Lora Rivera Interview: “When No One’s Left”

Read Lora Rivera’s story “When No One’s Left” in Reckoning 1.

lora-riveraMichael: You live in the desert. I gather you’re an avid climber, which makes me think you spend a lot of time outside, in the heat. And you’ve mentioned a number of places online that this landscape and experience colors your writing. Can you talk a little about how? Maybe that influence isn’t coming across in “When No One’s Left”—please correct me if I’m wrong—but it’s one of Reckoning’s goals to try to understand and learn from the ways different landscapes, different experiences of nature, influence the way we think about humanity’s relationship with the natural world.

Lora: Quick plug for rock climbing: Go try it. I’ve seen bulked-up bros struggle alongside their lank-armed girlfriends. Overweight mothers and tiny toddlers wrestle equally with the rock. Struggle is the crux and the reward.

Back to it. I don’t just live in the Sonoran Desert. It’s home, this brutal landscape, and humans are out of our minds to be living here. What hubris and bravery forged our desert cities? The first wanderers, they cut through the chaparral or crossed the salt and creosote flats; they settled and raided the sky islands; they plowed, paved, and planted. And now, here I am now, embedded in that bold and foolish infrastructure, writing stories—to what end?

I lost religion in this desert. I saw the canyonlands and did not see the hand of God. Instead, I saw our human species laid out against geological time, and I was full of wonder, gratitude, and melancholy.

That is what the desert gives my writing, aside from the errant prickly pear and brittle bush blossom: the space to wrestle with the extremes of the human condition.

Struggle. The desert is struggle. Life is struggle. Writing is struggle. The reward for struggling is not at the other end. It’s in the small moments. When you’re lying out in the middle of nowhere on the hood of your car at the base of the Biosphere 2, thinking about the wreckage we’re making of this planet and of space travel and of failure. Listening to the cows low and the coyotes yip and watching the stars fall. Trying to be in this body while holding the vast unknowns. Or even the small unknowns—like how I’m going to apologize for the way I stormed out on him to drive until I found myself here. The reward is in trying to hold all that human messiness like a razor-sharp cholla ball in your hand. Careful, keen-eyed, and open.

Michael: I grew up in the woods—I consider myself very much of the woods. I’ve been to the desert. I’m fairly well practiced at romanticizing it—but I also know how living someplace undermines and reframes one’s pre-established romantic views. Do you romanticize the desert?

Lora: The other day I heard an author describe herself as a romantic. When asked what that meant she said something like, “Oh, it’s a huge pain in the ass. I cry about everything.”

I have wept more tears in the desert than I have in any other place.

The desert requires you to be here. In your thoughts, you bound outward and away, you plan and prepare, backtrack and doubt. But a spiny agave, a hiss or a rattle, the surprise deluge of warm rainfall, your own parched throat—all these bring you back. You can’t tangent for long. The desert is too present for that.

Have you seen this sky of ours? When I arrived here from Texas, the sun was the first thing I noticed. Bigger, hotter, unflagging.

The desert seems to uniquely and unsubtly highlight the push/pull struggle that is the human experience.

Michael: Does living where water is already scarce give you any perspective on how the rest of the world will cope with water scarcity in the future?

Lora: Water scarcity—the future of clean, accessible water—is terrifying to me. Almost every time I turn on the tap, I think about it. I don’t know how to be part of this infrastructure and not be culpable.

Sometimes… sometimes, out of feeble rebellion against the knowledge that this way of life is a fleeting one, and that I happen to have lucked out and been born into great luxury and privilege, I let the water run excessively. Shamed, I shut it off a moment after.

Do I think of water wars? Do I fear death by water-borne disease, by dehydration? Do I consider hoarding, consider buying food on Amazon and stashing fiberglass jugs?

When I bathe in canyon water, I use biodegradable soaps or none at all. I turn off the shower when I shave. I don’t flush every time.

It won’t be enough.

I’m not prophesizing the end of our species, but change will come for us. We’re not ready. 

Michael: Finally, and on a completely different topic: having recently become a dad, I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about the responsibilities of procreation. I’ve just been reading this Kate Schapira essay where she talks about giving up on having kids, in part because of fears for what having a kid would mean for her ability to adapt to the challenges of a world of displaced climate refugees, resource scarcity and political upheaval. That essay really got to me, to the point that I’m in the middle of composing a of response to it. “When No One’s Left” addresses these sorts of questions pretty directly. So I wanted to know how you thought about all this. Would you make the same choice the narrator makes in “When No One’s Left”? What about now, with the world as it is today?

Lora: Oh, Michael, Michael…. I wrote “When No One’s Left” in part because I don’t know the answer to your question. I was hoping she’d give me the answer. She didn’t. Luckily, I don’t want a child. I never have had that desire. But I can imagine being filled with want, looking around at the world, and asking these questions—feeling the push/pull. What would I do? I can only say that sometimes, I turn on the tap and stand soaking under the hot water just to spite the world and my impotent yet important place in it.

There’s a current of thought that it’s one’s responsibility to “have a child and raise them right.” I don’t hold with this. Children are people. They’ll make their own choices, just as potential moms and dads decide whether in fact to become mothers or fathers. I do feel that procreation is a self-focused act. The child in question did not give their consent to be brought into being. So, if one does decide to do it—better be certain to do the best damn job possible.

Michael: At least I can try.

Thank you very much for talking to me!

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Justin Howe Interview: “Behind the Sun”

Read “Behind the Sun” in Reckoning 1.

justin-howeMichael: How much meaning do you expect a reader to bring to a story, and how much do you invest it with yourself and expect readers to take from it?

Justin: Fuck if I know. My goal is to make something that’s ripe with potential meanings. A lot of fiction and media I enjoy is less about one thing than it is potentially about many things. Making a story that shares that quality is my goal, but that potential’s going to be informed by the range of my interests. In this case the interest was in travelogues which I’m a fan of, but inverting the genre somewhat.

Michael: “Behind the Sun”‘s narrator starts out lost, trapped amid the sterile inhumanity of an airport lounge. By the end, he’s invigorated, renewed, a different person–and he’s home, in this incredibly strange new place. That’s all we know about him. I vaguely recall an earlier version of this story where you hinted he was a failed academic; that part’s gone. Instead he seems to me a vessel for the reader’s frustrations with the modern world, and his journey a version of that revolution in perspective that comes with travel, with being thrown out of one’s comfort zone. It happened that way for me. I know you’ve had experiences like this and to spare. I know it’s taking ridiculous advantage of editorial privilege, that most readers can’t and aren’t supposed to get to ask the author this kind of thing, that the story should speak for itself. But I’ve got the editor’s chair now, and the rush of power is irresistible. Is that what you meant this story to be about? Maybe a more diplomatic way of putting it: how has your experience of cultures other than the one you were born to informed “Behind the Sun”?

Justin: I am very leery of travel for travel’s sake and the quest of broadening one’s awareness experiences, as I can see that being a trap. If anything the narrator is someone who has over-traveled and is exhibiting the kind of jaded exhaustion you can glimpse in airport lounges and expat bars. When the story ends, he’s shed that need to travel. Here’s the thing: when my wife and I moved to South Korea the first place we lived in was a village of 250 people. I’d never lived in a place like that before, neither had my wife. In fact the building we had been living in back in New York City likely had more people in it than that village. Even my in-laws were shocked that places like it still existed in South Korea. Now, the culture shock I felt: was it the shock of being an American in South Korea or was it being an urban inhabitant suddenly thrust into a rural environment? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure I would have experienced culture shock moving from any metropolitan to rural environment. Of course I was now living in a culture where mine was not the dominant perspective, and even now I’m normally at a loss in communicating with strangers. If anything from my experiences informed “Behind the Sun” it was maybe this notion of letting go and not insisting on knowing, but instead seeing what comes. The narrator throughout the story is often reliant on kind strangers and must learn to subsume himself in a group effort geared for the greater good. Some folks would likely take issue with this being a positive outcome, this erosion of the character’s individuality, but I see it instead that the narrator has shed a false self he’s been clinging to. Now that he’s lost that baggage he can begin growing again.

Michael: So what’s the trap you’re talking about in travel broadening one’s awareness? Is it this potential for the traveler to impose their own potentially false sense of self on what they’re experiencing?

Justin: I’ve encountered people who seem to have climbed onto this travel treadmill where they’re searching for some transcendental experience of “ultimate reality” and all it does is make them boorish: “You think this is real, man? This isn’t real. If you want real you need to go to Thailand. That’s where the real shit is. I saw dead people in the streets, man.” So to me the trap in broadening one’s awareness is the same for anyone who chases after the ultimate high or whatever in the hope that it makes them more real. Granted, I’ve often said living in Asia is wasted on me, but there’s a big difference between being an adventurer and being adventurous as Tove Jansson point out in Fair Play. An adventurer takes what opportunities arise, but doesn’t need to go out looking for them like the adventurous do. That said, I agree it is a good idea to learn to exist outside your comfort zone. It’ll certainly teach you things about yourself, and not all of them to your liking.

Michael: Am I falling into a similar trap by claiming “Behind the Sun” as a piece of fiction about environmental justice?

Justin: Probably, but your money’s good so I won’t complain. I did try to talk you out of buying this story after all, but you fell in love with the whole notion of people working together to turn shit into gold and called it environmental justice. What could I do?

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Written in the Book of the Woods

LJ Geoffrion

I’ve never been lost in the woods, so of course I didn’t think I was lost now. I’d simply misplaced the trail. Eventually, I’d find it, because it was around here someplace. It wasn’t until I had stomped around for about an hour that I began to get the creeps, and not because I was lost. It was the sun.

It hadn’t moved; it just hung there in the sky at about twenty degrees above the western horizon. I sat down and lined it up with a cedar branch and watched it through the needles. I watched it until my ass was numb and it stayed there as if the tip of the cedar was holding it in place.

A wind moved though the woods, making the cedar and the tamarack next to it sway. The tamarack had begun to change, and a few of its soft yellow needles drifted to the forest floor. A single, red maple leaf landed on the back of my hand. I started and picked it up, twirling the stem between my fingers. Time was passing, the leaves were falling, and I realized that I had to pee. It wasn’t like time had stopped. Just the sun.

I stood, swaying a little bit until feeling came back to my glutes. A red squirrel was surprised by my sudden appearance and chattered at me from the maple. I popped my jeans open, slid them and my undies down and squatted to pee. The smell of urine and the dusty dead leaves swirled around my face and I hung my head down and then rolled it across my shoulders, thinking.

I picked a direction, but after walking for an hour, stumbled over the same butt-flattened spot I’d started from. I rested and went out again. And again. No matter where I began, I came back to my spot and the sun still balanced on the tip of that cedar.

There was a little spring around somewhere. I’d seen it last time I was out this way. Grimacing at the sun, I licked my lips and turned in a circle, my feet carrying the circle into a wide spiral, and found the spring just west of my spot.

The ground rose and a wall of black rock thrust up a hundred feet, an ancient mountaintop buried in forest leaves, small cedars growing in the cracks of its shoulders and red mountain ash scattered across its crown. Water seeped down the face of the rock and pooled at its base. I knelt and touched my lips to the pool, sucking in a long, cool drink.

Drinking down that water was like drinking down the world. I could taste the rock, iron and deep and dark, and the earth, moist and rich. Lightheaded, I leaned my shoulder to the rock. A dribble of water dripped down my chin, landed on my chest, and slid cool between my breasts.

It was dim in the shadow of the rock. A dozen staggering steps from the spring, a pile of freshly fallen autumn leaves had collected in a hollow. This wasn’t the first time I’d spent a night in the woods. I pushed down the panicked voice that was urging me to run and burrowed down into the leaves. Piling the leaves over me, I slept, coming awake once or twice in the shadowed late afternoon light, but drifting off again to the sound of wind in the pines or the buzz of a bee, and always the soft, warm crackling of fallen leaves.

Sleep flowed across me, warm current of contentment and a strong feeling of place that held me safe. I knew where I was and it was all right. I dreamt of sunlight falling softly across a pale blue autumn sky and the last falling petals of late summer flowers. Sleek bears rooted under logs, and bucks in rut blew steamy breaths at each other across evening meadows. I dreamt of a girl picking frost-touched choke cherries on the lee of the ridge.

Until I startled awake and it was night. I blinked in my leafy bed, eyes wide in the darkness, listening to what had woken me.

It was night. The sun had set.

Something moved in the darkness and I felt the hair lift up on the back of my neck. I slid out of the leaves and the whisper that they made was no louder than the wind in the trees. My jeans and shirt hung on me in ribbons of flannel and denim, and autumn leaves tangled my hair. I crouched there, my mind skipping from the leaves to the water to the earth beneath my bare feet. This was all that my mind could hold. A breeze pushed against my face and I turned into it. The air was crisp with a hint of coming frost but there was a fetid stench that came in wisps; a rotting smell, like old garbage or road kill, like brutality and grief. I turned toward it and breathed it in so I would know it.

A full moon hung low in the west, about twenty degrees above the horizon. I grinned at the moon and then turned my eyes back to the smell, finding it in an inky spot, black upon black, a thing that shouldn’t be there, didn’t belong here in my place. I didn’t know what it was, but that didn’t matter. I had no words, no thoughts. Looking at it, I knew what I had to do.

It stilled as it sensed me, but latent violence tingled against my skin. With a crazy shiver, it launched itself, black limbs wide and a dark gaping mouth. I screamed as I met it and we came together in a flurry of claws and teeth. I gagged, the smell of its fur like rancid grease on the back of my throat. Its teeth snapped in front of my eyes and I squeezed where I held it and then threw myself forward, using my own teeth.

It was nasty, but I ate it. I ate it right down.

I staggered away from the place of blood and torn ground and collapsed into the pool, the water clearing the taste from my head. I came to half lying in the pool, shivering with cold. A late day sun sent a shaft of golden light through the trees and across my legs and I pushed away from the spring and into the sunlight. Without thinking much, I stood and began to wander around my wood, picking a few late blueberries, running my hands over the trunk of a massive beech, and pulling up a bunch of purple loosestrife. I walked for hours and finally fetched up near the swamp and sat in a patch of rose mallow, combing my fingers through my hair.

I stopped and looked at my hands. My skin had taken on the pattern of the leaves, bronze, brown and yellow, and my nails were sharp. They were strong looking hands, good hands, but not the hands that had driven my truck. I squinted down at them, trying to remember.

Only small things came to me. My truck? I remembered the feel of the shift knob as I put my truck in gear. Coffee, bitter and rich, I missed with a sudden physical ache. Did anyone remember me? Almost, I could hear the sound of my lover’s voice.

