M. Rickert finishes her run as Featured Author with “More Beautiful Than You” and an interview with Charles Coleman Finlay.
Jay Lake continues his journey through the calender with the arrival of “June” while Dru Pagliassotti looks at “Joesph’s Plaint.” E. L. Chen offers us all a different view, touch, taste, sniff, feel, in “The Senses Pentaptych.”
Hope you enjoy this month’s issue!
M. Rickert (the M. is for Mary) has been a frequent contributor to the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction for the past few years, including five stories alone in 2003. “Bread and Bombs,” a reaction to the events of September 11th, was selected for both Year’s Best SF 9, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, and The Year’s Best Fantasy And Horror: Seventeenth Annual Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow and Kelly Link & Gavin Grant. Hartwell and Cramer also picked Rickert’s Christmas story, “Peace on Suburbia,” for Year’s Best Fantasy 4.
Rickert is perhaps best known for her richly imagined and often disturbing series of Greek myth retellings. These include “Leda” (F&SF, August 2002), “The Machine” (F&SF, January 2003), and “The Chambered Fruit” (F&SF, August 2003). But her stories range from science fiction to fantasy to horror and magic realism. No matter what the subject, her fiction is characterized by a precise and careful use of language, attention to all the nuances of human emotion and experience, and a sometimes unexpected sense of humor and the absurd. Her interview with Charles Coleman Finlay for Ideomancer is her first interview ever.
Charles Coleman Finlay: So many new writers have websites, blogs, and other ways of promoting their personalities and work, yet there is almost nothing available about you besides your writing. Does the M. stand for Mysterious?
M. Rickert: This question made me laugh. I’m really not a mysterious person at all. Actually, I’m sort of an intimate person. It’s hard for me to relate to people in a broad or commercial manner. When I finish a book I really like, one of the first things I do is go online for the author’s interviews, anything that can help teach me about why that book worked. But I don’t have a published book and this is my first interview so there really hasn’t been any reason for me to have a web site. My stories are not factual but the factual existence is not the only one and they are, really, a truer record of my soul than a photograph or a journal could ever be.
CCF: But why do you use M? (Asks the man with three names.)
MR: I decided to use the M. instead of Mary because an author’s name is usually printed rather prominently near the title of the work. Of course, this is a good thing but I was writing a lot of stories at the time in a man’s voice and felt that my name would break the fiction. I know some readers know that I’m a Mary but I like to think of the new reader, a young person reading one of my stories and believing it’s true. I always like that feeling when I experience it as a reader. Even though, intellectually, I know better and I’m sure that young reader does too, I think it’s a wonderful way to experience a story.
CCF: I’m struck by the variety of voices and narrative techniques used in your stories. If fiction is a truer record of your soul than photographs or journals, could you talk about how that relates to your writing process?
MR: I’m not even completely happy with the word soul for describing what I’m talking about. (Though I understand it’s the word I chose.) My writing process involves getting a feeling for a story. For me this is very physical. I’ll get itchy hands, or a tightness around my heart, sometimes I’ll feel like I have to sing. I don’t ever have the whole story worked out in my head. When I was working with myths I had a sort of template for the narrative arc of the story but I didn’t know the voices until I started writing them. I did set a structure for myself beyond the structure inherent in three of the myth stories. I wanted one to be written with a sort of intellectual style, the other with a sort of humor and heart, and the third to be a fairly unrelenting horror story, without the gruesome. After those stories I notice that I often set parameters like that for myself when approaching a story. About halfway through the writing, I usually grab a sheet of paper and write the ending. Until I fill in that gap between beginning and ending it’s fun and scary and exciting to see how I get there.
Everything about my writing life changed for the better since I developed patience. I never rush a story out of the house or onto the page. If I get to the point in a story where everything is real quiet, I have learned that it might mean I need to set it down until I can hear what needs to happen next, or it might mean that it’s time for an actual quiet scene on the page. I write in the morning. Longhand. Staring at a wall. Drinking pots of decaf green tea. Sometimes I light a candle.
There’s a phone in the room I write in (which is the bedroom) but the ringer is turned off. The ringer is turned off on the phone downstairs as well. Also, every single person in my life is supportive of my writing.
CCF: So are you at the beginning of your writing career, with no idea where it’s going, or do see the end well enough now to be filling in the gap between beginning and ending?
MR: I think the end of my writing career will arrive with my death.
Although I’ve only been getting published fairly recently, all those years when I was, to borrow a term from, I believe, Ted Solotaroff, “writing in the cold” are also part of my writing career.
There are a lot of distractions from the actual work. Some of the most seductive of these come dressed up as some aspect of the writing life.
I’ve decided not to spend my creative energy on plotting a career. I don’t really understand that stuff anyways. Currently, I’m at the tidying up stage of a novel I’ve been working on. I have about four short stories started, and I’m in the final draft of another one. I don’t, generally, have so many short stories going at once but I needed a short story in my novel and it took several attempts for me to find the right one. I actually forgot I even had those other story beginnings until a couple of weeks ago. Sort of like finding the hidden chocolate!
I have another story which I think is finished but I’m letting it sit for a bit, to be sure. Sometimes I write poetry.
CCF: Do you have any new stories coming out soon we can look for?
MR: I have two stories coming out in Fantasy and Science Fiction. I don’t know when, exactly. One is a three-threaded story, two main characters who tell stories and the story between them, called “Cold Fires.” The other story is quite a bit darker. It’s called “A Very Little Madness Goes a Long Way.” I also have a horror story, “Art is Not a Violent Subject” being published in the new Ratbastard chapbook, Rabid Transit 3.
CCF: So. What’s for lunch today?
MR: I had yoghurt with blueberries.
CCF: Mmm, blueberries. Is it fresh blueberry season already? Thank you so much for your answers to these questions, Mary. I feel very honoured to be the first person to interview you. Good luck with your writing.
