Art: Japanese Bush Warbler
Because of an enzyme it contained, women paid a hundred and fifty dollars to have the guano from Japanese bush warblers smeared on their faces. I was suddenly learning stuff like that. Before it could be used for facials, it had to be collected, exposed to ultraviolet light, and mixed with bran—a by-product of the milling process that turned brown rice to white. Harvested, disinfected, preserved, bastardized. Sounded familiar, modern, but I didn’t understand what differentiated their excrement from other birds. The word ‘enzyme’ meant nothing to me. The warbler was small, its song more prevalent than its presence. It ate insects, berries, seeds. That was basically every subtropical bird. Why was this one different?
“Sounds weird,” I said.
“It works, though,” Kylie said. “My friend Julie gets it done and she said her face is like another face.”
“In what way?” I asked.
She looked at the television, apparently done with the conversation. “It balances skin tone.”
During the day, when Kylie was trying to change the perception of store-bought gravy, I searched the internet for causes, hobbies, and careers in the event of some unforeseen crisis. I had seen every search result, from the meat of the first page to the bones of the thirtieth: bullet making (surprisingly easy); auctioning used underwear on an Indonesian website; stone-skipping competitions; tools for impoverished salt miners in Bangladesh; growing mushrooms (surprisingly difficult); larger accommodations and sterile tattoo needles for Mara Salvatrucha members in El Salvador’s Penas Ciudad Barrios. Despite the meaningless scrutiny I gave the dirty underwear—visibly dirty, even from the thumbnails—and the photographs of MS-13 members packed inside rebar enclosures like french fries to-go, I couldn’t find anything suitable for me, for my programming.
Then the inevitable question: what laid beneath the skin, bones, axons, neurons, ones, zeros? There were prototypes, I remembered, but their realities were obscured since I rear-ended a Buick Terraza and had my throat almost totally blocked by the ingredients of a Tuscan Chicken Sandwich.
“I’m going to join a pole dancing class,” Kylie said one night, her usually tumultuous cheeks noticeably balanced.
“I’m worried about the shape of my butt and a girl from my office said the class is super good for that. She has a nice butt. I touched it.”
“I like your butt.”
“Too bad you don’t own it. Have you ever seen those pictures from India where people climb that giant vertical log and pose in symmetrical formations?”
“Oh. Well, it’s called Mallakhamba, and they think that’s where pole dancing started. Eventually it moved to circuses, then to bars. Now it’s in community centres.”
“Maybe I could join with you?”
She stopped chopping bananas and looked at me as if she had turned left off a perfectly uneventful prairie road and drove straight into the ocean. “Um, men don’t really take the classes.”
“It’s kind of something I want to do myself… like with my girlfriends.”
“Oh, okay,” I said. “I’d just like to do something together.”
The blender whirred and I imagined my body being fed into the pitcher, blades tearing into my feet, thick startled blood thrown against the glass. My soles tingled.
Our studio apartment was cubed with a half-wall separating kitchen from living space and a thin curtain I still thought was a mosquito net separating living space from bed. After any kind of irregular emotion, the clutter and proximity seemed like a surgical mask, and you just wanted to climb into the barrel of a gun aimed at the problem.
On a Thursday morning a day short of two weeks later, I went for a run near the river in women’s shoes. The previous night, while waiting for Kylie to get her head shaved, I bought training pants and a synthetic shirt but forgot about my feet, so I wore a pair of orange New Balances Kylie used for pole dancing, vamps like sausage casings. Five minutes in, the pedestrian walkway an empty, blistered tongue, I sensed the congested mass of nearby apartment buildings, and it made me lightheaded. I opened my mouth knowing I probably wouldn’t vomit and slowed down. On the riverbank, I sat in the groove of a trail grafted by wet deadfall, and let my skin sweat, cool, then prickle. The clouds of a chinook arch curved above the horizon and sun filled the space between like a crooked lampshade. Chunks of freeze-up bobbed past in the river, ice in a glass of Irish liqueur, and I thought about all the awful things I sometimes wanted to do. Like, really hurt people—ruin their lives. There were so many reasons to be terrible but none of them seemed personal enough.
