. It also give previous committee members a second chance to change their vote. If the majority of the House gets the YES vote, then the bill go back to the Senate, where it all started. So kinda like full circle, except circle not perfect, is never perfect.

Mako Tokioka, Haiku Valley.

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Dear Jesus:

My Uncle Russ is very good looking and can score any wahine he wants. But he wants a man. He said so himself. I’m gay, Cedric, he told me, gay as the rainbow on the U.H. football helmet. But hard to believe because he’s more butch than Auntie T.J. Yet he insists. Gay as a shoe-tapping senator in a toilet stall of a Minnesota airport, he said. Not European, not bisexual, not even Chinese or samurai, but gay, he said. Gay as a Brokeback shepherd. Confusing as it is, I have no choice but to believe him, because if he were into wahines or if he were European, bisexual, Chinese or samurai, I won’t be so confused with this prayer. Where was I?

You see?

Lost again, Cedric.

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Dear Jesus:

As you already know, my ancestors fought in the American Revolution. Most of them died for the sake of religious freedom. It was this war that led our forefathers to create the U.S. Constitution. And now, these so-called legislators are treating it as if it’s nothing, as if it’s inconsequential, irrelevant, and therefore, replaceable. Who are they, anyway? It’s not up to them to mess with our Bill of Rights. They are only representatives, not gods. Their job is to uphold it, not defy you.

Martha Dudley, Punahou.

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Dear Jesus:

Why are so many gorgeous guys gay? I thought you were on my side.

Lana Fukunaga, Sacred Hearts Academy.

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Dear Jesus:

Please procreate my mommy and daddy. They need it badly.

Love, Carver, 1st grade, Lanakila Elementary.

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Dear Jesus:

This bill is going to harm the Hawaiian people. This is only going to divide us further, like the Great Mahele. Divide and conquer. That’s what these lawmakers want to do to us Hawaiians. They already stole our aina, imprisoned our queen, ravaged our natural resources, desecrated our heiaus, our sacred temples. And now, they want to deprive us of our religious rights too? Hell, no.

Kawehi Aui-Johnson, Makakilo.

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Dear Jesus:

If not for you, my daddy will have no one to turn to after he black-and-blues my mommy. Thank you for being there.

Always, Melissa, Kindergarten, Queen Ka’ahumanu Elementary.

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Dear Jesus:

Some of these Representatives should be stand-up comics. They crack me up. The bestest one so far is Rep. Mataele Mataele. He said if the legislature insists on NOT letting the people vote on this issue, he’d have no option but to bring a riding whip, a bag of Purina, and Lysol spray to the State Capitol. “The riding whip and the dog food is for the dog and pony show we been made to participate in,” Rep. Mataele Mataele said. “And the Lysol spray is to kill the stink coming from this bill.”

Michael Maliglig, Lower Makiki.

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Dear Jesus:

We don’t need another Sin City. We already have Vegas, our ninth island. We practically fly there at least once a month. Given this fact of a matter, do we really need to bring our sins closer to home?

Ronald Hayashida, 67, Pearl City.

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Dear Jesus:

I would just like to enlighten my Hawaiian brothers and sisters, as well as the kama’ainas, Asian settlers, and Hawaiian wannabes on the topic of aikane, which is the Hawaiian word for today, Friday, November 1, 2013. Aikane is loosely, if not lazily, defined as the Western counterpart to a homosexual or bisexual. Native Hawaiian scholars, however, argue that, although aikane involved men engaging in same-sex or bisexual relations, this accepted ancient Hawaiian practice refers more to the power-and-class-based relationship rather than to sexual identity or activity. In such relationship, the aikane referred to the lover/beloved who belonged to the lower class or nobility ranking, while his lover/beloved was part of the ali’i, or nobility. A popular example of an aikani-based relationship is between that of Kamehameha the Great, our first king who was responsible for unifying the islands, and his aikane partner, the high chief Kuakini who also served as his important adviser. Aikane. The Other as the Lover/Beloved/Subject of Desire.

Samuel Beamer, Assoc. Professor in Hawaiian Studies, University of Hawaii, Manoa.

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Dear Jesus:

Aloha, J.C. It’s me, Chang Hae Park, 2nd generation Korean American Christian, as you can tell by my name. I’m 20 years old and currently attending University of Hawaii at Manoa, majoring in Electrical Engineering. As a young and healthy heterosexual, I hope to someday marry and start a family. But if this bill passes, it won’t be healthy to bring up children in such an environment. I don’t want my children to think it’s OK to be lesbian or gay because it’s not. I don’t want my son to know about the birds and the bees before he hits puberty, or for my daughter to learn about pregnancy prevention before she has her first period. We are not in Canada!!!

Chang Hae Park, 20, Moi’ili’ili.

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Dear Jesus:

I blame all this trash talk of same-sex marriage on pop artists like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Just because homosexuals and lesbians were born that way doesn’t make two wrongs a right. Just because Katy’s “I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It” is upbeat and easy to dance to doesn’t make lesbian sex something to roar about too. Why not light up our Top 40 lives again, Jesus, and bring back the one-hit wonders, like Debby Boone? I’ll take Amy Grant over Amy Winehouse any day.

Loretta de los Reyes, Kapalua, Maui.

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Dear Jesus:

It’s me, Marie Machado, remember me? Yes, the one and only Marie from Hana, Maui. Well, as you can see, I made it. I took the first flight out of Lahaina this morning, only to be turned away. That’s right, Jesus. I, Marie Machado of Hana, Maui, seventy-eight-years of age, and of Portuguese and Okinawan descent was denied her right as a tax-paying retiree to testify against same-sex marriage. Well, almost denied had I not put up a fight. The reason given to me was that I missed the midnight deadline. I told them how the heck was I supposed to know about the midnight deadline? I don’t live in Honolulu. I am from Hana. I spent my entire life savings to fly here so I can put a stop to this madness initiated by Abercrombie and Company. Luckily, Representative Sharon Har—a beautiful Hapa lady (who reminded me of myself when I was her age)—overheard my boiling words and came to my assistance. I explained to her my situation. She told me not to go anywhere, that she’d be right back. I told her I was staying put and solid as the statue of Father Damien outside the Capitol. She returned in a matter of minutes and told me she’d secured a two-minute slot for me to give my testimony. Bless her heart, I am testifier #4,786.

Marie Machado, still pissed off as Pele.

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Dear Jesus:

Same-sex couples are currently missing out on 1,100 Federal benefits by not being legally married. Need I say more?

Dominic Cortez, Lunalilo Heights.

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Dear Jesus:

On this Saturday morning, 2nd of November, I will open the day with a prayer to you, knowing the entire state is probably at this very minute doing the same, i.e., competing for your attention, telling you that their prayer is more unique and far from the usual boring ask-and-then-ignore-once-it’s-been-answered… Jesus, there are certain things about this SB1 bill that I think you should know, and that extremely anxious and religious parents and teachers are not telling you. Before I proceed, I want to give you a brief introduction about myself, just so you know where I’m coming from. I’m an educator for 27 years. I received my M.A. in Sociology from Berkeley and my doctorate in Education from the University of Hawaii of Manoa. Regarding the concerns many parents have surrounding this bill and its effects on public education, I’d like to inform you that: 1) there’s no portion in this bill that advocates for change in education curriculum. Such issues are handled by the Hawaii Board of Education and Department of Education, and their policy states that all curriculum must be standards based. 2) As for sex education, Hawaii is an abstinence-based state, meaning we teach our students about abstinence as the best prevention and protection from pregnancy, infections, and diseases. And 3), should this bill pass—and most likely it will—parents will have the option, as they do now, to have their children not participate in such class discussion.

Amalia Buenaventura, P.Ed, Leeward Community College.

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Dear Jesus:

“Love is an illusion created by lawyer-types to perpetuate another illusion called marriage to create the reality of divorce and the need of divorce lawyers.” Andrew McCarthy’s character in St. Elmo’s Fire.

Gordon Wong IV, a former Jehovah’s Witness.

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Dear Jesus:

The Hawaii Attorney General David Louie is for gay marriage. Twenty members of the State Senate are for it. The Department of Taxation and the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission are for it. The Department of Health, under Director Loretta Fuddy, is ready to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. Is the fight over? No, for outside the Capitol I hear the clamor of my brothers and sisters. “Let the people vote! Let the people vote!”

Charmaine Iwalani Vargas, Temple Valley.

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Dear Jesus:

I’m anxious about the future of Proverbs 22:6—”Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” If SB1 passes, there will be no way but to turn gay. Jesus, kill SB1 bill now before this gay plague kills us.

Sharlene Ogawa, Aiea.

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Dear Jesus:

Whether this bill gets passed or not, I cannot, I repeat, I cannot honor such law. I don’t care if they have to arrest me, Jesus, or fire me from my state job. I love my job. The records show I excel at it. I love the law. I protect the law. But over my dead body if I have to abide by one that is imposed on me and my children and nieces and nephews and grandchildren, a law that results to nothing except to disrespect and dishonor my Almighty Father in heaven.

Albert Broadbent, President, State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.

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Dear Jesus:

Why are there no lipstick lesbos or butchies with mullets or scandalous mahus in the Bible? Just whores, pricks, assholes and war-lovers. What happened to us being all equal in God’s eyes? Not fair. Not fair.

Trinity, homeless.

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Dear Jesus:

Knock knock?

Who’s there?

Ima.

Ima who?

Ah, you mahu.

I not mahu. Maybe you the one mahu.

I no suck dick.

That’s not what Kerwin tole me.

Bull-lie.

After school. Behind Portable C. Five times Kerwin said.

So? He wen’ suck me too.

See? I knew it.

Knew what?

Tell you tomorrow.

No. Tell me now.

Meet me behind Portable C. Five minutes.

Four minutes.

K.

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Dear Jesus:

I was tired of being an astronaut, so I told my mother I wanted to be a lesbian, just like my Uncle J.R. So guess what she did? She took me straight to Fantastic Sam’s and ordered the barber to make a mullet out of me. I cried the whole day, Jesus. I looked so ugly, so white trash, like Miley Cyrus’s father—and I’m not even Haole. I’m Okinawan. I’m still crying, Jesus, and today is already the third day. I begged my mom to shave it off, just shave it off, please, Mom. She said no, because she said I looked good as a lesbian, especially with my mullet. Jesus, if you love me, please shave my head bald while I sleep. I promise I’m never going to wish to be a lesbian again. Ever.

Previn Higa, 9, Prince Kuhio Elementary.

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Dear Jesus:

Is Mercury in retrograde again? Or is Venus in Uranus?

Just kidding. Marty, Moanalua.

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Dear Jesus:

I open today’s Sunday paper to read about a teen who woke up covered in flames. He had dozed off on the school bus when his classmate, also sixteen, had set him on fire. When asked why, he said it was because the boy, after repeated warnings, continued to attend school in a skirt. Welcome to the future!

Julie Tadayashi, Kaimuki.

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Dear Jesus:

I don’t like the new blue M&M’s. Can we let the people of Hawaii vote to abolish it?

Kelly Pacheco.

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Dear Jesus:

In case the same-sex marriage equality bill no pass, can I, Bully Kupihea Jr., still be head cheerleader for the Kapa’a Warriors and wear my hot pants and do my Shakira-waka-waka dance routine during halftime?

Love u 4-eva, B.K.J., Kapa’a High.

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Dear Jesus:

I’m beginning to sound like a broken record. SB1 is not about what gets taught in classrooms. It’s about the thousand-plus Federal benefits that, at present, are denied to same-sex couples. But since we’re back on the topic of pedagogy, students discussing gay and lesbian characters in novels and short fiction don’t turn them into raging fags and dykes, as someone argued in their testimony, just as learning about drugs won’t turn you into an addict or a prostitute.

Amalia Buenaventura, P.Ed, Leeward Community College.

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Dear Jesus:

Why don’t they listen to me? I’m a millennial. My opinion matters the most. I am the future—bright, promising, full of hope. But this bill, if it passes the House, is going to turn Hawaii into another Canada, where all public bathrooms are unisex. The thought of sharing toilets with the opposite sex is frightening. Worse, if it’s with the same sex. Oppose SB1 bill NOW and save Hawaii from becoming the next Canada.

Linda, New Hope, Farrington High.

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Dear Jesus:

When I grow up, I want to start my own ministry and be the first gay minister. I’ll call it “New & Improved Hope” or “Hopelessly Devoteds.”

Michael/Michelle, 14.

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Dear Jesus:

Okay. Here goes. Please no mine my grammer, Jesus. I jus like share wit you my testamoney dat I goin’ give at the State Capitol tomorrow. Like my Repretensative Mataele I only wen’ go up to Turd World edumacation. But dis mo impotant. Now, you know me, Jesus, you know I no mo nutting agenst gays. Lesbiyans I get plenny, but not mahus. Watever dey like do in da privasy of der own home, well, das der kuliana. I get plenny mahu freinds and I goin be a liar if I tole you I never explored der dark side of life. You alredy know dis I’m sure. My wife Marlene know too. As your Fada is my witnes, I no mo nutting for hide. My life just like one open book alredy. Stay short but true. If you read ‘em, everything goin be right der on da first page. Wat gets my goat is dat dem mahus and wahines who stay stiring up all dis cantroversy is sending one false mesage to our kekis. Dey argyu dat to be gay and lesbiyan is not a choise. I agree. Das why leopards get spots, yeah? I know hard for dem to be like dat. I know not easy for dem to put up wid discremanation. But wat I like know is if dey know dat alredy den why stoke da fire even more? Why even bring up kekis in dis world? Besides, the world alredy made in China! Dont dey know dat wats hard for dem going only be harder for der children? But dey no can see wat I see becuz dey not part of da lite. In regardless, dis dey should tink about real hard. Sending dem my prayurs, Jesus. Peace. Love.

Willy from Maunawili.

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Dear Jesus:

Shame on Mataele. Does he even know what “conscientious objectors” mean? Or is he just quoting phrases from the Constitution, Chapter 5, Verse 33.6? Didn’t he flat-out told the molecular biologist Dean Hamer that he should be spoken to in lay lingua because he’d only received a Third World education? Does he know—or is he even aware—of the repercussions of such remarks? Which Third World is he referring to? Hawaii? Brigham Young University? Or his worldview?

Kaipo Williams, Waimanalo.

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Dear Jesus:

I been waiting since Thursday to give my testimony. It’s now Monday, November 4. I already missed two days of work. Might not seem much to the average Joe Blow, but that’s still gas money to a North Shore guy like myself who has to drive 15 miles into town just so I can afford to eat at McDonald’s three times a day. And it’s not like I can just up and leave the State Capitol because if I’m not here when they call my number—3,405—they’ll just skip me as if I never paid my annual taxes, which means I’ll have to get another number and miss more days of work, and if that’s how it’s going to be, then the State should make up for my lost income because they’re the one who called this special session from out of the blue, I mean, everything was quiet on the North Shore front until they pulled this stupid stunt on us.

Marlon, Sunset Beach.

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Dear Jesus:

Janina here. Freshman lipstick lesbo from Kahuku High. Just found out Cover Girl discontinued their Bistro Burgundy line. SOS.

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Dear Jesus:

Did I hear it right? Did he or didn’t he—a cop AND the President of the Organization of Police Officers—just swore that if this bill gets passed, he is willing to lose his job, get arrested or be killed, as it would turn him from a law enforcer to a lawbreaker? Talk about shooting one’s self on the hoof!

Joni Chinen, Ala Moana

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Dear Jesus:

Many homos believe we at New Hope hate them. Please. The world doesn’t revolve around them. There are more crucial issues in this world than seeing two men or two women exchanging vows at the altar, like organ trafficking and global child prostitution. Plus, it’s not as if they were born-again yesterday! Spare us the melodrama.

Moses Cabral, Moanalua.

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Dear Jesus:

Do you think James P. Kealoha who sits behind me in Algebra and copies my homework is bi-curious? If you think so, tell him my over-the-shoulder-look means that I think he’s jalapeño-hot and that I wouldn’t mind losing my divine virginity to him. Tell him I can host from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., which is when my mom comes home from her second job. Jesus, if only I had a va-j-jay.

Anonymous, 13, Damien High.

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Dear Jesus:

Tell Hawaii to hurry it up. Illinois just beat us as the fifteenth state to legalize gay marriage. Plus General Motors is extending marriage benefits to spouses of same-sex employees. Not that I’m gonna quit my City & County job as liquor commissioner and go work for GM in Michigan or wherever their factory is. I’m not gay, lesbian, transsexual, or bi-curious. I can’t even recall the last time I had sex. And this is not by choice either. Sad face to be placed here.

Peace, Nolan Kimura, C&C of Honolulu, Liquor Commissioner.

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Dear Jesus:

Kauikeaouli, or Kamehameha the III, who was the son of King Kamehameha I, also had several aikanes. From what I hear, he and his lovers, like Kaomi and Keoniana, put the cowboys in Bareback Mountain to shame. The king was so taken by Kaomi’s good looks—he was part-Tahitian and part-Hawaiian, that he was willing to make him co-rule his kingdom. Chief Kaomi died suddenly—cause: unknown—shortly before their conjugal governance could be realized. Another lover of King Kamehameha III was Keoniana—or John Young II—whose father, John Young I, was a Scottish military advisor who also happened to be an aikane of Kamehameha I. Talk about a lineage of kings and their male lovers. Irony of ironies: although King Kamehameha III practiced aikane-ship, he was the first king in the Hawaiian monarchy to reject polygamy and follow the Christian tradition of marriage to only one woman.

Mililani Silva, curator, Bishop Museum.

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Dear Jesus:

I am a girl who loves other girls but the commercial with you in it says it’s wrong. What if I ask for another vagina? One for the right reason and the other for the wrong. That way, it’s fair and square, as my teacher says. So please give me another vagina. I’ll be waiting by the Likelike overpass.

Yours truly, Sam(antha), 3rd grade, Kalihi Elementary School.

 

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Dear Jesus:

Kindly convince the seven UNDECIDED legislators to vote YES to same-sex marriage so that my Aunt R.J. can finally marry Tita M.C. who’s living in the U.S. illegally. They’ve been together for five years. Tita M.C. is Aunt R.J.’s caregiver. Yup, they’re old but not old enough to, you know, enjoy each other, if you know what I mean. Anyway, five years of togetherness is more than all the years of marriages combined in our family. If this law doesn’t get passed and if this prayer winds up with INS, then Tita M.C. will most likely be deported back to the Third World. Turd World, that’s what she calls the Philippines. I don’t know. I’ve never been there. But if you end Third World now, then it will be okay, I guess, for Tita M.C. to be deported, though it would mean breaking her and Aunt R.J. up and you don’t want to be called a homewrecker, right? Thought so.

Lois Cabradilla, Hilo High.

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Dear Jesus:

My traditional parents change religion faster than their underwear. In one month, we went from New Hopeless to Word of Lifeless. Then we switched to Catholicism b/c my mother found out from my Auntie Eileen that the new pope wears Prada and Gucci, then we switched to Pentecostal because my parents think they can sing and faint at the same time. Now, my father wants to be a Mormon b/c, he says, a traditional father should have five desperate wives per household. Vote YES to traditional family.

Jonah Asuncion.

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Dear Jesus:

Why they picking on my cop cousin, calling him any kind names, like his brain is one major pain in the ass. Excuse me, anatomically speaking, the brain stay way at the top, while the pain is a bottom. And for your information, dumb and dumber are two people, my cop uncle, who heads the union, get only one mind and one body! Besides, everyone is entitled to his and her opinion, right? My cop uncle/union leader only exercising his. To those who don’t like it, I say: WHATEVS!

Princess, La’ie.

*

Dear Jesus:

I so embarrassed, so humilahated. My faddah wen’ State Capitol yesterday and gave his testimony. He waited 11 days cuz he was number 10,348, which was an exaggeration. He a member of New Life in Leeward. Before that, New Word in Windward. And before that—he was incarcerated at OCCC. 2 years for aggravated assault and chronic road rage. He said he not proud of that but he said everybody get skeletons. If gays have their walk-in closets why shouldn’t he. He told all this on Olelo LIVE STREAMING. He also said he pro-traditional family. He told the legislators he been w/ my maddah for 16 happily years. He was in 11th grade and she, 8th. That they been happily married for 7 years since they joined New Life. That he get three happy children ages 16 (me), 13 (brother), and 12 (sister). Jesus, do the math; it ain’t gonna add up. That means my maddah is not my maddah and the maddah I have now got pregnant soon after she met my faddah.

Diane Carvalho, Kapahulu.

*

Dear Jesus:

I failed you. I’m sorry. After waiting for what seemed like hours, I was finally asked by Rep. Sylvia Luke to approach the mic and begin my two-minute testimony. “Aloha,” I said. “Aloha,” the committee members answered back. Next thing I knew—nothing. I couldn’t get a word out. It was as if my tongue had been chopped off. A minute went by and not a single sound or syllable. I held my palm out. I tried to tell the committee members through my facial expression that something was happening to me, that the god of scissors had entered my body and cut off my voice. Look at me! Can’t you tell something is wrong? my face was shouting at them. But I got no reaction. They probably thought that I was just another lolo old lady who’d gone to the State Capitol to waste two minutes of their time, like the woman who used up her time shouting “Let the people vote!” or the Born-Again singing “Amazing Grace.” It was not until tonight, when I tuned in to watch the news and saw myself as one of the highlights from today’s testimonies. Apparently, I could not only muster a sound out of my big Portuguese mouth, but I was also denied the right to emote. On my face was a huge blank, like I had been injected with a gallon of Botox. Only after my two-minute was up was I able to hear my voice and make all sorts of faces. That was when I lost it. I started shouting uncontrollably “Maluhia, maluhia”—which means “peace.” I was so far gone that I had to be escorted out of the building by three bodyguards to the jeers of my Christian brothers and sisters.

