“He had opened the book at random several times, seeking a sortes Virgilianae, before he chose the sentences on which his code was to be based. 'You say: I am not free. But I have lifted my hand and let it fall.' It was as if in choosing that passage, he were transmitting a signal of defiance..."
EDITED BY JEREMY TENENBAUM AND KEVIN TRAVERS
In this city: December is still fall. It comes earlier each year. But the streets are busy. There is life, still warm and crowning—too new for hibernation.
Traffic rattles: the windowpane and glasses set out on the serving dish clink. The man who lives downstairs bangs the ceiling with a broom when Lara and Marcy play their music too loud. They smoke cigarettes on the fire escape and keep the nubs of the filters in a yellow flower pot.
Evening: sunlight cuts low through the buildings and clouds. The weather had turned cold and a mess of potatoes and carrots roil the broth in a red Dutch oven. The apartment windows fog. Finally, there was heat in the room—meat, soft as a thank you, falls apart. It is good to share when there is plenty—and especially when there is not.
Morning: cracked open wide with distant sirens against the dawn. The flower pot overfilled—metal rusted fragile where footing should be firm. Lara undresses and steps into the shower. Marcy washes dishes and dries them with a towel. After, she hangs over the railing and her ashes fall five stories to the ground. Her breath is ribboned to the sky and disappearing. A room over, the squeal of the faucet. A floor below the TV is loud. The brown and wooded scent of coffee burning slips under the threshold.
Outside: the door is a flower. Newly planted in a jar. Thank you—do not forget to water it. It is simple advice. Advice so simple as to be forgotten.
Are there angels: upstairs—they are learning. But it is ok. It is ok. How many more winters are left? How many more first warm days of emergence? His hands, two fragile shells, rest on his lap. It is mid-day. It is time to sleep for a little while.
Grace: is the impossible struggle against circumstance bereft of sermon…
It is hard to be good in every season. Marcy positions herself in the doorway, it is time to go she calls to Lara. The hallway and steps—the wood moans, shifting still. The railing is smooth and black where it turns in on itself going up and down—figures of beauty oppressed. But there is always learning and new seasons. They move down the hall, the steps. The wall is marked by chipped paint that has fallen away where fingers have reached out for balance.
“The Bone Collector”
Our hands were warm as we caressed and guided them through the ebb and flow of our bodies. It was our fleeting, quick-tempoed hum that shook the stillness and caution from us and had summoned them from broken dreams.
Kisses and secrets were whispered into its skin as it glided past with wild flowers and golden grasses threaded between its bones. Behind it, four assistants followed. They were of iridescent skin: one of vapors, of earth, of light, and darkness. When we blinked they shifted and became a cascading kaleidoscope of animals, physics, elements, and other things that we could not comprehend. We bowed our heads and wept.
We guided them to the edge of the ravine where the once broken, old, and sick lay quiet and unnatural. It stood, silent throughout, as the dead were bathed in sunlight and we wove sticky bits of honeycomb into garlands and crowns. We circled tight around them as the assistants came forward, their ancient hymn vibrating against our bones, and began the rites.
The one of vapors knit a shroud from nebulous clouds with sharp, deft movements and wrapped the bodies that we had laid before them.
The one of darkness marked some of the dead with ancient sigils. Each flared and then smoldered in turn before it took the embers and cast them into the sky to become stars.
Then, the one of earth claimed the unmarked. It knelt before each and in its unfathomable grasp kneaded and remade them. One became a green willow sapling. One a muscular bear. The last became a cold, clear spring.
Last, came the one of light and, with a gentle breath, scattered the remains until only a fragment of bone or two were left. It gathered them all from between blades of grass and held them against its lips, whispering arcane secrets, until they gave off an opalescent glow. The rites completed, it turned and presented the fragments to its master.
The bone collector waited. Its skeletal aura shifted, casting shadows of beast then champion, hungry lich, and wild queen, before it settled. The ornamental flowers and grassed that decorated it wilted and crumbled to dust as we watched. They were replaced by a dark energy that draped over its bones, bending and pulling the light around it into a brilliant prismed corona.
There was a beat of silence. The air was stilled in our lungs as an unseen ripple passed, leaving us grey and pallid in its wake. The silence continued and the sweetness on our tongues turned sour. The corona pulsed brighter around it and its presence forced us to our knees, weak with hope.
Then, as quiet as the shifting of seasons, the bone collector accepted the offering and stood before us, bleached bones rid of shadow and gleaming. Its assistants gathered beside it and it gave us a blessing. They left like a fever breaking.
We turned to one another, shaking and breathless, as our hands tingled with cold and our chests were tight with tears. We gathered each other in a slow comforting dance. With pollen dust on our feet, we moved to the soothing murmur of memories, while our hearts were quiet a moment longer.
on Broad Street”
Nonce: The Halcyon is a poetic form that employs the Golden Ratio in any consistent application to a poem’s meter. The ratio is approximated at 1.6 due to its infinite continuation. The simplest application of the form is in descriptive poetry mimicking the visual aesthetic of the ratio in nature. Midline caesura to mark the fraction could be employed. A simple manifestation would include poetic lines consisting of 10 syllable counts in one metric style, followed by 6 syllables in another (or 5:3). Another simple manifestation would be a 10-lined stanza followed by a 6-lined stanza, the two stanzas patterned by rhythm, rhyme scheme, etc. to reinforce the principle sonically and visually.