So I stopped running, naturally. Spring took hold and from winter’s pulp sprouted young professionals with pedometers that clogged the walkways. I was glad for it. Populations were easier to handle when they dilated, and I didn’t enjoy the physical component of improving myself. We were all meant to exist at a certain level. Also, it was tough getting out of bed in the morning; my sleep had been suffering since Kylie started work on the branding iron. Couldn’t catch 90 minutes. At first she needed help downloading fonts and I showed her, but the incessant clicking bothered me enough to stay up and provide some suggestions, which she never used or acknowledged. Then she started using the Dremel until the early hours of the morning and the sound it made—similar to a dentist’s drill—devastated any attempt at relaxation.
“That’s going to hurt,” I said.
“Definitely,” she said.
“Are you looking forward to it?”
She considered the question. “Haven’t really thought about it; but yeah, probably—I mean, I’ve been doing all this work.”
“I don’t think I could do it.”
“What? Burn or get burned?”
“Well, you’re gonna have to do it. So you better get used to it.”
“Not a chance.”
“Who else is going to?”
When the filing was done, she swept the shavings from the floor, butchered a chicken, and decided she would finally leave after ‘Carpe Diem’ was burned on her shoulder. “I would do it for you,” she told me as we ate chicken noodle soup at midnight.
“I’m not qualified,” I said. “What happens if I screw up? What happens if you get hurt?”
“Pain is a moving threshold,” she said.
“I couldn’t handle it if I hurt you. I’m not a machine.”
“Yes you are,” she said, a palsied noodle hanging from her fat, cinnamon-oil lips.
“Come on. Don’t say that.”
“Don’t you think you owe me some concessions?”
I knew if she said it, I probably did; Kylie kept physical registers, lined with columns, explanations, and active ratios. When people entered her life, she walked to Staples, browsed the office supplies section, and estimated what kind of thickness they would require. Once, as she showered, I noticed the filing cabinet was unlocked, and rummaged through the notebooks, looking for my name. There was one small enough to fit in a shirt pocket marked ‘sandwich guy’ that contained a single entry: “asked for no pickles, put on pickles. -3.”
I checked the names on every notebook and couldn’t find myself.
“Leave it with me,” I said.
“Okay,” she said.
This was the register’s influence; she expected those aware of them to follow through.
Later, pots drying in the sink, Kylie eased herself on top of me and moved back and forth, the heave-ho of pushing a vehicle out of mud. The sweat from her scalp, having no barrier anymore, trickled toward her brow, nose, upper lip, and hung there like dew on a petal. Soon she glistened. Afterwards, I faced the wall, and wondered if the neighbor above us had the same layout as our apartment, and if his bed was above our bed, and if he was lying there, the same as I was. “You’re not gonna be able to sleep,” Kylie said, knowing where my brain went during interludes.
Instead of a professional using a cautery pen—a metal probe heated by electrical current—Kylie had chosen the ‘strike method’ for her brand. Heat it up, press it on. This method, no matter the brand’s size, required several ‘strikes,’ and I posted this information on craigslist, along with a short description of Kylie: shaved head, toned glutes, and a balanced complexion. I didn’t know if her appearance mattered, but I knew the fantasies we were willing to chase began as real moments that were later rearranged and fictionalized.
Three people responded, one a woman I chose because of gender, who said she had been looking to, “Hurt someone in a non-violent way.”
I asked if she would be willing to meet and she suggested the Silver Dragon on 3rd. I knew the place. It was a block east from where a maintenance man was called to move a pile of trash bags and discovered the bags were actually a man frozen to the ground. He was a friend of mine. Delly. There was still a faint black smudge where his cheek had stuck to the sidewalk and ripped off.
I waited for the C-train at Sunalta station. The platform was high enough to see the pebble roofs of nearby low-rises, vents punched through and swaddled by chewed tarpaper. I counted them. Dozen on one, twenty on another.
