As we head into winter – and our final issue of 2012 – we’re happy to offer up three stories and four poems by authors from Sri Lanka to Shanghai to Saskatchewan: all of them delving into what it means to make a change, and the consequences that rush in after.
In Sara K. Ellis’s “Sub”, one inner-city girl makes a change for the better, and comes to grapple with what better means; Adam Mills’s “The Artist in the Tower” meditates on revolution, myth-making, and the tension between how people lived and what we can believe; and Rachel Derksen’s “Alterations for Beginners” tells a story about impact, and how we make it when nobody’s looking.
Poetry from Vajra Chandrasekera, Lisa M. Cole, Yunsheng Jiang, and Holly R. Appling touches on the moving of the seasons, the ending of the world, and people’s moves toward and away from each other both – and as always, our book reviewers bring you their thoughts on the latest releases.
We hope you enjoy this quarter’s issue, and if so, please consider dropping something into our tip jar. Ideomancer relies on reader donations to pay its contributors for their excellent fiction and poetry, and even five dollars makes a big difference.
Enjoy the issue, Happy New Year, and we’ll see you in the springtime!
Vol. 11 Issue 4
“Sub” – Sara K. Ellis
“The Artist in the Tower” – Adam Mills
“Alterations for Beginners” – Rachel Derksen
“Jörmungandr” – Vajra Chandrasekera
“After Songs” – Lisa M. Cole
“Haiku” – Yunsheng Jiang
“Apple” – Holly R. Appling
Chaz Brenchley’s House of Bells – Liz Bourke
Barbara Hambly’s The Magistrates of Hell – Liz Bourke
Sub’s trying to act cool and it’s your job to call him out. He’s telling the class he saw Nirvana play in 1990.
“At a concert for Africa,” he says, flicking spit all over the front row.
A couple of kids laugh, but your work ain’t done, so you slacken your jaw and make your eyes real big.
“Who’s that?” you ask.
“Who’s what?” says Sub.
The whole class explodes. Sub, Mr. James or Jaynes, there’ve been so many you can’t keep track, drops his hands to his sides and lets out a big loose sigh like he’s covering a fart. Then he turns nervously to the boardskin where our objective blinks like a warning light on a self-destructing space ship.
“What’s a SELP, Ms. Podesta?”
“A what?” You grin as you sit up, a few of the kids still snorting behind you.
Sub waves a hand over each letter, causing them to bloom all bright red on the screen. He’s staring you down, mouth drawn, right eyelid twitching.
“A SELP. Today’s learning objective. What does it stand for?”
But you know what he’s really saying. “I tried to communicate with you like a human being and see where that went? Now, can you just tell me what a SELP is, so I can get my pay slip signed and we can all go home?”
You don’t memorize the learning objective by the end of the week, and Mr. James or Jonz, gets his check docked. You heard from some kid in the lunchroom that he gets up to twenty dollars per kid, per class if they get it right and can remember all the way until Friday’s tests. Fat chance. Be lucky if he can afford the gas to get him on the freeway. As for you, you get demerits and Saturday school, but no one really expects you to show up. Not you. This is your third try at your freshman year.
“A SELP stands for…”
Sub licks his lips. For a second, he’s actually hoping that you won’t say what he knows you’re going to say.
The class bursts into applause and you do a half stand, hands in the air oh-so-modestly pushing back your fans.
“Don’t she know it!”
“Secondary English Lesson Plan,” says Sub. “That’s today’s objective.” His voice is high and croaky above the noise and you think that just maybe you can see a little blood where he’s been biting his lower lip.
He won’t be back tomorrow. You hope you get the sub from Newport. That blonde bitch who wears a white coat like she’s a doctor on TV.
The Greeley bell crackles from what’s left of the hallway speakers, and you take your time out of the building and through the gate. At school, your size and age keep you on top, but outside, it’s a different story.
You make your way down the concrete wheelchair ramp, leg dragging like a zombie after Hali Colorado dumped hot oil on it. There’s a brick planter running along the ramp with some weeds and a few dead bits of brush, and you sit down on it and bunch up your knees. It smells like tires. They let the plants dry up years before you started in this dump.
Hali Colorado still doesn’t believe you, even though you screamed so loud you thought your throat would shred, imagined your windpipe tearing into little strips of meat. Hali Colorado thinks you stole from him. He thinks you sold his product and kept the money, and that your story about Hector taking it is a lie.
“Hector?” he said, bunching his scarred up knuckles in your face. “Hector and me are like this.”
