Okay, so this was one of those logistical nightmare months where the book I was supposed to review came in too late to get it done in time, so the editor says “Look, why don’t you review the Hugo short stories instead?” Hey, a few short stories this month, and I can save the 800,000 words of China Miéville’s newie The Scar to read on the umpteen hours of my flight to the States next month! Which should at least draw my attention away from watching the in-flight movie and wanting to kill myself. Easy enough I think to myself. It’s only five stories: have a quick read, pick a winner, done by lunchtime.
Heh. Yeah. First up, of course, is my complete inability to find a copy of Ursula Le Guin’s “Bones of The Earth”. It’s an Earthsea story. I could be lax and say “Ach, it’s Earthsea. Whaddya expect? It’s not like you don’t know what you’re getting.” But of course it’s Le Guin so it’s probably the greatest thing ever written and I’ll have missed it. Promise I’ll try and find it and write a few words at the end of next month’s column.
This leaves me four stories to comment on: “The Dog Said Bow Wow” by Michael Swanwick, “Spaceships” by Michael A. Burstein, Stephen Baxter’s “The Ghost Pit,” and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” by Mike Resnick.
Michael Swanwick is, in my opinion, a major talent. I am so rarely disappointed when I read his work that I always relish seeing his name on the contents page of a collection or the spine of a book. Which is why “The Dog Said Bow Wow” disappointed me. Don’t get me wrong. The story contains everything an award-winning story should contain: soaring invention, unique and memorable characters (particularly the 36-brained Queen of England. I kid thee not.), and speculation on our current cultural obsessions and the path in which they’re taking us that is both familiar and excitingly unusual. But there’s something missing. To me the story felt like a bitser — bits and pieces thrown together without the central coherency that would make the story rise out from amongst the raft of stories that rely on a retro-future angle for their thrust. It feels like James Blaylock at his early best. No bad thing, buuuut….
If Swanwick’s story perhaps sacrifices a human element for the sake of wild invention then “Spaceships,” Michael A. Burstein’s entry on the shortlist, is almost exactly the opposite. It is concerned by the idea of what it means to be human, consumed by it to the point that the central characters of the piece (humans so amazingly advanced into a far future that they are energy beings without form or, it seems, limitations) are little more than motiveless mouthpieces without complexity or sense of being. That beings so unbelievably advanced would still prove to be little more than gaseous versions of 21st century stereotypes (the conniving woman, the innocent recluse) was a disappointment. Whilst conceptually grand, this story is the weakest of the nominees in terms of its execution. While its tableau is grand, the characters who inhabit it are too easily defined in one dimension, and the story suffers for it.
“The Ghost Pit” is a better story, although again I was struck by how limited the investigation into human nature was in what essentially another character examination set against a Space Operatic background. Baxter is another excellent writer, and while there is nothing wrong with this story, there is very little here that hasn’t been seen before. Whilst the interplay between the two main characters is believable and their motivations solid, Baxter portrays two people approaching points in their lives where they must literally adapt psychologically or die. In the end, the speed with which the decision is made is so abrupt that it is unsatisfying — the spiritual process is fleeting in comparison to the physical exhaustion that the characters reach. “The Ghost Pit” is a very good story, no doubt. But of the four that I read there is one that stands out as easily the most complete.
Mike Resnick’s “Old MacDonald Had A Farm,” despite the title, is my vote to win the short story Hugo (unless, of course, Le Guin’s story is even better). His characters have a solidity and believability about them that surpass those in the other tales. Resnick gives us cynical journalists, a smooth PR man — there’s even a millionaire recluse. Yet despite the ease with which they could have become raging stereotypes, Resnick imbues each character with a humanity that draws them away from caricatures and turns them into real people. The story has both interior and exterior moral dimensions that lift it above the ordinary. It deals with overpopulation and the needs of a starving third world in the ‘macro’ piece, whilst balancing that is the individual conundrum facing the characters; your job is to sell the world on a new food source, but what do you do if the meat can talk back? It is this extra dimension, the doubling paradox of personal decision and greater need that lift a story above the ordinary (think Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equation”) and Resnick is the only one of the four nominees whose story provides it.
So there it is, Battersby’s footy-tipping for stories. And like all football tipsters worth their weight in goals I’ve balanced the stats, examined the field, and looked at the personal histories…and will undoubtedly be completely wrong when the game is finished.
Oh, and two things before I go:
When I read Jack Dann’s “The Diamond Pit” (F&SF, June 2001), I predicted in the Tangent Online newsgroup that it would certainly make either the final Hugo or Nebula ballot, or both. It did, in the process becoming Dann’s first Hugo nomination ever.
It’s a fun read. “The Diamond Pit” held my attention from the first blast of the anti-aircraft guns to that last game of mah-jongg amid the fragile Lionel trains. Shot out of the air, pilot Paul Orsatti, just back from the dogfights of World War I, is taken into the secret Rocky Mountain fortress of billionaire Randolph Estes Jefferson, a five-square mile area that shows up on no map, where slavery and a pre-Civil War aristocracy still rule.
The plot is straight out of classic SF/F adventure stories where a competent man stumbles on a lost, or hidden, civilization. Like other pulp heroes, Orsatti is thrust into an adventure he didn’t choose or expect, but has the chance to come out of it with a fortune and a beautiful woman that he loves.
The pulp era’s myth is that the hero can have that love and fortune cleanly just by being a brave, decent guy, and that he can escape danger by spurning the beautiful but spiteful woman. It’s John Carter when he meets Dejah Thoris, and conversely, when he meets Phaidar, daughter of Matai Shang. It’s Tarzan and Jane on the one hand, and Tarzan and La in The Jewels of Opar on the other. Although “The Diamond Pit” is set in North America and the Jazz Age, the pattern ought to be familiar to anyone who’s read H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, A. Merritt, or any of the other writers who tackled the lost civilization adventure story. The particular appeal of “The Diamond Pit” comes from Dann’s mixture of the two story variations via his portrayal of Orsatti’s conscience.
Once captured, Orsatti falls in love with Jefferson’s daughter, Phoebe. But he discovers that Jefferson’s wealth has been acquired by murder and deceit, that the maintenance of it requires the subjugation of various groups of people, and that the woman, while beautiful, is no clinging innocent in need of rescue. Phoebe is smart, willful, and ruthless, every bit as competent in many ways as Orsatti. All this takes place against the backdrop of airplanes, kidnappings, ragtime piano, spectacular chateaus, Faulknerian histories, elaborate gardens, romantic interludes, catacombs, battles, infidelity, and cold-blooded murder.
In the end, Orsatti can marry Pheobe and become the richest man in the world — there’s only one condition:
“So who do you want to make things better for?” she demanded. “The servants? The prisoners in the Pit?”
“Both, for a start.”
By ‘servants,’ Phoebe means her father’s slaves. The ‘prisoners in the Pit’ are the other men like Orsatti who have stumbled on the castle accidentally. Orsatti identifies with the plight of both.
But this one condition is unacceptable to Phoebe. In the classic adventure story, the hero would spurn Phoebe’s love, crush Jefferson’s hidden empire, and escape. Dann does not give us — or Orsatti — such an easy out. Orsatti is a decent, brave guy, but there’s no way he can have either his love or fortune cleanly. So Orsatti ends the story still a prisoner, still desperately in love.