My chest felt tight, sadness welled up, and tears ran down my face. I sat in the swamp grass and watched the rose mallow sway in the breeze. Rose mallow is a beautiful flower. I cupped one in my hand. The petals were soft and cool. A yawn cracked my face and I shook my head, bleary with tears and sunlight. With another yawn, I rolled over in the grass, curled between the flower stems, and fell asleep.

I woke to the sound of singing.

Grass had grown up through my hair, and the rose mallows grew around me like a circle of pretty girls. High and sweet, someone sang a wordless aria. I looked up and over the flower tops. Some feet away, a light sparkled in the air. It hung above the ground, dancing to and fro, shining now gold, now yellow, now new-leaf green. As it bent to a flower, it became infused with the delicate pink of the mallow.

The light pushed forward into the circle where I lay. It was an odd sight; as the light moved toward me, a face came toward me as if someone were pressing into a sheet of color-swirled plastic. First a nose, then forehead and cheekbones and a small, delicate chin. The sunken eyes glowed pastel blue and the eyelashes fluttered. The light skipped back and the face disappeared, but it came again, pressing against the barrier, the eyebrows raised.

I pushed myself up, hugging my knees with my arms, pulling them to my chest. With a sigh, I propped my chin on my knees and considered her. One of her hands pressed in next to her face, fingers spread wide.

Words came through the music. “Hello? Can you hear me?”

I was never a person who liked much company. I mean, some people are fine, but I can only take them like potent liquor, in small sips. Looking at the face with its outspread hand, I realized that I did not want this face, hand, or any other part to come into my world. The song and the light were lovely, but I did not want them to join me.

With studied care, I unfolded my arms and legs and rocked forward onto my feet, crouching now, with my fingertips just brushing the ground and my head tipped back to look up into the face. I thought of the black thing, with its smell and its bones crunching and how it never had the chance to scream. My lips lifted and I licked my tongue over my teeth, meeting the wide blue eyes, staring into them and letting them stare into me.

I blinked, and the face was gone.

The song faltered, then rose again with upward slides of curiosity. The light danced back and forward but not to the edge. Was it her edge or my edge? If I looked very closely, I could see the shape of a girl there within the light. Shaking my head so that my hair flew, I stepped over the rose mallow and away, back to the wood, leaving the light and the song behind.

I slept and woke and slept and woke. When the black things came, I ate them; they never got away. I could sit for hours watching the birds flutter from ground to branch or squirrels building their leafy winter nests. Once, a bear sow wintered on the south lee of the black rock and birthed two cubs. I helped her raise them and they come to me still.

The sun or the moon were always in their place, round and full, about twenty degrees over the western horizon.

Of course, she came back. She. Sometimes I could see her shape, wreathed with light. Or she would again press against the barrier that separated us. A girl, a woman, and then a strong-faced elder, white hair in simple braids pinned across her crown. She would sing and I would growl and when she came too close I would lift my lips into something that was not a smile.

Once when she came, her song was dim. I don’t know if she was sick in body or spirit, but I could see a blackness, a place of nothingness, pulsing at her center. I didn’t think; I snatched it out and gulped it down. Her song faltered and for a moment I thought I had extinguished it. But I guided the song and the light, guided her, with little pushes and pinches and waving of hands, to the black rock with its seeping water and the pool. She drank and the water swirled into her, deep green and fecund brown and hot red iron. I could see her clearly then, flaming beside the pool, a woman in her prime with work-roughened hands and smile lines at the corner of her eyes.

“What are you?” her song asked.

“A woman,” I said. “Just a woman.”

Her smile was soft. “No.”

I visited the pool later and found a pendant of agate, worked and polished, and wrapped all around with a fantasy of silver wire. It glinted up at me from the bottom of the pool, an offering or just a gift of thanks. It is there still, shining in the sunlight and the moonlight.

When I saw her again, her face was creased with years and her back was bent. She pressed tight against what stood between us so that I growled a warning at her, teeth bare. She lifted her own lips to me and showed me her teeth and I blinked and nodded with respect. At that, she laughed so hard that she clasped her knees, rocking back and forth. I laughed with her and leapt up and danced for a moment to her song.

I slept next high in the branches of the beech and I woke to the moon and something wicked moving in my woods. It smelled ugly and mean, of shame and willfulness and the desire to hurt. I slipped from my leafy bed and slithered down one branch to another until I crouched over a darkness so profound that my eyes slid past it, unwilling to linger. I noticed that my shoulders were up around my ears, my head tucked down.

I shook my head, impatient with myself. I was awake and it was night; there was a blackness in my wood and my mouth at least, dripping with heat and saliva, knew what to do. The black thing moved closer to the beech, drawn toward me, I think. I stood on the branch, stretched out my arms and fell upon it. It whirled, mouth wide, and scored me with hatred, a poisonous, acrid bile that it spat like fire. It scars me still, but who has not been scarred by hatred?

It thought that I wanted to win and that was its mistake.

After I consumed it, I staggered through the wood. Half of my face was eaten away and my left arm hung down uselessly. I collapsed amongst the blueberries near the black spruce. With my good eye, I blinked up at the moon, the moon that hung just twenty degrees over the western horizon. It is never about winning or losing. It is about risk and joy, leaps of faith and wonder. I closed my eye and all of reality ceased.

The taste of the pool seeping past my lips startled me awake. Something touched my face, a cool, wet cloth. One edge lay across my eyes, softening the gore that was caked there while the other edge trailed across my lips, leaking soothing moisture onto my tongue. After a moment the cloth went away. I heard movement in the grass, time passed, and then more movement and the cloth was back. I sucked at it, rock and earth, towering trees and delicate flowers, buck and bear and buzzing bees. It went away and came back again, three times, maybe four.

I could hear singing now, beautiful, more beautiful than I had ever heard. Tears came to my one good eye and the cloth brushed them away. I sat up and took the cloth in my own hand and carefully worked over my face. The wounds had closed up but the left eye was gone. I opened my right eye and looked into the face that peered at me from the light. She was very old, toothless and thin.

“I had to hear your song once more,” she said.

I shook my head. “I have no song.”

She laughed, shining so bright that it hurt to look upon her. I stood and made my way limping to the pool and she followed, the two of us staggering and weaving through the ferns and small brush. I slumped down on the pool’s edge, the ground soft and cool, and touched my lips to the water. When I could take no more, I rolled away and sought the hollow with its bed of new autumn leaves.

I woke, blinking up from the leaves. There is a cedar across from the pool, and the sun balanced there on the tip of a branch. I lifted my hand and it trembled. Light-headed, I rolled out of the leaves toward the seeping rock. And stopped.

There against the blackness of the rock was a damp pile of bones. I could see a femur and several vertebra. The skull rested on its side, a few feet away. There were finger bones in the pool next to the blue agate pendant.

I gathered her all up and carried her across the woods to lay her in the ring of rose mallow. I go to her on spring evenings when the sun has not set and we listen to the forest sing. I go to her on lazy summer evenings and watch the bees as they buzz around the mallow. In the autumn, I bring her red maple leaves. I bring her water from the pool, cupped in my hands, and when I drip it upon her, her bones melt into the earth. Together, we sleep the winter away.

Sometimes her light comes and I dance to her song but mostly it is just me and the bones. I don’t know where the light goes. It tried to get me to follow it once, but this is my place. I know that I am not what I once was, though I cannot guess at what I am. I just am. The one in the wood, the one who keeps this place, the one who watches. I am mineral water and blueberries and the full moon and a quiet spring gloaming. I am the one with teeth that the blackness fears. If you come to the place of the rose mallow, or the frost-touched choke cherries, or the weeping black rock, maybe you will see me. I am here. Listen to the wind and the crackling autumn leaves. That is my song.

I have never been lost in the woods and I am not lost now.

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J.R. McConvey Interview: “Eel of the Lake”

Read “Eel of the Lake” in Reckoning 1.

jr-mcconveyMichael: I love this story of personal identity in the context of collective activism. As I probably told you when I bought it, it made me cry, I think partly because I know how ineffectual and insignificant working for positive change in the world can feel, and the idea of getting such a personal acknowledgement from the huge, beautiful abstraction you’re trying to defend is a powerful thing indeed. I think “Eel of the Lake” makes a fair argument that the escapism of fantasy serves a worthwhile purpose–introducing a ray of hope when we need it most.

But I want to ask you about a particular issue of personal identity this story brings up, one that applies very much to Reckoning as a whole, which is representation and cultural appropriation. To be blunt about it: I’m a white dude, you’re a white dude; Mizay, the main character, is a lesbian woman of Indigenous descent; is that okay? When I first read this, I hesitated, even though it made me cry, because I want Reckoning to be a platform for voices not my own, not like my own, and I want it to be a space where people not like me can feel their voices are being given the attention and respect they deserve. In the end, it was the making me cry that made up my mind: Mizay’s voice clearly didn’t feel fake to me, it felt respectfully and authentically rendered. Still, I have to ask myself, who am I to make that call? So, in hopes you might have better answers than mine, I wanted to ask you the same question. How did you decide to tell this story from this perspective? How did you find Mizay’s voice? If you thought about issues of appropriation, can you tell me about how that went?

J.R.: This question has weighed on me heavily in recent months, and it’s not easy to unpack. A bit of relevant background is that I have worked with Indigenous people on past projects, mainly documentaries, and feel I’ve learned a huge amount from these interactions. A few summers ago, I was fortunate enough to participate in an arts leadership program through the Banff Centre, where I met an elder who helped me further explore Indigenous knowledge, and to see both its essential wisdom, and the beauty and poetry of the stories. I believe they carry answers that will help us navigate the accelerating changes that Earth is undergoing.

When I set out to write this story, I was searching for a way to frame a discussion about climate change, resistance and the ways in which humans are connected to the landscape. It didn’t start out as a story with an Indigenous protagonist, or a story about an LGBTQ2 character – those character traits came out in the writing. But once they emerged, it made sense to me, since marginalization and activism are so connected in cultural discourse. When I wrote it, it felt emotionally true. So I submitted it.

What I can see in retrospect is that one can’t really be incidental when attempting to write from other perspectives, especially Indigenous ones. And, ultimately, you have to admit ignorance, and accept that all you have is an attempt to understand, which may or may not be welcomed by Indigenous people who feel stifled or limited in terms of how and where their voices are heard. I believe deeply in the value of fiction as a vehicle for empathy, and I cherish the freedom of the imagination as the truest freedom. But I also understand that some people feel that what’s at stake in writing from Indigenous perspectives is a more urgent matter, a question of life or death.

So, where I’ve landed with this story is that it’s out there, and I welcome any criticisms of it that will open a respectful dialogue about these questions. I’m willing to listen, which is the request I hear or read most often in discussions around appropriation: listen to us. I’ve given the story to my friend, the elder, and am hoping for an honest assessment of where it falls on the appropriation spectrum. My argument in favour of the piece, such as it is, is that I am (hopefully) not glossing over the complicity of straight white men in systemic discrimination against Indigenous people, women and those who identify as LGBTQ2. If I’m writing from the perspective of a marginalized character, it’s in part to throw an interrogating light on my own privileged position in relation to those who are marginalized.

However, at the moment, it seems an argument isn’t what Indigenous people (or LGBTQ2 people) want or need in terms of response to questions like this. Which makes sense: as soon as you take two steps into the larger discussion around treatment of Indigenous people in Canada, any would-be indignation falls apart. There are communities with no clean water. There are twelve-year-old kids killing themselves on reserves. The last residential school was not shut until 1996. Colonization is still effecting very real and painful consequences on Indigenous people.

So, ultimately, although I still like the way this story feels and reads, and believe it’s as emotionally honest as I could make it—and am happy to have it in a publication like Reckoning, which invites conversations like this one—I’ve since removed it from the manuscript of my short story collection, on the grounds that it’s not really mine to tell, or at least that there’s sufficient debate around that statement to warrant removal. It’s the last piece I’ll write from the perspective of an Indigenous character. As much as it saddens me to see how the world, in general, seems to be dividing and subdividing into closed ranks—how much “us versus them” has become the dominant paradigm—I don’t want my writing to be hurtful to people whose suffering is still so acute, and I have to believe them when they tell me how appropriation contributes to this, even if the context is a story that aims, in part, to champion decolonization.

Sorry for the long-winded response. This is a question that may take a hundred years to answer.

Michael: Because you and I also share the Great Lakes watershed, the particular huge, beautiful abstraction Mizay is protesting on behalf of in this story, I also wanted to ask you about the real-world inspiration for that. Are river outlets being paved and islands drowned near where you live? Does the resistance to it look anything like it does in the story? I’m a transplant here, and for years I was daunted by the level of degradation of the lakes–having never known this ecosystem any other way but polluted and infested with invasives, I found it harder to work up the energy to do anything about it. I’ve gotten over that, thankfully–but I’d love to hear a little of how you think about the lakes, what’s made them worth defending.

 J.R.: It boggles my mind that some people would question the need to protect the Great Lakes. This is the largest source of fresh water on Earth. Like you, I’ve only ever known the lakes in their degraded state, although I’ve lived next to Lake Ontario for most of my life. It’s the sad truth that they were already degraded before I was born. I take some solace in the cleanup efforts that have happened in my lifetime—I can swim in Lake Ontario now, on good days—and in the efforts of groups like Waterkeeper Alliance, who work on spreading the message about their protection. But, while there’s not a specific, local incident of pollution I can point to (invasive species are another matter: Asian carp, lampreys, Zebra mussels…), I think we are generally now headed in a very dangerous direction, with the efforts the current US government is making to destroy environmental regulations.

What is a very visible and present problem in Toronto at the moment is the flooding of the Islands. They’ve been closed since early May, covered in water, and although the city keeps pushing the deadline for re-opening the park, it keeps raining, and I am afraid this may turn into a permanent problem. It’s also a harbinger of the kind of changes I think we’re going to see happening more and more frequently. Frankly, it makes it hard to conceive of any kind of effective resistance… I know hope is important, but the scale of change is so vast, you wonder what can happen on a grassroots human scale that will slow or reverse what’s already in motion.

In the case of “Eel of the Lake,” the point is more that resistance and love are sources of personal strength in the face of big-picture despair, and that the possibility still exists to reimagine ourselves and the ways in which we see and relate to the natural world. Or, if you want to take the fantastical element at face value, that maybe at some point the world will take over, and our struggle to be the controlling factor in nature—on either side of the issue—will be rendered insignificant. I guess there’s some skewed hope in the thought that the Earth knows what it’s doing, and will find a way to detoxify itself. What that would mean for humankind is anyone’s guess, though. Maybe the beast in this story is an omen of personal discovery… or maybe it’s hungry.

Michael: These are great answers! As thoughtful and nuanced as I could have hoped for. Thank you very much. I really appreciate your wanting to engage with me over these questions.

