‘You Are From the U.S.’

Yukyan Lam

I kneel on the ground, a knife in both hands, its sharpened blade pointed at the center of the earth. I thrust the weight of my body against the wooden handle until my palms hurt—still, the serrated edge penetrates no more than a centimeter. The sun, high overhead and unsympathetic, beats down on my scalp. I breathe, re-adjust my grip, and heave into the knife again.

Another centimeter.

A man in a button-down shirt and a patterned blue lungi watches me from a couple feet away. He has also knelt down, perhaps to signal encouragement.

Centimeter by centimeter, I continue, forcing the soil knife deeper until its blade nearly disappears into the earth. I push and tug, scooping out as much dirt as I can, and deposit the hard-earned crumbles into a large plastic bucket. I stand up, slowly because my legs are cramped, and find another spot a few feet away.

And then I do it all over again. Ten times in total, leaving ten pockets dimpling the plot of land. I stand up, wipe off the blade with a dirt-speckled rag, and insert the knife back into its leather sheath.

I now have the soil that I need from this village, a place called Motbati, located on the southwest coast of Bangladesh. It is a riverine landscape, with streams and channels carving through the delta, seeping into its nooks and crannies. It is the height of dry season, and the purpose of my visit is to investigate the encroachment of saltwater, flowing inland from the ocean into farmland and sources of freshwater.

I’ve explained to the man, who is the community’s elected leader, that I will take some of the soil back with me to Dhaka. There, I will mix it with deionized water and then measure the salt content of the concoction. As I bag a sample of soil, several beads of sweat trickle off my face and drip into the container. Upon contact, they immediately meld and vanish into the dirt. Damn it, I think aloud. For a second, I wonder if I’ve now messed up the sample. I decide that it is probably all right and toss the container into my pack. It is much too hot to be wearing a scarf, but the orna is an integral part of the three-piece salwar kameez, typically worn by Bangladeshi women. Given my foreign appearance, I have been employing all the devices that I can to look a little less out of place.

I squint against the sun and survey the area. I tear off a piece of masking tape, label the sample, and jot down a few notes. The logbook’s pages and string binding are falling apart, from being crammed into a jute bag next to assorted fieldwork supplies. I scribble, “Weather: Last rained 3 months ago, currently sunny and dry. 80s.” And then, “Soil sample taken from open area on eastern side of village, plot is scorched & barren. Woman in sari brings goat to forage, but no grass here. Plot surrounded by 2-ft deep ponds with saltwater shrimp (bagda). Crop looking burnt in fields nearby (wheat?). Fields have fertilizers applied (chemical). Ground very hard, powdery, almost white.”

Sample collection complete, the logbook goes back into the bag, sandwiched again amongst the voice recorders, headlamps, handheld GPS, digital camera, extra AAA batteries, and backup battery pack. Now, I follow the community leader back toward the western, greener side of the village. We walk away from the saltwater ponds, toward the refuge of slender trees that provide a few fragments of shade.

We are a long way from Dhaka, and my itinerary includes several other communities scattered across the southwest coast. Even so, I am fairly certain that salinity testing will confirm what I can already see: that saltwater seeping in from the Bay of Bengal is destroying the fertility of this cracked corner of the Ganges river delta. Agriculture is nearly impossible, worth a farmer’s toil only because livelihood options are so few and human labor so cheap in this region of the world.

The locals I’ve met with say that, yes, the land has always been saline to some extent, but the problem is getting worse. They mention three reasons: commercial saltwater shrimp farming, diversion of the Ganges river upstream, and sea level rise. Some are resigned, many are indignant, but nearly everyone points out that—far from being a purely “environmental” phenomenon—it is inequality, its effects manifested in multiple spheres and compounded, which aggravates the salinity crisis and determines who suffers most.

Within this area, one villager has the resources to take advantage of the intruding saltwater by creating a shrimp pond, which is likely to exacerbate the infiltration. A poorer neighbor has been forced to give up on farming here. He may have to travel north to find work as a migrant farmer. Or, if he stays in this area, he may resort to wage labor for the pond owner—stocking shrimp, weeding algae, guarding the ponds at night. In either scenario, he will make less than a couple dollars a day.

Within this floodplain, India, which borders Bangladesh on nearly all sides, is the more powerful country. It has built a dam that diverts the flow of the Ganges river away to generate hydroelectricity, leaving hundreds of Bangladeshi communities downstream without freshwater or legal recourse. According to the communities, water is withheld when it is most needed. It flows freely when the land is already saturated by the rainy season monsoons.

On this climate-disrupted planet, those in the developed world are unleashing inordinate volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, fueling sea level rise and extreme weather events, like the region’s tropical cyclones. Inhabitants of the Global South, meanwhile, are sacrificing their self-sufficiency to produce saltwater shrimp—ironically, for international export and consumption by the Global North.

Adding to the irony, I have flown in from the United States, to conduct research to fulfill the requirements of a doctorate degree in public health. These days, I am often wondering whether the good derived from the work will offset the carbon footprint of my air travel. When I confess this to my classmates, they take it as a joke. They laugh, but I know I am navigating tenuous terrain, between solidarity and hypocrisy.

The locals know, too, that it is a dubious position. At one of the first communities I visit, a dozen men and women have gathered in a dirt courtyard to meet with me. They have been waiting for two hours, my delay caused by an unexpected rainstorm and the challenge of traveling by motorized rickshaw on unpaved roads. “Well, you are from the US,” they begin. Adolescents and children are hovering nearby; there aren’t enough bamboo mats for everyone to sit. All eyes are examining us—my interpreter, a polite, articulate young woman from the local university, and me. “Your country is the most responsible,” one man continues, invoking the words jalvayu parivartan, Bangla for ‘climate change.’ Many in the group recognize the term, and shake their heads in emphasis. The man then asks if I agree with the statement. More importantly, he adds, what is being done about it, and what am I doing about it?

It is a challenge. Persia, my interpreter, translates it. Her soft tone fails to mask the man’s frustration.

I meet the man’s gaze and reply in English that I am in complete agreement. I am hoping that Persia’s translation and my demeanor can convey, at least in some small part, my sincerity.

Then I muster an explanation about the American political system, about how the current situation makes it difficult to enact policies to reduce carbon emissions. I am hoping this time that the response somehow sounds less equivocal in Bangla. It is 2014, and I am oblivious to how badly circumstances will deteriorate three years later. We are all oblivious, but from where my hosts are sitting, the situation looks serious already.

Finally, I speak about the purpose of the research. I describe how, although this is only a small study funded by one university, it may help bring the community’s situation to light and make it known to a wider audience. The findings might influence, if not politicians, then donors and agencies that decide how to prioritize money spent on the needs of the developing world. Although I mean every sentence of what I say, I have mixed feelings about offering these lines. They are written into the research consent forms; they already sound too rehearsed. I am painfully aware that I have come empty-handed, equipped only with suppositions and hypotheses.

Yet, if the questions are a test, I have passed. It has little to do with the adequacy of my answers. I am allowed to continue my work because, at the end of the day, there is still a need here. Merited or not, I, like any other foreign presence, represent some chance of a difference for the inhabitants of this region, a fact that is both motivating and unsettling.

For the weeks and months thereafter, as I collect water and soil samples and interview communities along the southwest coast, I am repeatedly interrogated about the United States—its place in world politics, its role in the climate crisis. To my initial surprise, most villagers are willing to put aside their work and earnings for the day simply to share their experiences and insights. It is a generosity hardly deserved by a US-based researcher flying in 9,000 miles on a carbon-spewing jet plane. I mention this to a local collaborator back in Dhaka, and he grins and says, “See! Didn’t I say that Bangladeshis are the most hospitable people and they would help you?”