As a result, “The Diamond Pit” works as an action story, a moral meditation, and as a critique of pulp heroes. Tarzan may get his lordship, Jane, and command of the Waziri as a natural right; Orsatti has to compromise his conscience for similar rewards and he just can’t do it. It’s an American fable: we’re still in love with wealth and power, even when we find out how it’s created or maintained.
If that was all the story did, it would just be a good read. Dann, however, prefaces his tale with “Homage to F. Scott….” “The Diamond Pit” is based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “A Diamond As Big As The Ritz,” a hidden empire novella that shows the influence of Haggard and similar writers back in the days before genre.
The key elements of Fitzgerald’s story — the Rocky Mountain billionaire, the beautiful daughter, the slaves — are repeated by Dann, although “The Diamond Pit” is not a continuation or even a simple variation. Instead, the Ritz’s Washingtons become the Pit’s Jeffersons, the daughter Kismine becomes Phoebe, the ‘Italian pilot’ Critchtichiello becomes Orsatti. By changing the names of the characters and other details, Dann emphasizes that his story is perfectly capable of standing on its own. A reader doesn’t have to be familiar with Fitzgerald’s novella for Dann’s to make sense.
However, “The Diamond Pit” gains another level of richness with the comparison, demonstrating Dann’s mastery of craft as it makes an interesting comparison between mainstream and genre fiction.
Though Dann calls it an ‘homage,’ “The Diamond Pit” is in many ways the antithesis of Fitzgerald’s tale. This begins with the switch in titles from Ritz to Pit: Fitzgerald creates an image of immeasurable, unimaginable wealth, while Dann evokes an unbreakable, inescapable prison, the negative to Fitzgerald’s positive.
Dann also recreates the eleven part structure of Fitzgerald’s story, but uses it to reverse essential features of Fitzgerald’s tale. In the first section of “Ritz,” John Unger leaves his middle-class life in the town of Hades for an expensive school in the east where he befriends Percy Washington, because, as he says, “I like very rich people.” In Dann’s tale, the working class pilot, Orsatti, comes out of the heavens, headed west, and loses a true friend, Joel, when their plane is shot down. While Fitzgerald emphasizes the ordinary aspects of his character and the setting, Dann reverses this with a focus on action.
The contrast is even more marked in the second section. Unger arrives as a guest at the Washington’s diamond chateau. The superficial abundance of riches is described in kid-in-candyshop detail, but the people are almost invisible: “John remembered that first night as a daze of many colors, or quick sensory impressions, of music soft as a voice in love, and of the beauty of things, lights and shadows, motions and faces.” The ‘beauty of things’ is given the most descriptive attention, while none of the people, aside from Percy ever have the chance to speak. In Dann’s story, the people are more important than the things. Orsatti identifies and describes his fellow prisoners, giving each one’s name and nickname; in just a few lines each character is revealed by his actions as a distinct individual with a richness of personality.
In part three of Fitzgerald’s story, Unger wakes up happy and satiated. A slave undresses and helps bathe him. He’s entertained by the sound of music before he ever eats breakfast. Orsatti, by contrast, is forced to create his own music on the piano. When he awakes from his drinking binge, he’s sick as a dog, and only the other prisoners are there to take care of him. His visit to George Bernard, a family member made prisoner (and suggestive of another level of depth in Dann’s writing), is ominous and foreboding.
Where Dann varies his story from Fitzgerald’s pattern, he does so to create a specific effect. In Part 4, Fitzgerald describes the history of the Washington family and how they came to keep their slaves and gain their riches. Dann moves this history to Part 6 in “The Diamond Pit,” where it sits at the exact center of the story, giving it its moral core. By contrast, the central scene in “Ritz” involves Washington’s confrontation with the pilots in the pit. Unger appears in the scene only as an observer and fades farther into the background as the conflict escalates, so that he has no part in it, and expresses no opinion of it at all. It becomes the perfect symbolism of Unger’s willingness to ignore how Washington’s wealth is maintained so long as he can share it.
It may be unfair to compare the craft of the two stories this way. “Ritz” is an example of Fitzgerald’s very early fiction. It shows his genius for symbolism and dense motif (Hades, Percy and the grail of wealth), explores themes that reappear throughout his work (the middle-class boy falling in love with an heiress), and takes imaginative risks. But there are weaknesses as well. The threat of murder hangs over Unger’s head as a device to create suspense, yet Unger (and the story) never seem to consider the moral implications. Fitzgerald creates the different voices of the men in the pit, and yet neither they nor the slaves come alive as people capable of independent action. Characters like Percy are introduced and then all but disappear from the story as soon as their function is served.
Dann’s story, on the other hand, is written by a master in the maturity of his craft. The prose is sharp with no word wasted, the most minor characters have dimension — compare the two treatments of the patriarch’s wife or the simple-mindedness of Fitzgerald’s negroes with the independent motivations of Dann’s, and the details are more specific and evocative: Fitzgerald describes ‘a good one-reel comedy’ but Dann shows ‘Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton slap each other across the screen.’ The whole story hangs together tightly.
More telling than the comparison between the craft of the two writers, however, is the way the stories illustrate the different tropes of mainstream and genre fiction. Unger, like another of Fitzgerald’s famous protagonists, Nick Carraway, is essentially a passive observer. He is filled with desire — for wealth, for love — but he depends entirely on others to deliver them to him. He goes along for the ride with Percy, and then with Kismine, both times at their initiative. When the slaves come to murder him, he is saved by the coincidental timing of the attack on the chateau instead of his own effort. When he escapes with Kismine, he relies on her to bring along the riches, and accepts it fatalistically when she grabs rhinestones by mistake.
Orsatti, by contrast, is thrown into circumstances out of his control but always takes action. When the pilot of his plane is killed, he takes the controls and tries to land the damaged craft. When he’s thrown into the pit he asks for a piano so he’ll have something to do. His state at the end of the story relies not on someone else’s action, but comes as a result of his own choice. The character who chooses, who acts, defines genre fiction.
But a bigger difference like in the way that Fitzgerald uses the fantasy element, this American Shangri-la in the Rockies, as a plot device. The castle must be utterly destroyed by the end of the story so that Unger can face ‘reality’ — the rest of his life in Hades with a rhinestone heiress, and only her sister to act as laundrywoman and servant. He could have met a pretty middle-class girl and come to the exact same place at the end of the story without the hidden castle. The fantasy element is there solely to exaggerate and emphasize Unger’s desire before snatching it away.
Dann, on the other hand, forces us to gaze on the fantastic element unflinchingly and consider it as a part of reality. “The Diamond Pit” reminds us that there are edifices of power built on theft and exploitation, ruled by ruthless people. If we want to be a part of it, then we must accept the consequences. So which writer is the more realistic?
In Dann’s story, the hero gets neither the girl nor the fortune. Some readers may find it unsatisfying that Orsatti does not triumph explicitly at the end of Dann’s tale. Without another scene, it seems too much like Phoebe is the winner, thus the hero of the story, despite the fact that she’s neither likeable nor sympathetic. In a real pulp adventure, the decent, brave guy is supposed to win. There is the suggestion, for those familiar with Fitzgerald’s story, that Orsatti triumphs in the end (during the attack on the castle, Kismine says “Yes — it’s that Italian who got away — “), but there are sufficient differences between the two stories that we cannot take this for granted.