In truth, Hector wants him gone. Boasted it to your face when he tucked your weed into his vest pocket. But you try to stay out of those things. You only wanted to go to the beach.
You’re supposed to pay Hali every week or he promises he’ll do it again, and so you’re thinking about running for it, imagining yourself asleep under freeway overpasses, clutching a red bundle you’ve got tied on the end of a stick. Then you reach over and touch the spot on your calf, the pus wet outline of the bandage and you know you’ve got nowhere to go.
No Blondie today. Sub’s back and this time he’s even jumpier when he enters the class. You’re shaking, too. Rubbing your sweaty palms over your desk, delighting in the bumps and scratches carved by the hundreds of classmates who came before you, a whole history, years and years and years. You’re shaking with a love so deep it hurts, but Sub won’t even look at you.
“Today’s learning objective is,” he says, scrawling with a green light pen on the screen, “PINCS. Does anyone know what that means?”
You left extra early this morning thinking you’d be safe cause nobody’s up before seven. But when you dragged your foot down the pavement past the rats and ripped up burger bags, you saw Hector at the end of the block, head cocked, arms folded like he was trying to squeeze them into cannons.
“Where you goin,’ little girl?”
He was smiling at you, genuine warmth and chewing gum beating out a slow rhythm of menace. You were dead if you ran, so you kept walking, your palms sliding against your backpack straps. As you got closer, you saw him reach into his pocket, pull out a vial, and you stopped.
“Hali’s got somethin’ for you. A second chance.”
The vial was used, had little scratches all over it, but the rock inside glowed a faint green from within. On the news you heard it called something long and hard to say, but where you’re from they call it ratgum. Ratgum makes people so happy that after awhile they don’t notice that they’re chewing off their skin, gnawing away at it like little rats.
“I got school,” you said. “I got a test.”
Hector laughed. “Who’s keeping you?”
He opened the vial, dipped a long pinkie nail into it and scraped off a thin streak of green, rubbing it over his gums. That’s how people do it. Ratgum will kill you if you snort it. Better to put it where your gums bleed.
“Try some,” he said. “Hali says you got a week to decide.”
You could have run, but another week sounded like such a long time, and you didn’t want him to change his mind, so you let him pull you closer, put his mouth over your own, make it numb with the dust and force of his tongue.
As you pulled back for air, you sucked in the world, the sunlight finger painting the sidewalk, the dried out trees that aped the two of you, branches groping above your tangled limbs.
“I gotta go.” You laughed as you pushed him away. And he laughed, too. His head tilting back, sharp chin gutting the morning heat.
“Go to school, little girl.”
You pulled him back in for one last kiss. You swore you felt half in love with him already, as if your parting was like one of those shows on in the daytime, the ones that make your grandma cry.
Ratgum just makes you fall in love with everybody though, and you almost feel guilty as you sit there grinning, loving all your classmates, even as they sneer and cuss and toss balled up pieces of paper over your head into the bin. You feel so warm in the chest, you bet you’d even do Sub, or that security lady in the uniform. Oh, you’d do her.
But Sub doesn’t care that you’re paying attention. He’s following the script today. That’s what they’re always supposed to do, ‘cause they don’t trust anybody to teach anymore. He’s reading out the words on the boardskin as they come, trying to push the clock forward, past you, past this building, this neighborhood.
“It’s a hotdog stand in WeHo,” says one of the dumbshits up front. “My dad’s been there. Says they’re real good.”
They’re the only ones listening except for you. Weren’t for them, subs at Greeley wouldn’t eke out minimum wage.
“PINCS stands for Problem, Integration, Need, Convergence Solution,” Sub says. “It’s a thinking skill. If you can remember PINCS, you can remember how to think your way out of problems. So PINCS, kids,” he sighs. “Repeat after me.”
P stands for Pussy, I for Idiot, N for No Shit Sherlock.
You don’t say it this time, ’cause you’re already starting to come down. A couple of kids start a pencil war in the back of the class and you duck, the pinkety-plink of wood on desks and floors stabbing spikes into your brain. Things are starting to blur at the edges as the warmth you felt for everybody recedes like a green tide coughing up trash.
You stand up.
You don’t even know what you’re saying, but when you finish, the kids in back stop and fall back into their seats. You snatch a pencil that’s landed on your desk and hurl it so hard, it snaps off the back wall and hits a kid in the shoulder.
