Tag Archives: Issue 30

Poetry by Derek Annis

Breaking

mmHere I am again, on the flooded streets in the neighborhood of gray houses.  Wind has torn the roofs away, lifted children into trees with branches bare, twisted and splintered like bones. Water fills my boots. Look, there goes Lisa, floating by in her blue Geo Metro, turning the wheel to no avail, brake lights flashing like Christmas. There’s no stopping her. I don’t try. The top floor of my house is engulfed in flame. I save what I can, but can’t find my signed books or any of the kittens. The sky is orange with an absence of birds. Smoke sings to my eyes. The old man across the street retrieves his collection of antique typewriters, the keys torn off and strewn across the lawn below the rising water, and look, there go all his letters, right down the storm drain. I walk up the block to join Justin and his murdering father and the rotting top half of his mother on their porch to drink whisky from tippy cups. Justin’s the same  as he always was: eleven years old and perfectly comfy in the cold, watching broken bits of his home go under. We toast my burning house, take turns jumping from the steps just for the splash.

 

Derek Annis is the author of Neighborhood of Gray Houses, which will be released by Lost Horse Press in March, 2020. Their poems have appeared in The Account, Colorado Review, Epiphany, The Gettysburg Review, The Missouri Review Online, Spillway, Third Coast, and many other journals.

 

Poetry by Ibukun Adeeko

Hourglass

               

Not that you miss the dimensions like a bird, tender, trying

mmmmTo reach the end of the world. They’re and

You’re. Like this. The breadth and the length.  There

mmmmIs a measure that is not in meters but how close

We’re and what of the other we can hold on to as anchor.

 

mmmmWe begin as we and then us and then not really

Knowing what, waiting to be solved, learning love by proximity

mmmmAnd how lost and fickle. Say fluid. Say the sinuous

Stairs meaning the current is life. Who sits in for a portrait now?

mmmmThe world begins at the bosom of love and defines

Us before it becomes the longing in the room all the voices never

mmmmLeft and the light is a country of the flight bird

Trying to reach the end of a world, the length and the breadth,

mmmmKnowing memory wears what it wears near

To clichés, but never clichéd though in a repetitive winged garb.

 

Say flight. Say glide. Say the stairs landing span.

mmmmThe world sits on an arc of pressing questions, brewing life;

How far have we gone from each other? Can you reach me now?

mmmmMemories make utility of longing like unintended

Language, dumb burning mementos of once known kiss rising, bones

mmmmWeakened beneath the knees still weakening as

Music sinks in the course of the body in worn out boots like lazy footsteps

mmmmOn distant mountain where wind shapes ballads on leaves.

 

That’s as though you are out to the field and the world is a home of

mmmmUnending strive, distance having its language,

mmmmWhat you try to hold from the bird on the horizon,

What holds you to a trembling hurtling gear or a sacred tender

mmmmItch? Look again. You are soothing illogical arc and a world

Reshaping—the length and the breath—what have you

mmmmMeasured now; what love isn’t redemption?

Everything you own now are like new eyes, new hands like lifting

mmmmFrom a burner as evergreen wild. Look again.

Like this. Like this. The cameraman says take position here.

mmmmLike this. Like this. Time passes. Say everything

Caught. Say everything uncaught. A flight bird as

mmmmA passing water between lovers, a lifetime

At the opened jaw of a fire.

 

Adeeko Ibukun is an award-winning Nigerian poet. He was awarded the 2nd Prize in the Sentinel All-Africa Poetry Competition in 2012 and his poem, “A Room with a Drowning Book,” won the 2015 Babishai Niwe African Poetry Prize in Uganda. Ibukun was also a guest at the Lagos International Poetry Festival and Ake Arts and Book Festival in 2015. He lives and writes in Abeokuta, Nigeria.

Non-fiction by Karen Petersen

An Indonesian Story

In memory of Peter Matthiessen

 

I had only been in Sumatra for a few days when the fever first took over.  I’m not sure where it came from but the sweltering environment was so fetid anything could have been the culprit.

On the plane one person had told me a story that had just appeared in the local news a few days earlier, of a Westerner who had cut himself shaving and three days later had to be airlifted out to a hospital in Bangkok due to a virulent, life-threatening infection which he’d developed as a result.

So it was no surprise that one day I was fine, and the next I wasn’t.

The Northern capital of Medan was a booming oil town, home to more kamikaze drivers on its crazed streets than anywhere else on Earth, except perhaps Bangkok or Cairo. So between the drivers and the deadly humidity it seemed smart to get out of there as soon as possible.

I found Jeksin, my dark-haired Batak guide, at a local travel agency.  He was a good driver, and we drove slowly on the road out of town.  He told me it was not as tortuous as it had been a decade ago, and we passed many colorful tropical fruit stalls overflowing with exotic mangosteens, durian, guavas and strawberries.

We’d decided to head off to Lake Toba, to the lands of the Karo Batak, a proto-Malay people who lived in big raised longhouses whose soaring reed roofs looked like giant ship prows. These Batak were known for their fondness for human blood pudding, and in the 1820s, the Englishman, Raffles, had written that “It is usual for the people to eat their parents when too old to work.”  And for certain crimes, criminals would be eaten alive: “The flesh is eaten raw or grilled, with lime, salt and a little rice.”

I felt my appetite for lunch rapidly disappearing.

“The last time a Batak ate someone was in 1974…”  Jeksin laughed good-naturedly, showing off his gold capped teeth.  “He thought his girlfriend didn’t love him any more so he killed and ate her.  But after going to jail for a few years he reformed and now he’s a Christian missionary!”

He laughed heartily.

This information was creepy enough, and it turned out Jeksin’s idea of amusing himself was to take a short cut and drive us to a longhouse deep in the forest where the oldest inhabitant could remember eating human flesh.

“Don’t you want to meet her?” he said with a wicked grin as we turned down a narrow dirt road.

I felt both repulsed and fascinated, but my rising fever had filled me with a kind of reckless abandon so I said, “OK, sure!”

As we drove deeper into the forest, Jeksin pointed out that some of the longhouses we passed dated back more than two hundred years.  Capped at either end by a set of buffalo horns, the beams and posts of these multi-family dwellings were decorated with mosaics from the alchemy of animism, with extravagant carvings of lizards, serpents, and monster heads—motifs that one finds in most Batak art.

We rolled to a stop in a clearing and got out.  As we climbed up the longhouse ladder out of the bright sunshine into the gloom, I began to have a sense of foreboding. The entry into the dim, smokey interior was through a trapdoor, and inside, out of the darkness, a toothless old woman, eyes rheumy and distant, came and pressed my hand in welcome before fading back into the shadows.  Seeing her aged face, a face that had witnessed an earlier Sumatra of feuding kings and cannibals, it was all I could do to keep from yanking my hand away, convinced she was checking it out for fat content and tastiness.  Although ritual cannibalism was now a thing of the past, even as late as 1990 the worst insult a Batak could say to someone was “I pick the flesh of your ancestors from my teeth.”

Temporarily blinded by the dark and smoky inside, as my eyes adjusted I could see the old woman was dressed in typical Karo Batak style—a geometrically brightly woven wrapped skirt and shoulder scarf, complete with what looked like a large black mushed pillow on her head.  As she came forward again her eyes were burning and red. This was probably from the smoke of the small fire but to me she seemed like an apparition from Hell.

Her face was deeply wrinkled and her hands knobby and arthritic. She had these massive silver earrings called padung-padung, which were attached from her twisted earlobes into her headdress. She peered into my face intently, and suddenly grabbed my upper arm tightly and squeezed it so hard that I cried out and pulled back but she wouldn’t let go.

The driver said, “She’s checking you out. She wants to feel how much fat you have. Fat makes the meat much tastier. Your cheeks, upper arms and thighs are particularly good. I’ve heard that we taste like a nice cut of pork. They call us long pig.”  He laughed.

A chill ran down my spine. I was on the slender side so I hoped the old woman was disappointed. “Very funny,” I replied. “I think it’s time to go!”

++++

On the way to lunch in the small highland Karo Batak town of Brastagi, situated in a fertile area noted for abundant flowers and lush vegetation, we drove past some distinctive large wooden stilt houses that dotted the countryside—simple structures topped by high, sharply-pointed, curved bow roofs made with sugar palm fiber or corrugated iron.

When we arrived at the spacious and comfortable Bukit Kubu Hotel in Brastagi, a waiter dressed in a striped Batak “ulos” fabric of dark blue, red, and white offered us a welcome drink of marquisa fruit, a sweet, thirst quenching orange-colored passion fruit found here and in Sulawesi.  “Let’s go take a look at the pasar,” Jeksin said.

Only a ten minute walk away, the local pasar, or market, of this charming town was filled with booths offering small appetizing cakes made from coconut, rice flour and palm sugar, and many colorful examples of ulos, the woven rectangular cloth worn on festive occasions and traditionally used to bless the bride and groom with harmony, unity and fertility.  Jeksin pointed out many rumah makans, small eating places which served a regional cuisine that was simple but tasty.  He enthusiastically recommended babi pangung, juicy roast pork, washed down with a good swig of tuak, a popular drink of fermented palm sap that he said made him feel like Superman.  For $1.50 I could also eat various fried rice dishes (nasi goreng), fried chicken (ayam goreng), or Chinese food.

Although I was badly in need of a nap, we left soon after lunch only to find that the winding road from Brastagi to Prapat, the main tourist town on the northern shore of Lake Toba, had more twists than a corkscrew.  We kept ourselves sane by singing the tongue-twister Jeksin had taught me in Batak: “Batak Botak Bakai Batik Bintik Bintik Batuk Batuk,” or in English: “The bald-headed Batak man, wearing a sporty batik, is coughing.”

After a dizzying two hour descent through mountain forests of pine trees and glimpses of brilliant blue water, we finally came face to face with the vast lake of Lake Toba, the largest in Southeast Asia. The local town had a seemingly endless array of hysterical vendors and their souvenir stalls.  Having read the travel brochures earlier I had somehow expected Prapat to be a rustic lakeside town, not an Indonesian tourist trap.  Although legend has it that all Bataks are descendants of Si Raja Batak, a hero ancestor of supernatural parentage who was born on a holy mountain next to the lake, he’d roll in his divine grave if he could see the place now.

However our time in Prapat was thankfully short, for the real gem of Lake Toba lay in its center, on Samosir Island.  Here the fierce heart of Batak culture had been preserved in small villages like Tomok, Ambarita and Tuk-Tuk, all a half hour away from Prapat by ferry or motorboat.

