The Color Grey

 The Color Grey by Liu Bushi and James L. Secor

I liked living with my grandmother, very much a part of my culture, a culture in which both parents work, not so much because with only one working there would only be poverty but because money is God. The people in my country do not know what to do with themselves if they are not working, filling up their lives with work; there is no understanding of free time or its value, only that it does not make one money. Money, for the worker, was freedom and, occasionally, a showy opulence so satisfying that they did not bother over the fact that the bosses and the owners were thousands of times more monied and in possession of free time. Quite ironic considering the founding of worker ownership, sharing of the profits of labor and egalitarianism–a concept often confused with equality–was supposed to rid the world–our world–of this inequity. At any rate, it is because of this obsession with work and money that I lived with my grandmother, for people who are obsessed with acquiring money–equated to a better life–have no time to raise the socially obligatory child. My parents cheated and had a second child–unfortunately, even in these modern times, another girl, a boy being still seen as a better get. Only in a small way is this desire for a boy child related to passing on the family name. Passing on the family name, the man’s family name, is an out-dated tradition, for there is no more social standing to be got by name recognition. A social myth. A hangover from former times that denigrated women, for with a girl child, like me and my mother, the family line is considered to have ended, as if women have ceased to exist. Society is a cruel beast. Cruel and duplicitous. Ironic. But with the present easy flow of money, money that no one had before, the irony is extended: there are a plethora of beggars on the streets. This was supposed to cease. I look at people spending money and acquiring things without a care in the world and I see the Roaring Twenties of America, the fury and the sham and the inevitable end when, once again, everyone is poor. Then, then the family name becomes something to hold onto, an empty icon of comfort and substance, a reminder of better days–the good old days. The fact that men do make more money than women and rise far easier in society will be meaningless as well. There will be true equality, as there always is with poverty. Yet men will hang onto their superiority even while the social obligations that go with it drive them to ruination. Martyrdom? The ironies never cease.

The emotional involvement of parents with their children is curtailed because of this rush to get rich. In truth, the harder truth is that the open expression and public show of emotion is frowned upon in my world, so much so that there are set-in-stone social behaviors and means of expression governing behavior with others: we simply do not know how to interact with people, we have no interpersonal skills. If it isn’t done this way, it is inappropriate, wrong, unacceptable–incomprehensible such that a response is impossible to come by, other than to label the person a rustic, a rogue, a reprobate. We are naturally reticent to show our emotions, probably due to a long history of oppressive authority and its attendant secret police. But added to this is the belief, not without foundation, that people will use this type of information against us in order to get ahead, more money and/or status. There is, however, another element to this. That is that with the coming of the new regime, emotion was given a bad name; it was taboo. Emotion was considered selfish and a travesty against the socialist state. Emotion, a public display of affection, was seen as being unequal, as if to say, “We are better than you.” All of this life and living had to be expressed in set phrases in a language ill-fitted to the job: no language and no expression of life and living is discursive. But lives depended on not showing affection. Such oppression had its effects on interpersonal relationships over time such that the dry, cold, stilted language became also the standard behavior within the family, within the home. Everyone in their place, everyone equal. My grandmother and, to a certain extent my parents, grew up in such an environment. I grew up with this. Though my time is looser, the pressure and archaic behaviors are still with us.

The only exception to outward shows of emotion is old people. Culturally revered but socially written off, forgotten, useless but for taking care of grandchildren, assuming there was more than one; many people in the city did not cheat, a combination of law and the bother of raising children–birthing and feeding them initially being a necessity but, too, a loss of income. By law, if a married couple were found breaking the law of one child per household, they both would lose their jobs, a surefire way to increase poverty and death. . .in the name of population control and the betterment of the state. No one is above the state. As soon as mom is able to go back to work, the child is sent off to grandma’s house, often enough not to be seen again but for visits until old enough to go to school. Not kindergarten, Primary school. The school system here is the great socializing force in the country. School squeezes you into a box of propriety. Even more than proper behavior, proper thinking is beat into you. The amount you are supposed to know is pre-determined and the teacher’s word is sacrosanct. How I survived with any semblance of personhood and mental agility is a mystery. My grandmother only went as far as middle school, there being no reason to educate a girl any further, as much because of social class pressure as a girl in high school much less in college was foolish, girls being intellectually wanting. My grandmother was from the country, a working class town. Opportunities were built into the system and working class country people had a certain ceiling and a limited view of the possible.

Until I was 10, I thought my grandmother was my mother and that my father had died. When my actual parents came to take me away, I refused to go with these strangers, not for one minute believing them and cursing my grandmother for selling me. After a torturous time, I adjusted to my real parents, whom I rarely interacted with anyway, as I only saw them at breakfast and dinner, and to this day there is no love lost between us. I am only respectful because society requires it. So stressful is this that I rarely go home or talk to them on the phone. I used to run away and try to find my way back to my grandmother’s, a difficult task until later when I paid attention enough to remember the way, for the family did return for visits upon occasion. Grandma was often ill with one thing or another. Nothing serious. This was nothing new. When I lived with her, she had the same complaints and she would occasionally take to her bed. A neighbor lady would come over and take care of things. Auntie Jun I called her. An entirely different sort of person: lively and quite talkative and colorful like a peacock. She had no children of her own. She was everyone’s auntie, often spending her days at the park watching over and playing with the children.

I never felt safer or more comfortable than with my grandmother–even into my 20’s when I went off to college, more of a means of satisfying my whim, as my parents saw it, and hoping I’d outgrow my foolishness in believing I could achieve anything, girls only being fodder for marriage and the begetting of a son, a grandson. They failed and I succeeded. I’m not accorded as much recognition as my male peers in the teaching profession. I get around this by hiding myself in my specialty and shining on my own, only by-the-by gaining the university any notice, which is really what we’re there for or else simply to maintain order, being a kind of warm body. I was not good at this. I brought undo notice to myself but as I had a name for myself via my specialty the deans could do little about it. The more I do, the more I must hide myself away in my little corner of academia so as not to show up my male peers, so childish their schoolyard jealousies and power-up manipulations. Do they ever grow up?

I did get married, though it was considered foolish and socially undignified because I married for love and passion. Neither set of parents would talk to us–until we had their first grandchild. We cheated and had two children, children that we took the time to raise, showering them with the parental version of the love we shared. But this story is not about me. It is about my grandmother.

My grandmother’s name was Gu Ting. Her friends called her Tingting. She had a few foreign friends who called her Montana–lord knows why and lord knows how she met them. As a toddler, I thought these foreigners were monsters, their faces were so ugly and unlike real people’s faces. I would run and hide under the table until they’d gone. Grandma told me that I overcame my fear and tears because she made sure her foreign friends hugged her in greeting, believing–rightly–that if Ma can embrace these monsters, they must not be monsters. She told me she learned this from a foreign friend who said that in his country this was accomplished by a kiss on the cheek, something no self-respecting Chinese would ever do. I did not learn these and other things of her life until I was in college and in the years thereafter, for Grandma, for all her leniency in raising me, was not an open woman. Indeed, she was stiff as a board; her movements were not loose and free, I guess is the word. She had no rhythm. She appeared to be fending off the world, controlling herself, as if something, some emotion or wild animal inside her might break free. A continual reining-in. Do not get me wrong, she was a pleasant person and never imposed such corralling on me. She set boundaries and as long as I abided by them I was fine. I tested, of course, and paid the consequences. But grandma never showed any malice. She was not strict as so many parents and grandparents, ever vigilant for some bad behavior and ever ready to punish. Their standards were more confining than my grandma’s. Perhaps this is why those children misbehaved so much. But for all that, Grandma did not go out much, just to do the shopping and go to the pharmacy. Otherwise, she stayed at home looking out the window. And she always dressed in grey. No black. No white. Just grey. Except that as she got older and suffered more and more illnesses until she couldn’t really care for herself, I found in caring for her that she wore lacy black underwear and a black satin chemise that would have shamed any high class courtesan or stripper.

“Grandma! How can you wear such things?!”

“They make me feel good.” I waited for her to continue. “They remind me of someone.”

“Grandpa?”

“Hardly,” she scoffed. “Give me my nightgown and fold those carefully. Hide them in the third drawer in the wardrobe.”

“Private?”

“Private.”

She stared at the mirror and her eyes glazed over. I went to get her white cambric nightgown, another surprise. White. Cambric, an expensive fabric. When I returned, Grandma had returned, in a dreamy sort of way, to her usual withdrawn self, though she was staring at herself in the looking glass. She was flat breasted, what we call fried egg breasts: brown aureole, nipple. Grandma did not wear a bra. My mother was not much bigger, judging from the bras she wore, so where did my breasts come from? A full B-cup. I did not have to wear a padded bra. Holding onto the footboard, she stood up and I saw she had quite a bit of pubic hair, an anomaly for a Chinese. In the communal showers at school, I never saw so much hair. I stared at her.

“Please. My gown.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

As the gown slid over her head and arms, she mumbled, “Don’t call me ma’am, Keke.”

“I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay, dear,” she said when her head appeared. “We all forget who we are sometimes. . .or we should. Help me to bed, Keke. I’m tired.” I did as she asked. “Give me a kiss goodnight like a good little girl.” I did, turned out the light and quietly pulled the door to.

I stood in the hallway marveling at what I’d seen: my Grandma in sexy underclothing! And how could she feed–if indeed she did–her child, my mother, with such breasts? Would a man find such breasts–or lack thereof–attractive? If so, would it be because her figure was so girlish?

“Go away child. You’ve already seen more than you should.”

* * *

Always in grey. And always sitting in her creaky wooden rocker looking out the window as if waiting for someone to return, for someone to show up. There was nothing outside that window but concrete houses and concrete yard spaces and concrete roadway. I suppose, when she moved in, this was considered modern progress. The four-room house was concrete, concrete over brick. We still build like this. Funny how different generational eyes see the world differently and then, as people grow older, see it differently again. House to house concrete meant no more mud to wade through and none drug in by children and cleaner dust. The women of the neighborhood swept up around their houses and the street before, carefully scooping up the dirt and depositing it in the area trash pile that mouldered some until the garbage men came by, maybe once or twice a week. There didn’t seem to be much of a schedule, much of a hurry or much of a desire to do a good job. There was always something left in the garbage cubicle itself if not in the road. Things have changed a bit, though nowadays with the neighborhood being mostly old folk, there’s not as much garbage. The public WC isn’t cleaned as often, either, but most people have gotten their own little outhouse–some, an actual in-house WC. Not Grandma. She kept to that outhouse outside on the balcony; she did have an in-house shower room, about 1.2 metre squared, which made the ceiling seem miles higher than it was. Just a concrete box with a faucet, a showerhead and a drain. Grandma had two towel racks put in, one very low for me. I still use it when I am there. We must have showered together but I have no recollection of this. I do, to this day, however, enjoy the smell and feel of another wet body–what a surprise it was to my husband when I joined him in the shower! We shower together often, whether we have sex or not, though I must admit we do make love more often than not. I prefer the Western “make love” to the Chinese “have sex” as our way of expressing this most intimate and passionate of embraces takes all of the humanity out of it, making sex no more than a passionless animal rutting. What my foreign friends call “just a fuck.” This fits, though, with my Grandma’s era; I hear still the phrase “have sex” amongst the youth. Difficult it is to override cultural imperatives. Indeed, society still pressures an arranged marriage but with a twist: the girl can turn down the suggestion until she is satisfied with the suggested man. There are, too, more love matches. Mine was a love match. My parents’ was arranged, as, of course, was my Grandmother’s. As I say, I never knew my Grandfather. This was, in the matter of memories or emotional development, not a loss at all.

