Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Knife

A strange senseless thing, Annette giving her that knife that night. Annette had barely had it for a month herself, it was a gift from Tom and Tom had gotten it from his younger brother Jules six months earlier. Where did Jules get it? A fascinating question beyond the scope of this particular exploration. It is only relevant to note that Jules had hardly looked at the knife during the time that it was in his possession, and Tom had only practiced opening and closing it before giving it to Annette. Why did Tom give the knife to Annette?
It was a very simple stainless steel blade that folded into a black handle, the sort of thing that could be purchased in a sporting goods store, or a gun shop, or even at an army surplus store. Tom personally had no practical use for a knife, his chief interests being theater, literature, theater, and other boys. Looking at the knife, several times, he had thought it could be used to slit his own wrists or to cut his chauvinistic father's throat while the sweaty old man slept, but he had sharp razors to do the first job and too much sensitivity to do the second.
Annette was tall and lean and had blonde hair that had been shorn irregularly by her own hand in a self destructive rage. She wore cut off blue jeans and polyester shirts found in the thrift stores of San Jacinto and Sun City, which as everyone knew was where senior citizens were sent to die in sardine cans with white quartz lawns. If you needed a gaudy polyester shirt, you were sure to find one there.
Tom gave Annette the knife because he hoped that she really did possess all of the conviction he lacked. If he said idly, bitterly, that they should climb to the rooftop of the theater department and spill bags of animal blood over the kids in the quad while shouting that it was Tom’s AIDS infected blood, Annette seemed to consider it a valid pursuit. Whether she really would have done it or not, Tom was never brave or desperate enough to find out. The two were engaged in perpetual games of intellectual chicken, and Annette rarely backed down.
She was very touched by the gift of the knife. It felt as if, for the first time in her life, she was being given power rather than having it taken away. One night after her parents had administered the usual dose of psychological abuse, Annette crawled behind her dresser and, using the knife, carved something like a poem into the soft pine.
Three nights later, after work at the cinema, Annette gave the knife to Lisa. They were sitting in Annette’s room on the white day bed with porcelain balls on the posts. Lisa explained that she planned to move to New York within the month to go to broadcasting school. Annette’s blue eyes grew wide with wonder and empathy as Lisa confessed her fear of that distant Metropolis in which she planned to meet or make her destiny. Annette retrieved the knife from behind the dresser and pressed it into Lisa's hand.
Lisa had only four fingers on her right hand. The middle finger had been cutoff at the knuckle by a rusty antique farm implement in the lot behind her parents' trailer. Both of her hands, her arms, her face, her entire body was covered with pale freckles. They littered her milky white skin like stars in the night sky viewed from a high place beyond the smog and light pollution of the Inland Empire. Her hair was shockingly orange and curly.
What did she feel as Annette pressed the knife into her hand? Did she feel the force of the desires of all the knife's previous owners, who, like her, dreamed in their own way of an end to this small suffocating world? A strange senseless thing, Annette giving her that knife that night. A small gesture in a chain of gestures, heavy with significance.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Mask

