EMIR IS MY NAME
By Phillip Tim Williams
The day in Piran had been cold, with a wind that buffeted the narrow streets and harbor and made walking from one place to another unpleasant and exhausting. The American pushed against the wind and the spray that whipped from the slick pavement. It seemed as though the rain had returned, coming up from the ground to soak his trousers. As he crossed the slippery marble square he thought, Who paves an outdoor square with polished marble? I’m gonna fall and break my ass.
Refuge was ahead: the café with the excellent sandwiches and strong coffee. He swept through the door, banging it shut while exhaling his frustrations of the day. It was good to be indoors, warm, embraced by the fragrances of coffee and ginger. To the left the sofas were unoccupied. The only other customers held the corner booth that offered a view of the square. They were young twenties: a slender woman, a short almost-boy, and a tall dark-haired man. They took notice of the American.
His pleasant middle-age hostess remembered him from the previous day. She smiled, and tossed her bright red hair with a flip of the head, speaking English to get his order. Soon he would wrap his cold hands around the largest coffee available. Off came his bomber jacket and gloves, with a sigh and a glance around the place. The customers in the corner watched him, and listened in as they covered their inquisitiveness with light banter and laughter.
He’d hardly had the coffee in his hands five seconds when the woman of the young trio approached him. She spoke halting English, but managed to tell him that her “friend”, the tall one, asked whether the American would join them at their table. Another look, a confirming nod from the booth, and he walked over with the woman.
“It’s kind of you to invite me.”
“Not at all. You are English?”
“Oh. We were sure you were German. You look German.”
“Maybe it’s the clothes. No, I’m from the United States. I hope that’s all right.”
“Of course. Please sit down.”
The tall dark-haired man was handsome. Of the three, he spoke fluent English. The other two didn’t try, but talked to him and each other in Slovene. Soon the woman and the boy got up to leave, saying something in their language. The woman’s parting look to her handsome friend said, I’ll be very interested to hear all about it later.
Emir’s mother had left six days ago. The little boy could not tell time, and did not live by a calendar, so he did not know how long his mother had been gone. All he knew was that it was an awfully long time since his mother had walked quietly out the front door, carrying her suitcase.
A strange woman began coming to the house each morning as Emir’s father went to work, leaving each evening when the man returned. She spoke very little, mostly to tell Emir what to do, where to go, where to put things, and what time it was for whatever. Her eyes looked tired under the gray hair that she pulled back in a bun. Emir learned that, in his mother’s absence, this quiet woman (was she somebody’s mother?) had been employed by his father to care for Emir at home during the day. Her name was Vera. One evening, after Vera had left, and he was alone with his father, Emir asked about his mother.
“Papa, where is Mama?”
“She is gone, Emir.”
“Where did she go?”
“I. . .don’t know.”
“When is she coming back, Papa?”
“She is not coming back.”
Emir’s father looked very tired as he said these words, and he turned away suddenly to look out the window. The sun was setting behind the low hills outside Ljubljana, and a chilly mist shrouded the city. The evening Emir’s mother departed, it was warm and wet with the late spring showers. She did not take an umbrella as she went out, only her purse and the large suitcase.
When his father told him that his mother would not be coming back, Emir sat for a moment in silence. Perhaps he could not comprehend the finality of it, much like understanding death, which to a child seems so strange and incredible. The boy sat on the floor, watching his father at the window.
“Why did Mama leave us?”
“Your mama did not want to live with us anymore.”
Emir did not cry, which might surprise some people. To Emir, his mother had not really been around for a while. The child she had brought into this world barely knew her, and in the time that they were together, little affection crossed the emotional chasm between them. Emir was growing up an orphan.
Emir’s parents had moved to Ljubljana a year before he was born. The young husband worked in the Interior Ministry as a middle-level bureaucrat in the swollen government of Yugoslavia, during the time before the country fractured into ethnic chaos. In the hazy twilight of Yugoslavia’s communist regime, Ljubljana was the shining capital of Slovenia, the most prosperous of Yugoslavia’s regions. Perhaps it was its proximity to the West, its nearness to the capitalist democracies of central Europe, that made Slovenia and its central city Ljubljana so much the Land of Oz in the imaginations of many Yugoslavian peoples. The Serbs regarded the West, including Slovenia, with suspicion.
Emir’s parents were Bosnian. The transition to Ljubljana had been difficult for the young couple. Emir’s father worked hard at his new post, returning exhausted in the evening to the small flat in a dreary post-war apartment block. Emir’s mother stayed at home most of the time, leaving the flat only to get the necessary provisions at nearby shops. It was awkward for her, negotiating this large city where people spoke a different language sometimes. She made no friends. On the rare occasions when the couple went out for the evening, they did not mix with others. How different was this married life from her time as a single woman in the town where she grew up and attended school. Life got darker for Emir’s mother in Ljubljana.
The woman descending into increasing darkness bore a dark child. Emir had the kind of skin that glows with olive tones in the sunlight, a complexion that tans richly. His hair was black of the deepest shade. What made him seem such a dark and unfathomable child were his eyes. When looking at someone, he gazed with such intensity that it seemed as if one could tumble into those dark portals and be lost.
After Emir’s mother left, his father started working later at the office. When the weary man arrived home at night, the boy would have already eaten his supper, and had his bath. His father would put him to bed without ceremony or talk, and turn out the light. Lying in the darkness, Emir could hear his father eating a late supper. Sometimes Emir could hear the radio playing softly while his father sat by the window, smoking. In the morning, Emir would awaken just as Vera arrived and his father left for work. His father always left without saying goodbye.
One day, Emir left his toys on the floor by the window, going to stand beside Vera, who was writing a letter at the kitchen table. He admired the soft, flowing shapes she made with the pen.
“What are you doing, Vera?”
“I’m writing a letter. My sister lives in Sarajevo. I’m writing to her.”
“Vera, will I write letters someday, too?”
“Yes, Emir, you’ll learn to write in school, and you’ll have to write a lot there.”
Emir watched her with his dark eyes.
“Vera, would you show me how to write. I want to write my name.”
Vera took a sheet of paper, and with her pen showed the boy how to form the letters that spelled his name. She then handed him the stub of a pencil. With his tiny olive fingers, Emir wrote his name over and over on the paper, following the example at the top of the page. When he got to the bottom of the page, he turned it over and continued making copies of his name until he had filled the back side. Then he took the paper from the table, and returned to his toys on the floor.