My actual Father was very strict and very disappointed that I was a girl. There was not a day that passed that, if he did not ignore me, he criticized me, often in the most abusive language. I did well in school until about age 10 when I began to live with my parents and began to hate school; my grades fell and I got into alot of trouble. I think this was because of the increased squeezing of the life out of me, the freedom and creativity, in order for me–and everyone, though my classmates seemed more amenable and accepting of the pressure–to fit into some preconceived mold of what I ought to be and how I ought to act. I think, too, it was because of the prior 10 years of my life when I was always successful with Grandma; when you are never allowed to succeed, you generally do not. My grades in college were not that good, either, and it was some time before I learned that my father’s teachings of failure were not correct. Although the beatings stopped during high school, the cascade of verbal abuse increased. My mother made up for it out of my father’s sight. She told me once that she could not stop him, though she wanted to, because she was his wife and it was her duty to be loyal. All through middle school and into high school, I only found true solace with my Grandma. She never said much. She just left me to my own devices, listened to me and sat with me. For some reason I cannot quite grasp, this is what I remember the most: sitting alone with Grandma. Touching her and having her touch me. I became very calm at those times. I know I must have gone into a reverie, for occasionally I woke to her stroking my hair, whispering wishes and with tears in her eyes. I did not break into her elsewhereness–well, perhaps it was her nowness, the coming out of her grey shell and moving about like a snail from its shell, horns attentive to the least fluctuation of conscious intervention. It wasn’t until years later that she became audible and included me in this other world, more by way of telling me things or asking rhetorical-suggestive questions. It was during my senior year of college that I learned of both her physical hardening and her grey exterior. Still, it was a surprise to find her wearing sexy black underwear that first time I had to help undress her. More than once she caught me caressing the chemise.

“Feels good, doesn’t it?”

I started and froze. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“Not at all. You should buy some yourself. Or perhaps you should wait til the right time.” She paused and her voice took on the far-away quality I was so familiar with. “There is a right time, you know. . .”

“When is the right time, Grandma?”

“When you fall in love. You’ll find just what it is he likes.”

“You loved Grandpa?”

“Certainly not! Come. Put on my gown. Then you may lie next to me and we’ll fall asleep together. We used to do that, you know. Fall asleep together. Mostly,” she paused as I slipped her gown over her head, “out near the window.”

When she was comfortable, she told me to turn out the light and patted the bed next to her.

“Wait. I’ve got to find you in the dark.”

“You didn’t used to have trouble.”

She opened her arms to me. “That’s my girl. Do you remember those times I would tell you that we could write a story of love?” I snuggled closer. “Well. . .I’m going to tell you a tale of love. . .” Her voice trailed off. The darkness of the room closed more tightly against us. Around us. Closed about us and took us into its arms, its world full to the brim of the solitude of people, the lives they spill out into its vast depths, depths full of acceptance, of silent approval, depths that can only give back to the one with hands full of the water of life of so many. Only the storyteller has the key. And that storyteller can only unlock her own roomful of life. Full of life. A private and safe place. Grandma opened that door to me. Her door. Her room. Her darkness-held secrets.

“I do not have such good posture because I was taught to sit up and stand erect. I am hard and sharp in my movements because of Grandpa. Your Grandpa.”

“He’s dead, isn’t he?”

“Yes. I suppose so. Now he may be. But he hasn’t always been. Just as I have not always been trapped in this. . .hard body.”

“But–”

“Shhh! Listen to my story, Keke. You have seen my secret clothing, you might as well have the rest of my life. You are the only one to know. I cannot speak to everyone. Anyone. It is hard for me to talk, you know. Most people have nothing behind their words. There is. . .too much in me. . .”

A pause in time in the dark lasts forever. I held my breath and waited, interminable darkness and the lost room floating around me, my grandma behaving strangely. I could feel her tighten against me. Something was trying to get out. Something was trying to stop it. Ghosts and spirits and demons float about at night. Could grandma be possessed? With a huge out-rush of breath, like a dam breaking, cracking, the first rush of water spurting out, grandma spoke.

“There was no love lost between your grandpa and me. We married  because we were supposed to. We had sex because we were supposed to. We had a child as we were supposed to. Your mother. And then we had nothing to do with each other. Not that that’s what I wanted. I wanted something else. I expected something else. I expected love or at least the development of a similar feeling over time. I expected care. I expected respect. I expected loyalty. I got none of this. Of course. It was an arranged marriage in a time when emotional attachment was still a shameful, selfish thing.” Grandma paused. She gripped my hand tightly, lifting it and patting it down again and again on her thigh, not quite able to smash the dam. Her life could only squeeze itself out, this life she had boarded up in order to live. She whispered, “It is not. It is not. Do not forget that, Keke. It is not. It is the most human thing about us. Emotion is humanity. And when it is dented. . .” She sighed. “What I discovered was that I was chattel. I was social status. I was no more than a baby-maker. All of the formality and expense was a front. An empty case, for when I opened it there was nothing. I have put myself in there instead. I am all crunched up and cannot straighten myself out. You see, humanity was stolen from me. He might as well have gotten one of those blow-up dolls for all I mattered. There was no care or consideration. He spoke to me roughly. Ordered to do this or that. He handled me roughly, only touching me if I got in his way or when he wanted sex. Then, he just mounted me and pounded me until he spent himself, lay atop me panting for awhile and then rolling off to immediately go to sleep. I know you do not understand this but. . . when you have sex. . .you will want more than just sex. The animal arousal and slaking. As I did. His body touched mine and he pushed himself inside me, hurting me, but he never touched me. I closed my eyes and held my breath until he finished. Every time. Why was I alive? This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. I was just a thing for him to use. I was left burning inside, not just the first night, the night he took my virginity, but every night thereafter. For a long time, I thought there was something wrong with me. I felt no satisfaction. I felt an anvil inside me, a weight that wanted to be smashed with a hammer so that the pieces would explode and fill me with piercing joy. . .but it never did. I’d been lied to. The stories and things people had told me. Lies. No joy. No burst of passion. Luckily, while I was pregnant, he did not touch me. For the baby, he said. But that was just a handy excuse. He had done his duty by me. I was no further use. All I wanted was to be touched, to be held, to be caressed. I wanted to feel human. He did not like me or respect me. He would come home smelling of another woman. And then it was the smell of one woman. The same woman until the day he left. Yes, child, he left. As soon as your mother graduated high school and was accepted to university, he left. His obligatory duty was done. There was no need to continue the pretense of duty to me or have his way with me because he’d not been able to see his woman whore bitch cunt fuck.” She beat her thigh with each word. Horrid words coming from her mouth. It was awhile before she was able to overcome her furious, gasping breathing. I held onto her as she shuddered back to her usual tightness. “I suppose it was a blessing. I clenched up, I steeled myself every time he touched me. I clenched up whenever he did not come home until late. I clenched up against the insulting, disrespectful life I was given. I could not express my anger and hatred. It would have been socially inappropriate. . .and I would have hated myself. Behaving in such an unacceptable way. I was his wife. This was my lot. I hid the hurt and the shame. I turned to stone. For protection. Still, somewhere beneath that hard exterior, was the belief that I was at fault. For what I was not sure. But I must have done something wrong, I told myself. Society told me. Guilt. Unknown guilt. Eating like a gluttonous bug. You know what you’ve done wrong, it would say to me. Like my father. You know what you’ve done wrong. You just think about it. I thought and I thought. But I couldn’t find it. I hardened to that, too, for I did not want to admit a wrong when I felt so wronged. I was wronged. I was battered. I was abused. By the time I figured this out, that the man I was told to marry was a bad man, it was too late to become unbound. He was gone. Good. . .no more touching, no more abuse. But no more touching of any kind. Even if it is an unwelcome touch, it is a touch, it is notice that you are there and someone is paying attention to you. But suddenly there was total emptiness. Total silence. Just me in this bond that I respected. I could not break my promise even though the bond, the social contract, was hollow. My respect, my belief. . .oh, my! Never to know love. . .I brought it upon myself because I believed what I’d been told. I believed society and. . .I had my duty. I could not abandon my duty!” She hugged me to her and stroked my hair for a long time. She played with it. She gathered it up and held it to her nose and breathed deeply. “Your hair is so soft. So soft. . .like his hair. . .”

“Like whose?”

“What’s that?”

“You said my hair was soft like his.”

“I did?”

“Mm-mm.”

“Yes. . .perhaps I did. Perhaps I did. . .”

I waited awhile. The darkness billowed up and I felt I was lost in a cloud I did not understand–or belong in. I could feel its touch and its hush. I was only 22. What was I doing standing in the breath of this great opening?

“Grandma?” I whispered.

“I did. I brought it upon myself. That horrid marriage. For once I had love. . .I held love. . .it was all I wanted and I ran from it.”

“Why?”

“I’m a coward.”

“Grandma, that’s no excuse.”

“No, perhaps not. But it’s true all the same. I was overwhelmed by the warmth, the heat that flooded into me. And the need for him. The need to have my tingling nerve endings stilled and thrilled. The need to have him inside me–I imagined this. He was so big against me, I almost felt him inside me. I felt him filling up my emptiness. I felt. . . how frightening it was to want a man so much. To want him touching me. I was so young. To want to hold onto him. The smell of him. I was frightened. I think I was ashamed of having these feelings. How could I cope with this drowning passion? Lord, child, I thought I was losing myself. And that. . .and that. . .” she was trembling against me. “Oh, tian! I ran.” She took a deep breath. “This is what it’s all about. This that I ran from. Running from what you most want. What a fool. He wrote me letters. Poetry. He opened up his soul. He threw himself away to me. Coaxed me to love him. I believe he was crying. Anyway, he said I had stolen his life from him but there was more. I threw them all away and then went through the garbage and found them and put them in a box and locked it. That was the end of any chance of love.” She cleared her throat. “He said the same thing. Last chance for love. So you see? I am first hard as a board because of your grandpa and second because of my own cowardice.”

“Is he dead? This man?”

“I expect so. He was older than me. We would have never been able to marry anyway. Older. . .the wrong sort. . .but I’d have had the time of love. Something real and human to hold onto in the face of social obligation. I’d have known what it was to feel like a woman. I hurt him terribly. . .and I am ashamed.”

