All posts by sofiacapel

Poetry by Kamil Bouška, translated by Ondřej Pazdírek

 

COLLAPSE
We were here in other ways too.
The evening dwelled in white color,
like a winter star with tightened pores
that stole the chill from stone.
I opened for you and you entered.
With naked bodies we covered the cold room.
It warmed and forgot the stone.
We didn’t know yet
in which voice the night would speak,
nor did we hear our first hard snowfall in it.
We were here in other ways too.
Writings laid out on the dining table:
sad, pressing words,
rhymed through a rift’s erection, rhyme-less.
We read in each other
and words read us like a rift of their own.
So softly they joined us together.
So softly the white noise swallows each voice.
I don’t know if it snowed yet, but in you, there was movement
that coaxed you to a flowing dance.
When you were little you would stand on your head
and frantically inhale the world,
but this was something else.
Words suddenly hung in brittle air.
As if a foreign body inside yours attempted to sing:
halted speech, blood on lips,
and then only the brindled divan
and the ceaseless vigilance of night in our frail embrace.
We were here in other ways and other places too, like stars
suddenly grown heavy with the weight of the earth.

 

THE SAME
Here lies my blood, I don’t know her,
she does not have a mother or a sense of humor.
Take, fill your arms, but try to dip
two fingers in and she’ll tangle your fingering.
Even the Moonlight Sonata hardens then like collected writings
or an unraveled spool.
Here she lies, I know, it sounds dramatic,
but I am not one and I am not the same, one must face the music.
If I should add sound to all my voices,
you would extinguish the air and hang me among the stars.
Only our dreams are touching one another,
giving us new names.
I am nothing but a voice,
that is why I so love to choke on your pigment
and catch the scent of the universe inside your sweaty socks;
that is why I speak into the soles of your feet, telling you
how to mix animal glue out of moonlight,
frozen soil, and the floating floor beneath you;
that is why you listen to the sounds of planets until my ears turn blue
and hold onto me as if I had another life high up above ground.
You swallow my heart valve and the entire heart top to bottom.
Let yourself go, let yourself go with love and stay inside your skin
like air set aquiver by a voice.
That is why I cause a draft,
opening doors not knowing for whom,
from wall to wall, day and night, opening doors,
holding stars inside hinges, and all that I possess
is pain, is free, behind doors—
there we were losing our wits to escape their reason.
The birds in fog shifted their weight from one foot to the other,
cannulas hung on trees,
and only the wings of ravens applauded our metamorphoses
when we metabolized without insurance.
The overpayment cannot be transferred from a special to a standard account.
Your black crest combed out a bloody skim
in the carapace of a human figure, and now it whines.
Here lies your first god,
not for dipping your fingers in and unable to darn open arms.
That is why I cause this draft,
opening doors, from wall to wall, opening doors,
to make the day, once more, dawn.

 

Original Texts in Czech

 

KOLAPS
Byli jsme tu i jinak.
Večer bydlel v bílé barvě,
jako zimní hvězda se staženými póry,
která kameni kradla chlad.
Otevřel jsem ti, a tys vešla.
Nahými těly jsme přikryli studený pokoj.
Zahřál se a zapomněl na kámen.
Ještě jsme nevěděli,
jakým hlasem bude mluvit noc,
a neslyšeli v něm padat náš první tvrdý sníh.
Byli jsme tu i jinak.
Texty rozložené na jídelním stole:
smutná, naléhavá slova,
rýmovaná erekcí trhliny, bez rýmu.
Četli jsme v sobě
a slova nás četla jako svou trhlinu.
Tak měkce nás spojila.
Tak měkce bílý šum polyká každý hlas.
Nevím, jestli už sněžilo, ale byl v tobě pohyb,
který tě zval k vláčnému tanci.
Jako malá ses stavěla na hlavu
a zběsile vdechovala svět,
ale tohle bylo něco jiného.
Slova náhle visela v řídkém vzduchu.
Jako by cizí tělo ve tvém těle zkusilo zpívat:
zastavená řeč, krev na rtech,
a pak už jen kanape žíhané pruhy
a nepřetržitá bdělost noci v našem křehkém objetí.
Byli jsme tu i jinak a jinde, jako hvězdy
náhle ztěžklé váhou země.

 

TENTÝŽ
Tady leží moje krev, neznám ji,
nemá matku a smysl pro legraci.
Ber, nabírej plnou náruč, ale zkus ponořit
dva prsty a zašmodrchá celý prstoklad.
I Měsíční sonáta pak ztvrdne jako sebrané spisy
nebo vymotaná špulka.
Tady leží, vím, zní to dramaticky,
ale nejsem jeden a nejsem tentýž, zmýlená neplatí.
Kdybych měl ozvučit všechny svoje hlasy,
zhasneš vzduch a zavěsíš mě mezi hvězdy.
Jenom naše sny se navzájem dotýkají
a dávají nám nová jména.
Nejsem nic než hlas,
proto se tak rád dusím tvým pigmentem
a větřím vesmír v tvých zpocených ponožkách;
proto mluvím do tvých chodidel a vyprávím,
jak se míchá klih z měsíčního světla,
zmrzlé hlíny a plovoucí podlahy pod tebou;
proto posloucháš zvuky planet až do zmodrání mých uší
a držíš se mě, jako bych měl život navíc vysoko nad zemí.
Polykáš moji chlopeň a celé srdce odshora až dolů.
Pusť se, s láskou se pusť a zůstaň ve své kůži,
jako vzduch rozvibrovaný hlasem.
Proto dělám průvan,
otevírám dveře a nevím čemu,
ode zdi ke zdi, ve dne v noci, otevírám dveře,
držím hvězdy v pantech a všechno, co mám,
je bolest, je zadarmo, za dveřmi –
Tam jsme ztráceli rozum a tak unikali jejich rozumu.
Ptáci přešlapovali v mlze, na stromech visely kanyly
a jenom havraní křídla tleskala našim proměnám
po látkové výměně bez pojistné smlouvy.
Přeplatek nelze převést z mimořádného účtu na běžný.
Tvůj černý hřebínek ze mne vyčesal
krvavý škraloup v krunýři lidské postavy a teď naříká.
Tady leží tvůj první bůh,
není ke smočení prstů a nezalátá žádnou náruč.
Proto dělám průvan,
otevírám dveře, ode zdi ke zdi, otevírám dveře,
ať je den znovu rozedněný.

 


 

Kamil Bouška represents a new generation of Czech poetry. In 2005, along with two other Czech contemporary poets, he founded the poetry collective Fantasía in a direct attempt to open up what they saw as the closed-off and self-referential Czech poetry circles to a wider audience, interdisciplinary collaboration, and overall, a renewed social responsibility. Their “poetry of commitment” (inspired by Theodore Adorno’s 1962 essay) caused an uproar in the Czech literary community, stirring up a polarizing discussion that lasted years. Bouška’s debut solo collection, Oheň po slavnosti, was nominated for the Czech national Magnesia Litera award, and individual poems from the collection were chosen for the annual Best Czech Poetry anthology four years in a row (2009-2012). His second collection of poetry is Hemisféry. The attached poems are a selection from both collections.

Ondřej Pazdírek is a Czech-American writer and translator. He is the winner of the 2017 Beacon Street Prize in poetry from Redivider. His poems and translations have most recently appeared in Poet Lore, Western Humanities Review, PANK, Guernica, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Meridian, and are forthcoming from RHINO Poetry and Gulf Coast, among others. He lives in Iowa City with his wife and two herding dogs.