In the Spring of 2017, I was fortunate enough to travel to Havana on a photo trip. My plan had been to take photographs of the interiors of the synagogues there. As I wrote at the time: “Judaism is a communal religion. There are prayers that cannot be said alone…and yet there can be moments of feeling personal exile.”
I found much in the synagogues familiar, and yet I felt alienated. I did not know Spanish, or the minhagim (customs) of these communities. Nor did I feel connected to the largely white, American tourists who arrived at the synagogues on large tour buses.
I attempted to use the camera to document the synagogues as “they really are,” but rather to uncover the subjective experience of the space. These photographs explore the experience of galut by revealing the details of space that become apparent in moments of alienation. These are dissections of the beauty of the ritual space, in moments of loneliness, when the world is revealed to be dark and base and material.
Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum
“A Few My Favorite Final Words”
Leonardo da Vinci cannot die.
Horse is a brass neigh.
Egg is impossibility.
As Groucho said, “This is no way to live!”
If I’m It, I’m in.
My left arm’s farther away from me.
Dad whisks a thicker batter.
I see in two colors bend and sand.
I love you I love you Buffalo Bill.
I love you “West End Girls”
Though bolder gays may hint of stalking
As if a thrill / nil / if not a bit criminal / the
Nih’l-ist knows / Everything Goes!
Dear God: I made love to your daughter;
her name’s Helen and I’m Cole Porter.
Easy on eyes is hard on pants, ha
ha ha ha that’s one for the dads!
“Tell me if anything ever was done.”
Her breath like sturgeon Brighton Beach.
Other kids calling me Salty Lips.
Icy Seine, icy Thames.
“Tell me if I, if anything.”
Dying was my only unique idea.
Pardonnez, hangman, I trod on your loafers?
I don’t need life: I’ve had other offers.
Gilbert Sorrentino why should he be my final word?
Crito Mozart he be my final word?
Pop-Tarts, Gobots, carpetburn.
“Für dich leben! Für dich sterben!”
That silence at the end of Mahler?
Punch me when it’s over.
When I go down I hit the floor like paper.
“Tell me. Tell me. Tell me if ever.”
Oh Leander, kissing through colander,
Surprise me all love contra natura.
What’s more natural than unnatural nature?
I made it with a manatee in Kathmandu;
We made a kiddie calf, part-beast part-mantoo.
Duncan is dead; he cannot die.
The fog is rising; I make the fog rise.
“Tell me. Tell me. Tell if ever”
Hopscotch on the frozen river.
Vot sobaka, life, you bring me dead birds
in your dead dog mouth
Ohh oww I feel odd off odd
Tell me if anything I ever made
Tell me Tell if I ever made
My last words are “As Groucho Marx said
No one expected the infestation of was. But that’s what it was. A plague of the past tense of the infinitive to be. Was was everywhere. In the morning there’d been nothing, then all there was was was.
He had not seen the first moments, but by early afternoon his yard was covered in a glittering dust of the word, italicized. He took pride in the clarity of his mind and vision, but now he questioned both. He walked to the mailbox, footprinting the was-blanketed walk. He kicked the toe of his shoe through to the ground, ran a finger through the words. Letters hooked like the petals of floral charms on a bracelet, a W hanging off the curve of an S. It was mid-October, when he most enjoyed his walk to the train. Almost sixty degrees, not right for a snowfall. Now everything was covered in was as more was spun through the air.
A neighbor drove by, fishtailed, and skidded to a stop.
“Zeus!” she cried, the window of her hatchback powered down.
“What do you make of this?” he said.
“It’s all over the news,” she said. “No one knows.”
“Not like any weather I’ve seen.”
She told him to call if he needed anything, then drove off in a clinking swoosh. He watched her drive up Green Avenue toward her home. He turned toward his front porch, the site of so many afternoons with loved ones and friends of loved ones, days when he’d come home to see children in the front yard, or finding it empty, discovered a game of badminton out back.
Was covered his shoulders. He brushed it off. Some clung to the back of his hands. He licked it. Much colder than snow or ice, it tasted like frozen steel. He worried that the words might cut his mouth, but they dissolved.
He saw an image composed of many smaller images, each depicting a scene in front of the spot where he stood. Every step he took changed each frame within the overall image. Had he been poisoned? He focused on a single detail and saw Helen and the children same as when they had lived life in the house. He saw his daughters on the porch with their younger brother, every time they sat there, age six though seventeen, watching lightning storms. All that homework, all the times he could have helped. He saw every time he had opened the porch door on the way home, nine-thousand times steadying himself before entering the alternate reality of family life. Helen, Helen, a hundred-thousand tiny images of Helen, a hundred-thousand moments trapped in the pixels the was let him see. Had they always been there? He stepped into the house, ready to run through every room and re-see every moment his family had ever lived, no matter how bittersweet or grim, within their house on Green Avenue.