Failure Marie Machado from Hana, Maui.

*

Dear Jesus:

Feels like day 357 of same-sex equality debate. Shet, this freakin’ bill feels like a trial that’s taking longer than O.J. Simpson’s and Roe Versus Wade’s put together. Even Jeffrey Dahmer’s case was shorter than this, only two weeks. And by the way it’s going, it might go unresolved, like the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. I just hope that the HPD is going to be there again, not just for body count but peace of mind as well. That they’re there to protect the people and maybe, this time, step up and arrest those disturbing the legal proceedings. Would like to see that Samoan cop doing his job, too, that is, protecting everyone, including those law-abiding same-sex loving tax-paying citizens he abhors, who are helping pay his salary.

‘Til Tomorrow, Lex.

*

Dear Jesus:

Today, Tuesday, November 5th, has got to be the most depressing day of the year. The joint House committee just voted 18-12 in favor of this same-sex marriage bill. I don’t know how these 18 legislators can go to sleep tonight, knowing the majority of the people are against this bill. Now, this bill goes to the rest of the House to vote.

Richard, Maile.

*

Dear Jesus:

No let this stupid bill pass. I no like be edumacated about mahus and lesbos. Get enough of them on TV, like Kirk and that black tranny on Glee. Neil Patrick Harris, the Doogie Howser guy, I know he gay in real life but he okay because he play straight guy and one womanizer in How I Met Your Mother, plus he get one star on the Hollywood sidewalk. So, yea, no allow teachers for edumacate us about Adam and Steve in the classroom. And about Eve and Liv too. Mahalo.

J.T., Hawaii Baptist Academy.

*

Dear Jesus:

My testimony was short and simple. I just wen’ read them my tattoo on my right arm. Leviticus 18:22. “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.”

Jeremy, Papakolea.

*

Dear Jesus:

Before we continue our relationship, I only want one thing cleared up. Exactly which side of hope are you? Are you with New Hope or the old one, because if you converted to the new one, then I want to know what was wrong with the old one? Because if the old hope is no good because it’s old, then that means that, sooner or later, this new one will eventually be no good too, right? And if this is the case, then are you telling me that hope is like a loaf of bread: it has an expiration date? That once it expires, it will grow moldy, rot, disintegrate, etcetera—and then what? Newer Hope? Redux Hope? Get back to me soon because I would still like to be hopelessly devoted to you.

Alice Pacheco.

*

Dear Jesus:

Representative Sam Knight, who is part of the Finance committee and who, as everyone in West Oahu and Club Rose knows, is an out-and-proud lesbian (if her mullet isn’t a dead giveaway then I don’t know what is). Anyway, she voted NO on this bill. I repeat: a lesbian lawmaker voting against gay marriage. Isn’t that saying something? There is hope at the end of the rainbow.

Jesus loves you Rep Sam no matter who you are.

Virgie Lacaran, Waianae.

*

Dear Jesus:

My name Xian Lim. I Chinese defective now living in Hawaii five years. In Guangdong, China, where I from, we no allow this kind marriage between same sex. If civet cats, okay, because they full of SARS, but not humans, especially lady to lady. It’s not right. I not hateful type, but it’s not Christian. Peace Always.

*

Dear Jesus:

Can you please tell those brainiacs like that chromosologist from Harvard for stop picking on Representative Mataele and making him look like one laughing stock? He ain’t one baboon, babooze, he one human being! So what if he only went to a third world community college and you gotta talk to him in 3rd grade layman-Pidgin for explain that homosexuality is hiding in the genes? My pastor disagrees, ergo I disagree with him. Of course, a gay can be an ex-gay if he like. It’s called “choice” people, and it’s nothing but one gift from heaven, and they come in A, B, C, D, or E. That’s why it’s called “multiple”! Hello?! At least now, he representative of Iroquois Housing, which he wen’ achieve through hard work, perseveration, and prayers. Remind them that, Jesus. Choice before institution.

Braddah Al, Ewa Beach & Iroquois Housing.

*

Dear Jesus:

When you get a chance, please pass this message on to that man who read a Leviticus verse from his shoulder. Leviticus 19:28: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.”

Rabih Nassir, Salt Lake.

*

Dear Jesus:

For days, Mary, I was at the State Capitol today for check out the drama. Mary, was so nails, like one C-rated camp. But guess who I saw making all that “Let the People Vote” noise pollution and disturbing Father Damien’s statue? Efren Lopez, the biggest Filipino bakla in the history of Waipahu High. I remember Muffyrella used to wear choke obake cosmetics and went around saying he hapa. Well, I guess he had a bad case of epiphany because he was acting all straight at the State Capitol (more like scared-straight). He was so convincing I almost never recognized him if not for the facial-induced craters. He was tongue-twisting with the other drama-sci-fi-comedy queens. For days. For real kind, Mary. If that’s what tickles his okole, then let him. I just waiting for that day when all these self-hating mahus come out of the closet. This island probably going sink. So maybe they better not, yeah?

Trixie, Hotel St/Bethel.

*

 

Dear Jesus:

We have one more chance to kill this bill. Please persuade the remaining twenty-one representatives to vote NO on this bill tomorrow, which is Wednesday. The pro-gay marriage only needs 26; they already got 18. That’s only 8 votes shy from making our nightmare their reality. Jesus, time to walk on water.

Kenneth Pang, Kalama Valley.

*

Dear Jesus:

Oh, my god, what is happening to our dyke from Waianae? Has she gone back to the closet? Hope not. We have our reasons, but we hope our sister Sam will change her mind and vote YES tomorrow. Jesus, please do not let her make the wrong decision that will affect her future relationship with the gay and lesbian community in Hawaii, especially with the 500 active members of LOVE, Lesbians Organizing Vanguards of Eros, which she is a part of. Guide her, oh Lord, in these next twenty-four hours as she re-evaluates her position on this crucial bill and remind her to base her decision not just on whom she is representing but on what she stands for and believes in. We pray she will reverse her NO to a YES. Hoping, 500 members of LOVE.

*

Dear Jesus:

We did it. The House just voted 30-18 in favor of Senate Bill 1. Three abstained because they want to be re-elected by their constituents. Tomorrow, the House is taking a day off from the public, then resume on Friday for the final history-making vote. But I shall always remember today, Wednesday, November 6, 2013 as the first step to a history worth making. I don’t know if you have anything to do with this victory, but thank you anyway. Sorry to take up so much of your time. I’m sure you’re up to your neck with prayers and complaints.

Maxwell, Waikiki.

*

Dear Jesus:

Tell your ministers they got no business meddling in the same-sex marriage bill because their churches aren’t paying taxes. In fact, they’re abusing their non-profit status. Bad enough they’re holding their ministries in public school grounds, where Church and State should not be coupling. And until they start paying taxes, like the rest of us citizens, including those who have been denied rights that should be afforded to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, and race, then these religious organizations have no say in this bill nor in any legislative bill, for that matter. We gays and lesbians have put up with bullying from your (make) believers for too long and are tired of being victims and sacrificial lambs. No more. Discriminate us, don’t marry us in your churches, we don’t care. Push comes to shove, we all know money will speak faster than faith.

Isaac, Makiki.

*

Dear Jesus:

If Hawaii becomes the next state to legalize same-sex marriage, terrible consequences will follow such as global warming, widespread meth use, more power plant explosions such as that in Fukushima, extinction of endangered species, killer viruses, etc. etc.

Pastor Paolo, Whitmore Village.

*

Dear Jesus:

Another major dilemma-rama. For tomorrow’s big event at the Capitol: 6-inch stilettos or slippers? Slippers, yeah? Easier for kill the roaches. But for sure, I going wear my Kermit-the-frog-rainbow-connection-inspired tube top and the jurassic organic hibiscus I bought for choke dollars at Wholefoods that going be tucked behind my left ear cuz I already taken. I going force myself back into my 35-year-old Calvin Klein jeans cuz I no like nothing come between me and my you-know-what, except Russell (and maybe Shawn). I going decorate my kino with body glitter for that Lucy-in-the-sky-with-diamonds effect. And, last but not the leastest, Love’s Baby Soft perfume cuz innocence is sexier than you think (unless you getting harrassed on the bus by freakin’ psychos and etes). Going be so retro, going be so all about aloha and ohana tomorrow. Cannot wait.

Heavenly yours, Janice Kawehionalani Lee.

*

Dear Jesus:

Who cares about the final vote on Friday, the 8th? The end of the world is already here, and it’s heading towards the Philippines. Forget us, Jesus, we can manage. They need you there more.

Librado Encarnacion, Waihawa.

*

Dear Jesus:

If you’re not going to let the Representatives let us, the people, vote, then we’re not going to pray for you. Fair? Deal? The Mob-ettes outside the Capitol.

*

Dear Jesus:

“Let the people vote! Let the people vote!” Uhm, they already did, and they’re called general and primary elections. What a bunch of nimcompoops! This is an issue of minority civil rights. It cannot be decided by the majority. If it were up to them, U.S. History would be a blank slate. Women wouldn’t be voting right now. Schools and public restrooms would remain segregated. Rosa Parks would still be riding at the back of the bus. African American slaves would, well, still be praying someday for their freedom. Inter-racial marriages would be banned. So, yes, let the people vote and let’s return history back to the black hole.

Gary Kurishege, History Professor, U.H. Community College, Diamond Head Campus.

*

Dear Jesus:

First, I just want to tell You how truly remarkable You are for putting up with all the BS and other blasphemous things that are being said about You lately, especially from the other camp. I wish I had Your patience and tolerance. Second, You are probably aware of this individual (local? Haole?) who is currently collecting letters addressed to you and posting in on his (her?) FB page. His/Her FB page is “Dear Jesus.” It’s the one with the profile pic of a Hawaiian monk seal. These letters, notes, and messages are either in support of or against same-sex marriage. According to him/her, no alteration was done, that they were posted immediately upon receipt. I don’t know what his/her objective is but, to me, these postings achieve nothing except to mock those who are fighting to protect their faith and their constitutional right to freedom of speech. I am also concerned with his/her inclusion of letters from children, many of them expressing their pro-stand on the issue. These children are lost, Jesus. They have fallen out of touch with You. They will grow up on the margins of society, be cast aside and treated like lepers, even prostitutes, addicts, and terrorists. They will lead undesirable lifestyles, participating in unhealthy activities that will certainly lead to their demise. Guide them back to Your temple, Jesus. Let them know hope is inextinguishable. It’s not too late. It’s never too late.

Sincerely, Anna D.

P.S. I have a strong suspicion that this letter collector is a disgruntled kamaaina (Haole?) who used to be a minister or an active member of our ministry.

*

Dear Jesus del Mar:

I am a stovepipe sponge of the phylum porifera, meaning “pore bearer”. To the majority of sea creatures, we are nothing but pores and channels and have been repeatedly accused of making waves because of our phallic shape: thick, long, and open to whatever the tide brings. I am praying because I have fallen in love with a Portuguese from Waimanalo, a man-of-war, that is, also asexual like myself and could reproduce. But I am afraid that the majority of sponges and jellyfishes who have converted to the Kingdom Hall of Animalia are against such union and will want to rob us of our sea-given right. Please do not let them decide.

Praying and poring, S, off of Hanauma Bay.

*

Dear Jesus:

We are now officially back in pre-1954 segregation era. At the Capitol, the mauka or mountainside of the rotunda is for supporters of same-sex marriage; on the makai or seaside is for opponents. Along Beretania Street, supporters can wave at motorists from the left half of the Father Damien statue towards Downtown; the anti from the right half of the Molokai saint’s statue towards Punchbowl. Both sides also have their own entrances to the gallery, as well as separate elevators, Fire Exits, water fountains, and soda vending machines. Likewise for trash cans. Those painted with pink triangles are for pro-equality, and those against it are marked with crosses. During recess, McDonald’s have been kind enough to accommodate both sides. Those in support can dine at the McDonald’s in Fort Street Mall, and those against it can go to the one on Beretania, past Honolulu Academy of Arts. As for parking, those in favor of same-sex marriage can use any metered parking along Richard Street and those opposing it along Punchbowl. Metered parking along South King Street is on a first-come first-serve basis. Do not park at the post office or at the State Building as meters there tend to be unreliable and your cars will be towed. Sadly yours, Dominic Corpuz.

*

Dear Jesus:

2 much H8 n da 808. Peace. Luke.

*

Dear Jesus:

So many frigging drama queens on this island. Old and new, out of and in the closet. Feels like a bad soap opera without a cliffhanger, like Dynasty without Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter. No wonder none of this is televised on MSNBC. With all this drama, bordering on B-rated, we should all take a box of Dramamine (or Ambien) with Kool-Aid and give our legislators a break for once. If Rep. Gene Ward can equate the passing of this bill to 9/11, saying Hawaii would never be the same just as the U.S. was never the same again after 9/11, then I can compare this exhaustive drama to the Jim Jones Guyana tragedy, except we’ll be RIP just for couple days. The one good thing is that we can give our beloved officials some peace and quiet and open air to duke it out amongst themselves. After all, we elected them for this very reason. Who knows? By the time we wake up from our deep slumber, Hawaii might be in for a big surprise. Or not. Marty, Mililani Mauka.

*

Dear Jesus: Kindly thank Speaker Emeritus for taking us on a meandering excursion to Jerusalem, the doctrines of Jesus, the bus stop of silence that’s been installed specifically for him. Mahalo.

*

Dear Jesus:

Just requested Rep. Chris Lee (hunk times ten, and those six-pack abs!) to be my friend on FB. Hope he confirms.

Charlene Kobayashi, 35.

*

Dear Jesus:

Are you behind—or an accomplice to—the creation of some of these Hawaii representatives? Please say no. Some of them make the twisted characters in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, and John Waters’ early flicks starring Divine sane and saner. One just out-channeled Ann Coulter, another used the platform to poorly imitate Glenn Close in Damages. Then there’s the wonder duo who should just deactivate: the Hawaiian version of Palin and the Pacific Islander who “received a Third-World education” (his exact words, not mine) who confused democracy with anarchy. Not to forget the legislator who sounds as if he was born out of a bar in Koreamoku. Please say you had no role in their genetic and psychological make-up. Awaiting your YES or NO reply, Allan (two “L’s” followed by an “A.” Allan, not Allen. Allen is Woody, mine is African-American, like Allan Houston, no relation to Whitney, no relation to Eli. The world is small but we’re not all related, you know).

*

Dear Jesus:

Regarding Representative Lulu Mae Kahele from the Big Island. First, teach her the proper use of symbolism or metaphor. Her use of a bag of rice to signify a Hawaiian cultural staple is just wrong and an insult to the Hawaiian people she claims to belong to. Shouldn’t it be a bag of poi, kalua pork, pipikaula? And, correct me if I’m wrong, Jesus, but isn’t this bill about same-sex marriage equality? What theft for the Hawaiians is she talking about? Is she operating on Hawaii Standard Time or still trapped in the vog zone of Kona? If my friend Ku’ualoha, who is Hawaiian, goes into convulsions because of Rep. Lulu Mae Kahele’s convoluted definition of Hawaiian culture and identity, I’m going to blame it on her. Also, remind her to stop saying she supports equality and the LGBT community, because, obviously, she doesn’t. And if I can just make one last suggestion, remind her she is a representative in Hawaii State Capitol and not at the Kodak Theater attending an Academy Awards ceremony. She turned her argument into a tireless Oscar “thank you” speech. Was she even nominated? For what film? “A Day in the Life of Sam, the Spam?”

Just my two cents, Lucky Machado, Ph.D, English Renaissance Lit.

*

Dear Jesus:

Please take Representative Sam Judas with you. Each and every silver strand of her mullet. We never asked her to be our poster child. Instead, she has turned her back on us to favor what she calls her “conscience”. Did her conscience tell her to deny people like us equal rights, too? Obviously and, obviously, she was trying to cater to the hysterical group disrupting the legal proceedings from outside the Capitol. Well, we don’t need her, and people like her, in our community and in our struggle for equality. So wish her the best of luck from us, as she starts her equality-robbing existence in her new community. She can rest assure she won’t be invited to any of our ceremonies, celebrations, and cookouts.

Signed, 500 members of LOVE, Lesbians Organizing Vanguards of Eros.

*

Dear Jesus:

END OF THE WORLD x 2, 30 YES’s, 19 NO’s, 2 CHICKEN SHITs.

Lala Bushwell, E.R., Queen’s Medical Center.

*

Dear Jesus:

I have been up since midnight, watching and listening to lawmakers vote yes or against a bill that will determine a part of my future. It is disturbing and infuriating to have what should’ve been my right in the first place be questioned, weighed, supported, divided, even manipulated. Fortunately, there were more than enough representatives who voted (a few with reservations) to grant me that right for the first time tonight. It is now 3:30 in the morning. There is still time left to pick up the remains of a dream and let it roam with other mysteries before it returns back to me to whisper, “There, there, almost there, you and I.” Goodnight for now.

Yours Truly.

***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

zamora linmark

R. ZAMORA LINMARK‘s latest poetry collection, Pop Verite, is forthcoming from Hanging Loose Press. He has just completed his third novel titled These Books Belong to Ken Z. He is the Distinguished Visiting Associate Professor in Creative Writing at University of Miami and is currently working on a sequel to his first novel Rolling The R’s which, in 2016, will be twenty years old.

[Header Photo: ‘Aloha’ (CC) Robert Couse-Baker / @ Flickr]

from issue #6: ‘Sissa’ by Jon A. Jackson

SISSA: An extract from Not So Dead

by JON A. JACKSON

 April 14, 1931

THIS IS A STORY told me by Miss Harriet (Sissa) Hartsfield, of Butte, Montana, when she was about 35 years old. I composed this from memory, within an hour of the relation of the story, when Miss Hartsfield had left. I didn’t take notes during the telling, but I don’t believe I left anything out and this seems to be just what she said. —B.S.

I was just sixteen when old Mrs. St. Ives carried me up to Montana. I was born in Texas, in the town of Singletree. My Mama was housekeeper for Mrs. St. Ives.  So when Mrs. St. Ives went to visit her son, Mr. Gaylord St. Ives, not long after his marriage, she got the notion that he needed a proper housekeeper. My Mama must have told her that I was trained for that, because she took me up there and I have never been back to Texas, since. I can’t say that I care about that, except that I only saw my Mama one more time before she died, when she came up to Butte a few years later, with old Mrs. St. Ives.  She died two years ago, and I feel just awfully sad that we never got to spend any more time together than we did. She was a good Christian woman, she had a good life with people who loved her and who she loved, and I know she is in Heaven now.

The thing that most sticks in my mind about that journey from Texas, which was the first time I ever rode on a train, is that the minute I got to Butte it seemed like Mrs. Hazel St. Ives didn’t want me around. But it must not have been clear to the old lady, Mr. St. Ives’s mother, because she left me there after she went home a month later, and I don’t think she knew what was likely to become of me.  She must have thought I would work into the job of keeping Mr. St. Ives’s house. I don’t think she would have left me there if she didn’t think I was going to work out.

That was in 1911, about a week before Christmas, when we got there. Lord, was it cold! Some say it was twenty-below, but it was colder than I knew it could be. The train had to run very slow at times because they had to heat the switches so that they would work, so I was told. I could see the men out on the tracks, building little fires. When old Mrs. St. Ives left it felt even colder.

I don’t know why Mrs. Hazel didn’t take to me. Some girls I got to know later would smile and shake their heads, as if I was silly. They said it was plain as day why she didn’t want me around. It was all about Mr. St. Ives.  But I never hardly saw Mr. St. Ives until after his mother left and the very next day he took me downtown to Ma Ling’s house.  I should have known then, but I was only sixteen and I’d been brought up proper in my Mama’s house down in Singletree, a good church girl. I went all the way through the eighth grade and always did well, but they don’t tell you about these kinds of things in a country school, or Sunday School.

But even a good church girl knows something, especially if she’s a Negro. My Mama told me some things, and my aunties, and my girl friends, what they call “the facts of life.” So I guess I understood a little bit about what was going on. And to tell you the truth, it scared me to death. But it was kind of exciting, too.

Ma Ling was a Chinawoman. She was the first Chinese person I ever knew. She was always very good to me, but I guess most people would say she was not a good woman.  She owned a whorehouse, but I didn’t know it was a whorehouse, right yet. It wasn’t on Venus Alley, downtown, but it was in an apartment building close by. Let me say right now, Ma Ling did not let anything happen to me. I mean nothing at all. On the way down there I sat in the back of Mr. St. Ives’s car and he never said a word until we got down there and then all he said was I had to stay there, it was the best he could do for now, and if I needed anything, I should just ask Ma Ling. So I just stayed there. Ma Ling didn’t tell me much. She was a close-mouthed woman at all times, and Mr. St. Ives must have told her to keep her mouth shut. Maybe he didn’t know himself what he was doing. So while it was freezing and the wind was howling outside and you couldn’t hardly see down the mountain, I just stayed in Ma Ling’s place with nothing to do but read magazines and books and sit and fret.

There were several other girls in that place, some of them quite a bit older, grown-up women, but I didn’t visit with all of them, just three or four. They all seemed to me to be very pretty, even beautiful. They wore mostly fancy bedroom clothes, dressing gowns and kimonos and chemises, but sometimes they got dressed up very elegantly, when they were going out. One of them that I got to know was an Indian girl, about eighteen, named Veronica, and the two others that I mostly talked to were white girls, Mary Lou and JoBeth. Veronica was from Montana, from somewhere “up on the High Line,” she said. She was a Cree Indian. Mary Lou was a jolly blonde girl from Seattle and JoBeth was a skinny dark-haired girl from California, from a town I never heard of, but I think it was in the mountains, where a wagon train of settlers got snowed in and ate each other. The others I didn’t see much and never got to know them. They came and went. They were all whores, but I didn’t know that, at first.

