A Ghost Can Only Take

Justin Howe

It starts with me in a frozen parking lot in Detroit “on vacation”. I’m scanning my phone, looking at my friend’s facebook pictures from his vacation in Thailand. “Here’s me at the beach. Here’s me riding an elephant.” The barrage of social media sunshine gets under my skin. In retaliation I share a picture of a snowdrift at the edge of the iced over lot, its surface crust gray from car exhaust.

“Wish you were here.”

Weeks later back home with my wife in South Korea (the Republic of Korea, or the RoK) the jetlag kicks in and I’m wide awake at 4AM. It’s still January and dark as pitch outside. I bundle up against the cold and take to walking so I can watch the sunrise. I settle on a route alongside the river, a winding sand path between the raised bike trail and the river’s water. I snap a picture with my phone each day, a way to document my passage. No one need notice. No one need care. But I was here. I saw this.

When the jetlag stops I keep the habit, a daily ritual to celebrate the mundane.

It’s a four bridges walk. Bridge one takes you to the steel mill. The mill dominates the city’s skyline, and most mornings looms large in the gray dawn like some architectural nightmare out of a Piranesi etching got it on with a Bladerunner backdrop. A skyline of neon-lit chimney-stacks, spewing smoke and flame at all hours. I often refer to Pohang as lovely Pittsburgh-by-the-sea. I’ve come to love this place.

The mill’s the lifeblood of the city and has been since the sixties. Some point to the mill as the industry that kick-started the RoK’s economy in the decades after the war. You could argue that there’s literal blood in its foundation. Not only from work-related injuries, which allow for a range of prosthetic limb shops in town ranging from the upscale to the downmarket, but also the fact that part of the mill’s seed money came from grants funded by the USA, payment for Korean troops used during the Vietnam War.

A bit more history with a caveat: everything I’m about to tell you comes from hearsay and Wikipedia.

An old map shows Pohang as all marshlands and islands at the mouth of the Hyeongsang River. During the Silla Dynasty, the ancient Korean kingdom that traded with Persia and Rome, Pohang’s the port for the Silla capital down the road in Gyeongju. But when Silla fell, the centers of power drifted west and north, and the city declined into neglect.

Old pictures from the end of the 19th century show a decrepit fishing village with a convent hospital where the steel mill would eventually be built. Then during the Japanese occupation the town staggered into the 20th century. Whether it did so collaborating or dragging forward a powder keg of resentment remains a hotly contested subject to this day.

Late in the 1950s, during the Korean War, the frontline wove its way through the city. One high school in town still commemorates the battle fought on school grounds. Another battle fought just outside the city involved child soldiers. Their slaughter will go on to generate a ghost story that persists to this day.

Stone markers near the river show the limits of the Busan Perimeter and the Walker Line. Often when I cross the park I’ll wonder whether I’m walking atop a mass grave.

After the war the city is rebuilt, and the steel mill gets founded. Pohang becomes a hub for conservatism and gains a reputation as a gangster town. In the 1980s, a decade of social unrest in the RoK as the democracy movement emerges, a lot of the forces used to quell the movement came from this region. More unpleasant history no one wants to talk about. Just like no one ever discusses the prospect of another shooting war with North Korea, despite the fact that the industrial infrastructure and nearby munitions plants (that play “Give Peace a Chance” during their lunch breaks) mean the town’s definitely a target. But so’s everywhere else in the RoK. You learn to deal with that, whether by exercise, substance abuse, religion, or screaming your anxieties into a hole in a bridge pylon like I do.

It’s possible to find odd pockets of nature on the mill’s margins. Wetlands running along the verges, cherry trees blossoming in the gaps between railroad tracks and factories, tucked-away gardens, and even a farm or two surrounded by rice fields.

Now as the 21st century dawns, the city’s attempting to rebrand itself as an eco-friendly tech center. One with a giant, fire-and-smoke-spewing factory sitting across the river. The bike trails are nice, the countryside beautiful. Sorry about all that thyroid cancer.

As strange as it is encountering the city’s human history, it’s stranger still when I insert myself into nature’s pre-existing cycle. I have to shake off the prejudice that my first encounter with the river was with its correct state, that since I began paying attention in the winter, winter is the river’s correct state, all other seasons intruders. That requires some metacognition, some acceptance, some convincing.

As I go out more and more and see the landscape change I start getting caught up in its patterns of growth and decay, winter’s barrenness giving way to green vibrancy. Ducks sass about. Pigeons browse the dirt. And the cranes think murderous thoughts in their needle-slender heads. Crabs, lizards, snakes, and rats all make their appearances along with snails, mantises, and crickets as long as my index finger. I’m no naturalist. No truffle-grubbing mushroom hunter who approaches a hike in the woods like a trip to an outdoor buffet. (Don’t get me wrong, some of my dearest friends are truffle-grubbing mushroom hunters.) Early on I’ll think about downloading an app to identify flowers and plants. But if you wait long enough such urges pass. At first I referred to most every flower I saw by color.

“The yellows looked really nice today.”

Fun fact though: your average South Korean child knows the names of the trees and flowers local to them better than their USAian counterparts. After walking the river’s path for over a year now and posting my pictures, I’ll be taught what flowers I’m seeing. Cosmos. Morning glories. Roses of Sharon.

Bridges two and three are right beside each other and mark my walk’s halfway point. One’s a traffic bridge, the other for trains. Just beyond them are two small islands covered in tall grass and home to ducks and cranes for much of the year. This part of the walk gets lonesome and empty. Beyond the bridges the grass grows tall year round. It’s always whispering at you. The support pillars of the train bridge have washed-down vegetation strewn all across their platforms.

I’ve come to start thinking of these as the Suicide Bridges. There are ghosts here.

More hearsay, less the Wikipedia kind, and more what gets passed around the table in the “exotic” foreigner bar late in October. The story goes like this:

Back in September 2016 a woman abandoned by her husband walked with her two kids here to the traffic bridge and jumped. She survived. Her children didn’t. Later an incoming English teacher will get shown an empty apartment for rent, and by a series of strange happenings, flickering lights, strange smells, learn it belonged to that family.

When I heard this story I asked my wife whether we should light a candle under the bridge, you know, for the souls of those two kids. She vehemently forbade me from doing so, because as she put it, “ghosts can’t give, they can only take”.

Those two small islands past the bridge where the cranes and ducks make their nests: I’ve come to associate them with the dead kids.

Despite the ghosts this bit is my favorite. By now the factory rumble has dimmed, and there’s less traffic here because it’s away from any neighborhood. It’s the part where all the elements converge: the wind across the tall grass, the fires above the mill, the water flowing past, and the earth beneath my feet.

Predawn, it’s an obvious spot for ghosts to gather. The quiet here is tangible. And quiet is key to a decent morning walk. At this hour I am distinctly preverbal. At best I can muster a Blutoesque subvocalized monologue. Nothing ruins an early morning walk like a chatty companion. People should be trained to silence themselves at the sight of an arched eyebrow. I’ve largely chosen this whole route because I can walk it without seeing another soul much of the way.

The English language needs a word like shortcut, but instead of it being for the route that saves you the most time, this word would be applied to the route that avoids the most people.

And the people I do see walking at 6AM?

We just nod at each other, conspiratorial.

Late in the year, the chest-high grass will make screens around the walking path. Old men and women (mostly women) will veer off the path to harvest the grass-stalks for some purpose I can’t fathom. They’ll be a common sight, covered head to toe in veiled pastel bonnets and tracksuits. They’ll bound up the embankment and browse amid the tall grass, plucking herbs and leafy greens. On the opposite side of the embankment, they’ll have dug gardens on the edges of parking lots.

All those plants I see old men and women harvesting: I have no clue what those are. Mugwort? Hemlock? Marijuana? Could be anything.

I’ve begun to suspect a low-grade feud between the city and these elderly harvesters. A day or two after seeing them amid the grass stalks, a work crew will appear to mow it all down, only to have it all sprout up again next year, a civic-minded cycle.

The best time of year to walk is between October and March. That’s when the least people are out and that asshole the sun is still beneath the horizon at 7AM. Holidays are a different matter. I like the holidays that get people outdoors to pay homage to either celestial orb.

The morning of the solar New Year, the embankment will be crowded with people greeting the year’s first sunrise. Two months later they’ll be back again to greet the first full moon after the Lunar New Year. On rare occasions I’ll spy some mudang shaman conducting a ritual. They’ll be chanting over a fruit-laden altar or waving around bundles of dried herbs near the river’s edge, beating a drum or clashing cymbals. It’ll be done from the back of a truck or beside the open boot of a car, covert and secret.

What cycle are they tied into?

Bridge four is my turning point. It separates some parkland attached to the sewage treatment plant and a new high-story apartment complex. Further upriver the wildflowers grow thick and the river wends its way between hills. On the opposite banks of the river are small neighborhoods far-removed from any development, each of them technically part of the city but resembling country villages.