Steps inside, the images dulled, then disappeared. He grabbed a plastic container from a drawer and dashed outside, expecting to see the yard clear of mysterious precipitation. But the was was still there. A half inch now. He scooped his container full. It didn’t melt as he walked through the house or sat in favorite chairs, swallowing handfuls of was, taking in his life, re-seeing every day. His recent years alone neighbored endless images of people he no longer saw.
He spent the afternoon enjoying the phenomenon, wondering how long it’d last. With each new handful he ate, the effect’s duration decreased, so he brought buckets and jars into the yard, filled them with was, then stored them in the sitting room where no one ever sat.
Early that evening, he prepared to walk to the train platform. He had made it there through all sorts of weather. Was would not stop him. By the time he left his house in boots and wide-brimmed hat, about three inches of was had accumulated. Wind gusted, so he walked with forearm to mouth, worried he’d ingest too much. As he made his way up Green Avenue, he felt melancholic, not uncommon for a man during that final season before the New Year (as nice a euphemism as he might manage).
Schoolchildren tried to make a snowman on their front yard. He had already failed to make a simple snowball. He could pack a handful but it only held its form a moment before the words slipped to the ground. The children had propped shovels and rakes and towels to keep their creation standing. They worked as though fighting back a flood.
“Keep at it!” he called out, but the children only looked at him for a second before returning to work. All the while adults collected bucketfuls. They did not acknowledge him as they had most days when he passed on his way to the train, and this made him think they thought it shameful to indulge in the miracle of was.
At the top of Green Avenue where the road once dead-ended into a cornfield, he took the narrow footpath through what had been a luxuriant expanse of fallen leaves. He proceeded through a newer neighborhood, cut through an area zoned for open space and sports fields, then crossed a paved road and took the farm path that led through the woods to the train. He heard a sound like a crowd of thousands inhaling through their noses then hissing through their teeth.
The farm road was tunneled by leaves rustling in the storm. He emerged from this canopied section, the skies had cleared, yet was still fell. At the platform, workers were frantic. No one noticed as he held his hat against the whirling blur of the train on its circular track.
A train running on a circular track at just the right speed might nose its way into the future, not every time it pushed off, of course, but once. From last year’s perspective, the train now runs in the future, but such literal thinking does not interest the Future Train Transit Authority. Their concern is the next step. The space between the present and the temporal distance the step makes is the sixty-first minute of the twenty-fifth hour on the thirty-second day of the thirteenth month.
He started riding the Future Train when it opened decades ago. At first the train consisted of the most basic locomotive on secondhand belts of curving steel. Slowly and steadily, it began to resemble what we imagine a train to the future might look like, even if we, living in what was once considered the future, do not wear silver spacesuits.
In recent years, the slow curve of the tracks has been banked like a velodrome to keep the train from tumbling off course. The train runs in a counterclockwise direction, so as the train gains speed those sitting on the right side see everything surrounding the farm blend and blur, while passengers closer to the inside windows see across the circular track a gleaming streak as though the train’s nose had accelerated into its own caboose. As the train seems to occupy every inch of track at once, one’s thoughts seem to slip through past, present, and future, and so it seems the Future Train does its job, if only in effect.
The Future Train could run forever on solar energy and recirculating wind resistance. Necessities of business, however, require it to stop and exchange passengers, all of whom have spent a considerable sum for their time on board. The recent increase in housing has been a boon for the Future Train Transit Authority, bringing to the area many more children, who see the train as simple amusement. Their whole life is ahead of them. All things remaining equal, they will make it into the future at the pace of the world.
He will always see himself on that platform. He will always remember that scintillation through brain and body. He will always remember stepping onto the train, the only passenger strolling to the cockpit. It had been years since he had made his way to the front of the train, back when there had been an engineer. It was remote-controlled now. He sat in a seat at the tip of the aerodynamic nose, and there, as the train accelerated, was streamed across the windshield, and some even seemed sucked through the engines. As he sat there, though he had not ingested a drop on his walk, again he saw faces emerge in the streaking curtain across the windshield. Again, he saw Helen. Again, he saw parents and relatives. Again, he saw children as they grew. Again, he saw everyone now gone as the train slipped through onrushing was.
The train stopped at the platform. He hurried to the nearest representative, asked what happened when was filtered through the train. The representative was covered in another word. He ran his fingertips along his arm. “Seems it creates an exhaust of will,” he said, and then demonstrated how a handful of will, when spread over an area covered in was, turned the was to is before it left the area as clear as can be.