But it became immediately clear that rampant souvenir mania was not restricted only to Prapat.  The shopkeepers of Tomok eyed our approaching ferry with all the care of a spider approaching its victim, and their rush towards my wallet was unfortunately even more hysterical here than in Prapat.  It was in Tomok that I experienced the only ugly event my entire time in Sumatra, when, without asking, a wizened shopkeeper snatched a large rupiah note out of my hands, screaming at me all the while in pidgin English and Bahasa Indonesian to let her keep it.  She refused to give it back until another shopkeeper tactfully intervened, but only after giving me a push for good measure and snatching my cheap souvenir out of my hands and flinging it contemptuously on the ground.  This display of bad manners is especially rare in Asia, where keeping face and a sense of Confucian decorum is valued highly.  And the entire incident seemed all the more nightmarish because of my rising fever.

Once the gauntlet of stalls was run, however, I came upon some fine old Toba Batak houses and carved megalithic stone coffins embellished with grotesque three horned, bulging-eyed gargoyles.  Both Ambarita and Tuk-Tuk were more easy-going places than the desperation of Tomok, and Ambarita was famous for a group of stone chairs and a table several hundred years old, popularly known as the cannibal king’s dinner table.  It was here that serious offenders to the village adat, or custom, were dispatched by beheading, and the locals thoroughly enjoyed recounting to me how the body was carved up and eaten al dente.  Politely listening to them, I could feel my stomach roiling and lost all appetite for dinner.

Perhaps the most unusual of the Batak traditions that still survive today is the Si Gale Gale puppet dance.  Although its origins are unclear, one story has it that a lonely, childless widow from Samosir Island had the puppet made after her husband died, and hired a puppeteer to make it dance for her and recall the husband’s spirit.  The puppet, a life-sized likeness of a Batak youth, is carved from the wood of the sacred banyan tree, the tree of life.  Draped in a red ulos and turban, the puppet wears a blue sarong and dances before a mesmerized audience to the music of a gamelan orchestra.  Its real-life gestures such as weeping or smoking a cigarette are produced by an extremely skilled puppeteer, called a dalang, who generally performs at funeral or wedding ceremonies.

But this was just one example of the rituals of daily life that went on throughout this region, regardless of the tourist.  It was refreshing to see, in the hot afternoon sun on a small hill near Tuk-Tuk, a young Batak child in an ulos fabric t-shirt, romping through the grass catching dragonflies and singing.  He had been clever the way children of all centuries have been clever, and tied a palm leaf into a circle and allowed a spider to build its web in it.  With this natural insect net he was amusing himself and for a minute time stopped.  This could have been the twenty first century, or any moment in the island’s history.

I spent the night at a small hotel nearby, where in the evening, local musicians, famous throughout Indonesia for their powerful operatic voices, came to sing beautiful, melancholy songs and play carved reed instruments, two-stringed violins, and small gongs, not unlike those found elsewhere in Asia.  It was soothing to listen to, and in my delirium I was transported, and suddenly felt very, very far away from the West.

++++

We left very early the next morning since I didn’t want to push my luck and miss the feeding of the orang-utans at the Gunung Leuser National Park. The Bukit Lawang orang-utan feeding station on the eastern side of the park was about 5 hours from Lake Toba. Other than small monkeys, I’d never seen any of the larger primates in the wild, and was very keen to see these, especially since they were becoming more and more endangered as the years went by.

Orang-utans were called people of the forest by the Indonesians and were almost 5ft tall and about 200 lbs. Cheek flanges for a mature male made him look like he got hit in the face with a big black pancake with two little holes for eyes. These fellows could be quite terrifying, especially when you realized they can rip you apart in less than a minute.

Jeksin decided to hang out by the car and smoke a clove cigarette so I went down the marked trail by myself. I’d been walking into the rainforest for about 10 minutes and hadn’t seen or heard any orang-utans. But this park had all sorts of wildlife and was a good place for gibbons, pigtail macaques, and hornbills.

I came around a bend and found one of the orangutan feeding platforms up in the trees so I stopped and waited.

Suddenly, one by one, they began to appear, quite silently, all sizes and ages, nimble trapeze artists casually swinging through the canopy highway, heading for the platform.  Watching these ancient primates in awe, I knew to stay put, out of their way, especially when they were hungry and somewhat aggressive.

The forest rangers came up from another path and began to toss large bags of fruit onto the platforms. Then they moved on, deeper into the forest to another platform, and I was quite alone.  I watched the orang-utans for a while and as I turned to go I heard a noise behind me.

Coming up the path was a very large, very old, mature male orang-utan. He had splendid russet-colored fur and a white grizzled face. His small eyes looked at me with deep hatred and I felt a kind of deadly violence emanating from him.

So this is where it will all end, I thought. Killed by a damn orang-utan.

I couldn’t move forward because that was towards the feeding platform where I would definitely be asking for trouble, and if I moved towards this old thug he would perceive it as aggression and hurt or kill me.

So I slumped my shoulders and tried to look smaller, and looked away in a posture of non-aggression and deference. Seconds passed and I awaited my fate, trembling and sweating in fear.

He rapidly came up to within about 20 feet and then without warning abruptly turned off the trail into the forest towards the platform.

I didn’t move. Submission and patience was the best approach in this situation, but only for a while.  I waited too long because some of the younger orang-utans were now done eating and rather curious, had decided to take a relaxed passeggiata towards me. Shit!

I slowly began to back away, faster and faster, and when I came around the bend out of sight of the troop I never ran so quickly in my life. I knew they could outrun me and I kept on expecting one to land on my back and rip my head off but they didn’t and I burst out of the trail like a comet and begged Jeksin to drive off immediately, which he did.

Back in Medan it took hours for the adrenaline to fade away.  I found myself feeling very fluish and felt it was time to get out of there for good. However, I’d come halfway around the world and wasn’t ready to go home yet, fever or no fever.

Hoping to rest and recover quickly I got out of there the next day and hopped on a plane to the lavish home of a friend of a friend in Bali. When I arrived I found my host was a wealthy pirate from Sulawesi, a Bugi who owned a fleet of Macassar schooners, and he was one of the most exotic, handsomest men I’d ever seen. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Long black curly hair, soulful kohl rimmed eyes, gold earrings and a muscular smooth brown body clad only in a woven textile loincloth—I just stood there gaping before composing myself and thanking him for his hospitality. He was amused. He knew he was gorgeous but as a devout Muslim he was nothing but a proper host.

I wasn’t much of a guest though, because I spent a week in bed overcome by fever and pirate fantasies and was still feeling poorly when he knocked on my bedroom door and suggested I consider returning to America for treatment. It was clear I had some kind of rare virus and needed more help than a local doctor could give me.

So I reluctantly said goodbye and booked a flight to Los Angeles via West Papua. After all, although my fever was soaring by this point, I had come so far around the world I just had to see some of West Papua, especially having read Peter Matthiessen’s book “Under the Mountain Wall” a few years earlier. There, men killed each other easily and warred constantly in dark petty feuds where women, little children and pigs could all be stolen or contested.   Anything was fair game in the haunted and hidden landscapes of the Baliem Valley—a warning in hindsight that I should have paid more attention to.

++++

I arrived in Jayapura, the hot, humid capital, late in the afternoon, exhausted and dripping in sweat. On the way into town from the airport I’d had the driver stop at a small lean-to selling carved, rather somber-looking, wooden figures from the Asmat. I bought two long, slender male ones, each about two feet tall, both prominently featuring an erect penis.  The Asmat were a phallocryptic culture so this was to be expected, and they were strong and powerful looking figures.

There was only one hotel in town, old and moldy-looking, but thankfully I had a small room with an air conditioner.  Almost collapsing from fatigue, I lay down to sleep, and just as I was drifting off I felt the bed begin to move.

I sat up with a start, coughing, and looked around. Everything seemed fine. So I lay down again, feeling even sicker than before, and just as I was drifting off the bed began to move again.

I lay perfectly still and tried to think scientifically. Fully conscious, I looked down at the end of the bed and it was moving back and forth by a few inches.

I tried to think this through rationally. What the hell was going on?

I looked up at the light fixture on the ceiling. Perhaps we were having a slight earthquake. This region was in the Ring of Fire after all. Was it moving?

No.

I looked around the room. Was anything else moving?

No.

I got up and felt the mattress. Perhaps the bed springs were loose and the bed was shaking ever so slightly from my weight?  But it was fine. Solid as a rock.

Maybe there was a snake in the mattress? I’d heard of them slithering into the stuffing in these mattress factories in the Philippines and then popping out at some point. Jesus Christ.

I got up and went to the closet and got my camera monopod. I extended it and poked all around under the bed. Fearfully I lifted the mattress up but nothing was there.

I was truly perplexed.

I lay down again and tried to sleep. I was coughing more and more and felt a bit like I was drowning. The whole thing was weird. Finally, I began to drift off and again the bed began to shake.

This was ridiculous! I called down to the front desk and told the young Javanese clerk what was going on. “I’m not nuts, but can you come up and have a look around?” I asked him anxiously.

The poor fellow came up to the room and apprehensively looked around but found nothing.

“Can I change my room?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said, backing out slowly. “But all we have left is a small room.”

“That’s ok,” I replied, thinking anything to get out of here.

So I got all my stuff together and traipsed off to another room where I collapsed onto the bed, relieved. Now I could sleep at last!

As I began to sink into a deep sleep this new bed began to shake also, ever so slightly, but shake it did. And I woke up.

Nothing else in the room was moving but I was feeling horribly ill.

Was I hallucinating? I lay perfectly still and watched the bed trembling, my mind perfectly clear.

Suddenly it hit me. I had to get out of that hotel. I could barely breathe and desperately needed fresh air. It was the air conditioning!

I looked up at it and it was filthy. Black and grimy, filled with dust, it obviously had never been cleaned. Who knew what kind of horrible microbes lurked in there? In my compromised medical state that thing was making me sicker, much sicker, and I felt it would kill me unless I got out of there.

I left my things in the room and raced down to the front desk.

“It’s your air conditioning—it’s making me sicker! Has it ever been cleaned?” I gasped at the clerk. He shrugged.

“I’ve got to sleep outside somewhere,” I was frantic.

Outside the dank hotel the night was cool and very humid. I looked around and the street was totally deserted. It was around 1am. The young clerk had followed me outside and stood looking at me in astonishment.

There was a taxi minibus in front of the hotel. “Is this the hotel’s?” I asked, gulping in the fresh air. He nodded.

“Can you open it and let me sleep there?” I said. “I can’t breathe and must have fresh air.”

