The interpreter faltered, then stopped. Ana nudged for her father to tell her the words in English. But his eyes were locked on the speaker – a small man in a too-large suit – who continued with stumbling dignity. Some women with braids, like in the Old Country, began to rock back and forth, covering their faces. A young man stood. “All of them?” he shouted. “All dead?” The speaker stopped. He took something from inside his coat. Held it aloft – a torn shoe – and broke into dreadful tears. Ana’s father covered his face. Ana felt a stone close up her throat.
All four of them posted before deadline, each on the same photo-prompt. Laurie, misty-eyed with memory, recalled the A-bomb drills at Saint John of Patmos Primary, where Sister Thérèse sang “Alouette” to the kiddies huddled beneath their desks. Kathy penned “Armageddon,” an achingly dreamy poem that rhymed “Russian leather” with “nuclear tether.” Roy (recycling a previous composition) focussed on rumours that the CIA had doctored the photo. Finding inconclusive evidence on the Internet, he concluded that Khrushchev had not pounded his shoe in anger, but to crack a walnut. And Ron, the shallow one, extolled the virtues of comfortable shoes.
Nothing came close to the day that Betty asked Jeremy to dance. She asked him, not the other way around. A daytime dance, held outside in the schoolyard taking advantage of the first warm days of May. Her canary yellow dress sat easily against her brown skin, a flower nestled in her black braids. She was beautiful. A public school Billy Holiday. Jeremy couldn’t remember the song; it didn’t matter. For this he’d have danced to the school band. They moved in a little circle, her arms straight out and glued to his shoulders, his feet floating above the asphalt.
The sun is shining in the sky, there ain’t a cloud in sight, and here’s me, stuck again inside on the first nice day of Spring because of a stupid project I’ve put off for too long.
And you don’t have to tell me I’m only making things worse listening to my music instead, because even on this beautiful new day (hey, hey), more than twenty years on, the final cut on ELO’s Greatest Hits can still leave me feeling I’m missing out, and it really doesn’t matter if it’s actually 2011 or 1980, website or essay, MP3 or vinyl.
Maker-of-Things was trying to present his latest creation to the elders of the tribe. “You say this stuff will protect,” said Thrower-of-Stones. “Will it protect us in battle against the Lowbrows from the Valley?”
“That’s not what I meant,” said Maker. “This paint is simply a mixture of ochre and tallow—although I suppose we could use other pigments—and we can use it to decorate our wooden structures and protect them from rotting so fast.”
“Decorate?” asked Thrower. “Does that mean I could use it to make a paint from the time I saw that Lowbrow fucking a bison?”
Thog just doesn’t appreciate true art. I was spitting red ochre against my hands years before he was even a glint in the flint-napper’s eye, thought Krok, petulant as he searched for his charcoal sticks. His twenty-nine year old bones aching from advanced age and damp. Where were his tools? Thog preferred the new-fangled method of urine and pigment, so he was sure that up-start didn’t take them. Dusk had already brought darkness to the cave when he left for the stream, his ancient eyes missing the group of stealthy youths who quickly drew a willy on Krok’s noble hunter.
Thog’s mind wandered as Master Krok droned on about figurative representation. In the guttering light of a bear-oil lamp, the other students listened attentively; but as Krok turned to sketch a hunter on the cave wall with his charcoal stick, they made monkey faces behind his back. Krok’s hunter was nothing but a stickman, but one of the students asked an ingratiating question about perspective. Thog snorted and shifted impatiently. Old Krok was too beholden to the Establishment. He had no vision. Thog tuned out his answer, thinking about the vibrant, raging bison he would draw next to Krok’s stickman.
Alone at camp, Lucy cramped and bled, making a new person, rabbit-soft in the grey light. It mewed at the thunder, but when lightning cracked, she saw its eyes – rabbit-fringed and dead. She lay down in the sodden ashes of the fire and wept. A little bird peeped, the one that always wanted berries. Farther. Nearer. Louder. Lucy rose, stumbling toward it, holding the new person. The bird peeped them into the hillside. Lucy took the new person’s hand, pressing blood and rain, tears and ash against the old stone. The bird peeped again. The new person gasped into life.
Lucinda and William dined off of hand-thrown pottery. In fact, their home was filled with the artisanal—weavings and ancient quarter-sawn oak, sculpture and paintings from friends. Treasures that took fifty years to amass.
