Our first issue of 2012 tangles, as everything outside the window’s slowly waking up, with the complications of desire.
In Sofia Samatar’s “The Nazir”, two very different women struggle with being kept from the things they want — or, alternately, the price of getting them; S.E. Gale’s “Chorus of the Dead” mingles regret, desire, and silences into a less-usual story about death; and George Galuschak’s “The Wanting Game” defines a line between want, and sacrifice, and need.
Poetry from Kelly Rose Pflug-Back, W.C. Roberts, N. Marin, and Robert K. Gardner yearns for certainty, and completion, and what was and what could be — and as always, there are the usual book reviews.
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, enjoy your spring, and may you get that much closer to the things you uncomplicatedly desire.
Vol. 11 Issue 1
“The Nazir” – Sofia Samatar
“Chorus of the Dead” – S. E. Gale
“The Wanting Game” – George Galuschak
“Sweet Mercy, Her Body an Ark of Wild Beasts” – Kelly Rose Pflug-Back
“ZuZu’s Petals” – W. C. Roberts
“Vintage” – N. Marin
“Nightstorm” – Robert K. Gardner
Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts – Liz Bourke
Michele Lang’s Dark Victory – Maya Chhabra
Before that stifling evening in 1924 the children had always thought it impossible for grownups to see the Nazir and live.
Cynthia’s elder brother Roddy was the authority in this matter, as in all others. A tall, sullenly handsome fourteen-year-old, who would later drink himself to death with majestic nonchalance among the hollyhocks of a house in Dorset inherited from their uncle, Roddy had first seen the Nazir at the age of eight. He was out in his little boat, Ward el-Sham, with Mansour the gardener at the helm, when the surface of the river had suddenly gone dark and a wind rattled wildly in the fig trees. A terrible odor had rained from the sky with a delicate pattering sound, along with a number of little bright objects he thought at first were pearls. When they dropped in the water he saw they were maggots. The Nazir passed over him, crooning. Its voice resembled that of the Italian head matron at the Anglo-American Hospital. He couldn’t tell what it said, or even whether it spoke English or Arabic or its own strange tongue. It turned its head and winged southward along the river.
“It had talons like this,” said Roddy, making a great C with his arms. “There were shreds of something hanging from them. Like cloth.”
“Did the gardener see it?” asked Hugh, wiping his nose on his wrist.
“Of course not,” said Roddy. “He’s a grownup. He’d be dead.”
Hugh had never seen the Nazir himself. Cynthia had never seen it either, but she thought she had caught a glimpse of its shadow once, soon after her nurse Félicité had gone back to Lausanne. Félicité, rosy, cheerful and short of breath, helmeted in a brilliant topee, fond of Offenbach and jam, had drunk rat poison. She had floated for a week between life and death, laid out like a stout white pillow on the bed in her little room, and when she was well she was sent away. She left Cynthia her button collection, a postcard of the Rhine and the lumpy armchair in the nursery where she used to do the mending.
The first night Félicité was away—not ill upstairs, but really gone—Cynthia curled up in bed clutching a rag doll and the postcard. She ran the edge of the card along her teeth and took a few experimental, consoling bites of the worn paper. Félicité’s chair was in darkness, but the lamp with the colored beads on the table beside it gave back a ghost of garden moonlight. Downstairs the servants were laughing, and there was a splash as someone tossed out a basin of water. Then a low rumble, a pressure, a killing fear. The Nazir.
“I didn’t really see it,” she explained some years later to a group of girls at her aunt’s home in London, at a time when she had a respect for accuracy. “It was more of a feeling—like a weight pressing me down. All I saw was a shadow drifting by. The shadow of a huge wing.”
Her audience gave a gratifying shiver, a chorus of mews. And Cynthia, bobbed and self-assured, clad in a tasteful blue wool jersey, recalled the specific terror of that Cairo night, the wind, the conviction that life, like a row of candles, was going out.
The grownup who saw the Nazir and lived was Hugh’s mother, Mrs. Ashgrove.
The Ashgroves lived in a villa on Kasr el-Nil. Mr. Ashgrove, weedy and dyspeptic, was in the Civil Service. Mrs. Ashgrove rode, favored trousers and scarves, and smoked a hookah. Cynthia had once heard her father describe Mrs. Ashgrove as “a real blonde, of a type more common in Germany than in England.” She remembered the words for their tone rather than their meaning: it was rare for her father to speak so mellowly and appreciatively of anyone. It made her shy every time her mother took her to call on the Ashgroves. “Careful,” her mother warned her as they went up the ill-kept little path, picking their way among the discarded fruit-skins. They both jumped when the monkey, Marco Polo, threw himself the length of his rope, screeching a welcome. The hair on his neck was quite rubbed away. “Dreadful creature,” cried Cynthia’s mother, trotting a few steps, for Marco Polo had been known to hurl feces at guests. The doors of the villa stood open, and in the parlor Mrs. Ashgrove perched on a ladder, blurred by the sunlight, hanging curtains.
“Minna, dear,” gasped Cynthia’s mother. “What are you doing?”
“Lovely, aren’t they?” Mrs. Ashgrove called down. “So much more cheerful!”
“Look out,” Cynthia advised her mother, who was about to stumble over the suffragi, Sherif, who sat on the floor grinding coffee in a mortar.
Cynthia’s mother recoiled. She picked up her skirts, sailed round the suffragi and approached the ladder. “Minna, my dear, come down. It isn’t safe.”
“Oh, I’ve a head for heights.”
“But why not let the servants take care of it?”
“No need. I’ll be through in a moment. Hello, Cynthia.”
“Hello,” said Cynthia, lingering in the doorway.
Her mother turned round a few times. There were books and unfinished bits of embroidery scattered on the couches. Most of the squares of embroidery had needles in them. A cut-glass bowl occupied an armchair, glittering like a tiara.
Cynthia’s mother moved the bowl to the table, pushing aside a plate of fish-bones and an illustrated magazine. “Really, Minna,” she said, looking about her despairingly. Sherif thumped his mortar, scattering coffee-grounds.
“There,” said Mrs. Ashgrove. She climbed down the ladder, smacked her palms together and greeted Cynthia and her mother with kisses. Her thick hair was tied on her neck with a ribbon. Up close she was less beautiful, but more disturbing. Her white shirt smelled of cucumbers freshly sliced.
“Hugh’s in the garden,” she said, “plotting mischief.”