MR: Charlie, Thank you. This has actually been interesting. Good luck to you, as well. Oh, and sorry, the blueberries were frozen.
The Girl Who Ate Butterflies
Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 1999
reprinted in Ideomancer, May 2004
Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 2000
Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 2001
Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 2002
Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 2003
Bread and Bombs
Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 2003
reprinted in Year’s Best SF 9, edited by Hartwell and Cramer
reprinted in Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Vol. 17, edited by Datlow and Link & Grant
The Super Hero Saves the World
Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 2003
The Chambered Fruit
Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 2003
Peace on Suburbia
Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 2003
reprinted in Year’s Best Fantasy 4, edited by Hartwell and Cramer
Ontario Review, Fall/Winter 2003
reprinted in Ideomancer, April 2004
Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 2004
More Beautiful than You
Ideomancer, June 2004
Fantasy and Science Fiction, forthcoming
A Very Little Madness Goes a Long Way
Fantasy and Science Fiction, forthcoming
Art is Not a Violent Subject
Rabid Transit 3, forthcoming
1. In the Land of the Blind
The one-eyed man is crazy. His countrymen all have two eyes, but he can tell by touching them with his one eye that they do not touch the things he touches. His countrymen’s eyes sit slack and still, uninterested in exploring the world around them. When the one-eyed man touches his face — the normal way, with his hands — he can feel his one eye swiveling within its socket, and he can feel the empty pucker where the second eye should be.
The sun is a cylinder lying on its side, too far for his hands to reach. Its heat burns so intensely that he cannot feel it with his eye for too long. And for a little while afterward, when he blinks and turns away, the sun still flickers under his eye, although it is as faint and unreliable as an echo.
When he closes his eye he touches night, touches coldness and nothing else, although he does not actually feel cold. He is surprised at first that no one else feels the night when he closes his one eye.
“The sun does not go away at night,” he says. “Sometimes it returns to the air, warm and round. Sometimes it changes shape, like an apple with a bite taken out of it.”
“Warm?” his countrymen ask. “How can the sun at night be warm, when we cannot feel its heat on our skin?”
“I don’t know,” the one-eyed man says. He only knows that when he touches the sun at night, it burns his eye, although not as harshly as it does during the day.
“Round?” the two-eyes ask. “How do you know the sun is round? Have you reached out your hand and pulled the sun from the air? Have you touched it?”
“No,” the one-eyed man says. “Yes. I’ve touched it with my eye.”
The one-eyed man is crazy. Everyone knows that hands have a better sense of touch than eyes do. The lids and lashes are sensitive, yes, but they cannot describe objects the way fingertips can.
“I may be wrong,” the one-eyed man admits. “I may be mistaking the night sun for a second sun, one that radiates coldness instead of heat.”
His countrymen laugh at him; they do not believe his claims of a night sun. Meanwhile, they bumble into each other in the streets, clutching at markstones and guideposts like clumsy children who have not yet learned to trust their hands, calling out friends’ names like infants wailing for their mothers. He, however, is gifted with the power to weave silently through the streets — a grace likely inherited from his great-grandmother — because he touches obstacles with his eyes long before he touches them with his hands or feet.
With this heightened sense of touch that borders on precognition, he wonders why the two-eyes do not make him their leader.
His great-grandmother was renowned for her expert sense of touch, although no one ever thought she was crazy. She recognized objects faster than a young man in the prime of life, even though her hands were gnarled and callused with age. He remembers a withered, hunchbacked old woman whose fingers flew with bird-like grace over the hands and faces of her family. Her hearing was poor, so she had been forced to experience the world through touch only.
The one-eyed man believes that, like his great-grandmother, he has a heightened sense of touch because of the loss of another organ.
He only has one eye, after all, not two.
He begins to wonder — what other powers would he have if he had no eyes at all?
Today his countrymen will discover who is truly king in this land of ignorant two-eyes.
The day sun burns the one-eyed man’s eye with its round flame. He fingers the coldness of the knife in his pocket. His countrymen jostle and argue for the chance to stand at the front of the crowd, in the hope of hearing the king pass by. The one-eyed man pushes through the bystanders and into the path of the bobbing sedan chair. Deafened by the crowd, the guards do not hear him approach.
“Stop!” the one-eyed man yells.
The guards shout. A woman screams. A baby cries. Questions buzz through the crowd: What was that? Who said that? What is happening?
The king pulls back the heavy curtain of his litter to better hear the commotion. As his face tilts toward the noise, his single darting eye meets the eye of the one-eyed man.
As the king’s eye widens, the one-eyed man knows that the king can touch things with his eye too, and he is the only citizen who knows it. The one-eyed man laughs with contempt and triumph. The king has not discovered the secret of their one eye, of the power it will reveal.
The one-eyed man is crazy.
“Behold!” the one-eyed man says, brandishing the knife. “Behold the one more powerful than the king!”
He thrusts the blade into his own eye. The world becomes cold.
2. The Tongue’s Betrayal
He leans against the bar and fishes a breath mint from his pocket. The club is packed with a Saturday night crowd, the air redolent with gingerbread, cut grass, sliced watermelon, and cigarette smoke. A curvaceous blonde struts by, reeking of new car. A gaggle of admiring men follow her to the bar, eager to buy her a drink.
He bites down on the candy. A sun-warmed meadow of wildflowers fills his nostrils; rotten eggs fill his mouth. He sucks for a few seconds, grimacing as the pastille fragments slide over his tongue, and then spits the remains out into a cocktail napkin. He just needs enough to interest the cute redhead who just ordered a drink.
They make eye contact. She does not walk away when the bartender hands over her cocktail. He leans toward her. Her perfume smells like barbecued ribs, hot off the grill. He feels dizzy.