My Grandmother did not speak again.

That night I let her voice and her memories fade as an ethereal atman and purusha and buddhi and jiva opening up into the darkness, the darkness of the boxed-in room. There were no stars there. No moon. But as she fell into sleep, she relaxed her hold on herself and on me. This darkness held her memories. This was her humanity chamber. Private. Silent. All hers.

Grandma was cremated when she died. They said she burned brightly, a flash of fire like a dry plank of wood.

I have her letters. They are still in the box, locked. I don’t have the wherewithal–the courage?–to open it and disturb her memories. There are times, though, when the passion with my husband is so great, so overwhelming, that I choke and cry and want to run away so I can find my breath, my bearing, for I am lost to them. There is no me. Me is lost. And I remember grandma and, tears in my eyes, I drown in that vortex for her. Because this is what it’s all about, grandma. Can you feel it? Can you feel me? I am full to overflowing. There is enough love here for you, too. At these times, I am loving not only for myself but for grandma’s loss and the loss of so very many others who only have dreams.

(c) James L. Secor, 2015

Babes in Dreamland

 Babes in Dreamland

by James L. Secor

 

We are lost in a dream world, people often say. But. . .don’t we control that dream world–which is only too real to us, the dreamers? And don’t we rule others out of it–and back into it again when it serves our purposes?

I used to have dreams. I don’t any more. I made sure of that. I take drugs to keep me awake at night. And during the day. For if I’m not sleeping at night I will fall asleep during the day. Right? So now, I don’t have any dreams. I mosey along doing my daily everyday routine without much notice of the world around me. A not-so-unpleasant side effect of the drug. That is, I move through reality as if it were a pleasant, dissociative. . .dream. As if I am not really in it as I watch it pass on. That is the only way I can keep my sanity.

Lest you think me insane. Lest you think me out of touch with things. Let me tell you of my dreams. The dreams that brought me to this reality state. They were recurrent dreams. Very vivid. Very frightening. Not only in Technicolor but in Techni-odor and Techni-touch. I often couldn’t get back to sleep, sitting staring into the darkness, a rabbit alert for the lurking predator. Panting. Heart racing. Always they were the same. Always the same plot and story line. Like a peddler of popular fiction, my dreams were made-to-order formula-written dramas. For years, I had my own little shop of horrors right in my head. Right in my bed. Lying beneath my pillow to bushwhack me at the first sign of inattention. Whenever I closed my eyes.

The worst thing about these dreams was that they began to impose themselves on the real world. The daylight world. I would feel disoriented at those times. Breathless. Frantic. I was told this was only anxiety and given some medication. But the variant occurrences continued to occur in a vast amalgamating array of ways. Without warning, like a jack-in-the-box with a fiend’s head. And, of course, at night I’d dream. Not every night, you understand, but repeatedly nonetheless.

So I stopped taking those drugs. I stopped believing there was something wrong with me, thinking I was insane because I couldn’t stop dreaming and seeing the same fearful unreality in the cold, clear light of day. Which, of course, put me right smack-dab in the middle of a conundrum: only the insane say they are sane so to maintain my sanity, my belief in what I’m seeing and experiencing in the world is to admit I am insane but since these dreams-in-reality are insane. . . .

“There are reasons for their being there. Let’s look at them. They are your dreams. You are projecting your irrational fears on a rational world. Now. . . .”

So. To maintain that the insanity that I see is insanity when in fact it can’t be because it’s reality is to prove my insanity. That is, I’m not seeing what it is I’m seeing. I’m not experiencing my experience. I’m not living what I’m living.

This was more unsettling than the reality of the dream.

As I say, I stopped the legal drugs. I found other, more effective drugs to solve the problem. In my frenzy I found how accessible illegal drugs were. Here was another case of invisibility–or visibility–when advantageous. Drugs were only menacingly underground when it was necessary for them to be so. That is, they were no problem until they were needed to be. Now, the appearance of my dream-like reality in reality does not bother me. Not in the least. If it bothers others, I wonder why they don’t invest in drugs to kill the pain. Shopping and extreme sports and sensual stimulation pall. Eventually. There is only so much you can take before numbness sets in. It’s irrational to put up with irrationality, so be rational and make the irrationality disappear. Take drugs! Make tolerance.

If you can’t see your dreams, you’re not having them, are you? If you’re not experiencing pain, you’re not having it, are you? And, of course, drugs produce a state of alternative reality and that’s not real, right?

At first, the dreams were only a part of what they became. They were only the chase scene. I was being chased. I was frantic. Eyes darting here and there. Behind me. These people were after me for. . .for. . . for what I’d done. They were hunting me. In the coarsest, most obvious way. No attempt to hide themselves, not attempt to follow me secretly. So sure of themselves. Their prey. Frightening, this kind of stalking. It makes you do things, believe things–I was something they had to have. This kind of hunting forces you into making incriminatory behavior. The simple attempt to escape is a sign of guilt. And, yet, I had to get away. There would be a loss of. . .of. . .of. . .what had I done.

What had I done?

I remember there was a priest in the first dream. A church, really, because I never saw another person. Just a form, the smooth concrete blocks of the building, the Doric columns out of an old movie. I’m not sure I heard a voice. A calm, assuring voice. Half whispering, “This way.” And showing me around the side of the building. Helping in my escape. A man who would lie for a just cause. A follower of God, a god of jealous vengeance–and, some said, love. Tough love under Gothic eaves. Were those monsters up there watching and passing judgment?

I was never inside the church. I was always running around the church, around the side and down into the. . .street? alley? It was dark. I could not tell. But I think it ran along the side of the stark, Gothic-Art Deco structure. In this stark black-and-white movie set world so much was unseen, unknown. I could not tell where the raw light originated from. I look for it but. . .I just saw black, black shadows and highlights. I couldn’t tell where I was. I couldn’t see the end of the. . .alley? I couldn’t tell who I was. I was running. Why? I didn’t know where I was going. But I was going–

And then I’d wake up.

I never got anywhere and they never got me. They were uniformed police, military police. No. Fascists. They were dutiful Fascists hunting down traitors to the cause. Like wild dogs. Clubs and knuckles and guns for claws. Black leather-gowned hands. Insistent in their starched shirt duty. And beating the found up. And torturing them. That’s what Fascists do. Tyrants. People who have a right to be right. And I was wrong. So. . . they could kill me. Dying for someone else’s a purpose.

An Inquisition.

A movie of myself. Being chased. Over and over again. Across the portico. Alongside this church. Down around the side into the shadowed passageway. Always helped by this unknown, unseen priest. “Come this way.” Always chased by Fascists. Wild dogs running their dinner to ground. Steady. Remorseless. Never tiring. Because they don’t go too fast. They’ve got all day. All night.

They got closer with each dream. I saw them clearer and clearer. Definitely Fascists. Brown uniforms. Sam Brown belts. Stiff high-crowned and steep beaked hats. Shadowy fox faces without movement and red glowing eyes. No definition. Yet stark. When they came out of the shadows. Stark. Well-defined art deco men-machines skulking quick-step, eyes glaring out of their darkness. Perpetual motion machine-men.

And always I would wake up in the same place. Caught in that side street or alleyway. Frozen in naked light. Ready for flight. Fear and anxiety mounting and filling up my eyes, making my breathing come faster and harder. My nostrils flared. Caught in the act of going. . .where? Where was I going?

When I started awake I was panting. Sweating. My nostrils flared.

In the streets outside, during the day, in the evenings before I went to sleep, I began seeing more and more uniformed police. Military-looking sorts in brownish clothing. They wore Sam Brown belts with mace canisters and guns and nightsticks and radios hanging off of them. Making it difficult for them to move quickly. They had come out of their cars and back on the streets. The cars were still there. They circled and circled around the block, watching. . .following. Looking for trouble. But now there were forces on the ground. And like their car-in-pursuit buddies circling, circling they knew nobody. Except he whom they were running to ground.

Where had they all come from? Ubiquitous.

Was I dreaming? No matter where I went, there they were. Watching. Walking easily along. Too easily. Looking for something. Stern faces. Glaring eyes. Knowing they’d find it. They always get their man.

If you look hard enough long enough, it is said, you’ll find what you are looking for; that is, you see what you want to see. Which is making it happen.

Did these crisp-shirted policemen make things happen? That’s not rational. Dispose of that thought. They are only peacekeepers. So was the Colt .45. Lots of people had them. Colt .45’s.

Then the dreams would stop for awhile. Months. But the inversion into the real world kept moving on. Inevitably, like amoebae eating. Slow and methodical. Fingers oozing to swallow up the intended. The marked. Every once in awhile I’d see riot-geared and plastic-shielded and space-helmeted policemen chasing people down blind alleys. Down streets toward other riot-geared and plastic-shielded and space-helmeted policemen. Nightsticks flashed brilliant black in the harsh light. Daylight. At night on television. On the News. Would they soon be chasing them across the rooftops? The Scarlet Pimpernel and Robin Hood flushed out into the open–I tried to laugh but it caught in my throat and gagged me. Sweating. Panting. Flared nostrils. I could not believe what I was watching. My dreams come true. Heaven help me, Mr. Disney!

And then the dreams would start up again. More intensely. Two men became three became four. Always running me into the black-and-white night gangland movie set. The outlaw cornered. Along the church portico and down into the shadows and highlights. Caught in the spotlight.

I was always running down a blind alley. A dead end street. Maybe it wasn’t but that’s the way I felt. I never saw the end. I could have projected my fear, my paranoia. Yes? That I couldn’t escape? Just what they wanted me to believe. If I believe I’m lost. If I believe I’ll fail. I will. Right?

I’d wake up before I got caught. Before I got anywhere.

Why am I being chased? What is it these Gestapo-like troops are wanting? What’s their story? What have I got? Is there no release from this manifested paranoia? It’s not mine. It’s imposed from outside. To what purpose?

I don’t know. I stand sweating and wondering. I grow dizzy with the pressure. The pressure of not knowing. The pressure of always being run to ground. . .and never getting there. Stuck at the mouth of the trap. Neither they nor I get to the far end. They do not catch me. I do not get caught. But I don’t get anywhere either. I wake up.

Why am I being chased? What is it I have that they want? Who are they, these costumed hunters?

So shaken. So shaken. Shaken and disoriented. Eyes wide, expecting. . .

Were they hiding here in the room? Would they be waiting for me outside my door? I’d get up and look about the house. Look out the windows into the blackness.

What happens next? What will happen in the next dream?

I became afraid of the night. Of closing my eyes. What if I blinked? And missed it.

And then I see on the news night-flying helicopters with bright piercing eyes scanning the ground, the streets, the buildings for. . .people? For runaways? For problem children? For trouble? Lighting up pieces of the night, pieces of the city like underworld crime movies, like slice-of-life-pies. Paranoid conspiracy theory mania. Art’s constructed worlds become life. And I fear for myself, for I have the same sensations as with my dreams. But the newscasters calmly announce they are out, these black night-flying helicopters, to make the city safer. These cyclopean machines appearing out of nowhere despite the thwack-thwack of their rotors.