Cynthia trailed outside. She knew that Hugh was not plotting anything interesting. He hadn’t the brain. He shared with his mother only his shock of golden hair and the appearance of impregnable good health. Crossing the veranda she passed a window and saw her mother leaning toward Mrs. Ashgrove, murmuring urgently, and she knew that in an hour, seated at Groppi’s with Mrs. Bourne-Hopewell, her mother would sigh over dear Minna, her inexperience, her disorder. “Trousers!” she would say. “Absolutely alone with the suffragi!” And Mrs. Bourne-Hopewell would shake her military jowls. But Cynthia would be happy. She was going to have lemon ice, the kind that came with a little rosewater sprinkled on top.
By Roderick Rutherford
The sages say the Nazir lives in the moon. It prefers the half-moon, and lies on top of it with its huge tail hanging down. This is why the period of the half-moon is best for traveling by night. Full-moon nights are risky, and the dark of the moon even worse.
The Nazir is in decay. Nearly all who have seen it mention its stench.
It likes grownups to eat, but only children can see it.
It eats very slowly, lying in its lair. Sometimes you can see the bones it tosses down. We call them falling stars.
Cynthia, who had a stubborn streak and was careless with breakable objects, was never whipped. Roddy, organized and withdrawn, was whipped rather often. He was whipped for laziness at lessons, for eating the nasty messes the servants cooked for themselves, and for what their father called his “crooked eye.” “Don’t look at me with your crooked eye,” their father would shout, and if Roddy did not look down in time he was certain to be whipped. Strangely, it was their father who had something wrong with his eyes: one was of glass, the original having been mislaid at Ladysmith.
Roddy was beaten a few days before they learned that Mrs. Ashgrove had seen the Nazir.
Cynthia was skating through the drawing room in her stockings. The vast room, with its floor of reddish marble, was perfect for this exercise, although of course you had to avoid the carpets. She was humming, skating closer with each pass to the carved sideboard, tasting the danger of banging into it and shattering a decanter, when her father’s dragoman Ahmed passed through the room on his way to the library, buttoned tightly into the Circassian costume he used as livery. The skin between his brows was dusted with dandruff, a sign of November. He nodded to Cynthia, said “Good afternoon, Miss,” and went into the library. He left the door open and Cynthia heard his murmur and then her father’s voice. “If you will excuse me for a moment, gentlemen.”
She skated into the corner and crouched in the shadow of a cabinet. Her father strode through the drawing room, purposeful, his head thrust forward. Through the open door she could see part of the library: there was a map on the wall, stuck all over with colored pins. Ahmed, bowing, led two men out into the drawing room: Mr. Ashgrove and Robertson Bey. They sank in the cushioned chairs. “Whiskey, Ahmed,” said Mr. Ashgrove. He scratched nervously underneath his stubbly chin. Robertson Bey sat frowning, his coat pulled tight across his shoulders, his big hands on his knees.
A moment later her father returned. He moved at the same determined pace. One of his hands gripped the collar of Roddy’s jacket. Roddy, inside the jacket, skipped along beside him, trying to keep his footing. He wore only one shoe.
They went into the library and her father slammed the door.
Ahmed brought the whiskey on a tray.
Robertson Bey swallowed his and gestured for more, and Ahmed poured. Cynthia’s father could be heard in the library, shouting.
“Endanger yourself… Disgrace… The native quarter…”
“Bloody mess,” said Mr. Ashgrove.
“Started two years ago,” grunted Robertson Bey.
“Started in 1919,” said Mr. Ashgrove. He covered his eyes as if he were suffering from a headache. “I don’t know… Sometimes I think…”
“Think what?” Robertson Bey inquired sharply.
“Nothing,” said Mr. Ashgrove, lowering his hand. When he picked up his glass the ice rattled.
“Don’t want to lose your nerve.”
“Oh, it’s nothing like that. It’s Minna. She’s upset about things. Brooding. It makes the house—well, it’s a strain.”
“Only to be expected,” said Robertson Bey, losing interest at once, gazing at the picture above the sideboard, camels in an oasis. He took another swallow of whiskey. His scalp had begun to sweat. “Damned hot for November,” he remarked. “Could be the cause of all the trouble.”
Mr. Ashgrove laughed weakly. Cynthia shifted her weight with care, trying to ease the cramp in her legs. It will be over soon, she thought. Surely the sun was advancing across the carpet.
In the silence the strokes of the belt came faint and rhythmic like the ticking of a watch.
THE TALE OF ABU WALEED AND ABU SAMEER
By Roderick the Younger
A tale is told of Abu Waleed, a holy man of the desert. On a time a man called Abu Sameer went to visit him in his cave. “How can a man see the Nazir?” he asked.
“He cannot,” replied Abu Waleed. “It is a grace given only to children.”
“But I desire to see the Nazir,” said Abu Sameer.
Then the sage smiled and said: “Very well. You will see the Nazir when you walk east and west at the same time, when you are able to lick your palm without either bowing or raising your hand, and when you look through the back of your head.”
Then Abu Sameer went away disappointed, not knowing how to achieve these things. Some years later he was captured at Constantinople. His enemies tied each of his legs to a horse, and drove one horse east and the other west, so that his legs were torn from his body. Then they pulled out his tongue and made him hold it in his hand. Lastly they flayed his head, starting at the nape, and brought the skin down over his face, leaving him in darkness.
It is believed that in his last moments he saw the Nazir.
They went to the Ashgroves’ for dinner in their father’s big motorcar. The unseasonable heat continued; Cynthia’s white piqué stockings prickled. The streets were empty except for policemen, standing on the corners, who saluted smartly as the car went past.
Someone had begun clearing the path at the Ashgroves’, but stopped halfway through. Marco Polo was nowhere to be seen. As they neared the house a white shape coalesced in the evening grey and glided toward them: Mrs. Ashgrove in her evening gown.
“Hello,” she said. She kissed their parents as if everything were quite normal, as if she’d come down the steps of the house and not through the dry, exhausted garden. Her hair was plaited and circled her head like a crown.
“Minna, darling,” their mother stammered, “what have you done with your shoes?”
Mrs. Ashgrove glanced down at her feet, pale and bare on the banana-skins of the path. “Left them somewhere. Please go in, don’t wait for me. Evan’s in the library, I think.” She looked up, and Cynthia realized it was her eyes that made one uncomfortable: so bright and so direct.