I can’t help but smile back and agree with him. Still, the work is far from done. There are often things lost in translation, but the parting message given by one elderly woman as I set out from her village replays clearly in my mind: “Do your research,” she instructs me, “but make it useful.”

 
 
 

Jane Elliott Interview: “Rumplestiltskin”

Michael: Johannes and I teamed up again this time with some questions for Jane Elliott about her Reckoning 2 story, “Rumplestiltskin”.

Johannes: Can you tell me of the power of naming things?

Jane: I think the obvious answer is that naming a thing reveals it. There’s a lot of folklore around naming and claiming that names have power. Revealing your true name gives another person power over you. In this case, our names represent our vulnerability. We have to be seen to be named.

The more difficult answer about where the story came from has to do with the idea that our world has grown exponentially. Globalization and field specialization have made human community and human knowledge larger than any individual can hold. When the world was a village of 100, I imagine it felt easier to know things. To know what we stood for. To know what was safe. We all specialized in the sphere that sustained us. We knew the names of the plants around us and which people at the watering hole could be trusted with our children.

Often, in our world of global competition, I feel lost at sea. I don’t know what to look at, so I don’t know how to begin to address my own fears. This mystery cloaks the important issues. It keeps me afraid.

My story is clearly over-simplified. However, I think there’s a comfort in isolating one thing and naming it. For a moment, at least, it can become either good or evil. I see this as the first stage of understanding. I don’t want to live in a black and white world, and I don’t believe in dichotomies, but I do want to explore my own values. I want to explore the issues and try names for them and get curious about whether, in my ideal world, they exist. In what form should they exist? Why do they exist now?

In exploration, I might create 100 names for the same thing. I’m not the same person I was when I wrote this story, and I wouldn’t write the same story now. The exploration, the naming, has changed me and my understanding of the world. The power, in this case, is profoundly personal. It’s not about power over something, but power within oneself to grasp and adapt and challenge and grow.

Johannes: Yours is a dark story, one that draws from a million visions of foodless, desertful futures. How come/why did you want to write such a future?

Jane: I don’t know if I did want to. People tell me that hopelessness isn’t useful. It’s what people who benefit from the current system want smart, aware individuals to feel. Such a paralyzing emotion makes us ineffective. All the same, I can’t fault anyone for feeling despair in the process of examining our present. Nor do I think it’s useful to deny any of our feelings. These are our instincts. They show up to tell us something.

It’s true that we can’t live in despair. Despair admits defeat, but we have to look into our worst fears or suffer through consequences of a life unexamined. I think a 3 page story is the perfect vehicle for examining this kind of darkness. Any longer, and we couldn’t hold it, but at 3 pages, we can bear to look. The hope is that we can take an honest look at the worst, so that we can come back to the world and work with a sense of urgency and purpose.

Michael: This story takes a folktale and moves it back away from the sanitized bedtime story realm of Disney, back even past Grimm and into a territory I might call primal. How do you think the role of folktale and myth in humanity’s definition of itself is changing as we move forward? Where do you see your own writing falling in that process?

Jane: Mythology shifts to reflect the stresses and obsessions of a culture. When we examine the stored wisdom of our ancestors, their tales have a repeated warning against human pride. They divide the earth into distinct realms, and humans who reach beyond their realm toward godhood always suffer for it.

In Western culture’s modern era, our tales have shifted away from maintaining any complex or subtle balance. Our current folktales seem to engage almost exclusively in the narrative of good vs. evil, as though such a dichotomy really exists. Our children grow up believing their greatest purpose is to become super heroes. But super heroes are humans at their worst. They’re prideful and violent and model reaction rather than thoughtful action. In other words, as a species, we have come to believe so thoroughly in our own supremacy that we have replaced the gods of our ancestors’ lore.

I think the role of folklore and myth has always been to reflect our understanding of ourselves. We use stories to demystify, to problem solve, to reinforce cultural values, to sooth. They are an outgrowth of our collective consciousness, so perhaps the question isn’t, what role does folklore play, but, how can we actively read folklore in order to reveal ourselves and meaningfully reflect on our values. At their best, I think that’s what these re-tellings do. They name and question the values that made them.

Johannes: What’s your favourite fairy tale, and why?

Jane: If I named one here, it would be a lie. I love the repeating narratives and the ways that folktales reflect the cultures that created them. I love the way they change to reflect changing value systems and depending on who is telling the story. I can’t isolate a particular story from that tradition.

Michael: These are great answers! As honest and unflinching as your story. Thank you very much.

From Paris, With Rage

George F.

“Nonviolence declares that the American Indians could have fought off Columbus, George Washington, and all the other genocidal butchers with sit-ins; that Crazy Horse, by using violent resistance, became part of the cycle of violence, and was ‘as bad as’ Custer. Nonviolence declares that Africans could have stopped the slave trade with hunger strikes and petitions, and that those who mutinied were as bad as their captors; that mutiny, a form of violence, led to more violence, and, thus, resistance led to more enslavement. Nonviolence refuses to recognize that it can only work for privileged people, who have a status protected by violence, as the perpetrators and beneficiaries of a violent hierarchy.”

Peter Gelderloos, How Nonviolence Protects the State

 

Cops with eyes like sharks and faces like the underside of a boot are waiting for us as we get off the bus from London—the state of emergency manifest as a column of cyborg gendarmerie toting an arsenal of machineguns, tasers, handcuffs and kevlar armour. They stare. We stare back—predator and prey eyeing each other before the chase commences. We slip past them unmolested, disappearing into the suffocating warmth of the Metro. I am glad to be travelling with a trio of giggly matronly types. They are three womyn from EcoDharma, attendees of the first theatre of the oppressed workshop I gave there two months before: Oak—a bright-eyed leprechaun with fiery red hair and ruddy cheeks, her chuckling demeanour masking deep sensitivity and a scarred heart; Z. a shaven-headed elfin with a smile like a new moon, currently living in an intentional community in the south of Spain; Susannah—long, viridian tresses and a crackling voice, visiting out of Bristol, and at the biggest protest she’s been to in her seventy years.

“Ha. You’re like the virgin, the crone and the mother.”

“I’m no mother.”

“I’m no virgin.”

“And who you calling a crone?”

They laugh, a harmony like a deer bursting through dry twigs to crash into a babbling brook, echoing unnatural against the tiles of the Metro. They haven’t stopped talking the whole trip over from London.

The benches of the Parisian boulevards are lined with huddled forms in sleeping bags, their possessions arranged neatly around them like genteel barricades. It’s warm down here, even peaceful once the trains stop running.

Still, I am relieved we have the promise of a roof, of a bed and shelter.

We march, and arrive at L’Annexe only to discover everyone has already moved on to a cabaret night at another squat. We troupe over there, a long walk through dark city streets.

Two bullet holes in a window with an unhappy smiley face painted below them form macabre eyes to the frown. I am reminded of Budapest, where my guide pointed them out in the walls of the buildings from the revolutionary days.

“God,” says Oak. “Is this where the shooting was?”

“One of the places,” says Z.

We cast our eyes over the layers of floral tribute laid out before La Belle Equipe. Hundreds of bouquets, handwritten messages, candles, roses, lilies, tulips, some faded and shrivelled already, others freshly dropped, laying piled on the ground, stacked before the closed doors of the restaurant.

Z. is chattering. I catch only the second half of it: “–there was also the have-nots, the economic underclass who attended no cabarets, whose labor built the Tower. There was even a gang of illegalist anarchist bankrobbers around at that time in France—the Bonnot Gang—who stole from banks calling it expropriating from the rich. They were the first people to use motorcars to getaway. The police had to chase them on foot or on bicycles. They started after the leader was fired by his boss–”

“You have to ask—would they have started robbing banks if there had been work for them?”

“God, I wonder,” asks Oak. “I wonder how many waiters, plongeurs and busboys died in the shooting?”