I guess I must have known what a whore was already, but it wasn’t real clear to me. I had heard of the Whore of Babylon, in church, but I didn’t see any connection to these girls. But I soon understood. The girls I knew had little apartments, not like mine, which had a parlor and a bedroom with its own bath.  They lived in single bedrooms and shared a bath down the hall. But they entertained men in another room, any of several rooms on the other side of the building.

What is there to say? I know what it was all about now, but it’s hard to recollect just how much I knew then. I believe I knew more than I was supposed to know, for a good little church girl. I didn’t know everything, but I knew about boys and girls and babies, and whatever Veronica and Mary Lou and JoBeth told me, it seemed like I already knew it. But maybe I’m just not remembering it right.

Anyway, I was quite a few weeks in that house, being bored, even working around the house for something to do, cleaning, dusting, washing up, do some sewing, helping out, even though Ma Ling said I didn’t have to do any of that. And all the time I didn’t know what was going to happen and I was wondering if my Mama knew where I was, even. I didn’t have any letters from her, or from my aunties, and I was very worried about what was going to become of me and what they would be thinking. I didn’t write anything, or even ask to. I was too afraid. Ma Ling told me to be patient, everything would be all right.

And then, one night, Mr. St. Ives came. He was about thirty-five, a handsome man, tall and slim. He was always so very well-dressed. He had kind of a dark look, like he was frowning all the time, and sometimes he could seem like he was mad, or sneering. But that night he was drunk. Not falling down drunk, but not steady on his feet, neither. And he was talking loud. I heard him talking to Ma Ling. Her apartment, which was quite large and grand, was right before mine, directly down the hall. Anybody coming into that building would have to go by her apartment and down a narrow passage to get to my own rooms. I imagine that is why I was in those rooms.

I heard Mr. St. Ives talking and I went and cracked the door and peeped and I saw him out at the end of the hall, next to the big staircase in the middle of the entrance lobby. My hallway was dark, as always, so I knew he wouldn’t see me. Ma Ling was standing inside the door to her rooms, so I couldn’t see her. He was leaning on the doorway with his arm outstretched, talking into the opening, arguing, and sometimes he would lurch back and lean against the staircase. He was saying that he wanted to see me, that “it was time.” But Ma Ling seemed to be arguing against it. I couldn’t hear her words, but I caught the sing-song of her voice. I think she was telling him to go away. And she must have tried to close her door, but he lunged forward and held it open.

“Well, by God,” he bellowed, like an old bull, “I’ll just take the little bitch out of here, then!”

But then, suddenly, Ma Ling’s hand reached out and pulled him into the rooms and the door closed and nothing happened. I finally closed my door and locked it and sat in a chair for a long time. I tried to read. Ma Ling and some of the girls had given me some novels to read, to help pass the time. The one I was trying to read was A Girl of the Limberlost, which was about a young girl in Indiana who catches moths. The girls thought I should like it, but it seemed very strange to me. Anyway, I put it down. I couldn’t read now. But nothing happened and finally I went to bed.

The next morning, Ma Ling came to see me and said I must be prepared to entertain Mr. St. Ives. He would come to see me, but she didn’t know when, how soon. She asked me if I was a virgin. A week or two before this, I would have been embarrassed by the question. Now, since I had talked to Veronica and Mary Lou and JoBeth, I was almost embarrassed to admit that I was. Ma Ling was not going to take my word for it, however. She insisted on examining me. Now I was embarrassed. But she was the kind of woman who doesn’t make any big show of things. She was firm, careful, and businesslike. That calmed me. She was satisfied after her examination and she gave me some advice.

“You don’t know what to do,” she said. “That’s okay. He expect that. Do you not want to give in?”

I didn’t know what she meant. “Give in… what?” I said.

Ma Ling suddenly became angry. “I will not have it,” she said. “If you refuse, I will not have it in my house. He cannot make me.”

I was afraid now. I thought she meant that I might have to go. But where? I had heard the girls talk about being “out on the street.” They talked about it with fear. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but if I had to go out on the street… It was so cold! So bitterly cold! I would die.

I think Ma Ling realized that I had misunderstood. I was scared, she could tell. She said something about ”rape.” She would not tolerate rape.

I knew what rape was, or I thought I did. Mama had talked about rape. I don’t mean she talked to me about it, but I used to hear her talking to my aunties about it, and her friends. Seemed like they talked about it a lot. It was a serious thing. It was against the law, but it was also very bad for the girl who was raped. Rape was very bad, awful. It was painful and it caused bleeding. That’s what I understood, but I didn’t know what was involved, obviously. A girl was always in danger of it, it seemed like. I had an idea that some girls got raped and it was their own fault, something they did that was wrong.  ”She brought it on herself,” was what I heard. This was an idea that my girlfriends down in Singletree talked about often. I wasn’t sure how it applied to me, now. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I didn’t think. I wasn’t doing anything at all.

I told Ma Ling I wasn’t sure, but I would try to be good and not be raped. But Ma Ling looked at me and she just shook her head. I was scared, but not unwilling to do what she thought I should do. I wasn’t refusing to entertain Mr. St. Ives.

Ma Ling was still upset, but she said maybe it would be okay. Maybe it would be for the best. She told me that Mr. St. Ives was a very rich man, very powerful. “If he wants you he will have you,” she said. But she warned me that men are stupid. She said, sometimes a man like Mr. St. Ives, if he didn’t know how to get what he wanted by talking, by acting like gentleman, like with his wife, he might get tough. He might take what he wanted by force. “You don’t want him to act like that,” she told me. I could get hurt, if he got angry. “You got to help him to get what he wants,” she said. But then she warned me: “Remember! Don’t act like you already know! He don’t like that.” I was so confused, I had no idea what she was talking about.

So Ma Ling showed me how to act: to be shy, to resist a little but not too much, to not seem knowing, to let him show me what he wanted, to be patient, but if he got confused I should lead him on without seeming to. This was the way. And she showed me just what might happen. She would be nearby, just in case. I was not to worry.

But I was very anxious and naturally I asked the girls. Veronica laughed. It was easy, she said. “Don’t you worry. He’s got his mind on one thing. He won’t notice what you’re doing, as long as you don’t scream and run away.” And Mary Lou said if I was lucky and he wasn’t drunk it would be all right, no problem, just like Veronica said, but JoBeth thought it would be better if he was a little drunk. They argued about that. In the end they thought that there was nothing I could do about that. I couldn’t act like a professional and offer him whiskey. I’d just have to wait and see how he showed up.

Two nights later he returned. Ma Ling brought him to my door, then left. I was alarmed at that, but she had told me she would be just outside the door, just in case. He came in and sat down, then got up and wandered about, looking at things. He said he was just checking on me, to see how I was getting along. He asked me if I was comfortable. I said I was. He said he had heard from my mother. I was so excited! What did she write? But he said it was just that she missed me, she was thinking about me, she was well. I should write to her and tell her that I was all right. Did I have a pen, paper? Stamps? Did I know how to write?

Oh, yes, I assured him that I could write good. But, I told him that I didn’t have any stationery or pens or stamps. And he said he would see that I had some. I thanked him but I said I didn’t know what I should write. Could I tell her that I was staying with Ma Ling? Could I tell her about Veronica and Mary Lou and JoBeth?

Oh, God no, that wouldn’t do, he said. He seemed to be confused, or worried, standing there trying to think. Then he said I would be up at the house, eventually. He didn’t know how soon, but pretty soon. In the meantime, there was no point in making my Mama worry, or his Mama, for that matter, ‘cause she was bound to hear about it from my Mama if I said anything. He said that under his breath, almost, but I understood and I nodded to let him know. He seemed grateful.

He explained that his wife, Miz Hazel, he called her, was a bit high strung. It had nothing to do with me, really, but with his mother and Miz Hazel’s feelings about her own house and having her own people about her. I told him I understood. He was glad to see that I was such a smart and mature young lady, he said. He was happy that we could talk so comfortably. He asked if I minded if he took off his overcoat. I said no, of course not. Then he sat down with the coat folded in his lap. Pretty soon he fished out a little leather-covered flask and asked me if he could bother me for a glass. There was a little room back by the bath, which I called my kitchen. It was no bigger than a closet, hardly, but there was a sink and some cabinets and little table where I sometimes ate the dinner that Ma Ling would have her servant bring me. I had some nice little crystal glasses that Ma Ling had provided. I ran and got Mr. St. Ives a glass.

When I got back, he had set the coat aside and was holding a cigar. He asked if I minded if he smoked. I said no, of course not, and fetched him a saucer to use for an ashtray. He poured himself some whiskey and lit his cigar and began to talk.

That night he told me about growing up down in Texas. He knew the little village of Singletree very well, he said. He had often ridden over that way. There was a famous well over that way, he recalled. Did I know it? I must. I told him I did, of course. It was the artesian well, or spring, at Nahor. He used to go bird hunting over that way, he said, and he would water his horse at the spring. He laughed in a shy way and said some of his friends used to flirt with the girls who came to get water at the well for their houses. Did I ever go to the well? I told him I went to the well, to get water for my Mama’s house. He said he supposed the boys still came to the spring, to flirt with the girls. Did I ever go with any of those boys? Oh, no, I said, my Mama would have whipped me. He said that was good. My Mama was right.

He knew right where our house was, in Singletree, near the railroad tracks. “I believe your daddy was a railroad man, wasn’t he?” he asked. I said I guessed that was so, but I hadn’t known him. He had died when I was little. Mr. St. Ives said he knew my whole family, my Daddy, who he said was a fine man, a good worker. Uncle Dub, he called him. It was a bad accident that killed him, he said. He knew my older brothers, who were in the army and served honorably, and my older sisters. He knew their names. And my aunties. He remembered Aunt Sister, especially. She was the pretty one. Everyone called her Sissa and I looked very much like her. Would I mind if he called me Sissa?

I laughed. I’d called her Aunt Sissa, too. It seemed funny that he would call me Sissa. But I said he could, of course.

He told me how he missed Texas, especially in the morning. He had strong memories of morning in Texas, of the way the light was. Especially in the fall, the late fall, November. “It’s not the same light here,” he said. “Here the light comes over the mountain. Out there, it gradually grows, covering the sky, and then the sun just pops up out of the earth.” He went on about that. How the sun rises out of the earth, gathering its strength, gradually growing like a symphony orchestra, almost. It was like poetry, the way he said it. I had never heard a symphony orchestra, at that time, but I seemed to hear it, the strings, quiet at first, then getting louder, and finally the horns joining in. And then a great crash of the cymbals. It was thrilling to hear him talk about it.  But all of a sudden, he got up and put on his coat and left. Just like that, without another word!

I was a little disappointed, to be honest. I had gotten over my fears when he turned out to be so friendly and all, and then I got to remembering what Ma Ling had coached me about and had gotten myself all ready for something different, but it hadn’t happened. I thought, he doesn’t like me. I wondered if it was because I was a Negro.

The girls were amazed when I told them. I made up some things, I admit. I said he hugged me and he kissed me, but he hadn’t even touched me. I couldn’t pretend that anything else had happened. They said that he was just shy, that he would be back.

And they were right. He came back the next night. He started right in where he had left off, about being a boy in Texas, going out in the morning to the horse barns. He loved the smell of the barns, of the horses. He had some horses here, he said, but he had to keep them at a ranch that was miles away and he couldn’t just go and visit them whenever he wanted, not every morning.  He grew up on army posts, he told me. His father had fought in the War Between the States, on the Union side, and after the war had risen to the rank of colonel. I knew there was a Fort near Singletree, but we always just called it the fort. I never knew the name. And his daddy was the colonel, the commander of the fort!

Mr. St. Ives came almost every night for two weeks and he would sit and reminisce while he sipped his whiskey and smoked a cigar. He really seemed to like me, to like my company. Maybe it was because I was from Texas, from his home, and understood what he was talking about. The girls laughed when I told them that. They said it was because of my bosom. Well, it was true, I had developed early. And it was true that Mr. St. Ives would stop and look at me from time to time and shake his head and say, “You’re so mature, Sissa.” But I honestly don’t believe he meant that I was mature that way. I think he meant that I understood him so well. But the girls laughed at that and said, Why do you think his wife wouldn’t have you in the house?

One night, Mr. St. Ives said he felt so bad about keeping me up to all hours, that a pretty young thing like me needed her beauty sleep. I said I was fine, that I enjoyed hearing him talk about “down home”. But he insisted that I go to bed. He told me I should go put on my nightie and he’d come in and tuck me in when I was ready. So I went and slipped into my nightgown in the bathroom. I thought that something would happen now. But when I got in bed I didn’t know what to do next, so I just lay there. Pretty soon he came and knocked on the door and I said, Come in. And he tiptoed in and made a show of tucking me in. Then he kissed me on the forehead, said goodnight and left.

After that, each evening he would sit and drink and smoke and talk and then tell me to go get ready and be sure to call out when I was ready. And after a couple of nights of this he said he thought he would just lie down next to me and talk a bit until I fell asleep. He would lie on the bed fully dressed, and talk until quite late. The first couple of nights I pretended to fall asleep and he would get up and tiptoe out. But then I got where his voice droning on and on in the darkness actually put me to sleep. And finally, after a couple of nights of this, he said it was kind of cold and did I mind if he just slipped under the covers. I said I wouldn’t mind so he took off his shoes and got in beside me, fully dressed. And that night, at long last, he began to touch me, asking if I minded if he did this, and then that. And, oh, what a long exhausting process it was, of fumbling, touching my breasts, my belly and hips, of kicking off his own clothes, then promising not to hurt me, of oh so careful positioning, and at last, of a bit of pain and finally relief.

Something else was happening, about the same time. I can’t be sure now if it was before Mr. St. Ives first came to visit me at Ma Ling’s, or if it was a week or two later. But about that time another man came to see me. It was a policeman. He was a very tall Negro man, one of the biggest men I ever saw, named Eberhard Mason. First he came to see Ma Ling. She brought him to see me. In my presence, she told him that I was simply a guest, a young girl who had been brought to her by a respectable man who wished to find a safe place for me to stay while he made arrangements for my employment. There was no question of my working in the house, she told him, in her broken lingo. It was just that it was difficult to find a proper temporary residence for a girl of my sort. Meaning a Negro, of course. The policeman could understand that, she was sure. The policeman seemed half-convinced, but he said he’d have to question me, privately.

Ma Ling withdrew. Officer Mason got right to the point. “Who brought you here?” When I told him what I knew I could see he understood the situation, right off. It was a touchy business, he told me. Mr. St. Ives was, as Ma Ling had said, a very powerful man. He worked for the Company and the Company pretty much ran Butte. They had a lot of influence, he said. They had gotten the mayor run out of office and they had their own men in the police. But they didn’t control him. That was almost the only thing they didn’t run, not yet, anyway.

He asked me how old I was. “I want the truth,” he said, and looked me in the eye very sternly, like a preacher. I told him I was sixteen. I couldn’t tell if he believed that. Finally, he said, he’d have to contact my parents. I told him about my Mama and about my Daddy being dead. I told him I was afraid my Mama would be mad, or upset, if she knew what had happened. But Officer Mason said he would check up with authorities in Singletree and find out what he could. He couldn’t promise that my Mama wouldn’t hear about it, but he would try to be discreet, and he’d warn the Singletree police about saying anything, but he couldn’t guarantee what they might say or do. Then he went away, saying he would be back to talk to me again as soon as he learned anything.

I was scared, but I didn’t say anything about Officer Mason’s visit to Mr. St. Ives, and I don’t believe that Ma Ling said anything. I had already written two letters to my Mama, with Mr. St. Ives standing right there to see what I wrote and even telling me what to say. It wasn’t the truth. I said I was working in the house and everything was nice, I missed her and my sisters and brothers and Singletree and all, but the folks up here treated me nice and I was happy. And Mr. St. Ives would take the letters to mail them. I didn’t say what house I was in so, in a way, it wasn’t a black lie, just a white one. That’s how I thought, then.

Officer Mason came back the next night, and every night, after that, in the early evening, before Mr. St. Ives would come. He told me to call him Eberhard, his first name. He liked me, I could tell. At first, he was just interested in finding out about my “situation.” He was very patient, very gentle. He soon got it out of me that Mr. St. Ives had not “touched me,” as he put it. But what, he wondered, were his intentions? I couldn’t say. At least, not then. It looked to me like all the man wanted to do was talk. I told him all about the late night conversations about Mr. St. Ives’s boyhood in Texas.

Eberhard was puzzled. He didn’t seem totally convinced, but what could he do? The man was evidently trying to do something on my behalf, trying to ease a difficult domestic situation. Eberhard was like the girls, he said with a smile that he understood why Mrs. St. Ives had refused to have me in the house. But he said, he was surprised that Mr. St. Ives continued to visit me. If Mrs. St. Ives ever found out, he said, “there would be hell for him in his own house.” He warned me about mentioning his visits to Mr. St. Ives, that it would make him angry. “Better to wait until I hear something from down in Texas,” he said. So each evening, Eberhard would discuss with me what had happened the previous night, what I thought might happen next, and what would be best to do for me.

All of this attention made me even more excited. From being terribly lonely and bored, at first feeling abandoned, not knowing what would become of me, I had gotten pretty used to the house. I still didn’t know a thing about Butte, because I was never let out, except to take the air in the back yard, or walk around the block with Ma Ling, or sometimes go with her to visit some of her Chinese friends. It was still bitterly cold out, but sometimes it would be sunny and I would see children playing in the streets—they were often poor children, not very warmly dressed, but they didn’t seem to mind. They stared at me. I think there were not a lot of Negroes in Butte. As for the girls, I talked to them a lot, of course, and learned about their activities, about their gentlemen callers. But I was not quite wanting to join them in their activities and anyway I understood that I was in some kind of special limbo, thanks to Mr. St. Ives’s interest.

The girls were quite drawn into my situation. I now had two men very interested in me—they knew, naturally, about Eberhard’s visits. Of the two, there was no question that Eberhard was the more interesting. For one thing, he was not so old as Mr. St. Ives, being about thirty. Also, he was a man of my own race—I felt that I could talk with him—and he was very handsome, very attractive indeed. He was the most handsome man I had ever seen.

They were also thrilled about Mr. St. Ives. To them, he was the most interesting, I guess, because he was well-known, and powerful. I was also attracted to Mr. St. Ives. He was elegant, well-dressed, very well spoken. He was from my own part of the world and he knew my family. He spoke about them, often. I was grateful that he was helping me to write letters to my Mama—not that I couldn’t have written them, I had done well in school, but he knew just what to tell her. He would describe some of my duties at the house. “Don’t worry, it’s what you will be doing, maybe soon,” he explained. As strange as it seems, I had gotten used to all this. Even a child soon adapts to strange situations.

I am pretty certain that it was just after the first time that Mr. St. Ives finally made love to me that Eberhard came to me with information he’d gotten from Texas. It may have been a day or two later, but it was pretty close. The fact was, after that first time, the conversations about Texas pretty much stopped and Mr. St. Ives would want to go to bed with me as soon as he arrived. Perhaps later we would lie in bed and he’d talk a bit. But now, Eberhard said he’d learned that I wasn’t sixteen, I was only fifteen. That made a big difference, he said. I was only a child, legally, and I shouldn’t be in the custody of Ma Ling.

I insisted I was sixteen, but Eberhard didn’t believe me. He said he had good evidence, from the state of Texas, that I was only fifteen. If this was true, and he was sure it was, any man who touched me would be guilty of rape. I was horrified. I knew I had been doing something that was probably wrong, but I couldn’t believe it was rape. I didn’t want to be raped. I didn’t want to be one of those kinds of girls.

And then, Eberhard knew that I had been with Mr. St. Ives.  He was furious. He said he would have to talk to the judge. I pleaded with him. I was scared more than I had been. Ma Ling would throw me out on the street, I told him. He thought that was probably so. Ma Ling would be scared that she, too, would be brought into the rape case, for providing the accommodation for debauchery, as he put it. The house might be closed down. All the girls would be out on the street. I was thunderstruck. Oh, please, please, please, I begged him, don’t do it.

I could see that Eberhard was moved. He said he would have to think about it. Maybe he could talk to Mr. St. Ives. That scared me even more. I knew Mr. St. Ives would be furious. I had seen his face get dark, sometimes, if he talked about things that upset him. That was when he talked about the miners and about “Reds.” He was not a man I wanted to anger.

Something happened then. First, the following night neither Mr. St. Ives nor Eberhard came to visit. All of a sudden the house was silent. Ma Ling came and looked at me, but she didn’t say anything, just shook her head and went away. None of the girls came out of their rooms. When I went to visit their doors were closed and no one answered when I knocked or called. A girl who worked for Ma Ling, a scullery maid they called her, brought me some food. Her eyes were very big. All she would tell me was that there was big trouble. Then she ran away.

The next night, Mr. St. Ives came and got me. It was still very cold, very snowy. He had a couple of men with him. He seemed very business-like. He told me I must move from this house. It wasn’t a proper place for me, he said. He told the two men to pack up my things. Then he put on my coat and took me away to a little house down the hill from the city.

Now Mr. St. Ives came every night. I lived by myself in the little house, which was nice. He would bring me nice things. Furniture, groceries, clothes. Things got a little rough, at times. He sometimes got angry with me. He would get drunk. He told me that Mason had died. I was upset, then he got angry with me. He said, “That son of a bitch told people he was going to marry you!” He demanded to know if we had married. When I said no, he said I’d lied to him, had plotted behind his back. He was drunk and he slapped me in the face. I was shocked, then furious. I told him to leave. But then he raped me.