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Poetry by Nel Rupp

BEFORE·GONE​
What more could you ask from me.​ I carried your kid like a goat until straight god bested me.​ I didn’t see you, cardplayer, coming. How, then, I could have spared me.​ We all know some ships need a good, dead woman to start sailing.​ I’ve always seen how fathers brothers are blinding.​ I see magic as real as the dog does see.​ No smoke screens. Ils sont pas des ouvriers mais les oeillères de leurs filles.​ But I’m not my normie sister, Isemene, who has not even pierced earrings.​ I dead will bury the dead bodies.​ How bad a Marxist am me.​ You don’t know, you can’t read beneath your wings. I should have run forward, into something: You would think, if you were thinking.​ All this lingering and Lethergy.​ Just to tell, for telling: I have centuries loved you for secretly running, nights sleeping in Walmart, pet aisle hiding. Youthfully, so Diogenes.​ The wise mountain of dry food is now cracking. It misses you, as you will miss me. The antlered thingling I ride has two gold coin obol eyes through which to see.​ I have sat at the bottom of two empty pools I slid in sideways, scraping my feet. I smeared feces over your graffitti. Just kidding. But all that blood red paint everywhere… that was me. I chipped my dog teeths. The thirty tonne swords cleaved in stitches to my body, infected and jingling. It hurts, hurt me: Stepping, speaking, swallowing. Thinking, furrowing, fucking. Too tired, now, to ever be queen. You want to FaceTime goodbye to me. Ring and ring-ring. But I hear the train through the storm so you have already called to me. Sparagmos, all hands on deck of my belly.​ The hottest feeling shot out of me. I felt your soldiers unsoldering me. Your kind has broken the smallest bones in my Venn Diagram body already.​ The pressure drops and my ears sing. Burnt sticks, crackling. Cats swatting at embers, night aflaming. A special gust sent from your mother to me. It is my smoke she wants to see. If you told her the truth, baby, you’d be free.​ Bottomless vases of blood and vaseline.​ Now they are yours to clean.​ I am too jealous of every glimmery girl gelding. Take everything. I’ll sprinkle red dust on the us that was us, left out-n-about unholy.​ Crunched up Saltines.​ Even tho you said no, I’ll for sure make sure your sentries see. I will give us our own rites with glee. Stop our crust from baking into sun jelly. I am now preparing the meal of me. How to haunt an everything. You who first named the animals: Stopped when you saw me. Couldn’t parse out the nominating speech: An Antigone. Now I never stagger, even on the piss-drunk beach. It is, afterall, my last speech. So I’ll say: I hate my country.​ Hush the Chorus, now, despot devotee. I’ll go willingly.​ Or else, your eternity: Get mosquitoed around by the Furies.​ Into the cave, if you let me. It isn’t pride I’ve been feeling. Still, I am singing: O, O, O, O. Ø is me! Perfectly not in key. On my back, husked to all my belongings. Nothing I wouldn’t want my dead friends to see. Turn to turn and to turn the rock by rocking it slowly. Forever, I will scream. But now, I give the dark my body.

 

Nel Rupp is a communist and a poet who currently lives in Richmond, Virginia.

Poetry by Kirsten Ihns

i feel the beauty like a hairspray
sometimes i like to stand close enough
to my air conditioner to turn                   it on
i like to make things
uncomfortable

 

 

flexile, textile, and delight/(textile change operator/operator/orderly cream)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

know the hinge of your inclination

                                                                                       wrack it out

wrap it around
the set up the video

original, all of this is original

of a cloud: driven before the wind

           

 

 

          does yours sound like that

 

throwing the look of a solid area
era
know the fences of it

by encounter

know them w elastic gladness
/wrap o.s. around them

yea tho the hours would unyoke me

from me
have me
be instant

i wanted to be
                           a diachronic kind of picture
i repeat my hinges
hinges

tell me more facts?
born up and raised
in the big yard

of expectations, i’m just waiting for my display
:it smelled like lunch in the inside room
& i had only the other idea about it:
knowing how to use the door

for instance

i want to believe i am
the shapes i make with my life
it didn’t seem to have “sprung” or to have come
from anywhere but its suddenness
and its suddenness

            was in there like a quality

 

 

 

&

what is                          i have ?

just out here sieving peas
cork voice going out on the nice
the night                      it peace
it flash
it me
it lash
refresh
it does
it lash and lasts

i regret
regress
refresh the page

cork voice going out on the night-
saturated sail          in the dark to have arrived
before the candles
chandelle, mortadella, amanita, xx was huge
tige de suif                    we stuck it out we lit the room we flash
we flash
we very nice refresh the page

 

we lash we do!

we                  through and through
               i was trying for the we, you write, you’re right
like that
you read me right like that

too red me in my room
sundayed pastry costume
sun clayed
to be so fresh you get a cold
walls sleek cornure, untorsioned
/that’s the dream

that hatch, dirt cordant
/it ripped the sound in two

i was
into it
it was a toss-up
it really was
perfectly as good

as easter green
slick as grace
as grass

cold supple
frischer coffee
task! task-task
but…i like some structure in my task!
                                        under the blows of the whip of pleasure              wipe
foo-weh! foo-wet!
:to hear the thwack
o to hear it in the very skin
i hear it in the easter grass
they zigzag leave the bow rubans!
the note out here, it gets so flat
AND THE FIELD GOT SUDDENLY ENGLISH
:field god sudden act

…then my life did that thing i like with its eyes
a thing
any thing

-you drew down night?
-yeah, i drew down night

/i refresh the ice
refresh my nice

we did it to me very casualty

 

 

-can you tell me the name of the distance
between any thing identical with itself
-delight

 

                                                      becomes pictorial
                                                                     when viewed through pain
so they say

 

sooth, they say

 

 

 

 

 

where it tends

 

 

 

 

 

/they are there. phare
thy eye is where it tends:

 

i looked around and all i could swas partitioning

/i looked around and could not see that all i could see
was partitioning

                                                                                                               but felt i knew it?

/know your fences like a sweetness
run up against them
again
/the love is in the iteration
/the heart becomes engorged
& wraps around the fence
t                               he heart becomes

 

                  trying for the we, you write

 

 

& would make a little drawing there

when there is not finally plus light
the illumination is not to be borne
they lets themselves go in the poetry
splashing in its four jewel eye
that’s too cute

its fourth july
four july
i’m being cute
i’m being really cute
on the fourth of the july
the artifices of the fires
fell in the pool
feel in the pool and then get out
well go on
                who did you think was in this knock-knock
mouse. mouse-mouse.

the kind of light the sound can’t leave
it is getting meanwhile
very late in here
it is just ha. it is ha-ha.
ok.
it, you want to know what the /it/ is
what is the it of the poems? nobody knows
               with greatest concern it is working it out
it was making
new consciousness
that the economy can!
for live in
& sell
dame thing
big house
tho it really only sulks and pouts
i sulk and pout i silk it out
she shops for dinner at the local sprouts
my thoughts arrange it radial
my empathy it makes a square
i cut the corners
off before it sandwich, meanwhole
this was on my nicest plate
i was trying, ok

i was trying
i try and then i make it friends
i show my flag my white
decorum
i show it off my nicest lens
i try to get the outside in
but it’s having none about it
things i do best: sorry and
awkward
things i do best: again
no matter how much news there is
i always want it more
i refresh the entry bin, i wipe it clean
i sanitize the gym machine before i mount
i post
i like that post
i’m posting up and down
around the ring the horse will spook
umbrella!       someone opens in the rain
and throws you off
we are with me at the twelve
years old
i bleed some minor blood
there in the expensive dust i rent
i waited for my mother
but she didn’t come, she had
gone home, so i got back
on and loved the horse again—
it took me home
i took its saddle
off
and it got dark but didn’t rain

 

 

rayless

 

 

