Benjamin Parzybok Interview: “The Hole in the Reef”

benjamin-parzybokRead “The Hole in the Reef” in Reckoning 1 first—this interview has some spoilers.

Michael: We have in these Reckoning 1 interviews done a fair amount of thinking by now about generational understanding of humanity’s interdependence with nature and the conflict, at times epic, ensuing therefrom. “The Hole in the Reef” depicts such a struggle, one that appears to me at least figuratively epic, though when interpreted literally, of tiny, nigh-insignificant scope. There is a piece of what amounts to trash on the floor of the ocean—one piece among untold billions—and the battle father and son fight over it seems to me ultimately futile. What that result signifies for the relationship of father and son, and the relationship of both to the ocean, to the world, isn’t obvious. As the kind of person who picks up trash when he encounters it in the woods, on beaches, at the bottoms of rivers, I am well familiar with the accompanying sense of futility. The next person who comes along will in all likelihood replace that piece of trash with a new one. Another thing I’m afraid I’m in the bad habit of doing in these interviews is asking authors to do the work for me. What does it mean? Is Oliver changed by this experience—demoralized, galvanized? I don’t think his father is. Does that discarded piece of ocean liner or whatever it is signify that it isn’t worth trying to clean up this mess, that we’d be better off letting an older generation habituated to pissing on the natural world drink themselves unconscious and then pushing them over the side?

Ben: The Hole In the Reef has on its surface a story about two generations of men—a father and son—who have very opposite takes on the world. The father is a loner who defines himself by his opposition to nature. He could easily have played a stand-in role for Old Man and the Sea if called upon. He’s not averse to suffering, physically talented, and sees nature as something to be conquered. He’s also a terrible father. His son is clearly involved with people. He’s an urbanite—I don’t get into his backstory terribly far, but I imagine him as the type of individual who shows up on school cleanup days, who is involved in things like neighborhood committees, and who is politically concerned. Metaphorically, his father is the hunter, he is the gardener—I express this via his desire to have his own children experience a different life:

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.

So this is a struggle that plays out on the surface — of the responsibility to those around them, and the responsibility we have toward our environment; i.e. don’t drop your damn anchor in the reef. At one point the father even threatens to sink his own boat, so that his son will have to swim to shore.

But there’s a deeper, momentary crisis in Oliver in the course of the story as he allows himself for a very brief moment to succumb to his father’s mania for the hole in the ocean, and to momentarily believe it exists: that there is an actual, designed, hatched hole in the bottom of the sea. This is a worldview-upending moment:

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.

In other words, he briefly sheds his scientific understanding of the world and allows himself to ponder the idea that the Earth was designed. To believe that the Earth is designed is, in my mind, to discard your responsibility for it. It is someone else’s (God’s) plan. His father disappears—probably down the hole—and so he goes to find the answer to it, opening the door. What lies on the other side? Nothing. It’s not a door, it’s trash. He angrily realizes his mistake, and sees that he must do what is right, despite the personal risks: assume responsibility.

A side note about the story: I often try to use constraints on my work in order to push myself, which I find will often make the work more interesting. This story had the initial constraint of: If they were in the boat, it was all dialogue. If he was in the water, it’s all narration. And with the regularity of the dives, there’s a sort of rhythm, one page of dialogue, one of narration. As the story progressed I had to break these constraints a little.

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George F. Interview: “In Hambach Forst”

george-f

Read “In Hambach Forst” in Reckoning 1.

Michael: Thank you so much for sharing this rather intense window on the front lines of climate activism. Reading it was a vicarious thrill for me. I do what I can—we’re all doing what we can, as many in the US have been telling ourselves frequently over the past five months in order to maintain our sanity. Reckoning is one of the things I’m doing. But what you’re doing strikes me as more—more powerful, more visceral, more direct—and reading about it is inspiring.

Would you tell me a little about how you got started in this kind of activism?