Dann’s ending suggests a moral purpose, a contemplation on the sources of wealth, the nature of exploitation, and our willingness to look aside. Like much great literature, Dann’s homage to Fitzgerald achieves its effect by subtly disturbing us. We’re left, like Orsatti, in a very uncomfortable position, playing games among the toys and looking for a way out. The standard outcomes of the genre are subverted, and we’re forced to examine our own fantasies about wealth and decide how far we’d compromise our values to fulfill them.
“The Diamond Pit” works on all levels. Jack Dann has given us a tightly-written adventure story that mixes elements of the literary and spec fic genres to pose difficult moral questions without offering platitudinal solutions. While it didn’t win the Nebula, one wishes it better luck with the Hugo.
Charles Coleman Finlay’s fiction can be found in the April, August, and Oct/Nov 2002 issues of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, with stories forthcoming in On Spec and Ideomancer Unbound. He’s also the Administrator for the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy.
An earlier version of this essay appeared as comments in the Tangent Online newsgroup.
“On deck there! Sail to windward — sail — shite!”
Foot slipping on slick yard, flailing, arms athrash into the long heartstopping moment of the fall. Instant of your messmate’s wide blue eyes startled — you were skylarking, showing off for him. God fool —
Faces turn from tasks on deck. “Man —”
Hard water hits like solid shot. Into your eyes and gasping lungs. You fall like lead — dazed — thinking air but the sky flies away, the frigate’s hull like motherhome receding gone.
You sink: foam-blue-black, a swirl of sand, eyeless fish squirm, squid blast away in inky writhing bulk.
You sink long-seeming as your life ’till now.
She. Weed round her bones and flat eel eyes. “Come.” You would flee but you’re hard-bludgeoned by the fall, the water’s crash, and chained by current now. She: throned on wreckage and the ribs of whales. Clawed feet rake bottom muck.
“Come.” Sharp teeth. Stripped hands on you to plunder warmth. Rot is her kiss. Your seed streams out, surrender’s flag.
Her breasts are urchins and she has no heart. “Yes,” you cannot say, salt water dumb.
And then uprushing, plucked by air, light flown near and nearer until cast out gasping on the desert swell. And boats are launched to bring you tame aboard.
Your messmate clasps you, thanking God you can no longer own. O’ changeling you: your darkshaped eyes can see his skin to bone. How white the frigate decks, once holystoned. How bright the carronades, once powderstains are gone.
How much a lie this sun-side cell of life. Pinioned, you starve for rotting honesty. Your truth’s below, down in the merrow’s hold.
Late night you skirmish out of sick bay. Barred from railing’s edge you seek the hold and hammer hard on bottom rotting wood. Holes to let in the sea. Holes to let you through to the one who stole your soul.
The charred-looking bird worried at the fish some with a sharp claw. It teased a morsel from the fleshy place behind the dead eye, where the sweetest meat lay. Its own eyes were weak, too weak to see the three boys resting by the water upstream. Still, its head was cocked towards them.
“You watching that crow, Japheth?” asked the youngest of the boys.
“I’m watching him,” answered his cousin. “I think I know that one, I’ve seen him getting fat off your mama’s garden. He must have decided that the safest place for him to eat is wherever you boys are with your shotgun.”
The third boy, brother to the youngest, said “We could hit them if they would come in close enough. Them birds know how far that sixteen gauge will reach is all.”
Japheth smiled — he was always smiling — and nodded down the creek. The bird still tore at the carcass of the bluegill. It still seemed to keep them under its beady gaze.
“How far to that crow as you judge it, cousins?”
The brothers studied the distance, seventy or eighty yards. They considered the gun leaning against the rotting willow log behind them.
“Now hold on there,” said Japheth, “I ain’t got a daddy to give me a shotgun. But little squirt there has got him a pocketful of chert rocks.”
The youngest said, “Them’s all my best throwing rocks, Japheth. You go get your own if you want to be hitting some old bird.”
His older brother, fifteen and so not quite as old as Japheth, not quite as tall or as broad in the shoulders, stood up and stretched his arms over his head. “He ain’t going to hit any bird,” he said. “He ain’t going to get a rock halfway there. Turn out your pockets.”
The little one had some chalk in there, too, and a length of string wrapped around a hickory shank, and five or six smooth, round stones the size of small apples.
“Go ahead, squirt,” said Japheth. “Show us how strong you are.”
The boy bunched his shoulders up under his broadcloth shirt. He set his jaw firm and his feet wide apart. With a little grunt, he flung the rock down the creek.
It fell into the water, a little over halfway the distance to the crow. The bird rolled the bluegill over with its feet and started pulling at the other side of the head.
Japheth let out a low whistle. “Further than your brother will throw his, I’ll wager. You’re going to be a hoss, boy. That’s your mama’s people, right there. Us Sapps are mostly like big brother here, right? Skinny and puny. Ain’t that right, big brother?” Japheth was always teasing.
The older brother burned a little, but just a little. Japheth had been staying with them just long enough for him to get used to the cut ups and japes.
He ignored Japheth’s whistling while he picked out a rock, leaned back, and heaved. It fell short. The bird did not look up from where it was flaking scales off the fish’s side with its beak.
Japheth picked up three stones and tossed them in the air above his head. He kept two aloft and asked his cousins, “How many of these rocks you want me to hit that bird with?”
The little one watched his cousin wide-eyed, though he’d seen the juggling before. His big brother, who’d seen the showing off plenty, said “Throw if you’re going to, Japheth Sapp.”
Japheth smiled and let the stones drop, two into his right hand and one into his left. He faced his cousins, his back to the bird. “I guess I’m going to,” he said.
Then he wheeled. He turned on his heel and wheeled his arms, right, left, right, threw, threw, threw. Faster than the wheels on the train that ran through Jericho, twenty miles south. Faster than the cars people had started bringing up as far as Stone’s Camp.
But not the fastest Japheth could move, no. While the brothers stood and watched the stones follow one another in an arc that led up above the tree tops then down — down toward where the bird still pecked and scratched at the fish — Japheth stole between them and snatched their gun. He threw it to his shoulder and shot, pumped, shot, pumped, shot.
And the rocks exploded. Shards of crystal caught the sunlight and reflected it in a thousand colors as they splashed down into the creek and onto the banks, thunder followed by rain.
Followed by the crow twitching its head, shaking off flecks of lightning and then bending back to its meal.
Followed then by Japheth laughing and hooting and dancing. Followed by his cousins shaking their heads, shaking their heads over Japheth showing them up again, showing them up and teasing them and how he laughed. He laughed and called like a jay. He laughed and called a little bit like a crow.
Japheth dropped into a crouch. The branch he stood on was broad enough and thick enough to run train tracks along, he figured. He could not make out the top of the chestnut from where he stood, it stretched up too close to heaven. Three long strides would have taken him to the edge, where he could peer down to the ground, but he didn’t want to see how high he was.
A crow settled near him, curling its feet around the branch.
There were some leaves springing out from a stray twig near Japheth. He took one and wrapped it around him like a blanket. The crow was hopping, shifting, but not toward him.