“Is it better that the rich die than the poor?” asks Z.

“I’m tired. Let’s go to bed,” says Susannah.

oneslutriot. Strong & Stable, 2017. Pens on paper.

L’Annexe is impressive: a tall, four-floor warehouse complex, scrubbed clean and polished, carpeted and furnished. It reminds me of all the best social centres from London, though it will only be short-lived. A crew who thought they were about to be evicted had remained in their old home and volunteered the space to host the arts-activism programme during the COP21 Climate Conference.

I drift through the kitchen area, where hot soup and salad is being prepared by members of the Anti-Cop Kitchen Collective, through a partition of plastic sheeting, past a serious sounding meeting on food rights and conscious cafés in South America. There is bustle and business everywhere, the place a hive of activity.

“So hello, this is the legal briefing. Thanks for attending. Now as you are going to be part of the de-escalation team, you will be at high risk of violence and arrest as you will be stood directly between the police lines and the main protest. It’s important that you memorise the names of some solicitors who are sympathetic to the cause, as the police will think you intended to be arrested if you write the names or the numbers down on your body. They will not call the number on the flyer.

“At the refugee march people attended and were then later identified and arrested by the police at other events. This is because of the state of emergency; 58 people were arrested, yet only two received warnings for attending a forbidden demo. Maximum sentence for this is 1 year imprisoned.

“At the Climate march there was a mass act of civil disobedience that resulted in a kettle, tear gas and baton charges and 317 random arrests.

“You don’t have to carry your ID. You can give your name and a date of birth, and that counts as identifying yourself, but you may want to decide whether you wish to comply with the police state. If they don’t believe you, you want to prepare that someone has access to your passport. You could be asked to leave France for one year.

“If you are attending the march, you need to plan as if you will get arrested. If you are taking a gas mask, it is classed as a defensive weapon. You should be careful taking anything that could be deemed a projectile. Don’t take any drugs, knives, guns or whatever, and if you are arrested, try to hide your phone inside your pants, as the police here don’t check as thoroughly as other places. There’s already been examples of people uploading video messages from inside the jail. If you’re caught, call the number and tell them which police station you are in.”

“So what have the police said about the march?”

“It changes every day. Under the state of emergency it’s illegal for more than two people with a political message to gather, which is why people are heading to the convergence point in pairs. Any attendance at a political protest is an act of civil disobedience. They have permitted the human chain and tolerated writing ‘climate justice’ with people’s bodies. The protest with the thousands of empty pairs of shoes was beautifully done, but the red lines action is still civil disobedience. The state of emergency means more stop and search and raids on many of the squats and convergence centres across Paris. L’Annexe was raided just last week by a hundred stormtroopers and is under constant armed surveillance. We are half expecting another raid before Saturday. The legal team for the protests have been put under house arrest, but nothing more.

“If you are arrested, you need to use the buddy system. Make sure you are clear who your buddy is, and do not lose them. If they go to the toilet, you go with them. With your buddy you organise into an affinity group, making sure you are always with people who are watching, but not at risk. They should always know who is there, what happened, and where, and afterwards these are the guys who greet you outside the police station with champagne.

“Now, please can you raise your hands, wrists together. If you bend your hands down, when they put the handcuffs on you they will be looser than if you just keep your hands like this. Believe me, if you are cuffed for a long time, this will make a big difference. Remember to hide your phone in your pants and when you can, smuggle it out and text people to let them know what’s happened to you. The process at the station is that they will fingerprint you, photo you, and frisk you, but not very thoroughly. Often at this point it’s easy to ‘accidentally’ smudge the fingerprints, or mess up the photo somehow, or generally play around with them to delay a bit more. They will keep you for 4 hours to check ID, then up to 24 hours to investigate you.

“When you are to be released, you don’t have to sign anything. Repeat—YOU DO NOT HAVE TO SIGN ANYTHING. They may pressure you, but there are people already regretting signing something they did not really understand, and it’s making more problems for them now. Even when you receive your possessions back, you do not have to sign anything. Repeat—YOU DO NOT HAVE TO SIGN ANYTHING. The police may put something else in with your stuff and cause you a lot of problems. Some people we know unwittingly signed a conditional discharge, and if they had held out, they wouldn’t have had to sign anything.

“They normally tell you it’s a piece of paper describing your time in custody, but the translators there are very much on the police’s side. If they do anything illegal during your time in custody, you can appeal afterwards, but if you sign, it makes it much, much harder.

“If you have no access to a lawyer or interpreter, try to keep mental notes on what the police do, or do not do, and make physical notes immediately afterwards. If the police decide they are going to investigate a crime, they will give you access to a solicitor within 4 hours.

“Now, when being interviewed, it’s a bit different from in the UK. In France it is not ‘no comment’, but ‘I have nothing to declare’. Repeat after me.”

“I HAVE NOTHING TO DECLARE.”

“Again.”

“I HAVE NOTHING TO DECLARE.”

“Again!”

“I HAVE NOTHING TO DECLARE!”

“Now let me describe my ideal arrest. I’m in for 24 hours, so I can rest, I am with my friends. I have done the handcuff trick so I am ‘comfortable’ and have my phone hidden in my pants. I’ve told them I have nothing to declare and have managed to smudge my fingerprints and ruin the photo. I sign nothing! After 24 hours I am released with my friends and greeted by champagne and chocolate and beer.

“Now, afterwards, I have to deal with trauma. Arrests can be and are often violent. I need to make sure that I have money for the Metro, a map. The police could release me somewhere far away where I’ve never been before. Have you got a safe, warm place to go back to? A major thing after release is not to pressure people, give them time. At some point they will want to speak.

“Make sure you take the time to read all the legal info, educate yourself as much as possible.

“So overall, gatherings are prohibited. You can get a maximum fine of 75,000 euros or 6 months in prison, but so far all that has been issued is a warning. They have the power to ban people from certain areas, or force certain groups to dissolve.

“Let’s talk about medical preparation. Tear gas. First of all, it’s a projectile weapon. If you get hit by a canister it can seriously hurt. It can kill. Secondly, the gas burns on the skin, the eyes, but it won’t kill you. It’s like intensely concentrated onions, but it won’t kill you, so don’t panic. You can limit its effect with a scarf soaked in vinegar or lemon juice. Make sure you have baby wipes. Now if tear gas is blowing in the wind, walk upwind of it, sideways. Unless of course the police are there. There’s some great footage from the 29th if any of you are into riot porn.

“If it gets on to your skin, it can cause some problems. Don’t wear any make-up, and wear glasses, not contact lenses, as they can melt into the eye. If it’s CS gas you may not even see it, as it’s invisible. Now can I have a volunteer to pretend they’ve been tear-gassed? Ok, thank you.

“Now, if I see someone has been gassed, what do I do? Ok, calm down, calm down, it’s ok. It’s Eve here. Kneel down, turn your head on one side. And now I squirt water in from one side. Now, from the other. Good. If you do it from the top down it can burn the body. Tell them the effects won’t last more than half an hour.

“Pepper spray is a short range weapon. If it gets on the clothes, remove them. When you go home, don’t have a hot shower, wipe it off and use cold water.”

“It helps to have clean skin.”

“One day I might.”

“I once saw someone in tear gas stand with their eyes screwed shut and not move. Just before it hit, they took a huge deep breath, hyperventilated, and waited until it subsided, sipping air with their eyes closed.”

“Swimming goggles can also help. One of the hardest things is the impulse to get away. We ended up fumbling around with our buddies.

“Ok, now if the police charge, one more thing is to cover your head and neck with your hands. If you want to keep your hands up, make sure you do so in fists not fingers are the batons will smash them to pieces . . . .

“Ok, let’s review the solicitor names . . . .”

“The struggle is the tension between holding on and letting go.”