 

George: A decade ago, I used to live in Malaysia, working on a drug rehabilitation programme in a little kampung in the jungles. It was famous for being one of the last hide-outs of the Communist partisans during the Emergency. The drive from Kuala Lumpur to Batu Arang used to take a side-road through a vast expanse of reserved forest. You could feel the air cool as you turned off the highway, the sudden chill humidity of the under-canopy sheltering the van from the oppressive heat of the equatorial sun.

One time, we went back that way, and behind a gigantic, authoritative sign announcing severe fines for illegal logging, suddenly we saw the vicious brown scar of red soil. We stopped the van. For miles in every direction, the tangled, virgin forest had been cleared. It had been flayed to the bone—only barren red soil stretching over terraces and hills into the distance. The sun beat mercilessly down. We shook our heads in silence.

Afterwards, every time we drove down that road, we saw hordes of hungry monkeys lined up along the motorway, their babies clinging to them, their prehensile hands toying with bits of trash and the scraps that passing cars fed them. Their home had succumbed to the relentless march of development, and what had been a flourishing forest had been reduced to a desert of rubber plantations. Now they sit, in families and packs, watching the cars driving by, waiting for someone to fling a bundle of half-eaten fast food to them on the roadside.

After that, I decided to get more involved.

I reject the label activist as the language creates a false dichotomy. I don’t consider ‘non-activists’ as ‘passivists’. For me, it is about choosing sides, and there are extremely ‘activist’ people on the other-side—venture capitalists, lobbyists, politicians—all extremely active.

Environmental justice for me is rooted in anti-capitalist, anti-oppression and explicitly anarchist struggle. The reduction of our environmental heritage, ecosystem and indeed the life support systems of Gaia to commodities, markets, services and resources is representative of how autodestructive, cannibalistic and, to be melodramatic, pure evil capitalism is. I realise this is not how everyone views it. That is fine. That is their choice.

 

Michael: How did you first realize the need for this kind of story to be told?

George: There needs to be a record of the struggle—a Peoples’ History—for posterity and for us. I started writing about squatting in London—the subject of my first book Total Shambles—because we identified that there was a dearth of current creative nonfiction on the subject and a need to find new ways to engage emotionally as well as intellectually on the subject of housing. These were stories that we told one another verbally all the time, but there was no written record of them. Academic research and political rhetoric on squatting were well-covered, but we wanted to tell a personal, human story that connected with the social implications.

Afterwards, I realised that the most urgent issue that needs humanising is the struggle to save The Big House We All Live In—Mama Terra. Often issues around climate justice seem so huge, so overwhelming, so abstract, that people have difficulty connecting with it. Generally, we seem unwilling or unable to deal with the scale of the changes we need to make. This is why recycling is very popular, and the concept of not having children to save the planet less so. One of the great powers of creative nonfiction is to give people the experience of visiting a place like Hambachforst in their mind’s eye and spending time with the people and ideas that exist there. As you said, to enjoy it vicariously. My hope is that it is an uncathartic and dissatisfying experience, and leaves the reader with discomfort over their own complicity in the ongoing ecocide. Not you personally Michael, but the reader in general, myself included.

 

Michael: (Oh yes, me personally. Me too, absolutely. This is what your essay made me feel, uncomfortable and that I’m not doing enough. It’s how I feel all the time; it’s what I was getting at in the Reckoning 1 editor’s note about being incapable of editorial distance.)

Who was your inspiration?

George: The people who, to quote Ken Kesey, would rather be lightning conductors than seismographs. People living for years on protest sites, in treehouses, underground, people going to prison for defending forests, environmental defenders who are murdered in the course of their protest. (117 this year, as of July.)

All I do really is write stories and clumsily wander around places where people are literally dying to defend the planet. As mentioned in the story, Barry Horne was a big inspiration for the piece, and indeed, all of those people who have been living at Hambachforst and other protest camps across Europe and the world, putting life, limb and liberty at risk. George Monbiot is a fantastic environmental and political writer, and advocates using different modes of language to try and engage with more people on these issues, and for my part, if I can find new ways to communicate, connect and captivate people, then that feels worthwhile.