My current job has me working up here, teaching English to corporate executives. One day we’ll get into a long conversation about mountains and rivers. One of the executives will say living near rivers is dangerous. I’ll dig, trying to get him to speak more but also wanting to get at what he’s saying.

Is he talking about the risk of flooding?

No, he’s referencing some superstition about how rivers affect your mind. He mentions recent suicides in the nearby apartment complex. I think of other superstitions, all those ghosts and supernatural beings that crop up where civilization meets water.

At some point over the past year I’ll be in another town. My wife will tell me it’s where courtiers used to change their horses when riding to the capital. As part of my daily routine walking to and from work I’ll take a picture of a tree. Post that online. #Oldtree. Amateur phonecam photographer run amok, trolling the extraordinary with the mundane. Back in Pohang people will tell me how they started to care about that tree. They’ll admit to the intensest feelings for it. But the tree’s not special. Or it is, but so is everything else if you take the time to look at it.

The trail continues on, but most days I don’t. I head back, the sun up by now and directly ahead of me behind the factory, the sky hinting at the weather to come. The wind picks up, making the grass whisper around me. I know I’m going in reverse, but really it’s only a change in perspective.

All told my walk’s only about 5 kilometers give or take.

 

Facebooktwittertumblrmail

To the Place of Skulls

Innocent Ilo

What do you take to the Place of Skulls?

Your head, brewing with the thirst for adventure. Your empty stomach to remind you when to come back home for lunch. Your spindly legs, dragging your chapped feet.

Who will you meet on the road to the Place of Skulls?

We don’t know. But we know if we see any simé-simé person; those ugly ones with a big mound of nose sitting between their eyes and mouth, we will hurl stones at them.

What will you do at the Place of Skulls?

We don’t know, let’s get there first.

What will keep you safe on your journey?

Our laughter. Our face smeared with innocence. Our heart bristling with vigor.

We are going to the Place of Skulls; Saro-Wiwa, Babbe, Gokana, Ken, Nyo, Ueme, Tai and myself. For you to know, this is not the place Bro Lucas said Jesus was crucified when he was spitting into my face from the broken lectern during his sermon, last Sunday. The Place of Skulls is where a stark reality stares us in the face. We all have after-school exhaustion, Babbe’s diarrhea has worsened, Gokana is still nursing the burns on his legs from our last visit and Mama will yank at my ears if she hears fim about it, but we must go. The Place of Skull is that important.

The ground under our feet grumbles, like it’s annoyed we are threading on it, as we run down the crudeoil-soiled paths of Oloibiri. We stop running only when we get to Exxon Bridge because the bridge is rickety and too narrow for us to run across at the same time. Nobody wants to slip and fall into dark mass left of River Brass. I cross the bridge first, my arms spread wide, like petals in the sun, for balance. My friends follow, carefully, not to tread too heavily on the broken planks. I look into River Brass when I get to the other side of Exxon Bridge and it seems my Basic Science textbook just flung open to the page on immiscibility:

“In a mixture of two immiscible liquids (e.g. oil and water), the less dense liquid (oil) floats over the denser liquid (water).”

The water is black-black with heavy punctuations of lobster and fish carcasses. Poor things, they must have struggled to the surface for fresh air and then drank death. Mama warned me never to dream of eating anything from River Brass. We only gather the carcasses to fuel the cooking fire. The crudeoil-saturated lining of the fish’s intestines made the carcasses burn brighter than wood.

“It’s like burning food to make food!” Mama calls it with mock laughter on her pursed lips.

It is mid afternoon by the time we get to the broken fence of Ompadec College where we go to school. From the road, we can see the emptiness of the classrooms gaping through the broken louvers. The desks they brought two years ago only stayed long enough for the Government Inspector to take pictures of us sitting at them for their campaign poster. The desks had disappeared when we got to school the next morning. Tai hurls a stone at a rascal peeing on the wall of headteacher’s office. The little boy sticks out his tongue and scuttles off. Tai picks another stone and aims carefully. This time the stone strikes the poor boy’s head.

“Your mother’s toto!” the rascal yells. He pulls down his flimsy shorts and splays his buttocks. “Your father eats my black ass.” His voice soon fades when he corners onto the road leading to Exxon Bridge.

“Haha, your mother has no toto!” Tai calls after the boy.

We cackle up with laughter and continue our journey to the Place of Skulls.

Our next stop is Nddc Hospital. A wide stretch of muddiness separates the hospital from Ompadec College. Mama said I was born there. That was long before the expatriate doctors and nurses and midwives and all those people who wear smart clothes sewn with calico white fled Oloibiri during the kidnapping spree. The once gleaming white wall of the hospital is now coated with creepers and mistletoes and vines and nasty weed. But we love the hospital. Maybe because the traps we set there catch meaty rodents. Today, only Ueme’s trap caught something—a humongous squirrel. I pick up a wooden club and put our prey out of its misery. We shove our catch into Babbe’s old school bag and vamoose from the hospital.

Just when we are about to hit the road again, Nyo notices that Saro-Wiwa is not with us. Gokana says that we must have lost him at Exxon Bridge. Ken, Nyo and Ueme nod in agreement. This is why we never like going out with Saro-Wiwa, he keeps scribbling on his notepad, slowing the party down.

“Where did he wander off this time?” Babbe groans.

“Maybe to the sky,” Ueme scoffs.

“One day, he is going to get lost in books!” Nyo intones with biting sarcasm.

We laugh even as our eyes dart round the bush looking for any sign of Saro-Wiwa. Babbe whistles. Nyo screams his name. Ueme suggests we continue our journey without him but we don’t listen to him. He is not the strongest among us and so cannot dictate what we should or shouldn’t do.

“Eureka!” Saro-Wiwa’s voice came calling from the bush. “I just finished this piece of fine poem. It has been in my head for a month.” He waves his notepad above his head. “See, let’s read it together!”

We cluster around Saro-Wiwa and read aloud:

They came with new voices,

They said the former was old,

They came with so many tales,

About wealth and brewing gold.

Our faces remain blank when we are done reading. This makes Saro-Wiwa’s glowing eyes dim, he wanted the poem to liven up our faces. It is such a shame we don’t seem to get Saro-Wiwa, the chap behaves like someone living in another universe. I, for one, cannot understand why he would spend so much time coming up with that poem. A month. It took a month for the medicine man to remove the bullet in Aunty Esuene’s calf. And when they brought it out, it was a shiny silver thing unlike Saro’s poem, which is neither shiny nor silver. Nyo wrinkles his nose and yawns, Ueme and Babe exchange knowing glances, Gokana and I try to suppress our laughter. Only Tai pats Saro-Wiwa on the shoulder and says: “I might not understand all of it but I think I know who they are.” Saro-Wiwa’s face brightens. I wish I was the one who said those words.

Opec Estate throws its gates open as we approach. The two soldiers at the gates are snoring away the little life that is left of the afternoon. We tiptoe pass them, holding our breath. If we wake the soldiers up, they will fling us as far as their bulky hands can. The estate has the kind of serenity even heaven could die for. Willowy trees line up the pavement of the tarred roads, intricately patterned terracotta fences guard the huge white mansions and fat, ugly dogs bark all day on the well-tended lawns. This is where the oil workers and their families live. They are mostly purple-haired, red-nosed and they all have an enduring nasal accent.

Tai says he is going to live in the estate, with his Indian wife and biracial children, when he becomes an engineer. Gokana mocks him and mumbles: “Before then, you must have inhaled enough air in Oloibiri to give you lung cancer.” Tai hears this and makes for Gokana’s jaw. The blow misses Gokana by hairsbreadth and lands squarely on Saro-Wiwa’s jaw. Saro-Wiwa holds his jaw. He says nothing because he thinks, in his small head, this is the price to pay for peace to reign.

We continue our march.

“I know the fastest route,” Saro-Wiwa announces out of the blue when we are at the middle of Opec Estate. This is the first time he is offering to lead the way. We are not quite sure of his claim but we still follow him. Maybe this will make him forget Tai’s blow.

Our feet tingle in the sensation of walking on the marbles of Nnpc Street. The little children playing catch on the balconies of those white mansions point our direction like we are dirt, like we are not wanted here. We ignore them, this journey is more important than spoilt-faced children’s melodrama. We continue. This time we waltz through the cobblestones of Chevron County. With the same slippery ease, we saunter down the glassiness of Mobil Lane until we get to the golden streetlights of Shell Close. We dust our feet and make our exit out of Opec Estate.

The world wears a different shade outside Opec Estate. The air here is different, it’s not even air at all. We can see the many amorphous flakes of carbon sailing through space and collecting at our nostrils. The earth under our feet is hot like we are walking on plugged-in hotplates. Our eyes begin to itch. We rub them to a reddened soreness. The Place of Skulls must be very close because my skin is on fire. It is melting on my scrawny bones and I can almost hear its drip drip doing tyang tyang on the boiling earth. I reek with burning death. Confidence loosens its hold on me. I want to run back home and play jara with Dokubo, but we have come too long a way for us to go back.

