Crow

Photo by Claudio

Jason Teal on today’s bonus poem: We all have ghosts. Ghosts of memory and circumstance stuck on infinite repeat inside our cerebellums. We’re subject to their insistent lingering, the minute damages they visit on future exchanges—with colleagues, friends, family, &c. Revising itself with anaphora and expert repetition that rivals its best practitioners, “All Laments Are Circles” maps the trajectory of mourning and offers a sharp critique of the inescapable human condition.

All Laments are Circles

you arrive at my door
you arrive at my door in a suit
you arrive at my door in a suit holding flowers
in your right hand
pink orange carnations
that you thrust in my face like a pompom
like a one-armed cheerleader, cheering me on

***

in your sleeves whole gardens
of chicanery [you arrive at my door]
what kind of man [wearing a suit]
are you/could you/can you
be? [holding flowers] for me? are they?

***

[you arrive] all I can see
are these flowers in my face
full of carnations gardenias in various ghosts of white
you are a particular ghost at my doorstep and somewhere in front of me your voice
is an interruption, your face is nowhere your face/your voice/your face/your voice

***

you arrive at my door holding a gardenia dead crow:
it’s hurt you say
no, it’s dead I say
can you fix it? you say
no, it’s dead I say
do you want it? you say

***

here, give it here I say

***

here in my hand a crow all wet with rain
black /slick /quiet dead now in my hands

***

hands being the mistake hands being the plural hands becoming unhinged at the wrist, taking flight
across a night filled with moon
flinging birdlike shadows
all over the gorgeous grass

***

hands holding
hands handing over the empty vase [while outside
the crow’s caw
or the daisy’s slow decay]

***

today being just an anagram of another day

Catherine Bresner’s poetry has appeared in The Pinch, H_NGM_N, BOAAT, Cream City Review, Burntdistrict, Handsome, and Yemessee, She also has work forthcoming in InkBrick. She is the coordinating editor for The Seattle Review, the production editor for boaat Press and an intern at Wave Books.

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Closed red curtain at the Coolidge Corner Theatre - landscape

Photo by Ben Becker

Since summer is the time for blockbuster movies, the Passages North crew weighed in on the movies they think everybody should watch.

Rachael Belmore
Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction
Marquette, Michigan

Everyone should watch *batteries not included at least once because Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy are adorable.

Mike Berry
Associate Editor, Fiction
Troy, Michigan

As an avid fan of 1980′s cheeseball movies, it gets no better than Real Genius. I just want someone I can back-and-forth Val Kilmer one liners with because I’m pretty sure I’m the only living person left who enjoyed this movie.

Annie Bilancini
Associate Editor, Fiction
Cleveland, Ohio

I’ll tell them to watch Mermaids. Because it’s the best movie that was ever made. #CherandWinoforever

Jacque Boucher
Spoken Word Poetry
Juneau, Alaska

Everyone should watch the 1993 classic Demolition Man. It’s a must-see not only because it serves as a stark reminder for the importance of injecting humanity into sterile circumstances, but because it includes some of the best catchphrases of any action movie ever. Namely, “SIMON SAYS BLEED!”

James Dyer
Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction
Lowell, Michigan

Battlefield Earth. Because while you were still learning how to spell your name, I was being trained to conquer galaxies.

Paige Frazier
Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction
Louisa, Kentucky

A Trip to the Moon. It’s a 15 minute movie made in 1902. It’s on Netflix and has been colorized. It’s awesome to see what people imagined was on the moon in 1902. Plus it’s very trippy if you’re into that sorta thing.

Matt Ftacek
Associate Editor, Poetry
Niles, Michigan

I just watched Nightcrawler recently and thought it was fantastic. It offers a dark, critical look at American news media and what the camera isn’t showing you. It’s also a killer neo-noir flick.

Willow Grosz
Associate Editor, Fiction
Talkeetna, Alaska

Lo. a low budget romantic horror comedy filmed in 3 days.

Timston Johnston
Fiction Editor
Weidman, Michigan

Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin’s super-confident claim that speaking in movies is senseless, that body language is more effective at showing love than making it the climax of any you-had-me-at-hello dialogue.

John LaPine
Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction
Ishpeming, Michigan

Moon, for your independent outerspace fix.

Jason Teal
Associate Editor, Poetry
Sandusky, Ohio

Face-Off 2: The Facing Off. Shenanigans ensue once again over Nicolas Cage’s iconic mug in this 3-D rom com starring Reese Witherspoon. Produced by Adam Sandler and kickstarted by thousands of fans, this is a blockbuster that is guaranteed to break new cinematic ground. Or just read a book.