When the telephone rang harshly, Emir was rolling his toy truck over the sitting room floor, tracing a route around the floor lamp and chairs. Vera spoke with someone a minute, then rang up Emir’s father at his office. She would have to leave immediately. It was an emergency. Yes, the boy was awake. Yes, she also thought he would be all right until his father came home shortly. She hung up, gathered her things quickly, and left, neglecting to explain anything to Emir. The boy sat for a while, looking at the door Vera had closed behind her. He then went to the kitchen table, where he saw Vera’s pen lying where she had left it in haste. He remembered what interesting and pretty shapes it made on the paper. How nicely it would write his name!
Emir started with the walls in the kitchen, then moved on to the sitting room and the entry door. As high as he could reach, over and over, he wrote his name with the wonderful pen. Down the narrow hallway, Emir claimed the walls with his name. He went to his parents’ bedroom, and wrote as large as he could on the crisp white duvet: EMIR. When Emir’s father came home in the evening, he found the newly decorated flat, and Emir asleep on the duvet.
In Piran, the wind howled through the cobblestone streets of the coastal town. Inside the café, the grownup Emir and the American smoked, and drank strong coffee.
“Yes, I will tell you about myself. I am Bosnian. But I lived most of my life in Ljubljana. You have been there, yes?”
“Yes, I liked it.”
“ My father is still there. No, I do not see him often. Hardly ever.”
“And your mother?”
“My mother? She left when I was a little boy. I never saw her again. My father told me she left because she did not want to live with us anymore.”
The two sat and smoked for a while in silence. The American exhaled in Emir’s direction.
“Emir. That’s a very nice name.”
“Yes. It is a good name. Here, I will write it for you.”
Phillip Tim Williams has had a pretty good life in Richmond, Virginia. He makes his living as a masseur, and as a life model for art classes.
By Susmita Bhattacharya
Thomasina scratched the inside of her elbow. The red welts that had mysteriously appeared in the morning were now dulling to a bruisy purple. She hitched her jute shopping bag to the other arm and studied it. The welts still stood out like a misshapen aubergine on her pale skin.
Ignoring the bruises, she walked into the little Asian shop. The doorbell chimed as she stepped in. It was dark inside, as the little shop was stacked up to its ceiling with foods from another side of the world. Thomasina’s eyes bumped along the shelves. Turmeric. Cumin. Pomegranate seeds. Maizemeal. She pulled out a crumpled piece of paper from her bag.
She looked around for the shopkeeper. There was a man chopping meat at the far end. Bloodied pieces of meat fell easily off the bone. She was very happy to eat the cellophane-sealed meat from the supermarket. She decided not to ask him.
“You need anything, madam?” a voice croaked in her ear. She jumped. An old woman stood next to her. She was wrinkled like a dead leaf, and Thomasina had the strong urge to smooth the creases out. Her words whistled out of her toothless mouth as she sucked her cheeks in and out.
“Oh, yes, please.” Thomasina handed the list to her. “These, I’m afraid I don’t know how to pronounce them.”
The old woman peered at her through cataract-ridden eyes and smiled. She pushed the paper away.
“I not reading English, my dear. Ask my son.” She pointed at the meat-chopping man with a shaky finger.
“Oh,” Thomasina paled at the sight of the bloody counter. “I can read it out to you.”
“Sab-daana?” she hesitated, willing the old woman to understand.
The old woman’s rheumy eyes lit up. “Sabudana,” she said.
Thomasina read out the list and tried not to scratch her arm, which had begun to sting.
“Someone is making milk-producing payasam? This gur, sabudana and milk good for making breast milk.”
“Oh,” said Thomasina. “You’re right. My friend’s had a baby. Her mother-in-law is visiting. She asked me to buy this stuff.”
“Where your friend from?” the old woman asked, stuffing the little packets into a blue plastic bag.”
‘Oh-ho.” The old woman handed the jute bag back to her. “Perhaps, you need something else?”
“No, thanks. I’ve got to run.”
“No, no. You need some kaajal.” The old woman was now rummaging through a shelf above her head.
“Eh? What’s that? That’s not on the list.” Thomasina squinted at the paper again.
“For you.” The old woman peered at Thomasina’s elbow.
“Oh.” Thomasina touched the bruise. She bent to look at it and gasped. It had spread out onto her arm. It was now a dull brown, and had changed its texture into tiny little hexagons.
“What the hell?” She gasped.
“No worry, madam. I can help.”
Thomasina looked at the woman. The skin had begun to flake off. “What is it? Do you know?”
The old woman nodded. “It’s the evil eye. Someone has put a spell on you.”
Thomasina laughed. It sounded high-pitched. “What are you talking about?”
“True, true,” the old woman said, wiping her hands on her kameez. “Happens all the time. Someone not like you too much. Have bad thoughts about you.”
“Perhaps you taken something that is not yours?” Her eyes turned to slits.
Thomasina stopped to think. Who could it be? Then she jerked her head back. What the .... She was in the middle of London, in the twenty-first century. And this old woman was on about some mumbo-jumbo and she believed her?
The old woman shook her head sadly. “You don’t believe me.”
She pointed to the angry flare on Thomasina’s arm. “It will keep on growing. You only stop it. Think why this happen and make it good.”
Thomasina stared at her, mouth open. Mind your own bloody business, she wanted to scream “It’s only a rash or something,” she mumbled. “I’ll see my GP.”
“Light agarbatti in your house, after dark. The light will protect you. And kajal in your temple. Will keep evil eye away. Hang some lemons and chillies on your door.” She handed a box of incense sticks and a black eye-liner pencil to Thomasina. She also handed a packet of sandalwood powder to her. “Make chandan paste with purest milk and apply to arm.”
“No, no,” Thomasina pushed those things away and stood back. “I’ll just pay for these and go.”
“In the Hindu law,” the old woman droned on, “there is no escape from the cycles of life. You do something bad in this life, you return as an insect, or a stone...”
Thomasina hastily paid and ran out of the shop. Outside, the street was teeming with shoppers, sun-worshippers, mothers and babies, Goths, skinheads, burka-clad women, cyclists, cars... no one seemed to be giving her the ‘evil eye’. She cursed under her breath and ran along the street.
“Bloody uneducated fool,” she muttered. “How could she be living in this country? And prescribe black magic to strangers. She ought to be reported.”