 

Michael: What would you say to the criticism that this kind of activism is too out-there, that it alienates and interferes with the cause being taken seriously by a moderate majority?

George: As Howard Zinn said, ‘you can’t be neutral on a moving train’. I respect a diversity of tactics, and would agree that direct action will always upset a certain section of moderates, mainly as it highlights their own complacency. I strongly advocate individual responsibility and autonomy to decide their level of involvement. I would probably endeavour to enter into a dialogue with them on the matter and discuss the severity of the situation currently—

THE PLANET IS DYING. IT’S FUCKING DYING RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU. ITS BURBLING ON BLOODY VOMIT, CRASHED OUT ON THE PAVEMENT, CRYING LIKE A CRIPPLED DEER AFTER YOU HIT IT WITH YOUR CAR.

—I’d probably discuss with them the statistic that 50% of the world’s wildlife has died off in the last four decades. That we are entering the 6th great mass extinction and that it is intimately connected to human activity. That by 2050 there will be more weight by plastic in the oceans than fish—

TURN ON A FUCKING TV. HOUSTON IS LITERALLY UNDERWATER IN A ‘ONCE IN CENTURY STORM’. THERE ARE GIANT RAFTS OF FIRE ANTS FLOATING THROUGH IT. HELLISH GREAT FIRE ANT ISLANDS RIDING THE FLOOD WATERS. 12 YEARS AFTER NEW ORLEANS WAS FLATTENED. HAVE YOU BEEN TO MIAMI? WELL GO NOW BECAUSE IT WILL BE PERMANENTLY 3 FOOT DEEP IN A DECADE—

I would argue that ‘extreme’ actions such as the occupation of forests and violent attacks on machinery used to destroy our forests and oceans helps further involve and inspire the mainstream moderates, rather than alienating them. Once people see how far people are willing to go, they hopefully begin to question whether they are doing enough by recycling, or marching in a protest, or living in a treehouse in a 12,000 year old forest, or lying down in front of a bulldozer.

ALL CARS ARE TARGETS IN A RIOT. THE WORST DECISION YOU CAN MAKE FOR THE PLANET IS TO BREED. YOU ARE WHY THE AIR AND THE WATER AND THE FOOD WE EAT IS POISON. THERE IS NO FUTURE ONLY THE CLIMATE APOCALYPSE—

Or perhaps I would just sigh in exasperation and save my breath. If people cannot see the value and necessity of ‘this kind of activism’ then I am not one to try and change their mind, only to point out the other options.

OPEN YOUR FUCKING EYES THE MODERATE MAJORITY IS MODERATELY MASSACRING THE ENTIRE WORLD WITH MEDIOCRITY. WARGH! WARGH! FUCK YOU

The moderate majority won’t remain so moderate when the food riots start, but meanwhile it’s important to maintain one’s sanity.

 

Michael: What have you been up to since Hambach Forst? What are you doing next?

George: I try to remain upbeat in the face of an ongoing climate catastrophe. I’m writing a new book all about that merry mission called Good Times In Dystopia. It covers our adventures of the last 3 years, including our recent return to Hambachforst in July 2017, where we were subsequently arrested, strip-searched, and robbed of 100 Euros by the local cops for having a picnic in the wrong place.

We also recently visited Bialowiezca forest, which is the last primeval forest in Europe, a world heritage site, and currently being logged. Of course it is.

We spent most of 2016 squatting some disused offices above a fried chicken shop in the very centre of London. During that time there were ongoing terrorist attacks, including one directly on our street, as well as the ones in Paris, Belgium, and beyond, as well as the ongoing state-terror and bombing campaigns overseas. During that time hundreds of thousands more people were displaced by war, famine and climate collapse, and during that time countless millions more plastic bottles, toothbrushes, iPods, condoms, hairbrushes, floss, and trainers were created, a few billion more barrels of oil extracted, fracking became an acceptable way to get more natural resources out of the ground, the UK voted to leave the EU, and Delerium Tremens was elected President in the US.