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Behind the Sun

Justin Howe

Protocosmo found me as it finds all its inhabitants: the lost, the lonely, and the wayward. I was stranded for twenty-three hours in Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Round about hour seventeen and in the wee hours of the night I took to pacing the long empty hallways past their inert coffee and fusion cuisine franchises. An attendant found me sleeping on one of those airport couches built to maximize subtle discomfort. He told me there was space available on the flight to Protocosmo, and possibly I could make my connection from there. I said, “Yes” and that was that. I was ready and on my way.

Little did I suspect where I was headed, nor can I relate exactly how I “flew” there, for Protocosmo sits within the Earth’s core, but there I landed.

The “sun”, as the Earth’s core is termed locally, never sets but simply smolders down to a cinder once every twenty-four hours. There are cities there in Protocosmo connected by mine-train and falling-bicycle. Its atmosphere has an unpleasant but refreshing spice that turns bitter things sweet. But these are all minor attractions. Protocosmo’s true attraction is that it is home to the terrible worm, the infeci, as they’re termed.

As is common with all recently arrived visitors to Protocosmo, I spent my first days in bed with fever. Natives name these endemic illnesses as if each were a fondly remembered melody. The Wilting Shivers, for instance, is accompanied by the scent of oranges and the sensation of the world sliding suddenly to the left. My first fever was called Conquistador, a type reminiscent of a failed jungle expedition while encumbered by a full suit of plate armor.

Outside my windows at counterpoint to my illness, a festive atmosphere prevailed. It was a kite-flying holiday. The air beneath the smoldering sun fluttered and glittered with kites of wormhide and multi-colored streamers. Every now and then a spark would set a kite aflame, a sight welcomed by an eager cheer. The trick was to pilot the burning craft through the pockets of noxious vapor about the core and set the chemicals alight, so that they burned with brief multicolored radiance.

Despite the attentiveness my landlady showed in administering to my health, I could hardly summon the enthusiasm necessary to enjoy the spectacle.

She was a native born Protocosmotic and wore on this occasion a brown blazer atop a green hooded djellaba with a blue hand-knit scarf about her head. Her shelves overflowed with Agatha Christie novels and she had a tic about her eyes that made her irises vibrate, as if the simple act of focusing on anything held the entire reservoir of her attention.

She brought me a lemon ice and listened to the recitation of my symptoms.

“It’s time you tried the worm,” she said and motioned me to follow. She bade me sit in the kitchen while she prepared her tincture. The rattle of the spoon played ten-pins upon my occipitals, and I swore I heard the drums of cannibals in the distance. Finally, she returned from the cupboard with the glass.

“Drink it down,” she said. “No complaints.”

Sick and weary and wishing I was far and away from there, I did as commanded.

The drink proved temperate, flavored with lemon juice and coffee. I expected to retch, but the opposite happened. My thirst slackened while my fever slipped away. When the glass stood empty upon the table, I could hardly keep myself from staring at it.

The taste no longer solely resided upon my tongue but suffused my entire body, pungent yet clarifying. The very air about me seemed stripped of all impurities.

“That’s infeci?” I said in disbelief.

My landlady, that radiant angel in tattered djellaba, smiled and shook her head. “That’s only infeci powder. When you get well you should find the real thing.”

Just then another shout came from outside. The two of us went to the window and saw a kite trailing green and yellow sparks across the sky. Overcome with a calm I can only describe as beatific, I ushered my savior from the apartment. Together we followed the music uphill, my fever falling further into memory with each step, my landlady’s hand pressed in mine.

Beneath the cinder of the smoldering sun, we must have danced ninety-nine times.

skull_green_scenebreak

Upon recovering my health, I decided to explore Protocosmo and hired a falling-bicycle. Such a journey must be undertaken at night, lest the canopy of the craft catch fire as we passed the smoldering sun. Yet still we tumbled so close to the core I might have reached out and lit a cigarillo. My pedaler, a lean man covered with wiry yellow hair scorched down in places to pink freckled flesh, focused on the beacons ahead of us.

“What do you know of the infeci?” I asked him.

“Had a touch of fever, did you?” he said, his face aglow with the light of our lamps. “Was it Clora’s Drift or The Dewy Ague? Did it have spiders, snakes, and creepy-crawlies?” He clucked his tongue and shook his head. “I can tell you about the infeci. I worked the tiles for a bit, saw them up close, worked a hook, and pushed them into the glass pits.”

We tumbled into a valley and steadied into a glide. The mesas in the distance sat upon the curved horizon like tilted pyramids. Patches of shadow covered the ground beneath us, dense in spots amid the ashen gloom. He eased back on the pedal, and our craft tilted. The maneuver afforded me a view of one of these shadows. Our lights barely penetrated the darkness. I saw nothing.

“Those are cracks in the Earth’s crust,” my pilot said. “All the rot from the surface collects in them. Infeci eat the stuff and grow. Might take a metamorphosis or two. (Months in Protocosmo were termed metamorphoses, as years were called resurrections). Pretty soon there’s no room in the cracks, only the infeci. When they reach the crack’s lip they pour out, full of poison and madness.”

“How then do they become such a boon and healing mechanism?”

“That’s a trade secret.”

“But there must be some way to stop them,” I said. “If they grow that way, they would take over all of Protocosmo.”

“You have to starve them. Lure them to a hole lined with fused sand. A glass pit. They can find no sustenance there, and they starve. It’s tough work, but we all take a turn doing it.”

Our vehicle righted. My driver nodded at the fissures below. “These are dormant,” he said. “Cleaned out. Won’t be a swarm out of these holes for some time. The most recent outpours have been in the East, where you’re headed. Take a cart down to the floor, and you should find some tile-work.”

In a city square somewhere under the Alps I bought lunch from a leaking refrigerated cart. I wrote postcards home explaining my disappearance (a task only slightly more difficult than explaining the decision that had led me here: pursuing a prestigious degree from a nonaccredited university), after that I sipped my coffee while reading a pamphlet on infeci put out by the Protocosmo Office of Tourism:

 

The adult infeci is a large, segmented worm as tall as a single volume of the 1923 edition of the Encyclopedia Britanca and as long as at least three adult golden retrievers tied nose-tip to tail. Their skin consists of twenty to thirty interlocking keratin plates behind a smooth dome-shaped head. Legless, the creature winds itself forward via vigorous undulating movements that manage to propel its bulk through the dirt and leave a furrow behind it that smells faintly of rotten broccoli.

There are neither male nor female infeci, simply a single androgynous gender that reproduces through violence.

The infeci diet consists wholly of poison—filth that seeps down to Protocosmo from the surface world. In this way, as the poison is refined within the terrible worm, the infeci serves a beneficial function in our planet’s ecosystem.”

 

A voice called my name. It was my pilot, eating his lunch at a café tent. I joined him.

“I bumped into an old friend,” he said. “A fellow I knew back when I was a tileman. He stuck with it. Told me there will be an outpour flowing past. Get down to the floor tomorrow morning and volunteer. They can always use spare legs for tile work, and you’ll get a chance to see the worms up close.”

He pointed at the pamphlet and formed a skeptical expression with his singed-pink features. “Words can’t describe it.”

Well, I would see, I said, and asked about this friend.

“Esteban’s a strange fellow, writes operas in his off moments. Heartbreak case, he gave up life on the surface and came down here. Said he wanted to retire. Strange way to retire: going toe-to-toe with infeci. But to each their own.” He shrugged. “As Cain said, I’m not my brother’s keeper.”

By the following morning, the cafes were all a-chatter with news about the approaching worms. Men and women lined up to volunteer, most of them only a resurrection or two out of school. I joined a line and was told by a civil-servant to appear the next day at a mine-train station.

The morning was clear, with light flakes of ash falling from the sky. Carts were running down to the valley floor in stages. I waited my turn while a winch squealed rhythmically. Every face about me was soot-streaked. We were a nation of the besmirched. The people around me conversed, and I heard talk of “eggs”, “dust”, and “bulls”: common terms invested with unfamiliar weight.

Soon we were on our way down the mesa, our train zig-zagging until the broad plain of the valley came into view. Far in the distance, a white and red river stretched from mesa to mesa: the infeci. And facing this river, the tiles.

One need only view the paintings of Paulo Ucello or read about the tactics of the Roman testudo to gain some concept of the tile. Armored men and women form square formations often thirty persons thick. Each carries a tower-shield that might become ceiling or wall, depending on the direction of the flow. Hooks and spears are used to prod the infeci towards the waiting pits. The professional Tileman, or Tileteer, since all genders may take up the occupation, maintains the “edge”, while the bulk of volunteers staff the middle and use their muscle as a brace against the brunt of the attack. In this way they form an island that serves to direct the flow and course of the crawling river. From the center of each, a captain peers through a periscope and shouts directions. From a distance, the maneuvering of the tiles displays a stark, formal quality, like the squares of a chessboard come to life and attacking the pieces.

Our cart came to a stop at the foot of the mesa, and I asked the attendant where I could find the pilot’s former companion.

“Esteban?” she said. “He’s still in his tent, but his tile is preparing their formation. Follow this group here.”

I fell in line again and marched where I was bidden. There was a cloud of dust on the horizon. Already some tiles had stepped into action.

We stopped at a supply cart where a plump woman handed out spears and sealed suits with tall boots and visors. Maneuverability was key, but also cleanliness. It was dangerous to come into contact with infeci in their squirming form.

Once we’d dressed and formed up, professional Tileteers moved among us, straightening our posture and adjusting our grip upon our spears.

“Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all,” one said, pushing my shoulders back. “Step closer to your left. Your shoulders should almost be touching.”

I bumped against the young woman at my side. She had a shaven head, a merry spark in her eyes, and she displayed a marked skill with the spear that made my own improficient efforts seem a newborn’s fumblings.

A tileteer barked us to attention and marched us through maneuvers, teaching us the commands required.

Bull—the massed push made with interlocking shoulders.

Egg—closing ranks shield to shield so we formed an island.

Dust—spears out and stab.

Eventually I caught on to the intricacies of the movements. By then, Esteban had emerged from his tent. A wide man with a deep, melodious voice and long hair, he cradled a daschund in one brown hand. He passed her on a waiting attendant and without a word donned his captain’s gear, armor similar to our own except for a bent contrivance hooked to his chest: the periscope from which he could look out over our island.

We parted solemnly to afford him passage to the tile’s center and marched as a square, spears balanced horizontally upon each other’s shoulders.

Tiles covered the valley floor. They bristled hooks and spears and made walls of themselves. The infeci collided with them, their mad twisting and flailing sounding like thunder in the air.

We were positioned near the edge of a pit, a sinkhole of fused sand. Our task would be to push the stream into the hole. Esteban ordered the shields mounted. Our spears formed a support that held up this ceiling. All was darkness. Chinks of light illuminated profiles and tufts of hair as the dank smell of human sweat filled the crowded space.

“Bull,” Esteban shouted, and down we marched, the weight of our numbers providing us with momentum.

I had no concept of where I was going and bumped clumsily against my fellows. It was insufferably hot, quite like a fever of a kind. I thought of Conquistador. The scent of so many confined bodies and stale breath closed upon me. I could little but trust to inertia and the experience of others.

“Easy, now. Steady.”

We came to a crashing halt, the recoil of which brought me into the back of the fellow before me.

“Bull!”

Groans and cries came from the edges. I leaned forward, each step taken against a weight as insurmountable as gravity.

“Egg!”

We strained to get our shields up. A cry escaped my lips. The woman beside me grunted. A great terrible wet flailing echoed in the darkness like we were being flogged by fouled laundry. Flickering shadows cut the light, and the air stank of rot and vegetation.

“Bull right,” Esteban ordered. He must have been close by me, because I heard his chanted whisper of: “Position. Position.”

The press of our opponents was constant. Each muscle stretched only to remain frozen as a steady rain of impacts and blows beat against the shields. Voices groaned in the dark. The ground shook, and my body vibrated as taut as a rubber band.

“Dust!”

From within our square, hooks and spears sprouted. Vibrations coursed down the length of each. Once or twice a snap and cry pierced the gloom. My grip held firmly to the cross braces. Dust roiled in the shafts of flickering light as a black, pitch-like substance dripped through the gaps.

“Careful,” my fellow tileteer said, “that’s poison.”

“Bull!”

We pushed at Esteban’s command. The balls of my feet dug into the earth. Each foot lifted to take a step would hang frozen in the air, and then the weight against it would lessen. The step would land. Another step forward, and another, and another, as if we were wrestling a river into changing its course. With a shout, Esteban ordered the spears set to construct a shield-wall. A cheer rose up as the weight against us turned fluid and drained away. Our task was done, the flood detained, and the worm tide averted into the glass pit, where it squirmed and seethed.

skull_green_scenebreak

A festive mood reigned in the camp. I found myself milling from group to group, a stranger made kin for a time by our shared ordeal. A hand grasped my shoulder, and I turned to find myself face to face with Esteban. Once more his faithful dachshund was with him. He asked if I was a Russian. I told him no. He sighed and gave a toss of his head so that his curls danced lightly upon his shoulders. He motioned me to follow and led me back to an open-air kitchen.

Fires crackled beneath great steaming cauldrons. Smaller infeci had been corralled to one side, guarded by hook-wielding handlers. One at a time the beasts were taken and hefted into the pots, where the air beneath their contracting carapaces escaped in a screaming hiss.

“Would you like a taste?” he asked.

“But aren’t they poisonous?”

“Only if left to their own devices,” he said, passing me a plate. “It’s our labor that purifies them.”

Infeci flesh was succulent, similar to lobster but also unquantifiable. An aspect of the taste lay just beyond recognition, like a word dangling on the tip of one’s tongue. It recalled an unformed idea, and with each swallow I believed I came closer to its source.

“It’s the poison that gives them their healing power,” he said. His hand scratched the dog’s chin, and the creature gazed lovingly up at him. “We gain strength and a deeper appreciation of goodness by ingesting it.”

Nearby someone laughed. Esteban paused and let out a thunderous sigh before walking away. His stare matched his dog’s: downtrodden but free of despair. I realized he was a profoundly religious man, although what creed he might profess if any I could not imagine.

Another laugh drew my attention. I saw the woman who had stood beside me in the tile. She was with the falling-bicycle pilot who had flown me so far. She smiled, pointing to the empty glass in my hand, and the pilot waved me over. I took another bite of infeci. Words I couldn’t remember haunted my lips. The ashen sun cooled. Behind it lay my passage home. I doubted I would ever think of it again.

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The Hole in the Reef

Benjamin Parzybok

Across the flat horizon: only blue, no sign of other boats, of anything at all.

“Row row your boat, row—”

“Come on.”