How long had he sat there? A part of him wondered, the part with the brain and the logic and the rules he had been taught as a child. He should have been warm, fed, in bed with a beautiful wife and anticipating the coming of another work day. He should have had all that, and his parents still believed it was possible. They shook their heads with sorrow everyday when his name came up and the vision of their son, lonely and without children, came to their minds.
He should have been all that they had taught him to be, but he was not. He sat nearly naked in the dark night except for shoes covering his feet and a simple paper-mache black mask on his face.
On the dark fall night, the winds blew past him like the names of old lovers, coming and twisting their way around him until they had seen every inch of him, and then they drifted down the hill, towards other trees and bushes, and perhaps other men like him, lonely and childless, waiting naked under the moonlight.
How long had he sat? His stubborn mind wondered. He was used to that mind with all its trickery, its firm grasp on his body throwing rusty old thoughts into his meditation, reminding him of his poor parents waiting for grandchildren. That mind constantly adding some stones to the soup, but it had to come along on whatever journey he chose. So there he was, sitting on top of the hill, exposed but for his feet and face, with his brain nearly intact.
He had stopped feeling his skin hours ago. His toes, despite their humble covering, had lost their feeling before the sun even set. Perhaps they were purple now. He didn’t dare look, he would not move. He didn’t want to see what the moon and night had done to him, what harm his own insistence would cause to his vulnerable body. He had accepted that his body might be a casualty, there must always be a sacrifice, and maybe the fleshy body would have to suffer a bit more.
He had decided to come to the hill against all logic, against any impulse his body still had for survival. The instinct was dwindling each day, for there were other concerns. He had come, without clothes, food, water, no weapons or blanket to shelter him from the bitter cold. Here, dark was not only the absence of light, but the eye of fear. His own fear. The night was the place where doors were opened and all that he had thought about and heard and dreamed were there, ready, waiting for one close look before he would surely go mad.
He had brought one thing, the one thing he needed for protection against the night demons and the tunnels that came pouring out of him, wriggling free from his ears and heart, dripping from the open wounds in his anus and penis. The fears dripped out like dancing eels, finding their way into the black night and then twisting back, infecting him once again with the same thoughts and worries, the recognizable monstrosities he had come to know, for they were him as much as his fingers, as much as his skin. They showed themselves with a rancid smile, grinning, exposing their razor teeth and black tongues.
He had brought his mask, his one defense. It was firmly on his face, covering his nose, cheeks and forehead like a lover’s strong hand. And though he sat and saw his own fears spilling forth in the night, he was protected from them, just barely, with just a whisper of fabric.
Under the moon, protected now, he could be who he was not. He could be stronger than the man he knew by daylight. He could be a man without cowardice, facing death not with a beggar’s plea, but staring into the eyes of the void, searching for the gnosis he felt glittering. With the mask, he could be the king with his sword, he could find the inner will to sit straight through cold and pain, looking into the shattered gifts of generations.
He knew the power of the mask, and with this new face, he looked up at the moon, spitting on all that would laugh him into the river. He sat, alone in the cold of a black evening, wearing nothing but shoes and another face, and he could be what he was, and what he did not allow himself to be. He could be this now, for now he was the other. He was the man with hidden eyes and a forgotten nose. He was the man in the mask.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Service