The whole room shuts down and you sit, fold your arms and pull into yourself. The sweat on your skin turns cold and you can feel the ratgum oozing out of your pores like ground glass. You don’t like this. You don’t want to go back to Hector and say you want to sell it because he knows that eventually you’ll sneak some. And then you’ll be in for more than just that bag of shit you tried to sell for Hali Colorado, just so you could feel your bare feet in the ocean. There’ll be no more ocean, no more shuttle fares and fast passes into Laguna shores. You’ll be done.
Sub starts in with the hotdog stand again.
“Problem. Integration. Need. Convergence. Solution.”
One of the dumbshits asks how to use the words in a sentence, but Sub just points him back to the screen. He’s like Hali Colorado, counting up letters instead of numbers.
Most of the kids have cleared out and you’re deciding your route home. You don’t want to see Hector or Hali, who’ll be waiting along the usual route to tap kids the way those day contractors do your parents. You’re thinking about waiting until dark, when the heavy school doors swing open and out pops Sub, his skin all shiny. He’s just washed his face in one of the sinks and bits of pink powdery soap stick to his chin. You don’t say a word, just watch him as he slouches, belly sagging over his belt across the courtyard toward the chain link fence surrounding the faculty parking lot.
Problems. He’s got ‘em.
You’re on him in two minutes, leaning on his car, your leg throbbing as you lean down where nobody can see you.
“Mr. Jaynes,” you say.
He halts, rears back like a spooked horse.
Need. You’ve got one.
“You don’t holler and cuss those kids out once in awhile, you don’t get respect.”
He smirks and reaches for his keys. “I’m not allowed to yell at the kids. District policy. And you do know you’re not allowed beyond that fence.”
“I bet this was your best day yet,” you say.
He folds his arms and leans against the hood as you limp around the front of the car. On the passenger’s seat, you spy a bottle of Jack Daniels peeking out beneath a girly magazine. It’s sad being this guy.
“I bet those kids is gonna remember what you said.”
He still doesn’t get it.
Inheritance. Whatever. Convergence. You think you know what it means.
“How about it keeps going that way. I help you. I get a cut. Kind of like I’m your agent.”
“Ms. Podesta,” he sighs. “I’m afraid that’s not how education is supposed to work.”
“Far as I can see, that’s how it does.”
He drops his head back, parts his lips as if he’s going to argue, but you can see he’s tired past arguing. His eyes are sunken, and he’s starting to take on that glassy eyed look that all subs have before they either hit a kid or quit. He’s like you. Nowhere else to go.
“Watch me,” you say.
It ain’t so hard to remember.
First there’s your ELSERS, which mean all of this stuff about being a reflective communicator and responsive questioner. Think about your shit and the shit other people say before you say anything back basically. They think you’ll remember it easier if you just pare it down to letters. Then there’s TIP for Technologically Integrated Planning, and you’ve got to know your ALPOS if you want a diploma. New law in California says all the kids in the poor districts have to know their ALPOS to prove their parents aren’t illegal immigrants or some shit. It’s so easy, you wonder why you didn’t just go along with it in the first place, keep Principal Ferrara out of your face.
By the end of three months, Sub’s got a fat bonus and you’ve paid Hali Colorado back with interest. When you drop him that last wad of liberating cash, Hector’s eyes bug out like he’s watching a kitchen fire on a food show. He’s been waiting all this time for you to let him finish what he started, but you take one good look at him and see all that was just the ratgum.
Hector leans in, blowing the reek of a forty ouncer in your ear. “How many tricks that take?”
Hali shoves him hard, and you almost laugh at Hector when he pulls you out of earshot.
“Who you workin’ with?”
Problem. Need. This is all yours, you tell yourself. He can’t go beyond the school gate. You shove your hands deep down in your pockets and stare straight back.
“A sub. At Greeley”
When you tell him your plan, Hali Colorado throws his head back and laughs.
Kid acts up, fucks up on the learning objective once, he gets off with a warning, but kid does it twice, and it’s back around the building for a talking to, and if he’s really stirring up shit, you get a couple of Hali’s boys to convince him to transfer to Vocation Village or drop out. You’ve got captains now in other classes, whole other grades shaving off teacher bonuses, cause Sub’s got his other sub friends in on it, volunteering ’cause everybody else is too scared to teach here.
Principal Ferrara walks down the hallways grinning like she’s on ratgum and your class is breezy as a country club. You learn the letters and shoot the shit. You show off your new shoes, the boogie board you’re going to take next time to Laguna Shores. Sub’s just signed a full-time contract, and even better, he’s in charge of bringing in other Subs. The Greeley High miracle they’re calling him. And you, you just stay behind the curtain.
