"Quod non est simulo, dissimuloque quod est"
"I feign what is not and conceal falsely what is" or "I deny the existence of that which exists"
EDITED BY JEREMY TENENBAUM AND KEVIN TRAVERS
from "Seven Sacraments"
christen me in creosote
lay me down beneath
dark remnants of desert sunset
dip my crown in
holiest resin hediondilla
smear my temples with
perfume of lightning
a sonoran drought can still
smell like rain like faith
my faith is in the evergreen
in the god who planted the seed
bride of the copper mine
bride of the cabin
bride who spits in your eye
bride more devil than you
bride with the wandering teeth
robot bride with guts of quartz
bride pulling worms from your beard
bride teeming with daughter bride
bride wavering at the riven altar
bride baritone bride brown and i
bride of the melting point
bride most woman
taken to be your moon
would you know how i exalted
you through the way my
mouth moves i believe in hell and
that you're holy enough
to read all the confessions
of a careening tongue
the veil of language lifted
from a laboratory-pale lip
it has been a lifetime since
someone met the monster of my love
“The Things We Do For One Another Out Of Love”
For the things we've done for one another out of love, praise be.
But don't forget to also praise the unrequitements, unfulfillments, disappointments.
They burn in our hearts and help us to see
the clouds for their endless recommendation to impermanent beauty,
and taste the food we eat and notice how it represents
the things we do for one another even when we are out of love,
...............and speaking of love, praise the bee
that knows how to pleasure a flower simply
by being present to its
pollen-burnished heart, helping us to see
by nature's symmetry that life is really orderly,
and if only we would let it be, life would blossom with inducements
to the things that we might do for one other out of love--or out of service,
...............which might be the same thing. Praise be
memory, that like a wire-threaded ribbon holds both bows and knots indiscriminately,
and did you know it might be true our universe is one of two, the other
...............moving backward, contracting its moments,
the fires of our hearts' desires dying there? One can't help but see
that some things are forever inexhaustible and free,
like water and air, and others, like your smile in the moment you loved me,
...............brief benevolent arrangements
of matter, for in a mirror universe--and just now--your mouth adorably turned down
in a frown, which I suddenly see is also a thing you did for me out of love,
...............a way love prays, be-
comes one complete kowtow in the pulsing devotion
...............that burns in our hearts and helps us to see.
Liam Hunt & Simren Deogun
“Project V” was written collaboratively, paragraph by paragraph, over WhatsApp between March and April 2020. The story's sprawling, spontaneous plotline is a product of its unconventional creation as an improvised, line-for-line exchange between Hunt and Deogun over the messaging app.
He sits down, printed story in hand from Dan, and feels the cheap plastic chair rock under his weight. As he starts to skim the words of yet another under-the-sea fantasy tale, he notices a pungent odour coming from somewhere to his right. Pungent, yet familiar. Nicotine, cologne, and late evening coffee. It's Roman. Who else? Another night at the after-work writer's circle, a roundtable of hobbyists young and old bound together by a delicate hope.
He focuses on the story being read aloud, pretends to block out the room tucked away in the basement of a dodgy west-end library. But it's impossible. The world always finds its way in. As it does tonight. The door creaks open, interrupting the reading, shutting the valves of the fantasy. It's someone he hasn't seen before, and she takes the seat next to him.
He watches her intently, wondering what affliction has brought her to this unseemly but somehow heavenly literary haven. Her nose wriggles as she settles in removing a giant winter coat and losing half of her weight as she does. The smell carries forward resolutely. She starts blinking a bit faster to keep away the tears. She looks up and smiles at Liam, but he only returns a quizzical, squinted stare. He hopes, for once, that she's normal.
"Umm, hi, I'm Simren," she whispers, adjusting her dark-rimmed glasses.
He clears his throat realizing he's being the weird one, "Hey, Liam."
"Do you always come in late?"
"Shhh," she says, swatting away his advance.
He slides the stapled papers between them and points to the line being read aloud. He turns the page, turns it again. Suddenly the story's over. He snaps out of his daze that leaves him wondering if he could successfully cut a grilled cheese with a machete. "Wait, what happened?" He asks Simren. "Something about a sea creature with strangely sexualized appendages?" She blinks at him, twice.
"What do you mean?" He asks, his wavy brown hair falling on his forehead like a knock-off version of Clark Kent.
"I have no fuckin clue." She pauses, the circle of feedback has begun, "Is this Dan guy into hentai or something?"
But before Liam can answer, there's a loud banging at the door.
Baron startles out of his seat with a yelp, nearly falling to the floor, and Simren can't help but chuckle, snorting through her nose.
They both turn to look and see a white-haired, wild-eyed man with a note pressed against the glass that reads: EVACUATE.
"Evacuate?" Says Liam. "But-but, the hentai?"
The smirk falls from Simren's face, suddenly she's alert, her muscles tense.
"No time for that," says Simren, who grabs him by the arm and yanks him onto his feet.
"What do you know that I don't?" Liam stares at Simren, unsure what to make of the situation, or her.
Barry removes his glasses and asks in his Irish lilt, "What in the ever-loving hell is going on?" The room transforms from dreary into chaotic. Chairs tip to the ground. Pages fly. Roman lights a cigarette indoors.
Simren grabs Liam again and leads him out the door. "C'mon." Liam doesn't know why, but he must follow her, like staring at a spinning top on a table wondering if it will fall. The wild-eyed man is running upstairs, arms flailing violently. They follow him to the back of the library's upper floor where a second staircase takes them to the attic. They crawl inside and Liam shuts the door behind them. A whirring sound descends from above.
"Fuck. Fuck. Fuck," Simren fires out into the dark, stale room. "Charlie?" She turns around. "Did you see where he went?"
"Who? What's going on?" Liam's sense of confusion and concern deepens, the sound above seems to be getting louder and as he looks around, he realizes the attic is bigger than he thought. From the corner, a scraping metal sound pierces his ears and the white-haired man reappears dragging with him a chair.
Simren's shaking her head, "How'd you find me? I thought I disabled the tracker." She outstretches an arm, pulling up her sleeve and shows him a fresh wound only beginning to scab over. Charlie plumps down heavily on the chair, facing directly out of the tiny attic window, and shrugs in response.
"Ain't nobody told you to cut into your arm. Silly of you to think that's the only way we'd get ya," Charlie's accent, almost southern, is slow and broken. He keeps staring out the window.
"Liam, do you have a phone?" Simren asks seeing he's now partially slumped against the wall, eyes wide. "Liam!" He fumbles through the pockets of his ripped corduroy pants, questioning whether they were ripped when he put them on this morning, and pulls out his phone.
Simren rips it from his hands and, as she does, it begins to vibrate. The Caller ID reads "V45883".
The staccato pulsing of the phone reverberates through Simren's hand as she gawks at it, she realizes quickly she's pissed off the wrong "they."
"What the?" Simren looks up at Liam, "You're in Project V?"
"How do you know about Project V?" Liam asks, taking back the phone. Simren stares, inquisitively, at Liam, then trades glances with Charlie. There's a stalemate. Nobody's sure what the other knows. Liam answers the phone and holds it to his ear. Doesn't say a word, then puts it back in his pocket.
All three fly back as the roof caves in. Dust flies. Coughing, choking. Simren yells to Liam but it's no use. Nobody can hear over the sound of propeller blades circling overhead.
When they regain their composure, the three rise to their feet and survey the damage above. A hole is busted into the library's roof, and a helicopter hovers above. A rope ladder drops into the attic.
Liam grabs a hold of it with a bleeding arm, then turns to Simren.
Simren's mind is racing. Debris and dust still flies, and the starlit night sky now casts eerie shadows around them. Can she trust Liam? She wonders.
He begins climbing up the rope ladder, pauses again to look down. Simren grabs hold. She has no choice, she realizes, but to keep going. The wind whips around her from the propellers, her lungs searing as she climbs higher. Liam stretches out his arm and helps to pull her in, and they both collapse on the metal floor.
They sit up, staring at each other. Liam says, "So, care to tell me who's after you?"
There is a pause while they both catch their breath and look around the blacked-out helicopter. It's empty, save for the pilot.
"I don't know," says Simren. "They never told me."
"Who's they?" Liam asks.
"Project V," she says under her breath. "A private intelligence organization. We're contracted to sniff out dissident activity in the arts. Keep watch. Covert operations."
The temperature quickly drops. A breeze chills both of them to the bone. Liam glances out the door of the chopper to find them now hundreds of meters from the ground. The Toronto skyline glitters below them like so many jewels. The gridded night streets sprawl like circuitry.
"I was sent to watch you," Simren says.
A sound emerges from the cockpit.
"Self-driving engaged," says a robotic voice.
The pilot steps out of the cockpit to face us, removes his headset. It's Theo, from the library writer's group.
"Funny," he says. "Cause we're here for you."
Back on the ground, the speeding blades of the helicopter slowly come to a halt. Simren is stood next to a door, plastic ties right around her wrists. She tilts her head to the left to crack her neck while intently watching Theo and Liam engage in a whispered, hunched-over conversation. Her mind is calculating furiously. They're at least thirty stories up, with no chute.
Liam stumbles awkwardly back to sit in the open doorway of the now silent chopper. Theo glides over to her. "You know, they pulled me out of retirement for this. Apparently you're hard to catch."
Simren returns a sly smirk. "Liam looks more ghost-like than usual. What'dya tell him?"
"That you weren't sent to watch him, you were sent to kill Roman."
"How...how did you know?" Simren mumbles.
From somewhere below: The sound of metal clanging down a stairwell. There are others. There are footsteps.
"There's no time," says Theo.
He releases a blade from his pocket and cuts the zip ties from Simren's hands.
Liam props a chair against the door to the helipad platform. It'll buy them time. Seconds only.
"If you're going to kill Roman, You're going to do it with us."
Theo tosses Simren a steel mace from the back of the chopper.
"A mace? What is this, Middle Earth? Fucking Tamriel?"
"It's all we have."
Suddenly, a pounding at the door.
Liam, Simren, and Theo brace themselves.
Then the door is kicked in. It's Roman, clad in a black cape and wielding a shotgun. Dan is behind him, AK-47 slung over his shoulder.
"I'm here to take out the female protagonist," Roman says, cocking his shotgun.
Simren steps forward and exhales loudly through her nose, "Who? Me?"
Roman chuckles, glances back at Dan, and then stares dead into Simren's eyes. "I have just one thing to say before I kill you..."
Liam seizes the opportunity, grabs the mace from Simren's hands, hoists it over his head, and takes a perfectly measured swing at Roman's left leg -- he goes down, screaming in a piercing cry.
Simren launches herself forward, somersaults in the air, lands on Dan's shoulders and forces him to the ground. She's prepared for a struggle but he doesn't move, "Did he just ... faint?" She looks at Liam, who's grinning ear to ear, sitting on Roman's back, shotgun held in his hands.