Now, we are running fast to ease the baking heat of the sun on our naked soles. A thick smog envelops the horizon, darkening our path. Saro-Wiwa is still in front, eating up the hills like a plate of moin-moin. We round up another bend, shooting straight into Pipeline Alley where the crudeoil is pumped out from our veins. We feast our eyes on the web of leaking metal pipes. Plink. Plink. The black liquid deepens into the ground. We don’t linger for too long at Pipeline Alley so we will not end up like Uncle Biriye. They shot him here last Easter. They said he was trying to cut the pipe open and steal liquid gold.

Our hearts start beating in ferocious rhythms, stop and then continue to beat when we enter OBJ:1999 Express. The road is still covered with blood and corpses, lying in mildly contorted poses. The sky here is also dripping red with blood—blood of the townspeople who marched to Abuja demanding a clean and unpolluted environment. They said men in rickety trucks, wearing forest-green uniforms, rained their bazookas on them. Mama told me that was the day Papa was shot dead. Sometimes I imagine Papa; all trimmed and fine-faced, dying with chants of “Give us clean water! We need clean air!” on his lips.

“Look out, on the tree over there!” Nyo points at an eerie-looking tree on the other side of the road.

We stop dead in our tracks. I whimper and hide behind Babbe. Horror stares into our faces when we look up to the tree. Seven men are hanging on the tallest branch, their lifeless bodies swaying to the tune of the wind and buzzing flies. At the foot of the tree, a signpost reads: “The Ogoni Seven: May We Know Them. May We Be Like Them. May They Live On.”

“They share the same names with us!” Ueme shouts with fingers darted at the name-tags nailed to the heads of the dead men.

“Isaac,” Babbe turns towards me. “They don’t have your name, why?”

I look away, not answering the question, sulking that none of the men hanging on the tree bore my name. I shrug my shoulders because somehow I don’t feel left out of the fight. I was named after Isaac Adaka-Boro; the big-big man who started the struggle. I came before the men hanging on the tree. This is what Mama told me but I will not as much as dare to tell my friends, they will laugh my bones to powder.

Fresh energy is filling up my lungs, so much that my feet spring up and start running on their own. My friends join me, begging me to slow down. I don’t know how to slow down because in my mind, I am the wind. I want to be the first to reach the Place of Skulls.

At last, we are at the Place of Skulls. It is in Gelegele, just a stone’s throw to Kolo Creek. A tall-tall fence surrounds the Place of Skulls the way a set of teeth guides the tongue. This is where Phat Oil pumps bright yellow gas into the clouds. Puff. Puff. We sit on the dry mud and watch the long pipes deface the clouds with the yellow gas. Here, the sky is not the sky at all, it is like a slush pile of cotton wool soaked in tar. The fire in the Place of Bones is burning like the hell Bro Lucas talks about during Friday Bible Study. Still, Bro Lucas is not too right, people don’t have to die to go to hell, they just need a trip to Gelegele.

“The tanks over there look like silos,” Tai says. His eyes are gesturing towards the huge metal tanks peeping out at the edge of the fence.

“Taaa! Silos store grains of food,” Babbe refutes Tai’s claim. “This one only has death inside it.”

“How do those oil workers survive working inside there?” I ask, torn between awe and confusion.

“They must have huge AC’s to filter and cool the air,” Saro-Wiwa suggests.

“Do you know that as the gas flares, it bores a hole in the sky?” Babbe chips in.

“That is what Miss Makinde, the science teacher, calls ozone depletion,” Nyo adds as he brushes a fly off his knee.

“I want to stitch the hole in the sky with the words of my writing,” Saro-Wiwa drawls dreamily.

“I don’t think words are just enough,” I clear my throat. “The hole needs to be rebuilt. When I become an architect, I will design the plan.”

“No,” Tai proudly disagrees. “I will be the engineer to build efficient and less-polluting machines.”

“Don’t forget that I am the doctor that will cure your cancer,” Gokana guffaws, dampening the proud smile on Tai’s face.

“I will be the teacher that would enlighten the young minds on the Green Economy,” Ueme adds with so much enthusiasm.

“Don’t you all forget the Human Rights Lawyer who will fight for our cause,” Nyo quips in a matter-of-fact tone.

We all turn to Ken. He does not talk much ever since an oil well exploded near his home. He says he still hears deafening explosions. He looks up now and nods his head; a way of telling us that he would also like to stitch the hole in the sky.

The swallows are coming back home so we know it is also time for us to go. We stand up, dust our clothes and hit the road before the security men start hurling their mean batons at us. They broke Ueme’s nose last week, when we wasted time leaving. All the way back, we are laughing, we are chuckling, we are mimicking the whistling of burning flames and we are nursing dreams of stitching up the sky.

It is almost twilight when we arrive at Oloibiri. The bleating goats are just settling in their pens. We huddle up in Mama Babbe’s kitchen to grill the squirrel Ueme’s trap caught. We light the fire and place the meat on a rusty wire mesh. Babbe brings palm oil sauce for eating the meat. We keep our voices low as we eat. We don’t want to share our food with the girls playing suwe in the next yard.

After the meal, we run off to the latrine at end of New River. We all enter at once, surrounding the pit with our dried-out buttocks. We start off at the same time, the little lumps of our shit going thaump thaump as they sink into the river. Sometimes we brag about whose shit sounds the loudest or smells the foulest. Gokana always wins. Gokana always wins things like that. We head to the other end of New River to drink to our fill. Because we are very thirsty, we don’t seem notice that the water tastes of so many things apart from water.

Soon, darkness starts to call on us in jet-black voices.

I relish the splendour of nights when the moon is in full glistening, the stars in steady twinkle and crickets chirping away the velvety darkness. I lie on my straw mattress, counting time, waiting patiently for Mama’s bedtime stories. Her stories are always unpredictable. Today it’s about Edumare and Chuku battling over the universe, tomorrow it’s about the great tribal wars between Benin and Bonny. This night, Mama’s story is about the rains; endless streams of crystal-clear watery pellets that fall from the sky. She calls it Edumare’s tears. The fields suck it up and ripen into a bountiful harvest. The children play in it for good health. Ma tells this story in a sing-song, like a dirge of the caged bird, with tears tumbling down her cheeks. She talks about how they always prayed for the rains to come.

Me? I don’t want the rains to come in Oloibiri. What’s the use of the misery? It’s like plague falling from the sky. Miss Makinde said it’s acid rain. If the rains come, it will rust the new zinc Mama put up last week. The rains will flood the leaking oilfields and wash into our farms and New River. We never play in the rains because it causes skin yama-yama. Once, we made fun of Saro-Wiwa that he was going to die because the rain beat him on his way home from school. “The acid will eat deep into your stomach!” We taunted at him in ghostly shrills.

Something unusual happens tonight. I dream of myself, Saro-Wiwa, Babbe, Ken, Nyo, Ueme, Gokana and Tai, stitching up the sky in our own way. For the first time in forever, I also dream of the type of rain in Mama’s story—clear, fresh and invigorating rain. It is cascading down the hills of Gelegele, quenching the flaring gases, it is washing the bloodied paths of OBJ:1999 Express, it overflows the banks of River Brass and spurs the fish and lobsters to life, it purges the crudeoil-soiled farmlands and the cornfields sizzle with the greenness of life. I smile in my sleep and tuck my dream under the pillow where nobody can steal it.

 
 

Facebooktwittertumblrmail

Rumplestiltskin

Jane Elliott

Once upon a time,” I tell my son, “a foolish peasant boasted of a daughter who could spin straw to gold.”

My child starves. Day after day, his eyes grow larger than his shriveling stomach.

“Drink water,” I say when I leave him. “But not too much. I don’t know when we’ll have more.”

He barely nods. Almost, I think he will speak. In the darkness of our half-collapsed basement, his lips curl around something like a question.

“I’ll bring food today. I promise.”

Tucked in insulation, he reminds me of his infant self or of Jesus bedded in a manger of hay. We do not have hay.

“I promise,” I say again and leave him, perhaps, to die.

Our streets were not bombed. We did not flood or fall sick. The black horse, Famine, brought with it the most essential of wars. We fought daily battles with pitchforks and butcher knives. When our grocer was gutted and left at the intersection, it did not matter that the larger world also collapsed. As grand as we built civilization, its death was painted in the blood of 6 billion small tragedies. So it has always gone.

I stick to shadows. I hide in tattered clothes. As a boy, I stood outside this bakery window counting eclairs. When I felt the end nearing, I brought my own child here. Despite everything, we still believed in retreat. We thought we’d saved pockets of pastoral peace.

