All posts by sofiacapel

Kult of Konsciousness, poetry by Kim-Anh Schreiber

Art: Picnic at Haning Rock


8A play set in a 10’ x 10’ tent on the beach.

 

CHARACTERS:

Karma (KA), The Dominatrix
Kween (KW), The Dreamer & Visionanary
Khaos (KH), The Personality, who is always challenging others…

The Stagehand, dressed in black

 

SETTING:

A kitchen. Three flowers, Karma, Kween, and Khaos, lounge and smoke cigarettes. A little drone is buzzing around recording them.

 

Scene 1

Karma enters. There’s music. Smiling and waving. Khaos sits up straight and purses lips. Kween is under a blanket. “Reality” begins.

 

Khaos            

Hey Karma.

 

Karma           

Hey Family.

 

Karma leans in to hug Khaos again and she jumps away.

 

Khaos          

Ugh mom. Why are you dressed up like a butterfly in electric shock?

 

Karma

What are you talking about Khaos? That’s rude.

 

Khaos

You just gave me a hug and rubbed foundation all over my collar. Your face is literally falling off all over the house.

 

Air kisses. They dissolve into long, awkward laughter.

 

Karma         

So I’m worried about Kween lately. I think she’s hiding out because she doesn’t like what people are saying about her body.

 

Khaos

Maybe the more she becomes invisible, the more her stock will rise –

 

Karma

Yeah but right now they’ll do anything to catch a photo of her, and she needs to develop a plan to get out of the house and have her baby.

 

Khaos

She hasn’t made a plan yet? She’s about to explode!

 

Karma

She’s organized her outfit and makeup. She says that she wants her baby’s first thought to be that she’s the most beautiful woman in the world.

 

The Stagehand brings Karma a salad, made of petals and in a huge plastic container. She shakes it vigorously.

 

Karma         

Kween, wake up. Get out of bed.

 

Kween

I’m taking an In-The-Bed Day Mom! Self-care is self-love.

 

Karma

No, Kween, that’s unprofessional. This isn’t like you.

 

Kween          

Says who?

 

Karma

Says me, your Mother. I watched you as a child, as you found out who you were, and I learned about who you were before you could even tell me about it.

 

Kween

Mom, I’m pregnant.

 

Karma

Lots of people are pregnant and work. Get over yourself. You don’t even have to do anything. You just have to sit here and be the woman you are.

 

Kween

That’s exhausting.

 

Karma

Why?

 

Kween

It’s so… litigative. All anyone wants to do is catch me in some kind of lie. Self-definition can be so limiting.

 

Karma

Kween, what an aggrandizing moment of privilege and insubordination. There are tools to the self as the self is a tool. You have all the tools you need to challenge yourself… and to escape yourself. You are so lucky. You say when, you say how… (to the drone) You are the Us of Now. Deliver us to the future, but let us frame our own memories. To be totally transparent, with the mark of good timing. One House, One Take… Productions. Amen. Kween, let’s go.

 

Kween drags herself out of the cocoon of her blanket and sits down at the table. The Stagehand yells, ‘CUT!’ Kween, Karma, and Khaos turn off their mics.

Scene 2

Kween sits at the table still wrapped in a blanket. Karma and Khaos sit to her left, their salads half-eaten.

 

Karma         

Do you like the décor changes I’ve made to the house, honey?

 

Kween

Truthfully, I don’t think they’re significant enough.

 

Karma

Significant enough?

 

Kween

To wake me up out of this crotch-drying repetition and banality.

 

Khaos

The kitchen though. (looking around) I love what you’ve done to this kitchen. The lighting is great, flat and even. Flaw-less. Literally. I think if you can have a good kitchen, it doesn’t really matter where you live. You never have to go outside.

 

Kween

Oh no. Outside? No. Why would you do that? We’re making memories.

 

Karma and Khaos turn towards Kween in unison.

 

Khaos          

Kween, what are you going to do about getting out of the house. Are you just gonna stay inside and be a boring whore all your life?

 

Kween

Khaos, staying inside is safe. I can think of nothing more disorienting than the dull roar of the unknown.

 

Khaos

That sounds like depression.

 

Kween

It’s not. I would tell you. I’m an open book. Truthfully I’m trapped in my house. I’m trapped in my body. I’m trapped in the things people say about my body. I want a new body.

 

Khaos          

You want it? You can have it. Go get it. You don’t have to lie under a fur blanket all day waiting for some other person to come suck at the teat of your poisoned apple. The revenge body – as I know – is the best body. That’s what everyone will remember, anyway.

 

Kween          

What?

 

Khaos

The latest version.

 

Karma

(crying) There’s no worse feeling for a mother than seeing her child unhappy. People are sensitive. And no one has ever understood how sensitive my children really are. Well… (looking towards the camera) May the future bring us our narrative.

 

They break character for a second and smoke a cigarette, then straighten back up when The Stagehand brings a camera for them to take a selfie.

 

Karma

Ok, so the reason I wanted us all to meet today is… I have an announcement.

 

Khaos

What? That the thirst is real?

 

Karma

I have an idea for a new business venture. I think we should start a cult. The Kult of Konsciousness.

 

Khaos

You dumb Debbie Desperado. What do you mean by Konsciousness?

 

Karma

Like what lives in the body and moves through space, that feels and remembers. We are alive in the minds of millions. We process our own issues, so others can understand theirs. We’re creating Konsciousness as we experience and transmit it – we have all of the material we need to write a religion! What would it sound like? Look like? Fabulous, I’m sure.

 

Kween

You’re already everywhere! You’re so overexposed.

 

Khaos

You’re just over. And now you want to profit off my consciousness? Whatever – it just sounds like another way to extort us. You should pay me if you want to use my face in the branding.

 

Karma

Pay you? I gave you a career!

 

Khaos

I gave you a career. Khaos and Kween. Name a pair more iconic. Go.

 

Karma         

I’m part of the brand too!

 

Kween

Brand brand brand brand brand. Every hallway is a gallery of myself and I’m lost. I’m surrounded by cameras and the content keeps coming.

 

Karma

I’m sorry – did I traumatize you?

 

Khaos

This performance echoes everywhere. I’m so bored.

 

Karma         

This is making me really sad… all I ever did was bring you to paradise.

 

Khaos lights up.

 

Khaos

Ma, I’ve got my own methods for filling the void.

 

Kween takes a contemplative bite of her salad. The Stagehand yells ‘CUT!’ and grabs a cig. Khaos, Kween, and Karma turn off their mics.

 

SCENE 3

 

Kween is sitting alone at the table. Khaos walks on set.

 

Khaos            

What are you doing?

 

Kween

Just uploading photos onto my computer to make a blog…

 

Khaos lights up.

 

Kween

Where have you been? I’ve been looking everywhere for you.

 

Khaos

Where have you been looking?

 

Kween

Your part of the house, Facebook, Instagram…

 

Khaos

—I was just outside dude.

 

Kween

You’re lying.

 

Khaos

Bible.

 

Kween

I don’t get it Khaos. You feel like a stranger to me. I know we’re busy, but we’re still family. You feel so far away.

 

Khaos

Why do I have to be a totally transparent person? Can’t I just keep a part of my life to myself?

 

Kween

Why would you want to do that?

 

Khaos

I don’t want to live under any rules?

 

Kween

Rules give me purpose, relief – like a massage.

 

Khaos

Oh my god, Kween. Have you ever come across anyone more desperate than yourself?

 

Kween

I’m not desperate at all. I’ve touched millions of people emotionally. They cry real tears. That means something.

 

Khaos

That means you need to make a plan to have your baby.

 

Kween

Yeah, I’m gonna do that tomorrow.

 

Khaos leaves the set. Karma enters.

 

Karma         

You know what Kween? You should have a house party.

 

Kween

That’s the last thing I want.

 

Karma

Why not? It’s a huge, beautiful house.

 

Kween

I just don’t want people in my space, you know? Messing it up. Looking at me and calling me a sperm whale. If I wanted people to stare at me and judge me then I would just go outside and get fro-yo. And I would, but every time I try to step outside everything becomes warped and wobbly.

 

Karma

Well, Kween, unfortunately, the world is not designed for stilettos.

 

Kween

Fuck a duck.

 

The stagehand brings them their petal salads. They shake them vigorously.

 

Kween

Where does this food even come from?

 

Karma

Lord knows. Let’s say grace.

 

A pause while they rearrange themselves and Khaos joins them. They hold hands in a circle.

 

Kween          

Long live this new flesh.

 

Khaos

Thank you for our Family. Under the light of play and pretend may we act in brand new ways.

 

Karma

Bless us and grant us a clearer reality, more deals and appearances, and the fabulous lighting we’ve installed that makes our personalities shine bright… and deliver us away from language by delivering us to things.

 

Khaos

Amen.

 

Karma

Amen.

 

Kween
Amen.

 

They begin to eat their salads. The Stagehand yells ‘CUT!’ Kween breaks character and begins to say something juicy while turning off her mic.