“—this goddamn thing.”

The line and anchor had become entangled with something below.

“Pull like this,” Oliver said.

“Nope,” his father said. “Tricksy widget. Snake charmer. Battle slug.”

“Drink much?”

His father yanked back and forth on the line with an older-man’s violence, unsteady on his feet. His father’s dog, Crappy, yipped encouragement at his heels.

“Sit down, I’ll do it.” But he could not free it either. He looked again for sign of police, or sign they weren’t so alone.

“Nobody’s out there,” his father said. “Trust me. Here, have a nip.”

“I’m going to have to dive for it.”

“Of course you are, you fappy hucker. It’s got my goddamn logo on it.”

“You think someone’s going to find it?”

“Weirder things happen.”

“And if they did—”

“Certain jail time. I don’t make the rules, I just break them.”

“You are a cliché machine.”

“Don’t bother with that ugly face nozzle, it’ll take you thirty seconds, down and back. I can see it right there.”

“You can’t see it. You see the rope, it goes into nothingness.”

“Over the side with you, lout fish.”

“Just need my fins. Stay above me, right? I don’t trust you with an oar.”

“I was born to oar. I’m ad-oar-able. I will oar-rate to you while you fish that thing out.”

“Just stay seated.”

 

The plunge over felt like entering a planet’s atmosphere. The bubbles floated past like little stars, sparks and ash, aswarm with insects. And the sound—ten million molecules all sung together with a concussive white noise.

When the bubbles cleared he made his way down, his snorkel gripped tightly between his teeth, his breath tight in his lungs. The reef swam about him, brilliant and colored—displaying more colors than the cone-cells in his own eyes could detect. He was a stranger here; an alien creature, not biologically well-equipped. Unlike his father.

He scanned about. On dry land, they lived in two dimensions. But in the reef, danger came from any angle, above or below.

It was his father’s growing incompetence that had ensnared the anchor. Drunk and sudden and impulsive. He had studied his father for signs of dementia; a hobbling thing for a man so ruthlessly independent. As he finned further down he glanced back to see the otherworldly silhouette of their small boat’s hull above, where inside, like the meat of a nut, his father hummed some dirty ditty to himself.

At fifteen feet down he held his nose and blew, to clear the pressure in his ears. At twenty five feet they ached again, but he was still not close enough.

At thirty feet he could see the anchor in the foggy blue light of the bottom, nestled into an indentation between patches of coral, but the pain seared in his head and he was out of breath.

 

“Oh hey, it’s Oliver,” his father said. He had settled down into the bottom of the boat, his dog Crappy curled in the crook of his arm.

“Thanks for your help, you sonofabitch.”

He clung to the edge to get his breath back.

“What help could I give?—I was staring into the sky, you were diving into the ocean. Here, have another drink.”

“I couldn’t make it. It’s fallen into a hole.”

“The hole at the bottom of the sea, dee-deee-de.” The song ended in a deep cough, like wet sand sloshed about the bottom of a tin can.

“What should I do?”

“What do you mean what should I do? Go get it. Get back down there. Without it we will be forever adrift. Like wee bits of pollen floating on the ocean, colonizing undiscovered lands, et cetera.” The ‘et cetera’ ending in a wet cough that continued for several moments.

“OK, old man.”

“Have another nip. Fortitude.”

“Nah, I’m good.”

“Have it!”

“All right—but watch. In case I get to drowning I don’t want you falling asleep up here.”

“What would I do?”

“Dive in and pull me out, I suppose. Aren’t you the master at all this?”

“I’m half blind. I don’t know struggle from hello. It’s the sharks I’d worry about.”

“Nice. Thanks.”

“These ones just bite you and spit you out. Taste test. Nobody gets eaten.”

“Like I said.”

He lowered his snorkel back to his mouth and then tore the thing off his face; it was useless if he only dived straight down.

“Maybe don’t lower your goddamn anchor into the reef again?”

His father shrugged.

 

Sometimes it felt like gliding through a child’s crayon drawing in which turquoise had been over-wielded. He was here to spend some time with his father, the master diver, the expat. But instead found him as drunk and as belligerent as always. If not for the anchor, they would be on their way back, taquería-bound.

He scanned a moment too long for the movement of sharks. Tiburónes. He knew how their gray skin merged with the deeper blue of ocean distance, so that it appeared a shadow pursued you, a blue ghost. His father was afraid of no shark.

By the time he made to the bottom of the reef canyon— one reef wall a collage of vibrant oranges, pinks, maroons, the othera deadened white—and within view of the anchor—his air was finished. The anchor rested on a circular shape, three-four feet in diameter, tangled with some other bit of metal there. It was not part of the reef, and his first thought was: Some old ship has sunk here.

He turned and fled, kicking hard through the dim blue into the bright.

As he raced toward the surface he saw clearly that something was being poured out of the boat, its watery contents making a queer snowflake from below as they hit the water. He wondered if in the interval his father had had second thoughts about a life of drinking.

But as he came closer he saw instead that his father stood at the edge of the boat, pissing over the side.

 

“You’re such a prick. I’m in here!”

“Hey, don’t rock the boat!” His father produced a low chuckle. “It’s all fluid. You think they don’t shit in this water too?” His father pointed at the sea.

He maneuvered to the far end of the boat. “Anyway.”

“Let’s pretend you got the anchor.”

“It’s tangled with something.”

“We will put it in the boat and make our way home, under the glorious sunset.”

“There’s something else down there. Like a ship or something.”

His father zipped and sat. “There’s no wrecks under the reef. It’s another anchor. Pull that up too.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know if I can.”

“They ask: How do you dive so deep? You dive deep. That’s how,” his father said.

“You goddamn do it then.”

“You’re already wet.” His father stood again to look over the side, then took another draught. “You need to learn it.”

“It’s not my life calling, you know? I’m not ever going to be as good as you.”

“Learn it anyway.”

“If we just cut it, they’ll see both anchors, think a storm took them or something. I’ll buy you a new one.”

“Too late for that. I want to see what other son-bitch is anchoring up on my reef.”

 

First, to super-oxygenate his lungs, he hyperventilated, then he took an enormous breath and dove. He was stronger this time, and on the way down his ears hurt less. He’d gotten the lecture before. How he lacked inner fortitude, the ability to withstand pain. You’re as soft as a goddamn jelly fish. You’ve got no grit. Instead of following his father’s renegade path further into the remote and the wilds, he’d become a magazine writer and lived in a city. He married, had children (his father declined to visit); all of whom remained at home while he visited his father deep along the Central American coastline. By every normal measure—if you did not count his father’s opinion of him—he was successful. But it was hard to remember this, in his presence.

An enormous gunwale-gray fish passed across his vision, taking its muscular time, blotting out color, so that his descent experienced a hiccup of forward motion.

Within reach of the anchor, his feet dangling toward the surface,his head seeking further down, he grabbed the other metal first, which turned out to be something other than metal. Stone, or bone, or he wasn’t sure; it was covered in a slippery film of algae, which when scraped away revealed white. It was not an anchor, but a large looping handle that curved into the sea floor. He pulled hard and dust rose around the circular area where it lay. Like a plastic ring you might acquire at a carnival, he thought, only enormous. Its face sat against the sea floor, the girth of the stone handle that of his wrist. He gave another pull with all his strength and felt it give the slightest budge. The monstrous fish swam above him now, casting him into shadow. He thrashed away at an angle and shot for the surface, where he could see the shimmery image of his father leaning over the side of the boat. His lungs began to crush inward and then he breached into sunlight.

 

“You came back. Started to worry about you.”

“Really?”

“No, not really. I started to worry about my anchor. And that I might have to get out of this goddamn boat.”

“Thanks.”

“For what?”

“I saw a huge fish.”

“He won’t hurt you.”

“And there was a handle. It’s attached to a circular thing, like a big portal fallen off a ship.”

For a moment, his father’s eye caught on the horizon, but he himself could see nothing in the direction he looked.

“I said there was a sort of handle.”

“I heard you. Neverthelesset, is there or is there not an anchor.”

“I’ll get your anchor.”

His father nodded and sat heavily in the boat.

Oliver grabbed hold of the edge and pulled himself halfway up the side, so that he could dangle and rest his legs. The bottle was empty in the bottom of the boat. His father leaned slowly backwards, but then he swung forward and began to shout what may have been a song, if his father had anything to his voice but pea gravel:

“The hole at the bottom of the sea!

You’ll find it and that’s all there’ll be!

You’ll find it when you’re old and cannot see!

No one knows!

What’s inside the hole

in the bottom of the sea!”

His father leaned all the way back in his seat now, so that his back lay across their gear and his head wedged in an uncomfortable position at bow.

“What the hell was that.”

“What you were talking about. The ocean’s plug. I heard tell it’s around here somewhere.”

“That makes no sense.”

His father closed his eyes. “El agujero en el fondo del mar.

“What am I supposed to do with that?”

“—”

 

As he kicked downward with his flippers, his body felt eleven years old, to match the age his mind became in the presence of his father. His adolescent muscles frantically flailed with defeated inefficiency. But as he got deeper, his adulthood slowly returned, and his strokes downward became stronger and more self-assured.

The enormous fish made tight, sentry-like turns along the bottom of the sea floor, between the coral canyons.

The fish would not hurt him, his father had said. Still, they were two there in the space near the anchor, two consciousnesses, two planetary entities. The fish clearly the larger of them by several factors. When it swam in his direction, he did his best to acknowledge it by looking it in the eye and giving it a grim smile. A single bubble escaped from the corner of his mouth. The fish’s eye tracked its rise, and then it resumed its sea-floor pacing.

The idea of a plug for the ocean was preposterous. A ship’s hatch, a chucked-overboard he-didn’t-know-what. Did his father think it let the ocean out or let it in? If the ocean drained out, where did it go? Into the center of the Earth? And who put such a thing there?

This time he wrestled with the anchor, whose rope had tangled with the handle of the thing. The old man did not have many years left, and he worried that the plug was more evidence of his father’s slipping grasp of reality. You should go see him, his wife had said. He wondered if any of this mattered to his father; if they were closer for it.

The fish brushed too close for him, and the anchor would not come: between the rope and the anchor, it had looped about the handle a few times, as if someone had wanted them there. Around the anchor were the remains of the coral it had broken off as it descended and scraped. The dead coral peppered the sea floor, the ocean’s gravemarkers. His chest began to throb and pull for oxygen. He pushed off with his feet and shot like an arrow for the surface.

 

As he came alongside the boat he heard the sound of his father’s snore.

“Old man,” he said. In sleep his facial muscles were slack. He looked terribly old. His face wrecked by sun and sea. He looked away so as not to see his father’s face any more, nor to be caught looking while he slept. “Hey, I’m working here.”

His father awoke into song: “Working nine-to-five. What a way to make a livin’.”

“I can’t get your goddamn anchor.”

“Of course you can’t.

“—

“City boys can’t dive.”

“Lay off, man.”

“Going to have to row back in the dark. You know how to navigate?”

“—”

“Case and point.”

“It’s caught on that thing, tied around it.”

“I ought to sink this boat, make you swim in.”

“OK,” Oliver said. “Seems like you might have a little more to lose than me there, but go for it.”

“I’m tired of waiting here!” His father stood unsteadily in the boat and glared down at him. “I’m drunk and I’m bored.”

Oliver snorted, and in the process inhaled seawater, so that he spent a moment self-consciously coughing.

“You get back in the boat, I’ll go down.” His father put his diving goggles on, so that he looked like a mad aviator.

“I’ll go with you.”

“Whatever you want, jelly fish.”

 

His father leapt from the boat’s bench seat and arced into a dive, all of the rotting muscles and slack skin finding sleek purpose in the sudden transition to water. Once under, his father did not surface for air.

Crappy barked at his master’s disappearance and ran between sides of the boat.

Oliver took a breath and followed him down, feeling the exhaustion of the previous dives in him.

He swam through the turquoise, glistening with the slivers of exotic fish, and down into the dim world below, where the enormous fish continued its lonely swim near their anchor. His father’s feet, gnarled and calloused, receded into the distance, and he wondered how the old man swam so fast without fins, as drunk as he was.

By the time he caught up, his father stood on the sea floor, the strange handle in his hands. In the current his father’s thin hair stood loose and undulated like a groping bit of seaweed.

His wife had said: The reason you go see an estranged parent is to not be like them, and he understood what she meant. His job was to reacquaint himself with the peculiarities of his father, to check those against his own, to figure out which had been blooming unbeknownst within him, passed down silently from generation to generation; a sly violence, a desire to be left alone, a way of poisoning conversation, every compliment loaded with barbs.

His father ran his hands along the handle, clearing the slick of sea sludge from it, which revealed the bone-white underneath. Then he looked up at Oliver and grinned.

Oliver’s air had begun to run out, and his father pointed them back to the surface, and then passed him on the way up as well, his body half-seal, carving between the molecules of water.

That they had not fetched the anchor meant more deliberation, and at least one more dive down to discover whatever it was that lay below. He wished only to be rowing home.

With one arm gripping the side of the boat Oliver leaned his head against the side and let the ocean’s movements jostle him for a moment. He was exhausted.

His father’s face was red and his eyes were bloodshot. Oliver thought: this will be the moment he has a heart attack.

 

“Ho! It’s the goddamn plug. It’s the hole in the ocean.”

“You didn’t get the anchor.”

“Other fish to fry, peckerwood!”

His father hoisted himself halfway up and rummaged around in the boat. “You drink the rest?”

You drank the rest.”

“Son of a bitch,” he turned to wink, ever-enjoying the curse’s claim upon his ex-wife.

“Listen—it’s too dark to be doing this. Let’s mark the spot. We’ll row home.”

“You don’t understand what I’m saying.” His lifted his goggles up, baring the red pressure rings around his eyes. He gripped Oliver’s bicep with one hand, his other hand held the boat. His eyes bulged wide: “It is the hole in the ocean.” A sputtering of sea-salt spittle followed.

“What does that even—?”

“I don’t know yet, boy!” he released Oliver’s arm and tapped his own temple. “How will we know until we open it?”

His father’s head disappeared below the water, leaving Oliver alone for a moment to sigh and cuss. Then he dived after him. But his father was not ahead; there was no sign of him. He glanced toward the surface and saw his father’s legs on the other side of the boat. Oliver doubled back.

His father rummaged about in the thick layer of detritus at the bottom of the boat—”I’d chuck this shit overboard if you weren’t along.”—Socks, fishing line, beer cans, old plastic bags from long-eaten snacks, and the fish they’d speared, having breathed their last breaths. From it emerged a half-drunk bottle of Rosé.

“Ha!”

“You sure that’s still good?”