We are in the large space downstairs at l’Annexe. Word of the workshop has spread. I count sixty people lined up against one wall. An expectant, almost religious silence has descended. Even towards the other half of the space, beyond the plastic curtains I can see people tip-toeing past as they continue to prepare the next meal from the Anti-Cop Kitchen.

I swallow and breathe deep down into my stomach in short, controlled bursts.

This is a totally spontaneous, open exercise. I have never done it with so many people.

“The ritual. We are going to perform a ritual together. When I say begin, you are invited to enter into the space and perform your part of the ritual. The ritual will be over when it is over. There will be no set time-limit. When we collectively feel it has come to a close, it will be over. The world needs healing. We need healing. So this shall be a ritual of healing.”

There is a long, open moment, and for that moment my heart leaps into my throat and my stomach clenches and my mind whirls and my tongue goes dry.

“Begin.”

At first in silence, people begin to move, entering into the space, prostrating themselves on the floor, or beginning to walk in slow circles. At first, the efforts are individual, chaotic, fragmented invitations, but then the machine mind takes over, and people begin to connect and feel what is happening around them, to move together cohesively. No one speaks. No one explains or directs or orders. People sense and feel how to work together to create this ritual space spontaneously, without pre-planning, without leaders or followers, people coming together autonomously to create something bigger than their individual selves.

A bald-head monk in saffron robes is moving in slow, serene circles around the outside, chanting low and calm. Others join him, breaking from smaller circles within to follow. A second circle, closer in, is faster and lighter, people skipping and singing in high clear voices, whirling their arms and zigzagging high and low like swallows on the evening breeze. At the centre, dead centre, a woman kneels, head to the crowd, piercing the chanting and song with a high-pitched, keening wail.

Others gather to her, and the lamentations sear through the room, high, screeching releases of treble agony, soaring above the mid-level melodies and the deep, bass chanting.

The room is electrified. I feel every nerve on my body tingle. A hallucinogenic harmony swamps the space. Time dissipates and I have visions of the entire solar system, the Spiral Arm of the galaxy, whirling in cosmic union in this room in Paris. Electron people whirl around atoms of raw emotion in human form. My head swims with the mix of chanting, wailing and shattering whoops.

And then the movement begins to slow, person by person, sections of the mandala settling to rest, contemplative and still. Frequency by frequency, silence is restored. A stillness settles over the group, part by part, until everything is frozen and there is only the deafening emptiness of sixty people breathing together.

My voice rumbles as if in a cavern.

“The ritual is now at an end. You may remain in this space if you wish, or you may leave. If you need people, reach out to those around you. Take care of yourself. Thank you.”

Trancelike and wild-eyed, people drift from the mandala, and it crumbles apart as people silently and slowly return to themselves. Ambient noise of the kitchen, the street, the world returns.

“Fooking hell,” says Oak. “That were a bit intense, want it?”

I’ve been invited to sit in with Rooty, Eve and M. who gave the legal briefing earlier in the day. We gather upstairs in one of the open workspaces. People drift through. Looking round the three womyn, it seems like they have been barely sleeping for weeks. They have all been here more than a month, organising and participating, working ceaselessly to coordinate the many different groups involved in the protest. It seems they have a job for me.

“So we’ve been tasked with this de-escalation. . . . We are now de-escalation angels. But is it even really possible?”

“We’ve been in almost constant contact with the police, and with the Secretary of State. They are terrified that tomorrow will turn into a riot. I mean, is this going to work?”

“Well, as I see it, the de-escalation crew’s role is to help create a joyous atmosphere. We’ll be public game playing, some stewarding I guess, and generally trying to help turn tense situations around and have fun. If the tear gas goes off we’ve obviously already failed.”

“So the Rebel Clown Army will be there. They will be on the front line next to the police, then you guys, and then the main march. Also, the climate angels will be coming, have you seen them? Oh they are just amazing, with these huge, feathered wings. Just beautiful. There’s a great video online of a wing smacking a cop in the face—purely by accident of course. There’s going to be foghorns announcing the beginning of the march, the moment when people lay the flowers down, and then two minutes silence.”

“At the end of the two minutes silence the brass band will kick off, and the party starts.”

“So we’re really going for a funeral ritual. A funeral for the environment, for the failure of the governments to do anything meaningful, and then a big party atmosphere.”

“I can’t wait for Saturday night when it’s all over. I am going to do some serious dancing.”

“Straight out of the cells and on to the dance floor, ha ha.”

“It’s been a long two weeks.”

“We’ve all earned it.”

“Oh, the workshops today just helped so much. So much relief, just to remember that all of this is just made up. Invented.”

“It’s so easy to get sucked into all the bullshit, but that’s really all it is.”

“We can tell you now what the route is going to be–”

“But that might all change–”

“Again. We’re on to like Plan X.”

“It’s been a constant clusterfuck. Any other changes—and there will be I’m sure—and we will inform everyone through text. Make sure people get their numbers down for the tree.”

“But as of tonight the convergence will be at the Arc de Triomphe.”

“And from there march to the Eiffel Tower.”

“So the police, the government, are all terrified of anything happening to the Arc de Triomphe. Any vandalism. As much as a bottle thrown at it. They will charge.”

“They will charge. I mean you couldn’t have a bigger symbol of nationalism, militarism, of France itself.”

“They have elections in Paris this weekend and they’re terrified of a riot. They say if there’s a riot, the Right will win in the elections.”

“It’ll ruin the Left’s reputation.”

“By the way, what do you think? Should we buy plant pots for tomorrow?”

“Plant pots?”

“Yes. For the tear gas. It’s the best way to contain it apparently. You just pop a plant pot over the top.”

“Errr. . . . Better to have them and not need them I suppose.”

Suddenly Z. arrives, tears in her eyes, but laughing at the same time.

“I just found out my boyfriend slept with someone else.”

“That’s not funny. Why are you laughing?”

“Oh no, are you ok?”

“Yeah, I know. Just now. I mean, it’s annoying. It’s a shock. I mean, he was the one who didn’t want a polyamorous relationship. He said he was really drunk, and that he hadn’t been drunk like that in over a year.”

“That’s really no excuse.”

“Oh love, come here.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll look after you. It’s going to work out.”

“Thanks, guys. Sorry. Let’s get back to the meeting.”

“So the coalition has agreed that we will not cross the police lines. If we do, they will charge and shut the whole thing down. If anything is thrown, a single thing, they will charge. We’ve gotten all the different groups to agree to the non-violence policy. It’s been a massive job.”

“One of the clowns knows the black bloc crew and he’s meeting with them tonight to ask them not to attend this march.”

“Black bloc here is a bit different than from in the UK. In the UK, they tend to turn up, join in a march, get a bit rowdy, and that’s it.”

“The guy said here ‘they take it seriously.’”

“Whatever that means. Anyway, so hopefully they won’t be there. They can do their own thing, somewhere else, all power to them, but not here.”

“It’s all going to be super-fluffy.”

“We hope. After the 29th the last thing we need is another load of arrests and tear gas.”

“The police are going to do everything they can to avoid that.”

“Maybe tomorrow we could schedule sometime for you to talk directly to the de-escalation bloc. A few of them were a bit shocked by the legal briefing. I think it all got a bit real for them, talking about tear gas and smashed hands and jail.”

“It’s all really unlikely, but of course, everyone should be as prepared as possible for what could happen.”

“One woman has permanently affixed contact lenses. She’s terrified they are going to melt into her eyes! But tomorrow, yes, we’ll organise the group more directly and get everyone to assess where they are comfortable being on the day.”

“God, I’m just so tired. . . .”

“Don’t worry, we are nearly there now.”

We set about our plan, preparing to hit the streets the next day as a human buffer, part of a layer cake of defense between 20,000 protesters, the Rebel Clown Army, and the delightful French riot police.