“I can smell things with my tongue,” he says with his sunshine and wildflower breath, his lips brushing the pink outer shell of her ear.
“That’s original,” she says, reaching into a bowl of soy nuts. She smiles as she enjoys their crunch and scent. He winces. Although the soy nuts are seasoned to smell like hot buttered corn-on-the-cob, to his mouth they smell like burnt rubber.
“So what do I smell like?” she says.
He picks up her hand, brings it to his lips, and licks the inside of her wrist. She squeals and giggles. He runs the tip of his tongue along the back of his front teeth, and thinks.
“Salty, and musty,” he says, “like dried shiitake mushrooms that have been soaking in hot water too long and have gone a bit off.”
She pulls her hand back. “Smooth talker, aren’t you,” she says. “Excuse me.”
“No, wait! I meant flowers. You smell like, um, roses. And chocolate. And freshly baked bread.”
He grabs for her arm and accidentally grazes her breast. She spins around. “Creep,” she hisses, sloshing her drink in his face. The alcohol has been scented to evoke the morning after a rainstorm on a tropical beach. He opens his mouth and touches his tongue to his dripping lips. The acrid sting is as harsh as rejection.
3. The Man Who Could Talk to Cats
— I think the cat is talking to me, he says.
— Marian just left it with you this morning, she says. It can’t be driving you crazy already. How are you going to survive the week?
— I’m serious. The cat is talking to me.
— Don’t be silly, she says. Cats can’t talk. Look.
She approaches the windowsill on which Ginger is curled.
— Hello, Ginger! she says, flicking her hands exaggeratedly as if she were addressing a child.
The cat ignores her. She turns back.
— See? They don’t have fingers. How can they talk?
Her hands flick dismissively, as if she were sweeping crumbs under a rug. He says:
— Maybe we just don’t know how to see them.
He is silent for a moment, his hands folded in his lap. His thumbs creep between his pressed-together thighs, betraying hesitation. Finally, he says:
— I see things that aren’t there, or will be there, or have been there.
His fingers jerk as he forms each word, unable to keep up with the urgency of his confession.
— What are you talking about? she asks.
— It’s as if everyone in the world were color-blind, he says, and I’m the only person who isn’t. I can see an extra — extra qualifier.
— Like what?
— When you walked up to my door, I could see your shoes stepping on the driveway, but I could also see something else that wasn’t there, and yet it described you walking up my driveway. If I had closed my eyes, I would’ve still been able to see you walking. A ghost-image. An invisible image that I see with my ears, not my eyes.
Her hands and shoulders shake with laughter.
— Now I know you’re crazy, she says. Seeing with your ears. Come on. Everyone knows that ears are as useful as an appendix. Maybe they once had some purpose, but now…. Anyway, if a cat could talk, what would it say?
Her hands flit carelessly, indulgently, but he pauses to think.
— I don’t know, he says. That’s what scares me.
He’s going to be famous, he thinks. He will be The Man Who Talks to Cats. He only has to figure out what they’re saying, first.
He finds a pen and blank notebook and approaches the windowsill on which the cat is perched. Her eyes open slightly. He scratches her head. Her body rumbles, and there — so subtle that he would not have noticed it if he hadn’t been looking for it — is a shallow ear-shape, as tangible as a shadow on a black wall.
He pauses over the notebook, trying to describe the ear-shape on paper. It undulates, and has no sharp edges; all curves, like a sine wave.
He scrawls the pictogram for sine wave, then adds, Expression of contentment.
He rewards the cat by tickling under her chin.
“Sine wave,” Ginger says, leaning into his hand. “Sine wave.”
The cat tolerates a few more seconds of grooming, and then jumps off the windowsill. He follows her into the kitchen. She pads to her empty bowl and sits back on her haunches, staring at him unblinkingly.
The ear-shape that emerges from her mouth is thin at first, and then it spreads broadly. Like a fork.
“Fork,” Ginger says. “Fork. Fork!”
— What is it? What are you trying to tell me?
She noses the bowl. He opens one of the tins that Marian had left and spoons out the mush. The cat says, “Fork!” and starts to eat.
He writes: Fork = hungry?
She doesn’t say anything else after she finishes eating. He crosses out the question mark, feeling very pleased with himself.
His elation fades as night progresses, and the cat says nothing save for the occasional “sine wave” when groomed. Perhaps he is wrong, and they are simple creatures after all who have no need for language, and have no other desires than a square meal and a rub behind the ears.
He goes to bed dejected. The cat follows him upstairs and elects to prowl the hallway. He closes the door, and falls asleep.
Hours later he is woken by a piercing assault on his ears. He staggers out of bed and flings his door open. The piercing ear-shape grows larger. He flicks on the hall light, and squints at the sudden brightness.
The cat sits in the middle of the hallway, her mouth forming a wide, deep, distorted square, releasing an ear-shape that is similarly wide and deep.
— What is it? he says.
His hands are slow and clumsy from sleep.
— What are you trying to tell me? What do you want?
“Square! Square! Square-square!”
— Are you hurt?
— But I just fed you!
He picks the cat up and shuts her in the bathroom. “Fork! Square! SQUARE!” Ginger says. “SQUARE!”
He returns to bed but tosses and turns, unable to sleep; he can still see the cat talking. He can also see her scratching at the bathroom door. Blindfold, he thinks. If only I had a blindfold for my ears.
He stumbles back out of bed and opens the bathroom door. The cat pounces out.
“Square!” she says.
— Stop it! he says. Why won’t you stop?
He finds a bag of cotton balls in the medicine cabinet. He stuffs one into each ear.
He can only see Ginger with his eyes now.
He goes back to sleep.
In the morning, he throws out the notebook and boards Ginger at a veterinary clinic.