Thomasina hurried on, crossing when the lights were green. A silver Audi honked at her. She showed the driver her finger. On the other side of the road, she stopped. Purest form of milk?
The old woman meant breast milk, she was sure. The witch, the bloody witch, Thomasina cursed, and the woman standing next to her moved on quickly. She wants me to steal breast milk from my friend?
She was afraid to look at her arm. She could feel it tingling. She could feel it right up to her armpits and down the side of her breast. She gagged. What was happening to her? She started to run. Maybe the mother-in-law had cursed her. And deliberately sent her to buy the stuff for her friend. But that didn’t make sense. Her head swam in the heat. Little heat waves danced in the middle of the street. She thought of her various sins for which she was possibly being punished for.
Shop-lifting when she was ten. Kissing her music teacher when she was fifteen. Sleeping with her friend’s husband while she was pregnant.
That was it. Thomasina stopped abruptly. He had been visiting her ever since his wife refused to have sex with him. She wasn’t even serious about him. Just bored. She wanted to be Holly Golightly. Have a bit of fun, instead of spending those dreary nights alone, with the television flashing scenes from the same film night after night. And he too didn’t want anything complicated. Just a filler till his wife could accommodate him again.
Her friend. She realised she could not say her name without shame rising up and burning her face. The mother-in-law knew. And so purposely she had sent her to do the job. Thomasina was convinced of that now. A person screamed beside her. Thomasina jumped. The woman backed away from her, her eyes staring wildly at Thomasina.
People gathered and looked at her. In their eyes she saw shock. Fear, even. Tentatively, she looked down at her throbbing arm. The skin was flaking off. The hexagonal shapes were more pronounced. And her skin was turning green. Then yellow. Then brown.
Thomasina held her arms out. Both had changed. Her legs too. She screamed. She flung her jute shopping bag on the pavement and ran. Her flip-flops slapped the tarmac as she ran across the street. There was a loud thud, a screech of brakes and more shouts and screams. Thomasina’s body was flung to the ground like a lifeless puppet. Her ragged breathing stopped. Immediately, the rash receded and her skin tone returned to normal. People gathered around her, an ambulance sounded in the distance.
A chameleon watched from behind the leaves of the hornbeam tree. It flicked its long tongue and its eyes took a three sixty-degree view of the accident. It changed its colour from brown to green and merged into the foliage. The dead girl under the wrecked car meant nothing to it.
Susmita Bhattacharya was born in Mumbai, India. She sailed around the world in an oil tanker for three years with her husband, recording her voyages through painting and writing journals and letters. She received an M.A. in Creative Writing from Cardiff University in 2006 and has had several short stories and poems published since. She lives in Plymouth with her husband, two daughters and the neighbour’s cat. She teaches creative writing and blogs at http://susmita-bhattacharya.
Cut To Make Whole
By Dean Knight
“Of course that’s not true—how could anyone believe that?”
I was at 7Bs feeling unsteadily fine, and Bobby just shrugged like he does and he said, “I don’t know, that’s just what I hear. It’s probably fake but I want to go to see how they do it.”
“‘Probably fake’? You think it’s ‘probably fake’ and you want to go see it?” interjected Joanna. “So, according to you, it could be real, and so you have no problem going to see essentially an execution—no, a murder!” Joanna’s face had that righteous glare that we both knew, and that only flared up stronger with wine.
I didn’t touch that. I hadn’t said I was going, although I was, I was sure of that already, real or not. Bobby just had to say something; he should know better.
“Aw, come on, it--”
“Don’t ‘come on’ me; you just said that you have no problem going to a public murder! And you’re going to pay for it! You’re going to buy a ticket for a killing!” Joanna was really getting riled up; I didn’t want to be around for the explosion, especially not after she finished the rest of her wine and called for another. I looked towards the door. Yesterday Bobby and I were in the park and he said, cool yet jumpy, that there’s a circus coming to town and supposedly they do the whole saw-the-lady-in-half thing except that it’s real, the lady actually gets sawed in half. He said the whole thing in that detached ironic posturing way he has so that I don’t know where he stands on what he’s just said. So I said,
“The circus? What do you mean, the Ringling Brothers or what?”
“No, it’s this other thing, this kind of old-school traveling carnival thing, that’s going to set up in the Village somewhere. Mickey said that the people who run it are some kind of medical rejects, like they got kicked out of med school for running unauthorized experiments—or maybe it was for selling drugs out of the pharmacy.”
“So do they have carnival freaks? Old-timey ones?”
“Yeah, maybe, I don’t know. I’m going, though; Mickey’s going to find out where it is.”
I turned slightly and Mickey was right there, smoking, sweating, high. I almost jumped and even Bobby looked surprised. Mickey looked left and right and then leaned into us both and said,
“The long knives are being sharpened over on Avenue C!” Mickey’s crooked teeth spread out into the sky like the Cheshire Cat and he was almost gone, as quick as that; we watched his body weaving out from the park into nowhere.
I stepped inside Bobby’s apartment and winced a little when I saw Joanna on his couch. The other night at the bar hadn’t ended well and I wasn’t sure what her agenda was today. It was just after six o’clock and the last rays of the sun were bleeding into the room through the dingy curtains, making fuzzily psychedelic patterns on her face and the wall behind her. She looked like a crimson queen staring down imperiously on her rebelling subjects, glaring majestically at the drunken rabble.
Bobby said, “Mickey’s meeting us in the park,” then went into the bathroom.
Joanna looked away toward the failing light, and said, “I’m not going. I’m leaving soon.” Watching the sun lightly brush her jacket sleeve I realized that I had never seen her arms, although I’d known her for over a year now. Curiosity and sympathy mixed within me, uneasily and inexplicably, for a long moment.
Bobby came out, scratching his beard. “All right, let’s go,” he said, “Mickey’s probably already there.” I turned with him and followed as he left the apartment and we were already on the street before I became aware that Joanna was with us. I looked at her face and saw a kind of grim determination; she didn’t look at me or Bobby and stared straight ahead. I glanced at Bobby; his eyes met mine and he gave a kind of half-shrug and kept ambling toward the park.