Other shadows slip from ruin to wreckage. We keep our eyes fixed on nothing. There aren’t many left who remember my name. Silence sounds my survival. Unknown, I believe I am safe.

Last night I fed my son boiled leather. I told him a story while he gnawed the pockets of an empty wallet.

“Once upon a time, a foolish peasant boasted of a daughter who could spin straw to gold. But the girl could not spin straw to gold. Her father had lied for vanity, so when the prince demanded the girl fill a straw room with wealth, she had to ask help of the devil.”

My son asks endless questions. “What’s vanity? Who is the devil?”

“The girl didn’t know who the devil was.”

“Then why would she ask for his help?”

“Just wait and see.”

The sun seems closer than ever. I find a white cloth and drape it across my blistered scalp. If we could plant seed, it would only bake in dry dirt. If we found enough water to feed it, we’d be slaughtered for the wealth. Some days, I truly believe that sterile seeds plays only a bit role in the larger drama.

Two weeks ago, I found the corner of a burlap sack in an empty yard. I dug with my bare hands. I dug too fast through hard earth. My nails split pulling the cornmeal from its grave.

We broke our windows ages ago. We hid what we had and hunted for more. Now, when we see each other slip over shattered glass and under broken eaves, we keep our eyes fixed on nothing. We have nothing left. We don’t know where to look. I think I see a rat and dive to the ground. I skin my chin on pavement. I grope in the dark under a rusting car. It bites my hand between thumb and first finger before I can snap its neck.

Once upon a time, people spoke of food deserts. We laughed, we architects of this great civilization, when we listened. Those deserts were full of food—our food. Once upon a time, children grew lettuce on rooftops and tried to fight us with planter boxes. They wore rough wool knits and used straw as mulch, animal bedding, thatching, fuel. We built them sparkling cities, but these children wanted to play at the hard lives of peasants. Until we took away their seeds.

I close my eyes and imagine the taste of green. The acid of phantom leaves stings my arid lips.

“Please, I just want some rice.” I’ve been mumbling for days, maybe months. “Please. Please. Please.”

Once upon a time, this corner was a market piled with satsumas, pineapple and persimmons in the fall. I took my son here Saturdays for fresh-baked pierogies. He cannot explain, now, how it felt to bite boiled pastry. Sometimes, he asks for the story of our lunches.

“What is dough?” he asks. “What does it sound like to chew on duck fat?”

“Please. Please. Rice. Please. Please.”

Last night I told my son stories. “‘I will turn your straw to gold,’ said the devil. ‘And in return I’ll have your firstborn son.’ But the girl did not want to give the devil her son, so the devil made a bargain. ‘You can keep your boy,’ he said, ‘if you can guess my name.”

“His name?” my son asked. “What does his name matter?”

“Rice,” I say. “Corn, wheat, rice. Please.”

The man under the counter laughs at me. He does not know my name, so I do not mind laughter. I do not mind the black mold that eats drywall. I do not wrinkle my nose at the smell of rot. The world is rot. We’ve gotten too hungry to be human.

“Rice,” he says. “Rice. Please. Rice.”

He’s a fool, babbling and thinner than me. Was I just so? I consider, for a moment, that he’s not there. That I only see myself in some fragment of glass. I haven’t had grain for weeks. Whoever he is, I will leave him to die. I spit at his feet, not because I hate, but because my hands bleed and my boy starves.

“Rice,” he squeals, and in his lunacy, he pulls a small bag from his pocket. “Rice.”

I know this strain. I recognize the length and color of the grain as I recognize my own hands. We fed it to starving countries before our own fell to pieces. A child could survive on half a cup a day. My eye, still discerning, calculates the neutered life in his bag.

“What do you want?”

“Rice?” He holds the bag to the street and giggles.

“What do you want?”

“Rice? Please? Rice?”

Someone could come. I cannot wait for the shadows to separate, for other hungry eyes to see. He was days from death anyhow, if not hours. Like the rat, he bit my hands.

Last night I told my son stories.

“Once upon a time, a man spun straw to gold. He spun and spun until he had rooms made of gold. Whole cities, even. But the man was a fool, for soon he had nothing but gold and nowhere to lay his son.”

“I thought the devil spun gold,” said my boy.

“The old tales get mixed up sometimes,” I explained. “I know it sounds strange, but sometimes one person can be the prince, and the girl, and the devil.”

“What’s the devil?”

“It’s hard to explain something that’s all around us. The devil is friends who murder each other for food. The devil is thirst with no water. The devil is starving children. The devil is a world of seeds with no life. Grain we can eat but can’t grow.”

“I’m hungry,” he told me.

“Once upon a time, you didn’t even know those words.”

I tuck the rice deep in my rags. With my head down, I hurry toward home. I feel the shadow rise before I see it. It’s hard to know who’s watching in a world full of ghosts. The edge of a blade presses my throat. I cannot swallow. My son is hungry. We ate boiled leather for dinner. A hand gropes against my ribs and draws our life away. Perhaps I should be grateful he wanted only the rice. Perhaps I should be grateful he did not guess my name. I am not. I fall to the pavement and weep.

What good is gold? That’s the joke we forgot. The daughter spins straw to shining ore. Her father beats her and screams, “What have you done with my straw, you little fool? Where will we bed the animals? What will we use to cover the fields and heat our home in the winter?”

Once upon a time, I spun wealth from seeds. My beautiful wife glittered with rare metal and stones. In good time, she bore me a child.

“He’s the most precious thing I’ve ever seen,” she whispered.

My son blinked at me with eyes like oil wells.

“We’ll name him after his father.”

I would not have told you so then, but I knew this future. I knew what I twisted through my fingers. In return for all my wealth, I’d made a deal. I took fertile seed from the land. I brought it to workshops where clever fingers spun its twining strands anew. We took its life in return for gold.

At night, I tell my son stories. “When I was your age, blood was never messy. It was written in numbers, either black or red. A long time ago, we had so much food we turned it to soap and diapers and ketchup. We had so much food we threw it away.”

“What’s ketchup?” I imagine he asks me. But he does not. He does not speak or move or heave a breath.

In the corner of our basement, I keep a locked box filled with stone. While my son lies stiff, I twist cold ore with bleeding fingers, wishing it would turn back to grain.

“Guess my name,” I whisper to the silence. “Please, guess my name.”

 
 

Facebooktwittertumblrmail

Earthspun

Krista Hoeppner Leahy

A curvy-topsy tornado funneled up, not down

uprooting the sky-trees from the cumulus-sea-above

 

dumping them on the ground where they are all

dying from lack of clouds and too much media attention.

 

Greenpeace has converted several transport slings

designed for beached whales but the sky-trees keep

 

falling through the canvas no matter how much

water the volunteers eye-drop onto gravity-bitten bark.

 

Several have melted completely into the ground

leaving behind no trace but an ineffable sense of loss

 

nearby if you’re walking barefoot, with or without an Iphone.

Some, arboreally brave, linger even as they disintegrate—

 

branches split, leaves torn, roots weeping past reflection

puddles that do not splash as more volunteers march toward

 

the storm, unaware of limbs and leaves permanently earthed.

The worms try to help. Sniff a cirrus frond, they urge, lick a bog

 

of too-blue sap, finger cerulean bark. Breathe thru your cloaca.

There is no app to map a sky-fallen forest. Choose: Empty

 

urns into sky-plashets or self-immolate. What? Ashes cry

the worms, water them with ashes so their sap may rise, fly.

 

All of us belong to the sky.

 

Facebooktwittertumblrmail

Disintigreetings

Pepe Rojo

 

 

 

I am a writing machine. Scratch that. My memory’s not keeping up with me. Let’s start over. I am a counting machine. I count the days, I count the numbers. I count the money, and I’ve even counted the  years.  You  gain  some  you  lose  some. Dollars, I mean. Money too. Typing counting machine. One, two three, A, b, c. I type what I count. I count what I type. I type on my count. I count on my type. Can you count on yours?  P l e a s e , p l e a s e , p l e a s e   c o u n t   o n   m e . T y p e   a n d   c o u n t   o  n    m  e   .   P  l  e  a  s  e    t  y  p  e    p  l  e  a  s  e    c  o  u  n  t    p  l  e  a  s  e    t  y  p  e    p  l  e  a  s  e      p    l    e    a    s    e      t    y    p    e        p      l      e      a      s      e        p      l      e      a      s      e

 

 

 

weregrettoinformyouwehavegivenuponwalkingasyouknowwehavebeendoingitforquitesometimebutnowwereallydon’tneednorwanttowalkanymorecausewalkingisforbodiesandwehavenowmovedbeyondourselvesbeyondourbodiesandwecancommunicatewiththebirdscommunicatewiththeaircommunicatewiththesunandwecantravelcauseweareleavingourbodiesbehindtothefartheststartothetiniestquarkwearenotthereanymoreyouseewesimplyarenotthereanymorenomorewaitinginlinenomoreliesnowjustaliensintimealiensinmind

 

 

Hello,

Don’t mind if we stare. It’s perfectly understandable. We like to look. Don’t worry. We won’t skin you. We won’t flail you. We know you’re curious. And we like to look. Why don’t you come closer. Maybe you want to touch us. It’s perfectly allright. We love visitors. Come and join us. We’ll take care of you. Just join us. Don’t be shy. That’s it. You know you want to. Come closer. Closer. Even closer. That’s it. You know you like to look, you know you want to feel. Closer. Now. Just touch us. With the tip of your fingers. That’s it. That’s better. Now stay. Here. Stay. Yes. Yes.