4. Flyboy and Strawberry Girl
The first time Flyboy and Strawberry Girl meet, neither will notice the other’s presence. Strawberry Girl will brush past his table in a restaurant, and two minutes later Flyboy will savor the air with his nose and ask his date if she is drinking something fruit-flavored. (She will say no.)
Later, back at her place, Flyboy will taste wet dog and stale cigarette smoke on her skin and beat a hasty retreat with half-cocked excuses. He’s a cad, that Flyboy, but with good reason. He calls himself Flyboy because of his uncanny ability to taste things with his nose. The hairs inside his nostrils act like the hairs on a house fly; dark and wiry, they sample the world around him, forcing him to experience it in unique ways.
This doesn’t help his relationship with women.
Strawberry Girl will cross his path again. He’ll meet her at a party, at which they each arrive with other people. They won’t talk to each other at all. A week later, however, he will taste strawberries in the stale, humid air of a streetcar. He’ll reach through the crowd and touch her hand.
They will both get off at the next stop.
He will write poems about her, his Strawberry Girl, poems so riddled with cliché that they will lie buried at the bottom of his desk drawer until he is a grizzled old bachelor. Then he will skim the yellowed pages as he watches TV and laugh and cry and guzzle a six-pack until he falls asleep in his armchair, dreaming of that one lost love, the one who tasted like strawberries.
(The spilled dregs of his last, half-empty beer can will smear the old ink and when he wakes up, he will have forgotten why there is a soggy wad of notebook paper draped over the remote control and toss the mess into the garbage.)
This is love, Flyboy tells himself, drunk on the Strawberry Girl’s sweet aura. This time it’ll be different.
He tells himself this every time he falls in love.
The day will come when she invites him back to her place and they fumble, laughing, into her bedroom. She’ll pull him down onto the rumpled sheets and he’ll think, yes, this time will be different.
Like every other woman he’s been with, he will taste tang and salt on his tongue but oh, everything else he will taste: the oil of her unwashed scalp; the damp and mildewed bath towel with which she’d dried her face; the thick grease of the diner she’d eaten lunch in; the infected piercing at her navel; the sickly-sweet afterglow of alcohol on her breath; soap (five different kinds, for face, body, hands, laundry, and dishes); and the strange, moist, musky flavors nestled between her legs and under her arms.
He will break away and stumble into the bathroom, retching until bile sears his nose and mouth. When the Strawberry Girl asks him what’s wrong, he’ll make up some excuse and tell her that things just aren’t working out. She’ll cry, throw things, threaten to kill herself. He’ll leave.
He’ll sit at home, and after a beer or two he’ll wonder if he overreacted.
She’ll call but he won’t pick up the phone. After the tenth attempt, she won’t call again.
When Flyboy slinks back to her apartment to apologize two weeks later, the hairs in his nose will quiver and cringe. They will taste a rot so strong that he’ll feel its weight in his lungs. He will vomit in a potted tree while the Strawberry Girl’s neighbors brush past him on their way to the elevator, oblivious to the decay in the air.
He’ll knock on the Strawberry Girl’s door. Then he’ll pound. Then he’ll get the superintendent.
He won’t like what he’s going to find.
5. Sickness of Heart
There is something wrong with Stephen’s body but he doesn’t know what. The health and hygiene films in school teach that bodies can’t talk; one must keep oneself clean and healthy and watch for signs of illness. But Stephen has no bumps or spots or discolorations or strange growths — other than the acne on his cheeks and the hair sprouting under his arms and between his legs.
It’s as if his body is telling him things that it doesn’t know how to put into words. In class, even when he looks at the blackboard, he can see the angular ridges of his pencil and the sharpness of its point. He can see every fold and crease in his notebook paper. He can see his chair’s uncompromising flatness as it slides against the skin of his buttocks.
At night, alone on his sleeping platform, he skims his hands all over his body and the unyielding form of his headrest, marveling at the contrast. He can see the immovable valleys of the platform, even when his eyes are closed. He has discovered that although his entire body can see things, his hands have the best vision. And when his hands rest on his body, it is like two mirrors facing each other, each feeding and receiving information in an endless loop.
But the strongest sign that there is something wrong with his body is the sudden shortness of breath when he’s in the same room as Isabel, the girl who lives across the street.
Isabel has lived across the street from Stephen for as long as he can remember, but only now that they’ve both started high school does she have an effect on his body. He wonders if she has a disease and he has somehow caught it.
She looks healthy, though. She has all the normal features of a girl their age: the gently swelling chest, the hairs emerging under her arms and at her groin. She doesn’t have pimples on her face, but when she sits in front of him in chemistry class, he can see a smattering of freckles across her shoulder blades.
The teacher teaches them how to operate a Bunsen burner. He shows them that it is okay if skin passes briefly through the flame, but one should never expose oneself for long periods of time. Otherwise one’s skin could become discolored, and that — as everyone knows — is a sign of ill health. Stephen only half pays attention; he stares at Isabel’s freckles and wonders if they would look the same to his hands.
“This is cool,” his lab partner Tony says. “Look, it turns your skin pink.”
Tony holds his finger above the orange tongue of the flame. The other students ignore the teacher’s lecture and watch. Tony is the alpha male of the grade, and the others take their social cues from him.
“It’s your turn,” Tony says. “Go on, do it.”
Stephen doesn’t want to, but everyone is watching, including Isabel. He takes a deep breath and puts his finger in the flame. He bites down on his tongue. Tastes blood as the flame sears his skin. He cries out, spitting blood, and jerks back his hand. Cradles it to his chest, but it is as if it is still in the flame. Tears mingle with the blood.
Everyone laughs, except Tony, who says, “You’re weird, man.”
The laughter dies. Tony snorts and turns away. Stephen clutches his hand to his chest; he can still feel a ghostly flame licking his skin.
The teacher says, “Is there a problem, Stephen?”