For 8 months, me and Mierda devoted ourselves to organising an exhibition—OUROBOROS—at a proper gallery in London. We went fully legit. We brought together over 30 artists with experience of social exclusion—homeless, LGBTQ+, persons with mental health issues, differently abled, migrants—to exhibit artworks as a creative response to the destruction of nature, consumerism, oppression and capitalism. We got funding from the Arts Council. It subsumed every waking minute of our lives for that whole time. We opened the first night with over 300 hundred people in attendance, with noise acts designed to be interactive for members of the Deaf community, visual arts with volunteer interpreters for the visually impaired, sculptures made from old car tires and paintings on gender politics and habitat destruction, photographs of abandoned buildings and shadow theatre performances about migration. It ended in a small riot, and the next morning the gallery shut us down. We took it that the moderate majority wasn’t ready for what we were trying to do, and that we were to remain excluded from the mainstream. Perhaps, as you suggested, we had succeeded in alienating them, as they have alienated us.

Faced with such a world, I have begun taking refuge in Absurdism—the act of living defiantly in a universe that has no meaning, within which our every action is essentially futile, except that very act of defiance.

I’ll finish with two quotes from Albert Camus which I use to frame my daily experience and my expectations for the future. Perhaps also just to prove how ultimately pretentious I am.

The first: The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.
And the second: The only serious question in life is whether to kill yourself or not.

 

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Robin Wyatt Dunn Interview: “The End of Occidentalism”

robin-wyatt-dunnExtended, with my notes in italics, August 22nd, 2017.


Read “The End of Occidentalism” in Reckoning 1. Or don’t. Maybe read the interview first and then decide.

Michael: “The End of Occidentalism” is explicitly about resistance to colonization. It’s complex, there’s a lot to parse, and I have quite a lot of fun attempting to do so. I don’t get every reference, not nearly–the man in the metal hat in the first line, for example. But it’s addressed to the native, I think. So the first thing I’d like to ask you: what is nativeness? Who is native?

“The colony extends within”, you say, and I agree, we’re all born colonized, to a greater or lesser degree. Some more than others. That’s the part I feel obligated to interrogate on behalf of Reckoning. One of our founding ambitions is to be a platform for Indigenous voices, for people marginalized by dominant culture, by the colonizing force. So I asked JR McConvey, whose story “The Eel of the Lake” features an Indigenous main character, and now I’m asking you: who gets to speak for the native? Where does the colonizing force end and the colonized individual begin? Do you consider yourself Native? What does it mean to assume that authority for the purposes of fiction?

Fiction as a medium for radical thinking fascinates me because it has the safety net of fictionality. I read “The End of Occidentalism” as radical political thinking, in earnest–but I don’t have to. If I wanted, I could take it as thought experiment, or purely as entertainment. I think this safety net is particularly present in genre work that adheres to an expected form–which your work, insofar as I’m familiar with it, does not. How do you think about that when you’re writing, if you do? Another way I’ve asked this in the past: what is political fiction capable of, what are its limitations, what is it for? Do you write in the hope or expectation that what you write will change minds or influence opinions? And if not, what good is political fiction?

Thanks very much for talking to me.


Below is Robin’s complete initial interview response, unedited but for formatting.


Robin: Yes nativeness is so ambivalent; a helic force perhaps, as it is encoded.

We have to begin in space; evidence is mounting that we began there, since bacteria appear to have survived there before, and so may have come from far away.

Of course, this may be wrong. But since I ascribe now to Aristotle’s world without end (a worldview China Mieville adapts, elegantly and gracefully, in his Embassytown), there is no beginning, and so only degrees of recent.

Colony comes from a root word for cycle.

In looking at slavery: the work of the slaver and of the slave, of force, and reaction to force, we are in a cycle, but what kind?

Obviously all kinds of ramifications of violence are perpetuated down the timeline, surfacing in odd ways.