Tompkins Square loomed up in front of us, a jungle of dark green and grey, with the autumnal colors invading it in the form of brilliant yellows, oranges and reds, the tints of imminent death. Bobby kind of leapt into it, jumpy as he is, his nervous energy infecting me so far as to spread a weird, jaggedly wired smile across my face like the painting of a clown. I didn’t even want to go in the park; I thought I might be barred somehow, because of the energy coursing through me, but then Joanna surprised me again and strode right in, just as Mickey appeared from the corner of the square.
“Jay-Jay,” he crooned at Joanna, as he bent sideways to gaze at her aslant, “How you doing baby?” Joanna looked him over coolly; her eyes went over to Bobby, who had overshot his mark and was now backing up to where Mickey half-stood.
“You all ready? Or you think you are? Well…you won’t know until you get there!” Mickey bark-laughed for a moment. He was swaying now, in the mood. As Joanna stepped toward Bobby and took his hand Mickey was off, heading east—after a few long strides he whipped back around and let out a war-cry, his head tilted back and his mouth wide open toward the sky. I fell in with Bobby and Joanna and we followed Mickey, stepping up our pace to keep up.
We followed Mickey into an almost empty store on Avenue C. A full rack of cigarettes was affixed to the wall behind the counter, in front of which stood a blank man with no discernable features. Mickey, spiraling madly into the infinite now, said, “What’s your smoke?” at all of us. We all paid—Bobby for Joanna—more than the price of a pack for entry. Joanna’s protest about being coerced into buying tobacco was snuffed when we received no cigarettes in return for our money. Mickey lit up, shook his head so that a trail of smoke zigzagged in front of his face, and peered out toward the street we had just left, intoning, “Night’s coming. Night is a rehearsal. All my nights are rehearsals for death. Come on this way, yeah?” He swerved around and through the back of the store; anxious and nervous, we followed him out into the carnival.
It was like entering a bouquet of dying flowers. The smell gripped our nostrils first, a sickening odor of a kind of sticky sweet decay: a rotten cotton candy smell that wafted down the strange alley we found ourselves in. I gazed down its roughly cobblestoned path, trying not to think about the fact that I had never before seen an alley in Manhattan.
A crude sign pointed the way in red letters: SEE LADY SAWN IN HALF, with an arrow pointing down the road. Mickey was there already, in front of a tent, one hand clawing at the opening and the other hand beckoning to us. His mouth moved but I couldn’t hear anything he said; I couldn’t hear anything at all anymore, it seemed, as though all the sound in the world had been left behind, in the world, on the streets of the city, and we were inside a vacuum. I found myself moving forward toward the entrance of the tent. Mickey had gone in; I looked back and saw Joanna almost crying and Bobby leaning towards her.
I waited outside the tent for them inside a silence that roared like the television static of four o’clock in the morning, a black and white ocean of scrambled nothing. Eventually they approached, Joanna with great trepidation and Bobby supporting her. They seemed to move in slow motion and although I suddenly very badly wanted everything to speed up and be finished I watched them in a calm trance and reached out for them as they stepped next to me. I opened the flap of the entrance to the tent and we all stepped inside.
In the center of a rough wooden stage at the end of the tent was a rude box balanced atop two sliced-up sawhorses. A tall, slightly stooped man with a bushy moustache curving down either side of his mouth stood near the box, facing the audience. Upon our entrance into his domain he looked at us directly for a moment. Then, as his gaze moved on, sound returned in a rush all around me and I felt dazed, buffeted by the shock of the waves of ambient noise crashing into my ears.
A woman was being led up onto the stage by a dwarfish assistant. She shot a look back at the crowd, a nervous shaky smile. In response the crowd surged forwards physically and vocally, a concentrated wave of approval and a kind of lust. I caught Joanna in the corner of my eye; she was leaning over heavily, her arms crossed over her body; Bobby was saying soothingly, “it’s not real, it’s not real, it’s just a trick,” and Joanna eventually said, unconvincingly, “I know it is, I know,” but there was a strange tone to her voice, one that quivered around the possibility of desire. Bobby looked worried and started looking around, maybe to make an exit. I looked at him; he found my eyes; I saw in them a deeper concern than I had known. Go, I tried to convey: get her out of here, out of this tent at least.
When I turned back the woman had entered the box. Her head poked out from one end and her feet stuck out at the other, and the mustachioed man bent over her boxed mid-section with his jagged saw. As he cut the sawdust sprang out from under the blade, some of it spilling into the front section of the crowd, which screamed its approval. The saw continued its path, slicing down through the wood accompanied by the scream-song of the audience. When the saw reached the midpoint of the box the woman let out a scream and the box began to bubble with a red liquid. The crowd burst in a confused explosion; the man sawed furiously further down the box; the woman continued to scream until the dwarf knelt down by her and seemed to whisper something to her while he shrouded her head in a black cloth.
The box split in half, coated on either end in crimson foam that began to spill onto the stage. The man’s mouth was open and moving but nothing could be heard, due possibly to the vocal hysteria in the room. People were moving about but mostly in a sort of confused pattern, as though they weren’t sure if they should panic or not. I cast a glance back towards where Bobby and Joanna had been; they were gone. Mickey, however, I noticed near the front of the crowd, staring at the stage in a kind of trance.
The whole bloody box was then hurriedly covered up by the dwarf with a black fabric; the saw-man stepped forward and lifted a hand as if to call for quiet. This seemed to have some effect on the crowd; he cleared his throat and lifted his other hand to accompany the first as a prelude to his speech. The crowd calmed and waited, and as the dwarf busied himself about the cloaked box, now apparently a bisected coffin, the saw-man spoke.
“I am a gateway for those who are searching for one. A gateway for those who are seeking a new vision of whole; those who look for themselves within themselves; those who cut and those who bleed and those who find themselves on the threshold of a new being, those who need a little assistance to achieve their full personhood. I can be that gateway.”
An image of jacketed arms crossed defiantly flashed through my mind with a new kind of urge attached to it “Joanna Joanna I want to know you I want to help you I want to see all of you let me help you” and I felt a new sensation, one I’d been dodging semi-consciously: a primal swelling of sexual desire for my friend’s girlfriend.
“I can cut and I can sever—and I can make you whole!”
With that, the saw-man threw down one of his arms and the dwarf flicked away the black cloth, revealing the sawn woman, whole, smiling shakily, standing up awkwardly and waving a hand. After her moment in the lights the dwarf took her hand and led her back down into the crowd, which closed in around her with fevered exclamations. The man backed off the stage and with a last gaze into the tent stepped out of it silently. I followed him.