Later, I learned that his wife had died. Then he quit coming to see me. At first, he just stayed away a few days. Then he’d come and apologize and everything would be nice. But he’d get drunk and he’d drag me to the bed.

Along about this time I began to realize that something was wrong. I wasn’t having my monthlies any more. I went to Ma Ling and she told me that she could help me get rid of my problem, but I was scared. I didn’t want to do it. And when Mr. St. Ives started coming back it wasn’t long before he found out. That was big trouble then. He was sure the baby wasn’t his, but I told him it had to be his. I don’t think he believed me. He just quit coming by.

Ma Ling was so kind. She got the mid-wife to come to me when it was my time. And after the baby was born she would come and show me how to take care of it… my little Deborah, a beautiful, beautiful child. But she warned me. Mr. St. Ives would never, never accept my child. He would throw me out on the street, she said. And sure enough, by and by some men came and said I had to leave the house.

What could I do? Mr. St. Ives never came around. I didn’t know how to get in touch with him, even. But the men came and told me to pack up my clothes and they took me up to Ma Ling’s. Ma Ling was kind, but she said now I’d have to go to work. I was old enough, she said. But she could not take in the baby. It was no place for a child. The other girls were on my side and pleaded with her. They all loved little Deborah. But Ma Ling said she didn’t dare keep the child. Mr. St. Ives would be angry and there was no telling what he would do. And I thought to myself, it was like King Herod and the innocent children of Bethlehem, like I’d read in the Bible.

The hardest thing I ever did was write to my Mama in Texas and tell her the whole truth. Mama and old Mrs. St. Ives came up a week later. There was a terrible to-do, my Mama told me, when Mrs. St. Ives and Mr. St. Ives got in an argument. In the end, though, Mama and Mrs. St. Ives took Deborah back to Texas with them. That was the last time I ever saw my Mama. But she took good care of Deborah and Mrs. St. Ives paid for her to go to school, for which I am grateful and give thanks to the Lord.

This is all that Miss Hartsfield told me on this occasion. —B.S.

Later: some problems here. Originally, I’d heard that Sissa and Mason were only betrothed. Then I heard that they had been married by a Baptist preacher in Centerville. —B.S.

June 12, 1933.
Sissa says she did marry Mason. She says the baby was his, but she foolishly thought that it would be better if St. Ives thought Deborah was his, that he wouldn’t harm the child and might even provide for her. Her biggest mistake, she says.
I wonder if she even knows who the father was. B.S.

July 1, 1934.
I showed ms. to Sissa. Possibly mistake. She admits she left some things out. I think especially about the incidents around the marriage. I found a marriage license recorded in Whitehall! But didn’t say anything to Sissa. Q? When could baby have been conceived? Insists the baby, Deborah, was Mason’s child. Says she was pregnant when St. Ives moved her to the house on Walleye St. B.S.

Nov. 36—She has seen Deborah! Beautiful girl, in college, it seems. St. Ives was away, on trip to Chile. Sissa went to Chicago, met D. I agree to act as her postman.—B.S.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

JON A. JACKSON is the author of the Detective Sergeant Mulheisen Mysteries. He tells us about himself and his novel-in-progress, Not So Dead: “I was born in Detroit before WW2, then spent my early years on a farm upstate in Michigan, before the family returned to the big city. I served in the Air Force mainly in the Detroit area and went to college there. Eventually, I moved to Montana and I’m still here, more than forty years later. But Detroit is still present in my mind… in fact, that Detroit only exists in my mind, now. But I have a great love for Montana and this novel, as well as its precursor, Go By Go [Dennis McMillan Publications, 1998], are set in the unique western city of Butte, a kind of alpine Detroit, previously exploited by Hammett in Red Harvest. I’m hoping to publish this Butte novel before too much longer.”

from issue #4: ‘Painting Women’ by Elisabeth Murray

Photo (CC) eschipul @ flickr

Photo (CC) eschipul @ flickr

PAINTING WOMEN by ELISABETH MURRAY

THE MUGS MADE AN UNSAVOURY STILL LIFE, lipstick on the rims, brown watermarks, grit up the sides. The women looked as if they belonged so much to the scene that they had to be painted in along with the objects. It had the look of Saturday night waste but it was a Wednesday before-school staff meeting and as the women stirred it became clear that it was the pitiless light of a spring morning that made such a still life.

A lady came in with a perforated shoebox asking for silkworms for Kai Fletcher. Her hair fell golden down her back. From where the women sat on red plastic chairs, knees at their breasts and thighs distended, the lady’s beauty was unearthly. One of the women said if she left the box she would move the silkworms in today.

“Where were we.” Mrs Singleton gazed at the student teacher, Miss Archer. Mrs Singleton had sulphur-coloured hair slicked into a knob at the bottom of her neck. She wore an icing-pink shirt with the top button undone showing a nut-coloured triangle of skin. The final touch was thick black-framed glasses. She could have been a send-up of a schoolteacher.

The student glanced away under Mrs Singleton’s scrutiny but a stamp of the woman was in her head. Her square jaw, teeth like a grid of nougat. Good precise lines to cut into a canvas.

Mrs Singleton straightened her shoulders and said, “Oh, the Waddington reading tests,” and the student knew it hadn’t been a gaze or scrutiny and that she was as unseen as a drift of smoke on the sky.

“I think I’m running low on copies,” said another woman.

“Oh, the student can do that,” said Mrs Blunt, to whose class Miss Archer was assigned. “It’ll give her something to occupy herself.”

Miss Archer’s skin felt tight as she smiled. She watched how the light fell in claws on the carpet and on the women’s faces making everything look sore. It was the hardest light to get out of paint. It was supposed to be the most hopeful kind, spring morning dazzle, but it was the cruellest. They decided it was time to get going and filed out of the classroom to meet the morning which had become yellower and noisier since they had shut themselves away.

*

MISS ARCHER followed Mrs Blunt across the Covered Outdoor Learning Area. Mrs Blunt was wearing a black gypsy skirt that now Miss Archer came to think about it looked like the skirt she’d worn yesterday, and the day before, and maybe back through the previous term, but the student wouldn’t know because she’d arrived on Monday fresh as the children but far more naive.

There were builders sitting inside a wire barrier watching one of their crew hammer a strip of metal over two pylons. A covered walkway was being bestowed upon the school, along with a new hall and probably several other contraptions if the clutter was anything to go by. It was as if a vision to turn the school into some loftier site was being carried out slapdash.

This morning hadn’t been so bad. Newstime was the most vivid slice of the day. She knew how she’d paint it. Her sitting in the huge armchair, the child standing but their heads level. The quiet of waiting for the next sentence. She would show that as soft light in a painting. Toys of the kind she hadn’t touched in fifteen years, hard, fleecy, bright. Photos, shells, rocks. This was a life, these children had families and homes and sadnesses and futures. She was thin as clingwrap, all her texture and colour drained into the objects. And pricked by the clicking of Mrs Blunt’s laptop at the back. She looked in her loose black garb like the ogre custodian of the classroom. But a painting is selective, it could just show the children, just colour and texture thick as cake. Only now they were at Music, it was Release from Face to Face until morning tea time, she was following Mrs Blunt to the library to hunt down books about rainbow serpents or witchetty grubs or something. What would have been more useful was Release from Face to Face from the teachers.

*

“IF YOU INITIATE IT it’ll be a girl. Are you telling me you’ve been trying without knowing that?”

“We haven’t started trying yet. Needless to say I don’t think it’ll be a girl.”

The woman snorted. “I know, I’ve got four boys.” She ran her fingers through her hair. She wore a ring that looked inlaid with a block of ice. She started on a mini quiche from the staffroom table where leftovers from a parents’ morning tea were laid out. “But even more important, don’t forget what I said about—”

Miss Archer bit into her apple. The voices were discrete and impossible to ignore but unified in a cacophony that began to sound meaningless. It was the way converging bird calls reach a pitch of madness. The advice went on, even less inhibited.

She reached for a quiche and considered if she was on her way to being submerged in these sawdust-coloured armchairs and partaking in such discussions. The baldness of their talk stung her. Well, wasn’t she young, supposed to be blithe, shameless? She told herself it was the age of these women, for God’s sake: it put a gruesome picture in mind. She couldn’t help feeling that it hacked all beauty off the concept. It was as concrete as the hanging wing of a swan shot down in flight, wet, red—and as abstract.

On the other side of her Mrs Blunt said, “Do you think they bonk?”

“Oh, yes! They went away together and when we asked him what they did he said they didn’t leave the hotel.”

“Oh, yuck!”

“We tried to think what you’d do all day in a hotel and we could only think –”

“Bonking. Yes, it’s got to be bonking.” Mrs Bell looked transported.

Another teacher leaned over the back of a chair between two of the women. She looked like an acorn with hair a lighter shade of brown than her corduroy suit.

“Who are you talking about?”

“Brian.”

The acorn woman looked over her shoulder. “So he’s divorced and this is his lady friend?”

“No,” said a woman with a doll’s mouth. She lowered her voice. “Brian’s never been married.”

At that moment the only male teacher walked in and the circle fell silent. The student stared at the man. His hair was so black and neat it might have been drawn in permanent marker. He wore narrow tan pants and a red jacket and stood before the microwave with a hand on one hip.

“My God, ladies, I knew there was a reason I shouldn’t have been arsing around all holidays. How’re the reports coming?”

“Like a wet week,” giggled the doll-mouthed teacher.

He took a plate of sweet potato from the microwave and with a wave of his fingers left the room.

The student stared at the women. They carried on speculating about the sweetheart for the rest of morning tea time, what she did for a living, why she never came to the Christmas party, saying they’d have to organise this one around her, they were burning to meet her. On the screen this would be a skit too farcical to elicit more than winces. This was a separate world where none of the rules of appearance applied. The bell rang like a swan’s cry made ugly by a bullet.

*

THERE WAS AN AIR of parody the way the children trilled, “I’ve been to cities that never close down.” Some shouted, some mumbled, some seemed to be using the logic of snatching off a bandaid as quick as possible. Mrs Singleton’s lipstick was as crisp as it had been before morning tea. The student hadn’t seen her in the staffroom. Mrs Singleton’s lips went over the words of their own accord, her eyes concealed behind her glasses.

They went through the song what felt like a dozen times until the jubilation of doggedly referring to Australia as home wore thin. The song may have been about the state of the sharemarket for all the sense it seemed to be making to the children and to Miss Archer for that matter. She remembered she was teaching before lunch and there came a weariness complete as fever. She didn’t know whether she would rather this singing practice run on or finish now so she could get through her plan and not have herself and the children scrambling about like residents before a river breaks its banks. What would happen if she disintegrated into tears? As the thought occurred to her a pain came to her throat and a chain of blows to her stomach. The song was a scratched record. Mrs Blunt made them repeat one line where the children couldn’t match the syllables to the melody. The highest note of the song was parroted again and again. Mrs Singleton roamed about tapping fussing children on the shoulder and at intervals her lips would stop then start like a clock once somebody happens to pass and wind it.

“Mrs Singleton, how about we get them to wear boots or Aussie flag thongs –” Mrs Blunt said.

“I have some of them,” Hayden called out.

“Or those hats, what are they called?”

Mrs Singleton tapped Kai and he stopped pulling Mikayla’s shoelace. “I don’t know,” she said.

“Sort of brown rabbity fur cowboy hats. Or the ones with the corks. You can get them in tourist shops. Or the mothers could make them.”

“Sure,” said Mrs Singleton. She folded her arms. Her shirt rose revealing only another centimetre of black trousers. She was inscrutable but Miss Archer felt as she did before a particular work in a gallery, held there while everything told her to move on or she’d be late for class or the bus or the assignment on her desk.

“Yes, and we can stick little Aussie flags in them. Wouldn’t that be sweet?”

“Very sweet,” said Mrs Singleton. She led her class through the partition to their room.

*

THE LUNCH BELL went and on a swell of pain Miss Archer sent the children out, though the room resembled a Jackson Pollock. She went around gathering the paper cakes she’d used in the multiplication lesson. She recalled this from some university lecture or other of which she could no longer remember the purpose: was it an attempt to salivate the children into comprehending multiplication? Many had flocked to the floor and she felt ungainly as a pregnant woman and was glad she was alone in the room. Then she heard Mackenzie say at the door, “Mrs Blunt, Hunter said he didn’t want to play with my Barbie. And he said he hated them.”

“I suppose he would, being a boy. I’d be a bit worried if he didn’t hate them, wouldn’t you?”

There was a moment of silence then Mackenzie laughed. Footsteps receded across the veranda. Miss Archer stood at the opposite window. On the benches a batch of children she didn’t know sat eating lunch. The grass ran flat as a prairie until it was sliced into highway. A couple of builders sat outside the frame of the new hall in glaring vests. Apparently it was supposed to be finished months ago. She wouldn’t see it whole, she’d probably never see it again after these four weeks. But there would be other halls.

She collected the worksheets. It felt like something had been ripped from her abdomen. She knew she should have ducked into the bathroom an hour ago, that there was likely a monstrous bloom on her skirt, but if there was one thing she was digesting here it was that there was no time to duck out for anything. No time to catch your breath. No time to be still and admit the colour into your skin and the line into your blood. Even when your blood needed replenishing, when it leaked thin as cordial. She took up her bag and left the classroom.

*

THERE WAS NO BIN in the staff toilet. Good God, she thought. They can’t all be post-menopausal, can they? She tucked the shreds of plastic into her bra and as she returned to the staffroom and looked at the women she thought it was possible. The spite brought no satisfaction. It only made her feel more of an oddity. How stupid her idea of womanhood had been. She’d have to go home and wrench all her canvases into something truthful: dirty mugs, unsightly calculated sex, a chain of wedding rings. Or start all over again. No maestro could twist those old simulations into truth. She liked the brash scarlet of those canvases but when had reality ever been pleasing? Representing it was even worse.

She took some painkillers with her Vegemite sandwich. It was a sour concoction. When Mrs Singleton came in it was worse. The woman’s face was a sculpture. Perhaps her lips were so cold, like a statue in midwinter, that the lipstick stuck solid.

“Did you see your desk?” said the secretary.

“Oh yes, I did,” Mrs Singleton said. She was placing something in the microwave and sounded as if she was smiling but when she turned she just looked surprised.

“What is it?” said the acorn woman.

“Rob sent me flowers.”

A number of women made the sort of noises produced over a pram.

“What a catch!” said the acorn woman.

“He never does that,” said Mrs Singleton. “We had a bit of a…” She looked at the microwave which was emitting light the colour of fast food cheese. “…squabble last night. But I wasn’t that angry with him.”

“What happened?” said the secretary.

“Oh, well… It was just that once I got home from that meeting, Lynette”—she glanced at a teacher who nodded gravely—“it was almost seven and he’d been home all day—well, I found out he’d been at the pub—but he hadn’t done anything for dinner. I wasn’t even that angry.”

“Well, whatever you did, it worked,” said the secretary. She drank from her mug and the contents stayed on her lips and teeth. “They were white roses.”

Mrs Singleton sat next to the student, the only place available. Her back was rigid. She began to eat some sort of stirfry sure to strip her lipstick and catch like flesh in her teeth. Every time she raised the fork her ring flashed. It looked like three yoked together: gold, silver, bronze.

The women discussed husbands, housework, Herculean tasks. The student listened thinking that one day she’d be sitting in a replica of this room grumbling about some man or other and at last initiated.

Mrs Singleton stood up. Her pants brushed on Miss Archer’s. Under the voices the rustle was sharp. Viscose, nylon, elastane. But it was substanceless. Both of them may as well not have had any flesh underneath. She was above her now, a statue in a square. She went to the sink, rinsed her things and left.

Mrs Bell dropped into the seat. “You’re getting firmer. Well done.”

It was what she’d written on the feedback sheets in various guises since the first lesson yet the student was sure she’d write up a bad report. There was more to teaching than being with children and implementing lessons. Somehow she’d been too dense to notice this in three years of university and on other placements. She was to be exuberant as a puppy, avant-garde no matter how dyed-in-the-wool everybody else was. You had to be original but respect every hangover from the last century, calling Australia home, using dust-moist books on the rainbow serpent, witchetty grubs. When she got home she didn’t care how many lessons she had to plan she was going to pull out the vermillion and run it everywhere, violent as a murder message. Matisse’s Harmony in Red. If only she had a print of it now, she could slug it down until she felt life in her chest. The walls here were the mint of a dentist’s office, the armchairs oatmeal, the carpet curdled milk, mugs stained with sludge. The Matisse was scarlet enfolding something that was previously blue that was previously green. And the blue and green still detectable, shards of china in a swamp of blood.

The telephone broke out and the student thought it was the bell and was at first relieved and then aghast because she hadn’t set up the painting lesson. Mrs Blunt answered it and at the end of the call she let out a screech like a Valkyrie swooping over a landscape of slaughter.

“They’ve accepted the offer,” she said, breathless.

The staffroom was frozen, every eye trained on her. The student thought, The offer, the offer… for what?

“It’s more than we decided on at first, but it worked out!”

“Congratulations!” said the acorn woman. “Whereabouts again?”

“Oh, Fairview, same as we are now, but it’s like starting all over again.”

She jumped and the microwave shook. She sat down, let out a volley of applause, squealed like a balloon.

Miss Archer went to the classroom. When she’d covered the tables with the plastic sheets she realised they had wet patches on them and there was brown acrylic on her shirt. By the time she’d rinsed it out the bell had sounded and the painkillers hadn’t accomplished anything and she had a dark mark on her shirt. The children were mustering around the step. Mrs Blunt didn’t notice the tables weren’t ready. She sat at her desk and pushed buttons on her phone. Miss Archer began the discussion about witchetty grubs.

“That’s disgusting!” said Monique.

“They look like my silkworms,” said Hunter. “Can you eat those too?”

She was at the stage where pain exhausted you worse than a sleepless night. She didn’t know what witchetty grubs were and how could she expect the kids to? These kids whose worlds were parks and two storey houses and neat grey roads? She showed a clip of a British man in khaki eating a witchetty grub. They were enlivened by this, but when had an artist ever painted something she found merely intriguing, that may as well have been hypothetical? When she’d asked Mrs Blunt what she meant by Aboriginal Studies she’d handed her a set of blackline masters that included an outline of a man standing on one foot holding a spear and directions to “Paint Aborigine brown.” Then she’d pulled out a craft book that looked twice as old as Miss Archer and jabbed at this witchetty grub activity. Miss Archer didn’t know how her lecturers had come by their delusions. But it was easier this way.

She set them up with smocks and paper and as they were writing their names she went across the veranda to the storeroom. She looked through the glass pane in the door of Mrs Singleton’s room. Children were cutting and sticking and rolling newspaper into God knew what. Mrs Singleton was crouched on the floor, her waistband free from the small of her back, a stripe of alabaster. Miss Archer was in the storeroom, it was gone in an instant. It was no still life. When she passed with the paint Mrs Singleton had bent over another group. She went back for the brushes and then for the water and Mrs Singleton had gone to her desk and fixed an artwork to the window and finally disappeared beyond the frame.

The children mashed their brushes on the paper and flicked paint off them to make the texture of soil. It was like stepping outside on the first warm morning of spring to see this kind of joy in flicking paint on paper. Mrs Blunt was on the veranda twittering into her phone. Miss Archer sat on the corner of the teacher’s desk and scanned the room. So this was what it would be like. She supposed she’d tire of the children, they’d no longer seem cute, she wouldn’t feel any warm revival.

“Mrs Archer!” It was a high cry. She leapt off the desk, her heart in her throat.

“My tooth!” Hunter gagged. “My tooth came out!” A number of children wandered over in dappled smocks, brushes hanging at their sides.

“OK, OK!” called Miss Archer. “Everybody back to your seats. Go on with your painting, please.”

“My tooth came out!” said Hunter. It was tiny in his palm, craggy and red at the bottom. He poked his fingers into the hole in his gum. Miss Archer shivered.

“Go wash your hands, Hunter.”

He stood up and pressed his fingers on his painting to rid them of saliva and blood. A drop blotted the paper.

“Go and wrap your tooth in a paper towel so you can get some money tonight.”

He jogged off with the tooth like an overdue ring bearer. Mrs Blunt came inside and installed herself behind her laptop. Hunter returned conveying the tooth on a paper towel and didn’t take his eyes from it. The children stopped to watch. She saw the frame around the moment. She felt the luminosity that comes with an artwork discovered raw. Made of flesh and air and plastic. Luminosity not just of sight but of all the senses. Not just blundered upon but offered, as Hunter was offering her this calcium and phosphorous and enamel. But she saw he was headed for Mrs Blunt. The student saw not his gaze but his profile. Mrs Blunt put one hand under his and wrapped the tooth in the towel. She stood up and led him to the veranda. She gave Miss Archer a look that said, “Well, get on with it.”

Had she forgotten that the artist is never part of the raw tableaux that come up out of the world, that she constructs always from outside the frame? But she was no longer sure that was true. Miss Archer deposited a few paintings on the drying rack and repeated the directions about making witchetty grubs and eggs from corrugated cardboard. The clock ticked on. Mrs Blunt’s laptop clicked. A drill outside. A hammer. The pain in her abdomen.

“Time to tidy up.” Mrs Blunt’s voice was as sharp as the ache. There was another stained mug beside her, some kind of empty motif. Miss Archer was asking two girls to wash out the paint containers when Mrs Blunt called:

“No, we just bin those.”