The bird croaked and gasped. It shook and cawed so loud that Japheth almost cried out in pain, it hurt his ears so.
Then the crow retched and spat up some arms and legs. They were red, they were burnished and bloody. Japheth was close enough to see the scars on the arms. He could see the blackened calluses on the soles of the feet. He looked up at the crow.
He looked up at the crow that was studying him, measuring him.
There were dogs and kids running both banks of the creek beside the Childers’ farm. Fiddles were scratching and there was a man churning ice cream. A rare day, then; some there had gone all the way to the ice house at Danville.
Edwin Childers had a tidy little place. He kept the meadow mowed down when he didn’t have cattle grazing it. Below the meadow was his corn field, then the tobacco patch. Lined up down Bittersweet Creek — house, barn, crib, fields.
The yard and the pasture were full of people when Japheth and his cousins came down out of the hills. They took the rabbits they had snared and cleaned to some women by the cook fires, then found some other boys.
“Sesquicentennial,” one of them was saying, carefully. “I heard Mr. Childers say it to the preacher. It’s the same as a hundred and fifty.”
“I don’t think that’s it,” another boy said. “But I don’t know for sure. All I care is that it means ice cream and firecrackers.”
Japheth said, “And whiskey, too, or that’s not Elijah Lehman there.” So he and some of the wilder boys had clay jars out when it got dark.
And it was after dark that Edwin Childers lit torches around his lawn. He got up and witnessed a little, told how he loved America and how him and some others there had gone and fought for her. The he sat back down because he didn’t like to talk much, even if he was a deacon.
The fiddlers started in for sure, then, and couples swung around the barnyard, stomping and reeling. Japheth was old enough for marrying and all the girls were calf-eyed over him. He danced with a dozen.
He danced and he sang. He led a quartet on “Standing on the Promises” and sang the high part on “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” He pulled pennies out of the ears of the little ones and put them in his pocket. He scratched the old hounds behind their ears. He drank some more from those clay jars.
But the girls started shying away from him after a while, after he stole a kiss or two too many. So he took a rock and a wooden ball and a piece of kindling that was weighted right, and he set to juggling them. The girls didn’t come back still, so he took up three of the torches Edwin Childers had put out for light. They flew around his head.
The preacher came up on him. “Time to head on home, isn’t it, Japheth?”
“Ain’t got no home, brother.” Toss.
“Oh, you’re blessed, Japheth. You’ve got a half dozen homes and more in Cane County. Ain’t one among your uncles and aunts haven’t put you up that I know about.”
“Just passing through, then, Brother. Ain’t nobody to tell me when I got to go home, is there?” Catch.
“Well, boy, I knew your mama and daddy both. I married them, didn’t I? I think they’d say it was time to go on home.”
“My mama and daddy are feeding nightcrawlers under that patch of Johnson grass back of your church, though. Ain’t they, Brother?” Toss.
The preacher drew up, then. “‘The eye that mocketh at his father,'” he said, “‘and despitheth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out.'”
Japheth caught the torches. The fire light showed the sweat streaming off his forehead, but it didn’t reach the black hills on either side of the creek. “I never been out of this valley, Brother, not in my whole life. I never saw no ravens.”
“You go home, boy. You go home and read Leviticus. ‘Every raven after his kind‘ it tells us.”
The preacher stalked off to tend some found sheep. Japheth, he stood still a minute. Then some boys started egging him on, so he juggled fire.
He juggled fire. He threw it.
He threw fire and he caught fire. High into the air, higher than the roofs of the barn and the corn crib, he threw it. Higher than the tops of the willow trees.
And he never made a false throw. He never missed a catch. he was never off, not by an inch. So the torch that came down wrong, well, could that have been Japheth’s fault? More than one man there saw the black shape dart out of the sky, more than one woman saw the fire knocked spinning.
The barn and the crib were old. A great great uncle of Edwin’s had built them when people first came up Bittersweet. The house was new, though, the Childers’ prize. The old one had been torn down and the new one put up in just a week. A lot of the men there had some sweat in that house. Even Japheth had some sweat in it.
And so they worked hard to save it. There were enough there to run two bucket lines down to a deep place in the creek. The corn got stamped down to do it, but they saved the house. They were bone tired and weary, black from smoke and red faced from heat, but they saved most of the house.
But the barns…. Fire is peculiar. It can hide. It can hide under the ground and under leaves. It can hide in ashes, sure, and in sweet alfalfa hay it can hide and it did hide. It waited, and it grew angry. All those exhausted people, when that sound like Goliath drawing in a breath came from the barn loft, they lifted their eyes to heaven and somebody said, “‘Rescue me, O Lord.'”
Time and sun had seasoned the old timbers. Rafters to packed dirt floor, the fire took the old barn, took it fast. When they screamed, the horses sounded like women.
Japheth climbed the bluffs above the creek in the dark. He found some ferns in the high places and made a bed in a sheltered spot between boulders. The fronds smelled like the woods, but when he finally fell asleep, Japheth only smelled smoke.
The crow hopped over to where Japheth hid. It took him up in one foot and pulled him from his hiding place. It swiveled its head back and forth, back and forth, looking at him.
Then it leaned in with its beak and trimmed off his arms. It gobbled them down, then snipped off his legs.
“Look here, crow,” called Japheth, “Those are my strong arms and legs.”
The crow dropped Japheth off the side of the branch. As he fell into the dark, he heard it laugh and laugh.
Japheth passed left over wisps of smoke on his way down off the hill. He backtracked them to the Childers’ place. He saw the women — Edwin’s wife and all his pack of daughters — down by the creek, pulling things back and forth in the water, rubbing clothes against rocks.
Edwin Childers stood among the blackened timbers of his corn crib. His crib, his father’s, his grandfather’s. He was staring at some red coals.
Japheth was an early riser. No one else had made the trip back yet, to start the rebuilding. He drew a breath to speak.
Edwin Childers, big Edwin Childers, swung his bull head around. He untied the knots in his shoulders and arms and back, then reached for the boy.
Japheth Sapp — sly young Japheth, quick and sure and strong young Japheth — fell to the rocky earth and it broke him.
Edwin Childers’ feet were shod with heavy brogans. He didn’t have any trouble snapping Japheth’s clever fingers. Japheth could tease a trout out of Bittersweet any time he wanted before that. He could pick funny little tunes on a borrowed guitar before that.
Before that, Japheth could fork hay all day long in hard June light, but that sheet of muscles wasn’t thick enough. Edwin’s boots found the boy’s ribs easy.
Before, Japheth Sapp could catch any girl’s eyes with his even white smile. Kick.
Before, he could hear a mule coming up the creek from a half mile away. Kick.
He could run from the Bittersweet Church to Stone’s Camp and not get winded. He could race squirrels up oak trees, and he could sing, how he could sing. Kick. Kick. Kick.
Japheth Sapp fell to the rocky earth and it broke him. It nearly unmade him.
Upstream was right. Against the flow of the water, he dragged himself up through a red haze, red that the creek water didn’t quite wash away. Against the water, against the slope of the ground. Whichever way was the hardest to crawl was the right way.
The old woman had the furthest place up the creek. She found him when she went for water, lying in shallows, murmuring through split lips. His hands clawed at the gravel.