Matt Weinkam
Managing Editor
Cincinnati, Ohio

Snowpiercer: the best action-horror ecocritical allegory for capitalism set on a train since Thomas the Tank Engine.

Andrea Wuorenmaa
Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction
Ishpeming, Michigan

Watch Anatomy of a Murder for some scenes of Marquette County over fifty years ago. Then, come north to tour the set locations. (I’m just always trying to get people to come to the Upper Peninsula. I promise it’s a great film!)

 

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Dia de Los Muertos Figure in Chichicastenango

Photo by David Dennis

Associate poetry editor Kelsey Lueptow on today’s poem: Hilary S. Jacqmin’s “Day of the Dead” illuminates the eerie moment when one is forced to confront cultural interpretations and tributes. The poem’s liminal atmosphere seems to ask whether we are preserving history or suffocating it. The poem begs to know what happens when the boundaries aren’t so clear cut.

Day of the Dead

               –The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology

On All Saints’ Day, when hammered darkness peels
the layers of the underworld
apart like gold, the corn-smut dead come back.
Parched cartoon bones, they scull Divinity
and scale the Peabody with chalkstick feet,

 

drawn in by desiccated sugar-skulls
and crumpled marigolds that glow like quince:
our Dia de los Muertos detritus.
Beneath papel picado skeletons,
they mill around the Hall of the Americas,

 

inspecting the pottery of their lost lives.
They miss mezcal. Like us, they love sweet bread
inlaid with sesamoids, and washed-out Polaroids
of relatives who drowned on honeymoon.
Abandoned by their dog’s-breath psychopomp,

 

their husked-tamale prayers go up in smoke.
They are the lonely dead, electric stiffs.
We living are the ones with second sight,
the seedbank in the locked Herbaria.
We give our mottled light to everything.

 

Hilary S. Jacqmin grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She earned her MA from the Johns Hopkins University and her MFA from the University of Florida. She lives in Baltimore, where she works at Johns Hopkins University Press.

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so there's this fire hydrant in kinvara

Photo by gilly youner

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson’s essay, “On Nostalgia,” was selected by guest judge Steven Church as the winner of Passages North’s 2015 Nonfiction prize. “‘On Nostalgia,’ says Church, “begins with a consideration of the Archimedes Palimpsest and becomes, itself, a palimpsest as the author scrapes away layers to reveal a family history that has been kept silent and covered up. The result is a layered and smartly digressive exploration of the author’s relationship to her father, and of her grandmother’s suicide, that both educates and surprises the reader.”

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson is an author and journalist whose writing has published or is forthcoming in The New York Times, PANK, Slate, TriQuarterly Review, Revolver, Post Road Magazine, and The Little Patuxent Review, among others. She’s earned an Individual Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council and was a Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She’s also been a resident at the Vermont Studio Center and the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. You can read more of her work at eedickinson.com and follow her at @elizdickinson.

“On Nostalgia” will appear in Passages North #37, due out in early 2016.

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Antikythera Shipwreck, Athens, National Museum

Photo by Elisa Triolo

Guest judge Lynn Emanuel has chosen “Antikythera,” by poet Lindsay Means, as the winner of the 2015 Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize. Lynn has the following to say about Means’ arresting poem:

On first reading, “Antikythera,” I admired the cadence, imagery, and mystery of it, but was unfamiliar with the title, so I became the reader that I exhort my students to be and looked it up. Antikythera, I discovered, is an island northwest of Crete, but nothing in the poem suggests why this particular island is significant:  no details of the island, no description of landscape, nothing to distinguish this island from any other.  Then I went a bit deeper. I found it was off the island of Antikythera that the wreck of a ship (dated to the 1st century BCE) was retrieved.  It contained not only the statuary wonderfully described in the poem (The statue of a boy…/held out his hand like someone waiting to be pulled onto a boat”), but also the “gears…encrusted with minerals” which were, in fact, the earliest astrolabe or mechanized clock, “the oldest known analog computer,” my computer informed me.

Now the poem had its full ironic impact on me, because “Antikythera” is a poem about losing time and place. Indeed, it is a poem about losing oneself.  “We forgot to look up.  We forgot about north and south…we didn’t know about seasons,” says one of the divers who discovers the wreck and is the narrator of the poem.  There is a marvelous telescoping of time in this poem.  It opens at the instant in which the divers discover the wreck.  It ends in a prolonged past tense in which humanity is now situated in a universe emptied of myth and filled with an unforeseeable future. The stars once represented tales of the gods, but now, in the poem’s final line, “the years wheeled overhead and the stars kept their silence.” In the form of the astrolabe, a new form of knowledge has arrived and with it a new narrative about the world and humanity’s place in it.  “Antikythera” is a wonderfully thoughtful and poignant poem.