“These?” The student held one up. The unending trio of little arrows, the recycle symbol, was swathed in red paint like an exhortation.

“Yes, these.” Mrs Blunt got up and swung out the bin and went through the room pitching the containers in. The student opened her mouth. Then she turned to remove the plastic sheets.

Finally all that was left was a carpet of multicoloured cardboard eggs made with a hole punch. It was like confetti, the giveaway the next morning when everything was silenced, respectable. Maybe they had little timers in them clicking away to one day hatch and die. She was slipping in the vast armchair holding The Twits.

“Wish I was a boy,” said Mackenzie. Miss Archer looked at Mackenzie with her head turned away. She was part of the sawdust-coloured upholstery to Mackenzie.

“Why?” said Alyssa.

“Because girls have to have babies,” said Mackenzie. “And it really hurts. It comes out of here.” She rubbed her stomach like a gesture of hunger.

“You only have to have a baby if you marry a boy. Just marry a girl and then you won’t have a baby.”

“That exists you know,” said Monique.

“Just marry a girl.”

“It comes out of here.” Mackenzie gestured vaguely.

Miss Archer started. The class was before her. Mrs Blunt caught her eye and said, “Better stop that in its tracks!” She thought she was speaking on a frequency the children couldn’t hear. There was another frequency too: mockery? Of her? Pain must come hand in hand with paranoia. She flicked through the book and began reading without calling for quiet. She would rather sit here and let the pain course through her while the children talked, currents that cooled her skin. But all was quiet and her voice was like a bad actor’s, shrill, threadbare. The bell broke her off. The children chanted: “Good afternoon Mrs Archer, good afternoon Mrs Blunt.”

Mothers mustered below, gripping prams, holding babies and the hands of toddlers. On every woman’s hand those compounds of gold, silver, bronze. The builders sat by the wall watching the sooner-or-later-to-be-covered walkway glitter in the sun. Mrs Blunt was deep in conversation with a woman in exercise garb and an iPod on her bicep. The student went back inside and collected some of the cardboard eggs in a container. When she looked at the carpet it was as though she hadn’t taken any away. They lay there ticking.

When Mrs Blunt got back inside her phone sounded. She turned to the window and talked to her husband about the house. She turned to the student and put up a hand like a police officer. When she put the phone away she said with a gravity that didn’t conceal her enthusiasm, “Don’t ever buy a house, it’s a fucking nightmare.”

“I won’t be,” said the student.

Mrs Blunt stared. “Of course you will. Who doesn’t buy a house?”

“Not for a long time then,” said the student.

Mrs Blunt gazed at her. She gave a shake of her head. “You got them doing some good craft, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“And getting firmer.” She handed over a sheet with remarks to that effect. “You can go now.”

She dallied across the veranda. No sound from Mrs Singleton’s room. What the hell was she listening for? She went down the stairs with a dull nausea. She would see her tomorrow, for however many days were left—she calculated: seventeen—and then she’d never see her again. The same with all the teachers and all the children. But one day—God, in a little over a year—she would return each morning to the same place and the same people. Batter out something solid for herself. Mrs Blunt said she was getting firmer. Growing a backbone perhaps. An outline. But she still didn’t know what she was doing here.

The builders had gone home. Blocks of metal stood as if placed at random. The oval was empty and dry as a worn blanket. There were children in the sandpit at after school care and by the gate while their mothers conversed. The afternoon sensation of snacks and TV and homework. Something of how she’d felt as a child came to her but now she saw it was no end, it would be here tomorrow, for too long to bear thinking about. Soon she could take more painkillers and maybe they would work. So she could spend the evening planning lessons. She took a lungful of air. The nausea remained. Was her body was too immature to deal with a simple expelling of blood?

The highway was jammed like a car park. She was walking breathing the smog when she saw down a side street a blonde figure on the bonnet of a car. It had its back to the highway, apparently contemplating the white houses and bottlebrush. The student stood for a moment thinking, Grey, black (bitter, boot-polish black), green, white, yellow. No, platinum. Sulphur? Lemon tart? She left the highway.

The woman was dragging on a cigarette. The car was slick as oil. The student watched the back of her head. She took a step closer and perceived as if she’d crossed a threshold of vision or sensation that the woman was crying. Then Mrs Singleton turned and the student found she was much closer than she’d thought and her eyes were cocktail-green behind her glasses. The student went around the car which gave off heat like a mass of coal. The buttons shone in a crooked line down her body. One hand rested on the bonnet, the nails lacquered like coconut ice, a trail diverging from the buttons. Another step and the woman’s eyes were wet. She put out her tongue to catch a tear. The student climbed onto the bonnet beside her. The lipstick was disintegrating. She held out the cigarette and the student took it as in a dream. The woman’s nails were cumbersome and the cigarette burned the student. She breathed it in once and handed it back. Now Mrs Singleton’s face was textured like clay to which too much water has been added. She dropped the cigarette and pressed it with her heel. She glanced past Miss Archer, in the direction of the school, then she looked straight at her so that Miss Archer thought she had never been looked at properly before. She flushed. Like a sketch filled in, coloured.

Mrs Singleton’s mouth turned up at one corner. She nodded at the student as though they had settled a business deal. The student got down onto the footpath and the woman opened the door of the car. In the shine off the roof Mrs Singleton’s face was glazed but Miss Archer saw now the briefness of this kiln. The student watched the car swing around and wait to turn across the highway. The indicator was dim, without rhythm. The car sheered onto the road narrowly missing an oncoming truck.

The student went down the street and turned the same way and waited at the lights. The traffic had cleared and there was no sign of the car. Children accompanied by mothers with schoolbags over one shoulder were coming along smiling and comfortable. She suddenly felt the burn from the cigarette like a tooth driven into her palm. The smoke had infiltrated her mouth, bit into her gums and teeth. She pushed her tongue around. She was tasting what Mrs Singleton was tasting right now.

A horn blared. A fox-faced man was hanging out the window of a truck like something in the sky. He shouted some kind of witticism. She made a face and waited for the light. She could have made something out of those plastic containers smeared with colours of the earth. She looked down the highway the way the car had gone. Cars were coasting past one after the other and the things in her were going the same way. When the walk light came on everything stopped for her and she was going crosswise feeling the pain as a blooming and the colours in the early afternoon were bright. As if the world was young.

© 2013 Elisabeth Murray
from Contrappasso Magazine #4, December 2013

* * * * *

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

ELISABETH MURRAY is a student at the University of Sydney, studying for a Bachelor of Arts and majoring in English. She is interested in representations of interiority and everyday reality, writing the natural world and spaces of intimacy outside conventional power structures. Her academic and creative interests include US literature, modernism, nature writing and feminist and queer theory. Her fiction and poetry have been published in Voiceworks, dotdotdash magazine, and the University of Sydney anthologies Margins, Sandstone, Sparks and Perspectives. Her novella, The Loud Earth, will be published in 2014.

from Issue #3: From ‘The Garden of Sorrows’ by John Hughes, with etchings by Marco Luccio

Garden of Sorrows_CVR_AW.indd

Contrappasso was delighted to publish this extract from John Hughes’ new book The Garden of Sorrows in our third issue. The book is a collaboration with artist Marco Luccio. More information is available at UWA Publishing. Eighty etchings Luccio created for the project are currently exhibiting at Rex-Livingston Art Dealer, 59 Flinders Street, Surry Hills in Sydney. Until December 21.

FROM THE GARDEN OF SORROWS by JOHN HUGHES

Preface

In researching the life of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam for one of the stories in my second book, Someone Else, I came across the name of one of his wife’s friends, Anna Ivanovna Kuznechikaya. It’s an unusual name and I wondered for a time if it was in fact real. ‘Kuznechik’ is the Russian word for grasshopper, and means, literally, ‘little smith’; grasshoppers, the language quaintly suggests, are just such tiny smiths, working away with hammer and anvil as their profession demands. It would be interesting, I thought, to take each man apart into his animals and then come to a thorough agreement with them. Because what an astonishing hierarchy there is among animals, and the truth is we see them according to how we stole their qualities.

To live in a place without its language exposes the animals of which each man is composed.  Later, still researching the same book, I was sitting in a bar in St Petersburg in a frightful cacophony of barks and grunts and growls, and it was as if, like a man deaf to my own tongue, I could see what to those for whom the tongue was eloquent was invisible, the secret animal life of this still red and steaming-from-the-forge civilised world. Without language it’s as if a film is removed from the eyes—the film applied on banishment from Paradise—and the whole of the social world appears suddenly in its true guise, clad like the Emperor in his new clothes.

That’s what I saw. And it made me think that rather than break a man up into his animals (which is the natural origin of all fables), it might be interesting to write a new kind of fable in which the original impulse was reversed, in which each animal was broken up into its human qualities, the human it might become. To write reverse fables (a reversal entirely suited to the antipodean context of their composition) that cast us back to the flux at the beginning of things, inchoate nature, the world in a state of formation—Australia, the garden and the inferno.

New World stories.

Etching by Marco Luccio

Etching by Marco Luccio

The Birth of Tragedy

Orpheus the lyrebird could not resist a laugh. Even at his own expense. It was still remembered among all the creatures of sky and land how when he trapped his head in the tightly woven branches of the platform he was building, rather than escape in silence, he called to all who would hear to come and see what a fool he was. For Orpheus loved to please. Even the osprey in his windswept eyrie could not resist the lonely mimic’s song.

It had taken him nearly a decade to perfect his performance. If you listened closely you could hear the yellow robin, the green catbird, paradise riflebird, the satin bowerbird (who so loves the colour blue), all strictly controlled, the sound of a beak tapping on a branch—reproduced with the voice, not the beak—flapping wings imitated as song, then back to the yellow robin and off he went again. It made everything seem somehow strange, as if he could colonise things too with his mimicry. For Orpheus had never thought before of the enormous danger contained within imitation, the way it can get into the very structure of things and break all bonds of matter, so that all we have taken to be solid and fixed rearranges itself invisibly before our eyes.

There was no other creature in the world that came close to having such a long period in which its song could be learned. On warm summer evenings he could be heard refining his imitations, practising them over and over until he was happy with his version. It would confound even the creatures whom he copied, why he so persevered. Unless he was somehow conscious of the difference between good notes and bad, and through trial and error approached his perfect rendition of a parrot or whipbird or kookaburra, more perfect even than their source.

But although it took Orpheus years to master each new routine, it took him only an instant to realise his audience would laugh or gasp with awe-filled delight at anything he did. The material was irrelevant. As long as he threw back his head and let loose the crazy cries the night left trapped within him, gurgling and chuckling and cackling and barking their way out from his dark bulbous belly, as long as he laughed or cried, so too would the world of the dirt and trees. It made him feel deep, deep as the ocean, blue as the skies, the reflection he saw when he looked in their eyes, like his whole body was warm and washed in the palest moonlight. All through the day the currawongs and butcher-birds and blue wrens, the bronzewings and cuckoos and red-capped dotterels, the wallabies and possums and diamond pythons would pass before him and cry with delight if he so much as grinned or thanked them for the worms or ripe fruit or sweet kernels they left at his feet.

But Orpheus wasn’t satisfied. There was no thrill, he thought, in performing without challenge. If only they could feel the sensation of his learning their language, what their words did in him. Because although he knew the connection between these new words and things, and though he might still experience the smallest flush of pleasure in recognising that water might be one sound in kookaburrish and something completely other in turtlese, he didn’t want to match, he wanted to combine, to forget all about the connection between words and things and simply put the new words together and release them in songs whose melody didn’t feel like he was having to chisel it out of stone; he wanted a performance that would take him beyond words to the thing itself.

And so, brimming with joy at his decision, his kingfisher laugh (favourite among all his voices), lapped the leaves, calling the world to life. He had never given a morning performance before. Birds, shaking sleep from their feathers, wombats just gone to bed and sulky in their waking, grasshoppers who in their scratching legs felt cheated of the dawn, all forest creatures gathered round.

“What is it, Orpheus?” asked the magpie, always first on the scene.

“Patience,” the lyrebird said, happy to see the melodious bird so well positioned. His act depended on the jealous bird’s response. “I’ve developed a new role.”

No matter how often Orpheus watched the magpie land it was as if the black bird emerged from underwater, because he never managed to catch its flight between the trees, only this appearance, as if from another world, as if the air, though he thought it transparent, was somehow opaque, or the magpie was made of air, invisible until this passing through; or could it have been that the air just became bird at that very moment the lyrebird was there to see?

Orpheus played the silence, spinning it out like a web, then dived headlong from his perch. Swooping to the ground, to the gasps of the audience above and below, because in that moment he had become like the magpie invisible, he lunged with his beak at a hapless blue-tongue lizard, fast asleep, now writhing helplessly as it seemed the very air itself, the brute blood of the air, carried treeward, up between the circle of timorous birds, high, high into the sky, then falling, down, down, snatching frantically for a hold on that same air, down through the circle now cheering with relief to break its back where only a moment before it had slept.

Orpheus hovered above, borne aloft by the great gusts of applause. Only when it seemed the sound would never cease, did he glide back down to the platform of his perch. He’d done it, he thought. He’d shown them that he was more than just a voice. Wherever he looked he saw only admiration and basked in its glow, smiling sheepishly at the magpie whose thunder he had thieved, alone of all the birds, glowering in icy silence.

“What are you clapping for?” the black bird screeched. “I do that every day. He’s just copying me.” And like the lyrebird, whom it seemed it was now mimicking, the magpie swooped to earth, soaring upwards with a tiny whipsnake dangling from its beak and dropping it through the silent crowd, so silent every creature there could hear it snap its spine against the ground. “What’s wrong with you?” the magpie pleaded. “I get it, you don’t think that was dangerous enough. Well watch this.” He swooped again. Over and over. First a death adder, then a dugite, then a tiger snake after that, each transported in a flail of mad terror to the sky, then broken with an ugly thud against the stony ground below. “I’ll show you!” the magpie howled at the scattering crowd. He turned to the lyrebird, shattering the bitter silence, and cursed: “You’ll pay for this, you thief. You think they love you. That’s not love. They’ve forgotten you already. They’re only waiting for you to fall.”

Orpheus had not expected the magpie to react so bitterly. He had set himself a challenge and won; he had mastered the role so perfectly he had become the black bird. The magpie would get over it, he thought. And he would perfect his mimicry, staying with it until he became its absolute master. There was no end to the roles life offered.

And it was true. He remembered then with bitter nostalgia that morning so long ago when no more than a chick he woke and all at once and without preamble all the sounds of the world became clear and of his own tongue, the other animals talking to him. And in this miracle all smaller miracles, like perfume in a flower, these sounds he had heard in snatches one by one now as clear as the song of his mother. It was like the whole world was awash with a light that seemed to him to grow so loud it was more than he could bear and at that moment the sound split, as light does, into colours, he could explain it in no other way, and the air was full of voices, and all of them talking at once, the dust motes turning in the draft, the ants beneath the leaf-litter, the frost on the rock-shadow, the tree across the creek and the corpulent crow sitting in the tree, and the wombats in the field and the grass they were eating, the wallaby beside the puddle and the fly it flicked at lazily with its tail, all talking, singing he found himself thinking, but not in a cacophony of discordant notes, a stew of sound, because slowly he realised, and it was so slow it seemed to him the same as watching a tortoise emerge out of the distance and gradually take shape, he realised he was not only listening to but understanding each sound as if it were a word; he realised, that is, that the world was not only talking to him, it was talking in a language that was his, and though no two creatures or things sounded the same, somehow by the time they reached his ear he recognised each sound as if it were a word, a word he could absorb and then from his own mouth return. It was a miracle, surely, this sudden and mysterious ability to speak every language as if they were but one; but the price, which he convinced himself was really no price at all, was that in this splendid multiplicity of tongues he discovered he no longer knew his own.

Etching by Marco Luccio

Etching by Marco Luccio

But that was years ago, before he had learnt the ways of the black bird. Because from that new and marvellous day, every morning at sunrise, the lyrebird would now sing the treetops out of sleep and dive for snakes. As the weeks passed he could feel his mastery grow until he was dangling even the deadly taipan from his beak, laughing at the chirps and howls of delighted terror which escaped the crowd around him. It wasn’t enough just to drop the snakes anymore. He had to play with them as well, to catch them as they fell and taunt their poisoned fangs with such terrible speed they snapped in vain the air he had just been. Only then, he thought, only with such tricks, did the animals truly love him. He felt as if he would live forever.

He had all but forgotten the black bird when one morning it flew up to greet him from the darkness of the dawn.

“Remember me?” the magpie asked softly. “I hope you don’t bear me any grudge.”

“Of course I don’t,” the lyrebird chortled, happy his one known critic had now returned as a friend. “To what do I owe the honour?”

“The animals of the earth find it hard, always looking up,” the black bird said. “They were wondering if just once you’d perform at their level. It would be a great gift.”

“Why not?” Orpheus beamed, barely concealing his pride. “If they want me to be among them, if they want to be close to me, what right do I have to deny them?”

“Wonderful,” the magpie smiled, surprised that the ruse had worked so easily. “I’ll build the stage myself.”

The magpie disappeared into the misty morning below while Orpheus sang with so much joy he pulled the sun out early from its nest in the earth. Birds gathered in the surrounding branches, chirruping excitedly, each with a different story of what was about to happen. Orpheus looked on contentedly, preening himself in silence.

Beneath them the magpie warbled as he built a great nest of twigs on a platform of solid gum resin. By the time the sun had climbed as high as it dared, a crowd of animals had gathered around the nest, clamouring for Orpheus. Above them, in the lowest branches of the trees, the birds trilled and screeched and twittered. From the possum to the giant kangaroo they waited, mouths agape, to behold the legend.

The lyrebird dropped down to the stage and bent forward in an exaggerated bow. But when he tried to lift his legs, they wouldn’t budge. The gum resin, solid with night, had slowly melted with the sun until like glue it trapped whatever it touched. Orpheus laughed weakly, pretending his discomposure was part of the act, while he struggled, more fearful with every tug, to extract his claws and feet from the gluggy stage.

His laugh, however, fooled no one. And his terror made him cry. “Help me, someone.”

“Help yourself,” the magpie sneered as he emerged from the crowd and hovered about the frightened lyrebird. “Let’s see you act your way out of this one.”

Orpheus heard them first, the flicking tongues, as they slithered out from beneath the ground around him. It was as if the earth itself had come alive. Taipans and copperheads and tigers and adders twisted and writhed about themselves, their fangs barbed as they slid up onto the edges of the giant nest that was the lyrebird’s stage.

Orpheus, beside himself with terror, cried out to the birds made deaf to his pleas by the spectacle they were about to witness. He remembered the magpie’s curse and understood that no one would save him; that all had come to see him die. In an apparent frenzy, as the serpents circled the stage, he stabbed himself with his beak, gouging great holes in his feathers and drawing just enough blood to make the sacrifice look real. Howling with pain, he collapsed upon himself and stilled his breath. He had feigned his death so convincingly even the snakes froze in their slither, hypnotised like the silent crowd.

The lyrebird had fooled them all with his performance. But he hadn’t fooled himself. His audience had experienced death, yet on the threshold of its warm embrace he had cheated it once again in the very act of its conjuring. He realised then that he longed for death, that he would never be truly happy until, for once in his life, he knew for certain that the role he had performed corresponded exactly in his experience to the creature he had stolen it from.

He laughed, his eyes and beak still closed. A ghostly laugh that made the sunlight quiver and the snakes lash out in horror at this dead thing come back to life. For it was not in the nature of things for the dead to return to life. They let their poison snake into the bird while the crowd around them scattered in a chaos of panic. Birds flew into the clouds, the magpie begged forgiveness, and the sun slid quickly down the edge of the sky. But amidst this chaos the ecstatic bird welcomed death, delirious with joy because it was no more than he already knew when he had played it to save his life. It made him feel exactly as he had felt in its feigning, that perfect imitation, and the man who now grew from inside of him, who took shape from the snaking veins of poison within, he had already seen, had been there all along, with a mask for a body and a mirror for a face.

For Orpheus had become the first actor who, unable to leave the stage, and with nothing left within, lived the life of everyman, for an audience he would never see.

The Origin of Death

Torment was in love. But his love, far from making him happy, brought him only despair. For Torment was born with a curse: he was born to love every thing but his own kind. He remembered his father who died in mad pursuit of the moon and his mother, the terrible sadness, as she wasted away in unrequited love of a rock. One by one, all of his kind had passed from the earth, loving but unloved, consumed by the cruel indifference of flowers and mountains and oceans and dreams. His mother had told him as a child the stories of every twig and grain of sand to warn him of the madness that lurked like a shadow deep within. And for a time it worked. Torment prowled in hatred of the world, ripping the bark from trees with vengeful claws and snarling at every living thing. But no life can be lived in hatred alone. Torment, last of the thylacines, barked in horror, as gradually he succumbed to the beauty of the world outside and the claws of the fatal shadow growing within.

It started harmlessly enough. He would smile at fallen leaves, the bark of the eucalypts that was like a perpetual frothing, and he would pat the backs of mossy stones. Even without response it gave him pleasure: the liquid heat that seemed to imprint itself on the air like an out-of-focus paw-print, whorled and shimmering; the stillness; the drone of cicadas so constant and apparently endless it became its own kind of silence; or the haze of moths flying out of the shadows of the nearby trees, gleaming in the light of the moon. ‘How could you not love such beauty?’ he thought. And he resolved, by the strength of his love, to wear away the stubborn indifference of the world. The thought of the challenge filled him with joy. But the claws of the shadow continued to grow sharp around his heart.