"Ummm," Simren starts.
"What? We did it!"
"Where the fuck is Theo?"
Simren and Liam scan the rooftop in search of where the devilish laughter is coming from. Suddenly the propeller blades roar to a start.
Theo, helmet on, pokes his head out the window and waves a stack of papers in his hand.
"Peace out, idiots," he says, laughing maniacally.
"No!" Liam cries.
"What?" says Simren.
"That's my story! He has my story!"
"Hurry, he's going to get away."
Simren sprints for the chopper. Liam aims his shotgun, steadies it, and pulls the trigger. Nothing happens. The chamber is empty.
"Fuck," he shouts, and tosses it off the rooftop.
Just as the helicopter pulls up and off the rooftop Simren leaps into the air and reaches desperately for the cargo door.
She barely grazes it with her fingers, starts falling back, the crisp air whipping past her as she descends.
THUD. Simren lands with a crunch.
"Ahhhhh!" Liam screams.
She's landed on Liam's head -- squarely squashing it between her stomach and the cement underneath.
"Yikes, sorry Liam."
She bites back a laugh as he sits up slowly holding his scraped head in his hands.
"Were you trying to catch me or something?" She smiles.
"Yeah, try, try's a good word for it," he mumbles.
She stretches out her hand, he grabs her forearm and helps him up.
"Well this is a right mess," Simren continues. "Still got that phone on you by any chance?"
He fumbles through his pockets and retrieves the rather sad looking iPhone, now covered in a matrix of cracks. He watches as she enters a seemingly endless string of numbers into the lock screen which reveals a bright blue login page he's never seen before. He touches his forehead feeling the blood dripping down the right side of his face. He looks around, Dan and Roman are still out cold.
Simren scans her fingerprint and passes it to Liam, instructing him to do the same.
He looks up hesitantly and says, "Why the fuck should I trust you?"
"Because I'm the only one who can get your story back," Simren snaps.
Liam stares at her blankly. Then, suddenly, a dial tone emerges from the phone's loudspeaker that sounds like screeching owls during mating season. The screen lights up in white before a "V" in black lettering appears on the screen.
"Won't be needing this anymore," Simren says, then chucks the phone over the edge of the rooftop.
"What the fuck did you do that f--"
Suddenly, a windstorm picks up. It nearly pushes Liam and Simren off the roof. They hang onto each other, fighting for balance. The variable pitch of a propeller arises from out of nowhere. Simren and Liam slowly turn to face the other way and that's when they see it: another helicopter, painted pure white.
"Jump," yells Simren.
So, they jump. They leap off the edge of the building and land rough in the cargo bay of the chopper. The pilot ascends immediately, already in pursuit of Theo.
"You alright?" the pilot asks.
"Think so," says Liam, rubbing his temples.
The pilot looks over his shoulder and checks us out. Gives us a thumbs up. It's Charlie, from the library. His eyes still wild, a grin on his face, ready to exact revenge. "Let's get 'em!"
Charlie accelerates fast through the night sky; the twinkle of the city below transforms into a prismatic blur.
"This guy knows what he's doing right?" Liam asks, turning to Simren. She's gripping tightly onto the side of the helicopter.
"Yeah. Mostly." She smiles and rubs her knee, wincing in pain.
"I'm getting too old for this shit. Busted my knee diving in here."
Charlie clips sharply to the left, the water below them whipping about and sending up cooler air to greet them. Liam crawls over to her so she can lean against him.
"Why is this story so important?"
"I thought you already knew all the answers with all this secret agent shit of yours," he chuckles.
"You were never the mission. Well, not my mission. But if Theo wants it, then he's probably in cahoots with Romans."
Liam searches her expression, unsure of what to make of all of it.
"It's, umm...it's a story about the truth. How the writer's group was formed. More importantly, why. What it's been a cover for all these years."
Simren squints at him through the darkness, his face lit only by the red lights of the helicopter's controls. Suddenly, it starts to descend -- Liam peers over the edge.
"Is that a ship?"
Simren joins him by his side, "Looks like Theo's already here."
"Ready to drop in 5, 4, 3..." says Charlie, letting down a finger on his upheld hand with every number he counts down.
A million thoughts swarm like flies in Liam's head but before he can make sense of them Simren grabs him by the arm and leaps off the helicopter, pulling Liam in tow.
They fall and roll onto the surface of the ship, their impact booms like a drum. Simren lands on Liam, who keels over. The blood has dried on his forehead, like red warpaint.
"Sorry, but there's no time to waste..." Simren helps Liam to his feet and points to Theo's chopper, parked on the far side of the ship's deck.
"We've got to find Theo," Liam grumbles. "Before he analyzes the text and extracts the secret from it."
First as a hobble, then as a run, Simren and Liam dash across the deck. It's larger than it appeared from above. The size of an aircraft carrier, maybe bigger.
Suddenly, a voice emerges from the loudspeakers, resonating across the ship.
"This is the Captain speaking. We've been infiltrated. Get down with your hands up or face immediate resistance."
Liam grabs Simren's hand and takes cover with her behind a shipping container. The sound of boots rattling across steel steps rings across the deck. People are coming.
"That voice," says Liam. "That was Theo's voice over the speaker."
"He's the Captain," says Simren. "We've got to find him."
"Let's go, I see a stairwell!"
Simren starts running, they can both hear the boots getting close. She ducks into a steel doorway, Liam follows closely behind, panting hard. They look at each other, both more scared than they'd like to admit.
"He has to be upstairs," Simren says through laboured breaths.
"I'm not letting you go up there alone!"
They act quickly, leaping up the stairs, two at a time, before reaching another steel door with a small circular window cut out of the top. Liam peers through.
"I don't see anyone."
Simren reaches down and pulls out a small gun from around her ankle.
"Umm," Liam starts, "you just go everywhere strapped like that?"
"Someday you will too," she winks.
She jerks her head toward the door, "Can you kick it down?"
Liam steadies himself, leans slightly back and drives his left foot as hard as he can through the door smashing it open. Simren rushes through, gun first. Turns left, turns right.
"Theo's not here," she calls back to Liam. He follows her in and they start to look around; there's the control panel for the ship, a few chairs but mostly it's an empty metal box.
Simren hears Liam clear his throat, he's standing in a second, smaller doorway. She comes up behind and looks over his shoulder -- it's Theo. He's tied up next to the toilet, duct tape over his mouth with blood trickling down from his hairline.
"Looking for this, are we?" Says a man standing behind Liam and Simren. He's facing the other direction, staring through a window, peering out onto the lake that looks more like a sea.
"Mmmfpofpfff mmffpfffhhh," says a muffled Theo, mumbling through the tape over his mouth.
"Put your hands up," says Simren.
"...Yeah," says Liam, unsure how to proceed. It's just the four of them. All else is silent.
The man turns around, holding a stack of papers in his hand.
It's Baron. The ringleader of the writer's group. A destroyer of worlds. Also, somehow, impossibly, the Captain of the ship.
"I am the Captain now," says Baron, before slamming a button on the wall and immediately the entire room caves in. When the dust settles, Baron has escaped. He's speeding away on a jet ski. The button must have released an escape hatch.
"Quick," says Simren. She rummages through Theo's pant pocket for his cell phone and dials a number. After the first ring, a helicopter zooms overhead and drops a second jet ski next to the ship.
"Hurry," says Liam. In seconds they dash to the lower deck, scale the side of the ship, and jump onto the jet ski. Liam drives, Simren takes the back, sidearm in hand.
"He's getting away," she screams.
Liam gives the jet ski a rev and they're off cutting through the water furiously. The wind and splashing water whips around them.
"There!" Simren points up ahead, "He's slowing down."
Liam cuts the water as he makes a sharp left turn, "Hold on," he yells. And he brings them to a grinding halt next to Baron's now abandoned, bobbing getaway vessel. Simren nearly launches over the side but Liam, pumped with adrenaline, grabs her and throws her over onto the shore. She breaks into an aggressive run toward the lighthouse ahead.
Baron's fast, but not fast enough. She kicks up dust behind her heels, not pausing to see if Liam is with her. She can tell Baron's limping. She finds even more speed, catching up to him, leaping and taking him to the ground in fury. She pins his neck down under her elbow.
"Gah" Baron calls out, "I never should've let you into the weekly evening writer's group." Insulted, she clips him over the head and knocks him out.
She stumbles off him, gasping for breath, and looks up to find Liam staring at her.
"How'd you..? You know what, I'll stop asking that," Liam says.
"This better be your story."
And she hands him a rolled-up stack of papers in a ziplock bag.
Liam studies the front of the papers like it's an ancient artifact.
"You know what this is, don't you?" Liam asks.
"It's our only way out."
"Wait, what do you mean?" Simren looks Liam levelly in the eye.
The sound of helicopters spills into earshot. They become visible in the distance, encircling them. Soldiers on jet skis approach from all directions. A gun fires.
"Explain yourself!" Simren shouts. "Isn't this your story?"
"No," Liam says. "It's our story. And if we read it it'll take us back. Once we open it, we're stuck."
"Open it, quickly!" Simren cries. "Hurry! They're coming!"
Foot soldiers hop off jet skis, run toward us. Their faces become clearer. Janice, Kurt, Avinash, Sahil...the writers from the weekly group. Hobbyists, memoirists, poets, amateur novelists. Also, apparently, armed assassins. Black choppers lower to the sandy ground.
Liam rips open the ziplock bag and pulls out the story. Simren and Liam exchange one last glance then read the opening line:
He sits down, printed story in hand from Dan, and feels the cheap plastic chair rock under his weight.
Max D. Stanton
Charlie Willett, my old partner slash mentor when I was on the carnival circuit, used to say that a man who can do cold readings will never starve. I didn't realize how right he was until after the Donohue séance, but the Donohue séance convinced me to give up cold readings forever. Starvation's not the worst thing that can happen to a person.
What's a cold reading? It's a mentalist's bread and butter. It's a system for tricking the hopeful and gullible into believing that you can see inside their souls. There's a million ways to pull it off, and each operator puts their own twist on it, but the gist of it is that you start off by saying things that are true about everyone, and then you watch your mark real hard to figure out what he wants you to say next.
I'll give you an example. This is how Charlie used to do readings when we first started working together. Charlie was on stage in a tuxedo and tails, with his hair pomaded into a glistening, impenetrable ebony dome, and his fierce, dark eyes ringed with black. I was his lovely assistant, strutting my stuff in a purple cocktail dress. I stood by the barker's side before the show, supplementing his pitch with some old-fashioned sex appeal and collecting the dimes. Half of the dimes went into the kitty. The other half I stored inside a hollowed-out book, where Charlie couldn't drink them away. I think Charlie knew that I was holding out on him, and that it was for his own damn good.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Charlie said. "You are here today to witness an experiment in piercing the veil between the worlds of the living and the deceased." He didn't speak too loud but he had a resonant voice that carried. More than that, when he spoke, people went quiet to listen. Charlie picked up attention like a magnet picks up nails.