 

 

Yes.

 

Hello,

You sick fuck. You fuck sick. Dick my suck. You brick. You pitch. Duck my sick. You suck. You fuck. You frick. You sick suck. Sick sick fuck.

Wait.

am  i  mad?  i  am  mad.  i  am  mad.  i  am  dam.  i  am mad mad am i i am mad am mad am mad am i am a dam am i a mad mad am mad am i mad am i madamadammadam am   i   mad   dam   madam   am   i   mad   mad dammm   damm   damm   damm   damm   damm   damm damm    damm    add    mad    madaddamaddamaddam dam    mad    madmadmadammadmadmadammadam    i

 

 

 

 

 

 

All photos were shot at different so-called visionary environments, usually built over a long period of time by untrained and unschooled artists. Part landscape artists, part architects, they usually decorate and modify their dwelling spaces without a definite plan and scavenge their materials from their surroundings, giving them a second life as part of their architectural inventions. Their work usually involves deeply personal visions and religious-aesthetic experiences, problems with neighbors and near family, and usually ends with their death.

They are unofficial cathedrals of our strange times.

 

Photos 1 and 4 were taken at Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens, Pennville, Georgia, 2010.

Reverend Howard Finster worked for almost 40 years (1965-2001) in his Paradise Gardens, focusing mainly on religious outreach. His production, besides the Garden, was enormous (more than 10,000 drawings). I visited Paradise Gardens almost a decade after his passing, and as it usually happens with these kind of places, when the artist’s death keeps them from working on the place, his environment was being over-run by (or maybe returned to) Nature.

 

Photo 2 taken at Vince Hanneman ‘s Cathedral of Junk, Austin, Texas, 2012.

Vince Hanneman has been building his cathedral out of 60 tons of junk on his back garden since 1988, mainly because it was fun. He had to tear down his 200-TV pyramid due to building inspectors’ recommendations, but he turned it into a “zen garden of TVs”.

 

Photo 3 taken at Haw Par Villa, Singapore, 2012.

Built in 1937 by the Burma-born Aw brothers, creators of the medical ointment Tiger Balm, Haw Par Villa is a mythological theme park containing more than a thousand sculptures, drawing from both the Buddhist and the Chinese tradition. The main attraction is the gruesome “10 Courts of Hell”. This photo was taken right at the entrance of the ten courts.

 

Photo 5 taken at José Gómez Hernández’s La Casa de los Monos, 2016.

Pepe Gómez spent more than ten years pasting and hanging discarded toys on his house after his wife died, and became a local legend. He even says that some of the toys used to speak and make noises. He left the house in 2012, but the ruins remain. Time and minor fires have made them even more uncanny in sadder ways.

 

 

Facebooktwittertumblrmail

D.A. Xiaolin Spires Interview: “A Wispy Chastening”

Read “A Wispy Chastening” in Reckoning 2.

Michael: The sense of ambiguity in “A Wispy Chastening” evokes, for me, a question about what kind of responsibility we should feel, at a personal level, for huge, human-caused environmental problems. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, global warming, wildlife starving to death with stomachs full of plastic: what do these things have to do with whether I drink coffee out of a disposable cup?

Xiaolin: Thanks, Michael, for asking the tough questions! While plastic and disposable items are still the norm in, say, food courts, hot dog stands and other venues, it’s something that will be hard to avoid. Does that mean if you don’t bring your own cup, you should forgo drinking coffee at a conference or a beer/soda at a baseball game? I’m not so sure I would go as far as that. I will say that exposure and systemic policies might do more in terms of motivating action—the connection between disposable products and the long-range disappearance of seabirds, for example, is something that needs to be brought more clearly into the limelight.

In terms of incentives, I think it certainly helps to feel motivated to bring in that cup of yours because it will cost you 25 cents less. Perhaps money is not the perfect arbiter for moral decisions and action and perhaps should not be, but it certainly does affect consumer behavior. I think it’s the right direction to go in terms of affecting large-scale change. I think decisions such as charging extra for disposable cups or giving a discount for bringing in your own are made on a business level (at restaurants and cafes), but percolates to personal decisions (like bringing your own dishware). But, large-scale change also necessitates awareness and inciting a general urgency to the breadth and depth of the problem.

I’ve also noticed that some instances of corporate marketing involve large amounts of waste, for example, free samples—you see restaurants at food courts or wholesale stores using one plastic fork for one piece of chicken, given to passerby after passerby, to be disposed after that bite of a sample is consumed—or tiny cups filled with negligible amounts of liquid for tasting. There might be better ways to approach sample-giving and advertising. This goes for everyday supermarkets and grand events, as well, for example, wine-tasting as well, especially at major expos involving thousands of visitors and more. I wish I had an easy solution, but I don’t really. I will say that, for example, many temples in Taiwan have free water for anyone visiting and next to the dispenser are these paper cones that fold open for the water to be dispensed in (if you don’t have your own bottle). These foldable paper cones (looking much like the paper that wraps around an ice cream cone) seem a lot less intrusive (more biodegradable, less volume) as waste and more recyclable, so if businesses could move in a direction like that, even as an interim solution, it would be helpful. It’s still waste, but it’s less of it.

Michael: How do you negotiate those kinds of ambiguities, if you feel them in your own life?

Xiaolin: I’m going to focus on the issue of plastic since I’ve been reading a lot about it and I find it particularly insidious to the environment, but so cheap and versatile as to be seductive. It’s hard to avoid using plastic when it’s freely passed around. I do think there needs to be systemic change, such as Indonesia’s investment and development of new industries in disposable materials–for example, cassava and seaweed alternatives. I don’t think anyone should be harangued for using something that is presented to them so freely, but on a personal level, I try as much as I can to bring my own thermos or bottle to events and around town— and reuse any plastic items I’m given. But, really, although I do believe in personal responsibility, I think this change needs to be driven at a much higher level. The development of viable alternatives to, say a ziplock bag, that is just as convenient, would do wonders. I don’t think that’s asking for a miracle, but asking that funding goes towards this kind of research (and people to root, petition and vote for them). Certainly, taxes and investments in alternatives would be laudable ways to approach the crisis. On a personal level, I think it helps to be conscientious, but action at a higher level is key. It doesn’t rule out personal action, but should encourage it. For individuals, this could mean spreading news about the crisis, urging policymakers and other forms of encouragement that might entail wider action.

Michael: What is the role of story in helping us adapt to these huge open-ended problems–if it has a role?

Xiaolin: I think I’m not the first person to really say that stories don’t necessarily need to be parables, have a lesson or be educational. I think it would be too much to make demands on stories. To ask about the role of stories—I wouldn’t make it prescriptive as to say stories need to address this, but I think it is helpful that these kinds of stories focusing on environmental collapse and alternatives are coming out. It may be simply because environmental issues have been pressing on us and some of the most interesting advances in technology are addressing issues like environmental degradation and climate change. Certainly, they have affected my writing and reading—and I’ve written more than a few stories about this (see, for example, “Prasetyo Plastics” published in Clarkesworld Issue 134). The prevalence of stories about climate change and environmental decline and crisis might be a consequence of our times—these are the big issues that form the backdrop and foreground to our lives and there is an urgency that drives the writing and reading.

But, questions of garbage and waste have been issues for quite a long while—see, for example, recycling and reuse in Edo Period Japan as systems of implemented operations addressing these issues. It would be disingenuous to assume it’s simply a contemporary problem (though I would suggest it’s more pressing now with mechanical reproduction, the evanescence built into the intended use of materials, etc.) This focus on environmental issues is not just reflected in speculative fiction in English, but also a theme in stories across the world, for example in “Yuanyuan’s Bubbles” by (刘慈欣) Liu Cixin and “He-y, come on ou-t!” by(星新一) by Shinichi Hoshi.

We all make garbage; it’s a very human question to ask how to deal with it. Hopefully, we will continue towards better and better solutions. I hope that I might find myself one day, sitting outside on a pleasant (hopefully not-climate-change-induced-sweltering) day—watching a sports game or basking on a blanket at an outdoors matsuri—and having to choose between drinking from a disposable biodegradable cup made of bamboo fiber and a planet-friendly cassava-derived drinking bag. And everyone else around me making the not-so-difficult decision of choosing between two decent alternatives. I really want to have the best of both worlds— convenience and planetary viability. I don’t think that’s asking too much!