 

 

SCENE 4

Karma, Khaos, and Kween sit around the table smoking cigarettes. The Stagehand brings them their salads. They shake them and eat carefully.

 

Karma

You know, I’ve been thinking about this cult. And I was thinking that when I was a little girl, I came to this country with nothing. I thought that the place that had everything was the mall. That’s why the mall is such a huge part of my dreams—it’s deep in my psyche. The things that it holds have power. (looking at the audience) There is an exile in everyone. I think that the work I’m putting into this experience has to do with working out that cracked shop window. My brand of spirituality is something that needs to reach the world.

 

Khaos

How sad. A single tear cuts a clean line down my makeup.

 

Karma

That’s not funny! (crying) I didn’t realize how long I’ve been waiting to say that.

 

Kween puts her arms around Karma.

 

Kween

I’m sorry Mom. That’s a beautiful story.

 

Khaos puts her arms around Kween and Karma.

 

Karma

(sniffling) I love you girls.

 

They dissolve into laughter.

 

Karma         

(sniffling again) Why is it so dusty in here? Honestly, there’s dust everywhere. Everywhere in the world. Even on a yacht in the middle of the ocean. There’s still dust. Where does it all come from?

 

Khaos          

The moon.

 

They laugh. The Stagehand brings them their camera and they take a selfie.

 

Karma         

Oh, thank god you’re in my life! Without you girls I would be unimaginably dull and lonely.

The Stagehand yells ‘CUT!’ They turn off their mics, break character.


Kim-Anh Schreiber is a writer, director, and performer. Recent exhibitions have been at SPF15, Helmuth Projects, and A Ship in the Woods (San Diego), Fringe Projects (Miami), The Sunview (Brooklyn), and Material Art Fair (Mexico City); work has been published in Emergency Index, littletell, FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, and Amor Forense. As part of the collaborative Hysterical Accuracy, she has co-written/co-directed Candy Ego, a video project to be released late 2017, and wrote and performed in the nomadic play Kult of Konsciousness. She received an MFA from UC San Diego.

Honeymoon, fiction by Erin Swan

Art: Love Affair


The memorial at Auschwitz lies less than fifty kilometers from Krakow, but when Hunter and I visited the city eight Mays ago, we didn’t go to the memorial. It seemed inappropriate. We were on our honeymoon. Instead, we drank vodka. We hadn’t considered it before, but Polish vodka was stronger than what we were used to in New York. In the mornings we cradled our heads like overripe fruit, afraid of bruising.

We were staying in the Jewish quarter, which wasn’t so Jewish anymore. It was filled with tourists like us, more or less young, in their late 20s, early 30s. In the evenings the bars circling the square twinkled with Christmas lights and American music. Our favorite had old sewing tables on the sidewalk, where we sat and drank and pumped the foot pedals against empty air.

On our third night there, we drank more vodka than usual and had a fight. Most likely I had started it. I did that a lot back then: drank too much and picked fights. Maybe I liked getting mad. I don’t think Hunter did. His parents had kept their fights unspoken.

So there we were, sulking at our sewing table under the twinkling lights. Hunter’s eyes kept shifting to me, then back to the square, where a grizzled man in a vest was playing the accordion. He wasn’t very good. Finally we went back to our hotel and fell asleep without speaking.

In the morning, I woke first. Hunter had turned his face sideways on the pillow and his mouth was open. I imagined he’d looked like that as a baby, except younger. I touched his cheek, but he didn’t wake up. The sun fell very pale and very soft through our white curtains.

***

We hadn’t had a regular wedding. Neither of us liked ceremonies. We’d gotten married at City Hall, the one on Centre Street, where we stood in line like it was the DMV. It was a Thursday. I’d taught one class that morning, then left, telling my ESL students I was going to get married. Afterward we’d celebrated in Chinatown with a $10 lunch for three: me, Hunter, and our witness, a woman we barely knew. Two days later we threw a party in our East Harlem apartment. We were so excited we accepted Adderall from a friend, swallowing it with PBR and whiskey. I only took one, but Hunter said later he’d taken three, then when he thought they weren’t working, two more. At five am, Hunter downed a shot of Nyquil, and we crashed. When I woke, sometime around ten, I thought I was going to die.

In the bed next to me, Hunter grunted, shoved back the covers.

“Help me,” he said. Then he staggered upwards from our mattress, made it two steps to the door, and passed out.

I wasn’t quick enough to catch him. He collapsed backwards onto the floor. With a sharp crack, his skull hit the boards.

***

How different his sleeping face looked that gentle morning in Krakow. His eyelids were not gray, his cheeks not sunken. He hadn’t pissed himself. When he woke, he would feel fine. Despite our fight of the night before, we would have a good morning, and then at lunchtime, we would go to the café we’d found, the one with the Polish menu board listing kielbasa and big floury potatoes covered in fresh dill. That afternoon we would walk to the Jewish cemetery, which was still pretty Jewish. We would stare at one terrible row of plaques, where the birthdates read 1935, ‘36, ‘37, and the dates of death started in 1939 and ended in 1945.

That morning, one week into our honeymoon, I stared at Hunter’s face until he stirred.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and promised myself I meant it.

 


ERIN SWAN is a writer of fiction and non-fiction whose work has been published in various journals, including Asia Literary Review, CALYX, Bodega Magazine, and The Portland Review. She holds an MA in English Education from Teachers College at Columbia University and an MFA in Fiction from the New School for Public Engagement. She has worked in publishing, taught English in Southeast Asia, and is now teaching literature and writing in a New York City public high school.

Renaissance Lit and the Importance of (Not) Being Earnest, essay by Jeremy Klemin

Art: Caravaggio


“It is probably no mere historical accident that the word person, in its first meaning, is a mask.” –Robert Ezra Park 

It’s difficult, I think, to blame students for the general apathy they have towards renaissance literature. Translations are often stilted, and the preoccupations of the characters of these books are, if not totally irrelevant, then at the very least antiquated to contemporary readers. I very rarely read books from this time period for fun, and always feel a bit awkward talking with people who have studied or are studying pre-1600’s literature. Do these books solely tell us about what life was like when they were written, or is there something in them that can still nourish us emotionally or intellectually?

These were the questions I had in mind while reading Baldassare Castiglione’s work The Book of Courtier (1528), written some 30-odd years before the birth of Galileo. It is, superficially at least, what is called a courtesy book – it discusses how a 16th century socialite ought to act, both through hypothetical social situations and, at times, direct instructions. Some parts of the book haven’t aged well and bear little relevance to readers today (especially the sections on gender and proper manners for a lady in the court), but the book has probably stuck around because it introduces the idea of sprezzatura, which can roughly be defined as studied carelessness. The closest synonym is probably nonchalance, but it is a studied nonchalance; nonchalance with the explicit purpose of appearing unconcerned. In essence, The Book of Courtier is essentially a detailed study of the heavy amount of maintenance that goes into social interactions.

Post-industrial culture thinks and writes frequently about the ways in which technology falsifies our interactions with each other, how it widens the chasm between our “true selves” and the self we want everybody to think we are. One of the reasons The Book of Courtier is so historically important is because it presents a fundamentally modern view of what being human means, of how any concrete notions of a “self” are entirely context dependent. It implies that “modern life” and all of the distractions that come with it are not the cause of our estrangement, but the most recent (and convenient) tool for what comes naturally — the tendency to misrepresent and deceive in a myriad of small, petty, and almost unnoticeable ways.

Later (much, much later), sociologists like Erving Goffman and the Symbolic Interactionists would try to basically show the same thing. Because a person’s behavior is so specific to the situation she has found herself in, attempting to identify the “core” of a person is not only futile but counterintuitive. It was for this reason that Goffman saw all interpersonal communication as performative. The Book of Courtier is so impressive, then, because it understood the fluidity of personhood nearly 450 years before the symbolic interactionists started to heavily invest themselves in the idea and before proto-postmodernists like Fernando Pessoa and Macedonio Fernandez incorporated it into their fiction.

A bit more on sprezzatura, which is really the crux of the Castiglione’s strange four-part book: Castiglione describes sprezzatura as seeking to “conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” He expands a bit later, arguing that true art is art “which does not seem to be art; nor must one be more careful of anything than of concealing it…” So, then, the successful courtier must master sprezzatura and must constantly conduct himself and his affairs in a fluid, at-ease manner. Immediately, this need for mastery presents an important contradiction. To appear to do something effortlessly usually takes a tremendous amount of effort, and as a result, the courtier must consciously practice and prepare for situations in order to seem effortless. If the courtier seems artificially at ease, bullshit is called and she’s accused of being affectatious. A delicate balance indeed.