Sister Ruth was from off someplace, but she’d married a Connely so she was a relation. She was widowed and her one boy had died with Japheth’s father. She didn’t worship with all those United Brethren along the creek and she didn’t see people much. But she knew Japheth, and she took him in.
She fed him soup and made poultices from moss and creek mud. She trimmed poplar branches into splints and set his legs as close to straight as she could.
After a few days, he could have talked to her. Sister Ruth was used to not talking, but she spoke to him sometimes. It seemed polite.
When she gave him new clothes she said, “Army sent these back with Ezra. You eat enough of that soup and you’ll fill them out.” They were heavy, gray things, trousers and shirts and a long coat.
After a few weeks, she took him outside with the dogs in the air and sunshine. His eyes weren’t as good as they had been. He could see the crows, though. He could see them watching him.
Japheth watched the crows back, he watched them close. First, he learned that crows aren’t just black. “Black as an old crow,” people said, and there was some truth to that. It just wasn’t all the truth. The yellow and orange in their beaks and feet, yes, but blue? Their wings had blue in them. Sometimes he saw red in their eyes, even before they started coming in closer.
And the sound of crows. Caw, Caw, they cry. But a crow whistles sometimes, too. Japheth heard crows fuss like jays and giggle like girl children. He heard them babble like the creek over gravel.
The feel of crows — the sharp points of their claws and the soft lift of their feathers — that came later. Some time would pass before he learned their dusty, gamy smell.
Japheth healed slowly. He healed badly. His left leg had a bend to it. There was a rattle in his chest and he breathed too hard. He didn’t have his same face anymore. His nose was twisted and his lips wouldn’t meet.
But, he was able to hobble down into the yard to throw feed to the chickens and the dogs. Most times, when he’d finally managed to creep his way back up onto the porch, he’d find a crow perched on the swing where he usually sat. Sometimes he shooed them away, sometimes he went inside.
One day Sister Ruth said, “You know about the crow funeral?”
Japheth didn’t say anything.
“You see a crow laid up dead, somewhere, you get there quick enough after it’s killed?” Her talk was from up in the mountains. His Connely cousin had found her in Harlan or some place back around there when he went off and found out he wasn’t a miner.
“All these other ones come around, don’t they? They’s hundreds of them, I guess. And they’s all jabbering and carrying on like they do. And then they all hush up at once. And it’s all quiet like after a shot in the woods. And they just sit there a time, don’t they?”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t know.
“Then, after they been sitting there for a while, they all start in cawing again. Then they light out to wherever it is crows go.”
It was time to feed the dogs, so he went out to the porch. Crows were in the trees and on the rocks. They perched along the ridge of the barn.
It was quiet, like after a shot in the woods.
He would scare them off. He found the rags of clothes Sister Ruth had found him in and gathered them into a tattered pile. He brought straw and tobacco sticks from the barn and broke his silence to ask her for needle and thread.
His fingers and eyes wouldn’t help him, though. He cursed when he couldn’t thread the needle, then wept when he didn’t have the strength to break the sticks into the lengths he wanted.
His cousin was passing him there on the porch once and saw him at his fumblings. She bent to help him but when he glared at her, she shied off. His eyes had more red than white in them, still.
Alone, he stitched up the rents in the shirt and trousers. Alone, he sewed shut the arms and the legs. He took handfuls of straw and stuffed them into the clothes, all the while promising himself, “I’ll scare them birds off, I’ll scare them clean off.”
But when he looked down at his crooked hands, he saw they’d done their stuffing too well. The new seams had parted and the straw spilled onto the boards of the porch floor. He didn’t have to shoo away the dogs when he bent to pick up the scattering, they’d gotten tired of him, finally. Tired or wary.
The tobacco sticks were slim lengths of milled poplar, dusty with the years they’d lain in the barn. They suited the job well, straight as they were, and light and strong.
When his arms failed him, he used his feet and the edge of the porch to snap the sticks into lengths, the lengths of a man’s arms and legs, the length of straight back. He fell off the porch every time he brought his weight down. His cousin had already learned that the time for going near him had passed so she only watched him drag himself out of the mud.
He lashed the sticks together with grass string, then damned the straw and hung the rags on the frame. He stole a white flour sack from the kitchen, then cast around for more tools. On the mantelpiece he found a box that held an empty lantern, a lump of shiny black coal, other old things. He took a battered felt hat — the same one the groom wore in the tinted picture on the wall — and the coal.
He dragged the frame of poplar and cloth to the edge of the barn lot and drove it into the soft ground. The flour sack wouldn’t hold the shape he wanted, the black strokes he’d drawn for a face shifted and twisted in the wind as wild as the clothes did. But he shoved the hat down over the sack and figured he was done. He would scare them off.
When they went out the next morning, there were no birds. The crows were gone. But so was his handwork. Gone from where he’d left it, at least.
Ruth saw something she knew in the weeds by the creek. She looked at him, scared and angry both, and walked to the bank. As he lurched up, she moved away from him, the dripping hat in her hand.
The bits of cloth weighed down the sticks and kept them from floating away. The tangle bobbed in the shallows, and the current moved the sleeves of the torn shirt back and forth over the gravel.
The first jeering crow landed on a flat rock a few yards away. They were teeming thousands by the time he made it into the house.
For a little time he tried to hide from them. But he could hear them calling outside the windows.
Then he tried to be rid of them again, tried to fight them. But his rocks wouldn’t reach them. He couldn’t have lifted a gun, even if she hadn’t hidden them all.
The days got shorter and the flocks grew. The trees cloaking the hills passed from green with leaves to red with leaves — or yellow or brown or orange with leaves — to black. Black with birds.
The great crow snatched him from his fall and dropped him onto a branch. As it settled in beside him, he asked, “Why did you catch me, old bird?”
The crow laughed and laughed. It said, “These are my strong arms and legs.”
One night Japheth Sapp walked away from his cousin’s house.
He limped through the trees along the creek. He could see his breath clouding in the moonlight. He saw a shadow dart across the moon, then another.
The first one hit with a muffled caw, a feathered whirlwind burrowing down the back of his long soldier’s coat. Then crows tore at his clothes and tangled in his hair. They picked and cut and battered. He would have fallen under their weight, but they kept him up, they kept him aloft with the beating of their wings. He breathed their dusty, gamy smell.
He wore crows.
In a gray dawn, Edwin Childers saw a stranger peering into his empty new corn bin. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a man he didn’t know on Bittersweet Creek.
When Edwin got closer, the man turned with an odd jerk. His face was covered with cuts and bruises, his nose and mouth were twisted. Edwin knew him, then, and some of the old anger came back.
The man said, “There’s nothing in this new grain house.” He smiled, then, and Edwin saw a tooth or two hid back in his mouth.
The smile dried up and its maker turned and hopped into the crib. The soot colored coat he wore flapped in the wind that had sprung up, made it look like he’d fluttered in.
Edwin stomped to the crib and ducked in through the westward opening. He saw the sun just coming up, just showing through the cracks between the pine planks of the far wall, where the ragged shape crouched, dark and wiry.
The voice was still strong, but had a rasp. “You can’t give back what you took out of me, Edwin Childers,” he said. “But here, here’s your corn back.”
A black shadow darted into the crib from behind Edwin, then out the east door. There was a tick and a rattle as it flew through.