Stephen whimpers, “No.”
Isabel looks sympathetically at him, but says nothing.
His index finger is still red by the end of the day, and touching it only intensifies the memory of flame. After school he lies in his room, smoothing his hands over his arms, his legs, marveling how the flame has affected his finger’s vision.
He hears the front doorbell ring and his mother scurrying downstairs to answer it. Her voice calls out a minute later. “Stephen,” she yells. “You have a visitor.”
Stephen hops off of the sleeping platform. A knock sounds on his door. He opens it, wondering who the visitor could be.
“Hi,” Isabel says, clutching her schoolbag.
“Hi,” Stephen says. His voice comes out as a squeak. The health films they’ve seen at school say that this is normal for a boy his age.
“I thought we could study for the chem test together.”
“Okay,” Stephen says. His voice squeaks again.
She says, “I’m sorry everyone laughed at you in class today. You didn’t deserve it.”
“It’s okay,” he says.
“No, it isn’t,” she says.
“Just forget about it.”
She shrugs. “Hey, do you have a partner yet for the midterm project? I thought we should work together on the experiment, since we live so close together.”
“No,” he says. “I — I mean, yes. I mean, no, I don’t have a partner, but yes, we should be partners.”
Isabel smiles and says, “Great.”
“Great,” he repeats. She pulls a textbook and binder from her schoolbag.
He says, “Can I…?” He can see his heart pounding in his chest. “Can I do a little experiment now? On you?”
Isabel giggles. “Sure,” she says.
“Okay,” he says. “Sit here, on the platform. Um, let’s see, can I…?” He puts his arm around her shoulders. Her flesh is both yielding yet unyielding. He is reminded of flame, but this time it is everywhere, not just his finger — in his stomach, his ears, his groin, his chest, the places where his skin is next to hers. He can barely breathe.
She giggles. “Tony’s right. You are weird.”
“Can I…?” He moves closer. Her body yields, reshapes itself to accommodate his. He can’t stop staring at her mouth; the lips are deep pink, plump. He knows they will yield. He can tell by looking at them that they will yield. And yet he has to reach out with his fingers to test them.
He makes a dent in her lower lip with his fingernail, but her teeth are immoveable.
“Stephen,” she says, nervously, “what are you doing?”
“Can I…?” He moves his fingers off of her mouth to her forehead, and draws them over her face, tracing every inch of the surface. His fingers are on fire.
“I don’t like this experiment,” she says, squirming out from under his hands.
“Just another minute?” he says, desperate to know if his hands see her body the same way his eyes do.
She springs to her feet and starts gathering up her books. “I should go. Tony was right. You are weird.” She does not giggle this time.
Stephen hears her run down the stairs. The front door opens and slams. Stephen wraps his arms around himself, around his stomach, stricken by a sudden sickness that he cannot name, a sickness of heart.
I look at the corpse and want to weep, but all I feel is desperate, desperate hope and fear.
They’re staring, wide white eyes startling against dark brown skin. I look around warily, but nobody raises a hand, picks up a rock, reaches for a club, goes to find a gun. Some weep. I am glad that tears are shed, because my own eyes remain obstinately dry.
“Inter him,” I say roughly, and turn, and leave to go back to my own small encampment out in the jungle. To wait.
The “Boys from Brazil” project was an abject failure, which sorely disappointed the white supremacists, occultists, neo-Nazis and other sinners who’d hoped that unleashing a set of Hitler clones would counter the Second Coming.
There was nothing wrong with the DNA extraction from Hitler’s shattered skull, and the necessary genome reconstruction had gone well. Artificial insemination was de rigeur, with a suitable number of female volunteers. A statistically acceptable number of the implanted fetuses came to term. Of course, the New Unified Christian Church was horrified at the number that didn’t, but science has never considered those failures abortions, simply discards. And the neo-Nazis didn’t consult the Church, anyway.
But the betas didn’t possess the je ne sais quoi of the alpha. A few succumbed to their brainwashing, but they became little more than thugs, lacking the alpha’s vibrant charisma. Others resisted the brainwashing and became nobodies, deliberately losing themselves in the crowd. The worst embarrassment to the movement was Adolf3, who became a neo-Apostle.
The Church, of course, was vocally pleased by the failures. It pointed out that the “Boys” experiment was simply the most visible of the many Incarnation projects that had disappointed their sponsors. Incarnation, the Church declared, was sacred.
The Jesuses simply nodded gravely and continued their work among the poor. Only one gave a statement to the press, and because he provided only another obscure parable, the reporter paraphrased it and buried it beneath the much more accessible statements from Church bureaucrats.
The Church hadn’t condoned the original Resurrection Project, either. The project was carried out clandestinely by a small group of deeply religious scientists. Of a certainty, several highly placed members of the old Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches must have been involved. How else could the scientists have gained access to the holy relics? Nails and shards of the True Cross yielded tiny bits of blood and flesh, enough to reconstruct the DNA. Many were found to be bloodless, probably fake, but all were replaced in their altars and jeweled reliquariums, regardless. Saints’ bone shards and blood yielded even more material. One by one the strands of DNA were reconstructed, genomes manipulated, eggs fertilized.
The scientists broke many laws, both civil and ethical, in their work. The saints’ eggs they transplanted into any woman who volunteered, but each one of the Jesus eggs was transplanted into an amenable virgin. Most of the latter were nuns, again indicating some complicity with the old churches, although each church denied any knowledge of the project.
The failure rate for the saints’ eggs was normal.
Every one of the Jesus eggs came to term.
The saint betas were ordinary children.
Every one of the Jesus betas grew into a wise, thoughtful, and peaceful child of remarkable spirituality, and the world was staggered.