With the cork off his father took a healthy pull off the bottle, and followed it with an uneven expression.

“It’s gone bad, hasn’t it.”

His father scowled at him. “Wine doesn’t go bad.”

“Pretty sure it does. That one started bad. Can’t have improved much in the bottom of the boat.”

“It’s a little bit bad.”

“Can I just talk some sense into you for a moment.”

“Here—” His father re-corked the wine, and then disappeared below the surface again, and reappeared next to him. “Have a drink.”

Oliver measured the partial drunk his body already worked, alcohol and exhaustion and sun all laying their claims upon him. The sun sat just above the horizon now. The turquoise below him had dimmed. He took a drink anyway.

“A fine vintage. Sparkling nail polish remover.”

His father laughed and slapped him on the back. “Snob!” He was clearly having a good time now, and Oliver was loath to interrupt it. The two of them companionable in the golden light, each with an arm on the boat, smiling at each other as they floated above some strange new discovery in the waters below.

“That is the largest goddamn Grouper I’ve ever seen.”

“— that fish?”

“That sonofabitch knows something. Where’s my diving light?”

 

After his father disappeared below the water, Oliver dipped his head below the surface to watch him descend, until he could see him no more. Crappy ran from edge to edge of the boat, as he did every time the old man went below.

“Hey Crappy,” he said. “That’s enough.”

To his surprise the dog calmed and stared down at him in the water. Perhaps the dog did not worry, with his small frantic mind, but only performed the duty he’d been taught, and having been excused of it he was free to ponder other things. It was hard not to apply the analogy to himself. In an unsettling moment of introspection he wondered how many of his own habits were simply his replaying back the chords he’d been taught.

He very much doubted there existed such a thing as a hole in the ocean. To ponder it was to upend reality. Did humans put it there? He could not imagine why or how they could. The hole’s existence implied some other’s intention. Amidst all of the slow, wild processes, here was something that was a fabrication. It suggested he lived in a playground, a test bed, a Petri dish. Where the light of the lab might be turned off at the end of the work day.

What was a hole in the Ocean for? It seemed more akin to

The knot in a balloon

The cork in a bottle of wine

The pin in the grenade

It was no finishing touch on some design, it was the kill switch. A terror crept into him. He felt incredibly small, a tiny, insignificant dot, treading water above the opening, in a wide, open sea. At the moment, he did not know in which direction land lay. The sun lay half in the ocean, half out. He lowered his face into the water to search out his father and saw a glow deep down.

Lifting his head up he said: “Crappy?”, and the dog perked up. “When given a choice, I have only ever known him to take the worst one.”

The dog barked his agreement.

He turned and swam hard for the light. The water’s turquoise hue had gone, leaving a murkiness with hints of large creatures at the edges of his vision.

Following the anchor rope he passed the coral canyon walls, now ominous objects in his periphery. Further down, the dark form of the grouper paced in the narrow box over the portal, and he swam hard to miss its trajectory. The diving light sat at the hatch’s edge, the anchor remained tangled with the handle. There was no sign of his father.

His air dwindled and Oliver flipped and swam hard for the surface, bursting into the air as the last tip of the sun hovered at the water’s horizon. He called out and the dog answered, but his father did not.

He gulped another, insubstantial breath of air and then dived again, wishing he’d not left the diving light on the sea floor. The panicked breath did not hold. He floundered mid-way between the sea floor and the surface, scanning frantically, and then returned to the dwindling light. Without the iron will of his father there, the sea felt endless. It was not only his father’s safety that crossed his mind.

This was how his father would go, he thought. This was the only way. His father brought him down here specifically to disappear into the wild, down some hole, to lose himself even further. And Oliver was here to clean up whatever mess he left behind.

He held onto the boat’s edge and panted. As the sea darkened, the diving light below shone more brightly. He knew then he would have to open the ocean’s plug and peek inside.

“Crappy,” he said.

The dog whined in answer.

“Fuck knuckle,” he said, hoping to divine some part of his father, “shit nozzle. Crutch sucker.” Then he took the proper breath and dived again, using the anchor rope to hand-over-hand his way into the depths and toward the light.

He retrieved the light and trained it on the grouper above him, who continued its relentless pacing across the space. The fear was burning all his oxygen; his breath was finished and so he rose.

At the surface his exhaustion pummeled him. He tried to strap the diving light to his wrist while he treaded water and could scarcely keep his head above the surface.

“Dad!” He yelled out into the dusk, and the old man’s dog answered with a reciprocal yelp.

There was no time to waste. With the diving light on, he dove again, pushing his worn muscles hard to reach the bottom. He knew what he must do.

He gripped the bone-white handle and pulled. The hatch was heavy and did not move. He braced his feet and pulled harder. Stubbornly it swung toward him until it was fully open.

But what lay below it was only sea floor. A shellfish skittered away; something retreated further down a small, rough hole. His chest had begun to convulse but he ignored it as he searched the circular indentation left by the hatch at the bottom of the sea, hoping somehow his father might manifest where there was no space to do so. He swung his light in an arc, but no body floated unconscious at its periphery.

Then with deft, brute force he freed the anchor and swam hard for the top.

He clutched the edge of the boat and heaved. He’d swallowed some water, and it came out of him along with the Rosé and Tequila and whatever other crap he’d put down there over the course of the day: Central American convenience store fare, packaged in small neon-colored bags, which his father had purchased for their outing. With the diving light he continued to strobe the water, below and above, but there was no sign of the man.

“Crappy,” he said, but the boat was quiet.

He wearily pulled himself up the side and there found his father passed out at the bottom of the boat, his small dog asleep next to him.

“You sonofabitch,” he said. He pulled himself the rest of the way in, vaguely aware he emitted a low groan, the sound of an exhaustion. Once in, he began to haul in the freed anchor.

“You selfish drunk bastard,” he said. “You selfish sonofabitch.”

His father made no response, other than the buzz of his snore.

After the anchor was onboard he sat and stared down into the water. The night was still.

He realized suddenly he could not leave it there.

His reasoning was difficult to parse out. It would make his father angry, to see the thing that had so stalled them in his boat, and there was some impetus there. But his desire to remove it contained elements of their lifelong petty war, over what you keep and what you throw away, what you guard and what you leave to wreak havoc. He himself was a sort of throwaway. He vowed that thirty-five years hence, when his two small offspring were grown and thought of him, their own father, there wouldn’t be a hollowed, rotted acorn in place of their hearts, their real ones having been left abandoned at the bottom of some ocean.

But he also just wanted it, a massive souvenir from the ocean’s floor.

He untied the anchor from its rope, lowered his goggles, and turned the diving light back on. Then he slipped over the side into the water, trailing the rope down into the darkness with him.

His arms ached with every stroke.

This time the grouper seemed to stop and observe him, its enormous black eyes reflecting the glow of the light, its behemoth undulating body paused.

He had all the breath in the world now. Or perhaps time had stopped without his knowing, the universe paused to observe this unexpected act, to see what would happen next. He heard little in the dark movements of the reef, the sea calm above, the boats all gone home but one. He looped the anchor rope around the handle of the fallen hatch and tied it fast. Then he swam for the dark surface, following his own bubbles in the diving light for cues to direction.

 

“You got something on the line?”

“Your ocean plug. Hauling it out.”

“But what if—anyway, what you want that for.”

“Help.”

His father sat up and lent a hand. They both strained against the line until the object surfaced, heavy and metallic. The weight of it pulled the edge of the boat lower.

“Cut it,” his father snarled. “Let’s get out of here.”

“It’s coming with us.”

“What the hell are you going to do with it?”

“It’s my business.”

“It’s my business,” his father mocked.

They heaved and pulled the heavy disk into the boat. Crappy barked and ran to the far end. After the exertion, they panted and did nothing for a moment.

Don’t anchor your fucking boat on the reef again,” Oliver said, “or I’ll cut your balls off.”

His father did not reply, and the comment stayed over-harsh in the night, a bit of venom from the younger snake, taking cues from the older. Instead his father lay back in his seat, and a few minutes later he heard his snore again.

“Please,” he whispered much later, too late for his father to hear it, uncomfortable still with the harshness of his request.

Crappy came to sniff what they’d pulled from the sea, and then returned to sleep next to his master.

“At least he loves you,” Oliver said, not sure whether he referred to the animal or the man. But the bitterness of it instantly faded. He would fly back tomorrow to his own family, where the subject of love was not a question. He put the oars in the oar locks and began to maneuver the boat in the direction he believed to be land, caring less about getting there by night’s end than he expected.

As he rowed toward his father’s home, the stars filled in the black canvas above.

The moon rose, slivery and delicate, a dark yellow hook at the Ocean’s edge, which he pointed his prow toward. And in the dim light, he watched the cargo of the boat gently rock with each oar-stroke, the old man, the dead fish, the small dog, and the glistening hatch that had covered the hole in the bottom of the sea.

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In Hambach Forst

George F.

Eyelids stuttering like a caught-out politician’s, I take long moments to breathe on the mattress in the guest room, remembering the advice that it takes as long to wake up as it takes you to wake up. The sun is blazing through the high windows, hitting the bitter graffiti we scrawled on the mezzanine in drunken rebelliousness: ‘Whilst you plenum, we crack buildings’. Mierda is already gone, no doubt down in the yard putting the finishing touches to the mural. Grizzly sits in the corner of the room, looking at me patiently, awaiting my next move.

It has been two weeks here in Rigaerstrasse, feeling the creeping comforts and stasis of the place sapping our vigour. Today is the day we leave for Hambach Forst. Battling the lethargy of relaxation, I gather our booty from Italy, the zines and patches from the street-markets of Berlin, the empty bottles for recycling, retie the length of rope around the flapping sole of my boot, and check the scrawled notes on how to escape the fuck out of Berlin.

skull_green_scenebreak

We were sat at the Rasthof Michendorf, halfway through the wine, on the brink of giving up for the night and setting up the tent, when we got picked up.

“Look, that one has Magdeburg plates. That’s halfway there. Ask them.”

Mierda takes a swig of red and skips over to await the two tan-skinned males as they emerge from the service station.

“Hello, excuse me, are you going to Magdeburg?”

“Ja.”

“Can we come with you?”

“There are two of you?”

I sit sheepishly, trying to mask the large rucksacks and Grizzly, who I am telepathically willing not to start barking at them.

“Yes.”

“And you have a dog?”

“Yes.”

Ah, shit. These guys are dark-skinned, black-haired, their accents suggesting an origin in the Muslim sphere. Dogs are haram. Their car is super shiny and sleek, some brand a gearhead would probably drool over. I begin to think about where to set the tent up.

The first guy catches the second as he emerges, and they make an exchange in rapid-fire Babel. I read the body language as best I can, trying to keep my mind open.

“OK. But the dog has to go in the luggage. That ok?”

“Fine! Great!” Me and Mierda chime together, grabbing the bags and hiding the wine before they can change their minds. We sling the bags in the back, and Grizzly obediently, mysteriously silently, jumps up behind them and immediately settles down, tongue lolling happily. It’s almost as if she knew. Or maybe she was as glad as we were to leave Berlin.

We leap in the back, dropping into plush leather upholstery. It smells like a rental car—new, synthetic, false. In front is a galaxy of gnomic buttons and devices, a screen showing GPS coordinates, everything illuminated in space-age neon blue. The passenger in the front has his seat almost horizontal, so me and Mierda squeeze into one half of the back seat next to each other.

The driver guns the engine, and we flee the service station like a gazelle bolting from a predator, tearing out into the autobahn night. The leather-upholstered seats heat up at the click of a button. Euro-techno blasts from the surround sound speakers. As the acceleration increases and the G-force kicks in, we both scramble surreptitiously for our seatbelts as we realise this driver intends to max out the capabilities of his souped-up car on the limitless potential of the autobahn.

As he drives, he smokes sickly smelling skunk in a pipe and talks over his shoulder at us. All the while, the needle creeps upwards.

100 kph.

“So you always travel like this? You have job? You have home? I live Berlin, but my family all live in the West. In Cologne.”

110 kph.

“Really? You are going to Cologne? That’s actually where we are going.”

“Oh really?”

He talks to his passenger in rapid-fire language that we can’t understand. We exchange hopeful glances.

“OK. So we take to you Cologne. No problem. This is my brother. We from Afghanistan. We come after war start there. Very bad. Very bad. Much trouble. Much violence.”

120 kph.

“I make money delivering cars. Make little money. Make little survive. You come Germany, I sure you see very nice life. People nice. Life nice. Everything easy. Very good. For me, very hard. For my brother, very hard. For my family, very hard. Can be very difficult.”

135 kph.

“In Afghanistan, you buy 1 kilo of heroin, 5000 Euros. Bring back to Europe. Sell 100,000 easily. Make good money. Make good life. Never work again.”

150 kph.

“You want to smoke?”

170 kph.

“You believe in Allah? SCHIESSE!”

Actually he shouts something else, but I didn’t catch it. The car swerves violently, sliding dramatically to the right. As quick as a flash, he restabilises it and pulls it back to the left.

“Did you see that? Did you see? Es war ein Hirsch, mit großen Geweihe, die wir fast traf es . . . . What you say in English? With . . . with? With these.”

He actually takes both hands off the wheel and holds them to his head to demonstrate antlers. At this point his brother intervenes, saying something in sleepy but firm syllables.

“OK, he say I stop talking and concentrate on driving now.”

We race on through the night in silence, me and Mierda secretly sipping the wine, then drifting off to sleep as the seats warm our thighs and the lights of the autobahn hypnotically flash by at one hundred miles per hour. We crack the window to smoke and the jetstream screams through the cabin as if we were on an airplane. As my eyelids droop I idly wonder whether Grizzly is asleep in the back on the top of several kilos of heroin from Afghanistan.

skull_green_scenebreak

They drop us off, unceremoniously, outside a tram-stop before dawn, awkwardly watching as we drag our bags and dog out the back. They notice that the boot is covered in dog hair. We look appropriately apologetic, then they are off, racing away to their families or their drug deal or to try and run over more deer. We jump the tram, looking out the window until we spot a bottle shop with a nearby park.

Sipping cold beer, we wander through a park of gelded trees, filled with dozens upon dozens of rabbits that hop, skip and nibble the pruned grass, calm and peaceful and undisturbed by our presence. Grizzly pulls on the lead, straining at them with interest, and the sky begins to turn blue above us. Bottle collectors lurk in the bushes, giving their location away by the clink of glass.

As it gets light, we pass out on the sleeping bags, dozing a few hours. We are surprised when we awake to find the rabbits and bottlers have all transformed into youth. Cologne is a major university town, and on a summer’s day such as this these fresh-faced and clean-looking young folks descend upon the parks to barbecue, throw frisbees and leave behind empty beer bottles for the refugees to pick up.