Lindsay Means

Lindsay Means holds a B.A. in English from Kenyon College and lives in Brooklyn, New York. This is her first published poem.

K.T. Landon

Lynn Emanuel also chose K.T. Landon’s poem, “The Dead Go Bowling” as first runner-up for the poetry prize. K. T. Landon is the 2013 winner of the Arts & Letters PRIME Poetry Prize, a finalist in Jabberwock Review‘s 2014 Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize for Poetry, and a two-time Pushcart nominee. She serves as a Poetry Reader for Muzzle, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in FugueCALYX, and Ibbetson Street, among others.

Both poems will appear in Issue 37 of Passages North, and all contestants will receive a copy of the journal when it is published in Winter 2016.

Congratulations to Lindsay and K.T., and many thanks to all the fine poets who shared their best work with Passages North this year. It was a privilege to read your work.

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DSC03943

Photo by Łukasz Hejnak

Associate poetry editor Sarah Bates on today’s poem: Every line in Julie Swarstad Johnson’s “Self-Portrait with Tucson” has me believing in a body made of snow, rock and ponderosa pine, and sometimes empty. With language like landscape and images of what should have been, Johnson invites readers to ask themselves, what do you see when you make it up the mountain, when you see yourself for the first time? Between wash and memory, where do you find light? Will you let it in?

Self-portrait with Tucson

“This is the way we begin and end things.” –Ofelia Zepeda

One day I saw the mountain of God
descending across the valley. Sunlight alive

 

in the body of snow, stepping through the veins
of ponderosa and granite, cracking the air

 

balanced between. Valley in my mouth
when I mean city, when I should say

 

brick, tile, wash with abandoned couch,
ocean always just beyond sight, power

 

lines crossing between that mountain
and me. You should know I am a woman

 

who believes in visions. Un-curtained glass
after sunset, a mirror and the cooled, vast

 

ceilings it harbors, certainty of memory
that wakes me in the salt-light before daybreak.

 

By the road, a man shapes circles that connect
mouth and stomach, prophet’s unwashed

 

hair and empty bag. We are not coming
to a mountain of fear but a mountain

 

of joy, a place sweet and yellow as San Xavier
watermelon. I did not know myself

 

when I returned home from my long journey.
Sometimes I see the Lord’s mountain

 

electric pink and close in the rearview, and I know
there is still a little bit of night left in me.

 
 

Note: The phrase “There is still a little bit of night left” comes from Ofelia Zepeda’s “O’odham Dances.”

Julie Swarstad Johnson is the author of the chapbook Jumping the Pit, forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Her poems and book reviews have appeared in Bayou Magazine, the Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing, Harvard Review Online, Poet Lore, and others. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.

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View from Sugarloaf Mountain

Photo by Frank Wulfers

Notes from Crew Quarters is back for the summer! In honor of the time off, Ben Kinney asked the crew to describe their ideal summer day.

Ashely Adams
Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction
Watervliet, Michigan

My ideal summer day is just getting out and doing some birding. Waterfowl, warblers, shorebirds, whatever shows up. They’re all fantastic and just trying their best.

Annie Bilancini
Associate Editor, Fiction
Cleveland, Ohio

My ideal summer day is predictable: cold-brewed coffee, reading on a blanket in the grass, grilling out, IPAs, my dog, an unbreakable blood pact with a chaos demon. Typical stuff.

not pictured: chaos demon

John LaPine
Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction
Ishpeming, Michigan

Ore Dock, then Rice Paddy, then Frosty Treats. Sunshine and Lake Superior. And friends too.

Jacque Boucher
Spoken Word Poetry
Juneau, Alaska

My ideal summer day consists of the following: reading, writing, terrible Netflix horror movies, and pretending I’ll finally buy something at Target this time. Sometimes I switch up the order for a little flavor, or add in an impromptu adventure to find sunlight, but really, the terrible horror movies are non-negotiable.

Jill Harris
Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction
Livingston, Alabama

Well, I took the summer off to explore Marquette, and every day brings something new to be grateful for. Like these baby geese and their parents coming in from Lake Superior.

goose babies

Robin McCarthy
Managing Editor
Belfast, Maine

This summer I’m working a couple part-time jobs and writing a bunch, so the ideal summer day is one in which I show up everywhere I’m supposed to at the right time in appropriate clothing.