In my dreams, the Fascists appear out of nowhere despite the bone-chilling studying of their boots on the pavement. Always somewhere else. And always right here. I’m already running, seeking a haven, when they come into the picture. They’ve been waiting just off camera. Waiting for their cue. They’re never late.

What is it I’ve done to be running from? What evil looms and billows like dark gathering clouds in the night over my head? Where am I going? Where am I going to go? I don’t know where it is I’m going. Where I’m trying to get to. Just away. Just–safety is just away from my pursuers. A place for me to catch my breath. I’ve got to catch my breath. There’s a stone in my diaphragm stealing my breath away. My lungs fill and there is no air there. It seeps back out leaving a hollow empty place. I can’t hold my breath. My head feels thick. I need a place to think clearly. Look at things and see what is happening. Where I’m going. What is in all this? But I’m alone and out of breath and running away from Fascists that suddenly appear out of the darkness to chase me through the black and white patchwork streets.

If they suddenly appear, they had to already be running after me, right? That part’s already established, right? Or have I manufactured them in order to give me a reason to be running? In the dream I hunt for rationality, a Frankenstein monster: there has to be reason, no?

Then I am being shown around the church building, half open large door off to one side, to an alleyway. A means of escape. And. . .caught! In the act. End of movie still shot, head turned, eyes wide. I’ll be back.

Then I began seeing pictures in the papers. Bad reprints of the movie set in my dreams. People being run down. Frightened rabbit eyes bulging for the camera. Taut faces. White teeth beneath stretched lips. Hands and arms extended in warding-off gestures. The wild dogs are upon them. I read episodes of people being run to ground. Captured. Manhandled. And then never heard or seen again. A neat Las Vegas disappearing act. Clearasil® and pimples: here today, gone tomorrow.

Notices were posted on walls and telephone poles and announced on the radio, on the television in stentorian voices of authority. Notices about a threat to our safety, to our way of life, to. . .us. Stories of why the new military-style police. They were everywhere. At the airport to greet everyone who disembarks, armed with semi-automatics. On the streets. In the buildings. At the shopping malls. In the bus/train/subway stations. In the hotels. On the elevators. Following us on the streets. Protecting us without smiling. The Great Freedom. Always with guns ready to bark.

When I saw them following me, I went to the doctor. The paranoid codswallop of my dreams becoming reality in reality. Is something wrong with me? Only anxiety, he said. Don’t worry. Projection of my fears on outside others. I’m being irrational. These things are not there. Here. Take these. You’ll feel better in a few days.  We’ll talk about it when you’re normalized.

No effect–other than more frequent dreaming. More furious running. Chasing. I could almost see those Fascist faces. Looming into my light. But always severely shadowed. Fox-like and piercing. Grimacing grins of glistening teeth. If I could see them maybe I’d know–but. . .always umbraed. I just couldn’t quite get a fix. When I was highlighted, they were in the shadows. When I was in the shadows, they were at the shadows’ edges. So close. So close. I almost knew why. I almost knew what was up. But I couldn’t stop to see. That would be the end.

Increased tension. My ability to function at work, doing mundane everyday things, was affected adversely. I would forget things. Or do them in reverse. I’d lie about what I’d done. Find excuses. It was never my fault. I was threatened with termination. Ha!–I was threatened without termination. What was I to do?

So. . .I found these other drugs. These drugs that keep me from sleeping. These drugs that keep me from dreaming. Day or night. And now, when I see what was once in my dreams out in the streets and on the TV I am unperturbed. Yes. . .it’s happening. But out there. Beyond me. Outside of me. I’m not included. I do not now see the dream inversion into the outside world, my world of the everyday, as real. Reality. Because there is no perception. Drugged, I go merrily along. Nothing affects me now.

I feel better not seeing the dream-reality. The dream-reality is invisible. I control it.

I must keep it that way or else. . .

 

The Wonderful Potion

 The Wonderful Potion that Calls One’s Name

by James L. Secor

 

Even the moon all too soon sets and spreads the shadow of mountains across the once highlighted landscape and life is lost in the ensuring darkness. Often enough, the blazing dawn breaks too late and the enlightening sun reveals desiccation and the taut stretched skin of a once exuberant life. Is this chance masquerading, bells ringing and tambourine popping and jingling, as fate? For fate is more easily understood as a power than chance which, in its transiency, is without form, direction or, most importantly, meaning. Or is the desiccation due to a man-made impetuosity? Reason is a thing we all need in order to cope with living. Reason is predictable as the moon’s setting and the sun’s rising. And then there is the occasional eclipse to throw a pall over the world of man, the world humanity has made in his image.

Hundreds of years of war gives life a shallow arid bowl to live in, sifting through the fine dust of civilization for a gleam of hope, for Pandora’s box cannot be far off, certainly not beyond reach and certainly no longer full of the plagues and infestations that so beset humankind upon its first opening. War being the carrier of the diseases. War and fear that rise up out of even the basest ground to strangle like noxious weeds the flowers in their innocence. Yet, after the horror of wars’ devastations, life again blooms, shoots and tendrils spreading the plenteous nature of humanity to the far corners of the world. But as smiles soon fade and prophets come with dire predictions, so the gaiety of reprieve is eclipsed.

The higher the monkey climbs, the more he shows his tail and people can rely on others about as much as a monkey who falls from a tree.

* * *

Only one ferry ran from the mainland to Rún Eyll and back again. A day trip on an old tug that had seen better days and received none of the benefits of the new world. Creaky, slow and reliable, the Obygo Ferry plied the calm waters delivering little in the way of goods and returning with barrels of olives and olive oil, purportedly the best in the land, albeit Rún Eyll was all but forgot in the merchants’ rush for enrichment.

Aside from the richness of the olive business, Rún Eyll was considered a mysterious island inhabited by ghosts and ghouls and other creatures wailing and crying out in the night to freeze the blood of the most inveterate trader. The people, too, were considered weird and all but ignorant, for they spoke little and grunted often. Stories abounded nevertheless that more normal, that is more human, inhabitants abided there. But since they were never encountered, the stories were deemed without merit, silly folktales. If you only see short, bowlegged and bespectacled Japanese with black hair, buck teeth and of superior intellect, all Japanese are thus so. It stands to reason.

The leaves of the forested hills of Rún Eyll were faded yellow and reds falling to cover the ground in crisp brown suggesting to Mr. Jada the evanescence of life, filling his heart with a vague feeling of grief. Mr. Jada, a man of 50 or so, sighed at the drab and empty life on Rún Eyll and felt the pull of irrepressible yearnings unfulfilled. He was a man of means with no outlet to enjoyment. As such, his riches and the making of more held no fascination for him in a backward island. Overwhelmed by the bleakness of this life, he set out for the Capital. Appropriately disposing of his assets, with light step Mr. Jada, along with his house servant of many years, boarded the Obygo Ferry on the way to his dreams of leisure and pleasure as he’d been told were for the asking–for the man with the means and will to satisfaction–in the Capital. Tasty as the peaches on the lower limbs, true succulence resides higher up in the canopy.

Mr. Jada bought a little but appropriate dwelling in a moderately fashionable district in which to begin his new life. A great adventure opened up before him, a roaring good time of luxury all aglitter with rainbows of color only ever dreamed about on dusty, dusky Rún Eyll. The stories told by the merchants and ferrymen were true after all.

Mr. Jada was ready to dive into the exuberant life of the Capital, throwing off all chains of restraint and good judgment that so bound him upon the little island. Now! Now, Mr. Jada was in paradise, no longer blind to temptation and no longer bound by tradition from enjoying himself in the name of making money that, in the end, was no more than a dragon’s treasure–where could the dragon spend it? Sitting on money did not hatch more and even if it did was it not worthless and useless on the floor of a cave beneath the heaving abdomen of a great beast?

Even so, Mr. Jada did not comport himself like a popinjay during the day, strutting about the city calling attention to himself in order to satisfy a vanity he did not have. During the day, Mr. Jada could be found lounging before his house, sometimes sleeping, sometimes waking. His hard working neighbors called him “The Man of Dreams.” Everyday life was so filled with duty and obligation and the rush to make a living that no one bothered with Mr. Jada except to tell themselves stories of his indolence and rustic origins. Secretly, in their deep hearts, Mr. Jada’s neighbors envied him. No one wished to spend all their days working and yet never getting ahead, never rising beyond the essentials of living, with neither money nor energy for more than a frugal existence while the Capital blossomed fireworks and raucous laughter nightly heedless of all care. So that even sitting about enjoying the weather daily as Mr. Jada did was a mouth-watering dream of paradise.

At night, like an owl emerging from his barn hideaway, Mr. Jada ventured out into the gaiety of the pleasure quarter losing himself amidst the flashing lights and bright ringing laughter. People clothed in colors ranging from eye-opening splendor to tasteless gaud roiled around him in waves, catching him up on whirlpools of partying and flinging him back out into the street to repeat the same dizzying experience. There seemed no end to it.

Yet Mr. Jada was no nearer the realization of his dreams than he was on the ferry crossing. He could not break through the translucent curtain that kept him from the most prestigious tea houses and restaurants, he could not gain access to the best seats in the theatre and he was barred from the more exquisite women of the night, those who shone brightly and chose their companions as suited them. Mr. Jada, for all his money, was a foreigner. He did not know the culture of pleasure, the language and teasings that were appropriately the keys to accessing heaven. Nor had Mr. Jada found any friends likely to teach him the much flaunted ways of extravagance and dissipation, a form of forgetfulness of great worth, albeit as fleeting as a shooting star. As soon as you note it, it is gone.

* * *

One fine night, sitting at a gaming table in the common room of a certain tea house, Mr. Jada fell under the supercilious gaze of a young rakehell. This splendidly dressed peacock, known to all and sundry for his loose ways and lack of judiciousness, was yet known simply as Maurice. Maurice had no stable employment, if he ever had any, for there was no memory of his ever having worked a day in his life. The spoiled son of a prosperous cloth merchant and money lender, Maurice came into an enviable inheritance when his father suddenly died. Even the most robust fortune deemed to last a lifetime can be squandered in loose and care-free living and giving no heed to the businesses until they begin to fail and he is made a modestly good price to take them off his shoulders. An unfettered life is like the caged canary set loose that flies higher and higher until there is no oxygen to keep its frantic heart beating and then plummets to the ground. Thoughtlessness, too, is a prominent characteristic of humanity. Brain size is of no consequence.

By the time Maurice’s fortune ran short and threatened to thrust him into the direst poverty, a place so low that life rubbed roughly against the soft, calf skin caused Maurice to shudder–at this precipitous overhanging to hell, Maurice’s well-made acquaintances, sons all of prominent, prosperous families, favored him with their support, fearful of losing their meal ticket to the best that life had to offer. Friendship at such heights is an expendable thing. Often enough a cumbrous thing in the world of utilitarian pleasure-seeking.