Of course with Benedict Anderson we have imagined communities; I think it is actually imagination which is the “original” (whatever that means!) communion; we are bonded in the mind, elsewhere, or also here, and given the conundrum of existing in multiple places at the same time (which we all do!), we’re forced to construct identities, which again are cycles: idem et idem (identity’s root), again and again, the same faces, the same habits.

But the beauty of history is there are all these outliers, all these freaks, who artists are doomed to become, and so we know better than anyone else, how much fun and dangerous it is to do something different, to, god help us, resist, without the hashtag.

To really slug the slaver in the face and then cut off his nuts. It happens. But not often.

In looking at the question of the origin, we are looking at god, which is only to say, again, looking at ourselves: what are we capable of?

Even now we uncover through archaeology horrendous facts about the origins of white people, and this mystery extends at least as far as Gobekli Tepe in Anatolia.

Genetics tells us the Etruscans were Anatolian; the Lord’s prayer, and its submission to bread, and “bread givers” is thousands of years older than Christianity. It is as old as wheat and its cultivation.

So when we are talking about colonization we are talking about life not only on earth but in the universe.

Life colonizes life. Life cycles through life. Copies, but changes.

So: is there an afterlife?

Is there justice?

Maybe, but only in stories.

As to genre, it is not well understood. I think of it as a cage, and so we’re slaves again.

But I suspect the horrible revolution is to accept that slavery, and learn to acclimate yourself to the exceptions of various genres. I would like to be wrong about this. And it annoys me when writers I respect such as Michael Chabon opine that they would like to “write a book in every genre,” like a kind of slumming, or a gentleman’s tour of the continent to finish him off.

Stories are weapons and like weapons they have various categories.

And like weapons they can be used in ways that are original; that impress other weapon fighters. That make a name for yourself.

The absolute worst thing about being an anarchist revolutionary, is, like Neo, recognizing how deeply and personally you serve the state, for as you become a better warfighter with words, you understand more deeply that this is how slaveowners originally enslaved: with the sword, of course, but never without a better story.

The better story enslaves; and covets the mind, it can create worshippers if you wish. Obviously it can create religions.

What I want to do with my stories is of course horribly bourgeois; I want to be paid some money for them, money which has become extremely hard to come by in these years. So it may well be, and indeed “should” be in some sense, that I am wrong in this desire, and should want something different, or more. Honor or fame or love or understanding. Sometimes I want those things too, though they don’t feed me.

This is another problem with genre: if you are committed, as many would say I have done, to flouting these conventions, it is much harder to make money. In many ways, flouting convention is something only the wealthy can afford to do.

“Reckoning” is akin etymologically to right, and ruling. The straight line which orders and so determines the day.

I think the secret is that the day may be whatever we wish it; and it needn’t be straight. This is how it was for the Etruscans, who were somewhat more inward looking than the Romans whom they colonized but also more scary: they believed, unlike the Romans who looked to the stars to guess at the will of the gods, that they actually determined stellar movements to a degree, and so they looked at the stars to see themselves, and where they wanted to move.

Desire also has a stellar root; it is understood to be something suns do.

You speak of fiction; the root here is dough: we’re back to bread again. The better story; the better slaver.

As an anarchist of course I want liberation, for you and for myself. But the problem is you rapidly find how few want this with you, because of what it will cost mentally, and the responsibilities that come with it.

There is a good curse in the Torah I read when I thought about becoming a Jew: “may you try to sell yourself into slavery, and no one will buy you.”

Yet the root of freedom is friend, so it is something we do together, apes clustered in the embankment, watching for the right time to move ahead, for our meat.

P.S. The man in the metal hat was supposed to be a conquistador 😉


The Reckoning 1 author interviews have not, until now, included much back and forth–I ask questions, I post the answers. This time I felt it was important not to leave the above unchallenged. Need I add that the opinions of Robin Wyatt Dunn do not reflect those of Reckoning Press? The below has been edited somewhat to omit private correspondence.