"My name is Dr. Franklin Illumina. For years I studied parapsychology at Harvard University, the finest school in the world. I was obsessed with proving that Professor Einstein's scientific revelations about the nature of time and space relate to the spiritual teachings of those Oriental swamis who preach the immortality of the soul. Through rigorous study and training I learned to attune the electric energy of my brain waves to the vibrational energies of the great beyond, and communicate directly with the spirits of those long dead. But when academia proved too rigid and hidebound to appreciate my discoveries, I decided to travel the country to share my research with the common people. My friends, as a scientist, I ask only that you keep an open mind. If you are willing to suspend your skepticism and approach the unknown with a sense of wonder, then tonight you will witness a feat so extraordinary that most men think it impossible. But first, I must beg your silence, as I prepare to make contact."
He closed his eyes and crossed his hands and bowed his head as if in prayer. "Ommmmmm," he hummed. "Ommmmmm. Ommmmmm." Then he paused for a moment, a carefully calculated moment just long enough for the audience to get a little bit antsy.
"I sense a spirit amongst us!" he shouted, shattering the tension he'd built, with his eyes rolled all the way back in his skull. "She's whispering her name. It's very faint -- she's so near to us, but so far away -- but yes, I can hear . . . it starts with an M. Margaret, perhaps? Has anyone here lost a loved one named Margaret? A mother, or a grandmother perhaps?"
Charlie usually started his shows by calling on a spirit named Margaret. I never did find out why he was so fond of that particular name. Perhaps he was chasing a ghost of his own. But it was as good a name for our purposes as any other. The laws of probability dictate that in any good-sized crowd there'll likely be somebody who's lost a friend or relation named Margaret, and if not, then someone's bound to chime in on behalf of a Martha or a Mary or a Margie or suchlike.
"You, sir, I sense that the spirit is calling out to speak with you!" Charlie proclaimed to the most promising-looking volunteer. "Please, let my lovely assistant Teresa escort you to the stage." While I led the mark up, Charlie studied him like a specimen under a microscope. He judged his age, his weight, his clothes, his gait, if there was a wedding ring on his hand, if there was a lodge ring on his hand, if there were calluses on his hands, what kind of shoes he was wearing, what shape his shoes were in, how he acted when a pretty girl in a skimpy dress took him by the hand, whether he was anxious, whether he was used to public speaking, and about a dozen other things as well, all in the time it took him to walk across the tent. Charlie could read a person by sight like a mechanic picking out cars by their make and build.
Let's say the mark was a young hayseed in overalls with a wedding band, a common enough type at the carnival. "Young man, what is your name?" Charlie would ask.
The answer to this question, of course, was different every time. "I'm Mark," the mark might say, and sometimes he'd slip out a few more valuable tidbits about himself by way of introduction.
"Mark, I sense the presence of a spirit who wishes to speak with you very badly. But even I can only hear the spirit world in whispers and echoes. I'll need your aid in order to interpret the message. Will you help me?" This appeal got the mark some skin in the game. Now he wasn't just an audience member, now he was committed to helping us out.
"Now, Margaret, she was your mother?" Charlie made statements like they were questions so if the answer was yes it made an impression and if it was no it didn't.
"She was my mother," Mark might say. "She brought me and my brothers up on the farm all by herself."
"I'm sensing some trauma in your childhood." But then, almost any Okie farmboy who survived to adulthood had at least one tale of a life-threatening accident to tell. "She's asking how your foot is doing? Does that mean anything to you?"
"I cut my foot real bad when I was nine hoeing weeds!" Mark proclaimed, goggle-eyed. "A couple of my toes went rotten and the doctor had to cut them off."
"Were those the two toes on the leftmost side of your right foot?"
"It was! Tell Ma my foot's doing fine, except it aches a little when it's cold out." Mark gamely pulled off his boot and exhibited his toe-stumps to the audience. Of course, Charlie had seen Mark's slight limp and guessed at the missing digits while he was still walking to the stage.
"Now Margaret is telling me that there was some dispute between you and her over a third person. A dispute that was not resolved at the time of your mother's death." Again, hardly a rare state of affairs. But then Charlie's searching eyes spotted Mark's hand playing with his wedding band, and he went in deeper, like a miner digging down at the spot where he'd seen a golden glitter. "Margaret didn't approve of your choice of bride, did she?"
"Oh, those two were always carrying on. I hoped they'd make peace, but they never did."
"Yes, that's right," Charlie said. "Margaret says she knows that's been troubling you for a while now. But she wants you to know that she has forgiven all of her grudges against your wife, and wishes that she could take back the harsh words of the past." The ghosts only ever said nice things in Charlie's tent. Mark gushed his thanks for passing on the good news. The audience applauded.
We did three spirits per show, and then I passed the hat around and peddled horoscope pamphlets for a nickel apiece. As soon as the audience had left, Charlie produced a flask from a hidden pocket inside his tuxedo jacket, which had once belonged to a magician, and drank deep. Spirits were always calling that man.
Charlie and I traveled the circuit together for years, changing up the act as fashions dictated and gimmicks grew stale. We were Dr. Franklin Illumina and his lovely assistant Teresa when we were with the Old-Time Medicine Show, Swami Gozangi and his exotic acolyte Madam Pearl when we were in the Bonsko Brothers Carnival, Reverend Arnold Machen and his wife Sofia when we went through the Bible Belt. When we did palm readings, Charlie taught me how to read a man's profession from the shapes of the calluses on his hands. We did a two-person mentalist show where I handled objects that the audience gave me and Charlie described them in their minutest detail while blindfolded. For that, we used a special code that took me months to memorize. For a minute or two we even played a vaudeville act in New York. The props and the names changed, but the essence of it remained the same. Figure out what people want to hear, and tell it to them.
Charlie died in Des Moines in '33, wet-brained and climbing the walls while lying in his cot. Towards the end, he was calling out to folks who weren't there, almost like he did in our act.
With Charlie gone, I found myself at a crossroads. It was lonely without him, and for the first time I understood why the marks were so eager to speak with their dead. I'd kept my figure nicely but was getting a little long in the tooth to keep working as a mentalist's assistant, and in any case I didn't relish the prospect of finding a new partner. Also, while I'd been in the carnival my whole life, I was yearning for a job that paid in a higher denomination than dimes. With his gifts Charlie might have made a fortune as a preacher or even a politician, but he didn't have any worldly ambitions beyond his next drink.
I decided to get into séances, which I'd heard attracted a better class of mark and didn't require the rigors of life on the road. Fortunately, I'd been saving like a miser, so I had some capital to invest in a fresh start. I left the carnival and found a house in Teabury, Florida that suited my purposes, a grey, gloomy old Victorian in a neighborhood dominated by lime and coral-colored pre-fab abominations. That old house gave off just the right impression of a place that didn't quite belong where it was, and where strange and uncanny things might happen. I picked it up on the cheap in a county auction. The previous owner had died a few years ago, and nobody noticed until the sheriff came by to foreclose for the property taxes and found him dead and mummified in his easy chair.
The house did require some renovations before I could host my first séance, particularly to the parlor. I installed a metronome beneath the floorboards that rapped ominously when I commanded the spirits to make themselves known. I put an air conditioning unit in the basement that blew freezing cold gusts until you could see your breath even on a sultry August night. There were hidden lights that bathed the parlor in a sickly green glow, and a phonograph in the air duct that played unearthly music. Artfully concealed foot pedals operated these devices, so I could produce all sorts of startling effects from my seat without seeming to do anything at all. The electrician gave me some queer looks when I told him the specifications, but from the bills he sent me I don't suppose that he was a particularly honest man himself.
I even manufactured my own ectoplasm -- a mix of cheesecloth, egg whites and toilet paper -- which I'd swallow before the séance and spew out with great ceremony. It wouldn't stand up to the light of day, of course, but it didn't have to. The marks were there because they wanted to believe.
For a while it went swimmingly. Charlie's techniques worked just as well in a séance parlor as they had in a canvas tent. I had plenty of business -- mostly retirees, with the occasional spiritualist fanatic or curious academic - and word-of-mouth about the incredible things that happened in my house kept new marks stepping across the welcome mat. I was making good money and staying out of trouble, and was starting to get my hooks deep into some of the bigger fish.
Then I met Mrs. Donohue.
There was nothing in the beginning to indicate that her reading would be anything outside the ordinary. She was a pleasant, soft-spoken woman in her mid-60s, a housewife by lifelong vocation, and had heard of me through a member of her church. At our first meeting, I strictly cautioned her not to tell me anything about herself or the spirits she wanted me to contact, for if I had any preconceived notions they would disrupt the delicate psychic vibrations. We scheduled a séance for the following Friday.
I did my due diligence, and found that Mrs. Donohue was initially from Milwaukee, now living on a widow's pension bequeathed to her by her chemist husband Hal, and that she had a son named Horace in the Navy and a daughter named Lucy who had passed away long ago in the Spanish Flu. Her home was well-maintained and spacious, and from a quick inspection of her mailbox I deduced that she kept a boarder and supported the local orchestra.
Mrs. Donohue arrived promptly on Friday night, dressed in her Sunday best and clutching at her purse like she had a million dollars inside. "I brought something that belonged to the person I'd like to contact," she said, almost apologetically. "Do you think it will help?"
"I'm sure that it will," I said as I ushered her inside. A hell of a storm was rolling in from the Keys, and I wanted to take advantage of the atmosphere it'd create when it hit.
We got settled in the parlor just as rain was beginning to beat against the windows. I dimmed the lights and lit some fragrant beeswax candles, then took Mrs. Donohue by the hand. She was humming with nervous excitement and just a little scared -- a perfect state of mind for a cold reading.
"My family hails from the Carpathian Mountains, a land where the old ways have never been forgotten," I told her. Actually, my Mom hailed from Yonkers and God only knows where Dad was from. "For seven generations the women of my family have been seers with an uncanny ability to peer beyond the veil that separates life from death. Restless spirits seek us out to pass messages to the living, whispering into our ears and appearing in our dreams. Some say that this power is a curse, but I believe it to be a wonderful gift."
Just then a blast of lightning shook the house on its foundations and the electricity went out, plunging us into total darkness apart from the candles. In my mind, I was cursing a blue streak. The lights weren't supposed to go off until later. I tested the metronome pedal with no effect. Without electricity, all of my props were dead.
Suddenly I heard a sharp knock. It wasn't the metronome, though. This was much more forceful, like a hammer blow. It sounded again and again, faster and faster, until the floor beneath our feet was rattling with such fury that I feared the house would come apart.
"My goodness!" gasped Mrs. Donohue. "What's happening?"
I wished that I knew. The storm outside had calmed, so it wasn't a hurricane. All I could think was that this was an earthquake. The rattling was so powerful that it was jostling the furniture around, and the chandelier swung crazily above our heads. Then the banging ceased as abruptly as it had started. An eerie stillness fell over the parlor.