We speed-date people in pairs to find their buddy. They circle through a number of potential dates, discussing their willingness to be near The Front, as it is known. They discuss fears, hopes, expectations, before swirling on.

I partner with a smiling young bearded Worcestershire boy named Jake—another volunteer from EcoDharma.

“Every buddy pair, get with the buddy pair next to you, so you are a four. This is your brick. Stay close to your brick as much as possible. You are two pairs of buddies, looking after each other. If one half gets arrested, the other can report it. Get their numbers now.”

I sidle over to Oak as the group begins to disperse. She is smiling excitedly, and has buddied with Z., who also grins expectantly. My buddy Jake gathers too. This is our brick. We do a group hug, linking our arms around one another.

“So,” I say. “Ready for a riot?”

oneslutriot. Anti everything, 2017. Pens on paper.

An iceberg from Greenland has been dragged to Paris by boat, where it now sits outside the Pantheon in more than a dozen gleaming shards of diamond, decaying infinitesimally and inexorably before our eyes. We walk, humbled, mesmerised, touching each one solemnly, the icy water chilling our fingertips, anointing our foreheads with it. I wonder how many thousands of years these droplets of water had been trapped in the ice, how many lives had passed between now and the last time it existed as a liquid, how many moments had been strung in between. The scale of it is overwhelming. At the head of our procession, a Buddhist monk in saffron robes with a gentle American English accent provides some reassurance in his quiet confidence, a timely reminder of the inherent emptiness of all phenomena, allowing some philosophical perspective on the tragedy of ecocide.

I have already linked up with Jake; the other buddies and bricks arrive in discreet pairs, having been told to spread out to avoid arousing suspicion. There is Rooty and her wife Loupe, Susannah and the monk, Eve, Z. and Oak. Everywhere are the bright flashes of red we have been asked to wear as part of the red-lines protest.

Freedom, freedom, freedom. . . . Freedom on my mind.

The song spreads, voices raised in the simple refrain, voices harmonising, male and female and other, high and low.

It feels faintly ridiculous, all this hippie trash, but it helps people relax.

Eventually, in that strange group-mind telepathy, silence descends, broken by the ululating cries of a wedding taking place in the church opposite. We return the cry joyously, releasing more tension, more stress, up into the clear Parisian sky.

A tall man in a dog-collar and white suit, his hair a silvery bouffant crown of steel wool, steps from the circle to address us in a strong, mercurial tone.

“Brothers and sisters can I get an Earth-a-llujah?”

“Earth-a-llujah!”

“Amen, brothers and sisters. My name is the Reverend Billy, of the Church of Stop Shopping. I’m from New York City, and for many years now, myself and members of the congregation of the Choir of Stop Shopping have been travelling around, meeting with like-minded individuals, and preaching the Gospel of Stop Shopping. We are wild, anti-consumerist gospel shouters and Earth-loving urban activists who have worked with communities all over the world defending community, life and imagination.

“It’s an honour to be here in Paris, and to have attended the workshop yesterday and seen such powerful moments of healing, of people coming together, to nurture each other, to heal one another. Can I get an Earth-a-llujah?”

“EARTH-A-LLUJAH!”

“This week we’ve seen some dancing in the streets. In particular, the dance with police is heart-breaking and revealing. It is a gift to all of us out here who will carry on the Earth’s work, the job of tornado-ing in the plazas. The mind-leap that the politicians and police make—that any gathering in public space resembles the Other and must be called Extreme—this doesn’t seem like France, but I am naive.

“My lazy thinking has it that I myself would never be this way, but we all fall back into fear, don’t we? We are the predator species, and we forget that we are made of the Earth. We are mammals made of soil and ocean-water, a column of water up on our hind legs.

“That is what we are on both sides of the conflict. But one side has a club and no face. The other, you, you bring your vulnerable body as close to the action as you dare. You show your flesh to the public air and receive the bruise. You show a smile, you are hopping in place, and then running back to slow down a friend’s arrest. Can I get an Earth-a-llujah?”

“EARTH-A-LLUJAH!”

“When we protest we make a storm in the street that the Earth’s horizon watches with interest. The Earth is our leader and our teacher. We know that the Earth will win. She will heat up but she will survive the extinction that sweeps across her eco-systems. We know that the men in body-armor will join us ultimately as we fall to the ground like leaves in the autumn. At some point the cops too will feel the Earth in their bodies—that is what will persuade them not to work for nationalism descended from old wars.

“The Earth fills us up and sends us into the fight with instructions in its singing molecules. She gives us power beyond policies, ego or courage.

“When we watch you on the streets we feel a strange kind of gratitude—your bodies are like letters arranging in words against the page of the ground. You give us our new instructions!

“Now I don’t have my choir here with me, but two sisters here have volunteered to lead us in a song, Sisters, if you could?”

Two of the sisters step forward.

“This is a song we heard at the conference a lot, a lot of the young activists were singing it during some of the actions, like the Louvre oil action, and I think it’s great that we pick up the voices of others. It goes like this. . . :

 

People gonna rise like the water, gonna turn this crisis round.

Hear the voice of my great-grand-daughter, singing Climate Justice Now.

 

We sing between the icebergs and below the Pantheon, and I remember that this is completely illegal, no more than two people are allowed to gather for a ‘political purpose’ under the State of Emergency. As our merry troupe of fluffy rainbow-hippies sings I can’t help but think what utter nonsense that is. I imagine clouds of tear gas pop-pop-popping as canisters fly. I imagine us all crushed and fleeing beneath a charge of black-clad robocops.

I am sat on a bridge overlooking the lazy snake of the Seine as it swirls below me, the free curry and rice given away by garishly dressed hippies from huge steel pots sitting like foam on the water of a sewage outlet in my stomach. My mouth is dry, parched, and all around me herds of strange animals drift and wander: people carrying signs that read ‘system change not climate change’, a pod of merpeople, their hair sea-green with plastic seaweed, a knot of chic students wearing keffiyahs and aviators, a single clown with white face and a red nose holding a balloon in the shape of a heart.

Below me, the brass band is lounging, a mob of twenty people in pink shirts and scarves, lounging in the baking sun, their brass instruments sparkling next to them like the weapons of ornamental soldiers. They have been parping and blasting for the last few hours, the strains of Bella Ciao still ringing in my ears from the assembly in front of the Arc de Triomphe.

Ahead, the Eiffel Tower rises, a monumental spear of iron matrices shooting into a cerulean sky. The walkways around it are a sea of waving flags and banners, people choking every spot of land with colour and movement, swirling in and around each other. Currently on the bridge, a number of people have chosen to sit down and symbolically block the path, urged on by a manic young man with a megaphone. For now, the police are observing casually, seemingly counting under their breath before intervening. I have no energy left, and drift off towards the Tower to find the others.

Jake falls in beside me, a gentle, calming presence, passing me a bottle of water.

“So. What do you think?”

I cast my mind back as we walk. The police had been waiting for us at the Arc de Triomphe. I had been searched by a cop with a face like dogshit. He had found nothing, though he made me remove my leather gloves with studs on them that I had worn against the chill.

Once out of the Metro, we had seen that we were walking into a kettle designed to collect us. At the far end of the boulevard, still a hundred metres before the Arc, a row of grey battle-buses with lines of armoured cops like legionnaires in front of them, blocking our way. At the opposite end, before the roundabout, a second line had drawn up to prevent us leaving. The side roads were still open, left for us to try to disperse, but it was like walking into a cage.

And thousands of people did walk in. We had assembled, orderly and polite, a sea of red and flags of all nations, colours, banners, people blowing whistles and chanting and cheering: “We are nature defending itself!” The sounds of indigenous pan-pipes interwove with the stamping chants of woad-painted earth-defenders clutching home-made shields emblazoned with sigils of trees, hawks and turtles, a pod of people dressed as deep-sea divers, swimming down the street in slow-motion.