Smothered, just a little. Empty.
Last Saturday, you spent forty dollars on a shuttle bus and pass to Laguna Shores. Took two hours to get you through the checkpoints set up from Santa Ana to Corona Del Mar, and by the time you got in the water, it was almost time to go home. You’re thinking you should save your money. Your leg ain’t bothering you these days, and you’re thinking if you can just get enough, there might be other places you can go.
You’re scratching your name into the desk when Sub comes skidding into class. His eyes are bugging out and his puke yellow tie hangs loose around his neck.
“District.” He ducks his head out the door for the second time. “We’ve got to make this look good.”
“Or what?” You pick at a piece of gum you’ve found in one of the grooves, flick it at the dusty floor.
“Or?” he looks at you like you’re nuts. “We got any construction skins in here? Maybe we should decorate this place, add some cheer.”
He thinks they’re going to sniff him out, throw his fat paychecks and his promotions in the trash. He looks out into the hall again, mouths a cuss word.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
You shake your head, rise to silence the class with the meanest look you can muster as Sub steps behind you. He punches a few letters into the boardskin and smiles like he’s selling cars. It’s good timing, cause the suits open the door unannounced. Principal Ferrara is with them, too, whispering all respectful, like she’s showing them a secret rite.
And Sub, he slides right into it.
“Now,” he says, as if finishing up a final point. “Who can sum up today’s learning objective?”
We all shoot up our hands, and Sub rolls his head back and laughs warmly at our drive. He lifts his hand in the air and moves it from side to side like he’s choosing something tasty from a platter.
Kenny stands, stiffens like soldier and belts, “Learning objective 1.2a stands for AEL or Age Equivalent Language. All students will be able to speak and write at their grade level.”
“Excellent, Kenny,” Principle Ferrara claps her hand together.
Sub turns toward the door as if he’s surprised to see them.
“We’ve got visitors class. Say ‘hello.’”
We wave. “Hello!”
Principal Ferrara strolls past you, squeezes Sub’s shoulder and gives it a shake.
“You wouldn’t believe how many times I hear teachers saying it’s impossible,” she says to a woman in a starched blue suit, “but Mr. Jaynes here is practically running this whole program solo.”
You can tell that Blue’s the one who’s got Sub sweating. She doesn’t smile, and her lips are drawn so tight you think her face might suck itself into her skull.
“Successfully. It seems,” Blue says.
Ferrara points to one of the dumbshits in the front of the class. “The beginning of last year, Kenny was rated far below proficient. Now he’s testing far above. He knows his URPS and his ALPOS, and we don’t even have him on an IEP anymore.”
Kenny smiles, everyone does, including you, but the suit doesn’t crack. She’s nodding, looking at Ferrara like someone listening to an old person tell the same story for the hundredth time. She pulls out a skinscreen, taps a few times. It crackles like real paper as it hardens into a thin, flat slide.
“Kenny,” Blue says, her voice softer. “May I ask you a favor?”
Kenny looks uncertainly at Principal Ferrara. He takes a step forward.
“I’d like to give you little reading test.” She holds up the skinscreen, smiles primly. “It won’t count as part of your grade. Just think of it as a game.”
Kenny takes it unsteadily in his hand, runs his thumb over the stream of letters spread out across the page so crazy you can’t believe they’re for real. Maybe she’s trying to trick him. Maybe she’s rigging the game, so Sub won’t get his bonuses.
Kenny takes a breath and starts to read.
can dy lu
His voice is shaky. His tongue stumbles over the words, something about lemons, green, and chocolate, and you haven’t had that color in your head since Hector plugged your system with the ratgum. Not even the ocean’s that color anymore. You don’t know what it means, that locomotive spouting violets, but you do know as you listen that you’re somewhere else.
It ain’t Laguna Shores, or the mall, or the garage where Hali Colorado counts his vials and his money, but it’s new and it’s warm and someplace no one’s ever bothered to tell you about.
Blue pulls the skinscreen away. “Thank you, Kenny.”
Sub smiles, the relief palpable on his pasty, sweat drenched face. Ferrara pats Kenny on the back and turns hopefully back to the suit. But you, you raise your hand.
“So what’s that mean?”
There’s silence as Sub shoots you an angry, desperate look.
“It uh, means what it means, Ms. Podesta.”
Principal Ferrara nods. The suits glance at one another, sniffing out the stink of nerves or lies. You think. But then Kenny beams, opens his dumbshit mouth.