The electricity was still dead, but I figured the quake ought to be excitement enough for one séance even without using any of my other devices. Mrs. Donohue already looked green at the gills. "A spirit is trying to reach us from the other side," I said. "The barrier between the living and the dead is . . ." My voice trailed off as I realized that steam was coming out of my mouth as I spoke. The room was so cold that my teeth chattered, and the insides of the windows had frosted over. But that was impossible. The air conditioner was off.
I felt a disturbance in my gut and thought that the cheesecloth was coming up. I heaved, but it wasn't a mixture of cloth and egg whites and toilet paper that came out of me. No, it was a translucent, shimmering gelatin, icy to the touch. The stuff was acrid and sour on my tongue, with a metallic tang and a whiff of ozone about it. I literally tasted death.
To my astonishment, the ectoplasm I'd vomited onto the table dripped vertically upwards, coalescing into a form that loosely resembled a human head and shoulders. It glowed a soft white, casting looming shadows against the walls. Tiny particles of colored light drifted through the air at the corners of my vision, as if the stars had come into my parlor to dance.
Mrs. Donohue was crying tears of joy. "Lucy?" she asked. "Is that you?"
The ectoplasm coalesced still further, taking on the form of a female face with long, flowing hair, although the features were soft and indistinct. "Yes, Mamma," the spirit said, in a strange, resonant voice that you didn't hear with your ears so much as you felt in your bones. Its lips moved when it spoke, but not quite in harmony with the sounds.
For maybe the first time in my life I was totally dumbfounded. Despite all my success as a medium -- heck, perhaps because of my success -- I had never even considered the possibility that the living might actually be able to communicate with the dead.
"Mamma, can you hear me?" the spirit asked. "Please, Mamma, it's hard for me to talk, I need your help if I am to speak with you."
"Oh darling, I'm right here! Certainly I'll help! Anything you need. I've wanted so long to talk with you again."
"My memories of the living world are faint. It's all like a dream now. I remember a man sitting at my sickbed comforting me. Was it my father?"
"No, dear, that was your brother Horace. Your father was away when you passed, remember?"
"Mamma, I think I can see Horace now. He's in a uniform, someplace far away. Is that right?"
"That's exactly right. He's serving his country in Hawaii. I'll tell him that you're watching over him. It'll mean so much to him."
"And I sense -- I sense that you've brought one of my belongings with you. A piece of jewelry, perhaps . . . no, a toy . . . a doll! You brought my favorite doll!"
Mrs. Donohue opened the purse she'd been clutching and retrieved an ancient baby doll with a cracked skull. "Yes I did, baby," she said. "I brought your Annabelle. I thought you might want to see her again."
"Mamma, I know our relationship was not always easy," the spirit said. "But we had some wonderful moments of love and tenderness."
"Oh, Lucy, I've been thinking those exact thoughts all these years," Mrs. Donohue said, now close to bawling.
That's when my dread froze into mortal terror. You see, at that point I realized that the spirit was doing a cold reading of its own. It used exactly the same techniques that I used - the techniques that Charlie had taught me. It started its routine with an appeal for Mrs. Donohue's help, to quell her suspicions if it flubbed any details. It spoke vaguely, not giving any specifics until the old lady had confirmed them with her words or her looks. It asked questions that sounded like statements. Sure, it had guessed that Lucy had died suddenly with a man at her bedside and that her brother was in uniform, but neither of those guesses were all that impressive given the information it had to work with. All sorts of people work in uniforms, Horace could have been a milkman in Maine and it still would have been right. And it wasn't hard at all to figure out that there was something special in Mrs. Donohue's purse, just from seeing how tight she was gripping it. Whatever this spirit was, it wasn't Lucy Donohue. It didn't even know anything about Lucy Donohue. It was something else entirely.
Now, you might say it was cowardly of me not to warn Mrs. Donohue that she was dealing with an impostor. Personally, I call it good sense. Try and put yourself in my shoes. There I was with an apparition from the beyond in my parlor. I didn't know what it was or what it was after. I certainly didn't want it to turn its attention from Mrs. Donohue to myself. So I stayed silent, and let the grift play out to its ending.
"Mamma," the spirit said. "I can't stay much longer. Will you please give me a kiss before I go?"
"Of course, my darling!" poor old Mrs. Donohue said. "Nothing would make me happier!"
The apparition leaned in towards Mrs. Donohue and as it did it changed. The ectoplasm collapsed in on itself with a wet, sloshing sound. It transformed from the head of a young girl into something kind of like a jellyfish, a flabby, shapeless mass strung with stingers and tentacles. It slid its ghastly, slithering appendages deep inside Mrs. Donohue's eyes and ears and nose and mouth, and then slouched forward and enveloped her entire head within its gelatinous body, muffling her shrieks. It pulsed and swelled in size as it engulfed her. From the way it shuddered, I got the distinct impression that it was in ecstasy.
The worst part was, since the ectoplasm was transparent, I had a direct view of Mrs. Donohue's face the whole time. I watched her eyes widen with horror and her face slacken like it was turning liquid, and while there was no trauma on the outside I saw that inside she was shriveling like a moth in a candle flame.
Mrs. Donohue collapsed stone dead onto the table, knocking over the candles as she toppled. The ectoplasm dissolved into the air like a mist. I was alone. A few seconds later, the lights flickered and came back on. The metronome went tap-tap-tap beneath the floorboards, like Edgar Allen Poe's hideous heart.
At this point, the practical realities of the situation began to close in on me. I had a dead old lady in my house. My house which, mind you, had been specially renovated for the express purpose of grifting old ladies. If there was any sort of police investigation I'd be going away on a murder charge, no question about it. So I did what I'd done so many times before on the carnival circuit. I packed up everything I needed and left behind everything I didn't and skipped town with a stack of unpaid bills and legal troubles in my wake. I left Mrs. Donohue in the parlor. Maybe a few years later the sheriff pulled her mummy out of the house when he came to foreclose over the property taxes. Maybe she's there still.
I wound up going back to the carnival. I never did another séance, though, or even tarot cards. Too witchy. I stuck to palm readings and horoscopes instead. Those don't pay nearly as well, but no amount of money could ever get me to call on the dead again. I stuck to the straight and narrow path, for the most part, I worked hard, and eventually I retired down here in sunny California, a whole country away from Florida.
But that's not the end.
You see, I subscribe to a lot of magazines on paranormal phenomenon. Now, I used to read that stuff strictly on a professional basis, to see what the marks were into and get ideas for the act, but in my old age I guess I've become more open-minded. I take a special interest in the stories written by folks who've had near-death experiences, car crashes and near-drownings and whatnot, and who come out of their comas claiming they've caught a glimpse of the afterlife. Almost every one of them said that one the other side they saw their loved ones calling them.
I wonder if it's really their loved ones that they saw. When it's my time to go, I wonder if I'll see Charlie calling for me, or something that looks like Charlie. I wonder what he'll say to get me to come close. I wonder if I'll fall for the con.
“A Weighted Whisper”
I didn't mean to kill her. She was a thief, and I had taken over the family business. She was short and willowy, tiny enough to waft away in the breeze. Her hazel eyes skimmed my table of trinkets and landed on the painted pots, then the shimmering bracelets, then the belts. She had an eye for the expensive, though what drew her here to my poor village, I had no idea.
She didn't take anything right away. Instead, she invited me back to her cottage after the sun settled into the horizon. I almost didn't accept; she was so small, you see, and I stand over four feet taller than the average man, with my huge frame and lumbering gait. Not many customers haggle with me over wares, just as they wouldn't pick a fight with a big dumb bear. I'm not bragging. My father was the same way. Our body shape was passed down through the generations, to the point where rumors spread that our ancestors mated with giants. Hurtful? Yes, sometimes. But that's not why I killed her.
She was a thief, you see, and she had an eye for the expensive. She sat on the bed, twirling a lock of red-blond hair around a slender finger. She gently bit her lip, her eyes looking me up and down like I was worth something. She asked me to bed her, so I did. When the sun rose, I lay in the bed, her tiny frame curled against my chest. She breathed deep, warm breaths that tickled my skin. I stroked her hair and thought I might fancy her, but when she woke, I didn't tell her. I didn't know what to say to her serene face, the sleepy flat side of her morning hair. She asked me if I was going to stay awhile. I said no. I had work to do, after all. She tried to get me to stay, but I had work to do. I had work to do, you see.
When I returned to my shop, there was nothing left but broken windows for the cruelly soft winter breeze to seep through. I boarded up the window and stared at my empty tables, my smashed benches. She had distracted me for a whole night, and she hadn't worked alone.
I marched back to her home. She was packing in a rushed frenzy. All my wares were gone, you see, my entire family's livelihood. Gone.
I shoved her against the wall. I only meant to frighten her. She threw her arms around me and kissed me deeply, stealing something I couldn't replace. I had to do something.
She was a thief. She stole me.
I had to do something, you see. I had to.
I think about her a lot in this place. Carcer. That's where I am now. My home kingdom boasts sweltering summers and blistering winters, but Carcer sits between Simmea and Dorell, and it exists someplace between dreaming and waking. I've been here for eleven years with a constant sheen of sweat on my skin, and I've never felt a change in the heat.
In the morning, they open our iron doors and shove a bowl of something squishy and grey across the floor to us. After breakfast, the guards come two at a time into a cell and take us, one at a time, to work down in the mines. I must have worked there for two years, morning till dusk, in the confines of the rock. I never unearthed anything valuable, and I'm sure the guards didn't expect us to. They wanted us to keep digging to make us hope we could find something.
We never saw daylight. Carcer had no windows. The prison was a winding set of dungeons stacked one atop the other, set deep in the mountains. When we were done digging, calluses lining our palms, cuts and bruises seared deep into our skin, they would crack the whip on those who fell behind that day, and send us back to our cells.
Our cells are iron, separated by two-foot-thick walls. The doors are heavy and metal, and they make this unearthly screeching sound when the guards open them. I used to wince every time the door to my cell opened, but now I welcome it. Why? Because I'm a good listener.
It started with a young guard. He never shared his name with me and never took his helmet off, so all I saw were frightened blue eyes and a round face. He would sit outside my cell door and mutter aloud how scared he was to be so far from home.
Until that point, it never occurred to me that the guards weren't allowed above ground either. I never groaned about my woes aloud, but killing the thief weighed on me. I was angry with her for tricking me and stealing my heart; I snapped her neck then and there, didn't even think about it. I did think about it afterwards. I thought about it while they shipped me to Carcer in chains. I stewed in my thoughts so much that on the day the young guard stopped by my cell door, I just wanted something else to listen to.
When I responded, something along the lines of, "Why don't you just quit?" the young guard jumped from the other side of the door. "You were listening?" he asked shakily, as if I might do something with the information he'd let slip. As if I wanted to use anyone. As if I wanted to hurt anyone. I never wanted this, you see. I never meant to kill her, and I certainly didn't mean hurt this young guard either.