Maurice fancied himself the possessor of an acute sense for ferreting out the moneyed fool. To be honest, Maurice had never yet been steered wrong. A veritable bloodhound. So it was that Maurice insinuated himself to the left shoulder of his prey, Mr. Jada. Mr. Jada did not appear to care whether he won or lost, enthralled in the playing of the game. Yet, Mr. Jada quit the tables nightly with more money than he began, as Maurice gathered from the gambling regulars. Looking over Mr. Jada’s left shoulder, Maurice occasionally approvingly touched the old man as he bided his time, for sooner or later Maurice divined he would be of use to this foolish old man.

Mr. Jada collected his winnings and passed out into the glare of the Capital’s night life that he so longed to be an integral part of. For all his will and determination, for the loss of home and the throwing around of his riches, Mr. Jada could only wander through the crowded and lively streets vicariously living his dream. He sighed as his senses were over-run by the ebullience of the nigh-nonpareil. An itch eluding his spider-like groping fingers.

At this point, Maurice caught up to Mr. Jada and put a hand on his shoulder. Mr. Jada turned to face Maurice.

“Maurice.”

“Jada.”

“I could not help taking notice of you at the gaming table. You do enjoy gambling, don’t you?”

“Why yes, I do. But I am limited to such second rate places, so it palls.”

“And why is that? You certainly have the money.”

“That is true. But I have moved to the Capital from. . .the provinces. I do not know the ins and outs and have no friends who might help me along.”

“I can solve that problem.”

“You can?”

“I am quite well-known in these pleasure quarters. With a snap of my fingers I can get you the answer to your dreams.”

“This is too good to be true!”

“I know. I know. I am your humble servant and, I hope and pray, your friend.”

With such ease does the snake slither into the hen house.

Pleasure, the least hateful form of dejection, is a habit, an addiction more potent and insidious than sugar, alcohol or drugs. Pleasure sinks into your skin and without noticeable effect besots you until all you know is stimulation, stimulation, stimulation. Elation to leave you blind drunk. All the easier to obtain such inebriation because Mr. Jada wanted to experience the Capital Dream before he died. There was no reason why others should wreak the wonders of civilization and not him. To live such a life, to pursue happiness was everyone’s right. A life of drudgery, a life of trials and tribulations is a wasted life. It is spirit abuse. With pleasure and satisfaction at the tip of one’s fingers, there is no flight or fight syndrome. High blood pressure, heart attack and sleep apnea are also silent killers. The only pleasure here is for the family members who are relieved that you are gone. Mr. Jada had no family. Nor no friends, if truth be told. But what is truth in the face of gaining the gates of paradise?

Friendship is, after all, a ship built big enough for two in fair weather but only one in foul.

Maurice was the one-eyed man in the forest of Mr. Jada’s blindness and he, bell-weather like, led Mr. Jada a willy-nilly trail through the gambling houses, exquisite tea houses, public baths with washers and masseuses and into the best brothels. Like a happy dog, Mr. Jada followed Maurice and his friends as they ran after one treat or another. Discrimination was thrown out the window. Besides backstage visits with the leading actors, Maurice managed a meeting–one night only–with the Queen of the Courtesans who, because she repulsed Mr. Jada thereafter, left the old man writhing in fits of unrequited lust. Mr. Jada was beginning to discover happiness.

* *  *

Into even the most enchanting fairy tale, reality–or a sort of reality–must inevitably intrude. Reality being no more than that left in the filter if one assays a phantom, Mr. Jada could not discern the shiv upon insertion. But he was an open and jolly old fool, as far as that goes. Not all fools are gallows-bound when their usefulness is gone, however, and horror comes wearing a fair mask more often than a grisly one. Pretty words are the most acceptable form of hypocrisy and Maurice had an unparalleled silver tongue. So charming could he be, he could wrangle a smile from Medusa and live to tell about it.

One fine evening, Maurice and his five friends arrived early at Mr. Jada’s house before sallying forth for another night of excess and exhaustion. Maurice had a little favor to ask. To ask weighed heavily on his heart, he said, but he knew Mr. Jada was an equable man and a good friend of unequaled means. Of course, any niggling guilt Mr. Jada might harbor because of the wondrous life he, Maurice, had opened up could not be discounted. Guilt was perhaps too strong a world. Debt might be better–and more conducive to the business at hand.

Maurice explained a rather complicated series of events that led to the unwonted and unwarranted financial distress in which his friends now found themselves. Without too much obsequiousness, Maurice, wondered, on the off-chance, if Mr. Jada could possibly bail them out. Of course, it need not be mentioned that these five friends were rich and not at all in need. They were, however, greedy and devoted to the god Mammon, a faith in which the making of money and more money was the only form of worship. These five also had a hot tip on high interest investment but did not want to lighten their own purses in the venture. Their fine-feathered friend Maurice had let them know that Mr. Jada possessed an enormous fortune and was a soft touch.

Mr. Jada did not think long on the request as he had adapted himself, like a harlot, to the urges of the moment. This was an attitude Mr. Jada found refreshingly different, thinking back on his rustic frugality on Rún Eyll where a wayward, capricious thought was a criminal act and shut away in some dark dungeon corner of the brain. Mr. Jada had discovered since coming to the Capital and immersing himself in the various sensuous delights, with Maurice’s help, what he had denied himself for so long. This discovery of the unabated joy of living would, he felt, extend his life some years past his expectancy. Mr. Jada had more money than he could ever use and had a knack for making more–mostly at the gaming tables–so that offering the loans was of no consequence. The more dandy friends along on the night’s dissipations, the better, though in this looking glass world the desmaine of the fop is a passing show. But in the world we have made for ourselves to live in, we lie to ourselves with great gusto to hide the pain.

So Mr. Jada agreed–but he had one condition.

“I am lending you each $5,000. Since this money is part of the fortune that is to last me to the end of my days, you will return to me each and every month enough to pay for my personal expenses with a bonus to be determined at the end of the year. If, before the loan is fully repaid, and I should–heaven forbid–quit this world, I have no one to whom the balance owed should be paid and I therefore charge you for giving me memorial services every year thereafter for the repose of my soul.”

The five friends deferentially agreed, for a dead man is no longer cognizant of this world and they did not believe in vengeful spirits. Mr. Jada would never know whether his wishes were honored or not. Spending money on the dead is money used to carpet the bottom of a bird cage.

Mr. Jada went into the back of his house and returned with the money. Maurice raised a well-manicured eyebrow. In such manner, Mr. Jada believed he would be protected against robbery as so much of his fortune was now elsewhere. His needs were taken care of and he could, at any time, call in the loan. He felt good about himself.

Despite the fun and games of their carousings through the pleasure district, Maurice became rather droll as he began obsessing about Mr. Jada’s money. The old man had so much that it must have rained down from heaven in great gouts of magnanimity. Mr. Jada was no more deserving of this benison than he, Maurice, so why did Mr. Jada benefit and not Maurice? This was patently unfair. In fact, Mr. Jada was less deserving than Maurice, according to Maurice–and the old fool was not giving any of this gold mine to Maurice in spite of all he had done for him, though Mr. Jada did indeed pay Maurice’s way now and then. Maurice nevertheless nursed a wound until it festered. His vanity was hurt. So it was that a young will-o-wisp who had ingratiated himself in order to polish up his self-image grew to cherish evil thoughts and turn himself into the worst sort of rogue: a traitor. A man with a travelling ethics commission.

Maurice became so obsessed with Mr. Jada’s stash that avarice flooded over him filling his veins with a bubbling poison that burned for fulfillment. The ship of despite with Maurice aboard set sail for a limitless horizon from which there was no return.

So, one evening at the height of pleasure when Mr. Jada was drunk to satiation, Maurice slipped some of his blood lust poison into the old fool’s wine. Mr. Jada did not feel its effects until he returned home where his friends abandoned him to his house servant and loudly wended their ways home.

The following morning, Mr. Jada was unable to move his body and lay abed mumbling incoherently. Mr. Jada’s house servant, fearing the worst, rushed off to the doctor and to the police. He swore out a statement as to the people with whom his master had spent the night, carousing until the wee hours of the morning.

“They are his constant companions,” he said.

The old servant, the police and the doctor returned to the house to find Mr. Jada foaming pink-tinged spittle. In no time at all, Mr. Jada passed into a coma. The doctor spent some time examining the unresponsive Mr. Jada and shook his head. He sent the old servant to fetch two more doctors of his acquaintance for a second opinion. Upon further examination, the doctors stood around Mr. Jada’s death-like form nodding in unison over their diagnosis.

“He is not long for this world, I’m afraid.”

“This is the effect of some poison, I think.”

“This is a case of willful murder, then. Go and fetch the six,” said the policeman to the servant.

The six friends, dressed to the hilt and suspecting nothing, gathered round Mr. Jada’s death bed and the policeman began interrogating them, believing that the guilty,  come face-to-face with his crime, would break down and confess. However, success was not to be had, for Maurice was a master at deception, at hiding behind a well-made and appealing mask. Maurice was so detached and dissociated it was not he who spoke but the becoming lips of the mask that mouthed the appropriate lies. Maurice had abrogated his skin to a smooth carapace in order to save his bones, for he had no soul. Maurice had convinced himself that he was not at all responsible. Someone else had done this terrible thing to his friend. Maurice’s nights would never be the same, he lamented.

“There is little we can do at this point but wait for the inevitable,” said the first doctor.

“I know of an amazing potion we might try. There is nothing lost if it does not work.”

“This miracle is. . .”

“No miracle. This is a potion whose ingredients have been handed down from the ancients of China.”

“Oh pooh!” exclaimed Maurice. “Everybody knows those old remedies are worthless. You’ll poison him.”

“He is already poisoned, young sir.”

Maurice pulled himself more erect. He liked being called sir.

“This potion is made from the tinder of old drums dissolved in pomegranate juice, boiled and left to steep with a certain number of laurel leaves in the brew. It is written in the ancient treatises on medicine that once in the stomach of a poisoned man, he will speak the name of his poisoner.”

“Do you have this potion here?”

“As chance would have it. When the servant told me he suspected poison, I brought a vial with me just in case.”

“Shall we then?”

“Shall we?”

The potion was poured into Mr. Jada’s slack mouth and his nose held closed to insure the natural function of swallowing would be activated.

The gathered waited expectantly, one with growing anxiety.

Nothing happened.

A collective sigh of disappointment and relief floated about the near-corpse. But as the attendees to Mr. Jada’s last moments moved toward the door, a long, low moan issued from the near death lips.

Everyone stopped dead in their tracks.

“Maurice. . .Maurice. . .you fool. . .”

And then Mr. Jada died.

Maurice was immediately clapped in irons and carried off to jail, sobbing and protesting his innocence every step of the way.

“It was not me! It was another!”