Castiglione presents a great example of a failure to maintain this delicate balance early on in the book via a rather sad little fellow named Roberto Bibbieno. Describing Bibbieno’s dancing, Castiglione explains that to make it “quite plain that he is giving no thought to what he is doing, [Bibbieno] lets his clothes from his back and his slippers from his feet, and goes right on dancing without picking them up.” Bibbieno is mistaken to the extent that he thinks “making it quite plain that he is giving no thought” is a positive attribute. In an effort to seem nonchalant, Bibbieno has laid it on a bit too thickly and tragically failed. The legitimacy of his performance is no more.

We see this pretty frequently on social media, when somebody posts a very carefully-composed photograph and posts a cringe-worthy caption along the lines of “Dave snapped a photo of me when I wasn’t paying attention, just a regular day at the beach!” Most of the grievances that both serious and amateur media critics have about social media revolve around the idea that it falsifies our relationships with other people, and provides numerous social incentives to misrepresent ourselves. Based on books like Castligione’s, it seems as if outlets likes Facebook and Instagram merely exacerbate what is already innate within us; the tendency to perpetually blur the line between lying and misrepresentation in daily micro-interactions with other people.

As the character Bibbieno mentioned above painfully learns, our social interactions become jeopardized when it becomes obvious we’re deliberately mystifying/misrepresenting. Another character in the book named The Count astutely recognizes this idea, arguing, “Do you not see that what you are calling nonchalance in [Bibbieno] is really affectation, because we clearly see him making every effort to show that he takes no thought of what he is about, which means taking too much thought?” The necessity to appear nonplussed by whatever the given social situation is requires the manual regulation of one’s own behavior, and further management is needed to conceal the fact that one’s actions are being manually regulated.

In Goffman’s introduction to The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956), there’s a fantastic fictional situation that closely mirrors the situation that Castliglione describes above. Goffman affectionately describes the exploits of Preedy, a middle-aged Englishman who is vacationing through Spain. In the story, Preedy is seen sauntering on the beach. “If by chance a ball was thrown [Preedy’s] way, he looked surprised; then let a smile of amusement lighten his face, looked round dazed to see that there were people on the beach […] and then resumed carelessly his nonchalant survey of space.” Goffman goes on to explain the multitude of selves that Preedy presents: cosmopolitan Preedy carrying a Spanish translation of Homer, Methodical and Sensible Preedy folding his beach materials into a neat pile, Big-Cat Preedy stretching his huge frame, Mediterranean, comfortable Preedy (but not too comfortable, as to appear forced) in the cold water. In these seemingly mundane beach activities, nearly everything that Preedy does is being consciously manipulated. Preedy is easy to make fun of, but he’s not alone. Albeit in less dramatic ways, Preedy is less an aberration and more the standard when it comes to how we interact with others.

For Castiglione’s courtier to possess sprezzatura, then, he also must hide any indication that he has gone through enormous trouble to appear at skilled at whatever the given task or activity is. According to Goffman, “Performers may even attempt to give the impression that their present poise and proficiency are something they have always had and that they have never had to fumble their way through a learning period.” The appearance of effort, then, is almost completely counterproductive. The Count, a quasi-prophetic character in The Book of Courtier by this point, realizes this, arguing “art, or any intent effort, if it is disclosed, deprives everything of grace.”

Describing a situation where a person’s first impression falls short of their reputation, Castiglione argues that; “you would expect to discover from day to day some other hidden virtue, always holding fast to the good impression that had come to you through the words of so many persons;” in essence, you would “always be imagining something more than met the eye.” How does the courtier, and we as humans by extension, implicitly lead other people to believe that there is more to us than meets the eye, that there is some hidden, potent inner life? Goffman advocates for a subtle but deliberate mystification. “Restrictions placed upon contact, the maintenance of social distance, provide a way in which awe can be generated and sustained by the audience.” Here, the courtier is faced with the complicated task of finding an appropriate middle-ground. He must be approachable enough to be affable in the minds of others, but removed enough so they continually wonder about him.

Castiglione’s rather strange courtesy book has  probably endured because it highlights how “selves” is a far more appropriate estimation of the human psyche than any essential, all-abiding “self.” This is liberating in some sense, but there are pretty grievous moral implications associated with The Book of Courtier’s worldview. If we are to take Castiglione’s advice, it seems as if the most well-adjusted person is the one most willing to modify their behavior based on the context. Taken to its logical extreme, The Book of Courtier seems to be advocating for absolute moral fluidity, for a chameleon-laden world in which people adopt whatever opinion most benefits them in that specific moment.

According to Goffman, we are always playing a part, and if we are to heed Castiglione’s advice, should be invested in that role only as much as a successful execution of the role demands. When that role is no longer favorable to us, a more appropriate (meaning personally beneficial) role should be enacted.

For the courtier, legitimate emotional or ideological investments are hindering, and appearing wholly invested in something is almost always counterproductive. In nearly any case, we smile upon the person who seems to have fortuitously succeeded in something, and are less heartbroken about the failure of an endeavor that was deemed unimportant to begin with. The dedicated basketball player will appear far more impressive to his coworkers at a pickup game after work if they suspect basketball is only a middling hobby of his rather than something he’s dedicated thousands of altogether banal hours to practicing. This is why pop-psychology instructs us not to tell anybody what our plans are: not only are we preserved from the embarrassment of failing, but from the dedication and passion that being wholly invested in something requires. In an epoch saturated by irony and detachment, passion and emotional investment are rarely more profitable than their counterparts.

Living earnestly seems to destroy the sort of safeguard that living ironically creates; it diminishes the mystique and the distance that we find so appealing in others. By being emotionally and intellectually transparent, both our personality and values are open for display, which not only leaves us open to criticism, but more importantly, destroys the possibility of there being “more than meets the eye” as Castiglione refers to it. Irony and cynicism are invaluable means of self-defense; they preserve the enigma that being wholly up-front completely destroys. If we are to heed Goffman’s condemnation, most of us are “cynics who do not actually believe in anything.”

Once again, I return to a literary example. This is the great mistake that the narrator of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral makes about the protagonist Swede Levov, he continually assumes Levov’s reticence is some kind of asceticism instead of what it really is, banality. In the words of Castiglione, he wrongly assumes that there is “more than meets the eye.” If we are completely transparent about the things and causes we’re emotionally invested in, we destroy the illusion that there’s something more to us, we’re laid bare. That’s why living behind under the security of irony is so powerful, because it misleads people into thinking that behind our cynicism and banality lay quiet, compassionate erudition.


Jeremy Klemin studied Comparative Literature at the University of Edinburgh for his MSc, and is currently based in Lisbon. You can find other pieces of his in 3:AM MagazineThe Ploughshares Blog, and This is Africa. He can be found on Twitter @JeremyKlemin.

THE COMING DEATH OF FATHER-OF-THE-PILLOW, FICTION BY A. MUIA

Nuestro Señor San Ignacio de Kadakaamán
Baja California

In the spring of 1845, the townspeople of San Ignacio started to suspect that the statue of El Santo Niño de Atocha, seated casually in his niche on the epistle side of the mission church, was climbing down at night and walking around. María Apícula, the old woman who cleaned the sanctuary, ran to the neighbors one evening, blanca como la nieve, white with fright. She told them how a dark shadow had appeared behind her and it was child-sized and she could hear the tap, tap, tap of a staff upon the flagstones, all the way to the apse.

The people went at once to the statue. The boy-Christ was there, frilly-collared and seated as usual. He held his basket in one hand and the staff in the other, and wore the little brown cape about his shoulders. The eyelids were open, the eyes serene. Not even the fluffy plume in his hat was askew. They examined his feet, for it is common knowledge that El Santo Niño de Atocha wears out his sandals on his nightly escapades of do-gooding. But the sandals were intact.

It was a mystery what he could be doing, for El Santo Niño de Atocha is known for visiting prisoners with his basket of foodstuffs, but San Ignacio had no prison. It had only a broken adobe jailhouse no longer used for anything. There were holes in the crumbling walls and some goats had taken up residence.

–Maybe he was going to Loreto, someone suggested. To the prison there.

Don Buenaventura, the mayordomo of the village, shook his head and spoke with authority: His shoes are too clean. My shoes are dirtied just by crossing the street, let alone traveling all the way to Loreto.

El Santo Niño does other things besides visiting prisons, said another person. He goes wherever someone needs him.

–But his shoes are perfectly clean, Don Buenaventura insisted.

–Well if it wasn’t him, what was tap-tap-tapping behind me? María Apícula asked.

A chill went over the crowd. Get the priest, someone said. Father de Cabecera will have an opinion.

 

The Rev. Fr. Serafín de Cabecera was a white-robed, rabbit-toothed Mercedarian who had given the precious remaining years of his life to attend the people of San Ignacio. His hair was a mat of soft gray grass standing upon his scalp. Brown spots of age, daubed by the desert sun, showed underneath. He had been a pale boy, beset by too many fevers, grown upward into a man but not much outward, and when he swallowed, his large Adam’s apple ascended like a bucket from a well. Sometimes he placed his fingers on it without thinking and felt it go up and down. When celebrating the Mass, he wore a bright pink chasuble embroidered with flowering grapevines in gold thread, refashioned from the cheerful brocade gown of one elderly Marquesa of Merced who wished to bless a poor priest far away in the lonely frontier.