 

 

 

all i wanted from my evening was for it

 

 

 

                    to arrive naked out of the experiential field

 

not hostile

 

                 the /what i felt about it/, they were sedimentary

 

/what got left in their own wake is what they were

 

                                          to be a lot of people one has known

                                    their order in combination

                                                                          read its riot to it

                                                                         read its reference action

 

 

 

 

 

do it

                   synchronously

                                                               tape-like wound and wound    /they trade the ribbon

 

                                                 meaning

 

                                                 what would it be to feel with out

 

a second with its pieces hanging in shreds

                                   how long is its duration

                               a pixel

                                          and centuries, quiet as sand, and then

                                       the strop

                                     of instinct coming up, oh down, sweet leather on the flank

 

                the body senses by changing

                                 itself

                                                                for hours

                                             in the storm are there then no objects out the window

                             then suddenly can one not remove the window

                                       from the sight

                                          what sight the spirit has

                              /just snow

                to perceive is to take for true, says one who sets out

                                           to take the shirt of the world

                                                            & not put it on, to just remove it

 

                                           says one who fresh like breezes, bathing, and sports

 

                     -i want to find the place of the horse, of which the rules of chess would treat

                     -i try to feel the coldness, of the ice cube, when i touch it

                     -i feel i am alone?

                     -i feel the water five feet underneath us

                     […]

                     -is it like a pain sensation like a pain sensation

 

or more like the future

and its ranging structure

               oven, oven

 

excuse me do you think i can

 

                                                     it was an otherwise kind of time

 

                                                                  we got through it—

                                as though it were

 

all the points in heaven

 

xx that collects like snow

and must be shoveled off

                  like snow it must be shoveled off

 

                  what you were saying about points in heaven?

                                 i discovered i liked the sound of your voice

the sound of your ear i imagine in mine

 

                 come out of it thinking i survived time     

 

lived through it

 

                              and what other medium did i have

to live through

 

              and the result was just to be

 

 

 

             further down the hall

 

                                          i look at my neighbor’s screen and read

             his screen

                                          he is reading about residue and

                 thermodynamics

 

     i am trying to read the time on the screen

  but from my angle the clock is obscured by a smudge

so i just wait, because what we are in will end eventually anyway—

 

                            it lasted and was in twelve regular parts

/the universe said it felt it was

functioning perfectly

 

                                and daffodils

 

 

 

/my cry will always surpass my message

 

it had the cadence of an opening

               i wanted to enlarge the champ

but it was so late at my beginning

there were a lot of hello nouns

and in this loudness

                                                      i wanted a word with a deep

                                                                                      soil, living in my under

 

would you offer to organize my vegetal life

 

 

 

would you make a huge reaction, out of it

 

                           -yes

 

would you like a lifetime glass

 

              and the finest spacer system

     would you like      free sensors

 

three in four households will look through this

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

have you fallen and cannot

                                                                                                                          have you

                                                                                                                     have you fallen and

                                                                                                                  like to

                                 enjoy delicious expectations

                  and 40 national park quarters

  all the national park quarters issued, to date

 

 

 

 

                                                           would you like real security

                                                               voice-activated security?

 

                                                                               now: imagine your home, totally organized

 

 

 

 

 

like a quiet package,

 

            would you like to rely on your winter traditions

 

and how about to find your shopping

 

and click on it

 

                                 like impending airbag failure

 

would you like to spend that airport cash

             unwinding

                                              would you prefer a safe and healthy loss of weight

 

                            would you like to pay more

and be serviced immediately

 

DAATH SAYS

                “i want to be in dialogue with the shopping language

 

                 /your bath is empty

                                                                but it doesn’t have to be

 

                  i want to know

                                         what you think i should know

 

 

 

 

 

…when the ice cube was not actually cold

 

it was a crueler deception

 

 

                    this metallic moment is discounted

so that you can have it

                                            in your house

 

i unfurled my pants

                 i unfurled my terry cloth pants? performance pants. sweats.

                                               i had shaken my entire pants out

                               and there it was! everything i was looking for

                                        the shape fell down outside the life that made it

 

                               pick-up item: wool layered gilet with metallic thread detail”

 

the thing fell down and clattered on the floor

 

                                                 on the

                                                                                 last state of when

                                                                  the last state of the thing you want

                                                 can be named

 

 

                                                  and can be gotten

 

/can you dress me

 

in the body mesh

 

                                a grid for rays

 

                                               i spent the afternoon trying to be

a set towards the referent

 

&

 

endless uses throughout the furniture

 

/i wanted to be as good as an amazon review

 

as laid bare

                 in my interjections

                              like one name being used by two people

 

                              like how vowel means /sound that permits/

duration—

 

                                             -yeah, it was just last Thursday

                                             -yeah, i was like

                                            -it’s an open field so you knew

                                           -it was a long time

 

it was everything i said it was

 

              when children generate their spontaneous little songs

i was outside what i meant what i said

what i meant when i said

                                                                                    i had to correct that

 

              it said very plainly that it did not wish to be subject to iteration

and i said then The Things Become Infected by the Rocket-ness Surrounds Them

 

……………………………and it did!

 

it went like

 

i said!

 


 

Kirsten Ihns is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently a Ph.D. student and Neubauer Presidential Fellow in English Literature at the University of Chicago, where she studies texts that seem to want to be images, and works on the poetry staff of Chicago Review. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Iowa Review (online), Bennington Review, The Offing, Cordite Poetry Review, DREGINALD, Yalobusha Review, inter|rupture, BOAAT, Sonora Review, TAGVVERK, and elsewhere. She is from Atlanta, GA, USA.

Aventine, fiction by Elise Blackwell

 

He’d spotted her at one of the three wire tables on the sidewalk outside the Mojo Lounge, before it closed for the storm, reopened before most places, and then closed again for good. Which is to say that he spotted her on the sidewalk in the city before it changed and then changed again, for better and for worse.

He’d collected his nerves and approached her table, even though he held no drink from the bar inside. “I noticed your map. I can help you find most anything around here.” He tightened, but her smile was fast, her forehead relaxed.

“Maybe you can,” she said. “In Rome there is a place where people line up at a door to nowhere. It makes no sense until you wait yourself and take your turn looking through the keyhole and you see a view of the city, the dome of St. Peter’s right in the center.” She looked up and sideways, toward the tail of her thick eyebrows. “If you want to help me, take me to the keyhole of New Orleans, the closest equivalent.”

They walked the two blocks to the Ursuline Convent, and he showed her how to peep through a crack in the gate to see the herons within. She was kind, but the bend of her neck suggested disappointment.

On the bridge over the river, she said, “This wasn’t the kind of view I meant.” When the owner granted them permission to view the hidden room within his Royal Street antique store, she said “Almost.” When he sprung for a taxi to take them to the Port Pontchartrain lighthouse and told her it had survived every storm since 1854, she said “Impressive.” But shrugged her shoulders away from her perfect collarbones as she did so, adding “Almost all things are much older in Italy.”

“More birds,” she said when they stood before Oschner Island, but this time she gave him no more clues.

He learned from a urinal internet search that the architect was not only an urban romantic but also an artist who used his tools to generate a brooding series of fictitious prisons. Half an hour later, at the corner of Chartres and Esplanade, he told her of the slave pen that had once stood where they did. Her trembling chin was not the sign he’d been looking for, and he knew he hadn’t yet shown her what she wanted. In the city’s few subterranean spaces, she said, each time, “Let’s go back to the sun.”

As the sun faded and he walked her back toward where he’d found her, he pointed at interesting doors and fixtures, casually, as though he was not making one last desperate try.