Zeus shoved a scoop of will into his mouth, and then he began to run. Each walk home from the platform had taken him twenty minutes, then thirty, recently as long as an hour. But now he made it home before the exhilaration of running — galloping! — wore off. He shot open the front door and saw everyone who had ever stepped inside his house. Helen when twenty-five, thirty, forty-five, sixty. He raised a hand as though waving to a friend across a river. She raised her hand, too, but he could more easily chat with someone on the other side of the country than this woman in his living room. And yet there she was at this cocktail party where no one was offered a single drink. Men had taken the chairs and, out of habit, held in their hands the jars of was he’d stored there earlier. His mother and father were sprawled on the loveseat. An older version of Helen stretched on the couch, relaxing as she had before she’d died. He did not see his children anywhere. When would this wear off? He made it upstairs. All the bedrooms were occupied. In his bed, his aunt and uncle snored. Such an occupying force. Like on airplanes, he thought, the closest exit might be behind you. Other worlds. Other joys and sorrows. The will had worn off.
He ached all over. It took forever to make it to the door and step outside time.
At a screening of The Thing, to be followed by a screening of The Fly, Cam and Olivia met Olivia and Cam, sitting in the same seats they chose online. Both couples fumbled awkwardly through their pockets to check the exact seat numbers on their tickets, jostling the garbage food in their arms — their popcorn, their sodas, and their pretzels with chemical cheese. The standing couple’s kernels rained over their sitting selves.
Seats E11, E12
Seats E11, E12
“These are our seats,” all four of them said.
The pre-show advertising for local businesses concluded. Other filmgoers grew restless. As a part of the theater’s Summer Classics series, there weren’t any previews to delay the beginning of The Thing. In the dark that hung between the projector and the screen — between blank slate and luminous image — the two Olivias and two Cams stared into what they could make of their other’s eyes.
“Why are you here, Cam?” Cam asked. “You don’t even like The Fly that much.”
“But I love The Thing,” Cam said.
The seated Cam shook her head. “Sure, it’s a classic, but how can it compare to the palpable emotion and character development on display in The Fly?”
“It can’t,” the sitting Olivia said.
“Fuck you, Olivia,” the standing Olivia said. “You have no idea what’s good. The Fly is a classic, sure, but to say it even approaches the suffocating atmospheric masterpiece that is The Thing is about the dumbest shit I have ever heard from something that claims to be my mouth.”
A man cosplaying as Kurt Russel’s R.J. Macready seated in E13 retrieved an usher from the lobby. At this point, the opening of The Thing played out on the screen. The Norwegian helicopter pursued the sled dog to the American research station. The Americans witnessed the Norwegian passenger accidentally blow up the helicopter and himself. The Norwegian pilot fired a rifle and shouted at the Americans, but they couldn’t understand him, so they shot him dead. Everyone in the theater had seen this before, but they watched it now like it was new to them, pretending like this was their first time seeing it so that maybe they could attract an understanding of what this experience was like in 1982.
“She’s just you,” whispered the usher to Cam. “Maybe just reach out to her.” He held a broom with popcorn stuck in the bristles.
Cam was hesitant, at first, but she felt the light of a great film pressing against the back of her skull. She felt theater eyes and the eyes atop the arctic bearded head of Kurt Russell urging her forward — urging her to sit the hell down. She handed her soda and popcorn to her Olivia, while the sitting Cam did the same. The Cams pressed their hands together. They molded into each other in layers. As R.J. MacReady and Dr. Copper found the burned remains of a malformed humanoid among the charred ruins and corpses of the Norwegian base and recovered it to the American station, the two Cams settled softly into one.
The Olivias tried to do the same. They pressed their right hands together. Their skin stitched and wove through the other’s, messier than the two Cam’s. As their heads began to ease together, both of the Olivias spoke in an echo: “You know what you know what, The Fly The Thing actually kind of kind of sucks sucks. It doesn’t even it doesn’t even compare compare, and I’m tired and I’m tired of being being afraid afraid to say to say this this, holding it holding it up as some deity of horror cinema. It sucks.”
The two Olivias stopped halfway, settling into a vaguely human shape with misshapen bones, two heads, four arms, but still two legs. She didn’t seem to be in pain like this and could still sit comfortably in the theater seat.
Half of her groaned when the thing burst from the sled dog.
Cam split into two again as the first feature ended. As RJ Macready and Childs — lit by open flame against the arctic snow — stared grievously at the doomed other, it somehow felt right to exist separately. The Olivias only entangled further during the credits.
As The Fly began, the Olivias rippled at their seam. The two Cams stood on either side of the Olivias and pulled them by the flailing arms.
“If we don’t get them apart before Jeff Goldblum’s experiment,” they both said, “they might be stuck like this forever.”
They pulled, staring into the pupils of their partners, at odds with their irises, at odds with their corneas. Frustrated movie goers got up from their seats and helped the Cams. Eventually, the whole theater writhed en masse pulling at the Olivias, who muttered counteractive critical opinions on Cronenberg’s work one after the other. Then, the Olivias’ seam weakened; it split. Each Olivia tumbled into each Cameron. Onscreen, floppy-haired Jeff Goldblum prepped his experiment. The audience helped the couple to their feet — unstuck them from the soda pop floors before returning to their seats.