There were few priests left in Lower California, only six for the whole peninsula. Soon to be five, Fr. de Cabecera thought with gladness. But in the meantime, there were children to baptize and young people to marry. There were confessions to hear and the deceased to inter. In the last few years, a real town had sprung up at San Ignacio, for it was an oasis, with an underground watercourse that ran in an arroyo filled bank to bank with palms. The town had winding, shaded streets, dates and figs and oranges and lemons and plenty of animals, and people who have the tranquil quality of those who never want for water. The contented people of San Ignacio raised large families and they streamed into the great stone church, the centerpiece of the town.

The priest’s surname, de Cabecera, might be translated as either Father-who-is-the-head, or Father-of-the-pillow, and it was a little joke around the mission. Hurry home, Father, the people would say in the evening. Your pillow is waiting!

Though they did not mean to be unkind, the people could not resist teasing Fr. de Cabecera. Oh Father, they would say when he tried to correct them. You need a dance more than any man we’ve ever seen. At first he had laughed along with the others. But soon an irritation took hold. In the capital, why, any man would kiss the hand of a priest. But here no one listens, there is no respect. Here it is all joking and fandangos.

Then, in the same spring of 1845, the last remaining native of San Ignacio—a man known to the townspeople as Cochimí Juan—ruined the Father’s enthusiasm for his retirement by predicting in front of everyone that the priest was going to die.

Cochimí Juan did not like priests. He had not liked the former priest, one of the Dominicans—those domini canes, those hounds of God who hunted men and herded men’s souls. One night Cochimí Juan overheard the former friar’s housekeeper say that she was going to poison him, making the death prediction an easy one. The demise of the previous priest led everyone to think that Cochimí Juan could predict the future.

In truth, Cochimí Juan was just a regular man. He could not predict anything except the weather, and only because he had studied the sky for so many years. But there was no one to talk to about the weather, much less anything of substance. Since the arrival of the priests so many years ago, all of the Cochimí had perished of sickness or gone away, leaving him with an awful hollow feeling that kept him awake at night. San Ignacio had become such a sad place that Cochimí Juan thought about leaving, and he decided that he would do it. But first he decided to have some fun. Knowing that the townspeople thought he had mystical powers, Cochimí Juan told Fr. de Cabecera that the priest was going to die. Then he went home and waited to see what would happen.

 

 

The next person to see the terrifying little figure in the church was the son-in-law of María Apícula. This time no one could dismiss the occurrence as an old woman’s imagination, which is what the townspeople had said to reassure themselves. But the son-in-law could not be dismissed. He was respected by all, a man with slow capable hands who took care of the church. Troubled by the apparition, he sent a child at once for the priest.

–What kind of joke is this, Fr. de Cabecera said, when the boy came to the door of his room.

The priest imagined what would happen. He would run huffing to the steps of the church and they would all have a vigorous laugh at his expense. It had happened before, once even during the last rites. A man had popped up, and the priest nearly fouled himself; he could not bear to report to the bishop how appalling things had become.

The boy pulled his hand. Come, Father.

Fr. de Cabecera scrutinized the boy. The child looked back at him in earnest. But even the littlest ones had learned to hide their guile. Yet perhaps at last they truly have need of me, the priest thought. Some emergency. Some spiritual matter they cannot discern on their own.

He closed his book. He hurried across the courtyard to the steps of the church.

While adobe missions all over the peninsula were crumbling, the stately stone church of San Ignacio would stand forever. People came from everywhere to see it. The church had one square bell tower on the left, and four stout finials on the right to balance the effect. The native builders, now long dead, had mastered the Moorish arch and the alfiz and the colonette and the dome and the niche. The stone was whitewashed with seams of painted pink. The façade was inlaid with rose-colored squares and circles and false columns and even a Spanish coat-of-arms, the whole thing made grander by adding idea after idea. And all the statuary still kept their heads.

The son-in-law was waiting on the steps with María Apícula and Don Buenaventura, the mayordomo, who was congenial as usual. Hello, Father! he cried.

–What is this about, the priest said.

–I went to check the foundation, the son-in-law said. Where the water was seeping through.

–And then what, the priest said.

–It suddenly went very dark in the church, the son-in-law said. There was no light, no light at all, Father.

–That is what happened to me, María Apícula said, but I forgot to tell that part.

The priest waved her quiet. Go on.

–There was a tapping sound behind me, and I turned around, and there was a little person standing there.

–A little person? What kind of little person, the priest said.

–I couldn’t see it clearly. But it was coming toward me with one of its arms stretched out.

–Oh, God, María Apícula said. Her hand zoomed across her chest, crossing back and forth like a hummingbird among the flowers.

–Was it menacing you, the priest said.

–It is hard to say. I got out of there.

Fr. de Cabecera examined their faces. There was no hint of cleverness. They are looking to me, he thought. They are afraid and have need of a priest. He took an instructional tone: This is a serious matter. It is good that you sent for me.

–We thought we’d better, before you got dealt the death blow, Don Buenaventura joked.

Fr. de Cabecera talked over him: This does not sound like El Santo Niño. He does not go around frightening people.

María Apícula stopped crossing herself, her hand frozen in mid-flight. That’s right, Father, she said. He goes around helping people. He wouldn’t frighten a fly.

–He is a child, the priest added with authority. What is there to fear from a child.

The son-in-law stood there, hat in hand, thinking. But Father, he said. If it wasn’t El Santo Niño—bless his name—what was it, then?

–I do not know, the priest admitted.

–Oh Father! María Apícula cried. It is coming for you! Just as Cochimí Juan foretold.

Fr. de Cabecera felt a sudden apprehension. Do not talk nonsense, he said.

–Sail away from here, she cried. Go tonight before something happens.

The priest swallowed. I will go when it is my time to go. I am not afraid.

–Of course he is not afraid, Don Buenaventura said. He is only standing there with his hand upon his neck.

–Absurdity, Fr. de Cabecera said. But he peered into the open door of the church and María Apícula went back to blessing herself.

 

 

The next morning, everyone in San Ignacio was talking—the cattle ranchers and the keepers of the shops and the sailors who had deserted their whaling ships and the two Frenchmen who believed in liberté and their Mexican wives and all the people of the town. They were talking about whether the peripatetic Santo Niño de Atocha and the coming death of Fr. de Cabecera were connected.

–I do not feel ill, the priest insisted. But still some of the women clung to him and cried.

–An accident, Father, they said. What about an accident?

Fr. de Cabecera could not get any work done. Everyone looked at him with sympathy and he felt that no one was taking him seriously. He decided to take matters into his own hands. He decided to visit Cochimí Juan at the hut where the old man lived at the edge of town.

As the priest walked down the street, the people came out of their homes and raised their hands to him in a strange kind of salute that he had never seen before. María Apícula came out of her house and stood weeping into her shawl as he went by.

–Wait, Father, she called.

He went over to her. Stop your crying, he said. As you can see, there is nothing wrong with me.

–Oh, Father, she wailed. Don Buenaventura and I wanted to give you a fandango before you sailed.

–Well, give it then, he said. Nothing is stopping you.

María Apícula saluted him and hid her face in the shawl.

At last he came to the final hut. Cochimí Juan was sitting outside under the shade of the palm-leaf portico, smoking tobacco. He offered a cigarillo to Fr. de Cabecera, who took it and rolled it back and forth in his fingers.

–Hello, Father, Cochimí Juan said. I see that you have not died yet.

The priest sat down and came to the point. Do you consider yourself a sorcerer? he asked.

Cochimí Juan blew two streams of smoke through his nose.

–Because it is against the law of God to consort with sorcerers, Fr. de Cabecera said.

–I am not consorting with sorcerers, there aren’t any left to consort with.

Fr. de Cabecera fiddled with the cold cigarillo. And it is wrong to tell the future, he said.

–That may be so, Cochimí Juan said. Forget I said anything, Father. Wash it from your mind.

–Then you recant what you said?

–I recant it, Father. How fortunate for us that you will be around for a long time.

–Not very long, the priest said.

–A shame, Father, a real shame.

–What do you mean, a shame.

–Just that, Father.

The priest crushed the cigarillo under his sandal and turned to go. But then the man uttered a little noise behind his back. It was like the sound of pity, the clucking of a tongue.

–You did recant what you said?

–Indeed, Father.

The priest fingered his Adam’s apple. He is teasing me, he thought. No man can predict the future. He walked away. But he could feel Cochimí Juan’s eyes on him. It was as if he could see, without looking, the old man watching him and blowing smoke through his nose. Damned old charlatan, he thought. Tomorrow I will show these people what a priest is for and put an end to this whole business.

But before he retired for the night, he went into the church and checked to see that El Santo Niño was sitting properly in his niche.