A mother blocked her son from the tracks as if he would jump if he knew the consequences and she wasn’t sure she wanted to stop him. They looked stranded. Tired, maybe—her body smushed together like an uncooked kebab, twined by Goodwill donations; his like string art pulled tight, sinewy ankles exposed because of pants that didn’t reach his feet. I tried to think about what he was, the son, but I couldn’t think of anything besides nothing.
When I almost choked to death, I hadn’t eaten in five days, and hadn’t eaten anything except canned bruschetta for close to a month. Pants grasped at the quarry my midsection had become. There was a membrane of dust on the toilet paper. Nurses didn’t believe me when I told them I just forgot. They said there was no way to ignore what happened to the body as it starved. I agreed, in theory, and it wasn’t as if I hadn’t felt hungry before, or weak, or dizzy, but the segments of my day set aside for eating were consumed by something else, something I couldn’t remember. It wasn’t until I stopped breathing during the night that I finally realized the trouble. I got out of bed, joints aching, vision collapsing in the center, dissolving outward, and searched my cupboards. There was a can of condensed milk leftover from a recipe I thought I could make based on a single picture, and potato flakes. I could barely see anything. Objects and actions didn’t appear in fluid motions, they arrived in bursts, delayed snapshots. Through them I saw the knife, the meat tenderizer pounding the handle, the hole in the can, the edge of it as I brought it to my mouth, the collage of black. In the morning, I dragged myself off the floor and drove to the nearest drive-thru. I fell asleep momentarily and woke when some part of my body pressed the horn. The man in front of me held his arms out like I was suggesting he immediately stomp the gas, regardless of what would happen. I drove past the menu and microphone. The woman at the window spoke but I waved her off, pointed at a ten foot picture of their Tuscan sandwich jibbed to a light post, and handed her my entire wallet. I didn’t even swallow the first bite before I crinkled that woman’s neck and forgot everything about my personality.
It wasn’t quite lunch, and no one was seated inside the Silver Dragon. Waitresses folded chopsticks and porcelain spoons into burgundy napkins. Vegetables and meat were added to woks in the kitchen, and they flared and spit and sizzled. Acetic fumes of fermented huangjiu and soy sauce exhaled into the dining room through a set of double doors shouldered open by busboys carting clean stacks of plates. A woman entered the restaurant in a skirt that ended where shirts usually do and looked at me. “Are you the guy with the girlfriend?” she asked.
“Yes. Hey. How are you?”
She sat to my right, and didn’t do anything except smell like multivitamins.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“Not bad,” she said, waving an arm at a waitress. “Excuse me, excuse me. Can we get a pot of green tea?”
The waitress brought a metal pot and two cups. I reached for it. “Wait for it to steep,” the woman said.
“Oh, yeah. For sure.”
“So, the branding.”
“I take it your girlfriend knows about it?”
“She knows about the branding. She doesn’t know I’m meeting you. She wants me to do it but I can’t. I’m worried I’ll hurt her.”
“You’re worried about hurting someone that wants their flesh burned?”
“You know what I mean. It’ll be easier for you. You don’t know her and I think, well I guess, because of that, it won’t be a big deal.”
“Why would you think that? Empathy shouldn’t be confined to those you know.”
“Yeah, of course.”
“So, what about you? Why are you here? Why do you want to hurt someone in a ‘non-violent way’?”
“My husband realized he liked men and my daughter got taken away from me. There’s nothing I can do about either of those things. Nothing. I’ve tried. So I’d like to have some kind of power over someone, at least for a little bit.”
“And this is power?”
“I think so.”
A waitress rolled a cart of bamboo steamers toward our table and lifted the lids. I chose the har gow and shaomai. The woman didn’t want anything. “I would never eat here,” she said.
“Why did you suggest it?”
“I like how businesslike the servers are.”
I dunked the pork dumpling in soy sauce and the woman told me her daughter once killed a seagull with a rock. “Jesus,” I said, suddenly embarrassed to be eating.
“Yeah. And ripped its wings off. She thought they could make her fly.”