“I know what ‘can’ means.”
“Go on,” says Principle Ferrara.
He holds his head up, grins like his long dead puppy’s come back to life.
“Competency Assessment Number.”
You’re at home counting your money a few weeks later when you see Greeley on the news. There’s the suit, dressier this time, holding up Greeley as proof that any school can change.
“Throwing money at a problem never helps,” says someone else, a businessman or mayor, you don’t know. You do know that Sub’s scared shitless, ‘cause he’s meeting Hali Colorado tonight, he’s going to spread the miracle throughout the district. He’s got to now. Too much at stake.
TV spouts more words – “mutual respect, engagement, all kids are motivated” – and you think about the thing Kenny read. You found it in the cloud, got a copy on your skinscreen and spent all last night reading the letters of a guy named e.e.
You wonder what they stand for.
You know what that means.
“It’s going to be my neck,” Sub told you. “You want to lose all this, Podesta?”
He pointed to your brand new sneakers, violet. Luminous.
And you thought that maybe you did.
Sara Kate Ellis lives in Tokyo where she is a master of seat nabbing during crowded commutes. She is a 2011 Lambda fellow in genre fiction with stories in Electric Spec, The Red Penny Papers and Bête Noire. She likes soba, loves her Asagaya neighborhood, and can be found now and then at mojikashite.wordpress.com She says:
This story comes from staring too long at the slow-moving train wreck known as education reform. Although I like the insanity of thinking acronyms can save the world, someone’s out to make a buck — why shouldn’t it be the kids?
Illustration by Hans Hillewaert is provided by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
We all remember how cruel and unrelenting the Campano regime was. Such a topic has been covered on a regular basis in our public schools and universities. Months of research and polish have been devoted to condensing the tragedy and fire of that time to the space of a textbook chapter. I have sometimes, in the line of my occupation, been asked to supervise these efforts, when I am not busy with my instruction at the university, owing to my research into the stories of the heroes of that time.
There is one hero’s name I never see, however: Armin. His name is already in other textbooks and histories, but as an artist who fell victim to the Campanos during their crackdown on “renegade” art. He is a mere footnote in the study of history.
This is a grievous error. His story is widely known, in a sense; in the tale of his life and imprisonment, he is treated as an important symbol of the forces that eventually toppled the Campanos. Even so, he is treated as folklore, a man blown up into a mythic hero by a public desirous for one. I, however, wish to reintroduce Armin as a man whose achievements were in fact real, moreso than anyone could have realized.
He had a full name, like all men born in civilized society, but he chose to go by simply Armin. No one dared contradict him for fear that he would stop with his creations. His oil paintings, the ones that survived the Conflagration, have been sought after by bored, wealthy men and museums for decades now. His brushwork was magnificent enough, but his truest characteristic is his use of space. So many artists feel compelled, even obligated, to fill the whole canvas with color and texture; Armin entertained no obligations to any tradition, creating his own instead.
It only used black and blue paint. Aside from some concentric semicircles, fractal patterns, and rows of parallel lines that sometimes become perpendicular, it was threadbare, random scrawls on a yellowed canvas. When I saw it from a distance, standing in front of a sculpture of a horse with water pouring from its mouth, I dismissed it after a second’s examination. Something made me look back, though. I slowly crossed the busy floor of that museum and approached the painting. Shapes converged with closeness, and my mind, grasping a mental image, connected his brushstrokes. I saw a circular ruin encircled by leafless trees, with a wild dog bowing over its front legs in front of a crumbling, moonlit altar. I fell spellbound. When I came out of my trance, I grabbed the nearest stranger at the shoulders and, forgetting the day-to-day demands of human manner, told her what I saw. She smiled and confessed that she had seen a harbor in twilight, the water full with fishing boats, a lone seagull perched on a post next to a tired sailor.
In the days of Armin’s living prime, exhibitions for his creations were serious cultural events. So few working artists remained in practice, left in poverty by the Campano regime and its edicts. They rarely ever risked the disfavor of the government, and of the Campanos, since they were one and the same, despite their claims to the contrary. Armin held no fear, though; he welcomed all citizens to his exhibitions. At a given event, one hundred people could be there, with one hundred different visions of the same painting. All the while, Armin stood by, listening, smiling, nodding with affirmation whenever a patron told him what they saw but mischievously silent about explaining what it meant.