 

 

Before dawn, the priest climbed the steps to the belltower. He surveyed the town. A warm wind was blowing. Stars were bright in the black fabric of the sky. The moon shone on the great copper bells, green with age and hanging austerely in their arches. He looked down upon the sleeping streets with satisfaction and took up the bell rope.

He pulled the rope and pulled it some more. He pulled with gusto. The low notes rang over the tops of the palms, across the arroyo, and out to the dark volcanoes that fringed the town. He woke the whole village and with pleasure he watched the people straggle out of their homes and into the plaza and to the steps of the church.

–What is it, Father? Don Buenaventura called.

The priest hurried down into the sanctuary and the people were waiting, rubbing their eyes and blinking.

–He is certainly no Father-of-the-pillow this morning, someone commented, which broke everyone up.

–Now listen, the priest said, trying to regain the solemnity.

He led them to the niche of El Santo Niño, which was vacant. The statue now rested in a glass coffin, the kind used to parade the saints in festivals. El Santo Niño lay in state, with a tiny silver padlock affixed to the lid of the box.

María Apícula looked concerned. I don’t think he likes it in there, she said.

–Can he breathe? another woman asked.

–Maybe make a little hole, the son-in-law added.

–I am not going to make a little hole, the priest said. I have placed El Santo Niño in the coffin to dispel this fantastical myth. To show you that he is not going around at night and there is nothing to fear.

–I can make a little hole for you, the son-in-law said.

–And another thing, Fr. de Cabecera went on. This business of the old Indian’s prediction. He has renounced it. So let that be the end of it.

The people looked unconvinced.

–And do not refer to me as Father-of-the-pillow.

 

 

The next morning when the priest had finished saying Mass, the air in the sanctuary was thick with esteem. No one made a joke of any kind. The people surrounded him. Children clasped his hands. Young men looked shy and waited for their chance to speak to him about their beloveds. Mothers pushed the young men forward. Young women stood near with coy faces and pretended they didn’t know what the young men were about to do. Fathers stood around the edges, hiding smiles behind the canopy of their moustaches and remembering their own young loves.

Fr. de Cabecera was enjoying the whole thing when he happened to glance to the rear of the church. A figure stood in the shadows, beside the bright square of the doorway, bent over slightly so his head came straight out from his back. Like a vulture, the priest thought. Like a damned zopilote hanging about, trying to unsettle me.

He wheeled around. I will hear confessions, he told the crowd in a bright voice.

–Are you all right, Father? María Apícula asked. You’re as pale as wax.

–I am fine, Fr. de Cabecera said. Stop looking at each other like that.

When the priest dared to glance at the back of the church again, the figure was gone.

–What is it, Father? Don Buenaventura asked.

Everyone turned around. They all looked toward the glass coffin where El Santo Niño de Atocha lay smiling benevolently at the ceiling.

–Never mind, the priest said. You should all be thinking about your confessions. Once I am gone you will wish you had the chance to unburden yourselves. You will remember how fortunate you were to have a priest.

He hurried past El Santo Niño to the back of the church. He stepped into the wooden confessional box, the small and creaky animal stall bedecked with red squares that corralled images of angels and saints and devils. He plopped down on the bench and pulled the curtain closed. One by one the people knelt beside the screen. The sins were all familiar—the petty thefts, the boring liaisons, the uncharitable thoughts. He fell into a rhythm and the ritual fell from his lips. María Apícula came and cried a little but restrained herself, and Don Buenaventura had trouble being somber but did his best. Fr. de Cabecera gave light penances and everyone thanked him and blessed him. He was just reaching for the curtain when a shadow fell across the lattice.

–It has been one year since my last confession, a voice said.

Fr. de Cabecera felt a sudden chill. What do you want, he said.

–Why, simply to confess.

–Then kneel down.

–I am already kneeling, Father.

–Yes, well, make the sign of the cross.

He could see the hand moving and he hurried on with rehearsed speech: When you last confessed, did you omit some sin because of shame? Have no fear, because even under pain of death, I am bound to tell no one.

–Under pain of death, Father?

The priest’s hand went to his throat and he felt the giant lump of his Adam’s apple plunging as if to push something out of the way. He suddenly thought of all the things that could happen to him. Things that could snuff out his life like the stub of a wick. A ship lost at sea. A sliver of bone caught in the throat. A thorn piercing his foot, blacking out his leg and then his life. It is coming for you, María Apícula had said.

He rushed on at random: Did you act reverently at Holy Mass? How many times were you talking with others, sleeping, or making signs at the women? You must confess everything, for every man must die, but he does not know when.

–All right, Father. There is something.

The man leaned into the lattice. Fr. de Cabecera could make out the moving lips, and smell the tobacco upon the breath. The words slipped through the little holes and came into the booth like smoke.

–I lied.

The priest sat back and clasped his hands. I knew it, he said. You admit before me and before God that you lied.

–Yes, Father. I lied about lying.

–What?

–I told a man that I had lied. But I did not. So I lied, about having lied.

–What kind of nonsense is this. The priest put a hand to his forehead.

–What is the matter, Father. Have you fallen ill.

The priest snapped upright. No, I haven’t fallen ill. For God’s sake.

–May El Santo Niño bless you, Father.

–El Santo Niño. Why do you mention him.

–I am very devoted to all the saints, Father.

The priest swallowed. Tell me without any of your strange contortions. To whom did you lie?

The man was silent. But the priest could see the form of him, could hear the dry, rattling, tobacco breath.

–Well? the priest said.

All at once a group of children came rushing into the church, chasing a dog and squealing in mock horror. Fr. de Cabecera saw the figure rise and move away and he could hear the stamping feet and the scrabble of nails on the stone floor and the barking, and the laughter and commotion went out and grew faint in the open air.

–Don’t you wish to hear your penance, the priest called out. Don’t you wish to be absolved. Here, one act of mercy, and . . .

But he was alone. He came trembling out of the box. He wiped his brow and went to the door and looked out. White clouds with gray undersides spread their wide shadows on the ground and on the hills. The dog clicked up the steps and sought to slip inside. Fr. de Cabecera blocked it with his knee.

He could see Cochimí Juan moving down the street, the children laughing and hanging from his hands. He was just an old dilapidated figure who rocked from side to side as he walked. What is there to fear, the priest told himself. Soon I shall be gone.

 

 

In the late hours, the priest cloistered himself inside his study to read. His poor poisoned predecessor—que en paz descanse—had kept a comfortable room. He had left behind a telescope to look at the stars, and a water clock with a bell to awaken him in the night for prayer. He had ledgers where he wrote in slight feminine hand about wheat, and corn, and how many cows, bulls, mules, and donkeys. He had a rough desk hewn from mahogany, transported all the way from Honduras. And he had shelves and shelves of books. There were books on architecture and theology, books on astronomy and diet, and small tomes of verse that stirred the higher thoughts in a man. There were books on animal husbandry and books about herbs, on metallurgy and diseases of the blood, and one little book simply on filigrees. Fr. de Cabecera added his own books of prayer and books on seeds, and a book about cacao that served him no purpose but reminded him of the cloister at Merced.

He was disquieted and annoyed at his own disquiet, worn out from doing good for a people who made light of him. Whatever he did, or said, they seized upon it as an excuse for ridicule. They would never think of blessing me for getting up at all hours, he thought. For being at every man’s disposal. No, Father-of-the-pillow never sleeps!

Why, without a priest they would be blissfully content. Left to their fandangos and intrigues. They are hooked on any commotion. Hoping even that something terrible should occur. Did they know what he had left behind to attend them? What any priest had?

He got up and paced the floor. I should ride away tonight. What would it matter? Some time at the coast awaiting passage; all could be explained later to the bishop and—he dared think—there is always absolution.

He poured himself a glass of wine. He swallowed it and poured himself another. They will congratulate themselves for having driven me away, he thought. And to think that in some other place I might have done some good. Why shouldn’t I leave tonight?

But then he should ever be a mockery. Father-of-the-pillow who feared the very Christ Child. They would all have a good laugh. The stories might even follow him to Merced. Rather than Father-who-is-the head, he would be remembered as Father-Feet, or Father-Flight, or something worse.

He went to the door and pulled the leather latch to the inside. A line of weak moonlight showed beneath the shutters. He swallowed and listened to the sounds outside the window. He heard horses whickering and nightbirds in the fruit trees and an old woman’s voice drifting across the plaza and another answering it.

He sat down at the desk with his bottle and a dark volume before him. It had a greasy spine and frayed page-ends, wrapped in a black cowhide that was beginning to crack. He drew the candle close and bent low over the pages. There were women tied to stakes with flames like fat foxtails reaching to their waists, and men cowed at the feet of jaunty, high-booted executioners. There were whole groups of martyrs in flames, their arms stretched away from the heat. There were poor men extended on racks and hung from trees, and an image of a man with a single arrow shot clean through his throat. There was even an image of a child being stoned, pitted and pitiful face looking up to the sky. Underneath each figure appeared a tiny inscription, something like: He thus received the crown so richly merited, or, She was welcomed into the court of the Heavenly King.