The strange day made it into his journal—he was keeping one in those days, writing on his balcony to the sound of an eccentric neighbor’s carillon, pausing to locate planets among those stars he could see through the streetlights.

He thought about her less as time proceeded, filled with events as it is, except when he reviewed his day in history on that date in May. And on that date every May he bought an international stamp and mailed a tourist’s postcard—a photograph of the cathedral at night, revelry on Bourbon Street, an iconic courtyard—to what she said was the closest she had to a permanent address. He missed only the year after the storm, when he was just returned and nothing was the same. Soon after that he opened a special account to save for his trip, when he might or might not look through the keyhole on Aventine Hill but would certainly seek out the work of its original architect, who spent his free time engraving both romantic vistas of his city and a series of imaginative prisons, considered by most to be dark and bizarre.

 


 

Elise Blackwell is the author of five novels, most recently The Lower Quarter. Her short prose has appeared in the Atlantic, Witness, Brick, Seed, and other publications. Her work has been named to several best-of-the-year lists, translated into multiple languages, adapted for the stage, and served as inspiration for a Decemberists’ song. She lives in the American South.

Free Body Diagram, fiction by Annabel Banks

Because I am stupid.  

Because I like to be in balance with some risk of scarring

I hitchhike to wherever and back every Wednesday night. Each time I wear my pink hoodie from Bath Spa (2009 Paris Survivors!) so that my body, found in some ditch, mudded and cut, will be easier to trace.

Because they might find me naked, I also write my name along the inside of my elbow in pricked red letters. The pathologist would spot these as he inched his light across skin blackened by fist impact, rope pinch, belt beat. Perhaps strangled by hand, or with my own hair, which is just long enough. I know this because I’ve tried.

Of course, the flesh-writing is tenuous. I might be burnt to ash or eaten by pigs. I’d like to watermark my bones, but can’t think how to manage radiation, insert microchips. But I’ll get there in the end. Be a fast turnaround, between their sandwich bites, emails, detachment. An apology for my foolishness. For taking such a risk.

 

The first car to stop was dirty red, the driver so very old. As I opened the door, the action illuminated his pullover, irregular swirls of primary colours. How could I be scared of this? A run-over paint box. An off-duty clown.

The engine was quiet yet throaty. His hair thin. ‘Got any bags?’

‘Only one.’ I showed him my stripy tote, name and address sewn, discreetly, into the lining. ‘You going far?’

‘Up the line some.’

I was already in, buckling the belt. My ride clicked his tongue, as though urging on a horse, and then said, ‘So. How long’ve I got you for?’

‘I’m not sure.’ My phone was flashing. ‘Let’s find out.’

 

*

 

Because I am lonely.

Because worst cases are statistically more unlikely than best-plus-fine-plus-I-can-cope.      

Because I want and because everyone else wants their wants met

I joined an online dating site. The profile I wrote is measured and playful in turns. It offers some superficial insights into my character (well-travelled; novel reader; slow-running pasta fan; nail varnish addict heh) with a hopefully judicious use of emoticons, smiling and winking as I welcome, encourage, dissuade.

My profile picture is from the Christmas party. A glass of fizz, a half-smile in my blue dress. I’ve tweaked it, of course, with a filter makes my eyes fake-bluer, but my body, when scrutinised in this dimension, appears more-or-less accurate in its curves and flounces. I want these lines evinced, not outlined. Someone once said I’m a better-in-the-flesh girl, and flesh is all I have, really. When you get down to the meat.  

 

*

.   

Because I am often smaller.

Because I cannot punch without breaking knuckles

I do this when running in the woods. The track is narrow, mudded and tyre torn, with hopping-stones and roots that ask for leaping. When he comes, (and there is always a he-who-comes), we will exchange a lip curl, a nod, and I’ll run on, bass line pounding in my headphones, curtailing the animal sense that manifests in pricklespine and hairline creeping. Then, six to eight paces on, I do it, that thing, that action, the same quick-flick, behind-you check cyclists are taught for when they change lanes. The lifesaver glance.

And because I am stupid—repeat-it stupid—the one time I should have kept running I stopped. Turned back. Because he had also stopped. Had something metal in his hand, half-hidden up his sleeve.

I removed one of my earbuds. Snapped at him. ‘What’ve you got there?’

He showed me. Long blades. Red handles. Scissors.

Because I nodded and ran on without running away. I’d actually wanted to wait, to give him time to speak, to describe what was happening so I could process the silver flash, the handle colour. Weigh up the best outcome. We’d needed to connect more, perhaps some light chat about possibilities.

Plus I’d wanted to know where the knife was. Keep my eye on the prize.

I’ve since worked out he was stealing holly to make Christmas wreaths. Because it must have been winter. I remember thinking my fingerless gloves would have helped me grab at the blade.  And it must have confused him. Maybe he went home and told his wife about the strange woman in the wood. How she had frightened him with her pounding approach, her holly-sharp question. Her lip-curled hello and goodbye.

 

*

 

Coffee with KrunchyPB001 was going well. He had bright teeth, clean nails, and hadn’t spat his cake into my hair or mentioned a ‘Muslim crisis’. As for me, I was soon doing that leg-curl thing—part bent up, part tucked under—that’s been my body’s way of signalling attraction since I was fifteen. I tilted my head. Pushed back my hair.

Because it doesn’t matter what we are talking about, as long as it is not disagreeable. I can keep going for hours in the vein of light interest, gentle mockery. The drier spots of my life’s stepping stones are pointed out. The murky, stickleback-nibbled depths are not. Because we are trying to impress. Because we have the right to edit our pasts. Because not everything that I have done, or had done to me, is relevant to the person I am at this moment, leg-curled in a coffee shop.  

I tune back in: ‘So it’s been about three years now, and I’m still as keen. Getting better all the time.’

Some sporting pursuit. A clean kit for Thursday nights. A pint with the lads. Etcetera.

‘And I stopped using the books and just chuck it all in now. I’m well known for it. Expensive knives. Coriander.’

Some cookery skills. An interest to be shared. Pride in preparation. Etcetera.

Because it’s all just health (exercise, good food) and confidence (education, job) but never the moments written in tiny letters, redly, on the inside of a limb. He, whoever he is at this point, will pay for our coffees and I will pay for our next. He will demur. Someone will concede. And our secret information remains covered.

This is the definition of politeness.

Because this isn’t meant to hurt.

 

*

 

It was my first lorry. Long distance driver, typically tubby but sweet-smelling. A picture of a horse in a silver frame on dashboard. Loose hands on the wheel, loose questions to pass the time. I’d climbed three steps to enter his kingdom. It made me feel safe.

‘Music?’ He stabbed a finger at the stereo, and I saw a cut on the back of his hand, raised like a cat-scratch. ‘You pick.’

I fiddled with buttons, but didn’t press anything. ‘What do you like?’

‘Everything.’

A nothing reply, coffee-tongue worthy. There was no coffee here. ‘Do you really like everything?’

‘Prefer the quiet, truth be told.’

‘Yeah.’ I got that. I really did. A smooth rumble massaged my bones. It would have been a shame to hide it under beats and the failings of a flawed lyric. ‘Let’s leave it off and talk.’

‘What do you want to talk about?’

I leant my head back, kicked off my boots. Brought my knee up to my chest.

 

*

 

Because he lied about signs.

Because scissors are everywhere.

Because I am free Wednesday, I decide to meet  

DarkSky00, five feet eleven, council worker, team sports and cooking. He had wanted take me for pizza, but I never agree to mealtime durations. Exit routes need to be kept clear. After some smiley-icon lying from me he’d agreed to tea and cake, placeholder ideas that realised into a glass of wine for him and a coffee for me.

‘It’s not that I have anything against her. It’s just she didn’t tell me why.’