The story goes that on Armin’s last day as a free man, the Last Campano, Raoul The Lesser, visited Armin’s gallery. In the midst of an exhibition, a horde of royal guards came marching through the front door unannounced, turning everyone stiff with fear. Six or seven men in black uniform, a severe slash of red bisecting their torsos diagonally from shoulder to waist, bearing their rifles with rigged bayonets, their faces composed of stone. And, in the middle of them, the center of this miniature universe, Raoul Campano, a small man with deep-set eyes and a stiff back.
No one saw any fear in Armin, however. He welcomed the tyrant with a flashing smile and a bow and directed him to his newest painting, sidestepping him as he approached it. For the next minute, Raoul stared into the painting with intense focus. Not a sound echoed through that gallery as everyone awaited his response, aside from what would have been the occasional nervous cough or the sound of shuffling feet. Armin stood to the side, his arms folded, his eyes half-open and keen.
After a minute, Raoul turned to him. “I don’t understand. What is it?”
Armin said with a smirk, “It’s what you make of it.”
“I don’t see anything,” Raoul said, turning back to the painting. “I can see your brushstrokes and the texture of the canvas, and I can see the colors you used, but it’s not becoming anything.”
“Everyone sees something.” Armin moved to stand beside him, looking at the painting.
“What am I supposed to see?”
“Your imagination must determine that for you.” After a pause, he said, “Unless you have no imagination.”
Perhaps that statement wouldn’t have been as damaging had they been two men standing in a gallery speaking to one another privately. Then, Armin’s statement likely would have sounded like a friendly joke meant to elicit a nervous smile, or simply something offhand, like an afterthought. There were other people there, however, and these people snickered uncontrollably, and they hid their laughter by stifling it. But stifling laughter can be worse than giving way to it; it can give someone the impression that not only are they laughing at you, but they know it’s wrong to do it and can’t help it.
Raoul became red-faced and glared at Armin for a good ten seconds. “Beware what you say to me,” he said in a gruff voice, then turned on his heels and stomped out of the gallery, his men in tow behind him like a row of ducklings. When the royal guard arrested Armin the next morning, the reason given was treason by inciting subordination.
For the rest of his life, Armin lived in a solitary tower in the Campano military compound. Almost a perfect circle in shape, Armin’s room held one high window, too high to reach standing up in a tower too high to fall from without dying. The only other object in the room besides Armin was a small yellow rug, a cruel joke of a bed, too thin to give much cushion against the rough stone floor, but too thick to be rolled up and used as a noose; even in that latter regard, there was nothing to hang from. The room itself acted as an instrument used to break men’s spirits, the same way a torturer might use a rack, barren as it was of anything that might help someone bear their imprisonment or gain easy release.
What surprised Raoul and his men the most was how agreeable a prisoner Armin was. For the first few weeks, every morning when they unlocked the door to his dungeon and stepped in with his pathetic breakfast, he greeted them with a warm smile and then continued sitting on his rug in silence, presumably lost in the inner space of his mind.
One morning, a guard walked in to find Armin meditating on his rug, as usual, and laid a bowl of gruel on the floor next to him. As he rose to exit the room, he saw a design on the wall, across from where Armin sat. He glanced back at Armin, who stared into an unknown point in the distance beyond the walls of the tower. The guard approached the wall, watching the details of the design come into focus. He saw a man’s face, square-jawed and gallant, with thorny patterns painted on his cheeks. Beside the face by a few inches sat a hand, clasped around the handle of a spear.
The guard promptly held a conference with Raoul the Lesser in the latter’s main chambers, decadent as could be expected for a Campano. Raoul decided to let the situation play out, baffling as it was: Where did the brush come from? What served as the paint? Raoul did not know; he could not imagine it for himself.
The painting continued, despite the establishment of a regular watch to maintain near-constant surveillance. The face, hand, and spear transformed into a warrior over the course of a day, standing still on a grassy knoll. Another day brought two more warriors, decorated like their brother and standing at attention, rising to battle. The day after brought ten more warriors, now assembling into a regiment and bearing bows and catapults. The day after that brought revolutionary guerillas, dressed in their spartan attire and holding rifles in mid-aim. Uniforms in the pattern of the royal guard lay on the ground in front of them, torn by bullet holes. All of this rounded the walls, painted in a creamy gray color with minute brushstrokes. It overwhelmed the guards when they visited Armin every morning. They always tried to catch Armin in mid-process, but every time they observed him they found him sitting on the floor, his legs crossed under him, smiling and staring into the distance.
Raoul could only take this for so long; not only did Armin persist in perfect health, he also displayed seemingly limitless resources in continuing his passion. He first had his guards search the dungeon itself, and then Armin’s physical person, for his paintbrush, or whatever it was he used. They found nothing, no paintbrush, no stains on Armin’s fingers.