Suze looked into the clear blue sky of a July day. It all looked so peaceful, the simplest painting from the genius of a man without arms. There was not a single cloud to agitate the evenly coated hue. It was all chirp and sun. All summer delights and watermelon, not a single cloud to throw in a thought of moisture or a hint towards a memory of rain, for a fall that would surely come before she could turn her head towards the grass. Above her the heavens were wide and clear, resembling a roof, though as she looked she knew that beyond the obvious sense of safety were other planets, meteors, and above else, the most dangerous of all, hurtling rocks coming in her direction, containing the spores of alien life. Up above, on a July day, it only looked like summer and sweet cherry pies and fireworks. Towards the left was fall, and further, towards the white house on the corner, was winter, with its piles of snow and thick boots and smoky fireplaces.
She lay back on the grass, her long sandy blond hair framing her face like a beached mermaid. She was safe and the sky felt like a roof because right now there were soldiers out there, fighting the aliens spores with every available bit of metal and technology and ounce of human will.
As she slowly turned her head, winter would come. In a few months she would be 18, and at 18, she would be required, like all 18 year olds, to put on the lifeless gray wool pants and the suit top with ample shoulder pads. On her head would sit the pointed military hat with the nation’s yellow embroidered eagle, meant to allude to gold, though failing miserably. This would be the suit, the new mask she would be required to wear, though not even Suze thought of it as a mask.
It was just what they did, what everyone had to do. One generation after the other, marching in lock step, marching one after the other with their knees up, elbows extended, chin raised in exaggerated pride. Each year there was a new batch of enlistees. A tray of dough that seasoned and hard instructors drilled with lashes and harsh words. After discarding a few burnt and crumbling ones that just never had a chance for the cookie platter dream, the battalion would be formed.
It was not just a requirement, but a rite of passage. What every young, bright eyed and overly enthusiastic young person had to do before they turned 20. And when she returned from her years in the hostile skies alive with alien sperm, after her skin had grown used to the lifeless green pants and baggy shirt and the collared jacket and the pointed hat, then she would come back, a woman ready to vote and throw back tall mugs of frothy beer in manly competition. After her service she would be able to apply for a child-bearing passport and maybe even become a teacher.
But first, before any of that, she would need to put on those pants. She would need to learn how to hold the impossibly heavy gun with its many chambers destined for variously weighted bullets, she would learn to run in time, in position, as part of the group; not ahead, not behind, but in perfect formation. The chants would become buried in her head, melodies that would follow her into old age like white hair and memories of bloody footprints. The sound of her instructor’s voice would bury itself in her mind, finding places in her dreams to escape and re-ignite the torment of humiliation.
Before she could get the gun, before any of it could begin, she would need to go to the office. There would be the forms to fill out, little x’s and lines that would require signatures and full disclosures. Tests, weights, prodding, measurements, scans of all her most intimate parts. By the end, they would know everything about her. They could see her dreams and almost determine her future.
The blue sky could give her no words of motivation, it knew her destiny. Beside her lay a small rectangular piece of paper with the writing of machinery and machine-like people all over it. The sky could offer her no recourse, no place to hide. And just as she had reluctantly always given up her location as a child when the game was called off, “come out, come out wherever you are!” it was time to face the nation. To become a bride, giving herself, body and soul to the nation. Take me, and make me a woman. Give me your gun, the power of your explosion, and I will be your woman.
She looked down at the card, an oversized flier for the national army. “We’ll keep fighting. And we’ll win!” There were a mix of men and women, three white men, a black and Hispanic man, one white girl with a wide smile and an Asian girl. They all wore the same lifeless green uniforms, held the same black semiautomatic weapons in their left hands, their right fists raised in the belief of ultimate victory. Their smiles were white and shiny, their eyes clear as though they had never seen the blood of war, and indeed they had not, for they were models, not soldiers.
But she didn’t need to be convinced, she already was. It was a requirement and there was no place in society for discussions about pacifism or even learning about those monstrous aliens with moon-sized sperm. What was out there, past the blue of the sky, was the enemy. A cold race intent on destroying human life because it hated them, it hated their lifestyle and the human species.
Service was not negotiable. It was a requirement for the species, and Suze knew that it was time to add her body to the marching mass, it was time she became a citizen.