His marriage, ended in shattered glass and bare feet. His need to talk about it. I didn’t mind. There was no harm here, in this lack of attraction. Motorbike admiration. Questions of helmet safety. A road with clear white lines to follow.

‘So I am having fun just getting out there. What do you like to eat? Curry?’

‘Well, I—‘

‘It’s just that my ex was sensitive to spices. We ate a lot of bland food.’ He had another wine. I stirred my cold coffee, thought about the phone in my pocket. Plenty More Men, tapping at the glass. They have eclectic taste in music. They like my pics, my pix, my picks.

I brought my cup to my lips, poked my tongue into the settled dregs. I thought it’d be bitter, but it’s actually not bad.

‘Do you want another?’

‘Oh no, thank you. I’ll be climbing the walls. Shall we go?’

Cheeks pink and lightly sweating. Tight tuck of shoulders as he slid the leather back on. Bent for a kiss. Took two.

 

I used to pat these men on the arm when I said goodbye, promising to have a think before I got in touch. I don’t do that any more—the patting, I mean. It seemed a little unkind, as I am usually writing their but-I’ll-think-you’ll-agree brush-offs in the car park. Quick and clean.

Because it won’t hurt as long as I say it doesn’t hurt. And that goes for them as well.

 

*

 

Lawrence drove either a black or dark green Volkswagen. Hard to tell in the orange light, in the drizzle that made the streets shine like polished glass. As I opened the door he was brushing the seat free of McDonald’s straws and Twix wrappers, knocking them into the foot well. ‘Cleaner’s day off.’

I laughed. ‘She’s a lazy cow. She’s been promising to do my kitchen floor all week.’

‘Don’t know why we put up with it.’

‘Shall we fire her?’ My boots, solid soles good for running away, for kicking at fists and faces, crunched plastic packets, found a soft something that could have been the crust of a pie.

‘Perhaps.’ He exhaled, and I smelt his sour-belly breath. ‘But then we’d have to do it all ourselves. And we’re too messy, aren’t we? We sleep in dirty sheets.’

 

*

 

I wore a different dress when I met HolderPZ, one that slipped from the shoulder and showed my bra strap. I hiked it up, said hello, wondered aloud about the merits of the long black over the americano, and for five minutes he wouldn’t meet my eyes. I wasn’t bothered. I’d had shaky-hand starers, dribble-lip coughers, open-mouthed mannequins and tight-smile haters. He’d settle down.

In the meantime, I made the most of looking. A lithe man in heavy cotton shirt, expertly pressed. Light eyes that trickled over my body then slid to the corners of the room. A watcher, then. A weigher. Maybe money, maybe not, but a whiff of status. That confidence that comes with good shoes. When we finally, fully looked at each other something hiccupped in my gut.

‘So how’s the dating treating you?’ This as he picked out a brown sugar lump from the bowl. ‘Are you having fun?’

‘Everyone’s been very nice. But, you know.’

‘Yes. Sometimes I think we’re in a holding pattern.’ He crunched the sugar between his front teeth, gave a granulated smile, then found a way to compliment my hair.

I bought the second coffee and started my routine—hobbies to siblings to taste in film—but he wouldn’t let me lead, wanted to know about me. Answers led to more questions, and I became aware of a version of myself manifesting between us. She was big-smiler, socially alive, sexually assured, and her skin was covered in red letters, descriptions of what she did for work, her home routines and thought patterns. How living alone pleases. Favourite drink, best name for a dog if she owned one. All of those individualities. She was colouring herself in, arms up over her head as though being stroked, being undressed.

‘I’m so sorry,’ he said. ‘I have to take this call.’ He patted my arm. ‘Shall we have a think and message?’

 

*

 

Sandy didn’t know it, but he was taking me home. I’d mentioned meeting friends at The Harvester, as I could walk it once he’d pulled away, probably giving that two-beep salute that makes me wince. All those babies, once deeply asleep. But for now he was happy prattling, making a life for me out of his own impressions, his resonant experiences.

‘I expect you’re one of them artists, aren’t you? Pulling plastic bottles out of the recycling and making puppets with them.’

‘No, I—‘

I knew a girl who use to do that. She ended up on heroin and her feet smelt so bad they wouldn’t see her in the bank. Kicked her out.’

‘That’s very sa—‘

‘That’s what you get when you don’t pay your council tax.’

After this Sandy lost me, somewhere in the rumblings of his stomach (skipped his tea for me, didn’t he) and the mutterings into his not-sandy beard. The white lines were yellowing. The edges overgrown and blurred by shadows.

‘You’re a beautiful girl,’ he said at last. ‘You shouldn’t be doing this on your own. Where’s your boyfriend?’

A breath like running in the woods. ‘I don’t have one.’

‘No?’ He rubbed at his hairy chin, sending white flakes into the space between us. ‘Why not?’

Because we are not afraid of scissors, and because sometimes we tell the truth, but mostly because he asked, I told him, Sandy-with-the-dark-hair, that I break the skin on the inside of my elbow with the tines of a fork. That I am allergic to kissing. Then Sandy told me about the woman he’d left, her addict life too much, in the end, even through her sobriety. He described her monthly sorrow, the lining up of eggs in the morning, hoping they wouldn’t roll from the counter before she’d dipped them in the sink. ‘Floating is bad,’ he said. ‘Like for them witches.’

Then we had to stop because of workmen building a roundabout. Their hi-vis coats shot laser beams. Sandy dipped his lights. ‘Not much left to do now, surely. Been going on for months.’

‘More like years.’ I picked up my bag from the floor. My phone was glowing. ‘But there’s always something else.’

 

The Harvester windows were dark, the bar obviously closed, so Sandy insisted on dropping me at my door. ‘Not safe for young ladies,’ he’d said. ‘Never forgive myself.’

He didn’t double-toot; must have known I wouldn’t like it. We’d talked about the quiet, about hiding in houses, about living alone. Waiting for something to happen.

Because it goes like this: double unlock, kitchen light, glass for wine, knife for cheese. Kick off firm-soled boots, check dating app.

Tap, tap on the glass. Tap tap. Let me in.

Over the shoulder, a lifesaver glance.

Because he’s there.  

 


 

Annabel’s prize-winning writing is published by Litro, The Manchester Review, 3:AM and others. Her current project is novel in the voice of London Bridge, for which she is seeking representation. See annabelbanks.com for more.

 

The Statue, fiction by Shola von Reynolds

Malachi sat down just on time –

The last hideous light went off, the remaining voices fell away, and the wall became a fabulous, luminous portion of sky. All marmalade billows and craquelure cloud.

Observe now the scene at hand. It is a rooftop scene. It is a scene…”

A minor combustion, and then, throughout the basement of the Centre for Historical and Contemporary Arts: blackness.

“…of no known order. Of no order. No type. However, we are not without poi-

The voice was sucked out of the air.

As the hideous lights came back on, the operator announced to the audience that the glass chimney had exploded and that this did sometimes happen with with magic lantern projectors. The burner had been too hot, or something to this extent. Everyone was secretly delighted. But, Malachi thought, also secretly disappointed it had not been something much worse.

The operator fitted a replacement chimney and again the lights went off, again the wall converted to sky.

There was a movement, a palpable wilting of shade back there, as the operator ducked to adjust a separate instrument. Something at his feet. Then the voice – the one from before – rose up. Dithering and metallic. It came, Malachi thought, from a phonogram, or some other obsolete device –

Observe now the scene at hand. It is a rooftop scene. It is a scene of no known order. Of no order. No type. However, we are not without points of reference, or at least…”

The wall revealed a roofscape scene. It was lined by a sheet of mist, or yet more cloud. Intimations of pinked limestone and dull quilted bronze, the occasional jutting through of turret and spire, the silhouette of a large dome further back, and here and there through patches in the mist, hints of a busy medieval town. At the centre however –

“…at the centre, however, a rooftop garden emerges, Babylon in miniature…”

Potted fruit trees, flowering vines and various plants wreathed the scene. The back of the roof garden was walled, where it converged with another building, and this wall was thickly coated in flowers.