They grow rowdier as it gets sunny, and not wanting to sleep another day there, we troop back down to the tram stop and jump the rest of the way to the Hauptbanhof. Nearly there, we spot a gang of inspectors at one of the stops and leap off to safety. Meandering through the streets, we are soon beneath the spires of the Dom.

We are waiting on the platform for the train when we are approached by a young woman dressed in black, wearing a patch of a pair of cogs with a spanner dropping between them.

“You go to the occupation?”

We smile and nod. We have found our guide.

We jump the train together, watching each other’s backs, chatting all the way to the woods.

“Several of the villages around here are ghost towns now. Just shells, left up for show, awaiting the bulldozers. Old buildings, beautiful, being torn down by diggers. Same with the solar panels everywhere, the wind-farms, the hundreds of thousands of euros poured into recycling schemes and schools talks. All of it propaganda.”

“Green-washing, we call it.”

“It’s a total cover-up. RWE just want to present a clean face to the world whilst raping it. You have to go see the Hole. It’s unbelievable. I cannot even describe it. It’s like Mordor.”

She appears physically pained as she talks about, losing herself for a moment looking out the window.

“I just went to the police station to see about our comrade who was arrested today. Ah, don’t worry. The people at the camp will tell you all about it.”

We pass her the wine, and we drink, sharing logistics of our various living arrangements.

“And who is this? I don’t like to say pet.”

“Grizzly. Our companion.”

She ruffles Grizzly’s fur affectionately. Grizzly seems pleased, parking herself beneath the seats of the train.

“Do you ever have any trouble jumping the train?”

“Not if there is three or four of us. They normally don’t think it’s worth the trouble.”

skull_green_scenebreak

It is a long walk through the pitch-blackness of the countryside—I doubt we could’ve found it without Grasshalm. When we arrive, a dreadlocked man named Graeme gives us a breathless update.

“Ah so you’re here for the festival? Good, good. Well, we’re all a bit tired today, as we had an eviction. The tower. Remy’s Tower, it’s called, was raided by the police. One guy got arrested; he’s at the station now. He threw a bucket of shit at the cops. One of them twisted his neck apparently so it’s assault. All a bit of a palaver. It was the last living barricade and all. Fourteen hours it took them. They took him because he had ‘no social obligations’ in Germany, and was ‘likely to stay away from trial.’ We have to rebuild the barricades tomorrow, but the tower has gone. Such a shame. So you’re staying a bit are you? Well, you’re welcome to camp in the forest, be aware that it’s illegal, or you can put your stuff down in the meadow if you like.”

skull_green_scenebreak

As I sit and shit in the little compost toilet hut, a hazel dormouse peeks out from a pallet dumped next to the sawdust bag. Its cute little eyes peer at me with curious innocence. I look out into the forest, the sounds of birds singing and the branches of tall, elegant trees rustling, and I realise that I know the names of almost nothing. The forest is comprised of pines, yew, oak. I have spotted dockleafs and clover, nettles and brambles, but to the vast majority of its diversity I am ignorant. I guess most people are nowadays, the herblore and arboreal knowledge that would have been natural for our ancestors is now forgotten. The contents of the vast fields around the encampment are more easily recognisable: endless monocultural rows of potato, cauliflower, waving stands of maize, uniform, relentless, armies of doubtless genetically mutated aliens. Whole fields of hybrid triffids, ready to take over the world once everyone has gone blind from staring at some mysterious meteor.

Fifteen and more centuries ago, Germany was covered in mixed forest like this, home to a weald society of hunters, foragers, gatherers and natural farmers. The forest abounded with deer, squirrel, pigeon, fowl, not to mention a host of challengers to the dominance of man—wolves, bears, boar—real life monsters of the time. Perhaps that’s where so much of the modern day hatred of nature comes from—that for so long it was seen as a killer and enemy. The natives would have been expert herbalists, naming and knowing hundreds and more of plants for their medicinal and healing qualities. Now this weird vagabond camp sits on a meadow on the edge of the last patch of 12,000-year-old forest, and the lack of connection is apparent. In four years it will all be gone—the hazel dormouse and the history, the centuries-old yew and oak, the brief moments of liberty on the fringe of oblivion.

 

Dumping a handful of sawdust down the hole, I pull up my shorts and tuck my leggings into the top of my socks. This is tick country, which means Lyme disease. We had already pulled a number of the purple-grey sacs out of Grizzly’s knotted fur and were keen to avoid becoming a meal ourselves.

I stroll back through the forest, manoeuvering around the barricades of branches and logs that have been constructed across the pathways. One has been decorated with a large red ‘A’, and a roadsign woven into its mesh has been spray-painted with slogans, ‘E.L.F’ and ‘Hambach Bleibt!’. The soil of the truck-paths is solid, compacted, grossly different in consistency to the spongey, yielding layers of leaf-litter and humus of the forest proper. It even smells different—wafts of organic, living matter erupting from each step, like the breath of the trees. I walk back through Oaktown, gazing up at the precipitously positioned treehouses, twenty metres above in the boughs of the trees. A man in a harness is setting up the ropes to clamber above and spend the day in peaceful meditation with his tree. He waves cheerfully to me as I pass, hopping over a trio of tractor tyres laden with rubble. I jump again soon as I land, narrowly avoiding crushing a miniature dance-hall of dung beetles rolling their treasures around.

The forest ends abruptly at the meadow occupation, marked by a man in an elf hat sat in a tree playing a mandolin and singing softly: “I want to be/for-ever punk/I want to be/for-ever punk . . .”. I pass through the freegan kitchen, into the low hut of the kitchen proper. A few people talk softly in German, preparing tofu and brotchen from the packed metal containers. They have a full wheelie bin of soya-products, donated by supporters and shipped from Cologne. In the meadow, a small fire burns by the dining tables, and beyond, the narrow strip between two fields of wheat is littered with caravans, roundhouses of timber, and towards the airstrip, a number of straw-bale houses and hobbit-huts, partially sunk into the ground.

It looks like a crew of nomadic space-pirates were marooned here upon the shaw and spent their time trying to organise without their captain. The dozen or so constructions are idiosyncratic, an eco-refugee camp of wattle walls, pallet structures, insulation a hybrid of plastic functionality and ecological innovation. Red and black antifascist flags fly from makeshift poles alongside ragged rainbow strings of Tibetan prayer flags. Hand-painted tarps are everywhere: ‘Ohne Mampf, keinen Kampf’ by the kitchen, ‘Refugees Welcome’ by the tool shed. The walls of the kitchen bear various signs of instruction to wash hands, close lids because of rats, no meat, no smoking, and in-between, the scraps of calendars and rotas and propaganda blur to become an anti-authoritarian collage. Dreamcatchers spin in the breeze next to mobiles of pinecones and wool. Wicker baskets and waterjugs are piled by the toolshed, next to a plastic dog with its face smashed off and boxes and boxes of weirdly wonderful, perhaps one day useful, stuff.

 

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Behind fences of wood lashed together with rope, people are growing miniature gardens of herbs, sage, lemon balm, mint and parsley. I run my hands over the delicate leaves, feeling the differences, smelling deeply of each one as I pass. Beside one hobbit house, its roof layered with clods of turf and straw, tall stacks of sunflower are in regal bloom, their innards already filling with seed. In another, shared between the solar-powered ‘technology caravan’ and someone’s private van, a cacophony of broccoli are beginning to delicately emerge, beans hang bountiful stacks of pods from their runners, pumpkins are swelling, nasturtiums flirt with the bees with their spicy flowers of vermillion, orange and yellow. The gardens are marked out with old jam jars and glass bottles, rows of gleaming white, green and brown surrounding the lush stands of intermingled plants. A row of solar-panels gleams futuristically, surrounded by terracotta pots of cacti and salads. The infoshop is decorated with old vinyl records, a gasmask with a pair of antlers sprouting from it, the simple slogan ‘COAL KILLS’ next to a stuffed pheasant staring arrogantly back at me from the walls. A small boy with cornflower blue eyes and hair so blond it looks white in the sunlight plays with a plastic truck in the sandpit. I watch him for a while as he moves dirt around, wondering if the men driving the big diggers over on the other side of the highway had once been the same. Just kids playing in the sand.

Brightly coloured murals and slogans mark the passage of a multitude of defiant artists. Mierda has been working on the outside of the library/freeshop structure—the outlines emerge of a naked woman swinging down from a tree to smash the face of a man wielding a chainsaw. Strolling further along, I spot her atop the tower at the entrance to the meadow. She is unwinding a huge red and black flag from its pole, the wind catching it and flicking it out against the blue sky. I realise with a smile that it is a German flag with the gold torn from the bottom—a symbolic removal of wealth, to leave behind the black of anarchy and the blood of the people. She turns and waves cheerily to me from her viewpoint as a cropduster soars into the sky from the airstrip behind her.

 

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We gather in the open-sided forum hut. The sun is setting over the fields of monoculture outside. Grizzly slips in and lies down expectantly, the little pup Hanuc bothering her experimentally. The projector screen lights up the faces of a dozen or so smiling, patient people who chat and smoke whilst awaiting the speaker to begin.

“Thank you all for coming. I will try to talk about the occupation here, first giving some background on the situation then detailing some of the various actions and resistance over the last three years.

“The remaining Hambach forest—originally part of a 6000 hectare old-growth forest—is ecologically unique in Europe. For more than 30 years the energy corporation RWE has been cutting it down. Today, less than 500 hectare remain. All of it is to be cut down to make space for the mine in the years to come—at least these are the plans of RWE and the government.

“All this because underneath the forest the one finds the so called ‘brown gold’. Lignite has been exploited in the Rhineland between Aachen and Cologne for more than hundred years. In 1970 a large-scale lignite extraction project was approved. This project included three huge open cast pits, the extension of existing as well as the construction of new coal power plants, and the development of the necessary infrastructure.

“We have been in occupation of the forest since April 2012, when the last action of a klimacamp held in the area was to occupy the forest. The klimacamps in the Rhineland were inspired by the UK’s climate camps, which seem to be much more developed than here in Germany. Or at least they used to be, I don’t know how they are now. Of the 4 major coal mine areas in Deutschland, the one here is the largest, covering 80 square kilometres and being half a kilometre deep at its lowest point. RWE have been pumping out water for years, lowering the water table, and endangering the forest. They have been buying up land and villages for decades, building on a project that was started by Hitler and the Nazis before the war, discontinued for several decades afterwards, and then resumed in the 70s by RWE. They have been buying the houses of all the villages in the area, on the condition that those who sell do not discuss how much they are paid with each other. This allows RWE to negotiate individually rather than collectively, separating the villagers and ensuring a stronger position for them. They are building new villages in the area to rehouse people, but they all look like they are from Super Mario. Many historic beautiful buildings are being destroyed, and the locals being bought off with schools-for-land programmes.

“RWE spends a huge amount of money on security to protect their mining operation, as well as investing hundreds of thousands in surveillance of the occupation and propaganda in the villages to turn the locals against us. You’ve probably seen all the solar panels and wind farms, as well as the new autobahn to route traffic past Buir without allowing anyone to see what they are doing. RWE also subsidise a lot of the farmers around here, creating an image of abundance and ideal countryside life, whilst behind the screen of trees they are destroying this area.

“2012 was their first eviction attempt. We had dug a tunnel, 6 metres deep, which I have a model of here. You can see there are three levels, with a fire door locked on the first level. They had to chop through this with an axe. Then there is a descent to a smaller tunnel, and then another level, to an even smaller tunnel and a store-room where we stayed. There was food and water here, and a few buckets for piss and shit.

“This tunnel held out for three days, during which time jeeps and vans owned by the police and security drove over the top. You could feel the ground shaking. It didn’t feel very safe. All the time above people were blasting the Tetris theme tune through speakers. The tunnel held out for 3 days.

“600 police turned up for the eviction. The photos don’t really do it justice. After we were evicted from there, a local farmer allowed us to move into the meadow occupation, and we have been here since then, despite the security and the police harassing us, arresting him and threatening him, he still allows us to stay here as it is his land. RWE work very hard to convince the villagers that we are evil, that we are drug addicts and thieves and whatever. But many of them are now realising what they have lost by believing RWE. Many support us more and more for the occupation. Now they are trying to evict us and demolish the buildings here as we do not have zoning permission. It is relentless.

“Hambachforst and the Burgewald—the ‘guaranteed forests’—don’t really exist anymore. They certainly aren’t guaranteed. They used to cover this entire area on the map, and consisted of mixed forest of pines, beech, oaks. Trees that don’t normally grow together have found harmony here over 12,000 years. The forest is home to a number of endangered species, including the hazel dormouse, which you may have seen running around in the kitchens, the middle-spotted woodpecker and Bechstein’s bat. Also at night we can walk through the forest and see a number of fluorescent mushrooms. It’s really quite beautiful.

“So this is a picture of the Monkeytown occupation. There were four tree-houses, at a height of 18 to 25 metres from the ground. The treehouses are really quite cosy, quite safe, and people would live in them almost constantly, waiting for something to happen. Here you can see a big net connecting a number of trees, the idea being that if they cut one tree or one rope, then the people in the net will be harmed. There is not a lot to do, mainly waiting, a lot of time with nothing happening, and then suddenly the eviction comes. The tree you live in becomes your friend, you spend time with it every day. It lasted for 7 months, in which time there were 30 barricade removals, kitchen removals. Of course eviction day is rebuilding day. But even using the dead wood from the forest is a problem, as the forest relies on the dead wood to be healthy.

“After 7 months, the security and police arrived to evict Monkeytown. The people in the trees locked on, climbed into the nets, used rope links. The eviction took from 8am till 10pm. The police came with cherry-pickers for those in the trees. All you can hear from up there is screaming, the sound of machinery, chainsaws. You can’t see anything. All of Monkeytown was clear-cut that winter. Here’s a photo of a 400 year old beech being cut down. Here’s another one of a 200 year oak.

“So we still organise direct actions against the Hole, encouraging people to do what they feel comfortable with. Here’s a photo of people sabotaging one of the diggers. Here’s an orchestra that came, playing in front of one of the diggers. Here’s people chaining themselves to the railway. This was one of the first actions, and even though it only lasted a few hours, as they cut through the locks very quickly, it still delayed the shipments of coal and cost RWE thousands of Euros. Here are some of us up on the tower of the digger.

“So even with all this, it is estimated that the total clearance of Hambachforst will be complete within four years.

“Maybe I can show you some videos before the battery runs out, and then you can ask questions if anybody has any. Here you can see one of the raids by security. One guy actually threatens to kill us if we damage his machines. You wouldn’t believe it if we didn’t have footage of it. These people. I don’t understand them. They laugh and make jokes whilst the trees come down. They don’t seem human sometimes.”