When I got through the tent and out its back I caught a glimpse of his long cloak whisking around a corner; I felt he had timed it just for me to see that. Along the winding alleyway wall were splattered splotches of blood, as though someone had hurriedly wiped their hands on the rough stones. I kept just in view of the black cloak as it whipped around the corridors, and after a final sharp right turn I was faced with a wooden door that had just slammed shut. I detected in the darkening atmosphere a kind of gathering, as though shadows had converged upon us in the gloom. The slowly evaporating light of the day cut out sharply, as though the door had shut it off, and I was plunged into the night. As the weight of all the separate shadows coalescing into a single dark entity fell upon me I forced myself on the door, throwing it open and slamming it shut behind me.
The most hideous display was spread out in front of me, bathed in white light so pure it did not blind; I didn’t even blink, I just stared at it in frozen horror. A man stood over an elongated operating table, his face hidden within a frightful mask that enveloped his head and grew out from it, coming to a point at the end of a sharp inclining beak some ten inches from where his nose must have been. He was wearing a white lab jacket splattered with blood in variant patterns and in different stages of encrustation, as though it were a macabre painting done in successive surgical shifts.
In front of him on the table lay a woman, her limbs splayed out in a jack-knife contortion. Her body was cloaked in a sack-like thing and her face was distorted with a variety of pain or pleasure so alien to me that I could not distinguish it.
Embedded in the woman’s leg just below the knee was a saw, which in the surgeon’s hand was steadily working its bloody way through the limb. Next to the woman on the table lay a man who seemed to be next in line, which honor he preserved jealously by occasionally glancing back at the rest with a look of warning to any who might think of intruding onto his succession.
The rest consisted of a clump of eager suitors for the saw, kept in check by the presence of a sort of guardian-nurse short her right leg and left arm, who wielded a crutch in her right arm to both steady herself and to direct the group with an occasional thrust to indicate various commands, all heeded obediently by the people. When she lifted her crutch to make some semaphore stab in the air she remained balanced no doubt due to long practice in such maneuvers. Her face brooked no dissension; she was used to barking orders and seeing them promptly obeyed. On her head was a sort of parody of a nurse’s cap, a white slanted thing that sat askew on the ridge of her forehead as though daring someone to challenge it.
As the doctor’s saw approached the final cuts the room grew quiet; the nurse turned her own head toward the patient with some faint look of respect. As the leg dropped free the woman’s whole body contorted in an orgasmic quiver of ecstasy and she let out a groan of pain-pleasure that filled the room. The torsos of the patient audience swelled up visibly with the woman’s groan, joining it in sympathetic succor.
The doctor picked up the limb and held it aloft in front of the swooning crowd so that the dripping blood splattered over all of them. The communal baptism commenced, the members began their own rites: one thin, pale man had his hand thrust into his pants and was stroking his member furiously; one woman commenced to suck upon the blood that had fallen from the limb onto her blouse; another suddenly attacked her fellow congregant, raining a series of blows onto her back and arms; a man rushed to the new amputee and seized her bleeding stump in order to fondle and kiss it. These latter actions drew the attention of another audience member who drew herself up behind the man in order to feel both him and the amputee; she positioned herself so that her crotch pushed against his buttocks and her arm entangled with his, both clutching at the bloody stump, whose owner seemed to relish the carnal attention.
A high-pitched cry emerged from within the beak-mask as the doctor hurled the severed limb against the wall, its impact leaving a trail of gurgling blood as it slid down to the floor. He knifed his arms together and then threw them apart, signaling a final separation by chopping the air with his own limbs. The woman slid off the table, supported by the two supplicants, the three of them falling gently to the floor in a pulsing moaning heap. The man remaining on the table rolled over onto her vacated spot and preened upwards toward the beaked doctor, awaiting his turn at the saw. His mouth hung open and his glazed eyes floated atop his upturned head.
The doctor readied the saw on the man’s arm just below the elbow and after a brief pause wherein something like a prayer emerged from the mouths of the crowd, now mostly one body again, the saw began its reddish course through the skin and flesh and bone of its supplicant. A fresh spray of blood and gore rippled through the air, splattering the doctor and the closer members of the crowd, which again, after that brief moment of communion, broke off into their separate components again, this time more widespread and wild. I felt a sort of electricity coursing through me, a voltage that tasted like danger but was really a different sort altogether, something that I could not place and thus was all the more terrifying. Someone bumped into me and someone else struck me; I was shoved toward the wall. The lights seemed to flicker and dim and I thought I saw the beak of the doctor spread out longer and longer, as though it was reaching toward me, and I heard a slow cry rising higher and higher until it seemed to be over and above and all around me, thrusting into me.
A splash of blood from the operating table directly on to my face shocked me out of my frozen state enough to send me half-blind toward the door. I clawed at it, managing to push aside one of the furies, and opening it threw myself out of the foul operating theatre and into the alley again.
Though night had fallen all around there was a single spreading ray of light emanating from somewhere above me; in the fan’s width of illumination it spread on the wall hung a shadow of the same kind of cruel doctor’s beak-mask I had just seen in the theatre. Stepping into the light and shadow, a young man shot a dangerously intense stare straight at me in a controlled passion: his eyes, above a strangely familiar long hooked nose, bore into me as though he would tunnel through me to get inside.
“We don’t want you here; get out,” he spat.
“But—what…” I could only trail off. The shadow-beak loomed in closer as though it were hooking me with its clawed end. The man gripped me by my shirt and pulled my face to his. Out of nowhere Joanna’s face and her covered arms came into clear view in my mind, and I wondered where she was, and if she had gotten out safely.
“We come here to be made whole; to be made whole by destruction. You don’t know, you can’t understand; I don’t care if you do or not.” I looked down at his body; it was that of a normal sized fully limbed human. He noticed. “What you no doubt cannot understand, cannot grasp,” he went on, his own grasp tightening on me so that it was becoming harder to breathe, “is that there are among us, among you, those who are not whole though they look it to you. There are those who cannot become themselves until they have lost part of what you would think to be themselves; those who are not complete until they have, in your words, lost something. You no doubt cannot understand,” he repeated, “but that is of no concern. That is why we are here in this flesh carnival in a wormhole of New York City. How and why you are here I won’t bother to figure out, but you’re a tourist, no more, and you need to leave with your ignorant mouth sealed shut—or better yet,” his eyes gleamed, “with your tongue ripped out and your limbs severed so you can’t betray us.”