“…if we observe this rooftop garden more closely…”

The lantern operator shifted the slide so that a close-up of the garden section of the painting now dominated the wall. There was an elaborate stone bench, next to which was –

“…a statue, carved from black marble or onyx perhaps…”

A diminutive peacock perched upon the bench near the statue, its unfanned tail feathers cascading onto the ground. Its feathers were in outrageously unpeacockish hues. No iridescent blues and greens but instead various yellows specked with fleshiest of pinks, like some once voguish dessert.

The slide shifted again and then again showing other close-ups, roving over every scrap of the painting as the accompanying voice contemplated everything,

From the birds –

[Close-up of a small group of doves nesting around a cupola]

“…this small flock is not as delicately rendered as some areas, but the section is not without its own delicacy….”

  [Close-up of one of these birds – so close it is a series of smudges with a glassy, well-articulated eye]

  “…What is it thinking?…”

To the fruit –

[Close-up of the stone bench on which lies a piece of fruit, the outrageous peacock is cut out here]

  “…and upon that carved stone throne is a purple fruit. If we consider this miscoloured pomegranate…”

All was delivered in the same rapt tones.

All this ponderous contemplation, and yet, Malachi thought, the voice barely mentioned the central figure: the ‘statue carved from black marble or onyx perhaps’, or the attendant peacock.

[The whole painting in full again. It is dominated by the expanse of cloud above, the sheet of mist below, and pierced by the rooftop garden]

The voice finished simply with a reference to the possible location,

“…an Italian town, such as Ascoli Piceno or San Gimignano…”

And then it was over. The lights snapped back on and the scene gave way to wall.

The operator gave a talk about the history of the magic lantern. This particular “experience”, he told the audience, this combination of phonogram and magic lantern was initially conceived over a century ago, by a German magic lantern company, for the purpose of at-home lectures. Every month a slide and a record would be sent out to subscribers. But it was also used by missionaries to convert the pagan masses. He gestured to the audience.

The audience laughed.

The audience then got to ask questions.

Malachi realised there was to be no discussion of the painting itself.

He waited to approach the lanternist afterward and asked the name of the painting.

“Well,” the lanternist said. He was wearing an approximation of Edwardian attire. More Victoriana really. “I’m not sure about that.” Then he explained that many of these paintings had been manufactured, as it were, for the sole purpose of the magic lantern lecture series. Several of the images in the early at-home lectures were marketed as newly discovered paintings that had hitherto been in private collections for numerous years. That said the majority are real. He had chosen this one today because the slides were especially well detailed. Good for demonstration purposes. He didn’t know much beyond what the recording had said.

Despite every imaginable attempt to plunder some wave of nostalgia, to play up the quaintness, the heritage-factor – such as the lanternist’s uniform – it had been an undeniably magical experience. With the lights on Malachi could see the lantern properly. It was a beautiful device, elephantine in shape, with fine gilded legs.

Malachi was livid.

He thought of the statue in the painting; it had scarcely been mentioned.

Malachi thought of the statue, carved from black marble or onyx perhaps.

Malachi took the lift upstairs to the gallery restaurant where he met Henry, whose uncluttered figure made him feel absurd. The way Henry stood up to greet him was something like an equilateral building on the move – and this could be quite stressful. But fortunately, Henry never seemed to mind in the slightest about the way Malachi stood up or sat down, which was as decoratively as possible.

“How was the show?”

Henry placed his white and convincingly architectural hand on Malachi’s gloved one. The gloves looked like shorn tapestry – there was an antelope and some mellowed pears. Vines curled up and around the fingers, and so on.

Malachi spoke about the peacock and the black statue.

Henry snatched off the glove, and examined for a moment, expressionless, not the glove, but Malachi’s hand.

  [A hand in smooth matt onyx]

It was the sort of silent little routine he liked to do now and again.

“Well you know,” Henry said at last – Henry was the co-coordinator of the Centre, but hadn’t coordinated the event Malachi had just attended –Weren’t these things recorded centuries – well, decades – ago? They definitely weren’t up to much with all that then. Probably didn’t know what to make of it.”

“Then what about the peacock?”

Henry laughed.

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Well, darling, they could be quite heavy handed with allegory back then: It was an African peacock. And the statue represented someone of probably West African descent. Clearly the painter meant something by it.”

“You should look into it,” he said. “I can help, we have all kinds of resources here…”

Now Malachi laughed and took off his other glove.

“No, seriously. If it’s a real painting I can get Margot to look at it; she’s a specialist in Renaissance shit – I’m presuming it was actually Renaissance-

“Oh but listen, that reminds me. Remember the Old Master yesterday? One with the huge black and gold frame – heard from Jenny Holt it’s fake. Well, an 18th Century reproduction. Thinking of selling it off to a smallish commercial gallery or something before it’s too late. Had to do it before. No gilt sans guilt. You know, it’s not really allowed because of public funding – otherwise it’s legal, we’re not trying to pass it off – Margot won’t be happy though so we’re just not saying anything.”

The echo and clatter of hoof upon concrete.

A goat must have escaped. What a din. A dissonant sort of sound that entered Malachi’s eardrums and turned his teeth to metal. It was Digital-Pastoral Month on level three of the Centre, and alongside a major exhibit of traditional pastoral painting, they had invited a contemporary art-duo to display.

“Renaissance painting rooftop garden”

“Renaissance painting with statue on roof garden”

“Roof garden black statue painting”

“Fake Renaissance paintings”

“Renaissance painting black statue peacock”

It was not until Malachi tried, “painting of black renaissance figure with peacock”, that the image came up. Why that particular entry managed to bring it up, albeit after several pages into the search, he could not say.

It linked him to a website where the image was rather small, lacking the detail of the projections he had seen, but he could make out both the statue and the peacock.

The black power sign was at the bottom corner of the page, and of every page on the site, like a watermark. No, it was not quite the same as a black power sign. There was a large jewel ring on the little finger.

The website belonged, Malachi gathered, to a singer from the late seventies. A disco artist he had never heard of called Semiramis. There was a page which briefly described her career and a music video from the period. In this video she wore a glorious brocade power suit with matching cape attached to the shoulders and waded on platforms (made from what looked like slabs of amber) through a flooded studio. Her afro – powdered white – was combed out around her head into a labyrinthine nimbus. An excruciation of kinks, Malachi thought, for they made him ache with envy. (His hair was too short for that). The water was lit so that it shone pink. The painted backdrop was of some classical and probably mythical site. The video ended with the camera zooming into her fist, on which was the same kind of ring as on the webpage motif. It glinted into the camera lens until everything went bright blue.

All in all quite divine, Malachi thought.

The rest of the website was dedicated to her various historical interests. He returned to the page about the rooftop statue painting. Semiramis related here that it is “unknown whether the painting was real or manufactured simply for the purpose of the magic lantern lecture.” That said, she believes it to be real “considering the immensity of detail and strength of style. The surface cracks are of the kind seen on other medieval paintings and would be too difficult to replicate.” She went on to describe the accompanying audio lecture as “totally inadequate, and all the more curious because there was initially a different recording intended for the lantern show. She has tracked down as many of these as possible and also reproduced them. This earlier recording is a “historical gem” because it is surprisingly insightful, sensitive even, in terms of race, for the time. One could purchase through her site a digital version of the lecture as well as almost any other format including the original medium of phonogram record and magic lantern.