He went inside and came out with the keys and a small pillow and sheet. He unlocked the taxi and I got into the back seat and lay down. He locked the cab and said “I hope this works for you” and by the time he was back through the hotel’s door I was deeply asleep.

The next day, the morning heat was positively pyretic and I knew I had to go back to America then and there for medical help. I got my things and the hotel’s taxi took me to the airport where there was a melee of people all wanting to get on the incoming, over-booked flight.

I stood there swaying from exhaustion, too weak to fight the crowd for a seat, when an elderly Dutchman came up to me with a look of concern on his face.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

I shook my head no. “I’ve got to get on that plane,” I said weakly.

“I don’t think so,” he said, looking at me intently. “You are too ill to fly. The plane’s closed air system alone will do you in and you might not make it…”

He had my full attention. “What makes you say that?” I asked.

“Because I’ve been a doctor here for forty years and I’ve seen it all,” he said. “I trained at Johns Hopkins and came here to work for The Summer Institute of Linguistics International.”

My head was spinning.  The appropriately acronymed SILI was a bunch of crackpots who believed Christ would return once the Bible had been translated into all the languages of the world. Papua New Guinea was the perfect place for them, as there were over 850 indigenous languages present thanks to the endless impassable valleys and mountain chains all over the place.

So he worked for SILI but had attended one of the best medical schools on the planet…these were completely opposite concepts and my feverish mind jammed.  Well, as long as we stuck to medicine I supposed everything would be okay, I thought desperately.

He touched my arm and said, “Look, what you need right now is rest. You are not strong enough to fly. You need to stabilize your system.”

I sat down, completely defeated. The orangutans hadn’t gotten me in Sumatra but now I was convinced I was going to die in Jayapura.

I could hear him talking to me but I was in a daze. He shook me slightly and I refocused.

“I will have one of my boys take you to a small hut near the airport. It is very simple but there is a fresh straw bed and a toilet. He will bring you clean drinking water and fruit every day and after a few days you will be strong enough to get on the next plane if you wish. But you absolutely must rest now.”

I nodded, and realized I was becoming delirious.

The last thing I remember him saying to me was “I would stay and help you but I’m finally retired and going home to Holland. It’s all arranged. But don’t worry, you will be okay, my boy will care for you…”

Then it was a blur. So many people at the airport, and the plane had arrived. Someone came for me, pulling me toward the door, and I fell asleep in an old car and woke up in front of the little hut the doctor had told me about. I went inside and collapsed on the bed, unsure if I would ever wake up but too weak to care. The bed did not shake.

I slept for a very long time, more than a day, I’m sure, and awoke to a West Papuan teenage boy standing over me with a bottle of water and a plate of fresh fruit. I drank and ate ravenously, then fell back asleep.

This went on for several days until I finally began to feel like myself again.  The boy was always there to care for me and I felt like an angel had come to save me and suddenly I was overcome with emotion and wept.

“Miss,” he said anxiously, “Is everything all right?”

“Oh yes, I am just so happy to be feeling a bit better,” I said. “Thank you so much for your help.”

“I try to serve Christ in any way I can” he said solemnly.

I smiled. “Well, I thank you.”.

“Would you by any chance know how I could get to the Baliem Valley?” I asked.  I was feeling better enough to try and see the area that Matthiessen’s book had talked about years ago.

“The military runs a plane there once a week,” he replied. “It’s tomorrow. You just have to go to the small airport and they might give you a lift.”

I couldn’t believe my good fortune, especially when he offered to take me there the next day. As we said goodbye I realized I didn’t know his name.

“My Asmat name is Jupri,” he said with a shy smile. “The Javanese here gave me a Muslim name but I don’t use it.”

I waved farewell to Jupri, an unknown teenager from the far side of the world who had helped save my life. I’d tried to give him some money as I left but he refused, looking embarrassed, so I gave him a paperback I was reading, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which I’d hoped might influence him as he grew older. Maybe he will be Prime Minister one day, who knows.

++++

The giant C-130 was incredible. I’d never seen an aircraft so large. The inside was almost completely stripped, except for long narrow seats lining the interior that had rather uncomfortable looking seatbelts. The plane took off like the giant monster it was and during the short flight to Wamena in the Baliem Valley, it flew over some of the wildest, most unspoilt jungle I’d ever seen anywhere on the planet. It was an Eden of tropical waterfalls, mountain tops, exotic flowers and birds as far as the eye could see. I knew I would dream about it for the rest of my life, because with this flight I’d stepped back and time-traveled thousands of years.

Wamena itself was a grubby, muddy little town with an uncomfortable tension to it. This was because most of the small homes were for the occupying Indonesian military, mostly Javanese Muslims, whose ill-concealed contempt towards the local West Papuans was hard to miss. Many of the dark Papuan women worked as domestics for them, wearing badly-fitting, old worn-out dresses while carrying a brown Javanese child on their back. The child often held a plump white doll with blond hair, so the entire effect pretty much summed up the hierarchy of the world in one image.

I found a simple hotel with no AC, just fans, and the front clerk recommended I use a Dani trekking guide called Semu. He said he would take care of arranging things, and Semu would come and collect me tomorrow at 8am.

The next morning Semu was there. He was a young, slender fellow, about 20, with a nice smile, and dressed in rags. Off we went, towards a narrow jungle path at the end of town, briefly stopping at a small store for some bottled water. I waited outside, and had my camera lenses and passport in a red fanny pack, which was quite heavy.  I watched as a grizzled muscular tribesman from another time came walking down the street, wearing only a koteka, or penis sheath, and carrying a stone ax. His feet were extremely broad and looked almost leather-soled, the skin was so thick. I was fascinated by him and tried not to stare, even though we were not only worlds apart but millennia.

He walked on by and I found the heat was already starting to bother me so I unclasped the fanny pack and lay it on the ground next to me. Semu came out of the store and gave me my water, and as we were about to leave, I turned around and saw the red fanny pack was gone, and the four foot high Stone Age bastard was scampering down the street with it. I ran after him and started to pull it away. His ax came up and Semu suddenly appeared in front of me saying something to him tersely in Dani and they talked back and forth for a bit.

Semu turned to me shaking his head. “We have a tradition here I do not think you know. It happens to foreigners all the time. It’s what you Americans call ‘Finders Keepers.”

“WHAT?!” I said in alarm. “My passport is in there and my lenses! I need all that back.”

“Well then we have to go to his village and negotiate with the headman.” he said. “I cannot guarantee anything.”

“Are you kidding me?” I was shocked and angry but knew I had to keep my cool as Mr. Stone Age was looking at me intently. “Okay. I give up. Let’s go.”

“You are lucky I was here to help,” Semu said. “It would not have been against the law for him to bash your head in, and believe me, he was about to, because you were trying to take what was rightfully his. You should know that the men here value their pigs above all else, and have the right to kill you should your car accidentally run one over. You must be very careful. Next are their children and last, the women. One can always get another woman.” He laughed.

Great. Just great. I thought.

Three hours later, after endless walking and the occasional dug-out canoe, we eventually got to the right village. The headman was there and Semu went up to him and they talked for a while.

Finally, he turned and said, “If you give him $50 and your NY Mets baseball cap you can have your fanny pack back.”

I tried not to smile, and bowed down, with my hands crossed over my chest in submission. I gave him my hat and pulled the money out of my pocket. It was all the cash I had and I was relieved he hadn’t wanted more.

On the way back, Semu stopped off in a village that had a smoked, leathery black mummy curled in a chair which he pointed out to me proudly. It was a bizarre object but clearly of great meaning for the Dani, who were known for doing this.  Some of the mummies were apparently hundreds of years old.  Semu wanted to show me another, but I thanked him and said it was time to return because I wasn’t feeling so well. I really didn’t want to cause offense deep in the jungle, especially when I was alone and ill.

On the way back I asked him to tell me a bit about himself since he’d seemed somewhat sad and melancholy. His English was better than most and I asked where he learned it.

“Jakarta,” he said.

“Really?” I was surprised. “How did that happen?”

He looked at me oddly. “When I was small, an army Colonel gave my parents some money to adopt me, or so we thought, and he took me back to Jakarta to live with his family as a kind of house boy. They taught me Bahasa Indonesian and English, and I ate and played with their children in addition to going to an Islamic pesantren school for a few years. They gave me the Muslim name of Usman and told me never to call myself Semu again.”

I felt badly for Semu. He seemed lost in some way and now I was beginning to understand why.

He went on. “I had come from a small village deep in the forest—you saw several like it today—so Jakarta was an incredible place for me. I learned a lot and stayed with them for almost 15 years. But last year on my 20th birthday, the Colonel came into my room and said to pack up all my things, that we were going on a trip, and we got on a plane and flew back to West Papua.  When we landed at Sentani Airport in Jayapura he gave me a tourist guidebook and fifty dollars and told me that I was now going to make my living as a guide for tourists who spoke either Bahasa Indonesian or English. Then he left, and I was all alone.”

I stood there in total shock. I’d never heard of anything so cruel. Taken from the jungle to the city and then dumped back in the jungle again—taken mentally from the Stone Age to the Modern Age and then back to the Stone Age again, with no way out—who does that?  And all the while obliterating what was left of his Dani identity. It was amazing that poor Semu had not become insane.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I got a ride on a missionary plane back here to Wamena, and then I went to find my parents. It took awhile but when I eventually arrived at my village, the headman told me my parents had died.” He shrugged, struggling to be philosophical. “In a way it didn’t affect me that much because after all those years, the people in Jakarta had really been my family and I still miss them.”

He stared off into space. “But I will never see them again. I cannot begin to afford the airfare back and will never make enough from tips. So here I am for good.”

I said nothing. I wanted to cry. His was the saddest case I’d ever seen. That military man, in bringing him back to West Papua under those circumstances, had put him in a kind of mental jail. Who deserved such limbo? It was dreadful.

We walked on and after a while Semu took out a small bamboo mouth harp and began to play.  It was a beautiful, plaintive melody that clearly showed how he was feeling.

“That is so lovely,” I said, clapping my hands together in joy.

He turned around on the path and handed me the little instrument. “I made it. I can always make another. Please take it to remind yourself of me and my country.”

I stood there staring at him for a moment. This poor fellow dressed in rags had virtually nothing to his name but because I’d admired his playing he wanted me to have what was probably his one personal possession.  All the things I owned as an American paled in comparison to this one humble gift. His small act was extraordinary, and a moment of true greatness of spirit.

I was utterly overwhelmed.

We walked the rest of the way in silence. When we got to my hotel I asked him what I could do to help him?  He hesitated and said, “I would really like a very good dictionary. Perhaps you could send me one from America?”