The Game

Papers littered the street, pink and yellow and blue, stuck to the asphalt, turning to pulp in the gutters. The tall buildings looked sick themselves with their boarded up windows, the silent papered street running between them like a nurse sitting bedside, helpless and hopeful, feeling the first signs of sickness herself but denying it.
The absolute silence and sweet stench betrayed death’s zeal despite any efforts to keep her presence hidden behind boarded windows and doors. Whole families were rotting away in apartments that no one would be coming to clean out. No one was on their way with a stretcher to carry the bodies off to the hospital, no one was digging graves in the cemetery. Who was left to do such things?
“Sophie, Sophie listen to me. Come out of there. We have got to go. We have to get out of here.”
From behind the closet door there was some muffled crying. Aletheia’s hand was on the knob trying to turn it, but it refused to move.
“Sophie, let go and come out. This has gone too far, come out now!” she cried.
“How do I know,” the muted voice behind the door asked, “that you aren’t sick?”
“Because I can’t be Sophie. Just like you can’t be. You know that we can’t die, but we can get stuck. There is nothing here. It is a stupid game, come out before you get stuck.”
Sniffles from behind the door and a whimper,
“Mamma and Papa and baby Nelie all got sick. I might get sick too. I might die.”
“Sophie! Don’t you even think of trying that! Do you hear me? Then you really will be stuck. Those weren’t your parents or your sister. You know this, you’ve just forgotten. Come out now. I’m your real sister, Aletheia.”
Footsteps in the hall. Alethia turned to see a dark headed man pass through the doorway into the cluttered room. The white sleeves of his shirt were rolled up revealing muscular arms.
“What a reeking mess.” He frowned “What’s the hold up?”
“The hold up is 1918 New York!” Aletheia spat, whirling on him. “We should never have played this one!”
“It’s just a game Aletheia, don’t get so upset, you might get stuck.” He frowned at her.
“Save your disapproval Thelesis. Sophie is the one getting stuck, she won’t come out. She’s talking about dying. We should never have let her play as a child, the physiology is so unstable.”
Thelesis’s frown deepened.
“Sophia?” He called, “It’s time to go.”
Only a muffled whimper. Thelesis nudged Aletheia aside and gripped the door knob himself. He jerked the door open and a child with long tangled brown curls spilled out onto the floor screaming.
“Stop this Sophia. Logos is about to open the way out. You must relax the muscles of that body, relinquish control. We’ll go have a rest and play a different game later.”
“I don’t want to die!” the child screamed loud and fiercely. Her tear stained cheeks were crimson.
“Sophie I told you, you can’t die.” Aletheia said soothingly. “Just listen to us. Calm down.”
She kneeled and reached out to stroke the little girls face. Sophia jerked away and continued to sob.
“Get away from me! Get away from me! This isn’t your house, get out!”
“You shouldn’t have jerked open the door.” Aletheia said, “It’s made her worse.”
“Try to listen Sophia.” Thelesis said backing away and giving the child space, “You must calm down. Try to relax your whole body. Let Aletheia hold you and sing you a song. It’s time to go.”
“No! Don’t touch me, you get away from me! You shouldn’t be here!”
“Please Sophie.” Aletheia pleaded.
Thelesis cocked his head as if hearing a sound.
“Aletheia, Logos is opening the way now.”
“What about Sophia!” she cried.
“Sh, sh, don’t get upset. You must stay calm. Breath and turn your attention to the gateway.”
“But she’ll be stuck!”
“Aletheia,” Thelesis cupped his sisters face in his hands, “You can’t help her if you are stuck too. We can come back when we are stronger.”
“But look at her,” Aletheia whispered, “I think she has a fever. She is letting that body get sick. It might die.”
Thelesis gathered Aletheia into his arms,
“Logos might find a way to retrieve her. He is a brilliant technician, remember. Now Aletheia, breathe and turn your attention to the gateway. It’s time for us to go.”
She nodded and they stood together breathing and looking into one another’s eyes until they were through the gateway.
The child on the floor watched the man and woman disappear. For a moment she almost remembered who they were. Then she resumed her crying and crawled back into the closet. Inside there was only the sound of this child crying while the silence swept through the streets rustling papers, pink yellow and blue.

Friday, October 1, 2010


When the people heard of Prince Vessantara, they thought of his long black hair, his glossy mustache and the scent of women that rolled off him like roses. When they saw his chariot approaching over the yellow dunes that had baked in the suns for much too long, then they exclaimed, “Prince, oh Prince.”

When the people heard the prince was coming, they fell to the ground and let the flaming sand burn their knees. The sun burned them as it always had, as it continued to do, for the sun knew no mercy. The sun had forgotten them. The sun had become angry. The sun was lustful and raging. The sun shone down on them with love so hot that it strangled the throat of the very man she loved. And so the sun burned them, as it did each day, but when the prince rode over the dunes, the light became pure fire. Flaming heat followed him wherever he went. Each little city and town, along the dirt paths and sandy landscape. Sun followed him like a glowing shadow, trailing him as he crossed country and continent searching for the black stamens of the mudak plant. Beside it would be the woman with the purple eyes, the master with his whip and the mind that turned elephants to gold.