Raoul’s next experiment started with having a guard break the fingers on Armin’s right hand. When the guard came in the next morning, he found Zeus’s thunderbolt and Ares’ bloody battle-axe on the wall. That night, Raoul had a guard break the fingers on Armin’s other hand. The next morning brought a panorama of the Hindu gods: Hanuman the monkey with his golden tunic and his neverending staff, Kali and the severed heads that lay at her feet as she danced. All the guards refused to enter the room at that point. This left Raoul with no other choice but to take the next step of his experiment himself: taking one of his ceremonial swords with him into the dungeon and, without any prior warning, blinding Armin.
For the next two days after this act, no new paintings covered the walls. Armin himself lost his cheer, and he began to thin out a bit as well, according to the guards who supervised him. No more painting, and no more Armin; Raoul probably thought this was one of his better strategic decisions.
On the third day, a guard entered Armin’s dungeon to find Armin paler and thinner than the day before, stooping over slightly in his sitting position. A gleam of red caught the guard’s eye and he glanced at the walls of the dungeon. The mural had grown overnight to cover the walls completely, all in red paint. Surrounding the guard were the host of gods: the Greek and Hindu from before, but also the Norse with great Thor and his hammer Mjolnir and the valkyries, the Egyptian gods led by the falcon-headed Horus and the beast that devoured the hearts of the evil at judgment, and the gods and heroes of the Celts, led by Cuchulain in the midst of berserker fury, eyes bulging out of his sockets and muscular limbs contorted.
They circled the guard within the dungeon, climbing their way up to the ceiling, touching it and snaking back down to the floor. They mingled with the images of the revolutionary guerillas that threatened the Campanos’ rule. In the background of the mural, the Campano military compound lay in rubble, tendrils of smoke and dust floating into an imaginary sky. The guard is reported to have fainted on the spot, and every guard who tried to enter the room after him befell a variety of ills, including severe nausea and paralysis of the limbs. Those that survived venturing into the room told Raoul, who locked himself in his bedroom and refused to come out for the rest of the day.
Later that night, when the moon hung like a lantern above the Campano compound, the ground shook horribly, causing parts of the outer wall to collapse in a massive din. Those guards and soldiers that weren’t crushed under the cascade of rock and slate were startled into action. Sorting their way through the rubble of their compound, Campano’s men heard something like a great stampede roaring closer. They struggled into the open air, only to face an unbelievable sight: the divine army painted on Armin’s dungeon walls wrecking the compound and bearing down on them.
Many men scrambled out of the ruins and into the surrounding forest, babbling incoherently, their minds broken. Those who remained and stood guard saw untold levels of casualties. Some were eaten whole by Cerebus and Fenrir, victims to a contest the two held with one another. Others were scorched into ashes by Shiva or pillaged of their souls by Hades and the armies of the dead, their bodies dropping to the earth like abandoned puppets.
In this chaos, one god, Hanuman, ventured up Armin’s tower alone, climbing a spiral staircase lit by flickering torches. The shadow of Hanuman’s pole stretched ahead of him, racing him up the stairs. At last he reached the wooden door to Armin’s dungeon. He placed a hand upon it and willed it open, revealing Armin sitting on his rug, unshaken by the terrible clamor surrounding him. With his sightless eyes he looked up at Hanuman and smiled. “I knew you would come,” he said, his voice weak. Without a word, Hanuman plucked Armin up into his arms and cradled him, warming him with his fur, and he went down the stairs and out of the chaos, into the forest with the rest of the army that accompanied him, leaving the survivors to compose themselves and pray that a second surge wouldn’t strike them.
This is not an uncommon story. I first heard it when I was just a child, and I’ve heard it many times since. Historically speaking, it originated in the aftermath of the great tremors that shook the capital city, which manifested most severely at the Campano compound. Rumors of divine punishment and stirrings of wish-fulfillment gave way to the unexplainable madness of the men that escaped the destruction. These mingled with the sudden disappearance of no other prisoner but Armin in the aftermath. A singular story arose out of these ingredients, the story of Armin’s imprisonment and escape via the gods, let loose by his own imagination. Eventually, this story became a rallying cry for those tired of being abused by a ruthless dictator who murdered thousands of innocent civilians and imprisoned thousands more. They wished to be like Armin, to take up weapons of their own choosing and strike back at Raoul The Lesser, reclaiming their lives and their country. No single greater manifestation of this desire exists than what took place only seven days after the tremors: the Great Rebellion, where ten thousand men and women stormed the ruins of Raoul the Lesser’s compound and snuffed out the Campano regime.