At this another supplicant emerged from the alley shadows and approached the near-raving man and put her hand on his arm, pulling him away while shaking her head. She whispered something in his ear and pushed him through the door then looked at me and said, “Get out, now, while you still can,” and pointed down the alley.
Stumbling down the alley I suddenly emerged into the city as though stepping through a bright light; turning back, I could see no trace of the carnival I had just left. The store was shuttered; the street was alive but unobserving; I made it home in a shaken daze. I stood over my bed with tears streaming down my face; I wanted to call Joanna and save her from something, anything, but I felt too remote from her. I slumped down in front of the bed, my mind revolting against me and refusing to coalesce. I slept heavily, but my slumber was full of disturbing dreams of body parts floating bloodily in the air, some of the arms disfigured by countless minute slashes of the flesh.
I awoke in a liquid room: my face was flooded with tears and my lower body in blood from a gash on my leg. Scrawled in blood on my bed sheets were the words, “WHAT IS WHOLE?”
Dean Knight is a Richmond based stage actor, having appeared in over twenty mainstage productions in Central Virginia, including most recently OTHELLO at Agecroft Hall, THE GLASS MENAGERIE at Sycamore Rouge in Petersburg, and DEATH OF A SALESMAN at the Firehouse Theatre Project. He has recently returned to writing and has published stories in Chuck Scalin's limited edition art box BODY OF EVIDENCE as well as RICHMOND MACABRE, VOLUME II: MORE NIGHTMARES.
My Wife and Kids
By Sandra Hutchison
I’m sure you’ve heard the story of how my wife killed my kids. Well, John and Daniel. One survived – Jeremy. He’s my little trooper. Anyway, even if you somehow missed it at the time, you’d have a hard time missing the trial coverage right now.
Tracy, my wife, she was one of those women you kind of knew wasn’t coping too well, but you figured maybe she didn’t really need the hospital yet, especially since you knew damned well the insurance company wasn’t going to cover it. Then the police call you at work and you go home and two of your children are dead and one’s on his way to the hospital and she says God told her to do it.
She wasn’t the first mother to do this and I don’t figure she’ll be the last. It’s not a common everyday event, though, and it really fascinates the whole goddamned world. When I finally got home from the hospital my answering machine was full of phone calls from Katie Couric and people like that, trying to sweet-talk me onto their shows so I could answer dumb-ass questions like “How do you feel about your wife killing your children?”
Like shit, thank you. How would you feel? And I didn’t want the questions and the fake sympathy. I already had a feeling about what was coming. How people would start yapping about how could this happen, and didn’t her medical history suggest she might become a danger to herself or others, and why’d you have those kids with her anyway when you knew she was mentally ill? Like I forced her to do it, or like I should never have touched my wife, just driven her to appointments with psychiatrists. She wanted those kids, okay? We both did.
Tracy loved our children. Not enough, when you come right down to it, but she loved them. She never whaled on them, and she never starved them, and she never said, “You boys are making me crazy, go play in traffic!” She kept a close watch on them, in fact. She was always afraid someone would try to kidnap them and do horrible things to them. I don’t think she had a clue it was going to be her.
So yes, at first, I blamed Tracy. I told her she was an awful, awful woman and how could she do that, and I wished I’d never met her. But I felt kind of bad about that later. I mean, obviously Tracy is mentally ill. When I met her, I knew right away that she was not quite right, that she was what you might call a little delicate or fragile or something, but it seemed like a kind of low-level thing, and she was not bitchy or mean like so many other pretty women. Tracy was sweet.
Once, after we moved into the house, she took paint and painted peace doves on every window we had, just so no birds would fly into the glass by accident. But she painted so many that if you looked at the house from outside, it kind of looked like there was a flock of doves swirling around it. I was a little pissed off at first, but eventually I got to like it.
Anyway, when I started going out with Tracy she was just so grateful that I didn’t beat her up or yell at her that it touched my heart. She was so impressed that I was willing to make decisions and work a job and change the oil in the car that she made me feel really special. Those things aren’t really such a big deal unless you grow up in a family where nobody ever does them on a regular basis. I could understand where she was coming from because my family was like that too, until that asshole dad of mine finally took off for good. Maybe because I helped take care of my mama and my brothers and sisters then, I was all set to take care of Tracy when I met her.
Look, people used to tell me I’m a nice guy, before this happened. And I really do try to do the right thing. When she got pregnant with Johnny, I married her, no problem, and we were happy about it, even if the whole thing moved a little fast. But I’m the first to admit that things got weirder than I ever expected pretty damned fast.
Tracy had her first hospitalization pretty soon after Johnny was born. She started cutting herself with an X-acto knife that she had bought to cut out photos for the baby scrapbook. I’d noticed some old scars on her when we first went out, but I guess I just didn’t think too much of it. Old news, you know? Then one night I woke up and went to the kitchen for a glass of milk. There she was, sitting at the kitchen table, and her left forearm had four neat slashes across it, each one beaded with little drops of blood. And there was a towel covered with bloodstains, and she’d even laid out newspaper across the table, like she knew it was going to be messy. For a minute I just stood there, blinking. Then I said, “Tracy ? Honey? What the hell are you doing?”
She jumped, all guilty and surprised because she thought I was asleep, and said, “Please don’t yell at me, Nat!”
“You’re cutting yourself!” I said, like this needed to be clarified for her.
“Don’t get mad. I need to. It feels good.” And she began to cry, like a little girl who knows she’s been a bad girl and knows she’s going to get a whipping and figures if she cries hard enough maybe you’ll take it easy on her.
“Tracy. Honey. How the hell can that feel good?”
I guess she realized I wasn’t going to whip her. She calmed down, and she said, “It just does. It’s like, ahhh.” And she tried to make a sound like you or I might make if we got a slug of really cold beer on a really hot day, only it was mixed in with some leftover crying so it sounded more like ah-ah-ah.
But I got the gist of it: to her it felt really wonderful to cut herself up.
“But that’s crazy, Tracy,” I said, like once again I needed to clarify this for her.
Where’s the baby, I wondered then, and ran down the hall. I was afraid, but Johnny was fine, just sleeping. Like I said, she never hurt them. Until she did.