The funeral was thin. Afterwards, the nieces returned to the house.
“This is a nice cup,” said Hy, placing the squat and solitary little mug into her cardboard box.
Jackie looked up from the silverware drawer, “Oh yeah, Auntie Lucy smashed the other one when Uncle Bill died.”
But Hy had already moved onto the wooden bowls, picturing the big one on her IKEA shelf.
I address this to The Usual Gang of Idiots, regarding Harry Plodder and the Sorry-Ass Story (MAD #412): Really? That was the best could you do? Whatever happened to titles like Botch Casually and the Somedunce Kid, A Crockwork Lemon, or Rosemia’s Boo-Boo? I wasn’t even old enough to see those stupid movies, but I still found your parodies funny . . . I guess.
So, before you mess things up again, here’s what I’m proposing for the forthcoming sequel, with a title I spent some time workshopping with an actual eight-year-old boy: Hairy Plopper and the Chamber Pot of Secretions.
From July 2005 to July 2008, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey photographed the same region of space every other night searching for supernovas. Computers identified the likeliest candidates, astronomers confirmed the discoveries, and an army of so-called “citizen scientists” combed through the data posted online looking for stuff the computers had missed.
Which I suppose is all well and good for the advancement of astronomy, but I certainly hope, should our sun ever blow up, that humanity is spared the indignity of having its last moments witnessed 52-million years later by some extraterrestrial nerd surfing the Internet in his underpants.
Lights glitter on shore but the bay is dark. The Zodiac drifts, rocking gently, its bottom clunking and slapping on the swell. They lay on their backs, eyes wide, looking up. “Do you know any constellations?” asks the Swedish girl. Her name, he remembers now, is Carla. Do I know constellations, he thinks. Forgetting his beating heart, their solitude, the sensation of wet trunks clinging cold and clammy to febrile skin, and the pervasive smell of Coppertone (slightly ridiculous in the circumstances), he tells her about Andromeda and Perseus. She listens attentively. After a moment she snuggles closer for warmth.
“Oh Mon Dieu Seigneur, le bon Dieu!” Lauretta screamed, her knuckles white and soldered to the polyester armrests. What was I thinking bringing her to the Mclaughlin Planetarium? She was petrified of a lot of things: Insects, heights, tornados, Satan, but especially Space. She’d never travelled beyond Michigan so the idea of living on a spinning planet surrounded by billions of other spinning things was just too terrifying. Gravitational pull really bothered her, given the chance that should Jupiter fly off into the ether she, like Dahl’s Enormous Crocodile, would barrel head-first into the sun and sizzle like a sausage.
He was comparing star photos, looking for supernovas, when his new neighbour’s vacuum started again. He calmed himself, counting his eggcups. It didn’t work. He went downstairs and knocked. The vacuum and a backbeat whammed through the door. He knocked harder, once for every eggcup.
A woman answered, laughing, with a little curly-haired white dog that bounced up. “Down!” she told it, wiping her forehead, laughing again.
“The vacuum, um,” he said, smiling shyly. She was pretty.
“Vacuum?” (Now she was puzzled and pretty both.) “Oh! My treadmill! Down, Astra!”
“Astra,” he thought, and wondered if she liked the stars.
While disease had come to live at Lowood
Death its frequent visitor
While gloom within the passages
Steamed with hospital smells
While drug and pastille strove all in vain
Against mortal effluvia
That bright May shone
Unclouded over bold
Hills and woodland out of doors
As the garden glowed, hollyhocks sprang
Tall as trees, lilies opened
Roses bloomed red, little bordered beds
Were daisy-blithe with pinks
Sweetbriars scented morn
And evening with their spice
Of apples – treasures fragrant
For most of us in Lowood
Except to furnish, now and then
A blossom handful
To leave inside a coffin.
Text based on Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë. Image of Helen and Jane from tumblr.com. Posted to dVerse Poets.
While the rest of us were stuck in Toronto, Chase got to spend his spring break in Florida. He told me he’d met a girl there, from Ohio.
“The funniest thing,” said Chase, “was that she’d heard of Canada, but didn’t really know where it was.”
“You do realize Ohio’s just south of Lake Erie?”
“I know,” said Chase. But she was pretty cute—”
“In fact, I’d bet you can even see Canada from one of those famed Ohio beaches.”
“—and those parties get pretty intense.”