A man who has so earnestly pursued pleasure must ever come face to face with the misfortune of overtaking that life. The greedy and avaricious are seeking the water level both day and night without rest, leaving the landscape littered with empty wells. In the end, there is not a drop to drink.

this was written in the style of old Chinese tales
(c) James L. Secor, 2016

The Demons Among Us

by James L. Secor

The writing was difficult to decipher and I leaned over the old, yellowing, brown- edged paper, refocusing the lamp so that I could see better the smudgy handwriting. I turned off the room light so I’d not be distracted. I pulled the curtains so I’d not be noticed, disturbed in my studies. My eyes ached. I felt the blood pulsing through my temples. And I tried hard not to breathe for fear of destroying the amazing find before me–an ancient letter. A testament. Hurriedly scrawled and in a faltering hand: was the writer old? By the writing, the tale told was not of a primordial time, despite the condition of the paper, but of the recent past. Why, I asked myself, was it so important for this person to write down this story? Who would read it, for that matter, stuffed as it had been in a hole in the chimney of an old, historic house my friend had bought.

I leaned back and exhaled to one side. I did not even want to disturb the dust, believing that it, too, held the secret–some secret as to the writer and the writing. . . and the events. And why was this letter so important it should be hidden?

I looked at my hooded windows. Yes. What was out there? Out there that I could not see? I should be used to this hovering anxiety but I was not. Not after all these years. Too sensitive, I’m told–and laughed at for this utterly disgusting human failing. Perhaps. Perhaps so. I’d long since given up mixing with people, co-mingling, commiserating at one or the other approved public house. I could never escape looking for the surround-sound cameras and listening devices. . .and staring at them. No one else bothered with them. Just part of the scenery. I imagine I’m very well-known indeed to the people on the other side, especially as I’ve taken to not frequenting these places any more. To them, this will mean I have something to hide. But, in fact, don’t we all? Don’t we have a private life?

I rose hastily and began walking around the room, upset at myself for getting upset at. . .myself. And at letting the outside world infringe on the wonder of a past life that lay upon my table. Letting off steam was good. And the passing of my shadow behind the curtained window was good as well.

I took a deep breath and sat down at the table again.

They only come at night, believing that is when demons can be best appreciated without the finders being themselves found. They appear out of the blackness like ghost riders, glowing in their circle of pale light, a torch-like flame held high above them. Another, out front, holds some kind of cross, a divining rod, similar to what we used to use to find water. Whether it worked or not no one really knew but it was fun for us kids. And it was a long-lasting belief, for I remember my grandmother telling me of its use and how our distant relatives managed to live because they’d found water with such a thing. A divining rod.

I leaned back. There was a clue as to the time this was written: divining rods. They supposedly found water. What did they look like? I carefully made a note to look this up at the library. I am sometimes a little forgetful.

Slowly, silently they make their way down the street, the torch of light moving from side to side, hesitating occasionally, but always moving, moving. And suddenly the rod jerks wildly, out of control and draws it’s user off to one side and toward a particular house. He stands there as the rod vibrates and plunges up and down. The torch-bearer then steps up before the trembling rod, between it and the house–for, more often than not, it is a house– and raises his light on high and intones in a strange, secret language. . . something. And then he barks over his shoulder and the followers, clothed in robes, grey robes, all kneel and begin praying. They pray a long time. They pray silently. They occasionally respond to some outcry or other from their torch-bearer. Eventually, they erupt in wild hysteria, weaving and bobbing and throwing themselves on the ground. And then they clamber back to their feet and proceed further down the street. But the house is marked. Tomorrow, a different group will descend upon the house and take away its inhabitants who scream and plead. But to no avail. they are never seen again–unless the news of another nest of witches and warlocks, demon- worshipers, is an indication of their being. And then not being.

I had heard of these people before and laughed them off as fringe lunatics. They were then full of bluster and found only in isolated clusters in out-of-the-way little towns. Even when they began to make themselves known in larger towns, they remained localized. No one paid them much mind. We should have. It was so unfortunate for us that we did not notice their growth, like kudzu. And now we’re all caught. And afraid. So afraid no one will even talk about it. We’d be heard if we did. There is no place where there is privacy any more. The streets are indeed public! The light poles house cameras and listening devices. The picture-takers downtown–a tourist destination, though lord knows why, there’s nothing there but an old, crumbling wall with markings eons ago scratched on it and an old bronze statue of the last great hero of a past age, Titus Aguevivre– These picture-takers are but watchers in disguise. A Suspended sense of the real engages travelers and they flock to these people wanting their photographs taken opposite this or that part of the wall, in front of Aguevivre. To prove they were there. And then the police know who they are, where they live–everything. For they mail the photos to the naïfs. Selective blindness. People so obsessed with finding joy and

–there! I heard it just now. That horrid ringing in my ear. A thin high pitch that hurts. I don’t know where it comes from and I can’t ascertain when, if there’s a particular time or occurrence that brings it to me. But I know it is not natural. This time it is in the left ear and I clutch at it, squinching my eyes shut against the intrusion. When the intensity lessens, it seems to migrate into my right ear, so that both are beaming, you might say. But the intensity is not so great.

I must rest now. Turn out the light and go to bed. It is the usual time. It will not be seen as unnatural or suspicious.

So, I fold up the old document and slip it inbetween the city maps I am allowed to keep in my house due to my work at the City Offices. I turn down my covers and turn off the light.

The next evening I am at it again.

They have been coming down this particular street, my street, for the past several nights, apparently as they have been cruising down other streets in the city. Neighborhood by neighborhood they trek through the night uncovering the demons that cause us to go astray, it is said. They say. On their broadcasts on the news. It is news after all that there are demon- infested people in our town, leading us astray. But is it true that through our sinning we open up a portal for the demons to come in to us? What sin is it that’s been committed? No one is ever told. Someone surely must know what the sin–the sins are!

These are the Prayer Warriors. And this is spiritual warfare. These people believe they can pray–I so want to write “prey”!–out the evil that inhabits our society, the evil sent by this devil they say that is evil incarnate, rollicking round his fire deep, deep in the bowels of the earth– down there–tearing us away from the goodness that should be ours by entering us through these sinful portals. All of the ills that affect society are attributed to this Devil and the slaves he enlists, slaves that look like everyone else, behave like everyone else but nonetheless wreak havoc and cracks in the cosmic egg in the dark of night. How? Waves of ill influence. Emanations of evil. These people, the night prowling Spiritual warriors, know how to find them, Smell them out, if you will. With their divining rods, praying and panting before the house to weaken the evil spirit-carriers inside.

Only by way of praying can the wrongs of the world be righted. Only

The deep rumble of cars disturbed me, making the floor and windows shake in their passing. I got up from the table and walked to the window, looking out onto the now not-so-well lit street. Once it had been but as the lamps burnt out–or simply refused to light up at dusk–they were left untended. No one bothered to fix them. There was not total darkness out there, it is true, but it was dark enough that it was disturbing. But, of course, no one would go walking around in the dark of night. How unnatural! So, the grazing lights that blared through the darkness and the thrumming and rumbling of these joy-riding vehicles was disturbing. People complained about this kind of disturbance but. . .what was there to do about it?

I looked down the street to where they’d disappeared, their red tail lights still shadowing into the night. I looked back the way they’d come. No shafts of oncoming rowdies. I breathed deeply and shut the curtains.

Only by the furtive warring and furious praying of the Spiritual Warriors can this, this insidious iniquity poisoning our lives, be gotten rid of. For too long this malevolence had been infecting the world and, now the Prayer Warriors were strong enough, it could be fought. This was the story, the life story of these spiritual soldiers, the legion from heaven come to rid the garden of Satan and snakes. Long since, the police had been done away with, at least they did not appear at night, looking for the trouble they’d been saving us from for–how long?– interfering in the cleansing activities of these onward soldiers. But they were there during the day. The evil then was of a different sort that humanity’s earthly do-gooders could deal with.  And they cleaned up the remains of the prior evening’s finding, hauling off the offenders. Doing their duty.

I must smile at myself–I want to write “And of course” but it is not “of course.” Not at all an expectation of their helping the Spiritualists on their sweeping up of the marked warped souls. Nevertheless, they are there, though not so many and not so obtrusive and obdurate as before. They hold wands of a sort that emit fire of heaven, it is called, to control the corralled people. It is a device that emits a ray, a beam of crackling energy that–how can I say?– enlivens the devil’s minions. By fire the enemies of The People shall be destroyed.

Fire from heaven is what it is called. A euphemism for electrical shock, I’m sure. It is hard to watch it being applied. A pointing of the wand and a spitting of the crackling wave and down the infected one goes, groveling on the ground, groaning with the writhing within of the perverted spirit that has infected its soul being touched, fingered. Sometimes, their wickedness is so deep-seated that they must be burned numerous times til they cannot rise again. They are left where they lay, twisted and deformed, for the rescue squad to dispose of. There are forever sirens in the cities.

Later in the week, there will be a prayer gathering and the announcement of the finding and prayerful disposal of yet another coven of devil-spawn is made to great peals of singing and pounding of feet. I never go near these gatherings but you can hear them nonetheless, as they bound around the city from one spiritual Prayer Cleansing Meeting to another. A powerful and frightening message that one would think would dissuade the devil from further deviltry but this is not the case, for the evil one keeps investing other citizens with his waywardness. His call is apparently unresistable. Thus, more and more searchings at night. More and more Prayer Cleansing Meetings are held–even televised portions of such meetings are broadcast so that day and night the spiritual warriors’ shrill and intoxicated voices are heard, reminding us that we are not free, not yet. More work is necessary halleluiah.

I sat back in my chair, pressing my cool fingers to my eyelids. This was hard going, the handwriting so scratchy and the paper so discolored and friable–and the words so. . .mad, possessed and–there are the rumbling street machines again. As if on cue. Frightening the hell out of me.

Sometimes I was afraid I’d tear the pages as I turned them. I got up and went into the kitchen to fetch a drink of tonic water. The tart fizz would revive me, though perhaps I should pack it in for the evening–a few had commented at work of the dark circles under my eyes.

I had better cover my tracks.

So, I stashed the pages, switched off the light and went in to bed, still bothered by the images this person had drawn. But the next evening I was drawn again to reading this man’s story:

I do believe that their work will never be done, for humans will be human and it is only humans who sin. At least so it seem to me–I never see these Praying mantises

Oh! Now that’s a good pun. Praying mantises. This writer, whoever he is has a sense of humor. There is some character here, aside from a man who watches and writes, writes secretly and hurriedly.

stopping at a dog house or running after cats. Or catching birds. Only humans. Where will it end? When will there be a human who is not accessible to the demon king?

Lately there has been a rush to join the prayer groups in the belief that this will save their souls. Converts are hyperbolic about their new-found answer and ever find themselves in the front lines of the night-roving prayer warriors. In the dimness of the semi-lit streets, they are frightening of themselves. I guess the more to frighten the dEvil? Yet he laughs at them as he continues to fly through sin-opening portals to establish his hell on earth, to pervert the heaven we supposedly inhabit.