I ended up listening to him for days while he gradually spilled his guts to me. "I'm my mother's only son," he said, in that nervous, squirrelly way that nice young men speak. His spear looked too big for his thin hands. "I earn a good sum of money here in Carcer, enough to send back to my mother and sisters." Why he thought I cared about his mother and sisters was beyond me, but seeing how I was a prisoner and he was a guard, I had no choice but to nod along with him. "I want to keep Mother in good spirits," the guard admitted, shifting his baby-blue eyes to me. "But my own spirit will wither and die if I stay here. I swear it. It's the crack of the whips. The rock walls, the ceiling and no sky. I used to watch the stars with my mother when I was a boy." And a boy he still was, though I dared not say so. He watched me, apparently waiting for some response. So, to appease him, I said, "The stars shine even if your eye cannot see them." He seemed happy with this; at least, it made him quiet, and that pleased me.
One day, as we were digging in the mines, I recognized the guard from afar and saw him slip. He yelped, falling toward a gaping hole in the ground, and the only image in my mind was a sky full of stars. Without thinking, I stuck my hand out and grabbed his ankle. He flipped backward and smashed his skull against the rocks. Blood trickled down the mineshaft. I didn't mean to do it, you see. You see that, right? You understand?
The Carcer guards stuffed me in solitary confinement, where I learned to sit still and be quiet, or else I would lose my mind. I dared not speak that young guard's secrets, so I kept my mouth shut. Perhaps because of that, I became an even better listener than before.
The man in the cell next to mine, his name was Gurit. In his village back on the outskirts of Simmea, he'd been accused of everything from blasphemy to murder. I never saw what he looked like because he was only next to me for a very short time. But I could tell from the way his voice shook that he was enraged at the injustice he'd been served. "Completely innocent, I am!" He was adamant about this, Gurit was. "They say I defiled the name of the gods! They say I struck a priest! Why, the only gods I believe in are the ones who hear my prayers, don't you think that's how it should be?" I always said yes to Gurit. A non committal yes. His thick voice was so annoying that I complained about him to the other prisoners. Days later, I heard nothing from Gurit's side of the wall. When I politely asked a guard, I was told that Gurit had been stabbed in the latrine. I didn't mean to kill him either.
But by then, so many people were opening up to me that I don't think I could have been disliked if I tried. All the prisoners wanted me to be happy and content, so when faced with the annoyance that was Gurit, of course they would take care of him for me. I never asked them to. But I was relieved that I wouldn't need to listen to the same old story from him every day.
It seemed that the longer I listened to the jeers and taunts of the guards, they too began to tell me things that weren't altogether cruel. When I endured a whipping from a senior guard, he told me that his wife was having a baby. "I haven't the faintest clue at all how to be a father," he said, and cracked the whip upon my bare back. His face was soft and sad. I didn't say much because I was in pain, but when he asked for my advice, I voiced the first string of nonsense that popped into my head. "If you take care of your family like you take care of your fellow guards, then you have nothing to worry about."
Yes, by then I had sufficiently learned how to kiss ass. It helped that I understood whatever anyone told me. Being raised in a family of traders, I knew just about any language I needed to know. During my time at Carcer, I learned to stop talking and listen. I had to, you see, to survive. And you'd be surprised how many kingdoms and languages were represented by the prisoners at Carcer.
I knew one prisoner from an eastern kingdom. After a while, he spoke to me in his native tongue, and I'm glad he did. He really spoke from the heart then, the words gushing from him as though I'd opened a cluttered cabinet, letting the scattered junk inside pour out. He cried afterward, telling me about this girl he'd fallen for when he was a young boy. "Sophia was a pearl," he sobbed, "pink and fair and encased in a shell I never could pry open." He had a way with words, the accented man did. He was executed a week later.
Many prisoners died in Carcer. I listened to just about all of them. By that point, hearing their stories became monotonous, and all I could think about was my own execution date. It marched nearer, but each time it stood in front of my face, only days away, the guards would push it back because they wanted more time to tell me things. They knew that Carcer prisoners would never see the light of day. Why keep all their secrets inside when they could spill them, leave them festering deep in the mines of Carcer? At least then, they would have told someone.
After ten years, I know just about every secret in Carcer. I have ceased to become a prisoner and am now somewhat of an honored guest. My cell is still cold and grey and has no windows, but I sit upon a soft cushion, I eat three almost edible meals a day, and there is always someone on the other side of my iron door to listen to. Sometimes the guards even open my cell and let me wander. When the warden himself sought me out for my advice on how he was to rise in the ranks while still keeping his morals, I knew for certain that I would never be executed. Everyone needs someone who will listen.
"I must remain a good man at heart," the warden said. "A godly man. How can I break the will of others and myself remain whole?" I had no idea. "Which is stronger," I asked, not knowing the meaning behind my own question, "the broken castle door, or the battering ram?"
I sit on my hands. I purse my lips. I don't speak unless I have thought my answer through. My hands are soft and gentle, the callouses faded by time and laziness. I don't work in the mines anymore. The guards and the inmates, everyone, think of me as some conduit, a way to pray without having to believe in anything. At night, I lie awake staring at the grey ceiling. I try to cry for myself, but the self-pity has withered. Phantom stars dance behind my eyes, women made of pearls and gods that ignore the call of the whip. In the morning, I pass around from cell to cell, guard to guard, and listen to everyone's stories.
You see now, don't you? I wanted to die. I wanted to be executed. There was nothing else
for me. I had become nothing, so I might as well cease to be. The weight of a million whispers clung to my shoulders. Do you know how heavy a secret is? Do you want to know?
But who wants to listen to a listener? Especially one like me, who has nothing to say.
You want to know about my last secret. The last man who spoke his life to me.
The guards brought him late this summer. He was a short man, and that's all I can say about his appearance. You see, the guards led him into Carcer in shackles. Manacles clamped his wrists together in front of him, and chains led down to his feet, where a separate set of locks enclosed his ankles. He could only shuffle slowly or fall over. He wore the mandated brown rags of a Carcer prisoner with one difference, and this is what drew my eye, you see: His face was completely concealed behind an iron mask.
The guards shoved him down the hallway (by this time, I knew every guard by name; these two in particular were called Ithran and Lilia, and their secret was that they were very much in love). I happened to be there as they marched past, and the newcomer's eyes, which I could see through the slits in his metal mask, flicked to mine, as if he knew that I was a listener when no one else would be. His eyes were a pleasant green-blue color, like a spot of emerald-green grass floating in the middle of a cool blue pond.
I followed the guards to his cell under the pretense of discussing Lilia's newest letter from her mother, which was long and dull, but I was all ears. They threw the masked prisoner into his cell and slammed the door. I took note of the cell number.
In my mind, this number, 1193, became the masked newcomer's name. At the time, I was sure it would be a good placeholder because surely the masked prisoner would tell me his name, along with everything else, very soon.
I was wrong. I still don't know it.
1193 did not work in the mines. Ithran told me that under order of the warden, the masked prisoner was to be kept alone in his cell except for an hour every day, which he would spend in the visitor's room near the surface. I had never been to the visitor's room, and by the way the guards talked about it, none of them had seen it either. I was convinced it was a myth, but the warden and 1193 would disappear for an hour every day at six o'clock in the evening. I started listening to the warden very closely because I thought he might let something slip, but whatever secrets were kept in the visitor's room, they were not the warden's to tell.
I am free to roam the halls of Carcer in the daytime only, though my nightly guard, Alexis, was lenient and would often take me for nighttime strolls around the prison, during which he'd regale me with the tales of all the prisoners he'd whipped to death that day, and I would nod and commend him. His ass was especially easy to kiss, though even now I can't get the rancid taste out of my mouth. Alexis was the only person in my life whom I meant to kill.
But I digress.
Alexis pointed out all the empty cells of the prisoners he'd brutalized. When we came to 1193's cell, I pointed it out and asked if he knew anything about the man inside. Alexis shrugged. "Good luck getting anything out of that one," he said, sneering at the bolted door. "He's not allowed in the mines, so I can't paint him in stripes."
I approached 1193's cell and knocked gently on the iron. Imagine, having that much iron not only trapping you inside a room, but also trapping your face! I whispered through the narrow slit between the door and the wall, "Want to get something off your chest?"
I'm sure he did. I could hear faint shuffling on the other side of the door, the clank of chains and a sudden grunt. I imagined him moving to answer the door only to forget that he was chained to the wall. As if being a prisoner was new to him. Yes, I had learned to listen even when there were no words.
I did not know the reason then, but 1193 did not speak to me that night, so I wandered back to my cell and slept. It wasn't until the next day that I realized the mask did not only cover his face. 1193 was led to his daily appointment at six o'clock sharp, shuffling between two guards, his chains clanking like always. One of the other prisoners was led the other way, and he spat at him. Why? For spite, I guess. The prisoner's name was Jae, and he would spit at anyone who looked at him funny. The only concrete detail I know is that 1193 tried to speak, and when he did, all that came out was a garbling mess of muffled syllables.
The warden told me the truth after the six o'clock appointment. "The mask itself has a built-in metal gag. The commanders don't want him talking."
Why would the higher-ups want this? And why not just cut off his tongue? I've seen it done before. Once when Alexis was still alive, he chopped off the tongue of a young girl imprisoned here for adultery. But you're not here for that story.
The point is, you see, that I was sufficiently confused as to why 1193 had been restrained so harshly. Even if he wanted to spill his secrets to me, he had no means to do so. I had many questions, more than I've had in the eleven years of my imprisonment here in Carcer. For instance, who visited 1193 for an hour in the visitor's room every day at six o'clock? The warden himself never stayed for that hour. He told me himself that he only led the prisoner to the visitor's room, secured him to a chair bolted to the floor, unlocked the mask, and left the room. At seven o'clock, he would re-enter, after the visitor had already gone. Then the warden would lock the mask back on his face and lead him back to his cold cell.
Well, this was quite the mystery to me.
I made a point to catch 1193's eye whenever we passed in the hallways. In the months that followed, he eventually became shriveled and weak, his short frame swaying as he walked. Ithran told me that 1193 was chained to the wall at all hours of the day.
Was he dangerous? Was he a killer, like me? Was he a talker or a listener? And oh, what stories lay behind those green-blue eyes? What would he tell me? When would he tell me?
For surely, he would speak. Soon, I would know everything. But something about the pain that flickered in 1193's eyes and the way the chains thumped against his skin-and-bones arms made me impatient. If 1193 was required to wear this gag, then he wouldn't have a chance to talk at all, not before his execution date.
Yes, his execution date was set. Lilia told me that an executioner was to come to the vistor's room at seven o'clock, after the six o'clock visitor had left. 1193 had one week's time, and I believe he knew it too. He became fidgety and shaky, his limbs trembling against the chains. He fell more often, and sometimes when I walked by at night and pressed my ear against his cell door, I could hear the metallic echo of sniffling behind his mask.