“But,” said Cynthia’s mother, gesturing helplessly at the garden, a wilderness of thorns and fallen eucalyptus leaves.
“Come on, Addie,” their father muttered. Their mother took his arm.
“He’ll tell you I’ve been seeing dragons,” Mrs. Ashgrove called after them.
She glanced at the children. Her arms were crossed, as if she had a chill. Sequins glittered in the deep V of her gown. “True, you know. At least, it wasn’t a dragon. More like an enormous bat. Horrible.” She looked away then, at the guardhouse, the iron gate. And Roddy, who had barely spoken to Cynthia since his last beating, who for the first time had refused to allow her into his room afterward, although she had brought a cloth and a bowl of water to cool his head because he said the headache afterward was the worst thing about being caned—Roddy clasped Cynthia’s hand.
“What did you say, Mrs. Ashgrove?”
Again her flashing gaze. “Something awful flew over the house. But no one else saw it.”
“Roddy’s seen it,” Cynthia cried.
“Hush!” Roddy glanced at the house, then grasped Mrs. Ashgrove’s hand and pulled them both away from the path, through the trees.
Dry leaves crackled beneath them, releasing fragrance. They paused among the slender shadows. “You’ve seen the Nazir, Mrs. Ashgrove,” Roddy said.
Her eyes widened. “You’ve really seen it, then. You’re not joking.”
“Oh God,” she whispered. “You’ve told the Colonel? Your father, I mean?”
“No good. Look, you can’t stay here.”
“I know.” The brightness in her eyes grew sharper, more concentrated, and became tears. “I know. I’ve got to get away. But I don’t know how.”
“Roddy could talk to the guard,” said Cynthia, knowing he could persuade anyone.
Roddy shook his head. “No, he’d be sacked, maybe put in prison.”
“I’ve thought about going over the wall.”
“But why not?” said Roddy, excited. He crunched through the leaves and looked up at the wall. “You could do it. We’d help you get up.”
“There’s broken glass,” Mrs. Ashgrove said. Her voice trembled, and she was not, suddenly, distant and invincible, armored in her golden laugh, fearless with horses and ladders, but one of them.
“Cynthia,” Roddy said. “Get a blanket from the house. And shoes.”
Cynthia ran to the house. The door was open, the drawing room empty. They must be in the music room, where it was cooler. She ran up the staircase, past the bust of Kitchener. In the hall she met Hugh.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“We’re playing hide and seek,” she said.
“Quick,” she told him, “Roddy’s coming,” and he ran to his room to hide, and years later, when they met in London at a dance, she still felt guilty enough to dance with him and to agree to a drive in the countryside the following afternoon.
She ran downstairs, a blanket over her shoulder, Mrs. Ashgrove’s riding boots under her arm. In the garden Mrs. Ashgrove pulled on the boots, and when she lost her balance she put her hand on Cynthia’s shoulder for a moment, her touch as chilly and pure as moonlight.
When Cynthia thinks of Cairo now she remembers a garden party. She and Roddy stood at the window in their nightclothes, looking down. The garden sparkled with fairy lights and everyone looked lovely and somehow distant, the dancers turning slow to the music of the band. They wore transparent wings and garlands of flowers, and laughed as they leaned together, streaks of glitter shining on their cheeks. Her mother held a wand and was tall and beautiful, like a stranger; and the sad donkey’s head with gilt ears was her father. The whole scene often comes back to her in dreams, silent, mysterious. Sometimes it speeds up suddenly, like a film being played too fast. Then it slows down, so that she can read every gesture, every smile. And then it speeds up. And then it slows down. And then it stops.
Cynthia has never seen the Nazir. Not once.
She’s tried everything. At first she thought the key was running away. After she was sent to school in England she ran away twice: once as far as Chiddingly on the train, and once into the woods. After the second time she was sent to London to stay with her aunt. She let a boy take down her knickers in the airing cupboard. Soon afterward her mother arrived from Cairo, dabbing tears of rage with a crumpled glove, and decided that Cynthia had better go to France.
She never saw the Nazir in France, or Italy, or Greece.
She has drunk ouzo and water. She has planted a bomb in a public garden. She has bathed nude in the Arno. She has marched and shouted. She has been jailed. She has never been married. What does the Nazir want?
Sometimes she tells herself that the Nazir cannot leave Egypt. She knows it isn’t true.
Sometimes she tells herself that the Nazir has passed away, that it faded and fell with the old Cairo life, a life crammed into suitcases now, imprisoned in attics.
She knows it isn’t true.
THE SONG OF THE NAZIR
By Saif Al-Atfal
One and two and one and two
Carry me off to the moon with you!
No, my child, my chick, my crow,
You’re far too small to the moon to go.
Teeth you have, but they are thin,
Buds to keep the summer in;
Claws you lack and gizzard too
To crack the skull and grind the stew.
You must stay a little while,
And paint the mirror with a smile,
And hope I do not find you lone
And weak at night, when you are grown.
Hope I never find you slack,
Bearing a rifle on your back,
Riding a camel, tally-ho,
Into a desert white as snow.
If I do, I’ll drink your wails,
And comb your flesh out with my nails;
Your brains I’ll suck, your marrow tap;
I’ll wear your stomach like a cap.
And bits of bone I’ll sprinkle down
In every street, in every town,
While the little ones cry, “Oh Nazir, do
Eat our wicked parents too!”
Sometimes she tells herself that she’s too old. If she sees the Nazir now it will kill her.
She knows that this isn’t true either, because of Mrs. Ashgrove. Mrs. Ashgrove saw the Nazir when she was already grown up, though she was younger then than Cynthia is now. Sometimes when her lover is sleeping Cynthia goes to the window, cups her hands at either side of her face and whispers: “Come.” The glass is so cold, like the ice-cream freezer at Groppi’s. She wants to look into the Nazir’s eyes just once and say: “Do you forgive me?”
“Come,” she whispers. A fragile print of steam on the dark glass. “Come. If you don’t forgive me, then you can take me, I don’t care.” She strikes the glass with her fist, but softly, so as not to wake the man in the bed. She closes her eyes and imagines a claw breaking through from outside.