At the police line, the dozen or so rebel clowns were already in position, mocking the stance of the cops with their own military pomp. We had lined up behind them, becoming the second buffer line. Whereas the clowns faced the cops, we faced inwards to the sea of people.

The foghorns blasted, and for two minutes, the thousands of people had fallen silent.

I thought about the lake of dead fish I had seen in India where the water had become too acidic from pesticides. I thought about those thousands of glassy eyed fish washing up on to the shore, and the peoples from the village gathering to stare incredulously and hopelessly at them.

Then the brass band had fired up, and a great, ragged cheer gone up from the crowds. The march had begun.

Except the cops had blocked both ways, and there had been no real way for the march to go. They had left open one exit, leading to the left out of the boulevard, and we stood between the clowns and the crowd as thousands of people marched towards us, and as cheerfully as possible we directed them to the left, to squeeze in twos and threes through this narrow gap and continue on their way towards the Eiffel Tower.

It had not felt great, but we stuck to our plan and stayed happy and felt the tension disperse as more and more people fed through the gap. The banners had to be folded up to pass. The Climate Angels, tall, exquisite creatures painted in silver and gold, with huge, ornate, feathery wings of pearl and lapis lazuli, had to edge carefully between the last cop and the wall of the building to get through.

“That boulevard,” I was saying to Jake as we walked back down the bridge towards the Tower. “It was chosen so that nobody would see anything.”

We gather up Oak and Z., looking elated but exhausted.

“Well, at least no broken bones, no tear gas!” says Oak. We smile.

Soon we are through the crowds, and directly under the Eiffel Tower, looking upwards at its skeletal innards like tiny teenagers looking up some massive madam’s metal skirts. It is dizzying, and we sit down on some benches, feeling deflated.

A woman half-hidden in a scarf, but with cropped blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, drifts lazily past me and hands me a piece of paper. On it is typed:

 

We are all angry now. As destroyers of the death-reality, we must act. The time for peaceful subjugated protest and failed A to B marches is over. They have made criminals of us all. We call on all those who are willing to gather and express their rage in defence of the Earth. Let us take back the streets and defy the State of Emergency.

Meet at Belleville Metro 1900hrs.

 

I smile.

“Now this looks more like it.”

We get out of the Metro one stop early, wary of walking into a trap, and stroll down to Belleville in high spirits. Our brick swaps beers and rolls cigarettes, skipping through the crowds out shopping or leaving work, approaching Belleville with watchful eyes.

We lean on the bars of the Metro, watching and waiting. A sparkling tingle of anticipation hangs in the air, not a gendarme in sight for the first time in a long time. The streets hum with the quiet business of a winter’s evening in the banlieue, Chinese supermarkets bustling next door to Turkish shops, well-heeled Parisians shuffling between them smoking Gauloise, old men with chic moustaches and young ladies their hair covered with headscarves.

We wait and watch.

Then, we hear them.

Coming up from the underground, the boom-boom-clack of bass and snare, followed by the sharp rattle and a blast of whistle, growing louder and stronger, emerging from the Metro entrance out into the streets to be greeted with ragged cheers and an appreciative laugh of release. It is the samba band from Rhythms of Resistance, thirty-plus strong, decked in pinks and floral tributes, emerging into the evening air.

Boom boom clak! Ba-boom-ba-boom clak-clak!

Bodies crowd around them, maybe two hundred strong, faces from the march and strangers too, some already masked and punching the air, the cries of “Anti-capitalista!” stronger and fiercer than ever, ringing through the streets in time to the band. Soon they have taken the road, and traffic must wait, backing up bemused and patient behind them. Our brick nods to each other, and we step into the road, becoming part of the mass, and them becomes us.

Boom-clack ba-boom-ba-boom clak!

We turn, as one, down a side-street, following the samba band and whoever might be at the head of this march. On the pavements we see older persons, shopkeepers, people with bags of cheese and baguettes, clutching a child’s hand whilst raising a supportive fist to salute us. People are smiling, happy to see the wild and the free marching in defiance of fear and oppression. All the while the cries ring from the buildings, my throat hoarse: “Ah-ha! Anti! Anti-capitalista-ha! Anti! Anti-capitalista!”

Boom-clak! Ba-boom-boom-clak!

The moment is long, the energy increases, so do the number of masks, the feeling of imminent explosion. I am reminded of the Fuck Parades in London, of the Long Week in Rigaerstrasse, the anti-ISA protests in Kuala Lumpur, the liminal moments when parties evolve into riots. The lessons of the legal warning occasionally ring in my memory, but more than anything, I savour this sensation of wild liberation.

Boom! Boom! Boom! Clak-clak-clak!

Blue lights strobe the darkening sky with ultramarine. The urgency of the march picks up, confused commands and bursts of running down the streets. Blue lights ahead, and blue lights behind—the kettle is closing in. We find an alleyway to the right, and soon two hundred people are streaming down it, people dragging their drums along and dumping over bins and trollies into the streets behind them. Someone falls, tripping another over them as they crash to the ground, others stopping to pull them up and encourage them onwards. Energy is bordering on panic now.

We emerge breathless on the far side, next to the canal. Dozens of people are still filtering through behind us and it seems that we have evaded capture—for the moment.

We spot the blue lights assembling at the road bridge, two hundred metres up from us. People are calling to hurry—“Allez! Allez!”—and we move instinctively away from the lights.

Ahead, there is a narrow footbridge over the canal, and beyond that yet more police cars. The noose is closing.

People begin to run, seeing the opportunity to escape slipping away. The bridge rattles and clatters as people pound over it. In the rush, I lose the others. I stop on the far side of the canal looking for them. People race past.

The sting of pepper spray on the wind hits me, searing my nostrils and eyes. The police have trapped perhaps fifty people on the opposite side of the canal—just where we were. Even from twenty meters away it is a raw and spicy wind. I am already moving, heart pounding in my chest, attempting innocence and anonymity, suddenly alone and vulnerable, unsure of who or what is awaiting on this side, or what will happen to those trapped behind.

I begin walking, pulling my mask off, heading up the canal where there seems to be space between the police. People sit eating baguettes and drinking wine on benches, watching the spectacle of a mass of black-clad people trapped between two lines of stormtroopers. I am calling my brick, hearing garbled messages from them. They have got across.

Later that evening, we are outside la Generale—the huge warehouse space the local squatters keep on lock-and-key for when they need a performance space. Inside is rammed to the rafters with smiling, laughing, leaping, euphoric crowds of people, leaping and stomping as the famous brass band from the march hammers through a borderline violent version of Bella Ciao. Every song they have played, every refrain, for the last hour, and even in the pauses between, the cry can be heard like a war chant:

Ah-ha! Anti! Anti-capitalist a-ha! Anti! Anti-capitalist!

We are drunk and exhausted, our eyes still stinging from the pepper spray, greeting survivors from the kettle on the canal as they drift back, grinning with giddy relief.

“They kept us there maybe an hour. I had a backpack full of equipment. I had to throw it into the canal. But still, after one hour, they let us all go. No arrests.”

“I guess they know it’s over.”

“For now.”

We are drinking cans of Maximator—11% strength beer that sizzles like gasoline in our stomachs and fires up our exhilarated chatter.

“So we did it. Somehow we did it. 60 people on the streets ready to stand between the cops and 20,000 protesters like some kind of weird human condom.”

“It could have been so different. I’m bloody relieved that nothing happened,” Oak is saying. “That talk they gave us about raising our hands up with our fingers bent so the truncheons didn’t break them. I was, like, God, what have we gotten into?”

“Yeah. I guess it was all fine. But was it enough? I mean, I have friends at home who would be horrified to know I was part of a ‘de-escalation team’. They are the guys who believe that non-violence protects the state, and that if we really wanted change, we have to fight for it on the streets.”