This angered me. You see, I wanted more than anything to switch places with 1193. I wanted his executioner, I wanted to be free of listening. But I could feel a bit of debris in my heart; I knew that I wouldn't be able to stop listening until I heard everything. Everything. You understand? I knew every story. Every single one. All except 1193.
Had he been a trader, like me? Was he like the thief; did he steal things? And wouldn't it be funny if he were the thief's accomplice, and the reason his eyes were always drawn to me was because he recognized me and wanted to avenge his friend?
The day before the final visit, 1193 was led through the hall back to his cell and he fell again. Only this time, he fell on me and knocked me into the wall. The guards pulled him back and cursed at him. At first, I thought 1193 was too weak to stand. Such a pity. It hurt me.
But then 1193 looked at me, and the desperation in his eyes was like a needle slipping between the bones of my ribcage. He wanted to tell me something. Before he died. He was just like all the others; he wanted...no, he needed someone to know. Someone. Anyone. Me.
And I wanted...no.
I needed to listen. Just this one last time.
My opportunity came the next day. When six o'clock rolled around, they hauled 1193 from his cell kicking and thrashing. A short, panicked grunt escaped the mask, followed closely by a wail that echoed all the way to my cell. I watched them pass. 1193 let loose a muffled scream. I didn't think he had the strength left to fight, but he resisted so adamantly that the chains cut into his wrists. Dark red trickles of blood dribbled down his hands.
Ithran and Lilia, who escorted him that night, were stronger than their malnourished prisoner, so they had no trouble taking him to the visitor's room. I followed close behind, making small talk with Ithran. The guards handed 1193 off to the warden. When Ithran and Lilia turned back, I approached the warden and watched him struggle to restrain 1193.
The warden cursed as an elbow hit his jaw. "Help me with this," he muttered.
Never before had I behaved like a guard. I talked with them as easily as I talked with the prisoners. Or, should I say, I listened. I doubt any inmate or guard in Carcer would recognize my voice outside this prison. It felt strange to take 1193's arm, to lead him down the gloomy hallway as he shivered and grunted. His jabs didn't hurt as much as I thought they would. But more than that, every time his elbow connected with my chest, I was reminded that he was real, that 1193 was close to me. The mask would come off, the gag too, and then he would tell me everything.
The warden and I reached the visitor's room. The warden was twitchy today because of an inspection this evening. I said, "I'll set him up in the room, so you can prepare."
The warden blew out a breath and arched an eyebrow at me. I don't think he ever saw me as a person, as someone who was capable of helping. As I said, I was their prayer. In the mines of Carcer, I was nothing but a breath of surface air. But the warden must have seen potential in me, because he left me and 1193 to prepare for his inspection. "Don't make me regret my trust in you." After my discussion with 1193, the warden was punished for this foolish leniency. His superiors lopped off his head and tossed it into the mine. I didn't mean to kill him. The warden was one of the few people in Carcer who could have seen me as something more than an ear. As something more than what I was.
But for a short while the warden was alive, and 1193 and I were alone.
I led 1193 into the visitor's room. It looked just like any other cell, only there was a second door on the far side. No windows. A stone chair sat in the center of the room, complete with straps to bind 1193 before I took the mask off. I did just that, and 1193 watched me hopelessly, though he'd stopped struggling as soon as the warden left the key to the mask in my palm. Now, as I think back, I believe 1193 wanted me to be the one with him in his final moments. The thrashing was a ploy, I think. He knew there was no way a struggle would keep him alive. 1193 wasn't a fool, and that only made me more curious.
I closed the door. The only light was the burning candle on the floor. 1193 shifted, chains jangling. He tilted his head back, exposing the lock on the mask just below the jawline.
I inserted the key and turned, emitting a sharp click that reverberated through my bones. I don't think my heart ever beat as fast as it did then. My hands touched the cold mask, and I started to take it off his face, but it caught on the steel gag. I inserted the key into the second lock and twisted, my gut pinching with the fear that I might need a different key.
The mask and gag were free. I placed them on the floor.
This was when I got my first look at 1193. His face held a symmetry that most would consider handsome, though I thought it was rather creepy how his hair parted perfectly down the middle. Two freckles on both sides of his face. His lip was split from the gag, so the cut on the left side of his face broke the spell and coaxed my shoulders to relax. Dark bags adorned his blue-green eyes, wide and desperate. And though his face was structurally round, his cheeks had caved in from malnutrition. He looked deflated, sucked dry. His lips quivered as they parted. I held my breath.
1193 twitched in his shackles. He inhaled through his nose.
We had ten minutes before his visitor arrived. He would have to make it quick.
"Hello," I said. I was meeting him for the first time, and I didn't even know his name. He didn't know mine. In fact, I think I've neglected to mention my name to you. It doesn't really matter, but this saddens me. Have you gotten this far without even caring who I am?
I digress. Anyway, I said to 1193, "Hello." Then I crouched in front of him and peered into his face. He was young. Very young, maybe not even in his twenties yet. I say yet, but you and I both know (and 1193 knew this too) he wouldn't live that long. This set a heavy worm of panic in my gut, so I said, "Tell me. I'll listen." I always do.
1193 looked at me then. His eyes were glazed over, and he rested his head back against the chair. His chest rose and fell slowly. He licked his lips, and waited.
I raised an eyebrow. "We don't have much time. I will listen." I have no choice, you see.
I know every secret. I know every man and woman who has passed through Carcer. I didn't mean to become their last hope. You see, don't you? You understand? You understand my desperation to know this last thing?
Once I knew this last thing, I could throw myself down a mineshaft. I could starve myself. I could let my soul drift away, dropping with it the burden of all the secrets they've forced me to carry. I don't want to listen anymore. I don't like what I hear. I don't want to listen.
So, you see now. How disappointing it was when he spoke.
His voice was rough. It wasn't what I expected given his age. He sounded like sandpaper, though I imagine screaming for his life earlier had something to do with it. He was quiet and slurred his words. Though, I couldn't tell one word from another anyway. The language he spoke, if it was a language at all--well, I understood none of it.
Those who can't read often describe letters and words as meaningless scratches or bugs' legs on the page. When 1193 spoke, the words, if they were indeed words, sounded like bugs' legs. Meaningless. Drivel. Stitched together hastily. My family are traders. I know every language it is essential to know. This man spoke none of them.
1193 talked for about a minute. Then he looked at me. I returned his stare, my eyes conveying absolutely nothing, and I can only imagine how 1193's heart must have dropped like a lead weight or like the warden's head down a mineshaft. His face crumpled, lips quivering as the realization dawned on both of us.
The young man known to me only as 1193 kept talking, the words if they were words spilling from him like a spurting wound. The bugs' legs squiggled in my ears, noises I didn't understand, like the sound of stars dying or a clam opening.
He asked a question, and it sounded to me very much like an unheard prayer, hanging in the air in an outstretched palm. I didn't say anything. He said something else, his voice cracking like the breaking of a battering ram.
He started to cry after a couple minutes, big fat tears that rolled down his cheeks, and his voice grew high and strained and strange. He hung his head and gasped with chest-rattling sobs. I watched him the whole time and didn't say anything.
He cried out at one point, a sharp, frustrated yell like a whip's strike. Hurt just as much too. His voice dissolved into hurried whispers, gradually slowing as his words softened and he fell silent. And there we remained, until our time was up.
1193 watched me, his eyes rimmed in red.
I didn't mean to. Really. I didn't mean to.
1193 was executed at precisely eight o'clock. I never saw his body, nor have I seen the mask since. I often lay in my cot in the cell down in Carcer, listening to the grunts of the prisoners and the sighs of the guards. I think to myself that if only I had been gentle with that thief, if only I had loved her instead of killed her, then maybe none of this would have happened and I would still be on the surface, talking instead of listening. Only in my mind do I speak of what I've heard, and only in my vivid imagination does anyone hear me.
Oh, no. You wanted to know all about 1193, didn't you? I did too. I'm sorry to leave you feeling hollowed out, empty on the inside. I swear, I didn't mean to. You see now why I can't throw myself down a mineshaft, right? Because if you stand still and listen, then you would hear the faint echoes of the secrets left behind, the whispers that have yet to be placed so delicately in my ear. Every echo from the mineshaft sounds like an iron mask falling to the floor.
For now, I'll keep listening. I have to, you see. I have to.
You see, right? You understand?
“Sad Family Play”
"Fathers are depressing." - Gertrude Stein
He was a lazy father who made home movies. "I hope you never have to do anything for money," he says to his children. Now that was advice. "I have a one-man show coming up next month," he says. "The title is in Spanish, it's called Al fin solo -- alone at last." [It should be noted that, while "alone at last" might refer to more than one person in English (as in a couple), "al fin solo" is singular. If he wanted to include more people, he should have changed the title.] The children -- all over 30 -- stare at the living room portraits as if to declare something important about them, but then half-heartedly rescind what was left unsaid in the first place.
Three people buy a moribund dog and laugh with it on their way home. Later, the dog pokes its head into the family barn in a way that is irrefutably humorless. Otherwise, nothing of the dog is of much value to us. Tarkovsky used one to similar effect in Stalker, though the dog wandered on set by accident. If he were still alive, he would argue about the true nature of art. You could disagree with him.
The children meet people who are much vaguer than them. They receive messages without knowing what they are being told. "I've only lived one life my entire life," one of them says to a lamp post, their friend.
The lazy father reads a eulogy at his own funeral. "I am frequently moved by music--and sometimes even literature--but life itself leaves me cold." The priests high five the chapel air. "Every architect follows their own fancy, inheriting the stink of living that's come before them," he continues. He speaks for 163 minutes to a huddled, darkened room.
If you learn anything in life, then you've been lied to. Said the tree. [Camera should zoom on children's mouths, brows, uniform chins.]
Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum
Yesterday I drive the mountain way home from the City. This half the twist way up shows all Harbour whilst that other half is dun suburban Island plain. On the Harbour side you get blind white barges and traps and bathers then the bigger cargos if when they come in. You know but my first world memory is old-style clippers filling the Harbour for Coronation? Well yesterday when I drive the mountain up that wheel shiver in my hand what’s the sign of how the void call me! I imagine then I let loose this wheel and the car flap out over the Harbour for everybody’s ogle below! And my story gets in the papers too at last. But yesterday I drive safe home instead and with my head full of all that I type this story about my great young love Claudine.
Claudine here is twelve and sits in the school dinner with brighter lonelier ideas than me. Fact, I am eleven with nor one friend in the school whilst Claudine has this roost that coo over her. Today she and me sit together whilst all her loud friends sit opposite the aisle and crack on us.
I sing oh Claudine « hear my soul speak! » and Claudine she tells me I have eyes of a viviparous lizard. Weeks pass on.