Cynthia heard of Mrs. Ashgrove only once after the war. It was springtime and freezing in Paris, where Cynthia was waiting for the baby to be born. Her mother wrote, with barely concealed triumph, that Mrs. Ashgrove had been recognized by Robertson Bey on one of his trips to Cairo. She was seated in a cart, being pulled through the streets by a little Arab girl. Her legs were horribly deformed, as if they had both been broken. She wore a dirty black abaya, but when it slipped back Robertson knew her profile at once, although it appeared she had cut off all her hair. He spoke to her, but she refused to speak English and shouted in Arabic for the girl to pull her away, and of course people gathered to see what was going on, and there was nothing poor Robertson Bey could do, being English in Cairo these days. Mad, her mother wrote. Quite mad. She’ll never come home again either, poor girl.
Cynthia laid the letter on the bed. She drew her shawl about her and huddled closer to the heat of the gas ring. Downstairs the drunken newspaper vendor was coming in; the floors were so thin she could hear the landlady snapping at him to close the door. Thank God, she thought with tears in her eyes. She wished Roddy were still alive so that she could tell him. She knew, of course, what had happened to Mrs. Ashgrove’s legs. The Nazir had caught her after all, but then, before it could bear her away, before she was lost forever, it had dropped her.
Sofia Samatar is a PhD student in African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she specializes in twentieth-century Egyptian and Sudanese literatures. She has lived and worked in Egypt and South Sudan, and took her books everywhere she went. Her poetry has appeared in Stone Telling, and her debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria, is forthcoming from Small Beer Press in 2012. She blogs about books and other wonders at sofiasamatar.blogspot.com. She says:
This story used to be a novel. It followed the unhappy lives of a British family in colonial Egypt, and contained no monsters. As a novel, it was sprawling and aimless. Compressed into a short story and granted a winged horror, it seemed to come to life. In particular, the looming presence of one’s own evil deeds, which won’t go away, became stronger when given form as the Nazir, which in Arabic means the Observer or the Overseer—the One Who Looks. The monster enabled me to get at some key themes, particularly the way we inherit privileges whether we want them or not, and how people deal with the irony of being born in a foreign country.
Wikimedia commons image of the monster Amnet By André from Amsterdam, The Netherlands (kist uit de tweede eeuw na Chr. / Teuris) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Dust motes moved like tiny dancers in the sunbeam that sought out the dead man’s face. They caught in his eyelashes, found his nostrils and touched upon his dry lips. His tongue peeked out and ran a thin glaze across his bottom lip and withdrew again, dust in tow.
Liza watched from the upholstered chair by the bed as the cat leapt onto his chest and settled into a sleek ball of orange fur.
The corpse frowned beneath the new weight. His hands slowly sought out the cat’s tail and twined it between long fingers. A small smile tickled at the corners of his mouth. Suddenly irritated, Liza swept the cat off Charlie’s chest and pulled the top sheet up over his face.
“For Christ’s sake, Charlie, you’re dead. Stop moving!” The sheet settled soundlessly over his vacant eyes and stuck fast to his mouth. It didn’t move with his respiration. There was none; just the twitch of his fingers on the mattress, seeking something soft, something interesting to the touch. His long fingernails scratched harshly upon the mattress. I’ll have to trim them tomorrow, Liza thought. She lit a stick of incense, though Charlie didn’t smell at all, and changed into her work overalls.
When she came home to their small house that evening she found the body of a young girl in Hannah Montana pyjamas curled up on the front door mat. Her open eyes were bright in the porch light that Liza had turned on that morning before she had left for work. Soft grey moths batted at the girl’s face. Liza watched as a huntsman spider scuttled across her face, drawn by the light-dazed prey. The girl’s eyes closed softly once and again at the sudden tickle of legs, before they resumed their absent stare into the middle distance.
Liza slipped her arms beneath the body’s neck and knees and struggled to negotiate the front door lock. The girls long black hair tangled about the key as Liza jammed it into the lock, pulling free a few strands. The girl didn’t flinch. Liza carried the dead girl into the lounge room and straightened her out on the couch. She was still pliable enough to rearrange into a pose of rest. The girl’s fingers stroked the thick upholstery once, before her hands curled like the talons of a dead bird. Liza sighed and stroked black hair back from the girl’s forehead. It was still glossy and smelt faintly of strawberry shampoo. Her face was achingly familiar; but perhaps it was only the sameness that death imparts to the human face.
“What are you doing here?” she said, dropping her backpack and kneeling beside the body on the couch. Liza expected and received no answer. She went into the kitchen to boil the kettle. She found the sugar bowl in pieces on the floor. Spilt sugar, rimmed by hundreds of tiny black ants, crunched beneath her work boots. The fridge door stood open; a carton of milk upended still lazily disgorged its contents. Her favourite mug stood lonely and upright on the counter, a teaspoon resting upside down within it. Liza ran into the bedroom and fell to the bedside.
“Charlie? Charlie, can you hear me? Charlie?” He lay still, the bed sheet she had thrown over him that morning bunched into a heap at his feet. Liza slapped his face hard, but no blood rushed to the surface of his skin. One eyelid twitched lazily and his mouth fell open. Liza gently pressed beneath his chin, crying a little at its coldness. His full lips closed over his teeth and Liza kissed them. Above them, a single blowfly hummed.
The next morning, Liza fell over the body of the dead girl curled upon the floor beside the bed she shared with Charlie. Her thumb was seated securely in her mouth, her other hand tangled in her hair. In singlet and underpants, Liza searched through the house she now shared with two corpses for any objects with which they could cause damage. She upended the kitchen drawers on the linoleum and raked through the cutlery and other odds and sods gathered over their few years together. She squatted over the sundry knives and spatulas, her short hair standing up in messy spikes all over her head.
“Anything sharp,” she said, packing knives into a shoebox; “anything flammable.” She threw in a box of matches and a lighter, evidence of previous bad habits. She turned the gas off at the mains and locked the windows. Surely dead fingers were incapable of fine motor skills. She laughed to herself and wiped moisture from her eyes, and wondered for a moment who she was trying to protect.
Liza gaffa-taped the shoebox and returned to the bedroom. Charlie’s hand had snuck free of the bed sheets, and now stroked the little girl’s black hair. Liza quickly stowed the shoebox on top of the wardrobe and rushed to the bed. She shuddered at the feel of the girl’s cold skin against her own warm shins. Liza slid Charlie’s hand free, taking care not to rip any of the girl’s hair out, and tucked it away beneath the sheet again. A tiny frown marred his peaceful features and Liza bent over him, studying his face for signs of personality. But his face soon slackened and Liza felt disappointment twist in her gut.