Andrea Wuorenmaa
Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction
Ishpeming, Michigan

My ideal summer day involves exploring the U.P. on foot, bike, or in a car. I’ve lived here for most of my life, but there are still new things to see. I just bought an elaborate Northern Michigan atlas and I plan on having great fun with it for the rest of the summer.

one of Andrea's discoveries

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Gated Community

Photo by Keith Macke

Managing Editor Robin McCarthy on today’s bonus story: Kathryn E. Hill’s “Turnpike” won my heart with the line “…she died like the Venus de Milo.” Forget how beautiful those words sound on the tongue—-all Hill’s words sound this bright, her use of repetition and assonance is pitch-perfect—-it’s the way the story moves us through haunting images, each pairing the beautiful with the grotesque. The result is a strange sadness, a heavy grief wrapped in language and imagery that delight.

Turnpike

And in broad daylight she was hit, her body backing up traffic eight miles on I-75. There was no livor mortis—everything spreading on the hot black tar, her back open, pulpy, wide. Her tricycle wheel, pink and silver, still spinning between her knees, people looked and drove and looked and drove on. (The gate had been left open behind the house. She had wheeled out.) The ambulance broke down in the backed-up traffic and she died like the Venus de Milo, her arms in a cornfield. The bees danced and tried to lick the reflectors on her wheels. Motors churned and motors sputtered and motors purred down and people watched and people watched. They passed. They moved on to lunch.

Her parents decided to burn her (not the arms) with her helmet on and put her ashes in a pink and silver cup that they would empty next to fern bushes and bent Coke cans in a crowded National Park, somewhere near the border, somewhere where all the trees had tiny signs punched into their bark, their names in white Helvetica. Somewhere nice.

At night her mother locked the gate. Her mother bought nine padlocks and locked the gate shut. She stared at the headlights, the lunging streams of headlights blurring past. She twisted the blue lock dials one more time. She went upstairs and swallowed twenty aspirin. She undid the locks in the morning. She watched, broad daylight, no cars with lights.

The tiny brown-faced grave was a pockmark in the earth, eight miles away from Sinking Spring in the shadow of a shaved gray mountain, shaved for skiing, shaved for coal. There were long sandwiches with wettening meat and machine-chopped lettuce at the funeral lunch. And red and silver Cokes. (They accidentally played Hava Nagila at the funeral. Her mother danced. They accidentally misspelled the name on the bulletins, misfolded.) Someone said there were six lasagnas in the fridge for them to take home with them, six lasagnas to mold in the back of the fridge. Her mother swallowed twenty-eight aspirin. Her mother swallowed and carried the lasagnas in from the overheating car.

Two weeks later he said he wanted corn for dinner, corn chopped and simmered in milk and butter. She told him to go fuck himself. She told him to go open the gate and go walk across the turnpike and pick his own goddamn corn. Told him to go look for his daughter’s rotting arms. Told him to go walk slowly. He came back ten minutes later and said the gate was locked. She swallowed thirty-four aspirin. He went back out with the bolt cutters. She watched herself be sick in front of the mirror.

Four days later the silver-pink wheel became a clock she made, a wall clock with backwards hands, minutes for hours, hours for minutes, turning and turning in the widening house, slouching toward the browning corn, across the humming stream of lightless cars, moving, moving on toward what.

Kathryn E. Hill is an MFA candidate in fiction at Arizona State University where she also teaches English composition. She works as a freelance copy editor and serves as a prose reader for Hayden’s Ferry Review. Her work has been published in Glass Mountain and is forthcoming in Pamplemousse.

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Rainbow of Ribbons

Photo by Fleur

We received hundreds of strong submissions to our Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize and Hrushka Nonfiction Prize this spring. Congratulations to the following writers, whose submissions have been added to the shortlists! Guest judges Lynn Emauel (poetry) and Steven Church (nonfiction) will announce their decisions later this summer.  All contest submitters will receive a complimentary copy of Passages North #37, in which winning entries will be published, due out in Winter 2016.

We wish to thank all the contestants who shared their carefully-wrought work with us; it is a pleasure to read your poems and essays.

Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize Shortlist

“Animals in Silent Movies,” Kara Krewer
“Antikythera,” Lindsay Means
“Ant Hour Gospel (The Body Distances),” Mark Wagenaar
“Dan River Gospel,” Mark Wagennar
“The Dead Go Bowling,” K. T. Landon
“Emptying the Ash Can at Night after the Snow,” Beth Filson
“The Gunnywolf,” Megan Snyder-Camp
“The Infidelity of Weather,” Cathryn Shea
“Lobster Charm,” Kara Krewer
“Metropolitan,” Katie Hartsock
“My Mother’s Cold War,” Kathleen McClung
“Nieve in the Desert Circus,” Jennifer Givhan
“Voyaging,” Melissa Anne

Hrushka Nonfiction Prize

Burying Things, Charlene Caruso
Chanty, Nick Neely
In the Name of the Fathers, LaTanya McQueen
The Last Supper, Shaelyn Smith
Marine Iguanas, Liza Monroy
On Nostalgia, Elizabeth Dickinson
Ossification, Katy Teer
The Seagulls and the Noise, Rachel Fauth
Something Between Us, Maureen Ogbaa
When We Were Vikings, Kate Angus

NF Runners-up

Angel is a Centerfold, Stacy Parker Le Melle
Eating Ali’s Mother, Adriana Paramo
Vogelzang, David Zoby
You’ll See the Sky, Brent van Staalduinen

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Watermelon

Photo by David Blampied

Managing editor Matt Weinkam on today’s short: This is my favorite kind of fiction. “The Books” moves fast, reads funny, and appears light, but surprises with strange turns and glimpses of human depth, real heartache. I remember the split melon and the cracked egg long after I finish reading. Like the best of Barthelme and the uncanny books that give the story its title, Young Rader’s three-part piece left me “haunted and transformed.” But that’s only half the story.

The Books

I.
Catalina was quickly approaching the end of her life and she didn’t like me. When I took her on her walks, I applauded the healthy nature of her shit. I said things like, “Good poop, Catalina. Good solid poop.” And I collected the poop delicately in a light blue poop bag scented like baby powder that I’d pulled from a plastic poop bag dispenser in the shape of a bone in the mudroom before our walk. Usually, I made sure to bring two poop bags with me, and on these walks, Catalina only pooped once. But when I brought one poop bag, Catalina pooped twice. This was the nature of our relationship.

Catalina was gravely ill, her owners, my bearded friend’s parents, explained to me. They were traveling to Sweden for two weeks to my bearded friend’s father’s birth city where, my bearded friend said, toilets could not be flushed during certain hours of the day and night because it would violate a strictly enforced noise code. They, my bearded friend’s parents, did not want Catalina to be alone, so their house was to be my house for two weeks, and my bearded friend’s bedroom was to be my bedroom. They were rich. They had a swimming pool and a kind of garden planned with elaborate carelessness that was messy with a thatch of thorny-looking plants with dark green pointed leaves.

Catalina was beautiful, a cream-colored Chow Chow. Her eyes were little brown triangles. It was hard to believe she was sick. She had some kind of cancer. I came over to the house before my bearded friend and his parents were to leave for Sweden. They wanted to show me certain important things regarding Catalina’s special and fundamental diet. I liked my bearded friend’s parents, but they were slightly crazy. My bearded friend’s father gave me a quick tour of the house. “This is a bathroom…that is a toilet and that is a sink…this is a room…this is another room. Door…window. Hallway. Another window. Lots of windows in this place. Haha. Stairs,” he said. He instructed me, in great detail, on how to operate the oven, microwave, and TV, and even handed me the TV remote so that I could “try it out.”

My bearded friend’s mother led me outside to the garden. She said, “My garden is my heart.” She pointed and let me know which plants should be watered and when. “That one gets water everyday. That one, once every other day.” She stepped sedately down a flagged path covered thickly in crustlike lichen, and continued on with her instructions. “That plant in the corner never gets water. The one next to it gets water every three days, or four, but never every other, or every day. Make sure you water that one over there after the sun has set, otherwise it will surely die. That one should be watered no more than once a week…” Catalina’s food was prepared with an assortment of different powders, exactly three drops of white milky liquid, chilled purified water, two different kinds of pills that had to be rolled in peanut butter, and love. This was quickly explained to me, the love part emphasized, then my friend and his parents were off to Sweden.

At first I thought Catalina liked me. She followed me everywhere I went. I mixed her special food uncertainly, afraid that she would die at any moment. She let me pet her head between the ears and even licked my hand lavishly with her blue-black tongue. I thought I must have been doing something right. Catalina made sure to sleep in the same room as me. I listened to her dreaming, watched her paws gesture in quick pulses. I thought I liked her too. But as the first week drew to a close, we realized we were not so fond of each other.

My bearded friend told me I could use his desktop computer. I looked under History and clicked on all the pornographic videos. I didn’t like it when Catalina was in the room when I watched the videos my bearded friend had watched. When I steered her into the hallway and closed the door, she barked and barked, a deep explosive bark that pummeled through the door, and it was hard to concentrate on the videos. I could see her Chow Chow nose trying to slip under the bottom of the door.