Then I see her in the school garden aside her friends. I tap her and ask to speak in private when I say to her oh Claudine « the very instant / My heart fly to your service / To make me slave to it; and for your sake / Am I this patient log-man ». Then Claudine yells stop it because I’m the kind of boy what a girl marries and off she go angry.
Well I approve these words but the angry stomp I can’t twig. I know she and me will marry. I see we live in a cabin up Mont Temps and have children and geraniums and when she says yes we take off our clothes like adults in TV drama plays.
Then Claudine she say to me « Stéphane. No ».
Claudine’s house smells like a mama’s aunty. Every room have the taste of fir tree and suburban lace and cleaning stuff. The house is La Conk because the Pa conk down on the kitchen floor right there and under there he reside now even. Her tidy ma crane over a cassoulet and see us and says « Oh Claudine and Jétienne I mean Stéphane, I don’t know you’re here with Claudine? In her room alone even. Well good then because you two study. Claudine what do you study? Show me these books. What pages you read? But only these just? Well you read on to the end.
And do you answer all questions in class right today? Well good. And Stéphane you have some big books too I see. »
My books of the library are Spooks of the Valley and Haints of the French Creole and How to Build Your Own Robot and Shakespeare’s Quotes of Love.
Every boy he wait for the right girl to kill himself so I’m lucky I find Claudine now I’m young. I know all about the suicide. Tante Adze she say everybody know the story of Max Linder and Jean Peters at Quo Vadis. And she tell me of Simone Mareuil who pop like a bonbon. Grandmère says Tante Adze is a wicked one what’s why she and Ma don’t countenance on her. « Countenance » it means to look on with a counting face.
So my story goes. It’s our final day and final hour of sixth level when Claudine she find me lay out in the school’s rye field with my nose in the striate cloud. Those ditto five girls behind her they smile unwholesome on Claudine and they crowd about so she have no retreat.
Claudine say « Stéphane. Oui. Okay. We can be in love. »
This patient log-man of me he live at last! My summer go writing her love dramas. And I see Claudine at the roller disco once too and she eats down a gâche mélée. Her friends wave me sit near. And I show off my long hair what Ma plait and her friends laugh they like my plaits so much. Claudine cannot hold my hand because her hand is apple-stuck. The course of true love nor run smooth.
So then here’s first day of seventh level and Claudine she sits amongst her friends in the dinner. They all lunch on the turbot. I stand behind my love for lack of seat.
Claudine she say to me « Stéphane. No. Me and you are nor in love no more. »
But « beyond all manner of so much I love you! » I remind her our kids up Mont Temps who wait to be born. I remind her how her ma dig me and her friends dig my hair and Claudine she howl « va t’en Jétienne! ». Her friends gasp at the cuss.
But « I do love you more than words can wield the matter » and all this school term go « dearer than eyesight, space and liberty, / Beyond what can be value, rich or rare » and all next summer loving her « no less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour — Beyond all manner of so much I love » but Claudine she say just « Stéphane. Please. Please ».
Well three years go on and if you ask me I tell you I am « melancholy ». I am melancholy always and when happiest melancholy just. My life is one unending scheme of ending me. I plan my mass and revise my succulent note. My brother the priest he say I kick rocks. He say suicide is a hobby for the young. He say death is a privilege of those young and an infantile phase and he fizz on like this. He isn’t a priest but he aspires to ghost. But brother-priest he’s delicate and kind and takes blows for me too though. His room is a robinblue rectory. Despite our house has nor name nor magic.
For these three years then I hide and read all books sans pictures. I walk my woods with books. Every week at library I take on lend Shakespeare’s Quotes of Love and mark it out with Bic pen so much I tell Librarian Mlle Offlia it falls in the Blue Arterial and hurries to sea and Pa pays it up and gives me a whip for it. Brother-priest ask why all this Shakespeare and I say but look at these lovers in love on the cover! And I learn the English by Shakespeare and by writing out all my death notes. Brother-priest tell me I should join the Tchennevays Climbers’ Club. He say in the mountains there you feel free.
Claudine is a melancholy one too though. In class when she get the answer wrong which is never but when she gets the answer wrong she cry and shiver. Those five friends she have are three now and two now and they chew in each her ear.
Then today six years on Claudine and me are at university together and what do you know but up some mountain together. And this one day she and me sit in the empty supper hall and she take a cigarette out my pack and I do too. We tap those in our plates with my plate empty and her plate full. She say she must quit for health. Then she ask do I ever think to quit? I say well smoking don’t cause suicide so here I’m safe. You read this story and you don’t laugh? Well I know suicide is real so don’t you think to be smug at me. Someday I go off my mountain or another and I make my joke until my turn spin around.
Claudine she have no laugh for me. She’s a hard sad beautiful one. Claudine is lonely but she don’t want this love I memorize all my life for her. I say to Claudine « Amongst our friends back then do you ever think on me? »
And Claudine she says no « I never think to think on love ».
Breaking the corner on Massachusetts Avenue, past the sodium glow of April streetlights and the last night bus, Emory made his passage towards AKIL. He often took the train into DC. The train to the car to the hotel room to whatever else and home again on a sleeper seat. An unfamiliar curiosity gave him leave of the car service. He wanted to take in the night on foot. Empty benches, empty tables, infrequent and indifferent cars passing at a pace of performed anonymity. Emory was amused by the practiced absence of life on the street corners. He imagined the foreign dignitaries looking at each other through the painfully American windows with drapes that never closed. Are there any secrets in a place this dull?
AKIL’s corporate headquarters sat at the end of the 35s. It wasn’t a listed retail location, and their promotional emails referred to it as their “DC embassy” as a cheeky aside to the neighborhood. The glib framing passed as Emory approached the building, wrapped in black cable and SLED lights that began to ignite as he approached the gunmetal doors. AKIL, as many detractors and admirers had been quick to point out, had an operating budget that exceeded many small (and not so small countries), and they carved out a piece of the diplomatic real estate to drive that point home.
The pebble stone steps inside led to a small depression in a center room, surrounded by concentric circles of gold and grey, which ran from the ceiling to the floor. Carbon steel rods tipped with tiny but powerful lights Emory could not identify rose scattered from the gaps in the center of the room and odd angles and heights, standing sentry over the empty desk like strange angels. The walls were covered with old AKIL hardware. Netslates from the ’40s, some MSEs, a pack of early data strips of various generations and some unidentifiable kit that Emory assumed were prototypes of well-known designs.
The hard light of the lobby’s desk lamps sent tiny blooms of pain through his adjusting pupils. He clapped eyes on a clerk canted against a slab of petrified redwood, retooled into something very much like a reception desk. Vicious biceps poked out from her cutoff sleeves as she set her netslate aside in a calculated gesture of surprise.
There was no sound. He could hear his fillings clicking against old bone. His breath. His heartbeat, rising in confusion and anticipation. This was a crypt to a dead and angry empire, he thought. Was he early? Was he in the right building? Did that door unlock?
“Hello, Mr. Nilsoon. My name is Abel, and I will be your Experience Navigator for the day,” she said, closing distance with him from across the room.
Abel faked the part well, but no secondary level staff gets into a room like this on assignment. It was insulting to think that the firm felt he would be more comfortable with some post-larval junior executive minding him in the shop, so he stopped thinking about it.
She placed a quick and evaluative hand on his shoulder. Abel’s business tunic clung to her like armor. Smart, geometrically balanced hair coiled to one side, and level grey eyes met him.
“We are sorry for keeping you waiting, sir.”
“As well you should be. One can hardly make out the address from the street even with proper directions,” Emory said, noting her smirk. He had not been Mr. Nilsoon since boarding school.
“Of course, sir. Though we do hope our form makes our presence easier to surmise. Would you follow me?”
Emory followed. A series of depressed bronze stairs led him below, into deeper levels of controlled silence. He felt the pressure change in him like he was waiting for a plane to take off. “The sound shielding takes some getting used to Mr. Nilsoon; I can see you’re uncomfortable.”
“I’m sure you can. Is this some kind of studio?”
“Of sorts. I’m sure the board sees it that way. It would justify the expense. We have tasked the lower levels of this building for sonic calibration. It helps us make sure they respond to voice commands at the point of purchase. We also test quite a bit here, even in the hallways.”
Abel made a precise turn down a dark hallway, batteries of SLED lights igniting as she passed. “I saw you spying on the old MSEs upstairs.”
“Yes, it’s a bit of a retirement home you’ve created upstairs.”
She cut the air with a giggle.
“More like a crypt!” She took a conspiratorial pause in the hallway, leaning over to him. It had only then occurred to him how tall she was, even in flats. “The MSEs were always my favorites. There was a degree of customization that remains unmatched even now. The old AKIL hardware patterns were...”
“Idiosyncratic?” Emory said, interrupting. He needed to finish this before they went any lower.
“I’m sure that would be your word for it. Ah. Here he is.”
Emory barely registered the passage into the viewing theatre. A tangle of yellow and red tubing descended from the lower ceiling. Scratching and layering liquid plastic on a transparent plate, hundreds of micro-layers per second. Ozone filled the air, filled Emory.
“Hello, Mr. Nilsoon. I am Nathan. Forgive me for not being more presentable.” The voice came from the still unformed black sheets.
“Mr. Nilsoon has provided his full complement of patience and understanding to us, Nathan, simply finish your task,” Abel said. There was a practiced tone of disapproval in her voice. They have had this conversation before.
“Very well, Abel. I am finished,” Nathan said. His voice was liquid and post-geographical.
Emory’s English tutors took the tone in lessons where the pretense of valuing Hindi no longer had any currency. A lozenge of twilight began to form itself in the panels of darkness, with the suggestion of something handheld peaking through. The table raised itself, and a grey mass sloped toward Emory. Abel gestured with a nod; it was his now.
Nathan was cold to the touch. Rectangular and cut precisely within an eighth of an inch thick. Even his edges were sharp. He had no screen and no buttons, and nothing to indicate how to remedy their absence. The chill glow of the SLEDs from the ceiling passed through Nathan’s hardware in shafts of smoky transit. The standard AKIL ping-ping-bloop chime sounded off in the room, and Nathan winked red all over for several seconds.
A small white cube emerged from the black face, like a ghost. It blinked back and forth, a slight tilt showed the square was a cube -- the surface broadcasted images at full dimensionality.
“Ah,” Nathan chirped.
Nathan began displaying all the numbers that made Emory, Emory. His mail, his address, his real address, his bank statements, his location, and his favorite spots. His medical records.
“That’s enough, Nathan,” Abel snapped. “Sorry about that, he’s syncing with your AKIL account which will patch back into any products you may have used with us, from quite a ways. We are not tracking this data, but we can integrate this into Nathan’s memory if you like.”
“These are encrypted to me then. All I have to do is lock it on my end?” Emory asked.
“Your secrets are safe with me, sir.”
Emory let Nathan sync while he sat with Abel at the bare table. She placed a pot of bamboo tea between them while she flicked at a terminal.