He leaned back. He had dribbled wine on himself. The dark droplets bloomed against the white tunic. He stood and went to the pegs where the clean garments hung, pausing to touch the gentle folds of the chasuble, shining with its flowery golden grapevines.

He looked around the room. He could abandon it all without a care. They have not learned a single moral lesson that will not fall away the moment I am gone. And mockery on top of that.

He was a fallow vineyard, a barren branch to be lopped off. He had not so much as a single grape to his defense. His throat went dry. No wonder El Santo Niño was coming for him. The hour of his pruning was at hand.

Suddenly something tapped. He saw a shadow move across the line of moonlight under the door and he could hear the scraping of feet in the dust.

His voice was small and stuck. Another tap came, and another. The tapping grew loud and insistent. He tried to rasp out a warning, and he tried again and at last his voice found purchase and he cried: Who is it?

Suddenly the jovial voice of Don Buenaventura echoed through the door.

–Good evening, Father! he called. Share some wine with me? Come to my rooms! Do not spend your evening alone!

The priest opened the door. He stood shivering in the blotted tunic, his fingers pressed over the stains.

–I see you have already begun! the mayordomo exclaimed. He took Fr. de Cabecera’s arm and led the priest to his compartment, settled him in a chair beside the great fire, and poured him a glass.

–What is distracting you, Father? Don Buenaventura asked. Come now, let me be your confessor!

Fr. de Cabecera settled back. Here in the sitting room, the tallow candles warming the walls with yellow light, the red wine and the happy creak of the chair under his host’s vast cheerful restlessness—his troubles seemed absurd.

–It has something to do with that old Cochimí! Don Buenaventura cried. Admit it, Father! When there was no priest, I learned how to read men as well as any cleric. Don’t tell me his predictions have made you anxious!

–No, Fr. de Cabecera said. And in any case, he renounced it as a lie.

The priest swallowed and added, But of course even without a renunciation, no man can foretell the future.

–I am not so certain, Don Buenaventura said. What about our former friar, may he rest in peace!

     Fr. de Cabecera felt something lodge in his esophagus. He reached for his glass. A little panic crept over him. He had seen cows with growths in their throats, lumps that eventually choked and killed them. He wondered if the same thing was afflicting him. He hadn’t remembered that the prominence on his neck was so large. Had it always been so? He couldn’t swallow. He gathered some saliva and forced it down and took another swig of drink.

Don Buenaventura leaned close and stared into Fr. de Cabecera’s eyes. All mirth was gone. Take care, Father, he said. He lifted a finger and emphasized every word: I urge you, take very good care.

Fr. de Cabecera fingered his neck.

Don Buenaventura laughed a hearty laugh and slapped his leg. I speak in jest, Father! he cried. Give that prediction no credence. Oh, your face, Father!

The priest laughed weakly and Don Buenaventura poured him another glass. Don’t worry, the mayordomo said. If something happens, we’ll bury you with all the fanfare we can muster. Pillow and all!

 

 

Fr. de Cabecera could not sleep. He walked the town. The families were in their homes and he could hear laughter drifting up from the inner courtyards. He loitered outside the wall, straining to hear his name, but could make nothing out. A man came lurching up the street, tilted on drink. The priest pressed into the shadows and waited for the man to pass. What good did a sermon ever do.

He circled back. At his doorway María Apícula stood huffing and half folded-over. Father, she cried. El Santo Niño is gone.

–The coffin is gone?

–The coffin is there. El Santo Niño is gone. I couldn’t sleep, I went to pray. The lock is fastened tight and he is gone.

The priest’s hand went to his throat. That old Cochimí, he said. Playing a trick on me.

He pushed into the room and tried to shut the door but the woman followed. She plucked at her chin hairs, in her anxiety determined to rout one. No, Father! she said. That statue has turned vindictive, I can feel it. Bury it! Bury it and go away from here tonight!

Fr. de Cabecera wiped his hands on his robe and attempted a joke: How can I bury it when it is missing.

–Bury it when it comes tap-tap-tapping back to find you, María Apícula said. She snatched up the candle, grasping it like an aggrieved spirit, and looked furtively into the night. It was beyond any masquerade of which she was capable. He peered into the darkness. His dread began to rise.

Suddenly she grasped him and hung from him. Don’t go, Father! He pried her loose and she gripped the corner of his tunic and he nearly toppled.

He pulled free and straightened himself. His hour had come.

–Return home and wait, he said.

–No, Father, she clucked.

He tried to pat her shoulder and the gesture came off wrong. He tapped her a few times and said, I am your priest. I am telling you to go home.

She clutched his hand and kissed it and looked to cry again and he spun her away.

He went out. A cat skittered sideways as he went by. Alone in the night, his resolve disappeared and he glanced about. His hair stood prickling. The church glowed white in the moonlight, its windows round, vacant eyes. He was swallowed by the dark mouth of the door as he went in.

The air was cool and it swirled about him like a vapor. He shivered and crept through the nave. The saints in their niches were watchmen and every one of them waved the palm leaf of martyrdom; with upturned eyes they yearned to fly from the agony of their pedestals. His feet shuffled and echoed in the high chamber and the cold was like a curtain to be pressed through.

–Santo Niño! he cried. Doves scattered to the high windows, fanning the air, flapping and settling. His voice rebounded, calling to himself. He covered his ears.

He passed the empty niche of El Santo Niño and the vacant coffin. Candles caught the glass and became myriad.

–Santo Niño! he cried again. A bat flickered out and he stumbled back. It was only a juvenile, no bigger than a wrinkled date. It flitted up and disappeared into the blackness.

He looked ahead. El Santo Niño de Atocha was there, perched on the first step before the altar. Fr. de Cabecera trod forward. The gilded saints watched from their frames.

El Santo Niño smiled. He held the basket and the staff. The embroidered crimson cape lay about his shoulders. The frilly collar of his blouse was starched and his feet were tidy in their sandals.

Fr. de Cabecera stopped. So there are no prisoners hereabouts, he said. You come to torment me instead. Not a single captive anywhere to be found?

El Santo Niño did not answer. The feathers of his fluffy plume fluttered in the unseen currents of the candleflames. The priest came closer.

Its facepaint was cracking. The amiable red lips in shards, the terrazzo cheeks, the dark eyes rent by veins of white, as lightning. Fr. de Cabecera stood before the saint—revered and ridiculous—and was beheld by him in turn. The priest saw in the eyes a benevolence that terrified him. The gaze was keen; the basketed hand extended. He detested the charity he perceived there.

–You dare to pursue me! he cried. He gripped the statue, rattling it by the shoulders. One of the arms gave way; he could feel it flopping inside the puffed sleeve. He flushed with rage and ferried El Santo Niño back to its niche. He sat the statue hard upon the wicker chair. One of the eyelids closed and opened.

Fr. de Cabecera turned away. He marched down the aisle, dusting his hands on his tunic. He hove the door shut behind him and strode down the steps. Through the side courtyard and the little garden and past the rooms of Don Buenaventura, rooms that should have been his, the large ones adjoining the sacristy. His own narrow door was ajar. He pressed his fingers to his forehead; a vein was raging there. The world slipped into fog. He pushed against the door. María Apícula and the son-in-law rushed to him.

–Father, María Apícula cried, blessing herself. You live!

–Are you all right, Father? the son-in-law asked.

Fr. de Cabecera tried to speak but found he could not. A peculiar, bird-like sound emerged instead. He drooped into the chair, listing to one side, rudderless. He felt he was slipping underwater. The man and woman rippled before him, righted, and floated away again. He paddled with hands like tight little boxes that could not be opened.

In the coming days, everyone from the town visited the sickroom of Fr. de Cabecera. The shopkeepers. The sailors. Women of dubious repute. Young men and their young loves. The Frenchmen who believed in fraternité. The son-in-law. María Apícula, who brought a little pillow covered in tears and stitched prayers and wellwishes. And Don Buenaventura, who sat by the bedside of the priest and comforted him with jovial stories and spoonfuls of wine.

The people brought little gifts: baskets of brown sugar and chocolate and soft cowhide slippers and their confessions. They changed his bedding and cooled his brow and succored him with broth. Fr. de Cabecera lay with eyes and mouth open, scarcely blinking, watching the people in a state of wonder at the many hands upon him.

As for Cochimí Juan, he did not visit the ailing priest. Ailing himself, he went north and found himself at the coast where some other Cochimí were living, and he settled with them. Strictly speaking, they were not his own people, but there was a shared understanding, and they welcomed him. There were other old men there. They spoke of things of import like the changing skies, and what prophecies they knew, and the future of the people, and the need to hold fast together, as they were doing this very moment.


A. Muia lives in Skagit Valley, Washington. “The Coming Death of Father-of-the-Pillow” is part of a novel-in-stories set in Baja California, Mexico. Other chapters have appeared in Image Journal and Zymbol Magazine.