As luck would have it, before leaving New York I’d spent a lot of money on a definitive Bahasa Indonesian-English dictionary which was very large, and which I’d lugged all across the country without ever opening it. I just don’t know what I had been thinking, but clearly, that book had really been meant all along for Semu.

“Wait a moment,” I said, and went into my room. I came out with the dictionary and gave it to him. “I want you to have this. Perhaps you will be able to build up a real business for yourself one day.”

He was astonished and took the book gingerly.

“But Semu, I have a question for you before we say goodbye,” I said. “How did you pick the number 50 as the amount I had to give to the headman?”

He smiled. “Oh, that’s my lucky number. That’s all the money I came here with. So I figured, why not?”

Semu and I shook hands laughing and he vanished into the murky night forever. The next day I flew back to Los Angeles and then got on a plane to New York. I was still not well and the flu-like symptoms and weakness continued for months. I had all sorts of work-ups done by various doctors in New York but the best they could come up with was that it might be some kind of variant of the Hanta virus.

The odd thing was, each feverish night I would wake up with a start because I had the distinct feeling Death was watching me. In the darkness I could vaguely see two long shadows, one at each end of the bed, and they seemed to resemble the two Asmat statues I’d brought back from West Papua. I would turn the light on, and of course nothing would be there.

It was the strangest occurrence, and it kept on happening.  They visited nightly and it was deeply unsettling. What was the connection, I wondered?

One night, my drunken neighbor was screaming at his drunken lover as he often did, and suddenly there was silence and then a great pounding on my door.

“I think Mark’s dead,” his lover was screaming. I ran out quickly over to next door and sure enough Mark had shouted himself into a fatal coronary.

There was nothing to be done and the ambulance came and took him away. The whole thing was rather gruesome and left me exhausted.  I went to bed and slept deeply. That night no shadows came and stood at the end of my bed nor did they ever come again. The next morning, I awoke fresh and strong. My mysterious illness had passed for good.

Over time I thought about the meaning of all of this. As far as the shaking bed was concerned I think that my subconscious knew that if I had fallen asleep in that mildew-infested Papuan hotel I would have died, probably from pleural effusion, so my body literally shook me awake as best as it could each and every time I started to fall asleep. As for the statues, death had certainly followed me back from Indonesia as a warning—anything was possible coming from the land of flying kris daggers, trances, and the shadow puppet world—but in the end it had decided not to come for me but for my neighbor.

 

Karen Petersen has traveled the world extensively, publishing both nationally and internationally in a variety of publications.  Most recently, her poems, flash, and short stories have been published in the Peacock Journal, The Bosphorus Review, Antiphon, A New Ulster, The Saranac Review, The Curlew, and Idiom 23. Her poems have been translated into Persian and Spanish.  She lives in Santa Fe between two mountain ranges with her cocker spaniel and four cats. She has a B.A. in Philosophy and Classics from Vassar College and an M.S. from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Fiction by Hillary Leftwich

Divination

 

In 1981 Adam Walsh, the son of John Walsh, was abducted from a Sears in Hollywood, Florida. His head was found two weeks later. The rest of him is still missing.

I think a lot about Adam Walsh after moving to the same town as him. While my son is at school, I chain smoke and scan Craigslist for jobs. There isn’t shit to do in Florida. The beach is a mile drive down the main road, and I could easily go, but my son is in school all day. I don’t want to go by myself. We moved to escape Colorado and a lousy marriage, but the same problems found themselves here.

The Sears where Adam is abducted isn’t there anymore, but a Target is. I walk up and down the aisles. I was eight years old when Adam is murdered. I imagine the toy section where he stood twenty-five years prior before he’s kidnapped. The Lite-Brites, Battleship, and Monopoly have been replaced with electronic games beeping at me as I look at the ceiling. A water stain browns cheap white tiles. The closer I stare at it, the more it morphs into a distorted version of the face of Jesus.

There is a series of canals outside of the Vero Beach Airport, and I use Google Maps Earth View before driving to their location. This is the place where Adam Walsh’s head was found by two fishermen. I crouch awkwardly, straining on my ankles. The water is ugly and brown, like the stain on the Target ceiling. Everything in Florida is rundown, exhausted. Even the people. They don’t look you in the eye.

The skies are clouding over, and an acrid smell blankets the air. John Walsh roamed the streets of Hollywood looking for Adam but never found him. He checked every dumpster and back alley, wanting to find something but not wanting to find that something. Adam’s mother gorged her guilt with whiskey. Their marriage didn’t last. Mine didn’t either, for different reasons.

I drive to my son’s school, a dark rectangular building resembling a prison. The students are leaving the doorway in single file lines led by their teachers. I spot my son, a tiny boy weighed down by dark brown curls and a backpack with a monster face stitched on the front. I stick my hand out my window and wave. He breaks from the line and runs, hopping into the car after throwing his backpack on the back seat. I head east instead of west, the sun still pinned in the sky, a burning beacon. He asks where we are going, familiar with our usual route home. To the beach, baby. He bounces in his seat, eyes wide. Our bare feet step on soft sand, and he is running towards the water, a silhouette of someone familiar. He’s never seen the ocean. I want to tell him there’s no telling how deep the water is or what creatures live beneath. I want to say to him the waves are blue because they reflect the sky, but I stop myself. Some things shouldn’t have an explanation.

 

Hillary Leftwich is the author of Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock (CCM Press/The Accomplices 2019), which is featured in Entropy’s Best Fiction list of 2019. She is the poetry and prose editor for Heavy Feather Review and runs At the Inkwell Denver, a monthly reading series. Currently, she freelances as a writer, editor, and writing workshop instructor focusing on trauma writing. Her writing can be found or is forthcoming in print and online in The Rumpus, Entropy, The Missouri Review, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, and others. She will be attending The Kenyon Review’s Writers Workshop for nonfiction and will be a featured visiting writer at Western Illinois University in 2020. She lives in Colorado with her partner, her son, and their cat, Larry. Find more of her writing at http://www.hillaryleftwich.com

 

 

 

 

Fiction by Virginia Konchan

Test of Gold

At the Kex Hostel bar is where we met.  I was only staying at Kex for a night.  After that I was headed to Laugarvatn, to stay at Gullkistan for three weeks, an artist’s residency an hour east of Reykjavik.  Gullkistan, in Icelandic, meant “test of gold.”  My goal, for the residency, was to write poems that interpolated with the Icelandic sagas.  I wanted to push up against the postmodern, post-narrative, post-truth idea that there was no longer a place in the world for grand narratives, epic in scope and devastating in accuracy.  I wanted to reaffirm my love of grandeur.

He had the kind of face that made me check for a ring.  Chiseled, roman, slightly hawkish.  Cropped reddish blonde hair, neatly trimmed beard.  We bonded over a cigarette outside, then agreed to go back inside for a drink.  We did a shot of Iceland’s signature distilled beverage, Brennivín, an unsweetened schnapps made of fermented potato mash and flavored with caraway, then he told me to order our real drinks.

“I don’t know what you like,” I said.  “I don’t even know your name.”

“Alex.  And I like everything,” he said, then corrected himself.  “Almost everything.”

“Two Corpse Revivers, please,” I said to the tattooed bartender.  His body art began at the backs of his hands and stretched up all the way to the back of his neck, encircling it like an embrace.  The bartender’s tattoos were like a clingy lover, smothering his last stretch of unoccupied skin.   For some reason, they made me self-conscious about my own skin, which I covered, not with tattoos, but heavy foundation (liquid), pressed foundation (powder), and several other fillers (concealer, veil, highlighter).  Despite my many makeup tutorials on UTube, however, my look was not subtle, but cakey, and while I knew that, I felt helpless to prevent it; I couldn’t feel or see anything that wasn’t done to an extreme.  The path of excess may lead to the palace of wisdom, at least in William Blake’s configuration, but it hadn’t done much, looks-wise, for me; I painted my face as if it were only made to be seen in dim lighting, or on film.  Luckily, the former prevailed, that night.

He had never had a Corpse Reviver, he said, neither one (made with cognac, calvados, and sweet vermouth) nor two (made with gin, lemon juice, Cointreau, Lillet, and absinthe).  The bartender served us number one (the default), then there was a lull in the conversation.

“I turned 33 yesterday,” I said.  I lie frequently, but that was the truth.

“Your Jesus year,” he said.  “Cool.”  Another pause.  “I’m 29.”

29?  Did this constitute cradle-robbing?  Home-wrecking?  Grave-digging?

Playing with my cocktail napkin, I began to fret.  What had I accomplished by 33?  On the surface, I had moved up the ranks at an advertising firm, Corsaro Group, from traffic and production intern five years ago to junior copywriter.  I had managed to not just stay alive, but occasionally thrive in New York City, where I had a studio apartment in Bayside, Queens.  But in the romance department, I was lost.  I had broken up with my only long-term boyfriend, Evan, over a year ago, because I thought I was settling for mediocrity when the love of my life could be waiting right around the bend.

How wrong I was.  After breaking up with Evan, I thought my dance card would fill immediately, with eligible bachelors clamoring to date the only slightly damaged girl-next-door, but no.  Forgetting good-enough Evan, whom I ran into occasionally in New York, and who started dating a Croatian model who taught political science at Rutgers two mere months later, was a physical, almost violent act, like pulling out an arrow piercing my flesh.  The matter was made worse by finding out through a mutual friend that Evan had been about to propose to me when I broke up with him.  Now, I no longer believed in anything except forward motion, at the fastest pace possible:  not love, not work, not the future, and only in moments of deep sentimentality, the past.  It wasn’t a crisis of meaning, or even faith.  I had good friends, good health, and was stable enough financially.  I would never attempt to tempt fate or hasten my own end, but most days, I simply could not wait to get drunk, high, or go to sleep.

After months of unprofitable blind dates and the occasional (and usually regretful) Tinder hook-up, I had gone back to embracing my singleness—and my love of travel.  Thus, I’d decided to spend three weeks in Iceland, alone, blowing my meager savings exploring craters and geothermal hot springs, and penetrating the heart of glaciers and inactive volcanos.

Austin, a friend of mine, had recently shared his theory with me, about soulmates:  he was of the opinion that we only get one love.  I found this thought deeply perturbing, fatalistic even.  But I believed him.  And there was a small part of my mind that wondered if Evan was my love of a lifetime, and if so, if I’d lost him—and said love—forever.  If I had, what was there to live for?  Adrenalin rushes?  Scenic landscapes in faraway lands where I knew no one?