She jumped at the sudden brush of cold fingers across her ankle. Liza leaped clear, quick as a cat. The girl’s face, once turned towards the bed upon which her dead husband lay, now pointed in her direction. Liza felt strangely exposed to their scrutiny as she pulled on her work overalls. The nursery where she worked would seem like an oasis of breath and liveliness compared to the morgue she now lived in.
Liza thought she heard a sound as she locked the door behind her. Movement from the bedroom. Liza ran down the front stairs and hopped into her small car. It started with a grunt, and Liza wondered what strange communications would occur in her absence.
At work, Liza felt as if she dragged her guts behind her like a wounded dog. The smell of wet earth and growing things, the slip of leaves between her fingers as she buried their roots in colourful pots and passed them on to the next nursery worker, had once been boring, but in a vaguely pleasant way. Today the sun bored into her back and shoulders, burning the small scrap of neck not protected by her hair or her collar. She had forgotten her hat. Dirt had gotten into her shirtsleeves and rasped her bare skin.
Last week, Liza and then lively Charlie had watched a zombie flick. It had been late at night. They had been snuggled together on the couch, Charlie’s arm across her shoulders, a hand straying down now and then to tickle her breast until Liza elbowed him in the ribs hard enough to dissuade him.
“You’re a cruel woman, Liza,” Charlie had whispered in her ear, as a rotting teenager chewed through the side of a woman’s head. What were undoubtedly porridge or calf brains spilled forth, and the zombie lapped it up as the woman screamed and abruptly slumped into the dead man’s arms.
“Stupid woman,” Liza had muttered. “Getting devoured like that.” Charlie pulled her into his lap.
“Love’s like that sometimes, lovely Liza,” he said as his hands worked up her shirt and he muttered. “Lovely, lovely lovely…”
Liza looked around at her fellow workers. She watched a particularly sluggish woman break the leaves off the tender seedlings as she attempted to plant them. Liza swore as a tender sapling broke between her suddenly numb fingers. “Fuck,” she said her voice thick and complicated with unshed grief. The man beside her grunted and turned at her curses. His pale face was clean of sweat, his cheeks unflushed. At the rim of his left eyelid, a blowfly drank.
Liza dropped the plant pot and ran to her car. No one called after her. Bland faces merely turned to watch as she ran. She broke into a fresh coat of sweat as she sat behind the steering wheel; it slid beneath her wet hands. Her tyres squealed as she drove away. Looking into her rear view mirror as she turned onto the main road, she saw them standing at the end of the driveway, tools falling from slack hands.
The dead woman had only made it into the gate, before planting face first into the flower bed. A black lace thong tangled her legs together, and her mottled legs tensed and relaxed within the leg holes. The smell of semen was a bitter undertone to the fragrance of crushed yellow jonquils beneath the woman’s torso.
Liza grabbed the tyre iron from the boot of her car and ran up and down her street, suddenly infuriated at the likelihood of the dead woman’s violation. Surely she hadn’t made it all the way here with her undies wrapped around her knees like that? She saw no one. Nothing but a stray dog nosing beneath the bushes across the road. Something pale twitched behind the leaves and the dog ripped it free and jogged down the road. Liza averted her eyes and started tugging the dead woman’s underwear back up her thighs.
The corpse’s thighs were uncomfortably slick. Liza wiped her hands vigorously on her work overalls before she slipped her hands under the armpits and began to drag her to the front step. Across the road, a door opened briefly and Liza sucked in her breath.
“Hey! Hey! Can you help me?” The door slammed shut and for the first time Liza wondered whether she should call the police, a hospital; somebody who might have a clue to the situation. Surely that was what her neighbour would be doing right now. Calling the cops to tell them about the crazy bitch across the road that kept dragging bodies into her house. But she didn’t think so. The world had become so much stranger than the one she had inhabited a week ago.
The dead woman’s head knocked against the door frame as Liza hefted her inside. Liza winced, but stopped the apology that tried to leave her mouth before it was said. Perhaps her prying neighbour had his own strange visitors. She felt suddenly jealous of her own macabre secret as she dragged the woman into the bedroom.
“Here you go, love. Some company.” Liza made to leave and then finally, with an exasperated snort, tucked a pillow beneath the woman’s head.
There were more bodies in the morning. They dotted the front lawn and the garden beds; wet with the morning dew. Liza screamed until her throat felt as if it had been scraped raw with thorns. She heard a soft moan echo her anguish from within the house. Charlie’s. Then the woman’s and the girl’s. All around her, the corpses opened their mouths stiffly and yawned wide. They joined voices in a soft, almost musical cry that sent tingles along the hairs on her arms.
Liza stormed through the front gate and crossed the empty road to the neighbours’ house. She pounded on the door with both fists and heard the sound echo throughout the house.
“Let me in,” she yelled. “Let me in, for fuck’s sake!” She stopped to listen and heard nothing. No footsteps, no corresponding shouts or threats. She bashed upon the door again. Again, silence. She tried the door knob. Locked, of course. Liza ran her hand along the top of the door frame and dislodged a small metal object. She stooped to pick it up and unlocked the door.
It was cold in there. Dark and stuffy with the faint odour of a meal cooked so long ago that only a hint of normality lingered.
“Hey, I know you’re here. Where are you hiding?”
They were in the lounge room, tucked up under a yellow doona. A man, a woman and two tiny boys. Scattered about them were stuffed toys, a hairbrush, a feather duster and of all things, a bright blonde wig, which the man clutched between his fingers. She squatted down and looked at the man’s face. She recognised him from yesterday. A small tic counted time at the corner of his left eye. Liza checked his pulse. The woman’s and the twin boys’. She stood up and made a quick circuit of the house. There was no one else there. Nothing, apart from the dead family curled up together on the lounge room floor looked out of place.
“You were alive yesterday, like me,” Liza said. “Just like me.” The twins twined their fingers together in a cold knot atop the yellow doona. The woman’s head rested in the crook of the man’s shoulder; her painted nails scratched quietly through the man’s abundant chest hair. Liza watched them silently for a moment and then drew in breath. As she opened her mouth to scream at their placid faces, they opened theirs and that unearthly moan rose in four part harmony.