The grain skittered along the floor boards until it rested against the side of Edwin’s boot.
“That’s some of the sweetest corn anybody could ever hope to glean, right there, Mr. Childers. Going to be a bumper crop, too.”
Edwin’s eyes were wide when he raised them from the corn to the broken face. “I don’t want nothing of yours, boy,” that deep voice cracked some, “I don’t want no help from you.”
The lips pursed as much as they could. “Ain’t in me to give you anything, Mr. Childers. All that’s in me now is taking away.”
Then crows came from every direction. Flight, rattles, flutters, the farmer couldn’t move for the tumult. The other walked around him, out the way they had come in.
The calling of birds and the rattling grew louder. Edwin couldn’t move because his knees, his waist, were held by the weight of thousands of grains of corn. He roared and thrashed and lurched towards the opening, where corn spilled from the crib like gold.
A cloud of crows lept from the grain house. A man followed below them, his stride broken but his path straight. They went their way, gathering, gleaning.
You’d think I’d be pleased, wouldn’t you? To find out I was right all along, I mean. Shouldn’t that be a cause for celebration? Well, excuse me dear, if I don’t break out the Stoli quite yet. It’s not easy to please an old Yankee bitch so set and certain in her ways. Of course I was right. Logic and science had always supported me. The inextricable connection between body and personality, to paraphrase Lamont. I always preferred my own rendition — Flesh and Soul as One. No cherubic celebrations, no rejoicing in beatific cloud fields. The soul is just flesh. Just flesh.
You see, I was right all along. And the truth shall set you free.
So very true. So very free.
They wheel us out in the mornings, before class arrives. The sun comes through the windows in flat, pale strips. It’s April or May now, somewhere in the prelude to summer, and the hazy light holds a hint of coming heat. Not that I can feel it; no, dearie, you could place my soft forearm on a glowing burner and I wouldn’t so much as murmer. But I can still remember the heat in those beams, Herb’s white gardening hat in the humid mornings. Herb had always been an early raiser — even in the last year of his life, he never broke ground later than nine in the morning. Not for me; I was rarely out of bed before ten. Besides, the garden was his. I don’t think he would have rejected my help, but I’m almost certain he wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much. In 52 years of marriage, you learn what is ‘ours’ and what is ‘mine’.
I wasn’t offended. I much preferred to watch him from the balcony, glass of tomato juice with a finger of vodka in one loose hand, feet adorned with the most recent pair of Trevor’s travesties. His tradition of tacky slippers had started over thirty Christmases ago, when he was thirteen. This last year, they were lime green with plastic shot glasses on the toes and “Viva la Tequila” stitched on the sides. I wonder how in the world he’s going to top tha —
The wheels on the carts never catch or squeak — their ride is impeccably smooth. Rather unnerving, really. A few of us get going in response to that perfect rolling purr. The grunts and cries go unrecognized by the attendants. They are like stone as they push us — they don’t whistle, they barely speak, and they never laugh. I believe they’re trying to be respectful. But I don’t want respect. I want sound, something other than our noises.
I miss the word “fuck”. Shocked to hear that from an old lady? I hold the distinction of being the only person to use that word during my testimony in the McCarthy trials. Believe me, the contempt charge was worth the expression on old Joe’s face when I told him he was more of a fucking danger to America than the communists ever would be. I always liked the earthy bluntness of the word — vulgar and lively, crammed with emotion. I wish the attendants would use it — throw it at each other in jest or bellow it when a hand gets caught between the carts. Too damn quiet.
There are few voices of reasonable dissent left — just Ralph and I, in fact. We lost John Stanton a few days ago, when his tongue was cut out as a joke. John’s dissector stuck it on the end of a probe and waggled it at his partner’s enormous boobs. She rumbled with guilty laughter. John’s last words, shaking and resigned as the scalpel parted the pink fibers behind his teeth, were “Enough’s enough — I’ll be goddamned if I’ll talk without a tongue”.
Ralph still valiantly tries for humor as they roll him into place. “I wanted a table by the window. The window, damnit! Frank, if you don’t start listening to me you’re not getting a tip. I’ll tell you, the staff around here are a bunch of stiffs.”
Ralph’s left-hand neighbor is getting into her morning routine. “My eyes slipped open my eyes my eyes are open SOMEBODY GET THAT NIGGER TO CLOSE MY EYES CLOSE MY EYES NIGGER CLOSE MY EYES NIGGER”
I like Ralph, know how he appreciates an active audience. “Doris is heckling you again,” I prompt him.
“Oh, it’s just Doris’ way of saying she likes me. Look at her. She can’t take her eyes off me, can you? You adorable bigoted cunt you.”
Vulgarity is one thing, but the lurch into callous hatred burns even my numb skin. “Ralph.”
“I’m sorry, Ann.” His voice disappears, like a cut phone line.
Oh, damnit. That’s the second day in a row I’ve shut him down. I hope one of us is gone before he breaks.
Ralph has struggled throughout this whole thing to remain upbeat, gentlemanly. He didn’t speak for the first three days because he didn’t want to see the women naked. Trying to close his eyes, he’d said, though we both know that phrase meant precious little under our new circumstances. Still, how else can we communicate? It’s dangerous to contemplate sight without functioning eyes, feeling while neurons hang cold. The man who shared the rack with me before Ralph was an English teacher. Rather, he was until an aneurysm ended his career in the middle of freshman grammar. Analytical man, pragmatist, concerned with coming to some logical grasp of our situation. I liked him immediately. His first priority, he’d informed me, was to try to understand our new language, since it seemed ontologically false to use metaphors that no longer had any significant meaning for us. He went mad in two hours.
The students enter in small waves. Their pre-professional bustle goads more of us. It grows, that stunted clamoring none of the students can hear. My Jill comes over, greets her partner. “Good morning, Sui Lee.” Curt nod at me. “Hilda.” I don’t know why she picked Hilda; the name should irritate me, but I like her bemused tone in spite of myself. Her zealousness reminds me of another headstrong, bitchy woman I always admired.
Jill corrals her dangling black curls into a hair band. Beside her, Sui Lee is small and patient, waiting; she knows My Jill will take the lead, be the first to continue the exploration. Today marks the beginning of hands. Jill hunkers over me and gently grips my palm, as though to give a manicure. The scalpel stands ready.
“Did you hear about Eddie McDormand?” Sui Lee asks as the blade sinks in.
“Hell of a thing. You don’t hear much about people hanging themselves anymore. Did you know him?”
“What he looked like. That’s it.” Eyes locked on the parting skin.
“They said his landlord didn’t find him for four days. Nice cutting.” Sui Lee is distracted from Eddie’s sad fate as Jill shears back skinny flays of epidermis. They fold under their own weight, like shaved ham.
“Thanks. Yeah, some people don’t have any place in this business. Where are we going today?”
Sui Li consults the anatomical chart. “Find the palmar aponeurosis, then trace its branches out to the fingers…”
They work awhile amid their comparable silence of instrument clangs and sharp shoe squeaks. Noise from us swirls around them. The screaming, of course, there’s always someone screaming. A prayer floats from the corner of the room, “Oh Jesus, save us.” Oh, save your breath.
“What breath, Ann?” Ralph, subdued, trying to make peace.