I glanced shyly over at Alex, the only other North American—he was Canadian—I’d met since arriving, while our bartender whizzed about in the background, adding gesticular flourishes to his mixology process (bending deeply from the waist; raising the cocktail shaker high in the air to the right of his head as if playing maracas or a tambourine).

“Why are you here?” I asked Alex.

“On vacation, meeting up with a few buddies.”  I nodded, more sympathetic to the efforts of cis white men to not sound like bros in normal conversation than what he was actually saying.

“And what do you do for a living, back in Canada?”

“I’m an electrical engineer,” he said.  “It’s pretty boring.”  I wanted to say I would be the judge of that, but it occurred to me that he might then start describing his work which might in fact bore me to tears, thus fizzling any tentative attraction I was feeling.

“I’m sure it’s not that boring,” I said.

There was a sign above Alex’s head that read “In Vino Veritas,” with loopy purple script.  I wonder if there was an equivalent for that, in Icelandic.  Not that I’d be able to pronounce it, if there was—Icelandic, a North Germanic language almost exclusively spoken by the country’s population of 300,000, and distinguished by a wide assortment of irregular declensions—was mystifying to me.  After one week I had only learned three words:  yes (já); welcome (velkominn), and thank you (takk).

We chatted for about an hour, exchanging Icelandic trivia, such as the fact that one in ten Icelanders will publish in their lifetime.  By international standards, Iceland was a hyper-literate and culturally sophisticated country, one that privileged literature and writing over visual art.  “Have you read any of the sagas?” Alex asked.

“A few.  I just finished Njála,” I said.  Njála was the most revered of all the Icelandic sagas, and its main character, Gunnar of Hlíðarendi, an idealized hero. The handsome blond Gunnar only longs to live happily ever after on his farm, next door to his best friend Njáll, but familial obligations, honor, and love throw him into a maelstrom of theft and murder.

Alex nodded.  “Gunnar’s wife is one of the best female characters in all of medieval literature.”

“What’s her name, Hallogen?” I asked.

“Hallgerður.”  He stumbled over the pronunciation, and we laughed.

We discussed that saga and a few others, and I perked up immediately, explaining to him that writing about the Sagas was the real reason I was here.  “The Sagas still influence the way we tell and read stories today, which is so cool.  Homer’s tales may have pre-dated The Sagas, but his works concern mythical creatures, gods and the fantastic.  Despite the appearance of trolls and ghosts, much of The Sagas remains grounded in reality.”

“Women play a strong role too,” Alex added.  “Take Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, believed to be the first person of European ancestry to be born in America.  She—”

A guy to my right jostled me, hard, and my Whisky Sour sloshed over the rim of the glass.

“Hey,” I said, but the guy had already turned back around and didn’t hear me.

“Probably American,” I muttered.

“Hating on your own?” asked Alex, with a smirk.

“Já,“ I said.  “Anyway, I love the sagas. The style is unpretentious; the narrators unemotional and impartial; people live and die without sentimentality.  Everything I aspire to!”

“And character names are like something out of a death metal band:  Audun The Uninspired, Sarcastic Halli.”

“Haha you’re right,” I said.  “Hkraki Filth.  And William The Bastard!”  I bit my maraschino cherry off the stem, delicately, then asked him what he knew of Icelandic film.  Turns out we’d both seen Children of Nature, and Rams.

“I can’t talk about Rams,” I said, eyeing the bottom of my third drink and debating a fourth.  I wasn’t driving, after all.  I was hardly even walking!  “Can you imagine being asked to kill your entire flock of sheep due to a biohazard?”

“Scurvy, was it?”

“Scrapie.”

“Scrapie, yeah.”  The bar was filling up quickly, mostly young hipsters with backpacks.  Kex had the best hostel rating in Iceland, but was ridiculously expensive, peak season or not, though from the look of the lobby scene—well-groomed 20-somethings appearing to be on a drink break from a North Face commercial shooting—money wasn’t much of an object.

“It’s like some terrible Biblical twist on the story of Abraham and Issac, only he really does kill the sheep, rather than just threatening to—and not just one, but the whole flock,” I said.

“But he saves a few, right?”

“Yeah, a couple ewes and a ram.  But they get discovered, so he sets them loose in a blizzard, and then he is found face-down in the snow by his estranged brother, an abusive alcoholic.”  I ordered the fourth drink and looked down at my pale, limp hands.  “Dark.”

“So dark,” he agreed.  I brightened, slightly, at the note of concordance in the air.

“Children of Nature isn’t much better,” I said.

“The one about two old people who escape a nursing home and commit ritualistic suicide?”

“Yeah.”  He shook his head, and also ordered a fourth drink.  We were relishing this:  the drinking, the hostel atmosphere, the moral exigency, the bleak art, the disgusting delicacies—all of it.

We concluded the night relatively early, with a briefet impassioned make-out session in one of the back booths.  It was awkward at first, our tongues alternately lashing and retracting, but within a few minutes we’d found our rhythm and I’d grown attracted to his taste and scent—woodsy and smoky, with undertones of clove and something slightly alkaline, like cocaine.  Turns out I wasn’t far from the mark, as before I left, he asked me if I wanted to do a few lines of coke with him.  I declined, but was seriously tempted.  Coke was my favorite drug in the world.  Even though it had been two years since I’d done it on a regular basis, it still lured me on, with promises of endless energy and pizazz.  So what if it made my lips numb and my legs shake uncontrollably?  I could work on cocaine.  I could sparkle.  I could crank out advertising copy and poetry and not fall prey to hallucinations, like I did on mushrooms, or hazy drivel, like I did on pot.  When I went through withdrawal from coke—when I realized I was turning into a coke vampire, that is—I saw my drug of choice everywhere.  I saw it in spilled sugar, in powdered milk, in dishwasher soap granules.  I dreamed of inhaling it deeply, like the most beautiful fragrance in the world, then sitting back to enjoy the fruits of the coca plant, the drug Sigmund Freud himself was the first to broadly promote as a tonic to cure depression and sexual impotence, publishing an article in 1884 entitled “Über Coca” (About Coke) which promoted the “benefits” of cocaine, calling it a magical substance.

And yet, despite my attraction to Alex, I couldn’t help but thinking of Evan, even comparing the way he kissed to Alex.  Evan and I never lacked in the chemistry department—even in pajamas without makeup, even in the morning, even after an ugly fight, we lunged for each other with a passion that seemed both animalistic and pure.  Evan’s kisses were long, sweet, and deep, compared to the rapid darting of Alex’s tongue and rough handling, however sexy, of my face, neck, and hair.  When would I stop comparing new men to my ex, who was in other ways perfectly ordinary?  When would I learn to live in the moment, in my senses, without my past constantly invading as either backdrop or contextual frame?  I thought again, as I attempted to enter my hostel bed at 3am without disturbing the other travelers, of the sagas—when would I learn to live purposefully, as a creature not of habit but design?

The following morning, I took a bus to the rental car facility, where my 4×4 was waiting for me.  I’d decided on an all-terrain vehicle so that I’d feel safe getting around (the optional “insurance” packages at the car rental facility, inauspiciously named SAD Car Rental, include gravel, sand and volcanic ash protection), as well as go off-roading should I so desire.  Within two hours of renting the car, I understood the importance of their tutorial on Icelandic wind, when my driver’s side car door whipped open so quickly that it almost smashed into the parked car beside me.  I gripped the interior side of the car door with all my might, trying, successfully, to avoid the worst-case scenario they described—when winds get so fierce that the car door flies off the hinges.  Clearly, I was not in Kansas anymore.

I arrived at Gullkistan an hour later, and was amazed by the house and scenery—a little two-story cottage with twinkling lights tucked into a mountain range, with a separated building that served as work studios.  After settling in, I wrote a postcard to my best friend of twenty years, Anna:

It’s amazingly beautiful here:  the landscape is largely unpopulated, barren, desolate, yet also sublime, with huge rock formations, tundra-like fields, a huge, gaping sky, and the mist from volcanos rising in the distance.  It’s also surprisingly flat, in the foreground—you can look out into the distance and see for hundreds of miles.  The food was allegedly disgusting (fermented whale and shark, sour ram testicles) but as fish is their main export, there are tons of choices on the menus, albeit very pricy—a bowl of lobster bisque is $20 USD!

 Love,

Elle

***

I spent the next few days acclimating to my new surroundings and getting to know the fellow residents, an Irish sculptor named Colin and two writers, Lisa and Joanna, from Spain and France, respectively.  The days passed quickly, in the company of the other residents and alone, with horseback riding, hikes, and visits to The Blue Lagoon and other public hot springs.  Joanna and I found several free hot springs on our excursions, and spent hours luxuriating in the steamy, salty pools, talking about literature and life.  My favorite hot spring by far was Vígðalaug, or “Blessed Pool,” a pool blessed by Norwegian priests and used subsequently for christening, when Icelanders adopted Christianity in the year 1000.  A short distance from the pool is a historic site called Líkasteinar (dead-body-stones), said to be the last resting place of Bishop Jón Arason and his sons, beheaded in 1550 when Iceland converted to Protestantism.  Their bodies were washed in Vígðalaug before burial.

At night, we would write or read, carefully rationing wine or Icelandic liquor, as the prices were triple that of alcohol in the States, and the closest liquor store was an hour away.  We also took turns burying our compost in the hard ground with a shovel, as was the Icelandic traditon.  During the days, we would go on adventures, often concluding the evening with dinner out.  At one restaurant, we ordered six different kinds of fish that sounded exotic and tasted delicious, all of which were accompanied by special sauces.  Later that evening, out of curiosity, we googled the names of the fishes we ate (Blueling, Wolf fish, Monk fish), and were horrified:  the fish, unlike an iridescent bass or sleek, silver salmon, were horrific looking—huge, lumpy, and with misshapen heads and protruding fangs.  The Blueling looked like a Satanic eel.

We laughed until our stomachs hurt, and I realized I had forgotten how magical it was to have friends to share experiences with, rather than just men—during my years with Evan, we shared plenty of laughter, but I was always slightly conscious of performing around him, of performing femininity like I did around all men, never letting my defenses fully drop out of fear that I would be rejected, sexually or otherwise.  I also realized that I was having not just oneut several nights in a row of great fun with only a minimum of alcohol and no drugs.  Life was starting to overtake the fabrication or distortion thereof, and it felt, like everything else in Iceland, divine.