Poetry by Sarah Rupp

Remunerative Labor

Where is my husband? All the rocks are pillowing down on me. Town square… Too many cats… All that, all that.

Yoo-hoo. I think my husband is cheating on me. If you’ve seen him, you would know. He has two sets of teeth.

My stomach contains an open grave. Limit yourself to two cats. Or your husband will.

I’m humbled by the mess of the starlings. Every husk has its time. They cloud up the skies. They are hundreds and more together than I’ve ever been with anyone. Somebody ran over an alligator. It is flat on Park Avenue.

I have nightmares where I find more kittens. I take ice baths. The indexical heat map shows the south on fire. Not Argento’s red and not the robin’s.

I never had a husband. The goats whisper to me on my promenade. I don’t compost but I put all peels under a shrub outside. I leave water ostensibly for dogs. But also for possums. I translate the YouTube speeches of birds.

My husband is salty with me. He wants me cured. He doesn’t know what the what I do. I’ve only ever seen his back. He was at a writing desk. He was at a bar. I was behind him, folding and refolding wet laundry.

I have fumigated this room of ghosts. I swept up bombs and glowworms. Imagine how long it took me. Doubt it, then double it. Triple it. Now I’ve opened everything. I am letting it all out. I want a pill that guarantees I do not have a single parasite. Not even the good ones.

The fleas have died. There is no breeze. Sublime still came on through the neighbor’s radio. I laughed until I coughed and wept. Boo-hoo. Love is… all he’s got. Sublime is in a dark room with a lost dalmatian. He hasn’t seen anyone in years. He’s not angry that the dog smokes pot. There must be ventilation in their box. Maybe he’s my husband. The man. The dog.

I have come all this way to hear you heckle me. I have come all this way because a bird hit my windshield. I have come all this way because my three cats have started a countdown. I do not know how they will finish it. Or when. But I don’t want to end up like Sublime.

It started when I put bowties on the kittens like I did to all my husbands. They eye me through the periscopes of their prehensile tails. To you tell the truth, I don’t think I have any cats. I don’t not have anyone, though. I have a few. They are better than husbands. Similar to cats.

Husband or no husband, in the rain or darkness I’ll be your guide. Here is a dance floor, here is a bingo hall. This is where I go. Soon I will be teaching a class on monsters. There is a drought and my office hours are daytime. These… are disappointments.

The cat is inspired to bite my pen. Now we kiss on the lips. He is twelve weeks old and probably my husband. Do you have kids. Where do you put your husband. Where do husbands go.

Why would my husband want a new lease on life. What could that ever, anywhere mean. I will ask my husbands, if they return. Have any leases ever gotten better. Maybe for the exceptional blackmailer. Not for me. I don’t have any credit. For a few years I lived in a mall.

I am on a workish lease and not allowed employment for the next three years. Everyday will be tiny monsters. I’ll have to feed them like my small husbands. Plus those damn melodramatic birds. I spoil them and I hate them. They remind me of thrifters and of myself.

There are so many monsters. I won’t know where to begin. Eleanor said, “With the husbands.”

While I marm it down, I will look for a moneymaker husband. He will be old and engrimed with semen. He will own large watches, oval glasses. I imagine him as a rusty Folgers can. I will shrink when he holds me and avoid looking at his nails. I am sorry to mention his nails. All kisses already smother me. I’ve never withstood the full duration of any hug. It doesn’t matter.

I’ll make him dinner and take his money. This will not break my other contract. It is not by the University’s legal standards Labor of Remunerative Nature. It is not, by their standards, labor at all.

 


*I can’t work, I got four bed rat / I can’t work / A bed rat / I  like the coke, a dry coke, then call Sarah / football’s on, Sarah! / Go on then, work forever, pork pie! / I thought I let them go, a dead rat / them four bed rats, then called Sarah / I got angry / I punched Paul the Rabbit, poor bed rat / “Football,” said Paul, then Brian let roar / I won’t get my bed by a bat / I can’t talk, they can’t blow a hair dryer / I can’t do it

 


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

Every 30 Seconds, fiction by Craig Burnett

Art: Fucking Åmål


/HER/

How did I spend 2002? Smoking on my own, screaming at my mum, and dropping fistfuls of gravel off the top of the car park in the town centre. I did other things too, obviously, but those three were my… hobbies, I suppose. The things I did in my spare time. That’s a question Madame Higgins would ask me in our French lessons – ‘qu’est ce que tu fais pour loisirs, Emma?’ I’d roll my eyes and say ‘je joues au tennis, je vois mes amis, et je vais au cinema’. I would have told her the truth, but we hadn’t learned ‘gravel’ or ‘car park’ yet. We never did, actually. Girls at my school weren’t expected to know about gravel and car parks. Maybe no-one learns the French word for gravel. Maybe it’s all paved over there.

Of those three activities, the gravel is the one I still think about. I’m nostalgic for it, in a way. Which is a shame, because it’s not the sort of thing you can go back and do again as an adult. My manager was in the Berkshire Youth Orchestra, and the string section still gets together 15 years later, to drink wine and eat lasagne and play the viola or whatever.

If I ever think about the screaming, I well up with shame, so strong it’s like a physical presence in my mouth and lungs. Something thick, maybe glue, or olive oil. Mr Simmons taught us that Mussolini’s fascists would fill their enemies up with olive oil, pour gallons of it into their bellies as a punishment. We didn’t buy olive oil in 2002, because dad had lost his job and we were on a budget. Mum talked about being on a budget all the time, or so it seemed to me. Holiday? Sorry Emma, we’re on a budget. Can’t buy you new shoes, we’re on a budget. I remember hearing about Fascist Italy and thinking, well, at least they had olive oil. God, I was awful.

/HIM/

2002? Don’t know mate. Mixed. Very mixed. Six months in adult detention. I’d done youth before, but not adult. Had my little boy though, my little warrior, and they couldn’t take him away from me, no fucking judge could take him away, ‘scuse my language. They’re alright I guess, most judges. But when they hear about my little boy they give me this look, as if I don’t know what I’ve done to him. As if I don’t think about him every minute of every day. As if the way they slag me off is ever going to hurt me like the look on that boy’s face when he hears I’ve been put away again. So yeah, I do know what I’ve done to my little boy, you stuck up, posh, wanker.

Sorry. You’ve got me going now. Anger problems, that’s what Dr Faysal said. That’s another thing from 2002. I met Dr Faysal. Against my will, mind. When they sent me down I was raging, but I knew if I sat tight I’d be out before Christmas. Then they tell me I should see a shrink. See if I’m loony, or whatever. No fucking chance, I say. You gave me six months, fair play, but now you want to tell me I’m crazy as well? Piss off.

Josh agrees. He’s the lad in my cell. I say to him: ‘thought adult would be better than youth for this – thought they’d leave you alone, stay out of your face.’ He smiles and gives me his Bible. Says: ‘this is better than any doctor – this is the only prescription you need, brother.’ I say I’ll give it a try, and he believes me, I reckon. Could have told him I was no good at reading, but you don’t want to let people down, do you? And he could go off, Josh could, so there was that too.

Nothing against church, and Jesus, and all that. Used to go when I was a boy, when I lived with my Gran. Liked the singing, but I could never get my head round God – one minute he’s supposed to be right next to you, then suddenly he’s everywhere. How’s that work, then? Gran said God was like a dad, a dad for the whole world. Once, I ask the vicar if Gran’s right. If God is like a dad. Vicar smiles and says, well, God is actually more of an idea than a physical presence. That’s a yes then, I think. Nice old geezer, the vicar. Used to see him puffing away round the back before we went in.

/HER/

The gravel came from three cracked concrete troughs that sat opposite the ticket machines at the top of the car park. The troughs probably had some plants in once, but by 2002 all they held was hundreds of thousands of tiny, milky grey stones, as well as a few cigarette ends and rusting cans. I went up there once or twice a week, climbing four flights of urine-smelling stairs with my headphones rammed tight in my ears. Not many people parked on the top floor, and the ones who saw what I was doing looked away quickly. At the time I thought they were scared of me, of my black hoodie and defiant nihlism. Thinking about it now, I’ve got a horrible feeling they were trying not to laugh. Mum rarely asked where I was going. This was infuriating, as it denied me a chance to scream at her about minding her own business.

I dropped the gravel into a quiet alley that ran between the car park and a DIY superstore. Some days I’d let the stones slip slowly through my fingers, one every 30 seconds, as a cigarette burned untroubled in my other hand. I rarely inhaled my cigarettes, on account of not really liking the taste. On other days I’d dump whole fistfuls of stones off in one go, then stomp back to the concrete troughs to grab some more.