When I asked for her contact information, she put her name as Blue Zinc. “That’s not my real name,” she said. “But it’s me when I think of myself as a comic book character.”
“And that’s now?”
“Yeah. Catching bad guys and branding them so everyone knows what they’ve done. Wouldn’t that be great? Transparency.”
“I’m not sure.”
“Let me know what your girlfriend thinks,” she said.
I called Kylie and asked where she was working. “Co-op on Richmond Road, why?”
“I found a solution.”
I took the train to 45th Street and sat next to the window, imagining a cleft in the glass was actually a laser strong enough to cut buildings in half—houses, office towers, apartments. Pedestrians were caught sometimes and I wondered what they would look like, and what kind of gunk would spill from their torsos. Intestines, blood, bile, pearled chunks of fat. Maybe the laser would slice a couple of people open and reveal severed wires and alloy frames. Then we would know.
It was a 45 minute walk to the Co-op and I thought about myself the entire time. I tried to decide what kind of personalities would grow from my leg if I could bury it like a germinated seed. What would they be? I kept confusing things like dependable, practical, outgoing, and adaptable with laborer, accountant, salesman, and athlete. I imagined these meek, viscid faces, stretched like cooked dumpling wrappers, pushing through the dirt, features texturizing as they grew.
Kylie was near the frozen soups and meat pies, rotating tenderloin on an electric grill, and I remembered how imperfect she looked in ordinary situations. Beef juice and gravy had splashed onto her apron and spread—smudges from the plastic tablecloth, long red fingermarks pulled across her belly as if she had attempted to disembowel herself. A man approached before I got to her. “Hello,” she said to him, and pointed at the mini-display of gravy packages with both hands. “We’re showing our rosemary and black pepper gravy today. Would you like to try it?”
“What kind of meat is it?” he asked.
“Okay,” he said.
She spooned gravy from a metal canister on the grill and poured it over a piece of beef she had waiting in a souffle cup. “We use natural ingredients. Real rosemary and black pepper,” Kylie said.
The man ate it. “Meat’s dry as hell,” he said. “But the gravy is pretty good.”
“Thank you,” she said.
He directed his cart at the dairy section behind her. “How many have you sold?” I asked as the man got to the yogurt section, picked up two identical containers, and tried to determine if one was more substantial by holding them at the same height.
“Is that good or bad?”
She lowered the grill’s temperature setting and sank back on her heels. The beef smelled sour and emaciated. Because of a recent spray tan and white-blonde dye job, the cook’s hat she was wearing looked like waxpaper on a sugared doughnut. “What’s going on? I can’t really talk,” she said.
“I found someone to brand you.”
“A woman. She’ll do it for free.”
“She’s into it—I don’t know.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Really?” I asked. I expected resistance and it wasn’t until much later, when her family told me a representative for Médecins Sans Frontières called to say she had gone missing, that I realized why. She had given up on me already. The register was closed.
“No one could know less about it than you, so what’s the difference?”
I set the date for Friday and confirmed with Blue Zinc.
The night of the branding, I cut I-shapes into chip bags and splayed them on our coffee table. I bought mangos and rum and pineapple juice. I laid towels around the cube—on the bed, kitchen table, bathroom sink, couch, fridge, dresser. If there was a complication and someone needed a towel, there was a towel.
Zinc brought herself and the illusion of procedure. She had trapped her legs in a pair of fishnets and cut her bangs, from left to right, like the line of a growth chart. “Where is the bride to be?” she asked.
“She’s just getting ready,” I said, sliced a grid into the flesh of a mango, and ran the knife along the skin.
“Has she been debating?”
“No. Not for a minute.”
Kylie came out of the bathroom in a robe, the preamble of a prizefighter. I introduced the two women and they immediately thought more of each other more than me. “You have beautiful skin,” Zinc said.
“It’ll look perfect with a brand.”
“To break up the monotony.”
“Exactly! That’s exactly what I was thinking.”