“But if you have a riot, you won’t have all these families and this creative atmosphere.”

“Maybe it would have been different, but also they would have just demonised the whole thing as being about ‘leftwing extremists hijacking the peaceful march’. The same old narrative. My biggest worry is how complicit we have become in working with the cops, the politicians, the whole status quo.”

“It’ll all ripple out, George. It’ll all ripple out somehow.”

We smile, then laugh a little more as the brass band chunters inside and the anti-capitalists a-ha! away. Through the windows, I can see faces beaming with delirious exhaustion, dancing away with stomping feet and fists pumping the air, and I am relieved it isn’t all broken heads and handcuffs and eyes red raw from tear gas. I suck at the Maximator, retch at how flat it is, and suddenly feel my legs wobble.

“Shall we?”

We round up our little crew for la Petite Maison and head off into the Parisian night. Flashing blue lights illuminate the boulevards, casting sapphire shadows against the tall trees and art deco facades of the buildings.

As we pass the orange-and-yellow frontage of a McDonald’s, Oak suddenly squeals and runs ahead, laughing but flustered.

“There was a guy! There was a guy wanking in the McDonald’s!”

I can’t help but look, and there indeed sat at the little shelf-bar in the window are two kettle-faced men, leering at us as we pass. One has his tracksuit pants open, and is pulling with frenzied focus at an unimpressive lump of meat under the tabletop. He is staring straight out, and for a moment I wonder if he is looking at us, or his own reflection.

I smile at him, hawk a huge ball of phlegm out of my throat, and spit it at the window. It splatters satisfyingly right at his eye level and slides down, a green nugget of sap and gristle. He pauses, looking shocked, and I flip him a rigid middle finger, before darting off down the street after the others.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the lackeys of capitalism,” I sneer. “They’re all fucking perverts.”

oneslutriot. Bank of No Money, Depford, London, 2016. Spray paint and acrylic, 100% stolen or recycled materials.

 
 
 

Joanne Rixon Interview: “The Complaint of All Living Things”

Michael: In the first of what will hopefully be many such interviews, editorial staffer Johannes Punkt and I worked together to come up with questions for Joanne Rixon about her Reckoning 2 story, “The Complaint of All Living Things”.

Johannes: What’s your own favourite national park, and why?

Joanne: I like this question, it’s unexpectedly tricky! It depends if you mean strictly National Parks only, or all public lands. My favorite National Park is Joshua Tree National Park in California. For one thing, I have an impossible fondness for deserts, probably due to reading The Blue Sword multiple times at an impressionable age, and Joshua Tree is quintessential desert. But also, it’s so close to LA, a major metropolitan area known for poor air quality—but there was a time when I was there, alone in the desert at night, and it was so quiet, and I looked at the sky and it felt like the very first time I’d ever seen stars.

If we’re talking all public lands, though, I’ve got to say my favorite is Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, in particular the southern, Snoqualmie end of it. It covers a lot of area, including some impressive mountains, but a lot of it looks like this. Which is to say, heartrendingly beautiful. I grew up on unceded Snoqualmie Indian Tribe land and most of my memories of childhood are set in the shadow of those mountains. In my family we’re all settlers/colonists, which makes it complicated for me to claim these forests as my home. I have no right to it, but I think it has a right to me.

Photo by Matt Antonioli on Unsplash

Johannes: Your story feels so searingly, hauntingly personal, and when I read it I am reminded of how the personal stories play a role in the very big stories of humanity vis-a-vis the earth. Is that what you set out to say, when you started writing this?

Joanne: Well I hope it doesn’t spoil the story to admit that that wasn’t what I was thinking about at all. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how humans relate to the natural world, because I reject natural-unnatural dualism. Which, ha, sounds incredibly pretentious. All I mean is that I believe that all things are equally natural—smartphones made by humans are as natural as bird nests or termite towers. The human belief that we are separate from or superior to nature is an illusion that comes from certain religious beliefs that I don’t share. We ARE the earth. Which, okay, was partly what I was writing about.

My main artistic goal, though, when I started writing, was to interrogate the idea of recovery from injury. I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about how Western medicine encourages people to see the uninjured body as the pristine, default state we should always be striving to return to. In my experience that’s neither possible nor desirable—because it’s impossible, it just means living in denial and sometimes incurring further illness or injury. In some ways the sea star near the beginning of the story is the central image I was thinking of—the sea star has been almost bisected, and is regenerating into a much different creature than it was before. It isn’t recovering—it’s becoming something entirely new.

So if I have a message about environmentalism or whatever (and maybe I don’t?) it’s only that, yes, there is damage, and yes, we go forward. One way or another.

Johannes: Your protagonist-narrator feels so strikingly human, strong and weak at the same time, and I wonder: how do you decide what to tell explicitly and what to imply, of backstory and character and everything?

Joanne: Oh, I don’t know. To be perfectly honest, most of the time I guess at what will feel more dramatic, and then look back at what I’ve written and see if I like it? I’m not a very methodical writer, have no formal training, and go through many revisions of everything I write.

I will say, one thing I do is I try to find the one perfect detail that can be explained in a way that will evoke the feeling of the whole. In this story in particular details were very important tools, because the narrator has forgotten the larger whole. Only the feeling of it remains. The reader doesn’t know what’s true because the narrator herself largely doesn’t know.

This is a good technique when writing trauma, in particular, because it allows you to show, e.g., medical abuse right there on screen without actually traumatizing your reader. You just focus on the color of the nurse’s shoes, and that allows the reader to know—to feel—but also to not know. And this makes it bearable.

Michael: What happens when a story takes a deeply innate human process and magnifies it, the way you’ve done here with forgetting and pain? How does it work on the reader, how do you want it to work?

Joanne: I don’t know if I can say whether it works or doesn’t. I think each reader probably has a different experience? But I can tell you that what I was trying to do here was—maybe I would say, focus rather than magnification.

Pain is an interesting thing to write about because of the way our minds falter when processing it. A healthy human brain can never quite remember pain. You can remember the color of the blood, the feeling of overwhelming panic, but not the sensation of pain. Even if your brain is damaged by the long-term presence of unrelenting chronic pain, you don’t really remember pain the way you remember other things. You remember, say, how angry and humiliated you were when you couldn’t get up off the floor, but you can’t remember the body-feeling of the pain that pinned you on the ground. The closest I’ve come is trying to remember and instead inducing the pain in my body in the present moment—giving myself a headache trying to remember a headache.

I’ve been fascinated by this quirk of memory for a long time, perhaps morbidly fascinated. There’s this thing that happens when you have chronic pain, and pain is in every memory, but you can’t remember pain—your memory gets weird. I wanted to take that forgetting and reverse it, or duplicate it, or see the underside of it, both because I want to understand it better myself and because I want other people to also make an attempt at understanding.

Part of it is the technical challenge, you know: can I make people remember something it isn’t possible to remember? But also, many of my stories are about pain or memory or both, because I’m a very selfish writer. I like to write about myself, I like to force my readers to think like a person with chronic pain for a few minutes as they read. Ideally it might draw a person toward self-reflection or a small dab of enlightenment, but to be perfectly honest I’m also happy if my readers get a headache trying to remember a headache. I just don’t want to be alone in it.

I don’t know if this answers your question. Also, I should include the caveat (because my mother has the link to this story!) that that makes it sound like Complaint is autobiographical, but it definitely isn’t. It draws on my personal experiences with pain, but only in a general way. Except I have actually camped at Padre Island National Seashore, that part is true!

Michael: Joanne and Johannes, thank you both very much, this has been great.

The Shale Giants

Marissa Lingen

We slide sideways.