After I came, I was light and hollow and clearheaded and the day seemed to gain innumerable, dreadful hours. I opened the door. Catalina looked bored and angry and I didn’t care. She looked at my face, I thought, with eyes that were tired of looking at my face. I mixed her food and ordered pizza from Pizza Pronto.

I tried the best I could to water the garden, my bearded friend’s mother’s heart, but I was doing it all wrong; her heart, a mesh of skulking florae, was slowly shriveling up and turning as rust-brown as the scattering of needles that had shed from the neighbor’s hulking pine tree. When I looked up at the tree, the first word that came to mind was: corrupt. Catalina watched me gracelessly fish the needles from the swimming pool using the too-long aluminum pool skimmer. She was criticizing me, I thought. I wanted to tell her that I could never look at a swimming pool the same way after I’d read a found copy of The Desperado while visiting my grandparents in Florida; but she was Catalina the dog, and I only really talked to her about healthy, solid defecation.

My grandparents lived in a gated residential community called Century Village. In order to live in Century Village, one had to be over the age of 70. And that is why most everyone who lived outside the gates of Century Village called it Cemetery Village. I found The Desperado in Cemetery Villages’ Bunco and Bingo rec room and, because Bingo would not be played for several more hours and I had exhaustively soaked my eyes in reality TV for a solid week, I immediately started to read it.

It was about a man, a Lawrence HoHopkins, who was trying to design the perfect swimming pool. The perfect swimming pool, according to Lawrence HoHopkins, was a sacred form that could touch the underside of what sat just below the surface of the skin and engaged the entire self when a person was immersed in “living water” with the naked body. It was a shame that more people didn’t embrace the idea of swimming naked, Lawrence HoHopkins explained to his friend, Jimmy, while they were out fishing on Lake Okeechobee. “‘The flesh, Jimmy, should be touched all over and simultaneously with the same urgency!’” Lawrence HoHopkins’s character says as he scrapes the scales off a fat sunfish. Jimmy looks on, drinking a sweating beer. It is a beautiful book, really, with parts like an overexposed photograph. At its core, I think it’s about Man and Nature. Not Man versus Nature. No, no.

I was naked and Catalina growled. Her lower teeth were missing, so I knew that if she lunged and bit me, it wouldn’t hurt. I dove into the swimming pool. Catalina trotted around and around the pool’s perimeter, as if at any moment she would jump in and overtake me. The water was surprisingly cold and something strange and irrepressible worked its way down from the back of my head to my tailbone before cutting into the rest of my body. I moved in ways I never knew I could. I sank to the bottom despite frantically kicking my legs and when I pushed back up with my feet and broke the water’s surface, I sensed that the experience of my life had somehow widened. I pulled myself out of the pool and lay shivering on the patio stones, trying to catch my breath. Catalina sat down in front of me and probed my head hesitantly with her Chow Chow nose. It wasn’t a seizure, but I knew instinctively that what I had just experienced in the water was a sign that something was wrong inside my body.

My bearded friend and his parents returned safely from Sweden on the Fourth of July. Goodbye, I said to Catalina. Goodbye, I said to my bearded friend’s mother’s neglected garden-heart. Sometime in August, after I’d left a medical facility where I’d gotten some tests done, I spotted my friend eating breakfast in the middle of the afternoon. I was feeling lightheaded and scared because I’d had my blood drawn and all I could do was wait. I wanted to spread myself out like a blanket on the earth, but instead I picked at the swab of taped cotton in the crook of my arm where the needle had bit. I ordered orange juice. Things were not altogether well. I knew that my bearded friend’s mother had been devastated with the state of her garden. It had held her body and soul together. I had never felt so capably poisonous. I finished my orange juice and my bearded friend told me that Catalina had died.

Then I went on a walk in the cemetery with a girl I liked. I bought the smallest, roundest watermelon I could find in a giant cardboard box filled with melons at the grocery store. How will we eat it? she asked when I arrived at the cemetery gates. I held the melon in my hands and looked at it. I raised it as high above my head as I could and let it drop to ground. It gasped wetly when it split open into two perfect halves. I was enormously stupefied. It is possible that there are some people who are sorry for me, but I only let myself think about such things occasionally.