The R.J. MacReady cosplayer stopped and looked around with a puzzled look under his ratbeard wig. “Where’d the other two go?”
Olivia and Cam and Cam and Olivia both looked over their hands. “We’re here,” they said. Their skin shimmered. “We’re all right here.”
They sat in silence. They clasped hands, unable to remember what it was they were here to see. A man transformed on screen. It seemed exciting. The popcorn tasted new.
Three stones rise out of lake Ontario, at the bottom of a set of metal steps that lead up a cliff to an abandoned camp. They watch, waiting for someone to descend, as they have done for many years. Cold water laps, eroding faces, large noses and sunken eyes. Once, a counselor told some children that the stones were trolls, struck to stone by the sun before they could enter their caves in the cliff’s rocky face, but when the moon was full, they still might have enough life to snatch you into the lake, to some underwater hollow, never to be seen or heard from again. Or perhaps you would become a stone too, another ghost in the lake, waiting for the living to get close.
In a way, the counselor was not totally wrong. These stones saw many things. Teenagers lighting cigarettes in the dark. Children beating a fish that had washed up on the beach with big sticks just to see the insides. The stones saw men embrace each other tightly, hoping that no one would come down and see. They saw young women cry, arms wrapping knees to chest. They saw old men walk down the long flight only to have to stop halfway to rest. There were church groups praying at dawn, voices raised in song. There was the boy who lost his footing and rolled down, cracking his head. Perhaps he did not live long after.
The stones take these moments, consume these lives.
Often, ascending the steps, people feel a sense of loss that they cannot quite put their finger on. What happened down there was just a fog, a fiction, something that had happened to someone else in another lifetime. The stones keep all, only releasing memories when they are full, passing them to the lake.
Two counselors sneak out of their rooms at midnight. It’s a Saturday, there’s no one here but camp employees, and there are very few of those. She and he have made a pact, to meet at the steps and pad down, past the rocks, to the left, down the beach. She had discovered that if you climbed over a rocky ledge and waded through some stinking weeds, there was a cove that was all but hidden. She had sat in peace, for hours, beneath the cliff, with only the birds flying to and from their nests in the face.
They meet by phone-light. They were not seen. Giggling, shushing each other, they try not to clang on the steps.
The stones stir, watching as the two go past them, left down the beach to a place they obviously thought was secret. But the three see everything, even with water in their eyes.
She and he move quickly and carefully, but louder now, making idle chatter. Her toes squish into the rotting lake weed releasing a smell that almost makes her gag. He feels a tightness in his chest as they reach her secret beach.
They slip out of their flip flops and feel the sandy ground, scattered with pebbles and discarded shells.
Full moon tonight, shining on the surface of the lake. He points to the right, across the water, to distant lights.
“You can see Toronto so clearly tonight.”
She does not respond. They both look so pale in this light, she is slightly taller than he is, he thinks she is very beautiful. He puts his hand down, clears his throat.
“So, we doing this?”
She cracks a smile. “We’d better.”
She bites her lip.
“I think we should turn back to back, do it, count to three, and then turn around.”
He swallows, “Ok”
The stones watch as the two turn around, watch as their clothes fall away, until the she and the he stand shining in the moon. She faces them, they watch her count: 1, 2, 3…
She has not seen a naked man, like this. She has never been seen like this. They take in the sight of each other, and of their own bodies. They look different to themselves, with someone else’s eyes there.
“Let’s get in”, she says.
They wade into the water, cold and dirty, careful not to slip on the rocks. He can only imagine if one of them fell over and knocked their heads. This would be a tough one to explain.
They’re each clutching themselves but the modesty makes them burst out laughing, isn’t this why they came? She splashes him first and finally he lets go.
They are free, for now, the stones think. They are night time creatures, here. For awhile. Like us.
She and he return to the beach and sit, naked, on the rocks. They talk, talk and look. She tells him about family and her religion. He talks about how his father faded away. They discuss points of anatomy of which they were unaware. Their toes brush, slightly.
She and he dress and walk back, it is almost two in the morning. She stops him by the stones and they hug, she feels like she might burst. And perhaps that’s what saves her. Perhaps that is why she does not forget. Or maybe she’s just more herself than he is.
As he scales the steps the stones take their fill and he rises in a fog. By the time he is in bed, shaking and covered in grime, he can only see flashes of ivory skin in the full moon, a head of curly hair, and the sounds of lapping water.
They fall out, soon after. They do not speak. Years later, adults with jobs, they meet in a city far away from the lake and reminisce. She tells him the story of the night by the water and there is a moment of recognition, a flash of youth that quickly clouds over. After coffee they have sex in her small apartment, it’s not like either of them had expected. Nice enough, she’ll say, but a part of him is missing. He walks home, losing his way down winding streets, empty where she is full.
The stones of Lake Ontario wait for her, the one that got away, to trip trap down their steps. They hope to drink this one so full of life.