The cutting wasn’t what put her in the hospital, because from the ER they just sent us home with antibiotic ointment and instructions to see a psychiatrist. And okay, I’ll admit I put that off a bit, because what the hell did I know about finding a psychiatrist? I guess somehow I hoped she’d do it. I know, stupid. Then one day I came home from work and found she’d left Johnny in his dirty diapers crying and hungry while she stared at a part of the wall. “See that ripple?” she asked me. “Something terrible wants to come through there and it wants to kill my baby!” That killing the baby idea freaked me right out, so I took her to the hospital again and after that little episode they kept her in a couple of weeks.
Johnny was not hurt, just a little hungry and wet and scared, though maybe that’s bad enough. Sometimes I can make myself throw up just from wondering just how scared those poor kids were at home all day with my crazy wife. I think about their final minutes and how terrified they must have been. But overall they seemed pretty happy to me. They would crawl all over me when I got home and give me kisses. And they loved their mommy and kissed her too. They were very well-behaved kids. They would do whatever she said. But like they wanted to please her, not like they were scared of her. I think I would have noticed that.
So anyway, at the hospital they gave her drugs which turned her into a zombie who looked just Tracy, but at least she wasn’t trying to hurt anybody or seeing ripples in the wall. When she came home she changed diapers in this very slow and steady way, and she talked to me and the baby without ever saying anything scary or particularly interesting either. I kind of missed that little spark of something that made her Tracy, but since I’d also had more than enough of the crazy stuff I was willing to take a break.
Eventually they adjusted her dose down and she reached a point where she seemed like she was Tracy again, only calmer. She saw the therapist for awhile, before the insurance company said she’d done enough. That’s something they never tell you about when they report on crazy mothers who kill their kids. How the insurance company told them, no you’re fine now. You don’t need that anymore. In fact, you didn’t need the last three appointments you went to, so pay for them yourself. Just take your pills, lady.
But the pills did help. Those were good times, overall. There was a little spell after Daniel was born, and another longer one after Jeremy, which put her in the hospital again, but they didn’t seem to last too awful long. I thought it was pretty much under control, until just before the end, when I admit I was feeling just a bit concerned. But I was on the look-out for X-acto knives and rippling walls. I never figured she’d hurt them. Never in a million years.
After Daniel was born we joined a local church, one that advertised how it was friendly to families and open to all. And they really were. They weren’t stuffy, and they didn’t look funny at Tracy if she was having a bad spell, just gave her extra hugs. I’ve never claimed to be much of a Christian, but those folks were so good and kind I felt like, shit, I’ll throw in with them. It wasn’t like we wanted anything to do with Tracy’s low-life family, and my mama was dying, so that church filled a real need for us. You could see they were serious about taking care of people from their casseroles. Tracy made a lot of them herself for people in that church. I guess we got quite a few, too, like when my mama died, and later when Tracy went to jail and the boys were buried, and when I brought Jeremy home from the hospital. It was a help.
They are good people, I know that, and I appreciate how some of them managed to squeeze onto the answering machine and say, “We’re praying for you, Nat! We love you!” They were sweet about the funeral too, which I figured might as well be there since that was where they knew Johnny and Daniel, even though we’d stopped attending about six months earlier. Reverend Jim gave a bang-up sermon, but then I could have predicted that.
This may sound ungrateful but sometimes I blame him for my babies dying. I mean, man, he could fire up a crowd. He’d go on about how Jesus died for us, how he died for our sins. How God loved the world so much he sacrificed his only-begotten son to save us. How we had bathed in the blood of the lamb. BATHED in the BLOOD of the LAMB! And I’d feel like, shit, aren’t I an ungrateful son of a bitch, sitting here thinking about how it would have been a good day to clean the gutters when Jesus died on the cross to save me.
So I’d give a little more than I’d planned in the collection plate, or agree to be an usher or whatever. Then I’d go back to my regular weekday life and think, ah, fuck, I’m not such a bad guy, and I could have used that money, and I hate being an usher, and when am I supposed to get time to clean those gutters? In other words, with me it would pretty much wear off and I’d just be my usual normal self, though still disposed to think they were nice folks, those church people, real salt of the earth.
But Tracy was more impressionable. Sometimes she was just sobbing by the end of those sermons, and this was considered a sweet thing, like she was really special to be so moved by them, almost like she was speaking in tongues or something even though it was pretty clear to me she was having a little breakdown. I see now that it was getting to her: Here we had three healthy boys, while God had given up His only begotten son. I figure maybe she started to feel a little guilty, like she wasn’t doing her share.
Of course, a normal woman would have gone home and looked around and thought, well, everybody else has their sons too, and they don’t seem to feel bad that they’re not being sacrificed or anything. Why should my sons be sacrificed if their sons aren’t? But Tracy wasn’t really into that kind of logical thinking at any point in her life. If she could feel bad about something, she would. It got a little annoying sometimes, but if you told her about it she would just say she was sorry, and mean that too, and maybe cry a little, so there wasn’t much point.
So, I know they didn’t mean it, but I kind of blame that church and that preacher and I even kind of blame God. Was it really necessary to kill off your only begotten son? You’re God, right? Can’t you find another way?
I also blame her doctors. I mean it’s clear to anyone who tries to talk to Tracy right now that she belongs in a mental hospital and probably has for a long time. I’m not a doctor, they are. But even now, if they commit her, how much you want to bet they’ll let her go in a couple years, saying she’s fine? And if I’m still married to her then how much you want to bet the insurance company will say, hey, buddy, she’s used up her lifetime mental health benefit, so fuck you. Even if the goddamned D.A. wasn’t just looking to be re-elected, you could see where going after the death penalty might make more sense from a public safety point of view. Not that I want them to kill her. Well, I did at first, but I got over it.
While I’m on the topic of blame, I blame Tracy’s family, too. Who made her so psycho in the first place? You’d think maybe they’d be embarrassed, but no, it turns out they like publicity. They’ve appeared on every goddamn TV show they can find, and they just love answering dumb-ass questions like “How does it feel to find out your daughter killed your grandchildren?”
I suppose by now you’re thinking, sheesh, this guy blames everybody but himself! But I do blame myself. I blame myself for that last kid, for poor little Jeremy. I figure maybe he was the last straw or something. The truth is, I hoped we’d get a girl. We both wanted one. And to this day, I’m not sure a girl might not have saved us. Maybe there was something about that overabundance of little boys was just too much for Tracy. Maybe once Jeremy was old enough she just felt like she was surrounded or something.