“Oh, Chase,” I said. “I didn’t think even you could fuck someone that stupid.”
At six I lived in a state of perpetual hope that I, like Ginger Grant, might find myself on an uncharted island, drinking from coconuts and wearing grass skirts. Walking barefoot through sugary sand would replace my daily Kodiak trudge from Webbwood Estates to St. Gregory’s. I wanted that combination of blue, white and green. And the shells. Nubby conches and smooth-speckled cowries—’way better than our pedestrian St. Clair Beach clams. And Elvis in his Blue Hawaii phase. Those Aloha shirts so cool I could see past his tiny ukulele. We’d make a go of it all right.
They lean in to see around the glare on the album’s shiny pages, which squeak as they are flipped. And there is the place in Minorca where they vacationed, that year in Vienna. Dad snorts, remembering the hot climb up the hill to take the shot. Mom liked the beach but never understood how Europeans put up with such crowding. Susan recalls finding a starfish. Paul remains silent. He sees only the yellow Zodiac, remembers sneaking away in it one night with that Swedish girl (what was her name?). They’d paddled out to be alone, under a blanket of stars.
When the end comes for the world, it’ll be slowly. Ants that have slid into a pitcher of Kool-Aid will neither swim nor sink but blur, each thorax drifting in its own direction as possible worlds each slip the surly bonds that have held them – and us – together, in glossy focus. The last astronaut will look down from his yellow space skiff, an O-ring of fragile wonder forming on his lips. He’ll remember the pines, a day of sunny furlough, Marlie waiting on the beach, her hair in pigtails, or an updo, silver, or cropped flat like a beautiful boy’s.
She was moored, tied up for good, bogged down, laid low, swamped, flattened, vegetable and mired. Cathy came to her funeral, and Heathcliff, the sisters Brontë, and even – it was said – the reclusive brothers Bell, who wrote. Thrushes sang to cover curates, who talked behind the church about their livings. Her admirers subscribed to lay a wreath upon her stone and, ’cross the centuries, acorns leapt up into oaks to view it. The scrollwork pleased them, as did the little stone leaf canopy that shielded her from the coral spread of liverworts and lichens. Her vessel rested in peace.
For other writings inspired by this image, visit Magpie Tales.
Again I get into it with the Grade Two Ursuline. Looking at the world map stuck to the blackboard I asked, “So what’s on the other side?”
The B-side of the earthly album.
With a furrowed unibrow she asked, “What do you mean?”
“I mean . . . what part of the world is left to discover?” Honestly, it was like talking to an enormous, thick Penguin.
But she had the last laugh. “Oh, they know where everything is now . . . .” And with those words Sister Mary Diane destroyed my plan to discover the glorious continent of Laurasia, a catechism-free land full of monkeys.
Hadrian had little patience for the particulars of geography, but the empire was expanding and this particular geographer came well recommended.
“A little more time,” said Ptolemy, unrolling his map. “And I could’ve added more detail to the Land of Silk.”
“Never mind,” said the emperor. “What’s that boundary on the left?”
“That’s the meridian running through the Blessed Islands. From there the Ecumene extends east 180 degrees, with parallels through Thule in the north and Meroë in the south.”
“Heavens, no!” said Ptolemy, “I’ve calculated approximately three-quarters of the globe remains unexplored.”
“Excellent,” said the emperor Hadrian.
Where have you gone? To an unknown fate. I know you’re somewhere there, on the fringe, at the ends of the world we knew, some barren gale-blown hellhole scant of fire. Is there mortal peril? It is said that scorpions abound in undiscovered lands, that infinite serpents slither beneath the deadly gaze of basilisks, that painted cannibals and jackal-headed men with horns and tails do roam and yet, you left, you chose to go, you left me here. There be dragons there, and torment here, where I remain without you. Terra incognita or the known: which one should I prefer?
Celeste plucked her harp as her fellow angels bickered about whether to play spitball down the fold of the Worldly Map. Of course they’d play. It was about the only game any of the Sanctified could remember once St. Peter had done cleansing them. Plus, it made for rain Below. Of course Gabriel would win and prate - of course - about how horn-playing kept a muscle moustache buff. It was looking to be another afternoon of syrupy angelspit and backbiting, when Celeste glimpsed Nisroc’s out-the-corner-of-his-eye expression and hushed them all. “I remember another game,” said Nisroc, dreamily. “We called it War.”