 

II.
The book is not very good, but I am a diligent reader, and maybe even a little desperate. My eyes move over the next sentence: “Now in the summer of Phillip’s fourteenth year the still surface of youth receded and gave way to the more unfamiliar patterns and directions and growths of adulthood that had suddenly risen up to meet him.” I close the book. The book’s title is The Dancing Thumbs. The word provocative appears on the back cover in red, twice. There is a blurb from a well-known author who has claimed to be “haunted and transformed” by the book’s premise, which “serves as a commentary upon the normal with curiously complex characters. It is horrifying and slippery…wow,” the well-known author’s blurb concludes.

Let me tell you more about the book. The book is about a boy, Phillip, who becomes obsessed with a much older man whose appearance and sex constantly changes from chapter to chapter and confuses poor Phillip, drives him to holy misery. For some reason it is crucial to know that Phillip grows two inches taller in one summer and styles his bread-colored hair with pomade. Basically, he becomes a stud. Then he goes crazy, and a crazy stud with a pompadour is truly light and sad on my heart. He cries a lot and there is a “chill in all his words.”

It is not very long. That is one reason why I bought The Dancing Thumbs in the English Bookstore around the corner. There is no one here I can talk to without feeling that all my organs are contracting, so I patronize the English Bookstore. The Dancing Thumbs is a used book and has a good used book smell to it. It has a vibrant yellow cover with one line-drawn head enveloping a smaller line-drawn head. The title also appeals to me because it is one of the more ridiculous titles I’ve come across. And if I am being honest, another reason I purchased The Dancing Thumbs is because it was cheaper than the other book I considered buying instead. The other book was longer and heavier, and its pages were slightly crepitated.

I cheated and looked at the last sentence of The Dancing Thumbs before I read the first sentence. The last sentence is: “It is nothing.” I went on a long walk in the Tiergarten and bit my nails and a handsome man showed me his penis. He stood in dappled shade and held his penis in his hand, offered it to me with a shake, but I didn’t know what had happened until after I’d passed by him and thought: There was a penis in that man’s hand. I walked out of the Tiergarten with clumsy feet and ate a hamburger and ordered a beer. My sudden hunger seemed bottomless. A woman in a nearby booth reached out across her table and caught in her palm the peas that tumbled out of a much older man’s mouth. That’s when I cheated and opened The Dancing Thumbs. I read out loud: “It is nothing!”

I’m sure none of my friends back home would read The Dancing Thumbs. They are mathematicians. I don’t even know how we became friends, but we are, and it has been good. I like to watch them raise their hands and mangle the air as they explain how to crease hypothetical spaces. I picture a Chinese folding screen, panels decorated with silk stars and moons, opening up and closing, opening up and closing above the mathematicians’ waving hands. When I ask them what exists in these hypothetical spaces, the mathematicians tell me to stop trying to imagine something in nothing. I tell them that if you hold a book long enough, it begins to carry your scent, and that that is something!

They are always hunched over, drawing countless shapes on paper, drawing lines and saying that there are an infinite number of points within the lines that they’ve drawn. Faces, vertices are words they use. They eat spoonfuls of Nutella instead of crying, never open their windows or water their plants, wear extremely colorful socks, and one of them even claims to have once rested his forehead against a dry cow’s belly only to have the unborn calf on the other side kick and knock him unconscious. They tell me, half-jokingly, that I am their dumbest friend.

It is true none of us has ever been in love. We wait. We are waiting.

Here is something: start with an exceedingly high number. Then begin to count backwards by seven in your head.

 

III.
For my twenty-sixth birthday, my sister and my friend each sent me a different edition of the same book. The book is called The Dutiful Servant, and it is a book I should have liked in theory, but didn’t. Later, I told my friend that I didn’t like the book, but I will never tell my sister. The edition my friend sent me is small and thick, light green, aesthetically pleasing to the eye, and nice to carry in and out of cafés, the bedroom, bathrooms, etc. The edition my sister sent me is larger and dark blue, with a busy cover that is easily marked. I have never opened it.

*

On my twenty-sixth birthday, I taught composition at a community college in the Midwest, where I lived on a haunted farm whose address included two opposing cardinal directions.

*

Propped up against a wall was a broom that toppled over at exactly eleven o’clock every night. No matter where I moved it, the broom slid to the floor and clattered at exactly eleven o’clock every night; and though I didn’t really believe in ghosts, I made sure to pick up the broom every morning and prop it against the wall.

*

I didn’t know too many people.

*

I got daylong headaches; red splotches appeared in the center of everything I looked at.

*

The well water tasted like blood and colored my white t-shirts brown, stiffened cotton so that when I pulled on my socks, the threads cracked and formed small holes. Cold air constantly pricked my ankles.

*

The sheep were dumb and I liked them and their lambent eyes reminded me of glowing keyholes.