I made them drinks—Kylie said I added too much rum and shaved too close to the pit—then lit the blowtorch. I ran the flame back and forth across the iron until the metal turned bright red. It struck me how inviting the color was; I had to consciously stop myself from grabbing it and seeing how mortally my system reacted. When Kylie was ready, she disrobed to the waist and lay on the couch. I put a knee into her lower back, a hand around her neck. “Make sure she doesn’t move,” Zinc said.
I was nervous; it felt like this was ‘our thing,’ and I worried what failure would do.
The first strike produced no smoke, no sizzle, and just the faintest outline of Latin. I thought we fucked up. Zinc went in again and pushed harder. Kylie hissed, the handle of a potato masher in her mouth. On the third strike, Zinc quickly reheated the metal, and pressed the brand so deeply Kylie’s hips bucked and I lost balance. As I struggled to free my leg from the muslin and back rail of the couch, Zinc stepped away, and said, “Don’t worry, we’re done.”
It was still just red, an irritation. We sat and had a drink while Kylie tried to focus on things besides the third degree burn. Zinc thought the rum was made from excellent molasses and as I emailed her the name, she described the first time she saw her husband with a penis in his mouth. “It’s weird now,” she said. “I’m not allowed to have a fucked up feeling about it. I mean, he was cheating, but because he was discovering his true sexuality, everyone tells me I should be happy for him. ”
“I don’t even know what I would do,” I said.
“Basically you just die inside and hope fate decides you’re worthy of something, good or bad—doesn’t matter.”
Pus blossomed beneath Kylie’s skin. Small, urine-colored bubbles grew from the wound and I was careful not to touch them, disgusted at the thought of a warm, viscous body fluid oozing over my fingers. To soothe the pain, I applied aloe gel and fanned the burn with a biography of Anna Anderson.
Zinc asked if we wanted to go out for drinks, but I was tired and Kylie couldn’t wear a shirt. She thanked us, and asked that we delete her contact information. “I hope you get there,” she said to Kylie, and closed the door.
I wanted to talk but we didn’t. Kylie watched reruns of Saved by the Bell and I fell asleep. When it was clear someone had stayed awake through the night, as it was in the morning, I felt anxious for them—a nauseating involution. “You have to sleep,” I said. “So you can heal.”
“I can’t, not on my stomach,” she said, staring at the television.
I cleaned the wound with antiseptic and wrapped gauze across her back, underneath her armpits. Later in the day, I went to the drugstore, bought sleeping pills, and made her take the maximum dosage, plus one. She fell asleep for two hours on her side, then asked if I could find something to do.
“What do you mean?”
“Like, not involving me.”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“Thanks. I’m just tired and sore and don’t want to answer questions every ten minutes.”
I went to a movie and googled the release date twice, convinced I’d seen it before. Turns out, most action movies had almost identical plots, just different actors. I walked for a long time. Walked all the way to the Union Cemetery and walked back. I ate a chicken sandwich. I went to the grocery store and bought dish soap. Went to Home Outfitters and looked at the price of a bath mat, a knife holder, and a bowl filled with ball bearings.
This allowed her plenty of time to escape. She only took her registers—didn’t leave a note, didn’t even lock the door. I waited a week before I called her parents and asked if they knew where she was, and they were just as clueless as me.
Even with her clothes, makeup, and trinkets laying around, it was as if she had fused with the contents of our apartment, and after she disappeared, the guts of everything went with her. The toaster became a breadbox, the television a poor excuse for a mirror. I soon wondered if she had been there at all. It wasn’t until the notebook arrived, stuffed in an envelope, my name methodically lettered on the front, that I sensed the tread of her existence, and how absolutely fundamental it seemed. I flipped to the last page, checked the date, and decided I would eat some of the frozen chicken noodle soup for dinner. I didn’t even bother reading the rest of the register. Seemed pointless. I knew the stranger contained within its pages and had no intention of continuing the relationship. Out there, somewhere, was a person for me, a different person, and I couldn’t wait to see what they were like.
Travis lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He updates his published work at www.travisoltmann.com