They hope she will visit this abandoned place.
But we know she never will.
Drew Rhys White
“The Sorrow Knight”
We lived by the mausoleum of the Sorrow Knight till I was ten, and I had a hard time understanding why other children weren’t allowed to play with me. A dark-haired girl, I remember, smiled at me as we stood near the snack buffet at another child’s birthday. Her mother saw us sharing a handful of cheese curls and quickly diverted her into the next room where the games were starting.
If you are of an age and lived in a certain area of the country, you will remember the Sorrow Knight. I looked on our nearness as a kind of distinction, albeit a gloomy and morbid one. In time, my father got a better job and we moved to another part of town. The knight wasn’t toxic like a nuclear dump or morally degrading like a drug corner. He hadn’t made us unhealthy or bad. No one understood the Sorrow Knight. Even the monks who tended him didn’t understand him.
“In the beginning he was thought to be sacred or even miraculous in origin,” one of the monks — the last monk — told me on the day I went home for my reunion. “It all just seemed religious. And by the time the Church determined there was no spiritual content to the phenomenon, here we all were, and the thing had its own inertia.” He shook his head. “Bleeding — all the bleeding — it does makes you think of the Bible. Or Shakespeare.”
The monk had been posted at the temple to answer questions. “Not that anyone comes by here anymore.” He gestured randomly at the street. “You can see what’s happened to the neighborhood. We turned away the last tour bus of retirees in the spring, and since then it’s only been the odd vagrant, or someone walking a dog.” His hood was down, and there was a newspaper open on the brown folds of his lap. “There are worse assignments. No one bothers me here.” He looked up, squinting into the silver glare. “Usually.”
He was a young monk, younger than me now, short and handsome with deep-set eyes. There was nothing in his face but boredom and expediency and it was hard to imagine that he had ever had a sincere religious vocation. He probably got into the life just for something to do, I thought, something interesting and off-beat like joining the Peace Corps or becoming a Rosicrucian. Something to talk about to women. He was probably going out when his watch was done. Maybe I could join him, I thought; I could use a drink. Leaves blew across the steps of the temple; the sky was gray; the pillars were gray too but I couldn’t tell if it was from the light or from years of neglect.
“Who knew the Sorrow Knight could be so bad for property values?” the monk said, shrugging and folding his newspaper.
It hadn’t always been that way. People would come from miles to see the Sorrow Knight — believing he could cure their sick relatives, or, barring that, understand their pain in a way that no one else could. There was never a charge to enter the temple, just a discreet wooden donation box by the exit to support the monks and maintain the grounds. Still, the pilgrims boosted the town’s economy, staying in its inns and eating in its taverns. And the locals were proud of the holy mystery that had come to mean so much to so many. Even from a distance our town had a solemn white churchy glow.
The knight’s death, or I should say, the advent or initial onset of his death (because the moment of his death seemed to prolong almost to an infinity), his death, that is, the sharp edge of the ever-widening wedge of his death, poked through the wall of the world around sunset the same day he arrived. The locals said a large red sun lingered near the horizon and dropped from view when the knight had breathed his last. The town doctor recorded in his journal — preserved in the county historical society — that the knight’s last breath had been like the air off a salt marsh. Bending near the dying man’s face, the doctor wrote in his long slanting cursive, he could picture great blue herons stamping around sedges and osprey lifting fish from the water.
The knight died on a pallet in the parish hospital, his silver armor in a pile beside him and a white linen cloth around his waist. His nudity was as tasteful and decorous as his death had been, his skin like fine stationary — you almost expected a watermark — and each muscle on his body carefully delineated as if inscribed by a conscientious Irish monk in an offshore scriptorium.
The knight had ridden into town injured — almost falling from his horse — and had died before anyone had a chance to hear his story or even his name. People referred to him as the Sorrow Knight out of respect, and though I guess there have always been those who called him the Bleeding Knight, most considered that name vulgar.
Eyewitnesses recalled that the knight’s horse had been a large dapple gray with knobby knees and hooves like wrecking balls. It waited outside the hospital till word drifted out that the knight had died, at which point it nosed its way into the building and walked through the wards — ignoring the protests of the hospital staff — till it found the knight. It is difficult to read the emotions of another species and I hesitate to anthropomorphize this animal based on second-hand accounts from long ago. Yet, evidently satisfied that the knight was dead, the horse left the hospital, and the town, heading through the woods in the direction of the state line. As he passed their stable a team of draft horses kicked their way out of their stalls and followed him. The farmer who witnessed this later shut himself up on his property and became a respected if minor transcendental novelist — though, a spate of recent dissertations has placed him in the anti-transcendental camp.
What it was like for the knight’s body to be left in that empty room, far from those who had loved him, far from whatever quest had brought him to the town only to desert him, what spirits swarmed, what saints prayed, what angels sobbed, what demons haggled over the shreds of the knight’s memories and unconfessed sins no one can tell. Perhaps he was alone except for mice and a lone bat from the rafters circling above him and snapping insects in its clever jaws. But one thing that is not in dispute is that when the undertaker and his assistant came in the morning to take the knight away, they found the hospital floor awash with blood. Blood gushed over their shoes and into the street as they stood in the doorway.