Facebooktwittertumblrmail

Introducing Sakara Remmu, Guest Editor for Reckoning 3

Sakara Remmu is a storyteller, journalist, anti-oppression activist and advocate living in the greater Seattle area. Sakara was first published in 2001 after witnessing a police shooting; she began producing social commentary for local and national print and radio news in 2007.

Of First Nation and African descent, Sakara was born in Torrance, California to a biological mother who would give her up a year later. She was adopted by an interracial couple with two children of their own when she was 3 years old. Childhood was an experience of contrasts growing up in a conservative, quiet suburban city.

“On the one hand we had structure and rules; my older brothers and I went to private school and church every Sunday. Chores had to be done on time, that sort of thing. On the other hand, our parents weren’t necessarily conservative people. They were professionals, but they also had adventure and imagination, and a bit of whimsy.

“We were always outside. Rain or shine, snow or ice, what I remember and love the most when I look back is that we were always outside. Nature was, pardon the expression, second nature. My parents had a huge garden when we were growing up. Understanding food, where it comes from, the dirt it’s grown in—we weren’t really aware of what they were teaching us about the planet or biology, but it’s in our marrow now. My dad grew up traveling and exploring Washington, Oregon and parts of Canada. He introduced his kids to all the places he loved, whether we wanted to go or not. Now we all have kids of our own and we’ve carried on the tradition of dragging them outside and forcing them up a mountain, or into a tent for a week in the middle of nowhere, with no internet access. It’s pretty great.

“It’s also sobering. I’ve lived here long enough that I can actually see the impacts of environmental change and global warming. I can remember what snowfall was like thirty years ago compared to now, and rain and drought trends and heatwaves. It’s confronting, and as a parent it’s sometimes horrifying and overwhelming, especially because my kids are old enough that they see it too. But we still hike.”

Sakara joins Reckoning Press as the guest editor of Reckoning 3, working alongside founding editor and publisher Michael J. DeLuca to broaden the range and diversity of content and stories with her unique personal lens and editorial experience.

For more on Sakara, check out Under the Redline, her miniseries podcast focusing on the lives of those in marginalized communities in and around Seattle, or find her on twitter @BOMBMediaCo.

Facebooktwittertumblrmail

A Wispy Chastening

D.A. Xiaolin Spires

Too many people dream,” he said, leaning against the door.

“What do you want them to do, stay awake?”

“Maybe.”

“I’ll play Linganian flute to keep you up.” I smiled, miming tooting.

“No thanks. I don’t dream,” he said, walking away. A trail of multicolored fumes followed him, dodging in and out of his spiky hair. Butterscotch and shoe polish scents wafted my way, making me dizzy.

So, he was a Shepherd. No wonder he didn’t dream. Had his beloved herd of creatures to care over, keeping him too busy to sleep.

When I told Nana I saw a Shepherd, she gasped.

“He’s a homeless and a rogue,” she said.

“He’s just living as simply as he can, protecting the Earth’s creatures as he always did,” I countered.

“He’s crazy. He has powers no one can understand.”

I thought that would be the end of it, but she nagged me about it, her voice trembling. Her warnings crescendoed in fearful passion.

She said he herded all of Earth’s creatures, even humans, to his vision of a perfect, but dystopic future. I told her that didn’t make sense. How could the Shepherd herd humans? We weren’t domesticated; we weren’t sheep.

She babbled on, ignoring my objections. Something in her voice told me that she wasn’t speaking figuratively. I’d hit a nerve. Her hands were shaking.

She made me bathe with linderbuds. Their floral scent clung to me. Old stereotypes die hard.

That night, lucid dreams invaded my sleep.

Ducks crossed the road in single file. All cars, even hearses, waited.

The ducks paid no heed, stopping entirely. I thought time itself halted. A cacophony of honking disabused me of this.

The ducks started to twirl, wings and feathers held up like martyrs as they rotated. Around their thin necks wrapped plastic loops of six-pack cans, swinging about as they turned.

Someone got out of their car and pulled the mother duck by the plastic, leading it to the grass. The duck squawked and the beautiful choreography fell apart, little ducklings flying about, some collapsing, flapping immature wings.

A knock at my car window. I rolled it down. I hadn’t realized I was driving, but then it made sense Bach’s symphony emanated from speakers. The man who’d assaulted the ducks threw them in. Wings flapped in protest.

“Take your pack,” he said. “You did this.”

I collected them into my backseat.

“Buckle up,” I said. They honked in unison, nodding green beaks.

I drove, stopping at another crossing.

Moose. A movement at their feet caught my eye, a fluttering of yellow plastic bags.

I caught scent of him on Thursday. This time it was spumoni, bourbon and the rustic musk of aged oak. From across the diner, Shepherd caught me staring. He walked over, inviting himself to an empty chair.

“Seat’s taken.”

“Very funny.” He scanned the menu, betraying no sign of laughter.

I pulled out a peach-colored feather. Twirled it in my fingers.

“You left this with me,” I said. His eyes lit up.

“Beautiful specimen of a quill. Short calamus, perhaps holding only a few drops of ink at a time, but glorious sapphire plumage. Wispy. You’ve taken up calligraphy?”

“Now it’s my turn to laugh,” I said. “I found it in my backseat.”

“Oh? Into transporting rare animals?”

“I see why you tagged me, why you unleashed your dream power to admonish me. I dropped litter at the party. Big deal. It wasn’t outside. The host picked it up later. I’m not one of your herd.”

“You’re right. Not my herd.” A deadpan look.

“This wasn’t your doing?”

“No. This must be your imagination at work. Perhaps you ingested a placebo of your own making?”

I shook my head. I didn’t know what he meant.

“Listen, it wasn’t me,” he said. “I had my hands busy with a multinational corporation dumping sewage into the seas.” He laughed. “I don’t deal with petty infractions like personal litter.” He passed me a cloth napkin.

“You want to know what I did to those perps?” His voice dropped to a low whisper.

“What?” I asked, my voice dropping to match his conspiratorial tone.

“I made them squirm in their sleep, conjure sensations of drinking fouled seawater while watching bloated-eye fish. They glistened with their leaked slurry, their fins caked in vile. The fish appeared right in front of their sublimated eyes, gills seeping, large like heaving giants. Their mouths fetid, they opened their gills and closed them, over and over, in gasping desperation, begging to breathe, but to no avail.”

“Quite graphic,” I said.

“Yeah, I was pretty proud of it. Let me order you a drink. Laced with no pollutants or particulates, I promise. That stuff only happens in dreams and to serious criminals who deserve it.”

I hesitated, and nodded.

As we waited for the drinks, I studied my feather. I knew I wasn’t one of his tagged offenders, but I thought of all the times I’d casually thrown a used straw or dirty napkin on the side of the road.

I had lied. It wasn’t just at the party. It was cumulative, mounds of stuff. Plastic bags, cola six-pack rings, beer bottles; all the flotsam that now surfaced, floating about in my mind, that I pitched at the border of the woods or into a neighbor’s yard, too indifferent to bag it up.

I twirled the feather, watching it spin, like the choked ducks in my midnight reverie. I imagined the ducks glaring at me, imploring.

I envisioned the feather writing. Guilty. For fouling the environment. It would follow me for my entire sentence, penning infractions in the air. A chimerical prison of my own design.

I held my hands up, disturbing letters. A redolence of dirt and grime. I wondered at the power of my own imagination. Was it as dynamic as the Shepherd’s?

“As charged,” I said, as the drinks arrived and the Shepherd shot me an enigmatic grin.

Facebooktwittertumblrmail

Kate Schapira Interviews Michael J. DeLuca

Michael: This essay of Kate Schapira’s in Catapult, about the decision not to have kids in the age of Trump and climate change, was the direct inspiration for my Reckoning 2 editorial about making the opposite decision. We’ve talked a lot about this since. Kate has very kindly agreed to share a little more of that discussion here.

Kate: What has having a child/becoming a parent done to your sense of your range—the scale and the arenas in which you operate as a person, how much your calculations take in, where you geographically and physically go, what you consider your physical and social territory? Has it contracted, expanded, shifted the ground of your participation in the world as it’s becoming, how big you think and/or on what level of detail? This is such a written question, but I really want to know the answer!