Michael: I feel I need to point out that though I have posted your interview, and I had fun reading it, I realize you dodged and talked around and thought around the important questions. And now I have a bit of a bad taste in my mouth and kind of wish I’d argued with you further before posting it. So here I am doing what it feels to me is my responsibility: calling you on some bullshit.

What would make me feel a lot better is if you’d agree to posting some kind of follow-up with me where we talk about this in greater depth. That doesn’t have to happen, but I feel like it’s warranted.

You sidestepped the question about nativeness, which, sure–nativeness is all relative from a big picture of time. But it is intensely personal and relevant from the small picture of the individual, which is the only picture any of us actually get without performing somewhat absurd intellectual acrobatics. When you say “native”, when you write about the end of occidentalism, when you write about the impacts of colonialism on culture and on the individual, you’re not talking about my experience of colonialism, a white man’s experience of it in the US, to wit, as something that happened to other people many generations ago and now is felt only in distant vague repercussions. And I have to assume that since you sidestepped the question, that’s your experience of colonialism too. That you are not in fact native in any commonly understood sense, that you’re a white dude with an education like me. You mention that your goal in writing fiction is to make money. I have less of that problem. I have enough money that I can pour some of it into a nonprofit journal of creative writing on environmental justice. So, I don’t know, maybe you’re experiencing personally some of the long-term results of the colonizing force, to wit, capitalism, that I’m not. That still doesn’t make you an authority on nativeness. It makes you a much more direct product of the colonizing force than of any elided or subsumed culture. Which doesn’t mean you can’t write about nativeness, but it makes it look pretty baldly disingenuous to do so without acknowledging that. You write about the end of occidentalism, then answer a bunch of interview questions about it with namedrops of white, entrenched Western male philosophers. That’s not what the end of occidentalism looks like.

Right now I’m reading The Heirs of Columbus, a revisionist historical/non-genre fantastic novel in which Columbus is reappropriated as a descendant of the Maya, and his descendants in turn practice guerilla culture wars on dominant white capitalist kleptocracy. It’s delightful, I’m about halfway through. I bet you’d like it. It’s by Gerald Vizenor, who is Anishinaabe, in other words an actual product of colonized culture. I recommend it. Maybe it would be revelatory for you? Maybe not.

You bring up slavery. Maybe slavery is a cycle, but it’s a long cycle of which we have in the US thus far only seen the part where the rich white Europeans treat the Natives like absolute shit. Sure, white people have a long history. So do brown people. Brown people colonized each other in parts of that history, as did white people. But that history is so distant compared to what people talk about in the modern era when they talk about slavery that making them rhetorically equivalent is glib and insensitive and hard to interpret as other than willfully blindered and frankly I think kind of insulting to their intelligence. Genre is really not slavery like slavery is slavery. Not at all.

Then there’s the fact that you conflated the native and the enslaved. There’s a lot to unpack there, but immediately, just putting those two words next to each other, it becomes obvious to me that’s a leap of logic that can only be performed from the point of view of the colonizer, the Westerner. If slavery is a cycle, then the native isn’t always the colonized. Signifiers slip. You fall back on etymology, and that’s fun and edifying, it’s relevant, but it’s not the whole of how language works. Especially when you’re talking about and in English, a language that eats languages.

How would you feel if I posted some part of this or all of it as a response to your interview response? And we could keep going like that if you want, you could respond. Maybe we’d get somewhere interesting.


The only part of Robin’s response thus far that has seemed fit to print is as follows.


Robin: You do whatever you like.


I hope he answers at more length. I do actually want to talk about all this. If he does, I’ll post it here. But since the tenor of his replies thus far make that seem not particularly likely, I’m making the decision not to wait. Because I’ve said aloud and often that Reckoning invites and encourages Indigenous voices, marginalized voices, voices of writers and artists of color, and I feel like I’d be falling down on the job as editor if I let this stand on its own.

More as events warrant.

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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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