He grows visibly emotional as he talks, lapsing into a moment of silence. The pressure must be unbearable. I feel like a tourist.

Someone asks a question, but the only one I have in my mind is, “what hope do you have?”

But it is an impossible question to ask. He has to have hope, all these people here have to have hope of some kind, but it seems utterly hopeless. What they are up against is so huge and relentless and faceless and unstoppable, and somehow so many people support it, buy into it, surrender their humanity in order to see it continue. They sign it off as their job, the only option, and those who are against it as some kind of crazy crusties and miscreants. Yet surely anyone could see how invaluable this place is, and how lignite is just fucking evil. This was the frontline of the war against ecocide, against the madness of capitalist logic, for the salvation of the planet, and it did not look like they were winning.

 

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“How do you know if someone’s a vegan? They’ll fucking tell you.

“Did you ever hear of a guy called Barry Horne?

“He was from Northampton—where I’m from—though I never met him, of course. Went to an ALF meeting at 35 years old and pow—that was it. Became vegetarian, started sabbing hunts around Cambridge. Went to Florida to free a dolphin that was held in captivity in a tiny pond, on its own. Dolphins are extremely social animals. A cell of them spent nights sneaking in, getting to know it, before finally jumping in with a giant dolphin stretcher. Only realised then that there was no way they could lift a 650-pound dolphin out of the park. They got nicked on the way back to the car by local coppers. . . . Couldn’t explain why they had that stretcher.

“Still, they kept campaigning, leafleting, protesting, raising money. Eventually raised 120,000 pounds and bought him off the zoo. Released him after some rehabilitation, and within days he’d joined a pod. Imagine that—taking a dolphin from captivity all the way through to seeing it leaping through the water with all its mates.

“He didn’t stop there. He ended up in prison, possession of explosives. Sentenced to 3 years. He only got more hardcore inside. Listen to this— ‘The animals continue to die and the torture goes on in greater and greater measure. People’s answer to this? More vegeburgers, more Special Brew and more apathy. There is no longer any Animal Liberation Movement. That died long ago. All that is left is a very few activists who care, who understand and who act . . . ’. If you don’t act then you condone. If you don’t fight then you don’t win. And if you don’t win then you are responsible for the death and suffering that will go on and on.”

“Soon as he got out, he went on the warpath. Firebombs, all over the country, a one-man cell targeting the cosmetics industry, Boots, the high-street face of GlaxoSmithKline, in Bristol, the Isle of Wight, all over. He got caught. He knew he would, but for him it was a war. 18 years. 18 fucking years for arson against property, nobody injured. They called him a terrorist. He used to be a bin-man. Whilst inside he did four hunger strikes—35 days, 46 days, 68 days—no food. Whilst on-strike, the Animal Rights Militia—the ones who did not support non-violence—went out to war in his name. They dug tunnels outside Huntingdon Life Sciences to prevent eviction; they raided guinea pig farms, rabbit farms, mink farms; they blockaded Dover and drove a car into Parliament Square, slashing its tyres and d-locking to the steering wheel. 400 people marched on a primate holding facility near Brighton. It was a fucking insurrection.

“Here’s another good one: ‘the fight is not for us, not for our personal wants and needs. It is for every animal that has ever suffered and died in the vivisection labs, and for every animal that will suffer and die in those same labs unless we end this evil business now. The souls of the tortured dead cry out for justice, the cry of the living is for freedom. We can create that justice and we can deliver that freedom. The animals have no one but us. We will not fail them.’

“He died fighting. His last hunger strike he lasted 15 days, before his liver shut-down. The media vilified him. Sipping sweet tea to survive was turned into ‘a feast’. They mocked him because he terrified them, because he was relentless, because he was ethically above them all. He was a fucking hero.

“So eat your meat and laugh at the vegans. And go fuck yourself whilst you’re at it.”

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Through the remnant of forest, past the ramshackle barricades, already being rebuilt by a lone woodsman, likely to be stripped within a day, and over the road. Clambering over the pile of sand dumped to block the access to the abandoned highway. We linger there on the dual carriageway, looking at the weeds peeking through the asphalt, staring at the dead signs, forever blank above the empty roadways. Abandoned by civilisation, it is for a moment as if humanity had disappeared from the face of the planet, and Mierda and I and Grizzly and a few darting starlings all that remain behind. As we head further into the west, the signs of the civilised return. We dodge a roving security car by ducking down behind a copse of reeds and tall grass that has erupted between the metal barriers. We follow a dump-truck as it cruises over a bridge above the highway. Soon, the ground around us becomes stripped of trees, then of bushes, and finally only grasses and tangled brush struggle to survive amidst acres of crushed and flattened dirt. Our boots slip and slide through sand. Not even soil. Just dead, compacted dirt, with clumps of dying grass, stunted seedlings and scrawny thistles meekly squirming between the hillocks. Even here, nature battles on, but on the horizon, behind piles of disrupted and destroyed earth, the ground suddenly drops away, revealing the cavernous scar of the Hole, and no sign of growth remains.

Its scale is hard to put into words. It is Dune—desert planet—you could expect to see giant worms bursting from the ground and hordes of fremen charging across it. A train line runs in perfect parallel to the cliff drop we stand on, slicing across the barren soil unbroken. Not a hundred metres away from us is the monstrous bagger machine. Its size is gargantuan, alien, a mechanical monster hundreds of feet high, the great rotating disk like ten JCBs strapped into a circle, relentlessly scooping the cliffside, pulling away tons of sand and subsoil 24 hours a day, groaning and murmuring like a slaving demon in the depths of hell. Lights gleam on its scaffold tower, and the tiny figure operating it looks like an ant on the side of some vast steel scarecrow. It looks like the gateway to Hades, like the surface of the moon, like a bomb went off and evaporated all forms of life for 80 square kilometres around it.

Across a barren plain of dead soil, between us and the distant hills, is a void, a lacuna of absent earth like a meteor crater blasted into the ground. One day, once the lignite is stripped from the earth, they will fill the crater with water and sail boats on top of it—the final insult of turning a rape victim into a playground for the rich. In the distance, the funnels of power plants choke the dusk sky with plumes of smoke. Above us, the moon burns as a flaming diamond amidst clouds streaked in violet, aquamarine, cerise and vermillion. I wonder how much of the spectacle of colours of the iridiscent sunset is caused by the pollutants they are releasing. On the far side, wind towers jut from the tops of hills, a paltry token of green energy next to the ravages around us.

“One day this will swallow the rest of the forest, right up to where the meadow occupation is.”

“It looks like one day it will swallow the whole world.”

In silence, we turn around and head back to the forest to drink ourselves into oblivion around the campfire. In the darkness, we fuck against a tree, and for a moment it feels like I am having sex with nature herself, one last desperate union before we are forced apart again.

(All photos © oneslutriot.)

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Brandon O’Brien Interview: “Papa Bois and the Boy”

brandon-obrienRead “Papa Bois and the Boy” In Reckoning 1.

Michael: I’d never heard of Papa Bois until I read “Papa Bois and the Boy”. Now I know a little, but only in the abstract. How did you find out about him? I imagine the poem must be engaging with the myth, and with what the myth means to the people, in ways I’m not getting. Can you tell me a little about how you thought about that?

Brandon: Well, to open, ‘finding out’ about Papa Bois, in Trinidad, is the equivalent of finding out that water is wet, I’d say. I’m a Trini writer, and that means that folklore is always in the air—they’re the tools that people associate most swiftly with Caribbean fantasy. I grew up knowing about Papa Bois, the father of the forest, in the way that I guess we all grow up with Sleeping Beauty.

Myth gives people the kind of language they need to communicate the things they value, and part of why I love Papa Bois is because he stands for the reverence of nature that we always worry we’d lose. That’s what I wanted to tap into, especially as it relates to now—to how industrialization is a threat to it, a shadow cast over nature. I’m surely not the only Trinidadian, or even the only Caribbean person, who’s had this thought, but in a world where the ‘first-world status’ of a nation is measured in the height of its skyscrapers, coming from an island that yearns for that kind of ‘first-world’ love and leverages its oil economy for just a drop of that status—it was as if Papa Bois called me personally and insisted I write it. Or, hell, it was as if Papa Bois wrote it and told me to pass it on.

Michael: The poem tells a story about the encroachment of civilization on nature, and about fleeing that encroachment. It’s a classic trope of ecological literature, and something I think it’s almost impossible to avoid thinking about for anyone who grows up with access to nature. I wanted to ask what your own experience of that was like. Did you lose some nature that was precious to you? Would you tell me about it?

Brandon: This is an interesting question, to me, because I feel like ‘losing some nature that was precious to me’ means so many different things that aren’t very close to me, but I think about a lot. As in, I think about nature a lot, but I can’t think of any one thing that stands out. It wasn’t seeing my favourite reserve be torn apart or something like that—it was thinking about all of the various ways that our relationship with globalization has led us to make poor environmental decisions. And I’ll admit that those decisions always affect other people moreso than they do me. In Trinidad, we’ve destroyed prime agricultural land for houses, we’ve removed wetlands in order to construct a stretch of highway. And I’m not saying those infrastructural decisions aren’t valid ones to make, but the relative ease with which we make them at the expense of nature—and more often at the expense of people whose lives depend on it—is still baffling. And then they inevitably bite us, and we stare down the widening maw of food insecurity, for instance, and we wonder what went wrong.

Michael: Finally, I have been itching to ask you about Fiyah, the new (or should I say revived?) magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. You’re the poetry editor. How has that role been for you so far? Have you done anything like this before? What has editing taught you about your own aesthetic for poetry? Is it informing your writing at all?

issue-3-cover-smallBrandon: O, FIYAH has been lovely! Issue Three, ‘Sundown Towns’, has some amazing poetry in it, and I love everything we’ve looked at so far. It’s such a wonderful feeling to see great work pass before your eyes in a flurry, and an even lovelier one to let them know you’re going to give them the space to tell a story they care about, to give them a platform to share themselves like that. Because this is a new experience for me. I’m pretty sure I must’ve told the rest of the FIYAH team at least once how anxiety-inducing it is to have this kind of position over a work, to essentially decide if it deserves to be a part of your platform, to be seen. One of the things I’m glad to learn from this, from the business end, is that when an editor really cares about bringing new voices to the speculative fiction space, and you bring them really damn good work but it just isn’t what they want, it hurts them to tell you no almost as much as it hurts you to hear it. But when they tell you yes? Man… again, I’m really in love with the poetry in this issue!

On the aesthetic side, I’m discovering a lot. For one thing, seeing a bunch of poems set against each other every few weeks does wonders for undoing the kind of Poetry Dos and Don’ts we keep being told. Things I’ve heard people say are always uncool, or too old or cliché, or too difficult for speculative poetry, are always showing up in the poetry slush pile, and even if they don’t catch me, they still prove well enough that those things are still engaging and worth reading.

And that’s at least made me more confident about my own work. About being willing to test the boundaries of my own work.  I don’t see nearly as much experimental work as I’d love to, but I have seen swaths of poems that don’t shy away from being interesting with things people usually throw away as trite. I can only hope that seeing the poetry that comes out in the magazine in the coming issues will challenge and inspire others as much as it does me.

Michael: How do you feel the work the magazine has featured so far has done at representing the spirit of the original Fire!, and Fiyah‘s statement of purpose? Are you seeing submissions written to that purpose?

Brandon: Definitely. I think our goal to èpater le bourgeois has been undoubtedly achieved since day one. I can speak for everything that comes to us, and for the poetry slush in particular, when I say we’re always brimming with work that I think is doing what FIYAH has to do to follow in FIRE!!‘s spirit—work that rebels against both the narratives black people have been fed in narrative media in general and the history of the speculative fiction canon in particular. We have a secondary goal—to give writers the confidence in their own work to keep getting hungry, to keep working and submitting as many places as possible – and of course I feel it’s too early to gauge, but seeing how hungry readers are for FIYAH, I have faith. We’re giving the black community worldwide a space to tell their own stories in their own voices, through the lens of speculative fiction, and we’ve seen some very radical things come out of that process. Things that challenge all of the gatekeepers’ assumptions about the genre, and put blackness in a far more nuanced light. I want to do more of that. I want people to keep seeing more of that.

Michael: Are you having to do much outreach, encouraging authors to submit who might not have done much submitting before? I understand many writers of color feel an active disinterest from white-dominated publishing that deters them from even seeking publication for their work. Did you experience that at all submitting your own work? Are you doing anything specific to overcome it at Fiyah? Do you feel you are contributing to change the circumstances that were outlined in that Fireside #BlackSpecFic report?

Brandon: I’d say… a little less than before. Again, I can speak definitively for speculative poetry, which from my vantage point is such a small community already; take the black community within it, and we cut it even closer. Then we’re talking about a distrust of the publishing ecosystem, a distrust that is literally older than I am, and I can’t blame anyone for that, I think. If someone looks at the genre, even at people deliberately reaching out to them, and goes, ‘no, I don’t think the genre is for me, because I’ve had these experiences’, I don’t think I can criticize them for that. It was part of my own experience, for a time, for sure.

But we’ve also been lucky that people, especially after the #BlackSpecFic report, have been eager to see the landscape change. People are rooting for us, because we’re making it a little easier for new black voices to make their way into the genre and have their work noticed. So they’re sharing us with their friends, they’re promoting us on social media, because they have faith in us. And we’re working hard to earn that faith, and to reach out to people in their small pockets who may have something but haven’t been sending it out, because we really do want to see it.

Michael: Sorry for the barrage of questions about this—it’s all stuff I’ve been thinking about a lot for Reckoning, if from a different angle. Fiyah looks beautiful, it’s doing what it’s doing forcefully and with grace, and it’s something the field and the world badly need. So I can’t help looking to you all for inspiration.

Brandon: You can’t see this make me blush, but it’s making me blush! I similarly think Reckoning is sorely needed—giving people an avenue to use speculative fiction as a lens to view the literal world in, and our impact upon it, and how we can be better stewards of it. The genre has been having such good luck lately, with so many people wanting to ensure that it becomes more diverse, more inclusive, more radical, more conscious, more critical. As a fan, as a writer, and now as an editor, this makes me so happy. I’m glad both of our spaces can be such inspirations to each other, and I can’t wait to see what it inspires other people to make.

Michael: Thank you for being a part of that inspiration. And thank you very much for talking to me!

Brandon: Thank you! For the opportunity to talk to you, and for sharing my work in Reckoning!

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Eel of the Lake

J.R. McConvey

“Our water!”

OUR WATER!”

“Our life!”

“OUR LIFE!”

“Our water!”

OUR WATER!”

“Our life!”