I began to draft poems about the sagas in quick succession.  The preface to the project was Brecht’s quote, “Damned is the age that needs heroes,” because it seemed to encapsulate what I was striving against—the idea that a time of heroism was past, for both men and women.  I had long grown sick of the kind of facile boosterism I saw on places like Facebook, as it was such an anemic way of suturing the wound that was the cultural vacuum of meaning.  I didn’t want to strike out at random, in my poems or in my life, but I wanted to experience, if just once, a feeling of boldness and invincibility.  I wanted to stand up for something, or someone, to reach beyond the pitiful attempts at self-comfort through self-delusion that plagued so many people, and live—and language was a way to do that, without fearing that working with language was a mere cloak for truth.  Language, in the metaphysical sense, creates or at least, indelibly shapes cognition, emotion, and therefore reality.

When I wasn’t writing or adventuring, I was reeling from the sleeplessness I was starting to experience because of the lack of nighttime.  I had started to refer to Iceland as The Land Without Darkness.  By the end of the first week, I was starting to feel loopy.  I didn’t mind it, however—insomnia was like a drug, and most of the activities I was doing, like writing poetry and foraging for mushrooms, could either be done in a trance state, or were so bizarre that the line between real life and dream was indelibly blurred.  That week, out of the blue, I emailed Alex, and asked if he wanted to come by:  he did.  We walked out to the shore of the Laugarvatn Lake together to bury a loaf of thunder bread—an uncooked rye bread that is baked in the earth’s interior—in a geothermal spring.  Steaming bubbles exploded in the black volcanic sand by the water’s edge, and the eggy smell of sulphur permeated the air.  We returned to the cabin after the burial, and, after a couple drinks, decided we wanted to have sex.  Like our encounter at the bar, it was brief but passionate, and ended with me resting naked beside him, trying desperately not to get emotional, which in my experience had always led to attachment, which then lead to disappointment and despair.  To break up my reverie, I offered to make him a snack, and he agreed, so I then prepared smoked trout and crackers, as well as beet salad and sauerkraut with caraway seeds.  I did little more than pick at the food, feeling as I usually didhat while I spent many of my waking hours fantasizing about past and current men, the actual reality of heterosexual coupling often paled, in terms of enjoyment, in contrast to my vivid imagination of romantic fulfillment and bliss.  Alex ate hungerly, and said all the right things, but my heart was already downcast, elsewhere.

When we returned for the thunder bread, we found it gurgling in the sand, like a sea creature or newly hatched infant.   Cradling it and carrying it home, like a bastard child from a love affair I now regretted, I thought of the importance of ritual, symbolism, and rites of passage, also underscored in the sagas.  I could see myself living in Iceland, burying thunder bread weekly, bathing in the hot springs to relieve tension rather than doing a line or downing a drink.  I could see myself writing a memoir, of eating consciously, of choosing to be alone if I so chose:  I could see myself living in harmony with the world.  When Alex and I said goodbye, shortly thereafter, I knew I would never see him again.  So much is made of lovers, but what are lovers, except a temporary stay against loneliness, the body’s attempt to generate heat by proximity to another?

At museums, on outings, and in conversation with locals, I set about learning as much as I could.  Like every nation, outside influences had deeply shaped Icelandic culture.  Independent until 1000, when it was taken over by the King of Finland, it has been home to Irish monks and slaves.  The punk scene came from England, as did British wives during colonialization.  The political parties include Best, Independence, Green, Farmer’s, and Pirates.  Icelanders serve peanuts on their pizza.  Their culture, because of its history, is equally divided into heathen/pagan, and Christian-Lutheran influences.  There are decorative boxes along the main roads to house fairies.  The mountains are named after troll women, a fact I thought Evan would have appreciated, as he named his car, his kayak, and many of his appliances after women.  My pining for Evan, while not lessening, was starting to gain texture and resonance—I was learning, with the help of the sagas and my experiences, to think of myself as a character, and to realize that maybe I too could avoid life’s tragedies and pratfalls:  I, too, could invent a life.

I wrote my second and last one a few days before my departure, to Anna, again, this time a one-liner:

The ponies here have hair like Axl Rose, and the geothermal pools are the temperature of pee.

Love,

Me

***

We were in Iceland in August; we knew the chances of getting to see Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, were extremely rare, as guaranteed darkness is the most important factor, and there are only full dark nights in Iceland from September to mid-April.  Still, we hoped.  Then, the second to last night I was there, Lisa came running into the kitchen while I was making macaroni and cheese.  “Hurry!  The Northern Lights!”  We raced outside.  It was dim at first, traces of light scoring the sky as if in the aftermath of a plane.  Then within minutes the light began to broaden and quiver, and while the shades of green didn’t resemble what I’d seen online (the rainbow), the overall effect was so beautiful as to terrify.  The lights canopied the open sky, dancing and falling and rising again.  We screamed, leapt, and ran up the hill behind Gullkistan to see if the view was different there.  I thought of the Norse legend which proposed the lights to be the glinting armour of the Valkyries, legendary female figures who took the dead to the afterlife.  I thought of how, even if our age was incapable of heroic action, it could be capable of heroic witnessing:  breaking through the wall of self-obsession, neuroses, and human fallibility to actually be present in life, to feel reverence and awe, if only for a moment.

I hadn’t done any drugs or drinking to feel those feelings, and I wasn’t at the side of a man, Evan or Alex, nor anyone else.  It was just the sublimity of Nature.  It was enough.

 

Author of two poetry collections, Any God Will Do (Carnegie Mellon, 2020) and The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon, 2018), a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017), and three chapbooks, including The New Alphabets (Anstruther Press, 2019), Virginia Konchan’s poetry has appeared in The New YorkerThe New RepublicBoston Review, and elsewhere.

 

 

Fiction by Rotimi Babatunde

The Engineer of Transparent Buildings

mmmmmmBeing the text of the document discovered on a doorstep

mmmmmmnear City Hall  after the building became transparent

 

Good girl, these are the things that will happen on the day you will leave home forever and set out on the journey to City Hall. It will be a beautiful day. The sun will burst out in the east, bright and happy as if it could have risen in the west, and over the rooftops of the city the sky will be clear and blue.

That morning’s brilliant sunlight will sparkle in the spray of the fountain before the big hotel at the city centre, eliciting tiny rainbows as fleeting as those quantum phenomena that vanish the moment you try to observe them. The sunlight will wash over the Governor’s residence, causing the mansion’s white colonnades and the flowering plants on the premises to look even more glorious. And it will polarize on the asphalt surface of the road leading to City Hall, demonstrating the laws of optics you had mastered at an age when your mates still believed Santa Claus and such other kindergarten fables were as true as atoms.

From the big hotel, the bus conveying the guests from abroad will leave for the ceremony at City Hall. And from the Governor’s mansion, the blaring sirens of the Governor’s motorcade will depart for the same venue. But in the living room of the house you will soon be bidding farewell forever, you will keep on waiting, even though the ceremony at City Hall wouldn’t have been holding if not for the international science competition you won.

You will look out of the window, checking to see if the removal van from the Engineer of Transparent Buildings has arrived. There will be no vehicle outside. You must not leave for City Hall until the removal van arrives. You will sit on the three-legged chair in the living room. You will continue waiting.

*

While waiting, you will begin tapping your feet on the ground, racked with anxiety about missing the prize presentation at City Hall, until you remember that the Engineer of Transparent Buildings has said the ceremony will begin with a long introduction of the Governor, and of the Governor’s wife, and of the Deputy Governor and the Deputy Governor’s husband, and of other political office holders and their spouses, and of royal title holders, and of serving and retired security chiefs, and of the head of the schools board and other government officials, and of the guests from abroad, and of the heads of the teachers union and the parent-teacher association and the civil service union, and of the head of the police dogs union, had such existed, as well as of the slobbering mutt it would then have had for a spouse, and still those interminable introductions will continue, stretching on and on like an infinite regression of grandiose clowns. So you will stop worrying.

You will survey that living room which you will never again enter once you depart. In its centre will be your family’s scant possessions, ready for removal to your new home. Your parents’ large mattress would have been rolled up, and beside it will be a smaller one, adorned with rosettes imprinted by your kid brother’s bedwetting. There will also be plastic bags stuffed with his clothes and yours and those of your parents and younger sister. And there will be your mother’s sooty kitchenware, as well as the basket she balances on her head when carrying produce to her roadside food stand. All the furniture in the house would have been stacked in a pile, except for the three-legged chair and the stool beside it.

Your father’s old table clock will be on the stool. The clock will seem to be ticking with such tardiness that you will wonder if senility hasn’t deluded it into believing it is travelling almost at the speed of light and time has slowed down for it. You will get lost in thought, fantasizing about the possibility of dilating time for the clock by shooting it like muons and pions through a particle accelerator. The rumbling of a large vehicle will startle you out of your reveries. You will run to the window. The removal van will be in front of the house. Your face will light up with a smile.

You will see your father collecting a bag from the driver of the removal van. It will be the new schoolbag promised you by the Engineer of Transparent Buildings. Your father will begin walking towards the house. You will leave the window. The door of the living room will swing open. Your father will enter. He will have on his face the smouldering look he acquired after last year’s incident at the Governor’s residence. He will hand over your new bag to you.

You will be surprised by the weight of the bag. You will remember that the Engineer of Transparent Buildings told you it will be much larger than your old schoolbag. And that it will be filled with books he has bought as gifts for you, big books on mathematics and physics and the science of transparent engineering. The bag will be heavy, but you’re a big, strong girl. You will lift up the bag and strap it to your back. Your father will look away. You will exit the house.

*

Your sister and brother will be dancing around the removal van, excited that they’re about moving house. You will walk past them and head for the main road. Your mother would have followed you out of the house. She will stand on the veranda, watching you go. There will be tears in her eyes. The prize presentation ceremony of the international competition her daughter won will be happening at City Hall, but she won’t be present because your father has said no.

You will want to run back and hug your mother. You will not do that. You will remember the things you have been told. That your mother’s sadness will turn to joy when she gets acquainted with the uniqueness of the new home the Engineer of Transparent Buildings has arranged for you. That if the offer of the new home is not taken up that morning, it will lapse. That your mother will give thanks to the Engineer of Transparent Buildings after she gets to know that in your new home, there will be many toilets, and you won’t have to share a zinc outhouse, as you do in your old place, with the three libidinous sisters living next door, and the band of thieves in the apartment on the other side of the yard, and the large household, with its often diarrhoeic children, close to the well.

Your mother will remain on the veranda watching your receding figure. You must not look back. You’re a big girl now, almost a teenager. You don’t need your mother babysitting you around town.

You will reach the wooden plank straddling the gutter beside the main road. In the gutter, the resident rats will be frolicking in the stagnant slime. You will cross the plank and face the direction of City Hall. You will keep going.