One morning, flicking dandelions with his tail, he beheld a flash of gold on the forest-stained horizon. The sun itself had come to earth in answer to his prayers. His heart stopped, his ears twitched, and his eyes began to water. Torment trod timidly through the cycad grove, hoping that in the sight of the sun he would know what to do. He had never been so frightened in all his life.

When at last he reached the clearing he couldn’t believe his eyes. Before him stood a fledgling eagle, preening her golden wings in the quiet dawn light. “The sun has transformed itself into a bird,” the thylacine thought and blushed. Nothing had prepared him for what he felt in the presence of the young eagle. From the moment he saw the bird hopping innocently before him, he was consumed by love and knew then, as his father and mother before him must have done, that he would never escape its jaws until his desire was requited. Nothing else was.

The words escaped him before he had time to think what they were, like a shadow fleeing its figure behind. “You’ve come at last, O wondrous God,” he howled, rushing madly at the bird.

The golden eagle, stupefied with self-absorption, was too slow to respond to the creature charging towards her, and cried out in terror as she felt the thylacine’s unpracticed claws at her breast.

“Help me, please, somebody help me!” she screeched, staggering beneath the creature’s clumsy grasp. “What are you doing to me? I’m not a god, I’m a bird.”

“What?” Torment relaxed his grip. “I saw you fall to earth this morning, like a ray of light, newborn of the sun. I love you…”

“A tiger can’t love the sun,” the eagle cried, her fear diminishing. “And even if you could, I’m not the sun.”

As if to prove the point, the eagle’s mother swooped down from the clouds. The sight of her daughter pinned beneath the rough beast’s claws was almost impossible to bear. “She’s not for you,” she screeched, alighting by Torment’s side. “Kill me instead.”

Etching by Marco Luccio

Etching by Marco Luccio

“I don’t want to kill the sun. I love her. Why won’t anyone believe me?”

“The sun?”

“He thinks I’m the sun,” the golden fledgling spoke, calmer now, though still pulling against the thylacine’s weight. “Tell him the truth, that I’m only the moon, and you’re the sun. He won’t believe me.”

“Is it the truth?” Torment shot a glance toward the mother.

“Of course it’s the truth,” the eagle nodded, her confidence growing as she realised the creature was mad. “I am indeed the sun, and she is my daughter, a fallen moon. I’ve come to take her back with me to the heavens.”

“No, you can’t do that!” Torment growled. He tightened his grip on the terrified bird. “It’s not the sun, after all. It’s the moon I love. I love the moon. Let her stay here with me. What harm can it do? There are so many moons and planets and stars in the heavens. I don’t know what I’ll do if you try to take her back.”

With these words the thylacine, holding the fledgling’s helpless breast upon his breast, reared to face her trembling mother. He might have done anything, he didn’t know himself, so wildly did the flames rage inside the furnace of his brain. His eyes burnt the future away, all time, except this moment.

The giant eagle too could not control her thoughts, they whirled like leaves in a storm. ‘Of course she can stay.’ The words, she thought, how could they possibly be her own, and yet she had spoken them. She could not stop the storm. ‘She loves you. I’ve tried to reason with her, to make her see sense…you can’t blame a mother for that, surely?…but all these years, up there, watching you, she couldn’t stand it any longer…’ The words seemed to have a life of their own, made cunning by fear. ‘She loves you, but she’s frightened. You can marry her, I give you my blessing now, but only if you’ll pull out your teeth and cut off your claws.’

Torment, mad with joy, released the golden fledgling, who dropped to the ground. He had forgotten her. He had forgotten everything. He chased his tail round and round, crazy with love. ‘At last,’ he cried to the shadow sinking to his heart its poisoned barbs. ‘At last someone loves us in return. We haven’t lived in vain.’

And delirious, he began chewing off his claws, numb to the pain and blind to the blood that seeped from the pads of his feet. Then, clawless, he gripped a rock between his two front paws and smashed it against his teeth, spitting the chips and shards from his bloody mouth. It was a terrifying sight. The mother gathered her daughter quickly beneath her wing and fled, her relief tinged with shame at what the mad creature had done for her. She felt suddenly overwhelmed by pity, but the pain of watching was unbearable. She could not let her daughter see. The golden eagles disappeared into the clouds.

But Torment did not realise they had gone. They were as a mirage that shimmered around the glory of his sacrifice. With blood streaming from his mouth and paws, he arched his body. His slender muzzle statue-still and long tail extended, he paraded back and forth before the vanished birds, displaying for them his only pride, the deep black stripes that traversed his back’s tawny fur. When, at last, he finally opened his eyes, it was to the admiration of nothing. No matter how much he wanted to see her, no matter how hard he tried to conjure-up the fledgling from his heart, her image shrank like water on sand. The thylacine had been deceived.

He began to howl, soft at first and sharp with loss, but growing more plaintive with every breath, swelling with bitter sorrow. He began to feel the pain in his paws and to taste the blood congealing on his lips. The trees whose bark he had once ripped now ripped in return, their branches clawing at him as he passed, and the wildflowers he once had wildly wrenched from the earth now pricked his tender pads like thorns. Torment could neither eat nor sleep, nor wander in his grief. The world he had wanted so much to love had become a torturer. All nature turned to blade.

And he could feel the pain inside as well, the claws of the shadow, growing since birth, clutched at his heart and squeezed until the tears began to flow and flowed for days, gradually wearing the flesh away like a river a stone, turning the earth to mud which trapped his bones as they fell and dried hard around them, a perfect fossil buried deeper with each year until all had forgotten the last Tasmanian tiger, even the stories that keep what’s gone alive. No one could say who it was then that countless years later burst forth from the earth in the shape of a man whose body was empty like a footprint in sand. A ghost that still today comes to the surface to be seen. And the stone through which it comes gives form to it in its passing. For when the ghost appears it is almost invisible because in itself of the dark, yet where it has pushed at the surface a hand might trace and make visible a head, a finger, a broken nimbus, before it withdraws back into the rock. Perhaps in this withdrawal there is a purpose, for who of men can shake off the earth? If we gaze long enough into these fragments of stone, stare into them as we might stare into the heavens or the winter fog or the entrails of a beast, something might emerge to welcome us, something that is neither afterlife nor miraculous resurrection, though of them both, and so simple it may never have a name, though in this language some have called it artist, some poet or bard.

The Origin of War

Knuckles was a red kangaroo who when he reared up on his strong hind legs stood as high as a wattle tree. Out in the vast sandy plains, fluid against the desert’s yellow grass, he rolled in long, unbroken bounds, swift as a honeyeater. Unlike the other kangaroos, timid and shy and happy in the herd, Knuckles lived alone, afraid of no one, king of all the plains. Even the terrible dingo feared his great ripping claws and would slink into the shadow of a rock whenever he heard the thunder of the giant kangaroo.

Knuckles had fought every creature on the plains. Not one had ever managed to tear even the tiniest piece of his soft fur. There were kangaroos everywhere who admired and even envied his might and majesty yet secretly prayed for his death. They would spend their nights dreaming of defeating Knuckles in battle.

One day Knuckles came upon a herd of grey kangaroos basking in the sun. The enormous western sky was layered like pigments in a cliff face, variegated, flickering, quicksilvered, pinks, purples, crimsons and a kind of blue-green-gold at the horizon. The sun itself seemed to fill the sky, only black, and not a thing but desert between the grey herd and it. He’d never seen any of the kangaroos before and his heart leapt as it always did at the prospect of a new battle. Stretching to his full height and using his tail like a rudder, he jumped as high as the setting sun it seemed, scattering the herd. Amidst the settling dust, one lone grey stood his ground. This kangaroo was almost as big as Knuckles, and young. He sneered at the Great Red and welcomed him to fight.

‘I’ve heard a lot about you,’ he said, as he stretched onto his hind legs and spread them wide to balance on his tail. ‘I wondered how long it would take for you to arrive.’

Knuckles crossed his arms against his chest. When the Grey did not respond he bellowed his battle refrain: ‘I am Knuckles, king of the kangaroos. No creature on this earth can match my strength. When I was born it was foretold that no animal would ever take my life. I am invincible. Turn now, or prepare to die.’

The Grey listened. In response, rather than turn in flight, he gripped Knuckles’ arms with his own. Anchored by his giant tail, he unhinged his bayonet-claws and dragged them ripping down the Great Red’s chest.

The speed of the Grey’s attack took Knuckles by surprise. He smiled to himself. At last he had a real fight. He seemed to notice everything: filaments of spiders’ silk as tall as cedars drifting slowly past on the wind; the rhythms of cicada song; undulations of rock strata; the aqueous shapes of dunes. He found himself enjoying the feeling as the blood flowed and slowly congealed around the surface of the wound. He licked his arms in disdain, puffed out his chest and lashed at the neck of his foe, drawing blood and a cry that sneaked out before it could be choked.

Knuckles could not resist his refrain. ‘Perhaps you were not of animal born,’ he taunted. ‘For that is the only way you will defeat me. I am Knuckles, king of the kangaroos, and I am invincible!’

The two giant kangaroos now locked themselves in battle. Like a cyclone, they whirled around the desert. Biting, kicking, scratching, gouging, it was the greatest battle ever seen on earth. All the animals gathered to watch first one and then the other gain the upper hand, hypnotised by the see-saw of shifting fortune.

Etching by Marco Luccio

Etching by Marco Luccio

The Grey, however, had an advantage. He knew the country. Knuckles was the intruder. Slowly the younger kangaroo manoeuvred the Great Red to the edge of a cliff which, clouded by the dust of their encounter, Knuckles did not see. Gathering all the strength he had left the Grey lashed out at Knuckles who jumped back to duck the blow and lost his balance, toppling helplessly into the water below. When the dust finally settled the animals were amazed to see not Knuckles but the Grey. So often had they heard him say that no living creature could ever take his life, so often had they seen him emerge victorious from battle, they had all come to believe he could never be beaten. They stood and lowered their heads in silence before the mystery.

‘I am your new king,’ the Grey called to them. ‘Below me in the ocean lies the body of one whose time had come. He has gone the way of all kings.’

With these words he hopped slowly away, looking for shade and a sanctuary in which to hide and recover from his wounds. As he passed the crowd of animals stepped back in awe and whispered: ‘The king is dead. Long live the king.’

But the king was not dead. The fall had knocked him out but by the following morning he had recovered well enough to look for a way of escape. The cliff was steep and slippery, swept by spray, and Knuckles was unable to jump high enough from such slick rocks. After a day of fruitless effort, exhausted by his labour, he called out as loudly as he could: ‘Help me! I am Knuckles, king of the kangaroos. No animal will ever take my life. I am invincible. Help me escape and I will give you whatever you wish.’

Day and night passed without answer. And in the sky stars like the kangaroo had never seen, as if the darkness were the finest lace, more hole than join, through which the tiniest crumbs of light poured and hung like mist all around, dry water. Then, on the third day, resigned to a watery grave and cursing bitterly the prophecy of his immortality, Knuckles saw a small kangaroo poke his head over the edge of the cliff.

‘How’s the water Knuckles?’ the kangaroo called, looking nervously over his shoulder to the land beyond. Once, long ago, the Great Red had taken his mate and he hadn’t had the courage to fight. The small kangaroo saw now, in the terror from which he fled, the terror devouring the desert behind, a chance at last for revenge, even if it meant his own death.

‘It’s beautiful,’ replied the great warrior, cunningly. ‘Why not jump down like me and cool off from the sun?’

‘All right,’ the smaller kangaroo replied. Glancing fearfully over his shoulder at the raging beast devouring all before it, he jumped into the water. ‘You’re right,’ he said, ‘I don’t know why we kangaroos are so scared of the sea. Look what we’re missing.’

After allowing his companion time to enjoy himself, Knuckles presented him with the problem. ‘There’s no way out of here,’ he said, ‘unless, that is, you let me climb up on your shoulders. When I reach the top I can pull you up as well.’

‘I wish I’d thought of it myself,’ the small kangaroo smiled again. He couldn’t believe the old fool had suggested what he himself had planned. ‘Not only are you the strongest creature on this earth, you’re also the most intelligent.’

With that he stood upright and leaned against the steep cliff wall. Wincing as Knuckles’ claws dug deep into his shoulders, he took the weight of the Great Red who, hunkered low, launched himself high above the cliff, landing safely on its edge.

‘Fool!’ Knuckles called to the small kangaroo. ‘You should be more careful before you jump into unknown waters. Do you think I’d save the creature who rescued me? He’d have it over me for the rest of my life. Now, I have a fight to finish.. I hope you can find someone else as stupid as yourself.’

‘I’ve found an even greater fool,’ laughed the small kangaroo. ‘Never again will you humiliate your own kind.’

But Knuckles didn’t hear a word. As he turned to jump away from the cliff, the flames of the great fire from which the small kangaroo had fled swept across the plain and stretched out their fiery claws, tearing the terrified giant in their burning embrace.

‘Aieee!’ howled Knuckles as his brown fur blazed and his blood began to boil. ‘Cursed be the day that fire was not of animal born.’

And with that cry he surrendered his life to the bloodless flames. But strangely, as his fur drained of colour and turned to ash, it was as if his skin was drying out, leached dry by a desert spirit sniffed and tuned to the smallest drop of moisture, and he was crumbling to powder beside it, dissolving, as if he’d taken the qualities of sand into himself, returning to the dust from which he was made. In the miracle of the fire’s smouldering remains could be seen what looked for all the world like a fossil, its imprint so detailed and lifelike it was as if the kangaroo had just been stripped of flesh, his great skeleton with its enormous knobbled joints and skull like a helmet; a marvel that bone could disappear and still look like bone in the trace it left behind. And from this fossil a man emerged in a uniform of sunset-bronze with fiery epaulettes and medals glowing on his chest, a helmet for a head. A rifle stood by his side from whose barrel, resting level with his chin and glinting in the moon’s sharp crescent, grew a silver bayonet, mirror image of the savage claws of Knuckles, the giant kangaroo.

He had become the first ruler ever to walk the earth, a warrior in search of a tribe.

*    *    *

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

JOHN HUGHES first book, The Idea of Home, won the 2005 NSW Premier’s Award for Non-Fiction, the 2006 National Biography Award, and was the National Year of Reading ‘Our Story’ winner for NSW in 2012. His second book, Someone Else: Fictional Essays, won the Adelaide 2008 Festival Award for Innovation and the 2008 Queensland Premier’s Award for Short Stories. It was also listed for the inaugural 2009 Warwick International Prize for Writing. His third book, The Remnants, was published in 2012 by UWA Press, who will also publish The Garden of Sorrows in October, 2013. He is currently Librarian at Sydney Grammar School.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

As a professional full-time artist MARCO LUCCIO has held 35 solo exhibitions including a major show in New York City. He has exhibited in over 150 group, curated and award shows internationally and received several commissions. Luccio’s work is represented in numerous private, public and corporate collections, including the New York Public Library, the Museum of the City of New York, the New York Historical Society and the National Gallery of Australia. His work has been shortlisted for many prestigious awards including the 2009 and 2010 Dobell Prize for Drawing and the 2013 Adelaide Perry Prize for Drawing. In addition, Luccio has presented many guest lectures at institutions throughout Australia and overseas, including the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Students League of New York. The full series of Marco’s etchings for John Hughes’s book The Garden of Sorrows will be exhibited in Melbourne in November 2013. Visit Marco at www.marcoluccio.com

© 2013 John Hughes & Marco Luccio. All rights reserved.

from Issue #3: ‘Danville Girl’ by Anthony May

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DANVILLE GIRL by ANTHONY MAY

Bob was sitting on his hands. On a milk crate outside the garage doors, he watched the sun light and warm the shop fronts along Campbell Street in Danville. People came along and opened shops. Some nodded and some kept walking. He smiled at them all. Not a lot was said.

He looked at his shoes, dirty from the long walk. His mother had told him to always buy the best that he could afford. He got them at Shoe-Biz these days. It didn’t matter to him.

He had the impulse to watch things more closely. The dawn unfolding over the town, but it was too late for that. He’d seen the dawn on the road, the town waking up, but it had already woken up and was mostly about its business. He didn’t really care about these things but he did notice that there were no runners. Where he lived the hour after dawn was full of people running and walking their dogs.

Two dogs, a cattle dog and a labrador, walked along the street without owners. He watched them closely and hoped that they would stay away. His mind raced ahead to their crossing the street, sniffing his ankles and legs. Getting too close. Feeling tense and knowing that they would sense that. They walked on without looking at him.

The quiet surprised him. He thought that the noise would rise with the town but things seemed to prepare themselves in a calm and quiet way. Shops opened without alarms going off. Cars rolled by without sounding their horns. People nodded and waved without calling out. He wondered when the noise came, or if it did. He tried to think back to when there had been noise in Campbell Street. He could only think of sharp accidental noises like something being dropped or a car backfiring. He had never thought of the place having such a well-developed sense of decorum. It just seemed like a quiet town.

Back in Brisbane, a few weeks ago, he saw a young man, late teenager, jump feet first at a plate glass window. Two of his friends caught him by the arms and pulled him back but his feet still hit the glass. It wobbled. And it was the noise that he was waiting for. The explosive noise of the glass but it never came. They just went on, drunk, having fun.

Bob closed his eyes for a while. He was tired of thinking. He had been in his thoughts for, he looked at his watch, three hours. He was very tired and wanted to lie down but there was nowhere to lie. Just wait for the garage to open.

After a few minutes he tried to listen to the street but things were too busy now. Earlier he had been able to separate sounds, listen to sounds grow and diminish, place sounds with activities and directions. Now everything was too busy. He moved his hands and rolled his shoulders. He stood up and sat again. His suit felt uncomfortable and he felt out of place.

Twenty minutes later the mechanic arrived driving a sedan. He began his routine of opening the garage, looking over at Bob and smiling.

“Good morning,” he said.

“Good morning,” Bob said, “I’ve got a breakdown about eight kilometres out of town.”

Bob and the mechanic climbed into the breakdown truck. The mechanic, John, took a large mug of coffee with him. He started the truck and pulled up at the edge of the apron.

“Left or right,” he said. Danville only had one road in and out of the town.

“Right.”

Bob explained how he had tried to get an early start to get back to Brisbane. About eight kilometres from town he had felt a bit peckish and thought about the chocolate biscuits in his backpack in the boot of the car. So he pulled over. He got out, got the biscuits, got back in the driver’s seat and the car wouldn’t start. Nothing. He tried all the things that he knew, checked the connections to the battery, made sure that there was fuel going through the line, all the standard things. Nothing. So he had walked back to town and waited for the garage to open.

“Have you got any left?” John said.

“What?” Bob said.

“The biscuits, have you got any left? I thought they might go well with the coffee.”

Bob felt in his pocket and brought out three chocolate wheatens stuck together in a torn packet.

“That’s cool,” John said. “They all get mixed up inside anyway.”

“Are you from Danville?” Bob asked.

“I am now but I’m from W.A.. Me and Rolf Harris and Greta Scacchi. But they don’t live in Danville, just me.”

“What brought you to Queensland?” Bob said.

“Long story, mate. Too long for this trip. Still it’s a good place to be a mechanic. Shit of a place for anything else but it’s OK for me,” John said.

“Have you always been a mechanic?” Bob said.

“Always. Sometimes I think I was born in motor oil, y’know, like one of those tins of sardines that you open and the little fishes are all covered in olive oil. Well with me it was Valvoline 20/50. Just joking. But I always loved my cars so it was gonna happen. Always,” John said.

John finished the biscuits while Bob looked out at the road for the third time that morning.

“I’ve never connected with cars. I understand how they work, I can fix a few things but there’s always something stopping me getting in there. Don’t know what it is,” Bob said.

“I always loved them. I remember when I turned seventeen and got my licence. I went out and bought two old Morris 1100s. They didn’t work, either of them. Had them on the front lawn in Balcatta. I was going to take them apart and build a working car from the two of them. I thought I was smart. I figured that I could build a car for myself and sell what was left over for parts and make my money back and get a car for free. I was a seventeen year fucking stupid genius,” John said.

“What happened? Did you do it?”

“My mates came over before I got out of bed and they fucked it all up. Started taking everything to bits, losing bits. It was a nightmare. My dad made me take it all to the wreckers. They didn’t want it so it went to the tip. Lost the lot,” John said. “Should have learned then, eh?”

Bob’s Camry came in view and John began to pull over. It was the only car in sight.

John opened the door and popped the bonnet. Bob just stood and watched. He watched from one side and then he walked around to the other. He walked down the road for a while. He was curious but he was a little afraid of the efficiency with which John handled the engine. When he got back, John had the Camry hitched to the back of the truck and was sitting in the cab.

“I can’t fix it here but I have some Toyota parts in the garage and I can get you back to Brisbane,” John said.

“Today?”

“Today.”

“Shit hot,” Bob said.

On the way back Bob began to feel a little less foolish and started to talk again.

“How long have you been in Danville?”

“Ten years come October,” John said. “And five years to go.”

“What do you mean?” Bob said.

“I’m going to retire in five years time. I’ll be fifty and that’s it for me. I’m out of here,” John said.

“Going back to W.A.?”

“No way. I’m going home, buddy, back to Montenegro. Monte-fucking-negro. Most beautiful place on this planet. I’ll be fifty and I’ll be cashed up and I’ll buy a little house and watch the sun come up over the mountains and then watch the same sun go down over the sea at the end of the day. It’s heaven. Ever been there?” John said.

“Never been out of Australia,” Bob said.

“I’ve been three times now. My family comes from there. Jeez, it’s beautiful,” John said. “There’s a little town called Dobrota about 5 kilometres north of Kotor, which is a bigger town, and if you get a house on a rise then you can see over an inlet to the Adriatic. Monte-fucking-negro, mate, it’ll make you cry it’s so beautiful.”