The prince went to search every cave in his mountainous land, every village. He went over the protests of his loyal people and the pleas of his own young wife. He came and went, staying in his palace just long enough to eat, bathe and produce an heir. Each time he left her on the marble steps of the palace she begged,
“Stay with me my love.”
And each time he said only,
“I must go.”
And she wept. Her sobbing could not be heard over the sound of the chariot wheels turning over the road. The King would wrap his arm around the young princess’s shoulder in a gesture of paternal consolation, but in his mind’s eye would be the face of the purple eyed woman. His heart joined his son, his body could feel the bounce of the chariot and the restless yearning of the boy’s young heart. He could see the long roads stretched out ahead, the nights of endless stars and the campfires that burned away nearly all thoughts of home.

The Prince found the woman with the purple eyes, met her not in a bed of silk, but in the chilly air of a dark cave high in the mountains. They nearly reached heaven standing so far above the earth, the clouds became their ever-changing door and from where they sat so deep in the cave, they could hear the wind howling outside. The woman with purple eyes sat across the fire. Her long white hair was matted and tangled and she chewed the spices of the mudak plant with him and spit into the fire so that it hissed. Her wrinkled tan flesh hung loose over her bones but she could move quickly dancing around the fire and catch hold of a doorway if one came by. When she caught one the prince would pass through and she would wait for him to return, holding the door open. It took great strength, but the woman with purple eyes could do it despite the terrible weight of the doors.

There came a time when she held the door open for three days, the longest she had ever gone and still she held it, hoping he would return. He had gone too far into the land on the other side of the door, searching always for the master with the whip. This time he had gone too far and not turned back in time and the woman with purple eyes grew weaker and at last slipped, letting the door slam shut.

Prince Vessantara had no choice then but to find the Master, but the world he now inhabited was strange to him and riddled with peril. Decades passed within that world and 5 years in his home land. At last he met the master who gave him only part of the secret and then cracked his whip to open a new door for the prince to return home.

He returned to the palace, but could not be comfortable. They shaved away his long beard and the servants whispered about how unnaturally the young prince had aged. His young princess said,
“You are not my husband. The husband who left me has never come back.”
Prince Vessantara nodded,
“You are right. I am not the husband that left you.”
The King had grown ill in his son’s absence and died shortly after his return. Prince Vessantara was crowned King, but ruling a kingdom mattered little to him. He longed to discover the rest of the secret that had been imparted to him by the Master.

His ministers asked for a son. Without a son the administration was weak, but the princess would not touch the strange Vessantara, she waited for the husband who left her to return. The ministers suggested concubines, but Vessantara would have none. At last, unhinged by her woe, the young princess declared that King Vessantara was an impostor, an assassin that had murdered the young Vessantara to usurp the throne. The people were outraged. They asked that he be punished. There was much debate among the ministers.

Prince Vessantara was banished when the red Moondam tree dropped its ocean scented flowers, looking more like a sad flower in winter than the masculine tree they all knew it to be. The night was crying with several of the young villagers. Tears flowed from their eyes and nose. Mouths opened and shut with nervous ticks. They remembered the young prince that had left them in his chariot.

The old Prince exclaimed,
"The ministers do not understand. The princess does not understand. The people do not understand. I am not the young prince that left long ago, but still I am Vessantara. You banish Vessantara from his father’s palace.”

Then slowly, in sadness, he turned his back once more, looking into the shadows and finding only unopened love letters sent from a flowery hand. The letters, gleaming white under the full moonlight, still had much to say, but they required effort. A quick motion of the wrists, a jab of the fingers and a voyage of the eyes.
He walked towards the urn that contained his father’s ashes and kissed it and cast a sorrowful eye upon his wife, Princess Maddhi, to bid her goodbye.
The princess did not beg,
“Stay with me my love.”
Vessantara did not say,
“I must go.”
He simply went away, looking for the spice of the mudak plant. Looking once again at the mountains for the woman with the purple eyes, looking for the master with his whip and the mind that turned elephants into gold.