*

There was a young fox that stalked the hens, and on my twenty-sixth birthday, I spotted bloodied feathers scattered in the dried-up creek bed. I pictured a hen in the fox’s maw, her snapped neck bent at an impossible angle, her beaded orange eyes shiny as buttons, and her slack red comb sweeping against the ground like a paintbrush.

*

A young woman drove her car into a tree and died on my twenty-sixth birthday.

*

Formal papers with page numbers please, I reminded my students on my twenty-sixth birthday.

*

The Dutiful Servant is a quick read. It is about a monkey named Hieronymus and a bear named Benno and the servant that cares for them in a manor house. Sometimes, I like to imagine the two editions of The Dutiful Servant I was sent on my twenty-sixth birthday as the two animals, the smaller edition as Hieronymus and the larger edition as Benno.

*

Every now and then my sister enters my thoughts and when she does, she sits down.

Takes up space and makes herself at home.

In high school she used to run away to New Jersey for weeks at a time and I wondered what it would be like to have a sister who had been murdered in a motel in New Jersey. That’s where I pictured her and that’s where she really was. The guidance counselor took me into his office one day during second period and asked if I was OK. His name was Mr. Sukinik, and he would be dead nearly a year later. Perhaps then, as he asked if I was OK in his office—his folded arms resting on an unmarked desk calendar, his thumb and forefinger working tediously around a pink eraser—the cancer deep in his esophagus reaching down into his stomach was only a slight discomfort, a light yet persistent cough. I told Mr. Sukinik that I was OK, but secretly wished I wasn’t OK. I would only learn how to lie later. My sister always returned. She looked the same, only tired, and once with her bellybutton pierced, and once with small blue rhinestones embedded in her nails, and every time smelling of the car freshener, a velveteen yellow evergreen that spewed a scent called vanillaroma; and she saw a psychiatrist twice a week.

One night she emptied a bottle of aspirin into her mouth and crawled into my bedroom to say that she loved me and that she was going to die. I was studying for an AP U.S History exam. I turned around. She was curled up with one had clutching her stomach, the other sadly pawing the green carpet. I told her that I heard in school that aspirin didn’t kill you, only gave you painful, bloody ulcers for life, and that she had to throw-up if she didn’t want painful, bloody ulcers for life. She wept, I think, out of frustration into her long, loose shirt—a Grateful Dead t-shirt with a spiral of bears on a tie-dyed background. I heard her in the bathroom making desperate, choking sounds, the pelleting of half-dissolved aspirin, the bright jostle of the tipped toilet lever, and the sound of rushing water.

*

I could never have imagined then that she would mail me a book when I turned twenty-six. Her edition was carefully wrapped in blue and white wrapping paper and tucked snugly inside a cardboard box. There was a small card attached, a message inside written in large, looping handwriting that ended with: Love, Your Sister. It was handwriting that spoke of a happy, carefree life.

*

When I was twenty-six, I read The Dutiful Servant, taught composition, and even though I loved animals, I learned how to kill grouse from a man who had a wasted look and lived off the grid after his house had exploded from a natural gas leak.

*

“Going off the grid is no game,” he would tell me.

*

Pink twisting birthmark on his neck that I thought looked perverse.

*

He turned the birds upside down and set their heads through a narrow opening in a cone and gripped a knife and ran it across the pouches in their necks and we watched the hot blood spill out and spatter into a barrow filled with straw and send up sluggish curls of steam; the birds convulsed and became cold and perfectly still and we scalded them in a drum of hot water and plucked their beautiful feathers out and tossed them into the waste bin; and the birds’ meat in stew was chewy and gamey and I felt sick and ashamed.

*

“You choose the grid you want to get off of,” I heard the man’s voice boom inside my head.

*

I saw the tree the young woman drove into, its impressive splay of branches, its magnificent trunk I imagined her body breaking so easily against like an egg brought down on the lip of a nice glass bowl.

*

When it was dark, the coyotes came out to play. I listened to their busted laughter. It keened wickedly like whirling firecrackers, and dread scooped into me; my body vibrated. The coyotes sounded so close, but I knew they were near the wind turbines across the field. I turned off all the lights and stood at the window and looked out, just like I had when my sister crawled into the bathroom the night she’d swallowed all the aspirin.

*

I listened. But then there was nothing. I waited.

*

Somewhere in the house, a ghost passed through the wall and saw what a mess I’d made.

*

The broom handle smacked the ground.

Young Rader’s work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, New England Review, Little Star, and elsewhere. He was a 2014-2015 Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

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