I am eager to comply. “Ah yes, the curse of the metaphor.”
I sense his smile. He’s with me for at least another day. An intense longing for Herb suddenly explodes through me as Ralph moves on. “They’ve already thrown poor Mr. Eddie in with us, haven’t they?”
Herb is too close to my still lips, so I say nothing. I don’t need to, Ralph knows. There are no secrets among us, no matter how much you imagine closing your eyes. When I can, I reply, “I wonder what he’s thinking right now.”
“Probably wishes he hadn’t signed his donor card.” I join Ralph in his chuckling, it’s too uneasy by itself. He’s right, of course — they’ve already lumped this Eddie in with us. He was different from them, didn’t belong in the business. Poor bastard, snip snip snip. None of them acknowledge that we mark the road end for them as well. Especially not My Jill — she can’t allow it to, it would destroy her ambition, the grab-Death-by-the-balls glint in her eyes. To them, we’re specimens, sources of knowledge in the fight. To us, they differ only in terms of years, days, seconds.
In the end, you’re us.
I wasn’t expecting it, but I thought I was ready for it. At ninety-two, you’re either rambling to your fern or you’re very aware the coda is approaching. The heart attack slammed me onto the concrete outside Watson’s Coffee To-Go like a freight train. Even when the emergency squad roared up a sparse two minutes later, I knew. En route to the hospital, the huge burning needle goring my left boob suddenly pulled out; lights and whistles sent everyone into a flurry of circles around me. It didn’t hurt after that. My left side had collapsed into a black hole that tugged insistently, threatening to flip me right out of the gurney. I didn’t fight the slide, I didn’t see the sense. When the show’s over, you don’t complain why it wasn’t longer, you get out of your seat and go the hell home. I slid further, the sound liquefying, and I just remember thinking, well, this is it, go on home folks, show’s over, show’s over, and everything around me pinched shut —
I was waking up. At least that’s what it felt like. My vision was opening back up, brightening. Brightening? Yes, much as I hate to admit it, there it was, a huge glowing light at the end of a tunnel of sorts. The light swelled, exploding the tunnel, killing the hints of periphery black. A harsh orange eye glared down on me. It was an operating table light. Well I’ll be damned, I made it through.
Then I tried my arm, and nothing happened. I had a stroke too? Nothing from the other arm. Have you ever half-awakened from a nightmare and been unable to move? Your mind kicking and thrashing inside the immobile rock of your body? Someone approached, a figure uniformed in green and white. He carried a harpoon with a rubber lead — I’ve since learned it’s called a trocar. He brandished it at me, and the indifference in this movement, the professional boredom, scared me far more than my inability to move. My tongue was thick, limp cardboard. I tried to twist away. He jabbed his hollow spear into my stomach, and I felt nothing.
And you think pain hurts.
I screamed and screamed as the attendant suctioned out my food, my blood, other less distinguishable juices. The rubber lead dangled in the morgue sink, and I watched the muddy parade slosh out the tube and down the drain. Intense vertigo; I was swirling, eyes ripped out and bobbing in the flood, just around and down, around and down. By the time the attendant had attached the trocar to the pump containing the preservative, I’d grown quiet again. This time, I didn’t cry out as he stuck me.
All in all, I think I handled the embalming pretty well.
Our first day was like a grand military assembly. They’d set us out early, all sheeted. The expanse of white folds covering me had gracefully molded to my face. They entered in small clumps, huddled in spite of themselves, some boasting too loudly as they stomped in — “Hey, how was your weekend?” — trying to fool themselves into believing this was not some terrible, extraordinary day.
The teacher stood at the head of the huge classroom. Short and round, Napoleon surveying the troops. Numbers hung at the end of the tables; several people crowded the wrong tables and were profuse in their quiet embarrassment. When the shuffling was at a minimum, he intoned, “Ladies and gentlemen, if you would follow my lead….
His full-hand pinched the sheet near the rounded top. This was all done with the left, his right stayed hidden behind his back. The students tentatively mimicked him.
“And lift back….”
All fifty of us were unveiled simultaneously. There was the rippling of a hundred sails, and for an instant I was on my grandson Jeffrey’s sloop off Nantuckett. Napoleon’s melodrama worked on all in the room. Eyeballs bobbed as they took us in. Their faces crawled, some hardly at all, some as if they were infested with insects. A collective moan escaped us.
“Ladies and gentlemen, ” Fat Napoleon continued, “welcome to Human Anatomy. Those of you who survive this course will have taken a huge step in learning how to prevent a result such as this,” his plump left hand motioned to us, ” from occurring in a situation such as this….”
Napoleon’s right hand appeared over his head, wrapped around a claw hammer. The hammer whistled down and punched through the head of the body before him. Bone chips leapt up and bounced harmlessly off Napoleon’s own skull. The head jerked sideways, appealing to the rest of us, as the eye shot out like a marble on a sinewy string. The jaw popped out of its socket in surprise, and all I could think of was the jack-in-the-box whose wide mouth had sent Jeffrey into screaming fits his third Christmas morning.
Their reactions were to be expected. They were furiously alive; the shock that wormed across features and down arms, the graceful sway-and-drop as several people fainted, the aerobic stomach-crunches of vomiting. The hands of the girl standing over me jumped protectively toward my head, as if she would never do something so horrible to her cadaver.
You silly little bitch.
I did not yet know her as My Jill. For that instant, I hated her. If possible, I would have lurched up and crushed her throat. She could not hear the untwitching cacophony, especially not the goggling of the man ravaged by Napoleon — his apologizing for his appearance, his sounds breaking into tears as he strained to reel his eye back into his head.
Napoleon surveyed the room. “Those of you who’ve passed out cannot hear me. Those of you vomiting, finish and get a bucket to clean it up. Those of you still upright, pick up a scalpel.”
This was our first day of medical school.
Over three days, My Jill has changed the hand into an opened spider, a grey and white arachnid streaked with electric blue. It is a completely different creature from the puddy-toad of my back. They started on our backs first; big muscle groups, a safe place for practice and mistakes. Their learning cuts stripe me in heavy purple highways.
Sui Li steers the knife now. She is much slower than Jill, not uncertain but extremely cautious. Jill is rubbing her thumb and forefinger against each other as she watches. Oh, my dear, you just yearn to be behind that knife, don’t you? To be making all the choices, determining the paths. You’re so certain in your knowledge. Even if you don’t have all the answers yet, you have faith in your callings. They are certainly within striking distance of your blade. So much like me, so certain and sure.
Flesh and Soul as One. Even Lamont had complimented me on its poetic simplicity — no small praise, considering the source. I discovered his Philosophy of Humanism in ’51, a few years before McCarthy’s madness brought us into the same courtroom. My god, he was amazing. His words burned with dissident intensity, with humane conviction. Heaven and hell were just myths, he ranted, societal constructions used to convince the downtrodden not to rebel. The meek shall inherit the earth, indeed. The idea of an afterlife served only to remind the good and long-suffering that they would receive ultimate justice and that the sinners, the rabble-rousers, would receive well-deserved damnation. He hoped that death could simply be honestly recognized, not loaded down with undue hopes or fears.