“Nathan has been tagged to you. You are under no embargo. Speak about him and be seen with him at your convenience. We want him out in the world. All that we ask is that you not mention you picked him up here. DC is a bit of a backyard for us, and we would like to keep it that way. If you have any questions, my desk is available at any time on the help screen,” Abel said, tapping didactically on contact implants nested in her ear.
“When will Nathan be shipped commercially? It’s useless for me to talk about this thing without any launch window,” Emory asked. Speaking about it in earshot did not become easier with his back to the thing.
“We will not disclose the release date at this time. That you are holding Nathan in your hand, at this moment, should be a sufficient indication as to the character of our progress.” Abel took her only sip. “Sufficient for your purposes, at the least. Please enjoy, Mr. Nilsoon.”
Nathan was in his skin now. His mesh network was running parallel with Emory’s other devices. The empty storefronts and vacant embassy doorframes came alive with quick bursts of data. They had both caught their first bite of wireless in the early dawn, feeling each other out.
An early morning fester of delivery men dragged their boots out into the cold morning sun. Some bit of AKIL code making a nest in Emory’s optic never began to wake under the careful midnight tutelage of Nathan, attempting to find distant friends and second cousins in the faces of the still sleeping street. By this point in his career, Emory had made a secular ritual of scrubbing the Known Faces out of his mesh devices. The rare and spooky art of remembering names and mugs was one part of his professional practice he refused to outsource to the gear.
Spilling suggestions like a nervous dance partner, Nathan walked them into an all hours wrap place tucked above some shuttered old retail buildings. ESPN was running a post-mortem on last night’s Steelers game at idiot volume. The remnants of the night shift shuffled coffee and menus to Emory as he tapped his face against the cool glass of mineral water. The food was serviceable, and there was a wine menu, which was always welcome. They sat upstairs across from the Japanese embassy and watched the Asian commodities trading wrap around its base, making a moat of securities flooding amberly into Georgetown.
“You have excellent taste in breakfast burritos,” Emory said.
“Thank you,” Nathan said, perched on the center of the table. “You don’t trust me, do you, Mr. Nilsoon?”
“You haven’t given me a reason to yet. This sandwich is a good start.”
Nathan vibrated quickly. Emory guessed that’s what it did to laugh.
“Yes. That was easy,” Nathan said.
“Read my file, did you?”
“No, sir. This was the only thing I could find open here at this hour with an acceptable rating.”
“Would you have wanted pork sir? Something slow roasted? Over a fire, over a pit. Where you could taste the smoke and ash. Do you like dead things, Mr. Nilsoon?”
“Stop using my last name. Call me Emory.”
Nathan buzzed again, more extended now, and with a species silence, even seasoned sprouts could not fill. The hotel room was dark. He decoupled from Nathan and bathed. Let himself sleep in the water. This was the only real place he had been since the station driver let him off. There was some residue of Able on his shoulder, something expensive, like a perfume that smelled like the absence of sound. It mixed with the disinfectants in the tub, intoxicating. His knees, old and sore, seemed to expand and melt through his toes. He felt old scars. He felt the gaps in his head where his former doctor pulled rotten teeth out. Let them bleed slow. Let his mouth fill with the stink of copper and wet rot. He soaked more and then went to bed.
Nathan was switched off at his bedside. Then he wasn’t.
“Did you dream.”
Emory sighed. “Yes. I think I did.”
“I was not spying. I think I was dreaming too,” Nathan hummed again. Emory knew it wasn’t a laugh this time. “Can you do me a favor? Please keep me on. It would be distasteful, I think, to be somewhere else in here.”
“Yes. I imagine being switched off would be unpleasant,” Emory said.
“I do not believe you could imagine, Emory. If you would allow me to lay beside you on the pillow, I think I can shift myself off. I think I am scared. I do not know how to explain this to you; things are so different. In here. For me. Maybe I will be able to show you soon.”
“Maybe you will.”
Emory took him on his pillow. He swallowed a pill. They both went to sleep. They didn’t dream. AKIL’s embassy was white and gold in the early morning fog. The doors were absent. The entire building could not be entered. Even the address numbers were difficult to find, but when Emory pressed himself, he realized he never really saw any number on the building the first time he came. There was a depression on the lower side. Rectangular. A storage spot. A Nathan sized storage spot. Nathan was silent on the walk over. They hadn’t synced since last night. They saw no reviews for sashimi or tacos on the walk from the hotel. Emory placed Nathan in, face first. He took a cab to the train. He took the train home.
Stewart Francis Easton
“St. Stephen’s Church”
St. Stephen’s Church
Charter Avenue, Canley, Coventry. UK
Every night we would sit on the steps to this church. Everyone would take the piss out of each other.
We would smoke joints. Never used to be able to get weed just hash. Just hash. Hand them around. Pass them on and laugh and punch each other some more.
We would throw things at passers, or shout insults at them. They would be going to the off-license which was on our left. There was the paper shop (newsagent), then the post office, off-license, and the small supermarket shop. Not quite a supermarket, but it sold virtually everything. The off-license was always getting robbed so they built a perspex walkway down the centre so you would have to ask for your beer.
On the right was Ten Shilling Woods. Ten Shilling Woods led onto a small field which had a giant burnt out oak tree. After this field was Pig Wood. It was said that there was a ‘mad axe murderer’ in the woods. We all said we had saw him...though we never did.
We sat on the steps to the church every night after school and got high.
Stewart Francis Easton
1990 - 1991, Canley, Coventry, England. UK
KYLE BROWN-WATSON is a writer based in Philadelphia. His poetry can be found in the Painted Bride Quarterly, Bedfellows, and Luna Luna magazine, among others. You can follow his misadventures @puraliqe.
SEBASTIAN CASTILLO is the author of Not I (word west press) and 49 Venezuelan Novels (Bottlecap Press). Find him on Twitter @bartlebytaco.
STEWART FRANCIS EASTON is a visual storyteller whose work fuses together hand embroidery, direct wall drawing, paint, digital media, sonic art, and music. Recently he has been removing the ‘storyline’ of visual narrative by creating geometric / graphic forms in stitch; this work blurs the lines between craft, illustration, and fine art making. Stewart has had solo and group shows in the UK and USA. His work is part of international private collections for clients including Penguin Books and the Nevada Museum of Modern Art. Stewart lives and works in London. See him at stewarteaston.net, @brotherfrancis1, and @stewarteaston.
EMILIA HAMRA was born on an Aries new moon in Arizona. She now lives in Philadelphia where she founded _The Shoutflower_, a print journal of delirium and dream. She studied Creative Writing at ASU and was the recipient of the national Norman Mailer College Poetry Award.
LIAM HUNT writes in Toronto, Canada. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Maudlin House, the White Wall Review, Soliloquies Anthology, the Lit Quarterly, and Philosophical Idiot.
SIMREN DEOGUN is a fiction writer (marketing executive by day) from Toronto, Canada. Her literary aim is to draw together her Canadian upbringing, Indian heritage, and the overarching human experience into relatable and intriguing narratives. Much of her writing realizes itself in the form of short stories and poetic prose. She is currently working on her first novel.
LAURA KING is a writer and lawyer living in Helena, Montana. Her poems have appeared in 14 by 14, Goblin Fruit, Lucid Rhythms, Inlandia, and Writer’s Resist, and she’s been nominated by the Science Fiction Poetry Association for the Dwarf Stars award. Laura is currently writing a series of creative nonfiction vignettes of the lawyer-environmentalists of the Western Environmental Law Center (where she worked as a lawyer) and creating a podcast featuring her semi-famous great-uncles, both lawyers in Los Angeles in the 1950s, featuring crime and Hollywood hijinks.
RACHEL SANDELL is an editor and novelist from Washington state. She is currently in the second year of her creative writing MFA program with the Rainier Writing Workshop, specializing in speculative fiction. She dabbles in poetry and writing-related articles, which can be found on her website, rachelsandell.com, and her previous short story has been published in the anthology The Magic Within. Follow her on Twitter @rachelsandell_ and Instagram @rachelsandell_writer for book recommendations and writing updates.
MAX D. STANTON is an educator, librarian, and Dungeons & Dragons nerd who lives in West Philadelphia with his wonderful girlfriend and their two savage, unruly hounds. Max used to be an attorney, but he chose a new way of life after an unexpected encounter with the Devil. His debut short story collection, A Season of Loathsome Miracles, is available now from Trepidatio Publishing. You can follow Max on the Book of Faces, the Shrieking of Birds, and Goodreads.
JEREMY ERIC TENENBAUM is a writer, graphic designer, and graphic artist. 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.
PA Immigrant Relief Fund
A lot of groups are asking for money right now; there are too many important causes and it's hard to know where help is most needed and effective.
Among the groups SORTES supports is the PA Immigrant Relief Fund:
The PA Immigrant Relief Fund is a statewide fund that will provide direct emergency assistance to people excluded from federal COVID-19 assistance programs due to their immigration status or the immigration status of a family member and are in need of immediate financial assistance.
The people who have worked on this publication support this cause and we urge you to as well.
Submission & Contact
SORTES is a spinning collection of stories, poems, songs, and illustrations to help while away the wintery June nights. It’s an oddball grabbag wunderkammer mixtape offering distraction and refreshment.
Each issue is its own creature. We have neither theme nor scene. We like whatever makes us shiver, plotz, turn on, and/or freak out. We've published what might be called magical realism, dirty surrealism, fantastical biography, experimental poetry, tender balladeering, elusive allusive elliptical poetry, and sweet ol grainy photography.
We will periodically host contests, readings, calls for entries, and other spry gimmicks to keep things interesting. Previous issues are available via the site’s Archive link.
SORTES considers unsolicited submissions of poetry, prose, illustration, music, videos, and anything else you think may fit our format. Feel free to poke us; we’d love to find a way to publish dance, sculpture, puzzles, and other un-literary modalities.
SORTES is published quarterly. Each issue includes approximately ten works of lit, visual, or performance art. We like a small number of works per issue: artists and readers should have a chance to get to know each other.
SORTES, you’ll notice, is primarily a black-and-white publication, and we like to play with that (by featuring monochrome videos and photography, for example), but we’ll happily consider your polychrome submission.
Submissions are ongoing throughout the year. We consider artists with both extensive and limited publishing experience. We accept simultaneous submissions but please inform us if your work has been accepted elsewhere.
There’s no need for an extensive cover letter or publication history but please tell us who you are, what kind of writing or art you do, and a bit about what you’re sending us. There are no formatting requirements for text submissions. There is no fee to submit. Please send submissions as email attachments whenever possible; multimedia submissions may be sent as links.
SORTES is edited by Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum and Kevin Travers. We live in Philadelphia but we invite writers and artists everywhere to read, contribute, and adore us.
To submit -- or to send us comments, questions, or suggestions --
please email the editors at
Please join our SORTES-folk for upcoming readings:
Friday, September 11, 2020 @ 7pm :