I was a Joseph. A priest chosen to act as a father to a Jesus betas. We didn’t give ourselves the nickname. It came from the press, which dogged us every minute, prying into the lives of our wards. We protected the children’s privacy with all the power of the Church behind us. What the press couldn’t discover, it fabricated. We ignored the fuss and concentrated on providing our children with loving families.
When the children reached adolescence, they began to withdraw. One by one they left. Three vanished into the Internet, wiring themselves to the extent current technology would allow. Seventy-two chose to retreat to remote religious outposts in the poorest of countries. Fifteen surrounded themselves with books, losing themselves within the stacks of the most ancient and venerable libraries around the world. Ten chose internships with major corporations, losing themselves in laboratories, boardrooms, observatories.
We tried to follow them, but they seldom spoke to their families, would not speak to the press, suffered queries with polite but firm dismissals. We grilled their coworkers, we wired their working places, we spied on them wherever they went. The Jesuses were sponges, absorbing every bit of knowledge they could find. Or filters, perhaps. Because no matter what they absorbed, all they produced was good.
They were sinless, practicing exactly the virtues one would expect in the Second Coming.
The Second Coming times one hundred.
Of course there was a rush to clone other major religious leaders. Some religions forbade such tampering and put their relics under tight security. Some religions embraced the idea and their betas grew into prophets, healers, and philosophers, as well. Some religions simply chuckled. Nobody has successfully cloned the Dalai Lama, whose spirit passes from one child to another without the help of modern science.
The religious upheaval was enormous. Many religions declared the End Time. But things were getting better, not worse. For the first time in thousands of years, faith and spirituality became important. The concept of sin was revived. And this time, there was always a Jesus to step in, to call a halt to abuses, to clarify questions.
Years passed. He wrote, once in a while, but my heart ached with his absence. I left the priesthood when the Vatican refused me permission to pursue my son. Yes, my son, my Jesus, whom I raised from infancy to adolescence. I wrote a note to Sister Therese, who had raised our son with me, and scraped together what money I could, and left.
Popular fiction loves to poke fun at the religious, even now. We are called naive, backward. Popular fiction ignores our real work. The religious have always been a part of the streets. We have always worked with the worst elements of society. They have always been the ones who need us most.
I had no trouble buying a gun, obtaining false papers. I knew who to ask, and my friends were delighted to do me the favor, especially when I told them why. It is among the roughest elements of society that the concept of family is the strongest.
Six months passed before I found him here, in ths backward country, studying the native traditions and spreading a gospel of peace and love. I pleaded with him to return. He refused. I asked if I could stay here, with him, to help. And he refused that, too.
I loved him so much that when I looked at him and saw a stranger, I had to kill him.
I had to know.
Dear God, three days seems so long. I will spend it on my knees, praying. I have to know.
My son. I love you. I have to know.
Who is your father?
I don’t even fucking usually read the paper but I’m home for Thanksgiving and it’s the same old shit, my mom and the aunts getting wasted in the kitchen, nobody paying no attention to the turkey. The stuffing sits in the box on the counter, next to the cans of cranberries. They’re cackling away in there like they do every year and every year it’s mostly the same except Uncle Freddie ain’t here ’cause he died last Spring of a busted vein in his brain and my cousin Eddie ain’t here and nobody knows where he is, but my aunt says she ain’t worried. I wonder if he’s dead. Could I of done more to keep him off the streets? Maybe I should of told him, yeah, this is one fucked up family, and the turkey is always dry and shit but it’s your family and that means something. But I never did try to say nothing like that. Who knows? Maybe he ain’t dead or living under some city bridge. Maybe he’s sitting down right now, turning on the tube, watching the game in a house that smells good like Thanksgiving should and maybe he’s even happy. But I doubt it. He’s probably in some crack house somewhere and don’t even know what day it is.
I’m just sitting there listening to my mom and the aunts while the light gets dark and I think how it’s good to be home for Thanksgiving. Fucked up as it is. So I get to start looking through the Fullbrook paper, reading the articles like how the Maynards cows got loose and how Cindy Falloway got a blue ribbon in spelling. I guess she’s in fourth grade and it’s hard to believe that Becky Falloway who got knocked up senior year and was the best piece of ass at Fullbrook High is now the mother of a champion speller. I look at the kid’s picture and she is grinning a big, stupid ten-year-old grin and it’s way too early to tell if she’ll be anything like her mother, but thinking like that starts to feel kind of twisted so I turn the page and that’s when I see Ronnie Webster’s name and it takes me a few seconds before I realize it’s his fucking obituary. Ronnie Webster is dead. I don’t go in and open the cans of cranberries or turn on the light or any of the shit I traditionally do to get my mom and the aunts moving, a tradition Ronnie Webster had something to do with starting, actually. I just sit there and it gets darker and darker. The turkey is going to be drier than usual this year but I don’t give a fuck.
So this weird thing happens in Omaha. I’m in the second round going at this Tae Kwon Do teacher from Michigan and all a sudden I have a minute, while this guy is getting his head pressed into the rope, to sort of scan the crowd, you know, take a breath, and it’s like I’m hallucinating or something because all a sudden there’s Ronnie Webster’s face and I swear this is freakin’ weird but I swear he’s sitting there in the stands and then he sees me looking and waves. I have to get my concentration back so I pound this guy until he signals submission, and I raise my hands clenched over my head ’cause it’s a victory. When I try to see Ronnie I can’t find him nowhere in the crowd. Course, ’cause he’s fucking dead.
He was ugly. Take out the Fullbrook High Yearbook, class of ’82 and see for yourself. That’s me on the same page. I’m about two-fifty there. Not so many high schoolers go my size. But the difference ain’t just the weight. I’ve met some bad ass skinny dudes but not Ronnie Webster.