Bob looked out at the flat grey-red dirt.

“Aren’t they fighting and shit over there?” Bob asked.

“That’s over now but then again…it’s never going to be over, really. But nobody beats the Montenegrins. Only people to kick the Turks’ arse. Only country in the Balkans to boot out the Turks, did you know that?” John said.

“No.”

“Well they were. Told the Turk to shove his Ottoman empire up his arse. Monte-fucking-negro. I can’t think about it too much or I just want to go now. It is so beautiful. Still Danville’s OK, been all right to me,” John said.

They pulled into the garage and John checked his parts. He could fix it but it was going to be a busy day and Bob should call back about four-thirty. It was nine-forty seven.

Bob left the garage and walked down Campbell Street. He had his head a little to the side and hanging down. He knew that he would go back to the tea rooms if he stayed in Danville and he didn’t want to. The Danville girl would be there. Last night he’d told her that he would never see her again. He’d said, “The best of friends have to part some times so why not you and I?” She hadn’t replied to that. She didn’t seem to care. That’s why he had to go back to the tea rooms. He couldn’t really believe that she didn’t care.

This morning he walked back down Campbell Street to the tea rooms. If she was there he would see her one last time even though he had said to her last night that he would never see her again. He stopped at the newsagency to buy cigarettes and found that he didn’t have a wallet. He had lost his wallet. He couldn’t buy cigarettes, he couldn’t buy coffee. He couldn’t go in the tea rooms. He felt quite dizzy and was unsure of what to do so he turned and walked back to the garage.

“You back?” John said as he walked into the shade. John was hoisting a ute into the air.

“I need a favour,” Bob said, “can I sit down for a while?”

“Not a problem, Bob, there’s a bench seat over there behind the table. Put the kettle on and I’ll be with you in a minute,” John said.

Bob walked to the back of the shop. There was a low coffee table made from four milk crates and a door, the bench seat of a retired sedan, a couple of stools, an electric jug, tea, coffee, sugar, spoons. It looked welcoming and safe to Bob. He filled the jug and sat down on a stool.

When the jug boiled John wiped his hand on an old rag and came over.

“Coffee, tea? I’ve got English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, Russian Caravan, Peppermint, Camomile, Lady Grey, whatever. This is my favourite at present, Moroccan Mint, very nice. There’s milk in the fridge.”

“Lady Grey please,” he said. “Do you ever drink green tea?”

“The Moroccan Mint has a green tea base but I can’t say I notice anything different.”

“You need to try the Japanese green tea. It’s completely different to the Chinese. I’ll send you some when I get back to Brisbane,” Bob said.

“What’s the favour?” John asked.

Bob moved on his stool as John sat down on the bench seat.

“I’ve lost my wallet and I need to hole up somewhere for a couple of hours. So there’s a couple of favours. Can you lend me, say fifty bucks, to get back to Brisbane? You can put it straight on the price of the repairs, I don’t mind.”

“Not a problem, I’ve done that before. This is going to be a company job anyway, right?”

Bob nodded.

“What’s the second favour?”

“I need somewhere to close my eyes and have a rest and I need not to be walking around Campbell Street. Can I stay here for a little while until I go and eat?”

“Not a problem,” John said.

“Oh yes, one more thing, can I ring my office and tell them about the car?” Bob said.

“That’s three favours,” John said.

“Think of the phone call as customer service,” Bob said.

“We aim to please,” John said.

“I met a girl,” Bob said.

“Aren’t you the lucky boy?” John said.

“Not really,” Bob said, “can I tell you about it?”

“Hey, I’m just standing here getting dirty. You can say whatever you like,” John said.

“I came to Danville three days ago. It’s my job. I tour Western Queensland looking for sales, fencing mainly, and then go back to Brisbane with as full an order book as I can manage. The fencing comes out later on trucks. I hate doing this. I didn’t used to. I used to like it, travel, people. I’m just indifferent these days. People are people and I’m sick to death of driving. Most of all I hate my order book. I travel with it locked in the boot of the vehicle. I’m like a secretary to the fucking order book.

“That morning was a short drive from Boulia. I went into the Tea Rooms to have some breakfast. It was almost empty and I sat by the window so that I could look out on the street. I remember I saw some boys who probably should have been in school rolling a 44 gallon drum down the footpath. It made a terrible noise.

“From the moment that she came to my table, the waitress, I began to behave out of character. I flirted with her and she seemed to respond. I tried to look important and she seemed unimpressed. I tried to act compassionate and listen to her but she went quiet on me. Then out of the blue, I just gave her my motel room number. And she wrote it down. Like it was an order for coffee and cake. I left, went to the newsagent and bought cigarettes and a couple of magazines. I went to the motel and waited. I showered, smoked, read. Then I showered again. She came by just after lunch. I did no work for three days but I fell in love with the Danville Girl. I didn’t know myself, man.

“Now this is not me. I am a married man. I love my wife and I love my son. I did not choose for this to happen. But I can’t pretend it didn’t and I can’t stop thinking about her. And them. And it all. I’m stuffed, I can tell you.”

“This is a no-brainer, mate. I fix your car, you drive home, you don’t come back here and you never tell anybody about it again. Live your life, man,” John said.

“I’m in love. I didn’t choose it but I’m in love.”

“Get real. Are you going to wrap it all up in Brisbane for a Danville waitress? I think not. Are you going to come and live in Danville? I think not. You have a choice, mate. Choose the drive home quietly option. Why would anyone fall in love in Danville?” John said.

“Choices and options. Shit. I just don’t see them. Maybe I’m tired. I am tired. Can I get that lie down?” Bob asked.

“There’s a cot in the back, stay as long as you like.”

Bob took off his shoes and settled onto the cot. He was asleep in a couple of minutes and dreaming not long after that. He was on a cycling tour in Kashmir. High in the mountains the weather seemed always slightly damp. Combined with the perspiration from riding, he was wet.

He was wearing the fancy bicycling shirt and the tight shorts and behind him in single file were all the guys from work decked out in the same way. They were impatient and shouting at him to go but he was at an intersection and couldn’t move. The passing road was full of military vehicles, small trucks with soldiers on the back, wagons full of provisions. He couldn’t find a break in the traffic and all the guys were shouting. “Fucking move it, Bob,” “Bob, shift your fucking arse,” “Bob, go, you stupid twat.” He could see the faces of the Indian conscripts looking at him as they went by.

Some shouted, some wanted to change places, some were just blank.

He was thinking about his wife and son at the hotel. He knew that they were waiting in the dining room, sitting at the table. They wouldn’t start eating without him but he couldn’t get there. They looked up at the clock and discussed whether or not he would turn up. His wife would be thinking that the mealtime would be over and that they would get no lunch. His son would be moving knives and forks and spoons around the table playing navies. Fully armed destroyers on a white cotton sea.

The screaming from the guys was getting intense and he knew that his job was on the line. And then there was a break in the convoy. And Emberley from accounts shot past him, and so did Pash from dispatch. And then they all went, in little bunches, spreading across the road, racing to make up time. He waited until it was safe.

On his right he could see a small shrine at the edge of the trees. He knew that he was late. He knew that his family was waiting to eat. He knew that if he didn’t catch up then he would probably lose his job. But he wanted to see the shrine. He thought that it might be something beautiful. So he got off his bike and walked over in his bicycle shoes to look at the shrine.

It was overgrown with creepers and he had to pull them back to see. In the middle of the shrine was a little platform for offerings and he could see something shining there. Something like a piece of coloured glass was reflecting the light that he was allowing to pass through by pulling back the creepers. The vegetation was harsh and had little thorns in it and tore his skin as he tried to free the shrine. He had to kneel to get a grip of the deeper shrubbery and as he did he cut his knee on a sharp stone.

But he did the job. He got it clear and on the small platform in the centre of the shrine was a Casio digital watch with a black plastic strap. He didn’t want to move it but he could see the time and he had missed lunch.

He woke up at the back of the garage and went to wash his face in the grimy sink.

There was an old Brisbane Broncos tee shirt to dry himself. He couldn’t see John in the garage but there was a fifty dollar note on the table under his mug. He took the money and went for a walk along Campbell Street.

It was 1.47 p.m. when he thought of getting something to eat. Campbell Street had a high pavement and as he tried to step into the road to cross it, a black Monaro zipped by and nearly hit him. He jumped back and the car was gone. He looked both ways and crossed to the pub. The front bar was clean with only a few afternoon drinkers. The pool table was around a corner so that kept the bar quiet.

He asked the barmaid if he could get some lunch but she told him that the lunches ended at 1.30 p.m.

“It’s 1.48,” he said.

“That’s right,” she said.

He asked for a beer with a splash of lemonade and a pie. She put a foil-wrapped pie in the microwave and poured him a beer.

“Just a splash?” she said.

“Right,” he said.

The pie was too hot to eat right away so it took him three beers altogether to finish his lunch. He walked out to the DOSA and had a cigarette and then went back and daydreamed at the bar. After a while he could hear the noise of school children in the street and looked out of the door to see them walking around Campbell Street in groups of three and four. Across the street he saw the Post Office so he collected his cigarettes from the bar and went over.

At the public phone he rang his wife. He knew that she would be at work and that his son would be at a friend’s house so he wasn’t surprised to get the machine. He left a message saying that the car had broken down and he would be home tonight or early in the morning. He told them that he loved them and that he would eat before he got home so don’t bother saving anything for him. He thought that they should go away for the weekend but he didn’t tell them that. Then he hung up and walked back to the garage.

“You’re back,” John said.

“I’m back.”

“Your car’s finished and you can escape. Time to go home.”

“Thanks, John,” Bob said.

“Have a cuppa before you go? Lady Grey?”

“Please.”

They sat at the coffee table and Bob lit a cigarette. He pulled an unopened packet of chocolate wheatens from his pocket.

“I’ve got something for you,” Bob said.

John smiled.

“I’ve also got it worked out.”

“Got what worked out?” John said.

“The thing with the Danville girl.”

“You should leave that alone, mate. Just get in your car and drive. That’s what they were made for. Hit that dusty road, brother.”

“I’m going, don’t worry. And I don’t think that I’m coming back but I know what happened now. I know what was going on,” Bob said.

“I don’t know if I want you to tell me. But go on, we’re doing nothing else.”

“It was a nocebo. The whole thing, a nocebo.”

“A what-what-bo?” John said. He put the tea mugs on the table.

“A nocebo,” Bob said. “You know what a placebo is, right? Well a nocebo is the opposite. You give somebody something like plain ordinary water and you tell them it’s poison and they feel sick. The opposite of a placebo. Instead of feeling good they feel bad. And that’s what happened to me.”

“Somebody gave you poison?” John said.

“Nobody gave me anything. I took something, something happened to me, the Danville girl happened to me and I thought it was going to be bad. I thought it was going to fuck me up and so it did fuck me up. When I realised that it was a nocebo, it had no effect. Simple, eh?” Bob said.

“And where did you work this out?”

“In the pub.”

“Figures.”

“No, seriously, I didn’t do anything bad. I just did what anyone would do. But it’s only going to be bad if I let it be bad. It’s a nocebo. Once you know what they are then they don’t work on you any more.”

“I’m not arguing but it seems to me like there might be other points of view on the matter. Like, you’re not going to discuss the no-see-thing with your wife, are you?” John said.

“That would just be letting it go on being a bad thing. Wouldn’t make sense,” Bob said.

They finished their tea and did the paperwork for the car and Bob thanked John and got ready to go.

“You don’t think that Montenegro might be a nocebo, do you?” John said.

“No way, man. You’ve got the real thing.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 ANTHONY MAY teaches Writing and Cultural Studies in the School of Humanities, Griffith University, Brisbane. He has published in the fields of popular music, film, literary studies and publishing. He also publishes short fiction. He is currently co-writing a history of pop music since 1945. His interviews with Elmore Leonard appeared in the second issue of Contrappasso.

Header photo (cc) Tamsin Slater @ Flickr

from issue #3: ‘The Other Side of the Pier’ by Guadalupe Nettel

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PIER by GUADALUPE NETTEL
Translated from the Spanish by Elvira Quintana

Photo (CC) Ines Hegedus-Garcia @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Ines Hegedus-Garcia @ Flickr

To Aimée E. Robinson

“Every friendship is an inconspicuous drama, a series of subtle wounds.” – EMIL CIORAN, from The Trouble with Being Born.

 

OVER THE YEARS I’ve heard many views on True Solitude. It is a topic that often comes up during my family’s after-dinner conversations. As with current affairs or moral issues, with this topic sincerity is not always the best policy since you will likely get stuck in the spectacular fibromas of misunderstanding. Some people, especially those getting on in years, talk about True Solitude as a strong spider web that we build over time. There are also those who consider it a whimsical and privileged place with arbitrary rules of access. When my better judgement gives way to all the talk, the spectacles, slurps, aunts with overdone make-up, and a child’s sticky hand reaching for a biscuit, I subscribe to the second definition because I remember, not without a certain nostalgia, that I went in search of that paradise at the age of fifteen. As I saw it then, the sole inhabitant of True Solitude had to be a young girl still ill at ease with her pointed breasts, like the breasts of a skinny mongrel, and a body too tall for her dresses and too plain for her swimming suit. When I think about this I’m overcome by an urge to smile, discretely, lowering my face so no one in the family notices. But the urge to smile is checked definitively because, while Clara gently smacks the child’s sticky caramel hand, I am transported to that summer in Santa Helena, the fishing island where Toño and Clara imagined a home, which they called La Casa de los Naranjos (The House of the Orange Trees), and that memory freezes my smile.

In those days, when instead of True Solitude there was a mediocre and oppressive loneliness full of sarcastic laughter in a squalid high school in Mexico City, I was the niece and Clara was my mother’s youngest sister. I didn’t call her Aunt, so that I could distinguish her from my other aunts who wore high heels even at home and spent their mornings at the beauty parlour. Clara was a 28-year-old sports teacher in a progressive primary school; she owned a VW Beetle convertible, which no one thought would make it to the coast, and had a boyfriend called Toño whom my grandmother hated, which was enough to endear him to me. At the time my parents’ quarrels were getting serious, so there was no need to convince them to let me go along with Clara and Toño to a deserted island where they had managed to purchase La Casa de los Naranjos for a ridiculously low price.

When they picked me up the car was already packed with several suitcases, a cooler, newly-framed paintings, and the tool box for repairing the house.

“You can bring whatever you want,” they told me, pointing to an over-packed boot. I had taken with me the bare minimum so nothing would distract me from my search.

After a long drive, when the road had already become a photographic landscape completely fitted out with vegetation, salty air, and macaws, we swapped the car for a boat which dropped us off at a pier on the island. We arrived there late afternoon and, to my joy, the only things moving were a few scattered palm trees shaken by the wind. As soon as we set foot on solid ground I realised Clara had misled the family. There were no orange trees, the marvellous British-style house was the vaguest memory of a ruin, and the roof was a wooden cover about to collapse.

“It’s almost perfect; the wooden planks will do the job. If it doesn’t rain, it will be ready in a tick,” she said with her typical enthusiasm while placing her hand on top of my head. Toño put his arm around her waist and brushed his moustache against her neck. The frailty of the roof did not weaken my joy; if I was ever to find True Solitude, I was sure that it would be here.

Half of the island was a fishing town and the other half, where we spent all that summer, was an empty beach with a few houses, most of which were large and unoccupied, including the house that Toño and Clara had planned to fix up within two weeks; that way they could relax there during their last week of holiday.

The first week in Santa Helena was a long siesta in the sun. I had thought that once I was there everything would be really easy. That it would just be a matter of concentrating on the infinite strip of sand and paradise would come and surround me with its silence. The heat persisted day and night and the forecast rain was about as likely as trees sprouting from the sand. Clara and Uncle Toño (I did like calling him Uncle, especially in the presence of my grandmother) would spend their mornings and afternoons working on the roof of the house. At a distance I would lie on the sand, always dressed, because I couldn’t stand the idea of a neighbour seeing me in my swimming suit. In the background I would hear them hammering and exchanging a few words, then I would try to recognise shapes in the clouds and fall asleep thinking that even if I didn’t know it, I was entering paradise.

As night was beginning to fall and the sun was a vitamin C tablet dissolving away on the surface of the sea, they would come home, take a shower, and smear their dry and tanned skin with thick layers of cream. Afterwards, the dinner party would take place. Clara would put candles all around the house and she would bring to the table a tray of canned seafood bought in Mexico City; the roof kept them from going into town to buy food, and I was too terrified of seeing other people. The candlelight, the hunger, and the relaxation made those moments quiet explosions of harmony, in spite of the canned food. The few boats that came to Santa Helena would leave the coast at seven in the morning and go back some time in the afternoon. Most of the passengers were vendors bringing baskets of fruit and bread to sell in town. Every day they would pass near the house making a racket with their transistors and shouting, but only for a few minutes. Then the beach would go back to being a strip of sand away from it all, far away from my high school, my parents’ loud bickering and insults, and my own awkwardness at talking to people my age, especially guys. Only every now and then small groups of tourists would arrive at the island, probably following the advice of a particularly gifted book writer who had described the abandoned residences and the road into town strewn with fruit peel as ‘picturesque landscapes’. Those days it was better to stay indoors, away from the awkward looks and the sympathetic smiles (gringos tend to start a conversation with anyone who will listen). However, at the house I couldn’t resist the temptation of staring into the mirror at my acne scars and incipient breasts, which not only were ugly but sometimes also hurt. Then, almost immediately, I would remember the mean remarks at school and the way I blushed uncontrollably in the presence of someone of the opposite sex and the door to True Solitude would slowly fade away.

Almost every day, early in the morning, I would wait for the boat at the pier and consult the faint smell of seafood and pollution to see how the day would turn out. Staring at the sea for long periods of time made me nauseous. I inevitably thought of my biology classes and the amphibious hands of the teacher as she explained the cycle of life, and of all those fish breeding in a warm and salty broth near me. Were Clara and Toño intending to reproduce one day? Some nights I would find them kissing at the entrance of the house, with its view of the moon drowning in the water. But I didn’t think they’d go that far, and if by some chance they did, I’d stop calling Clara’s boyfriend ‘uncle’. The only way I could save myself and not be like them was to focus on the search for my paradise. “I need to forget about everything”—I would tell myself—”to let the landscape of this island erase all my memories of the city.” However, True Solitude came hidden in a boat, and did not reveal itself until several days after its arrival on our beach.

Michelle came to Santa Helena along with the fishermen and the fruit baskets in one of those noisy boats. I saw her from a distance, well before the boat came ashore. I knew immediately that my project would face obstacles. She did not seem to be here to sunbathe; rather, she looked a girl my age, possibly an unpleasant high-school blonde arriving on the island in a tiny dress; but the worst thing was the huge suitcase sitting beside her bare feet, which to me seemed as definitive as an anchor. Michelle waited for all the merchandise to be unloaded, for the ladies to extract their transistors from the fruit and tune them, for the men to whip their octopus on the planks again and again before placing her ten scarlet toenails on the swollen wood of our pier.

With her arrogant blue eyes she scanned the landscape: the house, the roof that Clara and Toño were hammering, the wrecked palapa (palm leaf hut), the remains of a chair on the sand and a mangy chicken—which had most likely escaped from town—walking among the fruit peels. Then, with the same indifference, she looked at me and the towel with cartoon animals hanging over my shoulder. Without a word, not even a gesture, she dragged her suitcase towards one of the huge houses up on the cliff. She didn’t appear again for the rest of the day, so after a few hours I almost dared to pretend that nobody had arrived. However, it worried me that there might be more people at her house. I didn’t think that the new arrival was the type to spend her holidays alone and the idea of being surrounded by her siblings or cousins was frankly unbearable. Terrified, I thought that they might not have arrived yet, but that briefly the island would be full of girls playing beach-volleyball in swimming suits. At the house I didn’t ask anything. Denying Michelle’s arrival was a silent ritual in order to avoid any type of connection.

One evening, while I was trying very hard to resume my search in a corner, Clara came into the dining room wearing a freshly unpacked red apron and carrying a wooden tray full of oysters.

“They’re oysters,” she said, “I bought them in town this morning. We went there for a stroll while you were at the pier. By the way, have you seen anyone at the beach?”

“No, no one,” I answered, surprised, trying to conceal the truth, but Clara continued:

“In town I heard that a few days ago the daughter of Mrs. Neuville—the lady who lives in the house on top of the cliff—arrived from France; her name is Michelle or something like that. The lady is very ill and that is why she spends most of the year here. I met her when I came to do the paperwork for the house.”

I didn’t say anything more; instead, I worked on the slippery slime inside the oyster’s shell with my fork. Soon, the wind in the palm leaves picked up and the conversation found its way back to the same old topic:

“Knock in a few more nails and we’re done,” Toño said. “Soon we’ll spend our time like you: lying on a beach towel, watching the sky.”

The calm didn’t last for long. Over the sound of the wind I heard a repeated, rather desperate knocking on the living-room window, but I kept quiet. The knocking persisted, getting louder, until they noticed it too in the background of their chatting and went to check. Apparently, my premonition was right and talking about the intruder had summoned her. Outside the window, Michelle’s hair was a big palapa flapping in the wind. Clara opened the door and in her progressive teacher’s tone invited the stranger to dinner:

“We are having oysters, wouldn’t you like some?”

The girl responded in very proper Spanish, with only the traces of a nasal accent.

“No. Thank you. Actually, I came to ask you for a favour.”

Clara sat down again, with the chair’s backrest between her legs and an overly expectant look on her face. “Well, we’re listening.”

Another one of her ‘progressive teacher’ attitudes that the French girl didn’t seem to notice because at that moment her blue eyes were fixed on me with blatant hostility, the same I was feeling towards her for being in the house. Clara repeated her last sentence.