Well, we’ve got no abundance now. Poor little Jeremy survived, but he’s got brain damage and his chances for a normal life are just about zero. You ever watch your own child have a seizure? I guess you can get used to anything, but I can’t say I’m really there yet. But at least he’s alive. Johnny and Daniel are buried next to each other in little graves in the cemetery. People have piled tons of flowers and teddy bears and Mylar balloons and stuff on them. And you know, I’ve gotten to where I really hate those people. Not the ones who knew my boys and miss them, but all the others, the onlookers who get their ya-ya’s arranging their gift store crap all over my sons’ graves. And while I’m at it I could really do without all the women who send me letters telling me how they’d love to comfort me in my sorrow. Also all the people who write to inform me it’s my fault my wife killed my kids.
The saddest thing is when I go to visit Tracy in jail. She’s medicated up the wazoo. She’s their Killer Zombie Tracy. They probably want to make sure she’s not acting too weird so they can pretend she knew what she was doing was wrong. I got her a lawyer, for about ten minutes, but then I did the math and realized I could either pay for her lawyer or I could pay for Jeremy’s home care, and I decided Jeremy would have to come first. Now she has a public defender who is fixing to blame this on me. And she has my blessing if she thinks it will work.
When I went back, after that first time when I yelled at her, I tried to tell Tracy I was sorry, that I knew she was sick. She didn’t seem to take this in. “God loves you, Nat,” she said. She didn’t really look at me. She was looking sideways just above my head.
“You think so.” As you might have figured, these days I have my doubts.
“He loves everybody,” she whispered, like she was sharing a big secret.
“Does he love you too?”
She blinked and looked confused for a moment, then she bent down low and whispered, “God counts the hairs on your head and the sparrows in the brush.”
“Well, that’s nice, Tracy,” I said. Part of me wanted to ask, “Has he counted our sons lately?” but that would just be mean. As it is, I couldn’t touch her because of the glass. I also couldn’t bring myself to say anything too nice, like “honey” or “sweetheart.” Those days are gone for good, I think. Even so, I’m going to be sitting there at that trial behind my crazy wife, and you can all yap at each other about whether I’m a supportive, suffering husband or the worst sort of monster.
And that’s fine, because you know what? I can still remember being you.
© 2013 by Sandra Hutchison
Sandra Hutchison is the author of The Awful Mess: A Love Story, published by Sheer Hubris Press, and Nude with Bearded Irises, a short one-act play premiering Oct. 17, 2013 as part of the Circle Theater Players’ One Act Play Festival in Sand Lake, New York. A Florida native, she lives outside of Troy, New York, where she teaches writing at Hudson Valley Community College. You can visit her on the web at http://sheerhubris.com.
Strangers These Days Have No Manners
By Laura Confer
Today I wake up with a stranger in my bed. “who are you?” I whisper into her mouth. We are nose to nose.
She doesn’t answer.
When I reach out to her arm, half buried in my quilt, I’m surprised at the heat radiating off her. “get out” I breathe. She says no.
I am up now, making coffee, padding around with a sweater wrapped double-breasted over my pajamas, and she watches me with her wolf eyes. We play this game all morning. When I’m in the shower, shrouded in fog, she toys with the curtain. She tries to touch my slippery knee (there’s a bruise there and I can’t remember where it came from) but I shove the towel down and pat off the water like she isn’t there. I sit down to write and she holds the pencil in her nailbitten fingers. I lie on the floor and play Phillip Glass as loud as I can, and she lies down with her face in my hair and hums until my eardrums vibrate.
She is in my house and trying on all my clothes.
And this bitch, she follows me around all day, all week. We go into the gas station to buy cigarettes together. “Those,” I say, and she says, “the ones in the orange pack, she likes those the best.” I laugh at the cashier and jerk my thumb in her direction – can you believe this girl, talking out of my mouth? – but the bored old man back there doesn’t get the joke. I leave and she follows; I light up and she takes a drag.
The cold today is the kind that ices up the snot in your nostrils and burns in your eyes. This is perfect, I say to myself. I will freeze her out; she can’t take this kind of thing. The cold will crystallize her nerves and bind up her dead tendons. She’ll be stuck, left on the sidewalk, a frozen ice sculpture installation piece, and the public will flow around her and marvel at their quaint village. I start walking down the ice-caked sidewalks, and of course she’s there too. The wind cuts my cheeks into brilliant little rubies, polishes off all my whiteness with a Brillo pad, and still we walk. At the top of a hill I turn back to her. My face has slowed down, almost dead now with the cold, but I squeeze out, “had enough?” Her blue lips and glassy eyes counter back a challenge.
She is my Peter Pan shadow. Some Wendy has sewn us together at the feet and I can’t shake her off my path.
At home I drape myself over the radiator so all the hot air can pour into the tiny holes in my skin. Pink seeps into her cheeks; we watch one another come back alive inside the house. Come on, she says, and she takes my hands and pulls me back into the bed. Our clothes off, we run hands over dips and curves, mapping out each other’s anatomy. She pulls me at the hipbones; I fit my hands around her jawbone and stroke her chin with my thumbs. The bands of gold that thread through the green of her eyes sparks against mine. When we curl together, knees touching, I think about how funny we must look to anyone peeking in the windows. I am touching, we are touching, but my fingers are clumsy and I don’t know her at all. How did you get here, I ask her, but she only smiles a little. I can see the yellowed tips of her canines pressing into her bottom lip; that wolf smile, those eyes drained of any sympathy or humanity, they grate against my gaze. I push my palms off her palms and get up, naked, furious, empty.
I am going to get to the bottom of this, I tell myself. Yes, yes, enough is enough. I am full of this self-assured indignation, and I shake my head twice, lips pursed and jaw set. This wraith, this silent banshee, has ghosted my path and mimed my moves, made me look like a puppet jerking and clacking limbs together.
I walk the length of my house and she follows. I grab a kitchen knife and she smiles. She’ll be gone soon; I will cut her canine-tipped smile right out of me.
Laura just finished her MA in English and is stupidly considering another MA in something else. The woman talks too much about whiskey, naps, tacos, and cardigans. You can read her in WhiskeyPaper and at the Insatiable Booksluts.