There he is. Bet you thought I was just being mean. But I can tell you agree. You want not to agree. But you see what I mean. Fish eyes. Crooked nose. It was straight before it got broke. I’ll take the blame for that even if it ain’t only me. And those teeth. Actually we improved them. Five got knocked out and replaced. That’s how come they look pretty good in the picture. What you can’t see is the way he used to dress. Weird. I mean it’s like he just tried to make himself ugly. His parents were loaded. They lived in one of those houses on Fox Ridge. He could of dressed any way he wanted. He was their only kid. Somebody said he was adopted but I don’t know nothing about that and I don’t give a shit. I saw his parents that time I followed him home and they just looked like regular parents. He was a freak. We beat him up and put him in the hospital. This was a long time ago and we didn’t kill him. So why the fuck is he haunting me now?
Raine says I think too much. She says thinking is over rated. “What did thinking ever do for anyone?” she says. “You just sit there and stare into space and nothing happens. That’s what I liked about you. I thought you was an action man.” She pulls off her little white underpants and throws them at my face. “Ronnie Webster,” she snickers as I unzip my pants, “is long gone. Forget about him.”
But what Raine don’t know is everything. It’s not just a little detail, it’s the whole bang. She’s moaning and I’m grunting and if she was the thinking kind at all she’d be thinking it was only us; the ultimate fighter and his girl. She don’t know.
Ronnie Webster is watching us. He’s sitting in the corner in the rocking chair, and he’s grinning. Like I don’t know how he looked by the time he died but here he looks like he did in high school, like a girl, except he’s got his dick in his hands. I look at it and then I look at him and he just grins. White teeth. Pink cheeks. “Oh Action,” Raine says. I close my eyes. When I open them he’s gone.
We got him on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. I guess you could say we was in a bad mood. Not Ronnie. But me and the guys. None of us wanting to go home or be anywhere. We used to say we fuckin’ hated school but when it was closed we just stood around different street corners and smoked. We didn’t talk about it but we all fuckin’ hated being home even worse.
So it’s Wednesday night and we’re hanging out by Myer’s Grocery store, the dark side of the building. It’s the night before Thanksgiving so it’s been kind of busy for a while. A new Price Chopper just opened up on Highway 10 and we don’t know it, but it’s the last Thanksgiving for Myer’s Store. It ain’t that late but the street is pretty quiet. I don’t remember what we’re talking about. Then along comes Ronnie Webster in those weird red sneakers and those straight leg jeans and this hat, this flat pancake hat with the little tip of material at the top and he’s whistling and one of us, and I can never remember if it was me or who, but somebody goes, “Get him.” We pulled him in and wailed on him. He made these little whimpering sounds. Then he got quiet and all you could hear was fist and flesh. Breathing. And all a sudden, without any signal or word, we stopped. Ran in different directions. Left him there like roadkill.
You didn’t think this story would be pretty, did you?
It happens again in Cleveland. During the first round when I am actually restraining myself from completely smashing this stupid kid into pieces because you gotta give the crowd at least a little show. I am putting on a sparring act and he’s doing all his Ninja Turtles moves on me and I’m thinking how pitiful it is because I know, and the crowd knows, and he seems to be the only one who don’t know, he’s doing his last good breathing for the next few days. I look into the crowd for just a minute like, ’cause I’m sort of bored, and there’s Ronnie Webster selling hot dogs for Christ sake, and I guess he sees me ’cause he waves and then the kid lands a sidekick to my face that’s got the whole crowd roaring and I’m busy for a while. This lasts maybe forty seconds. But when I look up again to raise my arms in victory, the whole crowd chanting, “Action, Action” (they call me Action) I can’t see him nowhere. Maybe he’s ashamed. Who would of guessed it? Ronnie Webster. A hot dog vendor ghost.
He was the artist type in high school, getting poems in the school paper and shit. I never read none of them so I can’t say much about that but during the time when I was following him I watched him paint once. It was after school. Chorus was singing some Jesus joy song about Christmas and the janitors was down in their office in the basement getting stoned. Mrs. Smythe was in her room correcting papers and Mr. Lyman was sort of wandering around the way he did. I didn’t know it then but after we graduated Mrs. Lyman hung herself with the afghan she’d been basically knitting and ripping apart for the past ten years. It turns out she was a real nut case all along and Mr. Lyman stayed at school sometimes ’cause he didn’t wanna go home. Which is funny in a way ’cause that’s not so different from me and my friends that he was always busting on. It was getting close to Christmas vacation, you know the chorus singing “Joy, joy, joy” and those construction paper snowflakes and candy canes and all that shit and Ronnie Webster all alone in the art room. I’m just standing in the hall. He’s gotta know I’m there. I ain’t hiding or nothing.
I have to squint at first ’cause the art room’s got all these big windows and because of the snow it’s all this bright white. Ronnie’s got on these queer knee high boots with fuckin’ fringe on them and these striped pants and this fem yellow sweater. Then he stops whistling and he starts waving his arms over the canvas and it changes into a slash of red, black, purple. He’s gotta know I’m watching, and then, all a sudden, he stops and I think, ok, it’s gonna happen now. I can hear my own breathing and the fuckin’ Christmas carols. And I ain’t thinking nothing except ok, it’s gonna happen. He just stands there, hanging his head like he’s praying or something and then, real careful, he puts down his paintbrush and pulls the sweater off. He’s got on just a wife beater but he ain’t got no muscle, his shape is the shape of bones. For the first time I see all the bruises we give him and where it’s not bruised he is white as soap. He just stands there. Then he looks up, right at me with those eyes laced with lashes like a girl. But I don’t say nothing. We just look at each other. Then I hear Mr. Lyman coming down the hall and I leave.
When we left him like that, a heap of flesh and blood, we didn’t know if he was dead or alive. Not that I was worried about him. All I thought about was how I just screwed up my whole life.