“I would like to climb up on your roof,” Michelle replied.

This time, no come-back from the teacher could hide our bewilderment. “Are you sure?” asked Toño, coming to the rescue. “I don’t think it will be much fun.”

“I’m not looking for fun,” she said, almost taking offence. “Your roof is the only place in this island where someone’s trying to fix up the rottenness.”

There was a silence during which Clara and Toño looked inquiringly at one another, without taking me into account, and after some tacit agreement between them, they gave Michelle permission to go onto the roof for a while as long as I went with her.

I resolved to be unfriendly, not to say a word unless I was questioned. I climbed up onto the roof of the house and as soon as I was up there I pulled up the ladder. It took the French girl twice as long to climb up the walls. At no point did she ask for help or ask me to lower the ladder. When she finally sat down on one of the roof’s edge she pulled two cigarettes out from her skirt.

“Do you smoke?” she said with antagonistic friendliness.

I shook my head.

“Why not?” she asked, still smiling.

“I don’t want lung cancer.”

Michelle granted me a few minutes of silence, but then she struck back:

“What an attitude! I bet you don’t have any friends.”

This time it was me who remained silent for a while. “Do you have many?” I asked.

“Yes, and I also have a boyfriend. His name is Philippe. When he arrives I’ll introduce him to you.”

I felt a knot form in my stomach. I didn’t want to meet anyone, especially another horrible frog. If either of them started strolling on the beach, my holiday project was doomed to drastic failure. But I didn’t say anything and let Michelle talk while the second cigarette burned itself out. I lowered the ladder and announced that it was time for us both to go home.

I didn’t see her again for several days, but it was hard for me to resume my search for True Solitude. Michelle had the kind of voice that goes on echoing in your head. Without realising, I started asking myself questions about her: How old was she? How did she meet Philippe? One evening, while opening cans in the kitchen, I asked Clara whether she knew the house where the French people lived.

“Is it pretty?”

“Yes, but it’s too modern for my taste,” she answered while looking around with pride at our damp walls. “I prefer La Casa de los Naranjos. Have you seen the girl again? You haven’t? She probably doesn’t get out much at all, poor thing, with her mother so ill.”

“What’s wrong with her?” I asked, surprised. I had forgotten about her mother’s illness.

“I’m not sure, but I think it’s something serious, like lung cancer.”

I finished setting the table but I couldn’t touch my dinner. Before Clara and Toño went out to look at the moon, an evening ritual, I went to my room and stayed there for a while. I was trying to fall asleep and stayed there for hours, trying to get to sleep until I heard the knocking on the window.

“Can you come out for a second?” asked Michelle from the other side of the window.

I thought that her boyfriend must have arrived on the afternoon boat and she wanted to introduce him, so I curled up in the blankets and pretended to be fast asleep. But then I had a better look and saw she was alone.

“Do you want to go up on the roof?” I asked.

“Yes, but I haven’t asked for permission.”

“No problem, it’s almost ready,” I said. “Anyway, it’s too late to disturb them now. In the evening, Toño and Clara become unbearable. You must know about that.”

We climbed up. The moon looked like a bundle of luminous clouds and the sea was rougher than ever. When we sat the wooden planks made a long creaking noise that ended with a crack.

“Why did they bring you here?” asked Michelle, pulling her knees towards her chest. Her scarlet nails were ten mouths smiling at me from her bare feet.

“No one brought me here. I came because I wanted to be by myself.”

“Don’t you ever speak to anyone? Not even at school?”

“I hate school. I stay in the classroom on my breaks. Sometimes I get out a book and keep an eye out so no one disturbs me.”

“And of course, nobody comes,” she said.

“How would you know?”

“It’s the same everywhere, people realise that deep down you’re dying to talk to them and they become standoffish. Just like you with me the other night.”

“That’s not true,” I said, turning my head.

“But I bet your parents want to talk to you and want you to participate in their conversations; typical, they realise that you’re not interested. Families only talk about what they’re going through at the time. Luckily, here my mother hardly talks at all.”

“What does she talk about?” I asked.

“Nothing much, or death. And your family?”

“About True Solitude; but I don’t think that’s what they’re going through. When is your boyfriend coming?”

“Philippe? He’s not coming. I said it to impress you. In fact, he’s not even my boyfriend any more; he broke up with me when he found out I was leaving for a long time. He says that in Mexico you catch weird diseases.”

“Then you shouldn’t have come.”

The roof cracked again, so we decided to climb down straight away. Also, it was getting late.

“I need to go home. My mother gets insomnia almost every night and she wants me to be with her,” she said before putting the ladder back in its place. “I think she’s afraid.”

“And you are not?” I asked almost hesitantly while I was helping her climb down.

“Yes, but it’s different. When your mother is afraid it’s almost like she’s suddenly stopped feeding you, like she stopped breast-feeding you. Do you know what I mean?”

I didn’t have the faintest idea but I chose not to reply.

“Come around whenever you want,” I told her when we came to the door. She looked sad and I felt like giving her a hug but I didn’t dare.

A couple of days later it clouded over, so I spent the morning indoors without going to the pier or to the palapa. For the first time since we left to go on our holidays I wasn’t thinking at all about True Solitude.

In the afternoon it started to rain. It was an irritating drizzle swirling about in the wind. Worried, Clara called Toño to come have a look at the drops on the window.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “The roof will hold up, no problem.”

“It’s not about that,” she explained. “The only thing left in the kitchen is a box of savoury biscuits. We have to go into town and buy some food. If this turns into a storm it could last all week.”

“I can’t stand those biscuits,” said Toño.

I thought it would be a good time to look for Michelle but before I could mount the expedition they left without saying goodbye. I was a bit scared of being left alone there with a storm brewing and the possibility that Clara and Toño might not be able to make it back. “If it had been my parents, they would have taken me along,” I thought angrily before collapsing onto the cushions in the living room. There was not a light to be seen outside. I tried to turn the radio on but the storm had cut the power. This was the perfect moment to find what I had been searching for all my holidays: with the thunder, the house in semi-darkness, and the rain intensifying. I wasn’t thinking about anything apart from my surroundings, but just as I reached the threshold of paradise, it terrified me.

I ran to my bedroom looking for something to cover myself with so I could catch up with them in town. I didn’t even manage to open the door before the part of the roof that covered my room collapsed. It wasn’t a drizzle falling on my bed and my clothes but a downpour now. Absurdly, I tried to rescue a sweater that up until then had remained in my luggage; but I only managed to get the clothes I was wearing drenched. I then came back to what was still the inside of the house and I covered myself with Clara’s bathrobe. That’s when I saw Michelle’s silhouette at the door. Just from the expression on her face I could tell what she was going through. I took her to the living-room, where it was still warm, and made her sit by my side on one of the floor cushions.

“My mother died this morning,” she said, and didn’t say another word for the rest of the night.

I knew that the longest embrace would have been enough. I couldn’t find anything to say but I didn’t want her to interpret my silence as she had done those other times when I refused to reply to her on the roof. I opened the robe and exposed my left breast, pointed like the breast of a skinny mongrel, and let her come to me. She took it in her mouth—a cold, narrow mouth, the mouth of a fish—and tried to suck from it all the strength she needed to rid herself of fear. For hours and hours her tears moistened the part of my body I hated the most.

Only crumbs were left in the box of salty biscuits when Clara and Toño got back. They had heard the news in town, so as soon as they came in they both gave Michelle—who wasn’t crying any longer—a hug and a pat on the back. The storm didn’t last for days, but the next morning it was still raining. In the morning Toño went into town to make a phone call to Mexico City. From what he said when he came back I knew that he had called the embassy and that there would be someone waiting for Michelle at the harbour that evening. To fill in the time at the house the three of us  packed clothing and tried to rescue some stuff from my bedroom. Clara made tea at least fifteen times and between us we used up all the camomile tea bags and Michelle’s last cigarettes.

The French girl left Santa Helena in much the same way as she had arrived: she climbed up onto the pier on her own with bare feet among the bustling vendors. We went back soon after that with all the things we had brought for the house. Toño and Clara never finished repairing the roof of my room. At no point in that summer did I enter True Solitude, that undesirable paradise, but I saw it from up close in Michelle’s blue eyes while on the other side of the pier the boat that would take her to the harbour was drawing away; I saw it for a few minutes until the boat was nothing more than a speck in the sea and I continued seeing it for years after that whenever I remembered Santa Helena. Now, amongst the hustle and bustle of aunts and teaspoons, with everyone yelling desperately without hope, I can sometimes see it in certain faces but I keep quiet because when those subjects come up at the dinner table in my family it is best if no one knows they’ve been found out.

* * * * *

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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GUADALUPE NETTEL is the author of Juegos de artificio (1993), Les jours fossiles (2003), El huésped (2006), Pétalos y otras historias incómodas (2008), El cuerpo en que nací (2011), and El matrimonio de los peces rojos (2013). For several years she has collaborated with a number of French- and Spanish-language magazines and literary supplements such as Lateral, Letras Libres, Paréntesis, La Jornada Semanal, L’atelier du roman, and L’inconvénient. Recently she earned a doctorate in literature from the University of Paris. She was the recipient of the Premio Herralde, third place, for El huésped, and the 2008 Premio Antonin Artaud and the 2007 Gilbert Owen Short Story Prize in Mexico for Pétalos. She has won the Radio France Internationale Prix de la Meilleure Nouvelle en Langue Française prize for non-French-speaking countries.

In June 2013 Granta named Guadalupe Nettel in their Best Untranslated Writers series. A novel and a collection of stories will be published in English in 2014 by Seven Stories Press in New York.

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR

ELVIRA QUINTANA is a professional translator and interpreter. Her interest in World Literature has led her to explore contemporary Latin American Literature in order to bring a taste of it to the English speaking world. Elvira has a B.A. in Translation and Interpreting completed with Distinction that earned her the Arts Dean’s Medal for academic achievement at the University of Western Sydney. Elvira was born in Mexico where she pursued a law degree for two years; she completed the third year in France. Elvira has lived, studied and worked in Canada, France, Germany, and New Zealand and has found a permanent home in Sydney in the beautiful country of Australia. Elvira is currently travelling through Latin America with the aim of continuing her learning and unfolding the many cultures this region has to offer. To contact Elvira Quintana: quintana.eqr@gmail.com.

‘The Other Side of the Pier’ © Guadalupe Nettel, 2008. Originally published in Spanish by Editorial Anagrama S.A.. Used by permission. From the collection Pétalos, y otras historias incómodas. This English translation first published in Contrappasso Magazine #3, August 2013. Copyright © 2013 Guadalupe Nettel & Elvira Quintana. All rights reserved.

from issue #2: ‘STR82ANL’ by Clive Sinclair (excerpt III)

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[In addition to a career-spanning Clive Sinclair interview, issue #2 of Contrappasso features STR82ANL, a never-before-published novella by the British author. Here is the third of several excerpts.]

MEANWHILE, alone in their 7th floor hotel room, Zachary Siskin is beginning to pine for Ida. When the phone rings sometime after midnight he assumes—not unreasonably—that she is calling to explain her absence.

“Where are you?” he says.

“Perhaps I should tell you who I am,” a man answers, “before I tell you where I am. Hickory Waxwing at your service. Ruddy Turnstone’s right-hand man. That’s the who. The where is downstairs in the lobby. Now for the why. When he got home from the Sapsuckers’ soiree—which he said had developed into the dinner party from hell—my lord and master immediately dispatched me to guide you through Atlanta’s demimonde. ‘Leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of pleasure,’ were his instructions. I am here to carry them out to the letter. Am I to understand that your wife has not yet returned? Meet me in the bar, and we’ll wait out her coming in the company of good ol’ Jim Beam.” Hickory Waxwing adds that he is easy to spot, his hair being the colour of a Georgia peach (though not naturally so).

Sure enough Zachary Siskin spots him easily. Both men order their bourbon neat.

“Have you noticed,” says the blond-haired one, “that our names are practically homonyms? Though we don’t look much alike. And probably don’t act much alike either. What is it you do, Mr Siskin?”

“I’m a rabbi,” replies Zachary.

“Jesus,” exclaims Waxwing, “a Jewish one?”

“Most of us are,” replies Zachary.

Hickory Waxwing whistles.

“I would never have guessed,” he says. “Does it bother you to be seen with someone like me?”

“Someone like you I do not know about,” replies Zachary, “but with you I have no problem.”

“I was under the impression that your God took a dim view of Sodom and its eponymous perversion,” says Hickory.

“Fuck my God,” says Zachary Siskin, “I am a rabbi not because I believe in Him, but because I believe in man.”

“I believe in men, too,” counters Hickory, “but not to the extent that I worship them.”

“I don’t worship man, either,” says Zachary, “I simply maintain that he has the capacity to do harm, and the capacity to do good, and that it is my duty to encourage the latter proclivity.”

“Encouragement is perfect,” says Hickory, “the problem with religion over here is that it’s all about control.”

Is that what I am doing, wonders Zachary, trying to control Ida? Nevertheless he calls up to their room three times during the course of the next hour, to check if she has returned unobserved, or at least left a message to ease his worried mind.
From Hickory he learns that his wife had left the party with the Kingfishers. Although it is close to 2.00 am he phones their home. Mrs Kingfisher picks up. He makes his apologies, and is assured that Ida is fine.

“She’s with Art in his studio,” the woman adds. “Been there for a couple of hours at least. I can only assume that he persuaded your wife to sit for him after all. He can be a very persuasive man.”

Zachary downs another measure of Jim Beam (his sixth) and says to his new bosom buddy: “Okay, Hickory, let’s go turn over a stone or two.”

Waxwing does a double-take. He knows how to burn the candle at both ends, but doesn’t know how much of this knowledge he should share with a rabbi.

“What is it you’re hoping to find under them?’ he asks.

“Naked women,” replies Zachary.

“What sort?” asks Waxwing, beginning to wonder if his companion really is what he said he was.

“Not whores,” replies Zachary, “dancers.”

“You want to see a titty show?” exclaims Waxwing.

An excerpt from Clive Sinclair’s novella STR82ANL, whichappears in issue 2 of Contrappasso Magazine, available in Paperback, Kindle Ebook, or other Ebook formats @ Smashwords.

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from issue #2: ‘STR82ANL’ by Clive Sinclair (excerpt II)

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[In addition to a career-spanning Clive Sinclair interview, issue #2 of Contrappasso features STR82ANL, a never-before-published novella by the British author. Here is the second of several excerpts.]

MRS KINGFISHER SAYS “Goodnight” cheerfully enough as Ida follows Arturo’s Maglight down the garden path to his studio at its furthest end. He unlocks its door, switches on its lights, and points towards an easel at its centre, to which a canvas is secured. The first thing Ida notices is that the model is naked (save for a discreet scrap of white towelling).

“You didn’t mention anything about me having to take my clothes off,” observes Ida.

“That’s because it’s not obligatory,” replies Arturo.

“How many have kept them on?” asks Ida.

“None,” replies Arturo, “but that’s because they are determined to demonstrate that no mutilation can stop them remaining objects of desire.”

“Bollocks,” laughs Ida, “they strip because you’re a bully.”

“You are suggesting that I threaten them with my fists, or put a gun to their heads?” he asks in mock-outrage.

“Don’t be an idiot,” says Ida. “You know as well as I do that the relationship between painter and sitter is a form of wrestling. In the end one has to submit to the will of the other. Which is why—despite the entreaties of Ruddy—I have declined to accept commissions from the likes of Elton John. I fear that his very presence in my studio would force me to produce a representation, something that would be much more to his liking than mine. So I stick with sunflowers, anemones, and anonymous models. That way I can make paintings.”

“I am not blind,” says Arturo, “I know that your paintings are a thousand times better than mine, that you have true greatness in you. I can also see that you are not impressed by my work, that you think it is shit. Of course you are right. The example you are looking at is more soft-porn than portrait. My only real interest in the sitter was to show that women can have mastectomies and still have great looking breasts. But you are far too English to tell me so yourself. Perhaps that is why your paintings still fall short of their potential. Some vestige of that Englishness stays your hand at the last moment, prevents you from delivering the coup de grâce. I have the temperament, but lack your divine gift. If only I knew how to teach, I would teach you how to strike without fear, how to take without guilt.”

“You are absolutely right,” she replies, “I need to learn how to take.”

“And to give, and to give your all,” cries Arturo, “Damn it Ida, let me paint your portrait. Fuck the other women with breast cancer. Let me do it for my own enjoyment. Sit in that chair over there.”

And Ida sits, like Missy the poodle.

She watches as Arturo dismisses Breast Cancer Survivor No. 19 from the easel and replaces her with a blank canvas. How is he going to prepare it, she wonders, watching him open an earthenware jar and tip something that resembles red-brick dust on to a marble work top. Of course she identifies it immediately as Armenian Bole. Who would have thought it, she muses, he is going to prepare the canvas exactly as I would have done?

“I see we are going Dutch tonight,” she observes. “I am surprised. I had you down as a German Expressionist.”

“That is because my other sitters were flighty things, women of the air. Whereas you are an earthier creature.”

An excerpt from Clive Sinclair’s novella STR82ANL, whichappears in issue 2 of Contrappasso Magazine, available in Paperback, Kindle Ebook, or other Ebook formats @ Smashwords.

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from issue #2: ‘STR82ANL’ by Clive Sinclair (excerpt I)

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[In addition to a career-spanning Clive Sinclair interview, issue #2 of Contrappasso features STR82ANL, a never-before-published novella by the British author. Here is the first of several excerpts.]

“HERE COMES ART,” says Mrs Kingfisher, as her helmetless husband roars down the Sapsuckers’ private driveway on his green-and-cream Harley Bobber. “Now we can eat.”

The others continue to stand on the lawn, lazily sipping white zinfandel from flutes, which glow in their hands like electric light bulbs. Only the English couple, Zachary and Ida Siskin, regard the new arrival with curiosity, as he leaps from his bike and embraces his wife like a sailor home from the sea.

“Do you know him?” asks Zachary Siskin.

“By reputation alone,” says his wife. “He’s a mediocre painter. Worse even than me.”

“Mr & Mrs Sapsucker would beg to differ,” Zachary replies, “at least on the self-assessment.”

Dedicated collectors of his wife’s work, they have volunteered to host a dinner in her honour, though the true Master of Ceremonies is Ruddy Turnstone, proprietor of the Turnstone Gallery, where Ida Siskin’s new show has just been hung (hence her presence in Atlanta).

Mr Sapsucker is a pain-relief specialist, and his wife a psychiatrist. Both are obviously successful, since they inhabit a mansion on West Paces Ferry Road, but neither is a good advertisement for their particular skill. Mr Sapsucker looks like a man with a bad toothache, while Mrs Sapsucker comes over as a crazy woman. Who else but a crazy woman would think of dressing like Ophelia saved from drowning, with various fresh flowers pinned to her dress, and magnolias in her hair?

One of the live-in maids comes running from the house to whisper something in her ear, whereupon Mrs Sapsucker beckons her guests to follow her into the house. She offers a brief tour, the purpose of which is to show off the five Siskins the Sapsuckers already own. Being keen to make it an even half-dozen Ruddy Turnstone has brought along a self-portrait from the new exhibit. He hangs it above the mantelpiece in the dining room (replacing an amateur effort by Mrs Sapsucker herself) so that all can admire it in situ while the meal is consumed. Hired help serve the expectant diners with cold soup. Pacific Rim Gewurztraminer (chilled to the bone) is poured.

Arturo Kingfisher, who also shows at the Turnstone Gallery, examines Ida Siskin’s portrait with a professional eye. She paints herself as though she were the child of darkness and shadow, he thinks, and what has emerged is dishonestly presented. Her lips are pursed, her features pinched. Something essential has been held back, deliberately secreted in the darkness and the shadow. She looks like… I know… she looks like a chatelaine. The chatelaine of her own psyche, the jailer of improper and improbable desires. He takes a candid look at the original. For God’s sake, he thinks, the woman is the double of Simone Signoret. If I were Mr Siskin I should make haste to pick that lock, lest someone beats me to it.  He dips his spoon in the white soup. It tastes of custard and vanilla, and is an unpleasant reminder of the Zupa Nic or ‘Nothing Soup’ of his detested homeland. He hears his wife asking Zachary Siskin about the flight from London.

“Entirely predictable,” the Englishman replies, “even the dream I had was the sort of dream you’d expect to have at 30000 feet above sea level. It went like this. I entered a row of ruined terraced houses turned into a Theatre of the Grotesque, and showed my ticket to an usherette, who wordlessly tore off the stub and led me up innumerable flights of steps. Reaching the top at last she switched on her torch. Its beam penetrated the darkness, and I saw that my seat was not in a row of velvet-covered push-downs, but on a narrow ledge attached to the building’s back wall. Facing the bricks I shuffled along the plank, which was made of varnished wood. Not unlike a bookshelf, it occurred to me in the dream. I rotated anti-clockwise on my heels, and lowered myself cautiously, until my backside was resting on something solid, though my feet were dangling over the void. I could just make out my wife, far below in the stalls. She was obviously trying to tell me something, but I could neither hear nor lip-read over such a distance. By now I was not alone on the ledge. A young woman was sitting to my left. For the longest while nothing passed between us. Finally I said, ‘Remind me not to stand up…’ At which point a stewardess shook my shoulder, said something about clear air turbulence, and ordered me to fasten my seat belt.”

An excerpt from Clive Sinclair’s novella STR82ANL, whichappears in issue 2 of Contrappasso Magazine, available in Paperback, Kindle Ebook, or other Ebook formats @ Smashwords.

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