The undertaker and assistant rinsed their shoes at the pump in the hospital garden, and called for the surgeon to bring remedies to quiet the stranger’s body. Astringent herbs, styptic stones, direct pressure, and ice all failed to clot him. Beside the hospital a rectory stood; the priests prayed, and when that failed, sent telegrams to their ecclesiastical superiors. The patients in the hospital became hysterical about the blood washing through the wards, and the head nurse hired charwomen to remove it. The charwomen squeezed their mops and rags into the stream with the waste water from the tannery and glassworks, demanded their wages at sundown, and went home. They had lasted several hours beyond the surgeon, who took lunch at noon and didn’t come back.
The charwomen told their daughters, housemaids in the homes of the rich, and the housemaids told their mistresses about the Sorrow Knight. Taken with the tales of his beauty and nobility, the fine ladies of the town congregated outside the hospital. Following the current of the knight’s blood they picked their way through the wards to the knight.
The lower orders had not exaggerated. The knight’s features were finely modeled, like an actor in a Dumas play, or a Pre-Raphaelite Jesus. His arms were at his sides; his body was lifelike; and his color, though pale, was normal. The knight looked as if he had exhaled his last breath just before the women had entered the room. His eyes were shut, but each woman knew them, despite the lids, to be clear and kind: a clairvoyant blue. They felt his compassion. He was heartbroken at the suffering of the world, and had exhausted himself trying to staunch it. The knight’s body was a deliquescence of sorrow, his wounds sorrow’s outpouring.
The women held their skirts above their ankles as sorrow eddied around them.
It had been years since I’d seen the knight; my reunion would wait. Because the knight had made me a pariah in my youth, I wasn’t sure I had anyone to be reunited to. Beyond a well-made gray suit, chosen to match the silver at my temples, and a peculiarly youthful physique (to which someone, I feared, would apply the phrase “well-preserved”) I had little with which to impress my contemporaries.
I asked the monk if I could spend some time in the knight’s chamber. He agreed. He would lock me in, he said, but I could exit; I’d just need to shut the door when I left.
I followed the monk down the narrow wooden corridor, imagining his smell: a dim, smoky smell, I thought. I wondered what he wore under his robe. The passageway’s turns were familiar: left, then right, then left again; the final turn bringing us into the knight’s room. My host said goodnight; I watched him round the corner, shaking the knight’s mystic aura like a dog shaking rain.
The chamber was higher than the rest of the temple complex, just as the temple complex was higher than the rest of the town. A clerestory allowed light to penetrate from four sides; on a bright day the ceiling seemed to hover a few feet above the room. Now, the narrow bands of the windows glowed gray, darker gray, and silver as clouds swept the sky. Hidden in shadow, then present, the knight’s body seemed to come and go with the light.
The room was smaller than I remembered, the facing benches smaller too, less imposing. I was surprised to find that, even now, it seemed disrespectful to stand in the knight’s presence — we had been taught to kneel, as schoolchildren. I was surprised too to find that I felt reverence for the knight. His nudity suggested candor, his prone position trust, his height, largesse, and his open hands, welcome. I stepped backward, bowed slightly, and found one of the facing benches to sit on — just like the pilgrims in the early days.
The only constant in the chamber was the sound of blood, trickling from the knight’s wounds into grooves on either side of his palate. I remembered the diagram in the visitor’s center, how the blood would wash into two pipes, bending and turning through the building before draining to a stream below the foundations.
The sound of the blood was ruminative, quiet, like a fountain in a courtyard. I wondered if in its cadence there wasn’t a question, or even a reproach, endlessly repeated and never understood. There had been a monk at the temple when I was a child: an old monk who would wait in the knight’s room for tours to come through. I pictured him, sitting on a bench at the Sorrow Knight’s feet: hands clamped on his kneecaps to steady a tremor, he would be talking and smiling with serene good humor.
Would it ease the Sorrow Knight’s loneliness if, for once, someone waited with him through the night? Would it ease my loneliness? A solid sheet of blood flowed from the wound in his side; streams flowed down his hands and feet, following the contours of his extremities. I dared to touch him; I took the knight’s hand and held it. Blood inscribed the lines in his palm; his fingers seemed longer than human fingers; his skin had the coolness of marble. I touched his blood. Its heat sickened me, and for a moment made his beauty hideous. I dropped his hand, and cleaned mine with the handkerchief from the pocket of my suit jacket. Watching the knight laboring away at his eternal work, I tried to imagine what my life would have been like if I had never known him. His blood had followed me with each turn of my life, into each new job, each new town, each new acquaintance: I could not attach; I did not adhere, but remained a thing fluid, ever flowing, never stopped. I had been the Knight’s disciple: chosen, called, and set apart.
Then, weary from travel and reminiscence, and like all slack disciples before me, I fell asleep.