“OUR LIFE!”

Neon poster boards glowed pink and yellow in the late August sun, like opalescent scales rippling on a monster made of myriad bodies. Each sign bore a slogan, praise for the lake or a condemnation of the corporate befouler, Lennox-Mills; and the protestors shook the signs in unison, so they fluttered in time with the chanting. Drums pounded. The smell of burning sage filled the air. The day was warm and good for anger.

Mizay did her best to get some oomph into her voice—OUR water, our LIFE!—but found herself holding back from full volume, so she could listen to how Taslin chanted. There was such authority in it, as though her friend were chopping thick logs with her words. Taslin had tattoos that Mizay loved: a pair of iguanas on her tanned calves; a dragon with a spear in its talons on her bicep; an octopus crawling up her back, one of its tentacles tracing the line of raised, red tissue that ran down her left shoulder. Tas was a warrior, for real. If Mizay was honest with herself, Tas and her passion for these things was the real reason she’d come to the demonstration—that, and a day outside in the head-clearing breeze off the lake.

Not that she wasn’t angry, too. The facts were shocking: fifteen per cent of the islands gone in the last two years. Since they’d stabilized the bluffs and built out the new pier in the port lands to put up the casino, the natural currents that carried sediment and gave the islands their shape had been reduced to a slow trickle of sand. Mizay knew most of the facts from Tas. But it had been her mother who’d first told her about the problem, and all the others it was creating—the islands eroding, the north shore crowded with plastics washed up in the altered current, ducks and plovers caught in the tangled knots and strands, toxic algae blooms smothering the inlets.

Mizay fingered the leather pouch on her neck and stared at the clouds gliding across the blueness above. Our people’s land, her mother had said.

Your people, she thought.

“Hey, you okay?” Taslin poked her in the arm. “Gotta keep up the chant, or the man will think you quit.”

“I won’t quit.”

“I know.” Taslin looked at her and lowered her electric green sign. Her thin lips were raisin dark, and a few strands of her blue hair lifted and fell with the wind. Against the mosaic of neon, it looked like a halo of water around her pale skin.

“You wanna take a break? Get a bite, a cold drink, maybe?”

“Yeah,” Mizay said, letting go of the leather pouch. She wasn’t at all hungry. “I do.”

“Cardboard.”

Taslin chewed forcefully, a grimace on her face, and pointed to the water. “They throw the plastic in the lake, and use the cardboard to make pizza.” She tossed the remains of a gnawed-on slice onto her greasy tray. Mizay resisted the urge to pick it up and nibble on it. She was already too aware of her sweat-slick weight leaning against the fiberglass snack table, so different from Taslin’s lithe, dry body.

“You’re quieter than I expected,” said Tas.

Mizay laughed. “You calling me loud?”

“That’s a compliment.”

“From you, yeah. I guess it is. You were shouting pretty good back there.”

“They don’t hear otherwise,” Tas said, sucking sauce off her finger. She sighed. “They don’t hear anyway.”

“It’s still early,” Mizay said, though it wasn’t true. The sun was leaning west; the waves lapped away at the cluttered beach across the main path, licking away sand, trading it for crushed water bottles and faded silicon bracelets. For months, Mizay had felt a sense of things tipping, some shift in the energy of the city. The weather swung wildly, from sulky heat to heaving storms to cool, clouded days. People on the street got enraged at random. Nothing was consistent. Except Taslin.

“It’s late and you know it,” said Tas. “And you know I know you, Mizay Taylor.” She took a sip of soda water and raised her eyebrows, eyes goofy and wide, then looked away again. “Thanks for coming today. It means a lot to me.”

They’d known each other for five years, since Mizay had moved downtown from her childhood home in Ajax. Taslin had been one of four housemates sharing the crowded apartment above the store in Regent Park. They’d hit it off over a shared love of old school hip-hop and monster movies, The Toxic Avenger series and The Host, especially. Tas moved out to live with a doomed boyfriend soon after Mizay arrived, but they’d kept in touch and gotten close over the years. When Mizay’s father died, Tas had been there to guide her through the delirium, the sadness and hatred and guilt and relief; and Mizay had seen Tas burn through dozens of men, and was the person Tas had called on the night the worst of them ran a hunting knife along the curve of her shoulder blade after one too many pills. She’d had Taslin’s blood in her hair and her eyes, as she clutched her friend’s hand in the hospital bed while the nurse put forty stitches in her. Tas had refused any anaesthetic, spent the procedure staring into Mizay’s eyes, saying fuckerfuckerfuckerfucker, over and over again.

Mizay looked out at the lake, the haze gathering on the blue horizon. Without thinking, she reached out her hand and put it on Taslin’s. Right away, she realized how sweaty it was.

Tas let it sit for a second, then drew her hand back and smiled.

“Need to hold hands, lovey? I thought we were being civilly disobedient.” She looked back toward the protest and shook her head. “I’m all for moments, Miz, but I can’t help thinking about why we’re here, you know? These islands. The lake . . .” She shook her head. “Whatever it’s whispering to you right now, Miss Mizay, the assholes at Lennox-Mills can’t hear it, even though it’s screaming it at them. Because of them. We have to make the message louder.” She sat back, hoisting her neon sign with its blunt war cry, LENNOX-FUCKING-KILLS. She looked up at the sky.

“It makes me fucking crazy, you know?”

Mizay smiled, but she felt a bloom of heat in her face. She was an amateur, distracted, and afraid her falseness was showing on her cheek like a mole. She couldn’t commit to causes like Taslin. It was all too slippery, too hard to hold onto.

Tas got up and saluted her.

“Permission to visit the head, captain,” she said. “Be right back. Watch this for me, kay?” She let the sign fall on the table and strutted away. Mizay watched her go, all pumping thighs and chunky leather boots. She felt a tickling in her spine, and thought again about her mother, her father—prayers and smoke, both of them, in different ways. Her father of devout Irish stock. Her mother, Ojibwe, steeped in the brutality of the residential schools.

Our people, Mizay.

With her mother, now, it was always stories from the past. Wordsmoke. Everything was some elliptical tale, relayed in the slow, deep voice that had only slowed and deepened since Mizay’s father died. Wanda Taylor, née Littleshell, had enough stories to last a dozen lifetimes; Mizay called her twice a week to receive them. She was bored by her mother, but loved her.

With her father it was something else. Even now.

Mizay stood up, grabbed Tas’s sign and walked toward the shore, noting clusters of willow and wild strawberry huddling close to the water past the strip of beach. Overhead, gulls curved in the sky, shrieking in hunger or warning. A few sailboats dotted the horizon, far out. Mizay closed her eyes, savoured the kiss of the wind on her face, the smells of seaweed, wet muskrat and dry stone. She imagined herself out in the water, swimming with the current, moving like a torpedo, smashing into the concrete pier and sending the casino toppling to the bottom of the lake. This was her home—this island. This city. She was her people. Her, and Taslin.

“Can you put your filth away, please?”

She opened her eyes, disoriented by the dazzle of the sun on the sand. Swooning, she turned, searching for the source of the sharp, angry voice. She saw a man, white, white sneakers and white socks, red polo shirt and tan shorts, standing beside her, scowling.

“There are kids here, in case you didn’t notice.”

His long, white finger pointed at Taslin’s sign. Behind him, a young boy, maybe six, looked at Mizay with terrified eyes.

“You think you’re making a point? It’s embarrassing.”

“Sorry?” Mizay looked down at Tas’s sign. She took in beauty of it, the bravery, black magic marker scrawled in Taslin’s curly hand on the humming green.

“You should be ashamed of yourself.” She followed the man’s eyes as they traveled up and down her body, lingering over her middle. Mizay sucked in her gut out of instinct, to make herself smaller.

The man turned to go with his son. Mizay looked around for Tas. After a few steps the man glanced back at her, hesitating for a suspended moment before intensifying his scowl.

“Goddamn Indian bitch,” he said, the words pitched like sharp stones.

Not your people.

Mizay wanted to shout, lash out at him. Say fuck you and your people. Fuck you and your world, your plastic and your piers, your terrible manners. Fuck you and your old, stupid ways.

Instead, she stood mute, burning, then folded the sign in her hands and fled, walking quickly away from the man, who had turned around to follow his son along the beach, and had probably already forgotten she existed.

She looked around. The man was right: there were kids everywhere, running, kicking balls, eating ice cream. The protest was only a few hundred metres away, but in leaving its safe space, she and Tas had walked into a different world, a world in which innocent children ran among people who did not welcome her here, and could become them. Natives, Mizay, her father said. Indians, Mizay, her mother said, waggling a status card at her.

Flight instinct flooded her like piping steam, spiked into her belly, made her clench up and hunch and stumble forward, unthinking. She walked, ran, blind, going until she was away from the promenade. The words in her head slapped like a lash: Indian bitch, Indian bitch. It was the normalcy of it, the plainness of the man, that got to her. That, and his son, blond with blue eyes that watched and absorbed. Mizay walked, ran, slithered, seeking damp ground, seeking space.

When she finally stopped, she was on a part of the path overhung with the canopies of tall ash, maple and oak. Greenness surrounded her. The buzzing of the crowds and the faint chanting of the protest were swept over by the wind whushing through high branches, and the rattling of brittle leaves lower down, spackling the path in shadows.

She stood, shaking, huffing breaths, not crying. She was not what her father said, not what her mother said; though she was exactly these, both.

Mizay had no idea how long she’d been standing there when the woman rounded the corner and came toward her, walking with intent. Mizay felt the air pulse, like wind pushed by a great flapping wing. The woman wore a denim jacket and high boots and had hair tied back in a long braid. She wore a satchel on her shoulder and held a smartphone in her right hand.

“You look lost,” she said to Mizay.

Mizay felt a foaming in her belly. She stared at her dark, speckled wrists. She thought of her mother, of the yellowed suds gathering in the stilled bays around the island. She looked up and to her right and saw the high concrete tower spearing above the treetops, marking where the city skyline pushed against the edge of the harbour. She thought about her father, who had also looked so normal, who had been respected and admired among his friends and colleagues.

“No,” Mizay said. “I’m home.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah. I think . . .” Mizay trailed off. Why should she the one to feel shame? She tested it in her mind: he devalued me. Something inside her said she should be used to the slurs, and the thought filled her with rage and despair.

“I’m Cora,” the woman said. Her eyes were deep, black. Mizay thought how they smiled and howled at once.

“Mizay,” said Mizay. The next part like a confession: “Taylor”.

Cora cocked her head and smiled. “That’s an interesting name,” she said. “Do you know what it means?”

Mizay knew what it meant to be Taylor. Then, other times, she didn’t know—couldn’t process being Taylor, because it was part of her, and that in itself was something she couldn’t understand. She’d never liked the first name her mother had chosen, never cared to know what it meant. It was enough, to know it was an Ojibwe word, one of the only concessions her father had ever made to her mother’s ancestry, one he’d always resented.

She shook her head, no.

Cora turned around and surveyed the trees.

“Your mother knows what your name means,” she said. Mizay twitched. Cora walked to the side of the path and rubbed a bit of tufted grass between her fingers. Suddenly Mizay heard the water, lapping, sighing, just past the trees and down the rocky beach to her left. The leaves became more distinct. The sun burnished the clouds a dusky gold. The woman turned and stared right into Mizay’s eyes, which were still puffy and red. “But I think you should ask the grandmothers and grandfathers.”

Mizay blinked. “They don’t talk to me,” she said.

The woman smiled. “They’re just waiting for the right time.” She took a slow step toward Mizay and slid a reed behind her ear, where it tickled like a fuzzy caterpillar. “They don’t judge anyone.”

Mizay swallowed. Her throat was dry. She thought about Tas, about her fiery, mad heart, and her gut wobbled. Tas would be looking for her. Worried. Maybe frantic. How long had she been gone for? She tried to remember what she’d done with Taslin’s sign, and couldn’t. Suddenly she panicked.

“I have to get back,” she said to the woman.

“I think so,” the woman said. “But wait a minute.” Reaching into her satchel, she pulled out a steel water bottle, unscrewed the lid and offered it to Mizay. Mizay reached out and took it. She tipped it back into her mouth, feeling the cool water course down through her body, and handed the bottle back to Cora.

“Thank you,” she said.

“You’re welcome. One more thing.” In a single motion, Cora leaned in and wrapped her arm around Mizay, held out her phone, and snapped a selfie against the backdrop of lush green, the lake peeking through the gaps in the leaves. Mizay saw herself on the tiny rectangular screen, and realized she was trembling.

“Why do you want a picture of me?” she asked.

“Because,” Cora said. “You’re beautiful.” Head down, tapping her phone and humming, she walked back the way she’d come, disappearing around the corner.

Mizay stood, unable to move. She needed to find Taslin . . . but she was afraid. Her hand on Taslin’s hand: she hadn’t even known it was happening . . . even though all she’d wanted, all day, was to take her finger and trace the shape of the octopus down the smooth, scarred blade of Tas’s back.

That man and his child: they were just excuses to run.

The woman had asked Mizay her what her name meant, but Mizay was certain she knew the answer. Ojibwe, Mizay. On instinct, drawn by a current that calmed her breath and gave her lightness, Mizay went after her.

Rounding the path, she came to a clearing, where a stone beach sloped down to a full, wide view of the lake across the curve of the islands’ south shore. Halfway to the tip, a gap funneled inward, the water carving a rill between the clustered trees. In the distance, over on the eastern mainland, the casino was a tiny grey box on the jutting pier, studded with electric lights that blazed in the waning sun, baiting the dusk and the early moon. Cora was gone.

Mizay felt a flexing, an undulance, shoot through her back and down her legs.

Our water.

It breached right in front of her, some thirty metres out. A curving loop of silver, slick and shimmering, muscled and lithe, huge as a subway train, exploding above the polished surface of the lake. Mizay gaped at it, the coils of its snakelike body, its ribbony fin, the feline cast of its head, droplets of foam splashing up as it plunged back into the heaving blue, throwing up plumes of water. As it went under, she felt its presence as a bulging in the sky, a slithering of the sand beneath her feet, a deep rumbling in the wind.

And she knew, in her heart, that what she saw was real. More than that, she knew it was no blasphemy born of pollutants, no scream from the crying lake . . . but a gift, telling how the past would become the future. How destruction and healing would always exist, side by side, in cycles.

She knew that this was the lake returning.

Mizay breathed in, filled with the sun’s warmth, the murmuring sounds of the city and the echoing ripples on the water radiating out from where the eel had surfaced. She heard her mother’s voice. She heard others, too. She would speak with them all, soon.

But first, she would go and find Taslin, and tell her, something new is happening.

Read an interview with J.R. McConvey about “Eel of the Lake”.

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