*

It will be a beautiful day, so the road will be bustling. As you weave your way through the crush of hurrying people, you will keep an eye out for the porters staggering under the weight of the bulky loads slung across their shoulders, and the vehicles lurching towards the sidewalk to avoid the road’s numerous potholes, and the daredevil commercial motorcyclists swinging through the traffic as if in an intricate dance with death.

You will encounter the familiar faces of the neighbourhood. First will be the gap-toothed woman who inspires the daredevilry of the motorcyclists with the shots of cheap liquor she sells. She will wave to you and say, My daughter, I’m so proud of you. Off to City Hall to collect your prize, isn’t it? And then you will see the old actress who sits all day long on her balcony, with only her seven cats for company. They’ve begun broadcasting the ceremony live, she will say, yet here you are still walking! But come, why not let me put pretty ribbons in your hair for you? And the discharged soldier who marches up and down the road, barking commands at creatures large and small, including hump-backed cattle bound for the abattoir, will scream at you, Salute the General, you bloody civilian! And from the white-bearded preacher who rings his bell all day long and wails that the end of the world is nigh, you will hear, Give me a Fibonacci or a Pascal’s Triangle this morning, you little Witch of Endor, or the wrath of God will devour you. And the beggarwoman with three breasts, one for each of her three husbands, will look daggers at you and say, See me see trouble, this small pikin sef dey look my breast. Comot your eye from my chest now, if you no wan make thunder fire you! And the bevy of women sitting in front of their brothel, braiding their hair and startling passers-by with their dirty talk, will get angry on your behalf. They will direct various invectives at the authorities. Shame on all those government people and their middling phalluses! Why didn’t they send a vehicle to bring you to City Hall? There’s no doubting it, those pox-ridden dorks care only about folks from posh neighbourhoods. And finally, from the vegetarian butcher, who kills hogs with a single hammerblow to the head, will come the question, Fine girl, will you marry me?

You will keep walking. Near the garbage dump, you will see Street Pharmacist at his usual spot, dealing marijuana and other assorted drugs to his clients. The sling will be off his arm, but he will still have a brace around his neck. You will remember that after you won the science prize and the newspapers nicknamed you Ghetto Einstein, Street Pharmacist took to addressing you with that appellation. At first, you pitied him because even if he binges on all the drugs he has in stock, he will never be able to comprehend the elegance of the equations describing Einstein’s gravitational universe, or the nature of Riemannian spaces, or the dynamics of the supermassive black holes at the centre of galaxies.

But your pity turned to anger when Street Pharmacist moved on to shouting after you, Ghetto Einstein, Ghetto Einstein, come and show me the almighty formula for sucking dick! You reported him to your father, and your father reported him to the Engineer of Transparent Buildings, who then sent his men to have a chat with him. When next you saw Street Pharmacist, he had a sling on his arm and a brace around his neck. He must have had a bad fall after getting high on the stuff he sells, said the Engineer of Transparent Buildings.

Street Pharmacist will bow as you pass. You will see fear in his eyes. Good morning, ma, he will say, even though he’s almost old enough to be your father. You will not answer him. You will keep going.

*

Further down the road, you will come upon the abandoned passenger shelter rotting away by the roadside. The dog without a master will be sleeping in it. You will recall the stories circulating in the neighbourhood about the dog. That while it is sleeping in the rusty shelter, it is also scavenging for food in trashcans on the other side of the city. That it keeps coming back from the dead, even after it has been run over several times by delivery trucks and once by the colonial-era train that materialises on the railway tracks like the fabled incarnation of death. You named it Schrödinger’s Dog, because the dog, like an unobserved quantum particle, exists in multiple states at the same time.

A dog can’t be both dead and alive, a visitor to the neighbourhood once protested. It’s obvious it’s not one dog but many dogs. Don’t all stray dogs in this city look alike? People sniggered at the drabness of the visitor’s logic. Look, death is not always the opposite of life, and the future is oftentimes also in the past, an old woman said, silencing the visitor.

Schrödinger’s Dog will continue sleeping. You will continue walking.

*

As you advance, you will keep on hearing this voice talking on and on in your head, predicting the things that will happen just before they do. It will be the voice of the Engineer of Transparent Buildings, the engineer who gives you books and who has arranged a new home for you, the engineer who knows everything you know in the sciences and the things you don’t know in other disciplines, the engineer who reads over and again to you three poems that you find incomprehensible. The poem about a rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching towards its nativity. And the poem about the Shulamite whose golden hair turned ashen. And the poem about London’s daughter, robed in the grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother.

There will be moments on your way when you will be confused, wondering if the things you see happening are the same ones predicted in this document that has been read out to you several times, or if the voice speaking in your head has become so internalised that you’re the one imagining it’s truly speaking out the things see. You will banish those doubts from your mind. This document will be made available to the world after the experiment at City Hall. Anyone will be able to verify, in the way of science, if its predictions truly came to pass. The voice reading out this document will not stop sounding in your head. And for this scientific experiment to succeed, good girl, you will not stop obeying it.

*

At the end of the road, just before you get to the pedestrian bridge, you will hear this voice say, You will look up and, behold, before you will be the old bookseller. And as sure as the prediction that light will bend in the gravitational fields of large bodies like the sun, you will look up and see the old bookseller at his bookstand. He will be looking in your direction.

Seeing him at your favourite place in the neighbourhood, surrounded by books, will bring memories rushing back. How your father, in your childhood, noticed that rather than the picture books favoured by your mates, you preferred books on mathematics and physics, and how he began buying you more and more of such books. How your immersion in their contents soon made calculations that stumped people many years your senior become elementary for you. How you started reckoning bills for the woman who ran the restaurant near your house, frustrating customers who wanted to cheat her, and how word began spreading about a small girl who could compute, in a blink, a complex bill for a table of ten without the aid of a calculator. How you helped the building committee of the new church in your neighbourhood determine, with remarkable precision, the number of slates that would be needed for its elaborate roof, and how the head pastor, in his incredulity, declared, Those calculations were revealed to you not by flesh and blood but by the Holy Spirit. And how, one day, on your way from school, you stopped to peruse the forecasting charts pasted on a betting kiosk. In your innocence, you pointed out to the kiosk’s patrons the accidental number sequences present on the charts. A taxi driver staked with one of the sequences. He won a fortune. Afterwards, people began stopping you on the road, begging you to give them a Fibonacci or a Pascal’s Triangle, or perhaps, some perfect numbers or a geometric progression.

Those memories will make your eyes mist over, and you will start missing the neighbourhood. Good girl, you must not wallow in nostalgia for that ghetto. You will flash your mind back to the regular visitations of anguish that plague the neighbourhood. How gun-brandishing cops flood its streets whenever its residents commit great crimes in the city’s affluent zones. How the cops kick down doors and drag people screaming into their vans, and how they cause splotches of blood to gleam bright-red on the streets. How the main road, usually busy with people going to and fro, as if they were pollen grains in Brownian motion, gets deserted once those raids commence. How the whole neighbourhood becomes still and dead and motionless, like a substance whose atoms have been frozen down to absolute zero. You will remember these things, and your lachrymal springs will dry up.

The old bookseller will show you the covers of a few books. Come and see these great science texts I’ve reserved for you, he will say. You will shake your head. He will be baffled by your uncharacteristic lack of interest. You will head straight for the pedestrian bridge. And you will begin climbing it, leaving behind that neighbourhood, where you grew up, forever.

*

On the pedestrian bridge, you will look across the distance. The tree-lined avenues and august houses of the city’s fanciest district will be resplendent in the sunlight. You will wonder if it’s in that district that the new home the Engineer of Transparent Buildings has secured for you is located.

You will pick out the Governor’s mansion, distinctive amidst the glittering buildings. Memories of your visit last year to that part of town, after you had won the national science contest that qualified you for the international one and your father decided to give you a treat, will come rushing back.

Your walk through the district brought you close to the Governor’s residence. You were so enthralled by the magnificence of the mansion that you didn’t hear the sound of the Governor’s advance vehicle until it stopped behind you. Several policemen jumped out of it. They looked you and your father up and down in your shabby cloths and cheap flip-flops, as if you were vermin that had just crawled out a latrine. Carry your filthy bodies out of this place now, the most senior of the policemen shouted.

Your father didn’t move. This is my country, he said. I have the right to walk freely on its roads.

The senior officer’s eyes narrowed. Get down, he shouted. Get your face down on the floor.

I bow down only to God, your father said. And even then, months often pass before I find time to do so.

You will flinch, even after so many months, when you remember the blows the policemen rained on your father. And the glee with which their black boots ploughed into his prostrate body. Not until the Governor’s car caught up with the advance vehicle and stopped did they relent. The tinted rear window of the Governor’s car descended. What’s going on, the Governor asked.

This man is a suspect, the senior officer said. We met him here, loitering without reason.

With all the bombs going off around the world, one can’t be too careful, the Governor said. Keep up the great work.

The tinted window rose. The Governor’s car departed. The policemen continued where they had left off.

Your father spent days in the hospital. When he returned home, it was with the smouldering look that hasn’t left his face since then. Soon after, he joined the group around the Engineer of Transparent Buildings, the engineer who has had hundreds of conversations with you and can now work out the equations of your future, the engineer who talks about himself to you in the third person, as he will be doing in your head on the day you will receive your prize at City Hall, because in science everything must be impersonal.

You were in your room when your father’s friends came to commiserate with your mother. You tiptoed to the door to eavesdrop. He was the best drinker among us, one of your father’s friends said. But now, he doesn’t even want to hear about accompanying us to the bars again.

The group he now belongs to is nothing but trouble, another of the visitors said. The views they hold are scary. Our people say the sky is large enough for all birds to fly, but they want to have the sky only to themselves.

Your mother’s head drooped down in sorrow. The Governor has taken my husband from me and replaced him with a strange creature, she lamented. But her mood changed when the Engineer of Transparent Buildings ordered his men to start patronising her food stand. And by the time he got her family a brand new home, which she trusts will be the best even before moving in, she had begun raining curses on anyone who spoke ill of her benefactor.

Those memories of the incident at the Governor’s residence will spur your legs into faster motion. The Governor would already have arrived at City Hall, and you will be eager to get back at him for what he did to your father. Your increased pace will make your shoulders, burdened with the weight of your new schoolbag, ache even more. You will want to open the bag and check out why the books in it are so heavy they could as well be rocks. Good girl, you will not do that. You will remember that the Engineer of Transparent Buildings will be angry with you if you attempt it, because he doesn’t want you to get lost in the books and miss the ceremony at City Hall.