Michael: Becoming a parent has shoved me into a lot of new arenas, given me an understanding of people I didn’t before—mothers are a huge example, a huge cross-section of humanity with which I was never before able to empathize like I am now. It has also shut me out of some arenas I used to frequent. I travel less, at least for now. But I talk to more people where I am; I have things to talk to them about, where I didn’t before. I think, in terms of my capacity to participate in all these arenas, it’s a wash. Everybody has a fixed amount of time in which to live and act; there are no fewer hours in the day now than before I was a parent, there will be no more hours in the day after my kid is eighteen and out of the house. But I see how I am forced to be more organized, and I see the potential for that to ripple out and have increasing impact the more comfortable and better I get in that. It may be the same as for any newly adopted responsibility? Starting a literary magazine, for example: much of the work there has felt like a chore, and it’s certainly work that has taken away from time I could have spent on my own writing. Filling out applications to the IRS for nonprofit status I might compare to an equivalently bureaucratic task I’m performing on behalf of my kid: filling out his passport application. It’s frustrating now; the payoff down the road I expect to be huge. So, an answer to the question about level of detail: I am forced to participate in the world at a much closer level of detail, but also to anticipate in a much larger scale than I have before. The level at which the kid sees the world is incredibly myopic, and I am responsible for so much of what he sees, but the fact that he is already in some senses an autonomous being reminds me constantly that the little details I choose to show him now are setting up bigger and bigger things for the future.

Kate: You write in your editor’s note about how you have to recast this story as a redemptive one. In order to do what—what’s the necessity?

Michael: To cope. That’s the hard answer. I’m doing that thing everybody does that makes storytelling so essential to being human: I’m choosing the interpretation that fits the narrative I’ve chosen for my own life, the new one that includes me being a father and him being my son. Now that I’ve done it, I can look at the pain and see it as a gateway to something better. And because of that, I can give the halfway constructive and optimistic answer to your questions just above. In certain real respects, it’s an act of will. I’m not even going to articulate the other version of this story; I’m not going to dignify it with my time. You could look at it as magical thinking, but in making that choice, I am encouraging myself to make decisions to further that narrative—proactive instead of fatalistic—to make the story true.

Kate: You also write about your obligation to “make the world good for him” and then later, you’ve written about some of the elements of that good world in the future tense. Can you talk about what you’re doing to bring them about–what brings that word “making” into it for you? What’s the relationship between the present pattern of your life and that future?

Michael: Small acts that accumulate. I want him to be proactive, progressive, I want him to see what’s possible and work toward it, I want him to care. I want him to know and find joy in the good things about the world so he’ll care. I don’t see how anybody accomplishes anything without caring, intensely. So that’s my starting point. Part of making the world good is not letting the awful parts overwhelm. We walk along my neighborhood brook a lot. Sometimes we go wading. We observe the Asian carp, the half-domesticated ducks, the muskrats, the feral housecats. When I first moved here I found its level of environmental degradation pretty bleak. Now I see it’s kind of amazing. He certainly sees it that way, which means I’m not just helping him, he’s helping me. Sometimes we drag a huge piece of discarded plastic out of the streambed, or pull invasive weeds and eat them. And then I go off to a town meeting to agitate on the brook’s behalf, on his behalf. I can’t stop my neighbors letting pesticides run into it off their lawns, but I can make clear to them that I’m not using pesticides and why. Eventually I’ll be able to make it clear to him. But for now it’s enough for him to be delighted at the way one duck out of twenty is always on lookout, warning the others of our presence.

The relationship between all that admittedly very small-scale action (there’s a lot more like that, more all the time, but most of it’s at that scale) and a better future, to me, is him. I know how cliché that sounds, believe me. Twenty-five year old me is rolling his eyes so hard right now. But it actually does work like that for me. He personifies the future.

Kate: Can you talk about what you do with your doubts, your fears, your griefs, when you feel them?

Michael: Sometimes—my chosen narrative and all of this above notwithstanding—I succumb to them. What that tends to look like is me lying on my basement floor staring up at the rafters for awhile drinking homebrew. Other times I channel them into something productive. Lately that’s shoveling snow, or turning over the compost, or figuring out some new small way to reduce my family’s negative impact on the world or balance it out with something constructive. For the new year, I’m getting into the habit of using cloth handkerchiefs instead of disposable tissues. I’m running a contest in my town for kids to design a logo to go on reusable cloth bags to hand out to residents at our annual cleanup event. Sometimes those little things help, sometimes they don’t. But I feel better coming up with more of them than sitting around moping. I look for inspiration in what I read. At the moment, it’s adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy. Learning helps me. Helps me believe I can get better at all of this, at thinking about the future, at helping my kid learn, at seeing the good and focusing on nurturing it instead of letting the entropy overwhelm me. I go away from people into as much nature and isolation as I can manage—sometimes I take the kid—and wear myself to exhaustion. That usually helps.

One more thing that really does help, always, is talking it out in earnest with thoughtful people who feel the same way and want to make things better. So thank you for this.

Facebooktwittertumblrmail

Editor’s Note: On Having a Kid in the Climate Apocalypse

Michael J. DeLuca

My son is three months old. He has no idea what the world is, what it has become. I can say anything in front of him. I can curse, I can cry. He’s happy or he’s sad, there’s no cause and effect. I can read to him from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book that spends hundreds of pages drawing an analogy between a child growing up and an invasive tree species flourishing in a sidewalk crack, a book full of compassion for the poor hated by the rich, casual about the hatred it portrays for people of other cultures. He doesn’t understand a word.

Every day I take him on a tour of what I jokingly call “the estate”, our sixth of an acre in Detroit’s distant north suburban sprawl, barren when I moved here, now abundant with ripening apples, cherries, strawberries, saskatoonberries, raspberries. He can’t eat them; he doesn’t understand what they’re for, but I figure he can interact with the flowers. I break off a stem of bleeding heart and shove it in his fist. He hovers in my arms over the Siberian roses like a pudgy bee, breathing in bewildered gasps. His eyes crinkle; he cringes from the sun. I stand him barefoot in the grass on his flabby, undeveloped knees, and he cries.

 

My wife and I tried for three years to conceive. We exhausted the usual method, then experimented with folk remedies, natural medicine. We talked ourselves up to a course of fertility drugs, then another and another. She had to terminate an ectopic pregnancy, and it devastated her, and me. We recovered. We kept going. Finally, we resorted to in-vitro fertilization. It would have been prohibitively expensive if we weren’t both well-educated people from educated families. You only get to do IVF if you have privilege. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. The trans-vaginal ultrasound, that procedure conservative legislators in the US want women to undergo seemingly as a form of torture before they’re permitted to choose an abortion: she had so many of those I lost count. I had to stab her in the hip with a three-inch needle every day for months, switching hips every other day to give the bruising a chance to go down. It was fucking hard. She cried a lot. I drank a lot. I got impotent for a while. And I ran over and over in my head all the arguments I could come up with why we didn’t have to do this, why we should anyway. Depending where we were in the cycle, I had to be able to convince myself it was okay if it didn’t work, and also, simultaneously, that it was worth all this pain if it did.

For a moment, right at the end, it looked like it wouldn’t. We went from seven fertilized, viable eggs down to one. And I saw an end to it. If it failed, we could stop. With that last egg, she got pregnant. My reaction could not be characterized as joy or relief, though everyone seemed to want that from me. I felt like I’d been clenching every muscle expecting to be punched in the stomach for eighteen months only to be told the punch isn’t coming. I didn’t want their congratulations. I was exhausted, bewildered, and we had nine months to go. I kept right on expecting the worst. I don’t think it was the same for my wife. She’d been the one getting stabbed, probed, but she’d been able to invest in this positive outcome like I couldn’t. Maybe she had to.

As it turned out, those nine months were easy. The kid grew, turned, came into the world and took a breath. We told ourselves it was karma, payback for the pain.

In the meantime, Lord Farquad got elected, took office, and started dismantling everything good or hopeful he could get his hands on. What woefully insufficient protections were in place against rapacious, fatally short-sighted exploitation of the natural world in pursuit of profit fell away like scales. Willfully oblivious selfishness—not those notions of freedom and equality beaten into my head since I was a child—begins more and more to seem as if it’s always been the default.

Into this world, I have brought a son. I no longer have the luxury of playing devil’s advocate. I have to be good for him. I have to make the world good for him, even such as it is. So I have little choice but to attempt to rewrite this story, his story, as a story of redemption. Maybe that makes me an unreliable narrator. Maybe you want to take this with a grain of salt, dear reader. Too fucking bad. That option is no longer on the table.

 

It occurs to me having a child might make a decent trial run for living through an apocalypse. If I can adapt to this, I can adapt to anything.

I know he can adapt to anything, because he survived being born.

“Your life is going to change,” my brother-in-law said, after I delayed too long admitting to my family that the IVF had worked. He was already a father. I resented him for the platitude. This was what I’d been dreading—having to perform that joyful anticipation I had been told to feel but could not. I had no idea what he was saying.