/HIM/

First time I meet Dr Faysal, he’s going through my file. I sit down and say ‘well, if you read that, you’ll think it’s all bad’. Bit of a joke, you know? And he gets it, too. Looks up and gives me a big grin. I’ve tried that line with a few doctors now, probation workers too. They all love going through your file. Get off on it. But none of them ever smile. He was alright though, Dr Faysal. Let me bang on about any old rubbish – about my boy, about Josh, about the food in the canteen. His sort are normally just waiting to tell you how it is, ‘cause they think they’ve got you worked out the moment they see you. But he never told me how it is. I mean, he did in the end, but by then he’d sort of planted the seeds of what he was going to say in my head. So when he tells me I’m angry, been angry since I was a kid, I believe him. ‘Cause it felt like my words coming out of his mouth. And I’m no liar.

So I don’t mind seeing Dr Faysal. Even ask my probation worker if there are doctors like him on the outside. Good ones. She says there is, but there’s a waiting list or something. And I can see in her eyes it’s never going to happen, not for me. Stuff like that does my head in. Makes me want to kick off. That’s what got me arrested the next time, kicking off. Judge said criminal damage, but that’s ‘cause judges can’t put ‘kicking off’ on the forms. They got rules too, same as the rest of us.

/HER/

The gravel thing was about control, I suppose. The year before I’d tried throwing up on purpose, when everyone at school was doing it, but I could never get my fingers down my throat properly. Even after Jess Hardwick showed me how, in the toilets before double maths.

I never went down to the alley where the stones landed. I told myself it was because I didn’t care, but really I was worried there would be cars with chipped paintwork or smashed windscreens, and someone would ring my parents. Worrying was my other big thing in 2002. Worry got me out of bed and propelled me through the day. Once, for reasons I’ve maybe forgotten but more likely never knew, a teacher asked my class to write down all the things that made us anxious. Jess Hardwick wrote ‘giving bad blowjobs’ in massive letters, and all the girls around her started shrieking with laughter. Other people were putting things like getting fat and exams. But I didn’t write anything. I thought: who has the luxury of discrete, neatly-divisible worries? Mine were tangled into a thick revolting mass, like the slimy globs of hair you pull from a plughole.

Of course, deep down I was scared that my list might be the same as everyone else’s. I clung tight to the singularity of my life – how could my gothic self-portrait survive if I acknowledged my worries were shared by millions of other teenagers? The same logic drove my bizarre pastime. Who but a uniquely tortured soul would stand at the top of a commuter town car park for four hours, grimacing as the wind turned their face to cold metal? I was an effect searching for a cause. I was all back to front.

There was a neatness to my hobby, too. The smell of cigarettes stayed on my body, but after the day’s last stone fell to the ground – through drizzle, winter fog or the heavy air of a summer evening – I could skulk back home bearing no trace of my other, odder activity. Some of my friends cut themselves, hiding or exposing their scars in line with social rules that changed on a daily basis. The thought of marking my body like that, of carrying the me of today into tomorrow, made me shudder. I was not desperately unhappy in 2002. I was just waiting to start, as all 14-year-olds are.

The screaming outlasted the gravel dropping, but only by a few months. Soon I’d look back on both with confusion and embarrassment. Years later, as my parents prepared to move house, my mum unearthed the black hoodie at the back of a cupboard. ‘Your cocoon’ she said with a grin, as we drank coffee in their new kitchen. I rolled my eyes, for old time’s sake.

/HIM/

Been out two weeks and I’m in town. Saturday afternoon, so it’s rammed. The boy’s mum calls. Giving it all that. Because I ain’t rung her, because I don’t have no credit. Like if I try harder I can pull phone credit out of my arse, like I’m David fucking Blaine. Try to do my breathing, like Dr Faysal showed me, but I can’t. Not with everyone in my face. They’re all staring at me, watching me get wound up. She loves it. Calls me a dozy prick, says a sperm donor would have been more use. And that does it, sets me off, right off, and I chuck the phone across the street. Not hard. But hard enough, I reckon, ‘cause it goes right through a shop window. Then this Indian geezer come out, crunching the bits of glass under his feet.
I run. And now breathing’s easy, because when you’re legging it your breathing takes care of itself. Everything does, really. So I feel good. Well good. Like I’ve found my place of calm. That’s one of Dr Faysal’s – when the anger’s coming on, find your place of calm. Not a real place, but a place in your thoughts. A feeling you turn into a place. In your head. You know what I say to Dr Faysal, when he tells me about turning feelings into places? ‘And they think I’m the loony one’. We had a good laugh about that. He was alright, Dr Faysal. Anyway, I never thought I’d find my place of calm, until then. Just goes to show. I run past some plastic police outside the bus station, community officers or whatever, and soon they’re after me too.

Get to the alley at the back of the old car park, and my legs go. Plastic police getting closer, but I don’t mind. Place of calm, see? Hear a rattling, then something falls on my head. Like a raindrop, but sharp. Then another one, and another. Little stones. It’s raining little stones, next to the big DIY place in the middle of town. I look up, and I nearly get one in my eye. As the plastic police come round the corner, I remember what Josh says the night before I got out. He had some funny ideas Josh, after he’d smoked a bit of something. Anyway, he says we’re living in the end times, the end of the world, like in the Bible. Says soon there’ll be rivers of blood and people turning to snakes and rocks falling from the sky. So I’m smiling, even when I’m on the floor with the plastic police on top of me.

Josh was wrong, of course. There’s no end times. No beginning times either. ‘Cause nothing ever changes. Not really. You try telling that to the head doctors and probation workers though. They’re always asking about the future. ‘What are your goals, Mr Matthews? Where do you see yourself next year, Mr Matthews? How about in five years’ time, Mr Matthews?’ Makes me laugh. On and on about your future, like it’s anything to do with you. Lying in that alley, under the plastic police, I felt bad for Dr Faysal. ‘Cause he really believed in it. In all of it, in the breathing and the place of calm and the thinking about the future. But the future’s just like God, or your old man. It’s everywhere and nowhere, all at once.


Craig Burnett was born in Dundee and lives in South London, where he writes about awkward conversations, nasty surprises and the weight of the past. He has short stories published or forthcoming in Noble/Gas Qtrly, Tincture Journal, The Flexible Persona, Headland, the Glasgow Review of Books and elsewhere.

Poetry is the Language of Politics, SRL foreword no 21 by Alex Marsh

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times

We have recently witnessed a rise in the amount of poetry used by politicians in the leftist movement, especially British Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn. In recent speeches he has taken to quoting Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s The Masque of Anarchy- 1832, most notably the passage- “Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number! Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you: ye are many – they are few!

At the Durham Miners Gala, the incredible celebration of trade-unionism and working class culture in Britain, he quoted the breathtaking Full Moon At Tierz- Before The Storming Of Huesca.  This poem was written by John Cornford, a communist who was martyred as a member of the Spanish Republic, fighting against fascists in the 1930’s. The poem is said to show how “a hesitant and solitary being wills himself, in a kind of prayer to an absent Marxian deity. It is a rallying call for change, a radical and incredibly powerful one which Corbyn has chosen…

Time present is a cataract whose force
Breaks down the banks even at its source
And history forming in our hands
Not plasticine but roaring sands,
Yet we must swing it to its final course.
(2nd verse)

The language itself is violent and maps out what he wants from his movement, through using these poetic texts, Corbyn doesn’t have to mask anything through politispeak or spin. By taking and learning from older struggles and texts, he is looking to the future and galvanising us with its message.

This is why Corbyn is using poetry; because the poetry of protest and of the oppressed is the voice of the oppressed. It is clear and cutting. Verity Spott, the great radical British poet, has written about this on the blog Two Torn Halves. Spott discusses the numb ‘Britishness’ of our protests on the left, how our default is to go for witty banners and puns, the meaningless chants of ‘Hey Ho! Theresa May has to go!”, when we are faced with the violence of this Conservative government. When people with disabilities are being murdered by cuts to the National Health Service, is this form of language enough? Who are we scaring with this? Which exploited group of society are hearing or reading this and knowing the movement is behind them fully? When language is what we have, we have to make sure it has force behind it.

In this respect we can look to Corbyn. He is not alienating anyone with this language; the poems are shouted back to him as he recites them. People respond to them because they spark excitement and ring through the sludge of political discourse. As Spott argues: they meet violence with violence. The Labour manifesto ran with the motto “For the many, not the few” this election. The section of Shelley Corbyn recites ends with “Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you: ye are many – they are few!”. It is the same message of hope and progress but written 200 years before. In the Labour movement, all politics stem from emotions of anger, kindness and love, and nothing riles up these emotions  better than poetry. To coincide with a Labour front bench which actually resembles politicians who might stand for these things, I would argue now is the time for poetry to slink further into mainstream political discourse.


Issue no 21 will go live at 11am, BST on Sunday 30 July. It will feature fiction by:

Craig Burnett
A. Muia

Daniel Soliz
Erin Swan
Jade Wallace

poetry by:

Sarah Rupp
Xe M. Sánchez
Kim-Anh Schreiber

and non-fiction by:

Jeremy Klemin