I woke, the room full of light. The clerestory was blinding, the knight’s armor a bonfire. I shielded my eyes, and stood, with a sense I had interrupted some primal communion between the knight and the morning. The strength emanating from his body seemed a furnace blast; I felt he might pick up his sword at any moment, his eyes a bitter green, fiery and implacable.
I threw my jacket over my shoulders and found my way through the temple’s corridors — hoping to exit before running into the young monk. He would be sleeping off a hangover, I thought; I could see him slumped across his bed, the long bare back of last night’s lover beside him. But when I opened the exterior door, the monk was sitting on the top step, just where he had been the night before.
“You stayed,” he said.
“Yes — ”
“Was it all you hoped?”
“Sure.” Dizzied by a glance at the steep drop from the top step to the sidewalk below, I stopped — it was too early for heights — and sat by the monk on his step.
“I was thinking about coffee,” he said. “And a paper. My morning ritual — which tends to stretch into the afternoon.” He offered to get me coffee too, if I would take his place at the door while he rode his bike to the shop. When he returned, he had two tall coffees wedged into his bike basket with a selection of packaged breakfast foods. We spread our feast on the step; the wind flicked at the edges of our plastic bag place settings.
Our conversation turned to the knight, and the theories of his strange stasis. He matched the blood of the world’s victims and martyrs. He atoned for his fear, or pride, or lust. He paid the balance of transubstantiation. He had plead while dying Let me continue to spill my blood for the poor but was half heard. His body suffers purgatory while his soul receives grace…
The young monk gathered our empty wrappers and wadded them into his coffee cup. “Regardless of how you look at it, the knight suggests some kind of cosmic glitch. Or a perverse irony on God’s part.”
I visited the knight through the summer and fall. The young monk’s absences grew more frequent, as did my relieving him. One night we met on the portico; he pulled his robe over his head and tossed it me. “You have the true calling,” he said, and grabbed my head, and gave me a deep kiss. A predatory moon rose over the ruined houses across the street, its light like milk on the monk’s back as he turned away. I watched him fade down the temple steps till only his pale gray shorts were visible in darkness.
The knight is looking smaller and thinner these days, an auger bone shaken in a sack. Even miracles wear out — Lazarus is dead, and the water that was changed to wine became piss, vapor, and rain. When I’m no longer here to tend the knight, the town’s decay will go on. In time the ocean will claim it. The knight will tumble through the water; his blood will plume through the sea like two great arms. Sorrow will overwhelm the waters. The world will die. If I could say one word to the Knight and know that he heard me, that word would be bleed.
Bleed, Sorrow Knight.
BRITNY BROOKS is a writer and assistant editor living in Philadelphia. She loves giving recommendations of all kinds and they are usually good. She likes to set stories in video games and most of them are inspired by anime, futurist podcasts, or not-so-great sci-fi movies. If you like that kind of thing, her fiction is hanging out in various corners of the internet and you can find out more about those on Twitter at @Britny_Perilli or on Instagram at @brit_books.
DANIEL DIFRANCO lives in Philadelphia and is an Arcadia University MFA alum. His novel, Panic Years, was published in 2018 by Tailwinds Press. His short stories can be found in Smokelong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Drunk Monkeys, and others. Full list of pubs and miscellany can be found at danieldifranco.com and @danieldifranco.
ROYCE DRAKE is a writer and photographer who lives in Philadelphia. He is currently at work on his first novel, which examines the fallout of a sundown town after a lynching.
LEE KLEIN has a short novel called Neutral Evil ))) coming out on May 1st. It’s about seeing Sunn O))) alone on March 18, 2017 in Philadelphia. More at litfunforever.com.
NICK PERILLI is a writer and librarian living in Philadelphia with loved ones who have yet to watch Gremlins 2 with him. He has work in Milk Candy Review, Twist in Time, Breadcrumbs Mag, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @nicoloperilli and gaze at his cheap website nickperilli.com.
JEREMY ERIC TENENBAUM is a writer, graphic designer, and graphic artist. He recently designed a major exhibition at the Architekturzentrum Wien in Vienna and wrote and designed its accompanying monograph. He has published poetry, fiction, and photography with The Columbia Poetry Review, Prosodia, Seven Arts, the Moon Philadelphia travel guide, and many other publications. He’s currently working on a short story collection.
KEVIN TRAVERS will one day be called the Bird Man of Philadelphia, by urban legend, and he will only send fictions via carrier parakeet. Until that day comes, he hopes you don't mind the internet. Kevin has had works published in bedfellows, Voicemail Poems, and most recently Prolit. He can be found cyberly on Instagram @ktravesty and is friendable on Facebook.
DREW RHYS WHITE is a museum factotum in Philadelphia. He has stories in Black Static and Ideomancer and is a graduate of the 2019 Viable Paradise workshop. See more of Drew’s writing here.
EMILY ZIDO is an MFA candidate in Roanoke, VA. Her social media is uninteresting, but her cat helped write this poem.
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