Heaven! What a laugh! Where is the heaven when people are afraid to go out at night? Where is the heaven that needs cameras and microphones to monitor its angels, its human manifestation of itself?

My heart aches and I burn inside to talk to someone about this. But who can I trust? It is blasphemy to question. If the reality does not fit the teaching, as I see it, the reality is altered or disinfected, gotten rid of. For whatever it is–it is not called “reality”–it is an imposed wave of distorting evil sent to

Damn! Those rumbling motor cars are at it again. Gunning it up and down the street, their metal plates slapping, slapping, slapping at the pavement like great webbed feet. The grating when they turn and retrace their course. Is there then something wrong on my street? Will someone here be fingered? There are so few of us left on this street any more. The others have all left for parts unknown. As no one else here works in the City Offices, I never see these people again. Only a smattering of dark houses with empty eyes. A more and more common sight, not only here but throughout the city, throughout the land if the TV eye is to be believed.

I shudder and turn my attention back to the manuscript on the table.

The holy war has finally come home, as it was sure to do, for the corruption of the soul is not something that exists only over there. It is something that exists wherever there are humans. Even amongst themselves there are those who fall. Their fate is truly horrible and their abuse and cleansing is televised, not only on the home sets but on the huge screens that abound throughout the town. They are inescapable. And. . .people actually stand there and watch without showing any emotion! Just as the sirens and helicopters roaming the skies above us are not given a second thought. No one–no one but me–looks up to see what they’re about, where they are training their glowing white-gold eye. They hover and they circle and no one bothers with them. Do they know what they’ve given up?

Ha-ha. I sometimes wonder what it is that is wrong with me–I am the only one to see this, the only one to pay attention. And what is one against the horde? Soon, soon I will be found out. The tell-tale signs of my. . .disease are visible in my face, for I cannot hide my reaction to the horrors thrown at us by the big screens. And, of course, I look up How long can I get away with pretending that I am looking at the birds, birds no one else also sees? I shudder in my skin. When will the hammer fall on my nailness? What new crime will I be charged with as they come crashing through my door, heaven’s fire whiplashing me. I am sure I am so infected that I will be left for the rescue squad to clean up in the morning. And I have done nothing but retain my. . .my humanity. I feel therefore I–

I jumped up. The rumbling road warriors raged by and then stopped. Right outside my house, their headlights illuminating my window. Quickly, I stash the manuscript and run to the window–and stop myself. I turn aside and go to the kitchen to look out. They cannot see me from there. And, yes, they are there. Headlights and great long proboscises pointing at my house. And on their bulging spider bodies. . .a white divining rod. . .

Their black minions, single opaque eye gleaming, are running up my walk, smashing in my door and filling up my room and

© James L. Secor, 2015

 

The Woman Who Lost Her Face

by Minna vander Pfaltz

On the other side of the river there was a mud flats. The road passed over it on a low boardwalk. Occasionally there were bulges where passers-by could let others pass by. About halfway across was a large area with a table and a few benches. A woman sat at the table, a large flattish bowl before her. Several dishes of colored clay or mud were scattered around this. She was feverishly applying mud to her face. She would pick up a piece of broken glass, look into it, exclaim loudly and wash the mud off her face. Then she’d mix some color into what was left in the pan and begin applying it again.

I watched her for some time, leaning on the handrail. My legs needed the rest. I listened closely. . .

“A powder room. A dressing room. A place to change one’s appearance. To maintain the mask, the cover-up for the night. Or the day. Day or night. Night and day. It doesn’t matter. On and off the stage. Adoration. Affirmation. Accolades. All because I successfully sit before my mirror and make myself over. Put on a face with an exquisite touch. I’m good at it. Was good at it. Very good at it. Perhaps because I liked it, keeping face.” Then she screamed at her image. “What has gone wrong?!” Holding the syllable until she ran out of breath.

I moved a little closer.

She cleaned her face once again and looked into the mirror.

“What have I done to myself? I’ve lost my face!”

And, indeed, there wasn’t much of a face there to see, as far as I could see.

“‘Play hard to get,’ mom had said. ‘No man wants an easy piece.’ Something I wanted, though. Sometimes. Easy. With ease. ‘It’s like fly fishing,’ my mother said. ‘Keep a loose wrist. The rod’s just an extension of your hand. Your body rhythm keeps that line arcing, coming back in better and better ellipses til the moment of casting. Then it’s just a matter of reeling it in.’ Mm-hmm. Just a touch of reality was bait enough. Just enough to keep him coming. Then I had the last say. Yeah. I had to have the last say. Even sometimes when I was wrong. Sometimes I erred and what I got wasn’t worth the effort. But usually I came away with something. All because of a touch of reality. But that’s all changed.” She paused, took a breath. “Look at me” she shouted to the skies, beating her fists on the table. “No more shadow flying out across the water tempting morsel.” She laughed crazily. “The boudoir led to the sleazy motel. And now to nowhere at all.”

She threw her hands up, smiled wryly.

Once more, in she dipped to get the mud spirit colored and out she came with just dyed mud. Over and over. A practicing disciple following her long historical precedent.

“There is no need for me to advertise,” she mewled. “No need to shout from the top of the mountain, ‘I’m a cunt!’ Not any more.” She did not stop slapping on the dyed mud. “No one’s interested in my cunt. Men love a cunt. But it’s got to have a face to go with it.”

She perused herself in the remains of her looking glass, threw the broken glass into the mud flats and pounded her fists on the table. The pots of unguent jumped.

“I used to have an odalisque. A Romanesque-Art deco divan draped decorously with a woven silk-fringed shawl I never wore. The bed was in the next room. Five or six thick hand-made futons piled high and soft so I sank into their plush interior. The pile of bedding sat in the middle of the room so it could be seen through the half open door. A plush middle-Eastern flying carpet of desire.” She giggled, shutting her eyes against the memory. “The windows to the street were only half-blinded. I liked showing off my well-kept body. It was my face, though, that created the magic. Like every good artist, I had a plethora of masks to choose from.” She smiled at the little pots. She smiled at herself, running her hands down her midriff to her waist so slim and over her gently rounded heart-shaped hips to her finely rounded ass. She squeezed. “Men like a good ass as much as a good face. And I gave it to them every morning with gluteal exercises–and stomach crunches to flatten my belly, emphasize my mound of Venus. My exhibition pieces. I was a choosy bitch. Once.” She jumped up and down on her seat. “Now there is nothing to be choosy about!” She looked at herself in the water bowl. “I am so much less than a whole person.” She leaned forward for a better look. “Men are not blind!” She leaned on her elbows.

Silence.

“You had something by Divine Right. Woman first and foremost. Only you give life.”

“And then we give and give and give. And then we have the life taken away from us and made into a damned mystery. A curse. Trivialize it. Isolate it. Give it back so it’s yours again. But with something missing. Instead of life we’ve been turned into a painful repository. A thrusting place to be used, even worshipped. But the key,” she raised a finger and shook it, “is our face. Faces. Fucking two-faced bastards! ”

She sighed. Her body sank in on itself.

“You are nothing without your crutch?” She raised herself up again. “I used to have high cheek bones with just a hint of youthful blush. Slightly almond-shaped eyes. Long lashes. The full-lipped mouth barely rouged a light coral tint. That wet look. Like I’ve just done one man and now I’m ready for the next. It’s so successful, why do I feel I should change it? I must be losing it. I must be! Look at the way I’m sitting! Come on. Straighten up, old girl. It’s not long now til the need for a veneer won’t be so obvious. Cranky old ladies get to say whatever they want. Look however they want.”

She leaned forward some more, her forearms stretched along the high gloss surfaced table, almost another mirror with the high sheen of the wood beneath. Japanese red cedar to roseate the lifted chin and smooth cheeks. To make her look healthy.

“So, why do I worry? I’m not nearly so old. But I feel like shit tonight. Well, then,” she clapped her hands, “let’s make a change. Just enough for people to wonder at. What’s different about you, honey? They’ll be surprised it’s just me. The one-eighth Algonquin Indian girl with the. . .with the. . .what? Just the right look. Je ne sais quoi. With the white lovers. What a pollution. What’s being Indian have to do with anything? A cunt’s a cunt. But I’m on the rolls. An authentic Indian fuck. So, I can pay and pay and pay. I’m a pay sausage-making machine!”

She bowed her head. “No diluted offspring for me. I’m the last of the line. Yeah.” She leaned back on the bench, arms outstretched, hands on the edge of the table. “Is it any wonder we look for financial stablemates? Love be damned, we need to get something for the time we spend on our backs. Just once. . .once. . .” she blew air noisily past her lips. “Love isn’t all, honey. Don’t moon. It’s what he’s got in the seat of his pants that counts. It’s the bankroll that sells. Sex is just the way to getting it. If it isn’t that good, well, that’s the price you have to pay. A lover on the side can liven things up a bit. A gigolo with no standards and no ethics. Who cares? A cock’s a cock. It just takes up space. Money, on the other hand. . .now, there’s something you can get a grip on. Do something with. Make something of. Yeah. Something that doesn’t use itself up. Money changes a girl. Yessir, it sholy do!” Her voice changed to a sugary drawl. “It sho do. There’s nothing like money to make a woman’s heart go pitta-pat. Atrial fib. A little extra warmth in the chest, a tightness in the throat.” She pressed her hands together and looked up. “That’s why the fashioning is so important. They have to feel I’m worth it–have to see I’m worth it. Men are so easy! Suckers for a good fly fisher of men. A female Christ. A virgin mother. And I am certainly that! I move with grace and fortitude. Not even number two could fathom my depths. Boy did I come out the winner on that one! A house and a $17,000 debt that became his responsibility. What a fool! He still loves me. After all I did to him. Raped him. Flayed him. Hung him up to dry and beat him with a switch. All of that love and joining of souls hogwash he believed in. Well. . .if he wishes to believe it, okay. Let him have his fantasy.”

She leaned back, to get a better look, to see her pride somewhere out there before her.

“His letters are wonderful epistles of love. Maybe I’ll publish them one day. A little love-letter package. Proof that men are easy. Ruled by the flesh between their legs. Long or short, what does it matter? It’s all the same thing. All the same.”

In a frustrated movement, she kicked her piano bench away from the table, slamming it against the opposite railing. She stared at the assortment of visages, of shrouds that crowded her world. All around her. Staring back at her with cold, black, blank eyes. Feral animals. So many to choose from!

She closed her eyes. She did not want to look at herself any more, not as she was at any rate. Not now. She was dissatisfied now. She couldn’t let that get in the way. She had to concentrate on the evening’s goal. Even out here in the mud flats, there was an evening’s goal. I remained very still, like a fence post.

“Maybe my red lace crotchless panties. My thigh-high silk stockings, shimmering white. No garter belt. No bra. Yes. I’ll be ready then. But what face should I be tonight?”