Thanksgiving day is my mom and the aunts sitting around the kitchen table getting drunk on Budweiser and forgetting to do anything with the turkey once it’s in the oven. Me and my cousins and my uncle watch the games and eat crackers and salami and crack open a few beers but I don’t let the little kids drink and they start whining and I holler at them to go outside and act like normal kids. My little cousin Eddie tells me to Fuck off and I just ignore him ’cause I fucked up so bad already. I just stare at the TV set but I ain’t watching it and after awhile nobody bothers me. I guess you can tell I’m in a mood or something and I am ’cause I’m just expecting any minute the cops to come knocking on the door. But it just keeps getting later and later and finally it starts getting dark and I go around turning on the lights. When I turn the big light on in the kitchen my mom and the aunts look up at me all a sudden all quiet and I say, “Shouldn’t you be mashing potatoes or something?” When I walk away I hear them laughing but the chairs scrape back and my mom starts swearing at the turkey.
Then the phone rings and it’s B.T. and he tells me Ronnie Webster is at Fullbrook Hospital and he won’t tell no one who got him ’cause he wants to take care of it himself. So we have a good laugh over that. “What’s he gonna do, write mean poems about us?”
The turkey’s dry like it’s always dry. The mash potatoes and gravy is lumpy. The only thing really good is the cranberries ’cause you can’t mess them up right out of the can. My mom and aunts all have pink faces and when I look at them I think how they really are sort of pretty. Even my mom. The TV is on ’cause my uncle Frankie and his son, Eddie, are football freaks and they holler from the other room where they are eating and there’s little kids running all over the place and I gotta tell you, for like one minute, two even, I just sit there grinning. And I ain’t even stoned.
In Tulsa I see Ronnie sitting next to Raine. This is before the fight. The crowd is screaming. “Action! Action! Action!” I’m waving my arms in my pre-victory stance and there’s Ronnie Webster sitting next to Raine. I give a sort of salute wave and they both wave back. Ronnie, just raising his hand, and Raine, jumping up and down like a fuckin’ cheerleader. I am so distracted by the thought of Ronnie Webster sitting next to Raine and what he might say to her that I fuckin’ almost lose the fight.
Afterwards I ask Raine about him. “He was sitting right next to you,” I say. “A skinny guy.”
“I didn’t notice him,” she says, addressing my wounds. “Jesus, you let that guy tear you up.”
“He don’t tear me up,” I say, “he’s just some kid I use to know from high school.”
“I don’t mean stupid Ronnie Webster,” she says. “I mean the guy you was fighting.”
When he comes back to school he is ugly in a different way. His face is just a fuckin’ wound. He got stitches hanging all over the place. He got stitches in his mouth for Christ’s sake. But he acts like the same. Walking down the hall in those red shoes. Suddenly he’s like the most popular kid in school. But he’s not into it, you can just see he’s still ol’ Ronnie Webster and as far as he’s concerned nothing’s changed. Then he sees me. He looks right at me, and it’s the weirdest thing, he’s gotta know. But he just looks at me like I don’t matter one way or the other and he just keeps walking. That’s the first time I really think about what I did. Jesus, I nearly killed that kid. All a sudden I realize people are watching. When I look at them, they turn away.
That’s when I start following him. I follow him to all his classes so I’m late or I skip mine. I don’t give a shit about school. I follow him home to that big house with all those windows on Fox Ridge. I keep a good distance but he’s gotta know. The way you know when you’re being watched. You can just feel it in your skin, even if they turn away when you look at them. It’s like how I can feel him now, watching me.
Back then it’s like I’m the ghost following Ronnie. I watch him in the john. I watch him paint. I watch him shovel his driveway on Saturday morning. I watch him and his parents leave for church on Sunday. Finally the day before Christmas vacation, we’re in the cafeteria. He sits slurping his food for Christ’s sake and reading some book about leaves and grass. People say things to him and he smiles or laughs even though with his mouth open you can see the stitches hanging there. I don’t even know I’m gonna do this. I go sit across from him. You can just feel the whole cafeteria go silent. Like everybody’s watching now. Ronnie puts down his book and looks at me. I can feel my muscles tighten. I can feel the muscles in the room tighten. But Ronnie just looks at me.
“I’m one of them,” I say, soft like, so only he can hear.
“I know,” he says.
We sit there like that for a few seconds. Then he just picks up his book and keeps slurping and reading and after a while I get up and walk away.
I ain’t scared, if that’s what you’re thinking. When he’s in the stands waving at me while I turn some guy’s face into blue ribbon chili, or when he’s in the room, watching me and Raine and she says, “It don’t matter honey, it happens to everyone. Did I tell you I’m going to be busy for the next few weeks?” and he just sits there, laughing, or even when it’s just me alone with him, I ain’t scared. Even as a ghost Ronnie Webster is mostly just annoying. Like right now. He’s standing in the mirror and he’s fucking laughing. I know why, ok? I mean my face is right there to prove it. I’m a ugly fuck. Ok? You satisfied, you fucking ghost? “I’m a ugly fuck! I’m a ugly fuck!”
I don’t even realize I’m shouting until the downstairs neighbor starts pounding on the ceiling. “Shut the fuck up, you ugly fuck,” he screams.
“Fuck you!” I holler.
“Fuck you, you fucker!”
He pounds on the ceiling again and I stamp on the floor. He turns his music up. Loud. Fucking Aerosmith. And I sit down on the edge of the bed.
Fuck, I feel like shit. Ronnie comes and sits beside me. Right on the bed. I say, “Fuck, Ronnie? What the fuck you want?”
He turns and looks at me and fuck, how could I be wrong about this for so long? I look at him and he looks at me, and then, like we are fucking twilight zone people, we both open our mouths but I’m the only one who actually talks.
I say, “Beautiful.”
And then, just like that, he’s gone and I’m fucking sitting there on the edge of my bed. Alone.