How could someone be so right and so wrong at the same time? For this cannot be hell. If so, then God is much crueler than even the Old Testament tells. There are believers all around me, singing psalms of the suffering faithful. Ralph is one, I can hear his reedy prayers each night when they shut down the main lights. So how can we all be thrown together like this, the pagans and the pious? No, I was right. Flesh and Soul as One. This body is all there is. Somehow consciousness continues, possibly residual electricity in the neurons, released at the time of severe cardiac trauma. Neurochemical flooding, perhaps. Maybe the embalming preserves the body too well, so that it cannot break down as fast as it should. Yes, the process takes much longer, but it still goes on —
Oh god, the time of the dumping.
They do it so casually, pushing and sweeping the day’s bits into the bags, flicking away tiny scraps that have clung to the scalpel. It shouldn’t bother me. Damn it, Ann, take your stand. This is the way it is meant to be. We are nothing but worm meat in the end. To rally against this would be unnatural and stupid. A waste of time.
And yet, it may be those bags that finally drive me over the edge. Not Ralph’s faltering breakdown, not the forty raving corpses I’m spending the last part of my existence with. Just some red biohazard bags, the final source of my post-life dementia.
With each careless wrist flick, the gentle rustling rolls louder through my ears. Each little bit of me that drops seems to echo. I tell myself it’s just meat, no matter how it sounds. It can’t be whispering as it falls.
Night in the vault. A walk-in closet of bodies; two orderly rows, each of us suspended from crab-claws of metal. The claws hold us by the head, their thin but strong pincers gripping by the ears. The blackness wraps around like an immense velvet hand.
Memories swarm. Trevor’s pebble collection, still packed away somewhere in the attic. Our twenty-fifth anniversary, celebrated in the Moroccan street markets. Long summer mornings. Herb’s white hat glistens like a star. The air heavy with the smell of grass. His fingers carefully break the ground open. And there they are. They squirm uncertainly, startled by blinding light. Herb gently brushes them aside to make room for his hibiscus. They retreat back underground. Temporarily. Dripping around and down, waiting….
The blackness rushes back around me. Reassuring emptiness. It happens that way sometimes, the memories coming alive, almost like dreams or hallucinations. At least they quiet the screamers, lull them into an Alzheimeric peace. Deep inside, that’s what I’d always expected, blissful peace. That’s a difficult admission for me. I always mocked the Jesus brigade for their light-filled tunnels and eternal gardens, but I don’t know that I ever had a less concrete vision. You can’t imagine nothingness, can you? I guess I’d always pictured some sort of comforting oblivion — a tiny figure lying under an eternity of night. What a terrible lack of self-awareness. I always prided myself as being more rational. But that’s the point, I guess — it takes death to erase self.
I know this, because there is no true quiet anymore. Now, when night stills the ravings, something else creeps in. Static growing louder, struggling to be words. Flashes of color. Images ribbed, lined, thrashing. Lost bits of meat weeping, opening their eyes —
Up they go, unwinding, unwrapping. They cut and then stretch, as if opening curtains. All bodies match now, preserved pink and pickled grey with green fibers and mounds like dusky rope. My Jill has laid my neck open when Ralph starts singing.
“Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me, anyone else but me.
His tone is shaky, uncertain, and I join in to support him.
‘one else but me.
Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me.
I can’t remember the next line. It doesn’t matter, because Ralph is improvising.
’cause I’m already under the apple tree, just little ole me.
Dead and buried under the apple tree.
Dead under the apple tree, nobody else but me.
Dead under the apple tree, nobody else but me.
Dead under the apple tree….
Like a needle stuck on a record. I call to him gently, and the song becomes a shout, drowning me out. Each appeal brings a louder shriek.
I miss him already.
Oh god, neural fibers have to break apart at some point. Maybe when they get to our heads. Scoop out the ice cream, get rid of the nuts.
Delirious. I’m staring up at My Jill, watching the dedication in her mouth, and the noise that accompanies her face is sloshing, like waste in a sewer pipe. Smells slam through each other, mate and bear mixed offspring: isopropyl breathe mints, aerosol rubber, dead fart perfume. At night, the whispers break in more fervently, speaking from in my head but not in my voice.
I’m losing track of things. I distinctly remember Jill removing my arms, yet she did it again today. Arm: log of peeled fruit, strands of tendon randomly erect. She lifted the saw and the air buzzed with chewing. The first time, I watched the arm go. This time, I watch my body stay put as she removed me from the torso and wrapped me in the red hazard bags. Those fucking bags.
Working on faces today. Ralph’s features look like a lump of beets with two white grapes balanced atop. Jill is peeling my cheeks like an apple, an apple tree with anyone else but me anyone else but me N O ! NO! No. Have to stay. Together. The show must end soon.
I hear a thousand smackings somewhere. Can’t locate; ever since My Jill took my eyes, it’s been harder and harder to see. Applause. There’s a droning that makes me think of France, then more smackings. Happy whooping. Jill’s face suddenly fuzzes into view. Those steady lips. I wonder what she did with mine.
Different hands now. They’re scooping me into plastic. The red biohazard mouth wins in the end. That’s fine. Last act, it’s almost over. Finally, a cart with squeaky wheels. I hear an elevator. Anticipation settles through me, along with an unnamed liquid seeping across my back, slimy in its comfort, like week-old bath water. They cremate the bodies in a mass grave, I remember this from the school’s literature on body donation. Even if this meat is still dumbly winding down, the fire will end it, char it, burn it to embers and atoms. Whispers and slithering flashes —
THE NOISE! Outside. I’m outside the building. My god, to think I complained of the silence in the classroom. Life, like a thousand ruptures at once. Sharp explosion of bird wings as one of my vertebrae gives way, lolling my head to the left. Birds taking flight near me, or my spine breaking? Think it was both, synchronous soaring and slipping. Outside the vault, the world is a system. Everything is together, humming shining thumping driving whining revving braking gesticulating gesturing
Why are we in a cemetery? What used to be my cheek against the ground. Shovel passes me like a shark in murky water. No, don’t bury me, burn me, GODDAMNIT, BURN ME BURN ME!
Trevor. He never liked this donating idea, said he wanted somewhere to remember. I always told you we needed to discipline that boy better. Herb, where are you, get the usher, the show is over, I want to leave but I seem to be cemented to my chair.
Splatters of dirt, down and down and…stop.
Someone brushing cracked knuckles against corduroy, the sound of ripping. The bag splits, forms two skewed eyes, black pupils on a flushed face. They stare at me. I wanted a private table, a window table, damnit, where’s my window table.
They come in through the eyes, sniffing at first, curly little fingers. They rub through the holes and drop. They’ve vanished, but I can still feel them….
I was right. Half-right. Not Flesh and Soul as One — Flesh and Soul Is One. Each bit of the Flesh is Soul, has soul, has a voice. Death as the Great Liberator, unshackling the unheard masses, freeing them to sing, to …whisper.
Not sure if this is me anymore. Me. Silly word. I could be Ann’s brain. Could be her pancreas, splurting out insight. A stray skin cell, too stupid to have sluffed off yet. Now I finally know. Only one philosophy that matters in terminus — decayism. Decomposition of fact giving birth to fact, old voices breaking into new, leaking out of the joints gnawed open by the munchers at the door.
The truth shall set you free. I was right all along. Nothing but worm meat.
But, oh god, I didn’t know I’d still be screaming as they fed.