A sample of the original lecture was available. He clicked on it. The voice was different to the one he’d heard that morning.

Observe now the central figure. The scene is clearly an allegorical scene. It is an allegory of the Lotus Eaters transplanted to Renaissance Italy, much in the way Renaissance painters such as Carlo Crivelli staged annunciation scenes in their own, then modern, cities.

The garden is a beacon of artifice at its best.  A celebration of it even. It is a moral justification of Ornament of the kind that has almost been scrubbed out of the realms of art and society in our part of the world…

The equipment arrived. Phonogram and magic lantern. They came before the slides and record and so he practised setting up the lantern. It was nowhere near as powerful as the one which had been used at the Centre. It threw out an anaemic beam. He had to block up the windows with cardboard, and then throw the curtains shut over them, even at night, to get a satisfactory effect.

When the record and slides came he had a little trouble figuring out the phonogram. It was a sleek black object, cylindrical with a mother-of-pearl-looking horn. He had secretly used Henry’s card details to pay for it.

Finally he set up the lantern, turned out the light, and the image came up at once, projected onto a makeshift silk screen.

There was the distinctive scent of paraffin in his room, and he worried about the ventilation.

Malachi wound the phonogram up.

It was an unusual voice. Dislocated not solely by the metallic wail of its current medium, but in some more fundamental way. It took him a while to listen to what it was actually saying. He had to catch up to the right place with the slides –

[Close-up of the oddly hued peacock. A range of yellows – almost gold, but in the end not; also pink]

“Now observe the peacock near the central figure. The peacock is indeed a curious scrap of Renaissance symbolism, with two meanings, if not more. One for the church and public, another for the artist and outcast. A kind of anti-heraldic cant. Now observe…”

[Close-up of the black statue. Its lips are red and must be carefully encrusted with slices of ruby or another gemstone. Perhaps they are enamelled. Its eyes are also coloured. And the ornate curls of hair have been delicately wrought]

“…The scene is an allegorical scene, as mentioned in the introduction. The allegory concerns this specifically: Alongside the various choirs of angels – cherubim, archangels, thrones, seraphim and so on – there was also a choir known as the luxuries. It is, of course, only by way of medieval apocrypha that the luxuries came to be associated with the more famous Abrahamic winged messenger, and it is also possible to find them equated with other divine heralds such as the Greek Iris and Hermes, or the Assyrian genii.

“The luxuries were often described as having skin like black marble and parti-coloured wings that far outstripped any peacock. They wore resplendent robes and jewel-encrusted slippers. Where we consider angels to be spiritual messengers we might well think of the luxuries as sensory ones, communicating to the aesthetic aspects of the soul.

“It has been said that it was the same luxuries who once came to the Lotophagi – the Lotus Eaters – and revealed the lotus fruit to them; showed them how to make wines from it, and how to weave and carve innumerable delicacies from its other parts. Ornaments, jewellery, marquetry and so on.

“When the Lotus Eaters beheld the luxuries whose lips were something like ruby they also stained their lips and nails and cheeks that colour with the juices of the lotus fruit.

“When dull Odysseus looked upon all this he was horrified. They insulted his sense of goodness, this effeminate people who loved nothing more than to dine upon the lotus and decorate endlessly. To lose themselves in the act of adornment.

“It is possible that the Greeks wiped the people they called the Lotus Eaters. Herodotus situated them in North Africa. Others West.

“The luxuries are the primordial lotus-eater. Indeed, they were thought to have vanished with the Lotophagi until they reappeared one day in a town in order to bequeath The Book of the Luxuries. But they were soon mistaken for wicked spirits, for demonic tempters, and sealed inside a pillar.

“There was a woman who was known to visit this pillar frequently having seen their ill-treatment from her rooftop. It was also on her rooftop that a strange flower grew one day, something like a lily – or a lotus – but as hard as shell. She plucked this flower and took it to the pillar where she cupped it against the stone and put her ear to it and could hear a form of music inside. The music described a system. In this way, the inhabitants of the pillar dictated to her The Book.

“In accordance with their system she grew a lotus garden upon her roof and spent her days in idleness and luxury, cultivating her senses…”

Malachi messaged Semiramis using the contact form on her website.

She wrote back in minutes. She was thrilled to hear of his discovery of the painting. Wasn’t it fascinating? She supposed it was pure chance, Malachi’s finding out about it – the magic lantern demonstration could have used any number of surviving lantern lectures.

“I have an aversion to – a horror – a horror! – of straight lines. The volute – now the volute is divine: the sinuous line, the serpentine line, the curl, the twist, the whorl, the spiral and so on, are all related in their volution, convolution, revolution. Volution is the essential and irreducible aspect of ornamentation, just as the phoneme is the smallest irreducible unit of sound in language.

“Locked into each coil, each curl of ornament, just like the coil and curl of your hair, and my hair, darling – afro hair, as they call it – is the secret salvation of us all.”  She had coloured said hair with a fine nacreous substance. She was dressed in a similar fashion as she had been in the music video and looked quite the same age. She still wore the ring. It must have been forty years ago. Though it was, Malachi supposed, hard to tell: her skin had been adorned with some kind of translucent substance, similar to that on her hair.

  [A face in black marble, or onyx perhaps. An opal lacquer]

“We are, you know – fundamentally ornamental creatures. Especially the likes of us. But even the Greeks must at one point have realised that. They called the universe “Kosmos”. Kosmos meant ornament, decoration, surface: cosmetic. Like makeup. Like rouge. They wore rouge you know: the Lotus Eaters…Yes, they made it from the lotus fruit which also stained their lips…They also stained their nails…and hair…and smudged their cheeks with it…They were the arch-decorators of myth. The cosmos is fundamentally blusher. But then the Greeks probably got the idea from somewhere else. They could never stick to it. Which ruined ornament for everyone. Long after the Greeks and the Romans, Kant, Winckelmann all the rest damned it for being cosmetic. They embarrassed our ancestors for adorning themselves in beads and tattoos; they’re still at.

“‘Inessential ornament’, they called it. Ha!” And then she rose melodramatically and pretended to stare out of the window, though it was dark, as if she thought he could not see her looking at him in the reflection.

Her voice was clearly the same as the one on the record Malachi had purchased from her website. He had listened to it multiple times. It hadn’t been obvious from her music video, but now he had heard her speaking, it was undeniable. Yes, she had faked the whole thing. Malachi admired her instantly.

Now, as she moved back across the room, he wanted to ask her about the record. About why she had done it. Though he sensed a certain innate fabulousness in the action, he still wanted to know more. Just as he was about to ask, she began speaking again.

“Sleep!”

She told him she required sixteen hours of sleep a day and had to go to bed now. But before she went she insisted he had a look through her collection.

As her bedroom door shut he found himself alone with what turned out to be a vast collection pertaining to black European arts. Probably the largest of its kind. Various portraits lined the walls. Piles of drawings and manuscripts. Here he saw unseen photographs of Jeanne Duval, and drawings of that forgotten pre-Raphaelite model, Fanny Eaton; and over there were drawings of and by Richard Bruce Nugent. He leafed through masterpieces penned by undiscovered black modernists and looked at Etruscan cameos featuring mythical queens he had never heard of, goddesses long neglected, with physiognomies that would be considered distinctly unclassical.

Here was the diary of a “Moorish” courtier of James IV. He read a little. November 1589. Several fellow moors had attended the Scottish king’s wedding in Norway. Some as guests, like the diarist, and some as musicians, and some as dancers. At the king’s wish a few had danced in the snow, almost naked, because he thought the sight of their bodies against the white would look splendid. They had perished of pneumonia, the diarist finished.