Liza retreated to the open door, aware of a silence made more so by the presence of other sounds that were usually drowned out. She slumped on the front step and looked out to the road. It was all just stage setting, now. Only the trees seemed truly alive or meaningful. Liza went home, conscious of the noise her boots made as she crossed to her side of the street; the whisk, whisk of her jeans legs as they rubbed together. The pounding in her head. She went inside and lay down beside her dead husband. Charlie tweezered her cotton shirt between his cold fingers and Liza sighed and pushed his hand away. “Just a minute more, Charlie.” She dragged herself outside.
It was true nightfall by the time Liza had pulled them all inside. No streetlights. The stars covered by a blanket of fog. She didn’t have enough pillows for them all, so she raided Charlie’s cupboard, rolled his jumpers up into bolsters and slid them beneath their necks. When she was done, she picked her way between the bodies stretched out on her floor, avoiding the occasional straying hand, and climbed into bed.
Liza lit the candle propped on the bedside table. She stared at the familiar crack in the ceiling that always reminded her of a young sapling, delicate cracks trailing away from a larger fault like tender roots. Liza wondered whether there was anyone left to water the seedlings at the nursery. Whether they would just brown up and die in their punnets. Or whether slow, clumsy hands would continue the business of watering and weeding.
Charlie slid his hand across her stomach and under her breasts. Liza shifted her hip against his, so they fit. She could feel the cold arc of his ribs through her shirt. But his body was firm against hers, his long legs socked into the back of her knees. A small hand reached up from the floor and Liza grasped it, mindlessly chafing it between her fingers as if she could impart some of her own warmth to the little girl.
Finally, Liza closed her eyes and listened to the small sounds of her choir of the dead. The scratch of overgrown fingernails on carpet. The dry parting of lips and the susurrus of clothes as bodies moved closer to each other. Perhaps even the dead have bonds of friendship, of love, Liza thought. She drew the sheet up over her face and sighed deeply. She breathed in an odour that now seemed to rise from the bodies around her. It was cloying and rich and as sweet as the mouth Charlie pressed to her cheek.
S. E. Gale is an Australian writer who lives in the goldfields of central Victoria with her daughter and a couple of feral cats. She has a BA in philosophy and literature and a particular interest in folktales and cryptozoology. Her work has been published in Overland magazine, Hecate, Centoria and other periodicals. She says:
This story is about grief and the feeling that the whole world should change when your loved one is no longer alive in it. In “Chorus of the Dead”, Liza’s world does.
Rachel and Peter stood in front of the tent, a dingy yellow stretch of canvas riddled with holes. Next to it, a sandwich board propped against an upturned wheelbarrow. It read: SEE THE LESBIAN VAMPEYRES! NAKED! CAGED!
“How much?” Rachel asked the dwarf, who sat on a lawn chair reading a tatty paperback.
“Twenty five cents each,” he told her.
Rachel elbowed her brother. Peter reached into his pocket and dropped a pair of coins into the dwarf’s outstretched hand. They stepped into the tent. It was dark and empty and smelled stuffy, like the inside of an old lady’s closet. Christmas lights, strung up from the ceiling, blinked on-and-off like neon spider webs.
The vampires lay in a cage in the tent’s center. Two of them, the first plump with raven tresses, the second lithe, her hair the color of ripe corn. Both seemed young, in their early twenties.
“Wow.” Rachel said, her mouth wide open. “Look at that. They’re really naked.”
“That’s what the sign says,” Peter told her.
The blonde vampire rose, stalked forward and gripped the bars. She bared her fangs. Hissed.
“Her teeth are so phony,” Rachel said.
“They look real to me,” Peter told her.
“This is boring,” Rachel huffed. She glared at her brother. “Aren’t they going to do lesbian things?”
“I don’t know, sis.”
“I’ve seen enough.” She stomped out of the tent. “What a rip off.”
“Sorry about that,” Peter said. “She’s just a kid.”
“That’s all right.” The blonde vampire’s voice was sibilant, like steam hissing from a kettle. “She’s about twelve years old, right? It’s a tough age.”
“I’m Ingrid.” She smiled, her face smooth as a porcelain plate. “That’s Camilla.” The raven-haired vampire, who was busy examining her nails, grunted.
“I remember you,” Ingrid said. When she reached out Peter could have backed away. But he didn’t. Cold fingers curled around his wrist. Her hand felt frigid, like a rock under an icy stream.
“We’ve met before,” she said. “Years ago, the last time the carnival stopped at this cross-road.”
“I was just a kid,” Peter said, meeting her gaze. Ingrid’s eyes were green, flecked with gold. He turned away, his face hot. “Sorry.”
“What are you sorry about?”
“It’s rude to stare,” he said.
“Ah. You’re American.” Ingrid sounded amused. “How old are you, Peter?”
“Eighteen. I turned eighteen today.” He glanced at his watch, which had stopped. “Well, I better go find my sister.”
“As you wish.” Her fingers tickled his wrist before she let him go.
“Here. Before I forget.” Peter reached into the pocket of his jeans and withdrew a pair of silver bells, tied together with blue string. He dropped them into her outstretched hand.
“Come back later,” Ingrid said. “We do lesbian things when there’s a crowd. It excites the rubes.”
“Maybe I will.” When Peter walked outside the cool night air hit his face. He shivered; back home, it was summer.
“Did you see my sister?” he asked the dwarf. The carnival, hundreds of tents and booths, stretched out before him as far as the eye could see. Rachel was nowhere in sight.
“She went that-away.” The dwarf jabbed the air with his thumb. “Towards the roller coaster.” The title of his novel was The Planet of the Robot Sex Slaves.
“Thanks.” Peter glanced back at the cross-road. The path was still there, the trail leading home. Peter turned away from it, his feet taking him into the carnival’s heart.
He walked past the brightly lit booths, the Dancing Bears, the Astonishing Gill-Woman, the Death Stench Beetles. Barkers clad in garish colors shrieked at the crowd, begging, entreating, bawling. The Ferris Wheel hummed to life like some half-awake insect. Smells filled the air, roasting chestnuts, sawdust, burning popcorn, odors he’d smelled in his dreams for years, always moments before awakening.
A satyr with a fiddle danced past, playing a peasant tune from some faraway land. A crown of holly adorned his head, his polished horns gleamed and his hooves clip-clopped against the earth. The satyr was bare-chested, his muscled arms dripping with sweat, a kilt round his waist. He smelled of baked bread and sour wine.