And you will remember that you’re being watched. You will scan the faces of people on your route, and you will not be able to tell which of them is loyal to the Engineer of Transparent Buildings, so you will only adjust the straps of your new schoolbag to make it more comfortable on your shoulders. You will continue crossing the pedestrian bridge.

*

A crowd will be gathered, as usual, at the newsstand on the other side of the bridge. They will be arguing about items in the news. You will not bother glancing at the newspapers on display, because well before their headlines labelled you Ghetto Einstein, that moniker you hate, you have never liked newspapers, since they do not contain equations.

The gathering will be discussing the same things you hear them talking about whenever you’re in the vicinity. They will be reeling out the names of places that mean nothing to you and linking them to events you know nothing about. Happenings at the Bataclan and at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris. Incidents at Westgate Mall, Nairobi, and at Government Girls Secondary School, Chibok. Incursions at Federal Government College, Buni Yadi, and at University College, Garissa. Passenger jets at the World Trade Centre. Intruders at the Tigantourine gas facility in Amenas. Gay couples cast down from the rooftops of Deir ez-Zor and Palmyra. Supremacists at the Walmart in El Paso and at the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch. Neo-Nazis at the Unite the Right Rally, Charlottesville, and at the Tree of Life synagogue, Pittsburgh. Funeral wreaths for the Amazon’s indigenous forest defenders in Maranhão. Cow vigilantes on the prowl in Jharkhand, and concentration camps packed with Uighurs and Kazaks in Xinjiang. The empty Rohingya homes in Rhakine.

Those kinds of things can never happen in our city, people at the newsstand will say as you pass by.

*

The glass façade of City Hall would have become visible when you come upon Schrödinger’s Dog. You will not be surprised to see it so soon after you had left it sleeping in the passenger shelter, because you understand the quirky behaviour of quantum entities. The dog will be sitting on its haunches. The hair around its neck will be raised. You will be startled when that dog without a master starts barking at you.

Schrödinger’s Dog will rise and move in on you. Its teeth will be bared. The dog will cut off your path, preventing you from progressing towards City Hall. You will call out to the dog, Schrödinger’s Dog, Schrödinger’s Dog, expecting it to bound towards you for the usual pat on the head, but the dog will not stop barking at you.

Passers-by will stop to watch, puzzled by the scene. You will pick up a stone and throw it at Schrödinger’s Dog. The dog will not budge. Its barking will intensify. Bystanders will join you in hurling missiles at it. Not until Schrödinger’s Dog has been hit several times by the projectiles zipping towards it with increasing frequency will it withdraw. But it will keep barking at you from the distance. Good girl, you will not let your encounter with that dog unsettle you. Everyone knows Schrödinger’s Dog is a loony, anyway, and beside it, even the battiest black hole could well be obeying the laws of classical mechanics.

*

You will resume your progress. Just before you get to City Hall, you will see the Engineer of Transparent Buildings, the engineer who has promised to make City Hall transparent, to disprove your scepticism, the engineer with whom you will be collaborating on that secret experiment, the engineer who charms you with the softness of his voice but who barks out commands at his acolytes, who whistles them near like his dogs.

The Engineer of Transparent Buildings will be standing a good distance from City Hall. He will be wearing strange clothes and dark glasses, and he will be sporting a moustache he didn’t have the day before. With him will be a file folder, inside which will be a copy of this document.

The Engineer of Transparent Buildings will be inserting batteries into a cordless phone. Good girl, you will not stop to stare or wave at him. You will begin climbing the steps leading up to City Hall, as if you didn’t know he was there.

*

Several teachers from your school will be at the foyer of City Hall, exchanging words with a group of government officials. The parties will be trading blames for failing to ensure your prompt arrival at the ceremony. A handful of the guests from abroad will be standing a few metres away. Among them will be the woman with green eyes. She will jump up with joy when she sees you. You will run to give her a hug. No wonder you had to take your time, she will say. So you had to walk all the way down carrying such a large bag! And you will reply, We’re moving house and I had to bring my new books along.

Your teachers and the government officials will be relieved to see you. Along with the foreign guests, they will fawn over you as they escort you towards the doorway of City Hall. The policemen at the door will step forward, seeking to peer into your new schoolbag and run over its contents with their scanning devices, but your large entourage will not allow them to delay you further. All that she has in it are her books, they will say. Unscreened, you will stride into City Hall, your entourage in tow.

You will take your seat at the front of the auditorium. Beside you will be the green-eyed woman. Your bag will be on the floor, wedged between your legs, and your shoulders will be glad they’ve been reprieved of its weight. You will look towards the stage. And you will see the Governor sitting at the high table.

*

Bored by the succession of long speeches from different speakers called to the podium, your mind will drift to your first encounter with snow. That was during your trip abroad for the international science competition. The green-eyed woman was your host. From the window of her house, you watched the snowflakes, large and magical, falling without cease on the rooftops and on the parked vehicles and on the trees, their bare branches white and heavy with the falling snow in a world that had gone whiter than bones. Overwhelmed by the alluringness of that frigid severity, you opened the door and ran out into the snow.

You didn’t know how long you stood in the snowstorm. Your fingers started going numb, and you thought about returning to the house to put on the jacket and gloves your host had bought for you, but you got lost in your reflections on the relationship between the molecular structure of water and the hexagonal geometry of snowflakes. You remained in the storm, trying to devise a new statistical model for predicting variations in the geometry of snowflakes from the ideal. Perhaps, that was what got the snowflakes angry. When you looked up, thousands of them were gunning for you.

You started running. The snowflakes didn’t stop chasing you. And they didn’t stop growing larger and larger. And their sides, like those of the Koch snowflake, didn’t stop iterating, transforming them into spinning, monstrous cogwheels with ever finer and ever more numerous teeth. Just when their serrated edges were about slicing through you, you screamed and woke up. You were on a hospital bed. The worried, green eyes of your host were looking down at you. You succumbed to hypothermia, she said. She nursed you back to health in time for victory in the science contest.

You will feel a tap on your shoulder, bringing your attention back to City Hall. You will look up. The green eyes of your host will be looking at you, as if you were back on the hospital bed in that foreign country. An usher will be standing close by. It’s time for the trophy presentation, your host will whisper. You will rise. The usher will chaperone you towards the podium.

*

On the stage, the multitude of eyes riveted on you will cause your heart to pound so fast you will want to run out of the hall. Good girl, you won’t let stage fright ruin your big moment. You will be emboldened by the recollection of how well you have been coached for that moment by the Engineer of Transparent Buildings, the engineer who will be watching the live broadcast of the ceremony from a location close to City Hall, the engineer who has promised you a cordless phone of the same type as the one he will have with him, the engineer who, in fulfilment of that pledge, would have placed the promised cordless phone in your new schoolbag.

The Governor will be talking at the podium. He will be claiming that your victory in the international science contest is a testament to the great strides his government has been making in education. The hall will applaud. You will wince. The leader of the delegation from abroad will join you and the Governor. With him will be the international science trophy. It will glisten under the bright stage lights. You will survey the sea of eager eyes in the auditorium. Among them, you will pick out those of your host. Her kind, green eyes will remind you of the relentless deathstorm of the snow. And you will shiver.

The leader of the foreign delegation will hand over the trophy to the Governor. He will raise it aloft, and then he will turn towards you, smiling as he makes to present you the trophy. Good girl, your hour come round at last, at that moment, the cordless phone in your new schoolbag will ring. You will not hear it, but the atoms in City Hall will.

Those atoms will begin a vigorous dance of transparency, imbuing City Hall’s dark glass panes and the section of the roof above the front part of the auditorium with instant lucidity. The transparency will spread, as relentless as the falling snow, to other parts of the roof and to the plush leather seats in the upper balcony of the auditorium and to the wood panelling on the walls and to the masonry of the building. The dance of transparency will pick up an energy boost from the fuel storage tank beside the big generator next to City Hall, and it will waltz back to further astonish the building. The pillars of the building will be stubborn, but ultimately, even they will relinquish opacity. By the next morning, like on that September day when other engineers of transparent buildings changed the migratory patterns of the iron birds and the Twin Towers became Ground Zero, the whole of City Hall would have become transparent.

*

That next day will also be a beautiful one. At the newsstand by the pedestrian bridge, the gathering will be talking about a Shulamite in the news. Her golden hair would have turned ashen. And she would have been robed, like London’s daughter, in the long friends, the grains beyond age. Some of those present will be sowing their salt seeds in the valley of sackcloth for her. Her hair became ashen because of what she never knew she was carrying, they will say.

Members of the gathering will also be talking about the Shulamite’s parents. The woman must be innocent, they will say. Imagine it, not even believing it when she was told that where she thought she was going was just a ruse. Her husband is missing, so he must be in the know.

And they will be talking about this document. The newspapers say the person who discovered it is still in shock. Rotimi, isn’t that his name? Yes, but his surname escapes me now. The poor fellow, the document must have been deliberately left on his doorstep. Wait, back to the document, is it possible to predict the future with such accuracy? But the things in it happened, didn’t they? True. So what’s there to debate?

We didn’t know those kinds of things can happen in our city, people at the newsstand will say.

*

Your new home will amaze you. From your lofty room, you will have a great view of flowing springs and blissful orchards. You will have royal couches on which to recline, and the large trees around will bring forth a variety and abundance of fruits. The air will be so pure that the fragrance of your sweat will be like musk. You will have an eternity of time in your hands, more time than you’ll ever need to think about numbers and equations. This is Paradise, you will exclaim. You won’t be wrong.

*

The lovely sunlight of that following day will stream in through the transparent roof of City Hall. Passers-by will stop to marvel. They will look through City Hall’s transparent walls, and they will see the buildings and vehicles and people on the other side. Most of those onlookers will depart the scene in haste, but Schrödinger’s Dog will not. It will sit in motionless vigil over the transparent gloriousness of City Hall, whimpering like an idiot.

*

At the same time, Schrödinger’s Dog, like a single photon that appears to pass through two separated slits at the same instant, will be in your old neighbourhood. It will be a beautiful day, but the main road will be deserted. Policemen will be entering into the houses. There will be red blotches on the road. The old actress will not be sitting on her balcony, and neither will her seven cats. The brothel women will not be shocking bashful folk with their dirty talk. And the white-bearded preacher will not be declaiming that the end of the world is at hand. All the other regulars will likewise be absent. Only Schrödinger’s Dog will be in the derelict passenger shelter, sleeping. But you will not see these things. You would be gone.

 

Rotimi Babatunde’s stories and poems have been widely published and translated. His plays have been staged on four continents. He lives in Ibadan.