I’ll leave the rest of the details regarding the Great Rebellion to other historians, who have documented that story with far better research and writing than my own. However, I seem to be the only one committing that same level of attention to Armin’s role in events. Part of the reasoning behind this, I assume, is that so much of this story operates on a level of hearsay and social construction. It does not help that the timeline of Armin’s life seems to abruptly stop after his imprisonment and suspected escape, which strains most attempts to objectively appraise his influence.
That said, I do not appreciate the denial of Armin and the true extent of his influence. There is too much resonance between this supposedly fabulist story and the very real conditions and hopes experienced by very real people, who will swear by it the same way we now swear by the supposedly objective re-tellings of “true” events that comprise the majority of textbooks. What is there to say the events of hundreds of years ago were true, aside from enough people coming together to say they’re true? History itself is suspension of disbelief, and the kinds of things we’re willing to suspend disbelief for. It is the stuff of people’s lives, and those lives are not lived from a distance, or at least the distance that historians often claim to possess. They are lived up close, utterly subjective, and often unbelievable. What I propose, ultimately, is a change of distance. It is much like one of Armin’s paintings: a change in perspective and approach can mean the difference between confusion and enlightenment. This may be our true purpose, embracing and commemorating lives that might otherwise be unbelievable.
Adam Mills is a writer, editor, and teacher currently living in the Missouri Ozarks. He is a recent graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program, based at the University of Southern Maine. He currently works as Managing Editor at Weird Fiction Review and as an editorial assistant for Cheeky Frawg Books. His work can be found in publications such as The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities. You can find him online at his blog adamwmills.wordpress.com. He says:
One of my favorite possessions is a copy of this anthology, The Book of Fantasy, edited in part by Jorge Luis Borges. In that anthology, there’s this little story called “The Tale and the Poet,” which reads: “Tulsi Das, the Hindu poet, created the tale of Hanuman and his army of monkeys. Years afterwards, a despot imprisoned him in a stone tower. Alone in his cell, he fell to meditating, and from his meditation came Hanuman and his monkey army, who laid low the city, broke open the tower, and freed Tulsi Das.” It’s attributed to Sir Richard Burton, but there’s no citation or acknowledgement of that being the real authorship. In all likelihood, it is a forgery written by Borges for the collection. I read it as a writing prompt from Borges himself, to see if I could “explode” that little story into something bigger. If anyone encounters Borges in their dreams any time soon, tell him I owe him my thanks.
Photograph of the library in the Kirby Hall of Civil Rights building at Lafayette College in Easton, PA, US by Benjamin D. Esham is provided by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States.
Moon’s angelic twin an old man in the sea —
His lashes are chromatic
And brow hawkish, peacock scales
Swill at hands and feet, at ear fin peaks.
He circuits an apple tree sprout
A virtual tide moves his lung —
Mute sunset bends afternoon’s blue into current —
Illuminate a strange palm and glass claws.
Shadow hurtles to earth
Bobs at the water’s surface.
Holly R. Appling lives in Canada. Her poems have appeared in QWERTY, Carousel, Leaf Press, WEIRDYEAR, Jabberwocky, Aphelion, The Scarlet Sound and The River Journal. Others will be upcoming in nycBigCityLit and The Round. She says:
Regarding the inspiration for the poem, I am hesitant to make an attempt to explain this as I think we each see what we see when we look at the world, related to our own sensibilities and frames of reference and experience. I would be more interested to learn what others may see in the work.
Illustration is “Apples and Leaves” by Ilya Repin, 1879, and is in the public domain.
There is no safety in numbers
I am the heavy daughter; *
My socket mouth abides. My life
Tumult, tumult. Making, make. So:
*The phrase heavy daughter is from the last line of John Berryman’s last dream song, #385.
Lisa M. Cole is a full time writer who holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Arizona’s Creative Writing program. She is the author of two chapbooks, “Tinder// Heart” and “The Bodyscape” both from Dancing Girl Press, and “Renegade//Heart” forthcoming from Blood Pudding Press. She says:
“After Songs” was written for my friend D. He is a musician who often plays his songs for me on his guitar. When I have writer’s block, I ask him to play for me, and 9 times out of 10, I write something as he is singing to me.
Illustration is an engraving from The Seven Liberal Arts by Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550) and is in the public domain.