Peter stopped to get his bearings. He saw the Devil Fish, an eight-foot catfish with huge whiskers, swimming in a kiddy pool, round and round, never stopping. A group of teenagers watched it. One of the teens, a big guy wearing a varsity-wrestling jacket, saw him. He pursed his lips, blew Peter a kiss. His friends pointed and laughed, like he was some exotic animal in a zoo.
“There you are.” Rachel came running up. “I thought you got lost.”
“Sorry about that,” Peter said, watching the teens walk off.
“This place is awesome,” Rachel said, her eyes ablaze. “How did you find it? You knew exactly which path to follow.”
“I dreamed about it,” he told her. “For years. Do you ever dream about places you’ve been to?”
“No.” Rachel rubbed at her bare arms, which were sprouting goose bumps. “Where are we, anyway? The seasons are all wrong. It’s cold.”
Peter shrugged. “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
“Whatever.” She laughed. “I love it here.”
“I wanted to celebrate my birthday,” he said. “With someone who loves me.”
“Come on, Peter. Let’s go.” Rachel said, tugging at her brother’s hand. “I want to see it. I want to see it all.”
And they did. They saw the performers, the Knife-Eaters, the Fire-Jugglers, the Tumbling Clowns. They watched a hedge-magician transform water to cherry soda pop. They rode the bumper cars, careening back and forth like pinballs. They played games, with darts and baseballs and beanbags. Rachel won an albino goldfish, Peter a Zippo lighter.
They ate, stuffing themselves on ribs and chicken legs and slick-yellow corn on the cob. Others sat around them, travelers from other lands. Peter heard snatches of different tongues, French, German, even Latin. Their picnic table faced the Grotto of Destiny, a cave nestled at the wood’s edge, the entrance boarded up, the sandwich board sign reading CLOSED.
“I want to stay here forever,” Rachel said. “Do you think they’ll let me join?”
“I don’t know,” Peter said, picking at his fries. “Why would you want to leave home?”
“I hate Kansas,” she told him. “Kansas sucks. Don’t you think Kansas sucks?”
“If I stay will you tell mom and dad?”
“I’d miss you, sis.”
“Maybe they’ll let you visit.”
Peter shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“What do you mean? Why not?”
“Why would you want to leave home?” he asked. “You’ve got friends, stuff like that.”
“I don’t want to be boring like Mom,” Rachel said. “I want to do cool stuff. I want to be a Tattooed Lady, get a bunch of wicked tattoos. Maybe I’ll get Tramp Stamped. You know what that is?”
“You can get a tattoo, but that won’t change anything.” Peter said, pushing his plate away. “You’ll still be who you are.”
“What does that mean?” Rachel asked, wrinkling her brow. “When you talk like that you sound like a fortune cookie.”
“Nothing,” Peter said. He pointed at the Grotto of Destiny. “What do you think is in there? It’s the only thing we haven’t seen.”
“I don’t know,” Rachel said, grinning. “Let’s take a look.”
They left the picnic table. The albino goldfish, unwanted, forgotten, stuck in its bowl, watched them go. Peter found the side-entrance, a small unmarked door. He pushed it and it creaked open.
“It’s dark,” Rachel whispered, hanging back. A golden owl hung in the tree above, staring down at them.
Peter laughed. “I’ll go first.”
“Better take my hand,” Rachel said. “We don’t want to get separated again.”
“Got it.” He took her hand, warm and moist, and they stepped inside. Peter smelled wet earth and rot. A hot breeze stroked his cheek, like a kiss. The ground under their feet felt gritty, like packed dirt.
“I can’t see anything,” Rachel whispered.
Sounds, from the depths: a grunt, like a horse; something heavy, falling; a low, keening whistle.
Rachel squeezed her brother’s hand. “What is it?”
“Let’s see.” Peter fumbled in his pocket for the Zippo lighter, the one he’d won earlier. He flicked the switch. Sparks flew. A cold tongue of flame pierced the dark.
“I see them,” Rachel shrieked. “Peter, I see them.” And then her eyes rolled up in her head and she saw no more.
The first thing Rachel saw when she woke was her brother, sitting next to her on an upturned trunk, his hands folded in his lap.
“Where are we?” Rachel mumbled. She was stretched out on a scarlet sofa. Turkish carpets covered the floor and a brazier full of burning coals crackled in the corner, giving out warmth.
“In a tent,” Peter said. “You passed out in the grotto, so I carried you here. Don’t you remember?”
“No.” Rachel wrinkled her nose; the old lady smell was worse in here. The tent’s entrance rustled, and Ingrid walked in. She wore a black silk robe with a golden dragon inscribed in front, and she held a mug in her hands.
“Are you all right?” Ingrid asked. “You had us worried.”
“You’re the vampire,” Rachel said, sitting up.
“That’s me.” Ingrid held out the mug, and Rachel took it. She sipped its contents, hot cocoa topped with whipped cream.
“What happened in the grotto?” Rachel asked her brother.
“It’s the Grotto of Destiny,” Ingrid answered. “So you saw a destiny. If you can’t remember that means it wasn’t yours.”
“Are you the one in charge?”
“Nobody’s in charge.” Ingrid settled on the edge of the bed, like a fussy bird. “It doesn’t work like that.”
“I want to join you,” Rachel said. “I want to join the carnival.”
“Where are you from?”
“We live in Kansas. Topeka, Kansas. You know it?”
“I’m from Wallachia. A place that doesn’t exist anymore.” Ingrid shrugged. “Why would you want to leave Kansas, anyway?”
“Because it’s an awful place,” Rachel said. “And I want to get away.”
“How bad is it?”
“It’s terrible,” Rachel told her. “Kansas is an awful place. Everyone is so stupid. Peter gets beat up all the time. I’m failing Algebra.”
“We stop at cross-roads,” Ingrid said. “People come from all times and places, to see us. I’ve met thousands of people from places just like Kansas. Do you think you’re the first to want to join us?”
“I can work. I’ll fit in.” Rachel’s chin trembled. “I’ll even be a lesbian vampire, if that’s what you want.”
“Do you even know what a lesbian is?”
“Of course. I’m a lesbian,” Rachel said, proud. “My brother and I are both lesbians.”
“That’s what I thought.” Ingrid sighed. “How about another cup of hot cocoa before you go?”
“But I don’t want to go.” Rachel had a whipped cream moustache on her upper lip. “Don’t I even get to try out?”