And with that, utilising the same reckless abandon of a white teenager who, on first seeing Ophelia, fantasises about their own death, Malachi imagined that he was one of these dancers, perishing of pneumonia.

“I shouldn’t have done it, but I couldn’t resist, every year – once a month if I’m truthful – I use them,” she said as he helped her to her room.

The sound of a certain kind of porcelain teacup clinking against a certain kind of porcelain saucer sent her to bed for days, shivering with euphoria.

She took Egyptian Blue Lotus extract and jell capsules containing minute doses of gold or silver. She also dined on clear broths of innumerable ethereal tints. One might mistake all this for homoeopathy but it was in fact the System of the Luxuries, she told him. It was supposed to fine-tune one’s aesthetic senses. “It works,” she said, “Clearly!” waving her hand, as she shivered into bed.

On such occasions he would go through her collection. “Sort it out. Order it!” she had told him one evening. And so he began working for her, unpaid.

She suggested he sit and observe the statue painting daily, whilst listening to the recording, so that when she was not there her voice often was.

As a matter of fact, nothing pleased him more. The painting continued to enchant him. As did the record.

  [Close-up of a statue in black marble or onyx perhaps]

“…Observe now the figure…”

He had since learnt, without her knowing, that she distributed them, these fake records, wherever she could. Passed them off to antique dealers. Sometimes just smuggled them into antique shops. She had them printed up by a company that specialized in recreating phonogram and vinyl records. This was only a small part of a grand project which she’d been working on since the seventies. Forged manuscripts, historical details. But also real things. All for public dissemination.

  [Close-up of a decorative room. Paintings, bibelots, a large dressing table, a magic lantern, a phonogram]

“…Malachi observes the house. Its tremulous occupant is in bed again having just been shown recently discovered nineteen-thirties footage of the once-celebrated black British singer, Evelyn Dove, on the internet that had escaped her attention. Malachi takes a few things from the drawers and sits before that magnificent dressing table. First he braids his hair in whorls and dips the ends in that nacreous water. He colours his lips the precise Lotus Eater red, bedaubs his cheeks, swallows some Egyptian Blue Lotus supplements. And yes a little pearl powder shaken in sherry to activate it, and one of those jell capsules with the gold flakes suspended in it…”

  [He takes with him a Louis XVI dagger, just in case, and goes for a sublunary stroll, keeping to the river, to the spot he had been aware of for some time. The other young men are unperturbed. In fact, after a while they speak to him. They laugh at his getup but admire it too. Too off-putting for this sort of thing though, they tell him. You won’t make any money. He has been here before.

  Eventually, however, a car polished like black atrium glass slides by and he gets in. The dagger, he remembers, although called a Louis XVI dagger, is purported to have belonged to Alessandro de Medici. Malachi doubts he will need it]

  [Close-up of two figures in the same decorative room. Figures rendered in black marble, or onyx, or perhaps obsidian]

“Now observe the room. It is a magnificent room. Jewel-like. In it sits a mellowed disco queen and her mesmerised princeling. Both are also jewel-like.

“They are probably discussing Pushkin’s great-grandfather. Particularly, they would be concerned with the exact manner in which he strutted through the velvet avenues of Peterhof Palace.”

  [As they chat away something passes over Malachi and he feels the need to set up the magic lantern]

  [Close-up of Malachi’s half illuminated face]

 [A face in black marble or onyx perhaps]

“Now observe him gazing up at the lantern image on the wall. And observe Semiramis. She is narrating to him instead of the record. She is delineating some new history of the Lotus Eaters she must have been researching…”

  [Close-up of the statue in the garden]

“As the statue close-up comes up on the wall he realises it is not a statue at all. Nothing could be more obvious. The eyes; the lips. She, or he, is wearing robes, coloured luxurious robes which clearly aren’t made of stone. And likewise the skin, though radiant, though comparable to fabulous materials, is obviously flesh. Black-brown flesh. Ornate curls.

“Malachi wonders how he possibly could have missed it. He is horrified and he also shivers with ecstasy. He has to lie down.”

“The Lotus Eater stirs. Outside, rain fizzes white on the window ledge and dances on the pavements like soda water. Then the rain falls differently, glossing the streets into a state of lamination. The sky is all marmalade billow and craquelure cloud. He goes down into the town and passes an impossibly black dog – a whippet – it trips along like a nimble black hole. He strides through a loch of umbrellas and granite and concrete. He halts by the door of the Institute. He removes his gloves slowly before entering.”

  [Close-up of a figure in black marble or onyx perhaps, passing a threshold]

“So Jenny looked into it,” Henry said, “Turns out it’s probably real. Can’t find out where the original painting is though. But we had a look at the statue section you mentioned and we think it’s probably just a merchant or something. European. White. They would have just used black stone because that’s what they dealt in – as a merchant. That’s what Jenny thinks anyway. I agree.”

“What recording?” she said quietly? “I don’t think I know what you mean, mein liebling.”

“Your recording. The one you made.”

“Made?” she said.

“Yes, the one…”

She got up, as she had before, and looked out of the window, though it was dark, as if she thought he could not see her looking at him in the reflection. But this time he noticed her eyes bore straight at him, fully conscious, as they had before.

“That,” Henry said, “is fucking hilarious. Can’t believe you met her.” Malachi had told him in an uncertain moment, about the record and Semiramis. After he realised he would never be invited back. “Jenny said she found the website too, just yesterday. Must be the same one you found. Yeah, turns out she really is a decaying old disco singer. Had a short-lived career. Supported Sylvester once or something. Anyway, she got involved with the Black Panthers – the British equivalent of them or whatever and then just lost the plot. Started hounding galleries telling them they were hiding significant works by Medieval African artists and all that. She’s been at it for ages. They genuinely thought she was going to blow up the National at one point.

“Turns out we had a random delivery a couple of years ago. An anonymous donation – we do get those sometimes, and they’re legit – anyway it must have been from her. Well we got it out the archives yesterday – hadn’t had time to look into it, probably wouldn’t have for a year. But it’s the same portrait. As the one you’ve been looking into. Probably a forgery. Definitely, if it came from her. She could have got anyone to do it.” He placed a hand on Malachi’s gloveless one.

“Whatever happened with that other painting?” Malachi asked, “The one you wanted to sell?”

“Sold it of course.”

“Oh, excellent.”

“Margot the Centre co-coorindator”

“Margot Phillips the Institute for Historical and Contemporary Arts contact”

Malachi sat down just on time.

He remained motionless, still surprised they had allowed him in.

A new painting was being incorporated into the Centre’s permanent collection. It was humungous. Much larger than he expected. Some restoration had been done. How strange to see it solid, rather than coloured light projected on a wall.

They have admitted that it is real. They did not mention what it might be, what Malachi thought it was and Semiramis had known it was – they will only be pushed so far. They will only take so much. They are presenting a united front. (This front has a shape and texture.)

And indeed, they announced the title, since there wasn’t one already. They have called it The Statue, one of them says. It is a statue of a stone merchant. Here Henry looked at him. They were not scared as Malachi thought they might be.

They were all exquisitely smooth, bright and cubic.

[They are all smooth, bright, cubic]

 


 

Shola von Reynolds is a Scottish-Nigerian writer and recent graduate of the MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow which was completed through the Jessica York Writing Scholarship. Shola remains in the city working to the completion of LOTE, a debut novel, and was named Scottish Emerging Writer 2018 by Cove Park. Shola writes around race, ornament and gender, has written articles for AnOther and i-D, and is also a Scottish Review of Books Emerging Critic. @socialmedea_