I understand it now. Becoming a father has uprooted me from everything I know, forced me to find all new places to grab hold of the same landscape, the same people, the same life. I am no longer my own. He gets the best of my emotional, intellectual and financial resources. Which is not to say he’s my whole life; I have managed to accomplish a few other things since he was born. I made a heart and a peace sign out of lights and coat hangers and hung them in our windows. I called my congresspeople every three days to complain. I supported the people I love and the causes I care about. I listened uneasily, unconvinced, to all those arguments for how much more important protest writing and art had become, and struggled on with the incorporation documents for my nonprofit literary magazine. Reckoning 2, which you’re reading right now, is officially sanctioned by the IRS to do good through art and not pay taxes on it. The irony is not lost on me. I have, somehow, through sleep-deprivation and tears, written this. (This much of it, at least. You’ll know if I finish.)

I’m doing it for him.

Maybe that will come across as a platitude. You, childless progressive activist, perhaps newly radicalized, attending rallies and protests, calling your congresspeople every three days, casting about for what more you can do: maybe you’ll see me as a lost cause for the cause. Everything I do is for this adorable little blob. If I didn’t have him, I could be investing the resources I intend for his future in supporting Indigenous activists, Black Lives Matter, legal counsel for immigrants. You would be absolutely right.

But you’d be failing to grasp the revolution in perspective this little blob’s presence has wrought. In my revisionist history, this is the bottom line, the reason we kept going in spite of all the pain and counterarguments: helping a new person into the world and then helping them come to terms with that world teaches us a part of what it is that can’t be learned any other way. I didn’t know what that knowledge would amount to. But I knew it existed. I see it in my parents, my grandparents, in every parent of every child I’ve met. I knew there was only one way to get it. For that, I was willing to expend all this emotional labor, all these resources. Maybe that makes me selfish—even as I am learning to be more selfless than I’ve ever been? Maybe I’m taking unfair advantage of the privilege I was born with. He wouldn’t exist without it. But I can’t grudge him that. Not anymore. He gives me hope I won’t have to.

 

Let me tell you how I expect my son’s life to go, in this horrible new world, in spite of it.

He’ll grow up with his feet in the dirt, in the garden, in the woods. He’ll track dirt all over the house. He’ll eat dirt. He’ll eat as much food as I can manage to make my meager sixth of an acre produce, and more. He’ll learn more than I’ll ever know about how to grow food.

He’ll get sick, he’ll get well. Maybe he’ll be allergic to the world, because of everything his parents were exposed to before he was born. Or maybe his body will adapt to the new toxins, the changes, the pollen, the invasives.

He’ll get to know cats, dogs, ducks, chickens, sparrows, robins. He’ll meet frogs and toads, then watch them get scarcer. Maybe he’ll never meet a salamander. He’ll never see an intact, living coral reef.

He’ll visit the coasts, he’ll visit mountains, but he won’t get to know them, not like I did. But he’ll know the lakes, the woods. He’ll watch them get taken over by invasives, watch those invasives naturalize, learn to love them, to live with them. He’ll watch them get replaced by subdivisions.

He’ll know the wastelands, the ruins of industry. He’ll watch them crumble and sprout trees.

He’ll hate mosquitoes, but be fascinated by the industry of ants, bees, spiders. He’ll get ticks. I’ll spend half my life picking ticks off him. He’ll eat bugs, lots of them, and like it. Crickets taste like shellfish. Maybe he’ll never eat shellfish.

He’ll have cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents and friends. He’ll never have a brother or a sister. I wish that could be different. I love my sisters and I don’t know who I’d be if not for them.

Around when he turns seven, maybe I’ll realize he’s not my son at all, but my daughter, and I’ll have to do a lot of rethinking I thought I was ready for, about what gender means, about his relationship to the world, and mine. Because try as I might to be open-minded, I’ll have been operating for a long time on the assumption that he’s got a lot of the same privilege I had. It’ll take time to adapt—and in that time, I’ll hurt him, and I’ll let him get hurt. He’ll learn more than I’ll ever know about pain.

He’ll meet and know and love his gay cousins, black cousins, brown cousins, his Christian grandmother, his Muslim uncle, his pseudopagan pantheist father, and he’ll take all that experience out into the world and learn more than I’ll ever know about empathy, about difference.

He’ll meet assholes, complacent, relentlessly selfish assholes terrified of change. He’ll go to school with some of them. He’ll feel ostracized and alone and I won’t be able to help him. One day he’ll realize how many assholes exist in the world. He and I will struggle together to understand how they could have gotten that way. We’ll fail.

He’ll embrace technology, but he won’t be dependent on it—not the way I was. His laundry and his transportation and his white noise machine will be solar-powered, clean. I’ve already explained to him what the internal combustion engine is, how people mow their lawns with dead dinosaurs. He doesn’t get it. I’ll keep explaining until he does. By the time he’s twenty-five, they’ll have stopped making new internal combustion engines. By then, it will be too late. By the time he’s fifteen, the earth will have warmed past the 2 degrees Celsius goal of the Paris accords. We won’t see any drastic change; it will have happened too gradually. But passing that milestone will drive home to people what they’d been able to ignore. People will be moving away from the coasts. Detroit and its water-rich, post-industrial surrounds will get populated again. Space will be at a premium. Maybe we’ll take people in: my sisters’ families, my parents, strangers immigrating from Florida or Bangladesh. They’ll become part of our family; it’ll be like having siblings, the closest he’ll get.

Or maybe fossil-fuel-based transportation infrastructure will fall apart before we can replace it, long-distance travel will become a thing of the past, and communities will get a hell of a lot tighter-knit. Maybe he’ll have to learn to farm for real, to subsist. I couldn’t—if it happened now, I’d starve. Not him. He’ll feed his family, his community. He’ll learn more than I’ll ever know about community.

He won’t solve the climate crisis. That was up to me, up to us, and we’ve pretty much failed. I’m not putting that expectation on him.

I wish I could say I wouldn’t put any expectation on him at all, but I know better. Already, three months old, he is my embodiment of hope, exactly like in all those clichés about what parents want for their children. I can’t help hoping for him everything that’s too late for me. But I don’t have to force them on him. I don’t have to blame him.

He’ll learn to live with the climate crisis the way we’re all already doing whether we know it or not. I’ll teach him everything I can; it won’t be enough. He’ll grieve for what we’ve lost, he’ll grieve for what we haven’t lost yet. Maybe he’ll blame me. He wouldn’t be wrong.

Eventually, he’ll move beyond where I’m capable of predicting anything.

Maybe I’m wrong about all of this. Maybe he’ll take up with the assholes, reject everything I’ve tried to teach him, get rich fixing prices on cancer medicine or selling payday loans to the poor. But I can’t countenance that possibility, any more than I can countenance the possibility the oceans will acidify, kill not just the corals but the algae that produces sixty percent of the oxygen, or that Lord Farquad will build that wall.

Then again, I couldn’t countenance the possibility that Lord Farquad would be president. So maybe it is all going to shit, and there’s nothing I or my kid or anybody will be able to do. A nonprofit literary magazine isn’t going to save us, no matter how diligently, fiercely and eloquently we all think radical, community-building environmentalist thoughts. A little adorable blob isn’t going to save us no matter how many epically selfish, racist egomaniacs’ rotten hearts he melts. There certainly is a plausible scenario in which my decision to have a kid, to devote my resources and time to him instead of fighting what might be coming is the deciding factor between a future with coral reefs, ocean algae, art and free exchange of ideas, and the one where it all goes to shit. But it’s too late to care about that. In my revisionist version of the story of his incredibly short life, it was always too late. I refuse to accept a binary between his life and the continued betterment of the human race.

All that time I spent advocating the devil—he’s made me realize that was my mistake. My wife was right to commit, to overcommit, even after she miscarried, even when she was being probed with rubber gloves and (when she was lucky) warmed gel, when I was stabbing her with three-inch needles every night. I was hurting her, hurting myself, trying to have it both ways, trying to make it something it could never be. She was strong and I was weak. I see that now only because he exists, only because he has revolutionized my understanding of what having a child means.

Maybe this revelation isn’t for everyone. Maybe not everyone needs it. Maybe, to people who aren’t white, aren’t straight, aren’t privileged children of educated families, some of this is so painfully obvious I’ve spent this essay embarrassing myself. I needed it. I needed to write it. I needed my assumptions undermined and broken up and reassembled around someone who wasn’t me.

I came very, very close to never getting that. There were so many opportunities for me to turn aside. In the course of writing this, through insomniac moments at two a.m. feedings, all those diapers I changed while he screamed, he’s made me realize the reason I didn’t. All revisionism aside, it wasn’t any anticipation of ungleaned wisdom. I persisted through all that pain because it was what she wanted. I’m better, wiser, better prepared for this incredibly uncertain, ominous future because she believed in it more than I could. If it hadn’t worked, I never would have known.

 

He has blue eyes, for now. They’ll get darker. For now, I can sing to him “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” as I struggle futilely to lull him to sleep while he squirms and digs sharp baby fingernails into my neck. I can look forward to learning what my blue-eyed son has to teach me when he’s seen everything I haven’t. Hard as those lessons might be.

Facebooktwittertumblrmail