A new one was in order. She’d been wearing this one successfully for a long time or she’d not be out here at the end of a wooden walkway overlooking slowly lolling muddy water. She must have worn it for so long she’d gotten she had it on. . . and then. . .then it had become so very comfortable she had to  get rid of it.

I had friends because of it,” she whispered. She smiled crookedly. “A support group, you might say. People who believed in me. Best of all, I was quite successful in business: who could resist such a face? Such a fuck?”

She thought a moment. “Then there was diamond teardrop variation. I’m looking, really looking for something different.” She fingered the air. “Which one? There were quite a number to choose from, once. It took me a lifetime to build up my. . .gallery. My wallflowers.” She smiled up into the darkening sky, a firmament of well-placed stars on a rich azure background. Evenly spaced stars.

She sat in her niche for hours looking at these different facets of herself, facets of her stardom. She liked their brooding lives. She could make things happen with them. She could put together a world with just one accoutrement. Once.

But she was just a little tired. She slouched. The deftness and swiftness of choice and characterization was no longer with her. Her impetuosity slowed. Over time. A slight slowing, like a lingering disease. Or maybe the beginning of one. Early onset.

“It just isn’t easy any more. The thrill is gone.” That wagging disappointed mother finger shook itself again. “No,” she whispered. “Not gone. Just. . .delayed.” She sighed, squinched up her face. “More effort involved now. After these many years. One would think, with my experience and repertoire–fuck!” She wiped at her face, smearing it. “But the times. . .the times. . .the old days. The past. The fucking past! My, my, my. . .moments of heady success. Once. . .”

She stopped mid motion, lost in the moment. What was she seeing? The masks around the mirrors of her boudoir? Each new façade the thrill of putting on a show that would never end? Or, perhaps, the high of making each new guise work, moving in the world. The adrenaline rush. Each conceit manipulated to perfection so that life came out of its half-shell. Life, like a disease, took over the wooden body–her wooden body. The mask and the body always went together. Trout and lure.

She heaved a great sigh. Morbidly vaudevillian and romantic. Stilted realism.

“It’s so hard any more.”

She sat still, arms loosely on the table top. She sat still an inordinately long time, masks of the past floating in and out of focus, dancing silhouettes out over the water, now seen, now enshrouded. As her attention slowly took shape, she held her head in her hands. She murmured, somewhat displaced and a little dizzy. The cowls the dark edifices of dead Greek heroes were now tarnishing livery.

The air became a little oppressive.

She put her hand to her throat and drew in a deep breath. Coughed. Tried to fight some feeling, letting it sweep over her. She blinked. She winked. “I see you out there, out in the blackness around the edges but I can’t switch on the lights. Look. . . my regalia is just eerie shadows in the night. Pieces of rhinestone jewelry.” She looked up to the sky and howled like a dog, “I-eeeee know exactly what I look like, what I want to be looking like.” A little laugh. “It’s the actor’s choice. Self-conscious awareness.” She mumbled to herself as her arms slowly descended, “I so jaded?”

She looked out over the darkly winking water. “Maybe I should brush up a bit.”

She stood and pulled at her thin mantlet folding it about her thin shoulders. Right over left.

She moved into the glaring circle of light and reached out to touch the face only she could see.

“So smooth and smiling quietly back at me. Eyes demurely lowered, of course. I could be regal and I could be innocent.” She shook her hands, waggling them side to side. “This particular shell was my bread and butter. Everyone liked me as Columbine. So sweet and pure and wanton. The absorbing caress of acceptance. My ravishment.” She smiled into the night. “Number two had particularly found it enthralling. The allurement brought out a duality in him. The gentle, thoughtful dominator. Many’s the time we had spent the weekends ensconced in the house–my house–playing Columbine games. Once had. . .once. . .once. . .”

She let go the illusion. A net was closing around her. She shivered. Her hand moved with her eyes and came to rest on another unseen face. “Diamantina? Diamantina could get what she wanted. Because, like a Noh mask, there was no conjunction and, so, she could be the bicameral mind navigating through time and space with two different maps. I liked being the double persona.” She laughed loudly as she let loose the unseen. “And to think they called multiple personalities psychotic!”

She threw her wrist to her forehead and staggered back, slightly disoriented. She sat with a clunk. Still like a statue. A murmur broke from this edifice.

“Ahh, number three suffered the consequences of this mask’s soft and polite and lilting voice. It danced jigs and subtle minuets around his man’s head. Diamantina, the flashing beauty.” The threw her arms up. “He was no more than a laundry list. Alimony, a house and a restraining order. That’s all it took. El Capitano brought to his knees.” She flipped her hands. “Men appreciate being ravished as much as women, innocence turned into an insatiable little tart.”

She sat down and squeezed her thighs together.

“Oh, yes, I remember. I remember. It was with that virile body-builder. Number three. He did my morning exercises with me. In the buff. Ha-hah! An exercise in futility. Begun in the nude and finished with his masturbating directly into my vagina. Right on target from–how far away? It doesn’t matter. In or out, it was masturbation for him. Masturbation for me. I got off, then, watching his river of come spew over my lips.” She pulled her chemise closer about her. “It’s true what they say about athletes. They peak early. Dammit! A girl has a right, too. Doesn’t she?”

Or perhaps, as her eyes roved over more airy deception, she’d choose something else that would do the trick? “Of course, any would do the trick. All of them would! Could. Did. I did. Very well, thank you. That’s the whole point: to take one’s due. To take one’s dew. Nothing personal in my treatment of a man. Why should there be? Two separate bodies. Two separate souls. Spirited encounters but definitely not spiritual. There was no way I would let a man rag on me. You give me trash, I give you trash back. Margaret Atwood, hymning a pig.”

She sighed and looked way into the darkness around her, the chaos out of which life was born.

“In the beginning was the word. And what was the word? It was me. Me. My. Mine. It never touched another soul except as succubus.” She hissed. “I’m tired of the game. I’m so. . .no. . .so. . .unidentifiable. Untouchable. Unsatisfied. You see, without a mask, without a shield, a castle keep, I am nothing. I needed my enameled skin, my horned dermis. Every animal had its skin. Skin was necessary to keep the outside from imposing on the inside. Overwhelming it. The casque. Feral me. Never once touched. No. Not truly. Once. . . There! Once I could reach out and touch what I didn’t have myself. It’s all about definition. Definition and altruity. A living up to and giving up to.” She stopped and looked about, looked into the shining table top. “I have nothing but emptiness to give anyway. ”

She faced the mirrored table top, the floating mirror of the water front-on. She looked tired and haggard. She began to strip off the mask she had worn for so long. She’d worn it for so long the fiction had entered into the reality because the mask was not there. As she tore frantically at her face, she pulled off great patches of skin. Her fingernails, dermis- and DNA-encrusted, ripped red valleys into her face. I watched the destruction of Aphrodite in Repose. I watched her create the desecration of herself. Her face ran with blood and glared out at her from reflected worn and bloodshot eyes.

In the end, then, she’d lost the reality. Her pain became a surreal sketch with nothing to offer but a desert, a desert after its first and only rainfall. She was a Dadaist persona, a destructed personality to be fulfilled only once.

She stared emptily at the carnage, the assassination of herself.

“Here it is. Come and get it. The carcass is on the block. The fingerprint of life is here for all to see.”

She could not now walk out into the sun. The sunshine. The mud, the dyed clay would not stay in place. There was nothing to cling to.

She remained still into the night. There was nothing to say. There was nothing to cry for.

 

Dedicated to Fran A.

 

for Si Tang

2016

 

 

© Minna vander Pfaltz, 2016

The Realm of the Hungry

She was a widow, a lady mourning for her lost husband. She cut off her hair, her dress lay loose about her bony shoulders. Perhaps she has grieved too long. She cared little about herself. Or her two children. They were fed. Housed in old clothing. Silent, sullen.

The world couldn’t go on like this. Not forever. For forever is time and time is movement. No part of life is still. Even the mold growing on the stagnant water is movement.

So, it came to pass that the village headman’s son came of age. He was handsome and very well-built. Accomplished. Robust. Desirable. All the girls in the village drooled over him. Giggled, pranced and primped for him.

Despairing of her long mourning, the widow thought she should put it away. So, she said to herself, “I’m tired of mourning. The village asks too much of me, grieving the rest of my life. Caring for children is burdensome. Widow’s weeds aren’t a life. Perhaps, if I paint myself red, the young man will take me as his.”

She went down by the river. The snow and ice made bathing difficult. But she broke through the surface crust and washed away the signs of mourning. Washed off the dirt. By evening, she had painted herself red. She decked herself out so the boy would be taken by her. He would have no one but this bright painted lady. With his father’s good graces he wed the red woman, a widow no more, and her children grew cold and hungry left alone. How sad. How sad to be abandoned.

The little girl took her brother’s hand and together went to grandma’s house. Grandma was poor and had little, what did an old person need? Death couldn’t be held off forever. Yet she welcomed her two grandchildren. They were family, after all, and family should be as one.

“Where has mother gone?” asked the little girl, wiping tears.

Grandma sighed, rocked, fed the fire. “I suspect,” she said, “your mother painted her face. Don’t try to find her. The headman’s son has wed her. She’ll not want to be burdened by you two children now she has found happiness.”

The old woman was right. Old people are often burdened by wisdom and the need to speak of it. Sometimes silence is best, words are hurtful.

Down by the river, near a healed hole in the ice, the bereft daughter found the filth her mother had washed off. A second hole, too, was filthy. A third was clean but the ice around was stained crimson red.

So, it was as grandma said.

What could the little lost girl do?

The girl went to the village headman’s lodging and opened the door and there sat her mother at her wedding feast and enjoying the son. The girl walked up to her red-painted mother. She hurled the filth in her mother’s face and said, “Take that! You have forsaken us, your two children, the memory of your husband.”

At once the mother-bride became a hideous and crabbed and bent old woman.

The house was in an uproar. The groom’s father raged. The son did not put away the love for his once red-painted now ugly bride. He believed that his love for her would cure her and she would become young and beautiful again. Love makes the world go around.

Devotion is touching.

But this did not stop him from having the girl and the boy bound and brought to him.

Judgment demanded payment.

“You have defiled this good place, now we must move. You will be left here to die to pay for your sins and cleanse this polluted ground,” he said.

“No,” said the old hag mother. “Take them back to their old lodging. I will take care of them there.” She yanked the crying children to their feet and shoved them to the door. “There is a hidden keep of meat,” she lisped to the little dears, “and and flint for a fire. When I come to stab you, I shall cut your bonds.” And she kicked them out.

The people departed the village for undefiled ground, the ugly old woman took a spear and went to take care of the children. Shadows cast through the window showed her stabbing the little ones over and again. The ground and the walls grew dark, the stain spread beyond the house.

The children were not heard from again. Grandma died.

The ugly old painted lady and her young husband lived a long, prosperous life of love.