“You can’t join. Not yet. You’re too young. Come back when you’re older, and who knows? Maybe we’ll have a spot for you.”
“How do I do that?” Rachel asked, sulky.
“Here.” Ingrid reached into the pocket of her robe and took out the bells. She dropped them into Rachel’s hand. “When you leave you’ll forget this place. If you ever do remember, ring these bells. You’ll know how to find us.”
“You probably won’t remember,” Ingrid said. “Things change when you get older. You might not even want to come back.”
Rachel’s brows scrunched together. “Why not?”
It was Peter who answered. “Because you’ll have people you love. Things to look forward to. A life.”
“Do you want more cocoa, dear?” Ingrid asked.
“Please,” Rachel said, holding out her mug.
The night stretched on. The sounds of the carnival faded away. The coals in the brazier flickered and died. A cool breeze swept in, smelling of pines. Rachel drank her cocoa. She settled back on the sofa. Her eyes grew heavy, and then she slept, her breathing deep and even.
“So you came back.” Ingrid’s voice was low and even. The top of her robe had come undone, and her breasts poked through, the aureoles unblinking eyes.
“I came back,” Peter said. “To my make-believe land, the place I went to in my head when things got bad.” He laughed. “And it turns out to be a real place.”
“Do you want to stay?”
“I don’t know. I don’t fit in back home, that’s for sure. There are a few others like me at my high school. But they hide. I don’t blame them.” Peter rubbed his cheekbones. “I can’t hide. It’s in my blood. The way I talk. The way I move.”
“How bad are things?”
“My sister is the only person on earth who loves me,” he said.
“Have you ever had a lover?” she asked. “Has there ever been anyone?”
“You’re young yet.”
Peter looked down at his hands. “I tell myself things will change. I’ll go to school. Leave Kansas. Move east or west, doesn’t much matter. I’ll get a job. I’ll meet someone. We’ll fall in love.”
“Maybe that will happen.”
“Maybe. Or maybe I’ll die never having loved anybody. Maybe I’ll go to the Sex Factory. It’s a porn store, off the highway. The old men all go there. They smell like chalk and have pee stains on their pants.”
“Have you ever been seduced, Peter?”
“Me? No.” He laughed, but it had a raw edge to it. “Who would want to seduce me?”
“Who knows?” Ingrid smiled. “It starts with talk, though. You talk, like we’re doing.”
Peter shifted. He glanced at his sister, who slept at his side, her mouth wide open.
“I was the second of two children,” Ingrid said. “My older sister died in childbirth when I was a little girl. It was horrible. She screamed for hours. When the midwife came out of the bedroom her arms were slathered with blood. Her white apron was stained black. The house stank for weeks. When I was betrothed I ran away, because I didn’t want the same thing happening to me. I met a woman. Her name was Lilith. She told me she could give me what I wanted. She lied. Of course she lied.” Ingrid laughed. “She made me what I am.”
“I don’t know,” Peter said. “I don’t know what I want.”
“Life is a wanting game. We want this, we want that.” Ingrid smiled, her teeth daggers. “I’m not going to lie to you. You know. Young people come here, from all times and places. Many of them want. You’ve seen.”
“Yes. I’ve seen.”
“Here is the pact,” Ingrid said. “Every twenty-eight days, there’s blood. We are women, Camilla and I. We follow the same pattern, alive or dead. We’ll feed, and for the first few days afterwards, you’ll feel sick and dizzy. You won’t be able to stand light. And then your blood will regenerate. The symptoms will fade. You’ll be all right. The rest of your time is yours, to spend as you choose. You see?”
“I saw,” Peter said. “I saw what lives in the Grotto of Destiny. Is lives the right word?”
“You will live a long time,” Ingrid continued. “Over a hundred years. You won’t age. You will stay young. And then your blood will fail.” She spread her hands. “And that will be it.”
“Men.” Peter’s voice was a husky whisper. “All bled white. They couldn’t stand the light. Moaning. Crawling on their bellies, like worms.”
“They were free to leave,” Ingrid told him. “Up to the very end. None did. I loved them all. I still do.”
“Love.” Tears spilled down Peter’s cheeks. He glanced at his sister, still fast asleep.
“She won’t come back,” Ingrid said. “Some people have it, a faint unease with their lives. They think something is wrong, but they don’t know what. She’ll bury the feeling, when she grows older. Most do.”
Peter gasped, an awful shuddery sound. He nodded.
“Come to me, then.” Ingrid said.
Peter gazed at her outstretched hand. The palm was bare, the lifeline erased.
He reached for it with his own hand, trembling.
Rachel woke in her own bed. She rubbed her eyes, and then saw the pair of silver bells resting on her pillow. They were tied together with blue string. She rose, plucked them up and put them in her dusty old toy chest, nestled next to the closet.
Rachel walked to the window. The curtains stirred, tickled by the wind’s fingers. Night faded to dawn.
She thought she saw a face, familiar, fleeting, gone.
“Peter? Peter?” Her voice rose, in panic. “Where are you, Peter?”
George R. Galuschak is a speculative fiction writer who lives in Northern New Jersey. His fiction has appeared in a number of places, including Strange Horizons, PodCastle and The Big Book of Bizarro. He doesn’t have a blog, but you can contact him at email@example.com or @GeorgeGaluschak on Twitter. He says:
I like Hammer horror movies. My favorites are the vampire movies, the best of which radiate a sort of sleazy glory. The same can be said of carnivals. When you walk through the entrance, you take your chances. The games are rigged, the rides are unsafe, and you better keep a close eye on your wallet. But people keep coming back. Who knows why?
in the VA hospital like a nurse in fatigues
WC Roberts bought a second-hand television set in 2010, after selling his first 100 poems. He can’t get Mystery Theater or Happy Days reruns on his rabbit ears, not way out where he is, so he Rarebit Dreams of riding in the sidecar with motorcycle-tough Miss Marple as she jumps the shark. Or tries to. Night after night… He says:
Eggnog! Nutmeg is a mild hallucinogenic. It’s a Wonderful Life! was on TV and I was Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart, flying his last mission in a B-52 over North Vietnam. The year was 1966. The sound of carpet bombing inspired the rhythm, while my impressions of Stewart and his careers (in Hollywood, and in the military) provided some of the substance and the paradoxes of this poem — which I’d like to dedicate to the doctors and nurses of General Hospital, who treated me with more patience than I could afford.