You think you would see us, as big as we are, looming over the landscape, but the shale giants know how to slip quietly, one plane against another, and be gone into the fog. We like fog as we like all quiet things. Fog also comes in layers, and that makes us feel safe, at home, almost as safe as if we were still in our burrows.

We wait for our friends, our own kind. We come from slow waters, deep waters, quiet waters. Our friends take a long time to accrue, and too much pressure makes them hard, angry, someone else. Too much pressure makes us someone else.

To stay ourselves, we stand on each other’s shoulders. One upon another, we persevere.

For years the pressure that changes us happened accidentally, and we took it in good part, as we took everything in good part. There were no rituals to join with us, no offerings left for us. The turning of the year means something to the water, to the plants. Shale has no season.

We would take and turn the tiny creatures into parts of ourselves, in the quiet of time, in the seasons that meant nothing. We embraced and enveloped them, we encompassed them. No one gave them to us, but we sometimes offered them back. Sometimes we shared. Silently, with wonder. That was how we knew you warm living creatures best: through sharing the tiny past ones.

But now.

Now we have something you want.

You have taken note of our breath, you have breathed it in like gold, and you want it for your own. We want to slip sideways. You want to push us aside, steal our breath, set it alight in our lungs.

You want us to crackle and burn.

And we will burn.

We become something else when we are pressed, something hard but no less giant. Something that will not slip aside for you, and that will not slip into place for you. All of our deep waters have taught us, our cool waters have made us, and if you steal our breath, we will steal yours.

We are many-layered, and we are better than you at learning from each other, at standing on each other’s shoulders. We are vast. We want to be quiet. The thing we want most is quiet. The thing you want most to take from us is our quiet.

The shale giants have been. The shale giants will be. The turning of the seasons still means nothing to us. We can wait. If you want us to be hard and cracked and broken, we can turn those edges on you.

It may be time for you to think of offerings after all.

 
 
 
 

Podcast Episode 1: Delta Marsh

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Welcome to the Reckoning Press podcast. Reckoning is a nonprofit, annual journal of creative writing on environmental justice. This podcast will feature very occasional poetry, fiction and essays from the journal, plus interviews with the authors. I’m Michael J. DeLuca, publisher, and also the editor of Reckoning 2.

For our first episode, we’ve got Casey June Wolf reading “Delta Marsh”, her short story about mourning in suburban Manitoba that examines the commonality between civilization and wildness to be found in death.

I hope you enjoy. As Casey said on twitter, “Have a boo”.

 
 

This podcast is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). Content and audio recording are copyright by the author.

Delta Marsh

Casey June Wolf

The day after Mom’s funeral was cold for the season, rain heavy in the air but nothing actually spilling over, the sky a featureless silver-grey, and my whole body ached in sharp slivery ways. Her funeral was in Portage, where they lived, so I bussed out early from Winnipeg. Instead of going home afterward, I came back with Dad to keep him company and spend the night.

It was cold in the house when we walked in. There was a Mom-sized hole in everything. The frilly, faded cushions on her chair, piled together with a Mom-shaped dent in them. The clattering around that wasn’t happening. The not-invitation to sit down, put my feet up, tell her what’s been going on (keeping one eye on the TV while I answered). I stood by the front door taking in the emptiness while Dad made a beeline to his chair, without a glance at hers right next to it, pulled a beer from his jacket pocket, sat down and cracked it open. Then he picked up the remote and started clicking through the channels.

So he’d rather watch TV than talk. That’s Dad. This is me. I’d rather . . . I don’t know what I’d rather do. I watched him watching the idiots on the screen till my skin crawled and I decided to hit the sack.

I lay on my old bed looking at the ceiling for a long time. We lived—they lived—Dad lived on the edge of town right against the prairie, within spitting distance of the river. It would be half frozen by now. If I were to walk on its hardened edges they would squeak and crack and the river would slip around underneath like some water spirit, a drowned soul seeking release.

The brightness of the ceiling shifted now and then, when a car’s headlamps brushed it like paint across the shadows, or a silent owl for a second blocked the tall yard-light. Sometimes it was the light from the porch flashing on, to the sound of Dad rummaging in the icebox, and the clinking of bottles, and the door slamming shut. Then the light would die again.

I just lay there, a clamp across my chest, squeezing and squeezing, and dampness, just a little, around my eyes. Finally, I fell asleep.

 

I woke up early. Walked to the living room, sagged in the guest chair, a big lumpy thing that was hell on your back if you sat there long. The clock whispered every sixty seconds. Shh. Shh. Shh.

I had to get out. But go where? Not back to Winnipeg, that was sure; not back to work and questions and—I needed time. I didn’t need real life. I needed here.

An image rose in the back of my mind. Ducks rising off water, low sun igniting droplets as they fell, feather edges like blazing fans, trees black against the sky.

Delta Marsh. That was it. Wild as it gets around Portage. I could use wild.

Our marsh is famous all over the world. All sorts of scientists go there to do research, on the ducks and swans and the pelicans, too. It’s a special place.

I talked myself out of the deep, lumpy chair, pulled on a jacket and rubber boots and helped myself to the keys to Dad’s car. I filled the kettle and let it boil, poured hot water into a thermos and spooned in instant coffee. Took some biscuits off a plate on the counter, dabbed jam on them, wrapped them up and shoved them in my pack.

Gently opening the door to Dad’s room, I looked in to see how he was doing. He was asleep on his little iron bed, one arm hanging down, knuckles against the cold floor. His greasy white hair was scattered across his pate, his face was still. He was lying on top of his covers, funeral clothes disarranged, shoes dirty. Grey light came through his old sheer curtains, giving a cool lifelessness to the scene.

I withdrew. Walked away, my feet an inch above the floor, my arms no longer connected to my body. I pulled on my cap and left the house.

Their collie lay across the sidewalk. He looked up with faint interest as I stepped over him. Black poplars dominated the yard, leaves stiff and blotchy; a light breeze played them like castanets. I opened the garage, lifted the hood of the old Mustang, and checked the oil. Scrubbed the insects off the windshield and dust off the plates. Pulled the door open and slid in, starting up the car.

I like Winnipeg. But when I come back to Portage something uncoils in me, quiet and dark, like a garter snake waking up after a long winter sleep.

Winnipeg sprang up whole in an island universe of wild prairie; it squats on the land instead of growing out of it. Some day a big storm will clear it off, rake the whole mess of houses and trees and bright green lawns, the carefully tended gardens, the cars, the parking lots, take all the glass and steel and concrete and blow it all away. Blow, blow, blow, like giant tumbleweeds—far away, off the edge of the universe, back to the galaxy from which it came.

That’s what I hope for. I don’t even mind if it takes me with it. I just want the wild prairie back. But maybe Winnipeg’ll win the fight. That’s what frightens me.

What used to be endless aspen and wolf-willow, prairie sage and crocuses, wolves and bison and monarch butterflies, is now enormous squares of wheat, canola, rye, slashed down their middles with gravel roads. Porcupines, coyotes slip unseen. Wildflowers crouch knee-deep in the ditches. Aspens cluster in whispering, covert stands. And miles and miles and miles and miles of roads.

Once, when I was a teenager, Dad was draining a slough on his land. I’d known it since I was a kid.

It made me so sad. There wasn’t going to be anything left for the frogs and salamanders, or the birds that ate them. A bit of bush got sucked from the prairie every year. So I said, “Dad, what if all the prairie gets used up?” He just looked at me, snorted, and went back to work.

I was always the weird one, there.

I got the car backed out of the garage, steering around piles of machinery and tools and old bottles and cans, around chickens, coppery wings flapping as they scattered and squawked. I glanced back to see if Dad would appear in the window, then pulled off down the drive and onto the road to town.

Town had changed a lot, too. Spreading outward, fancier stores, more sophisticated people. But prairie breaks through around every turn. A tuft of grasses, a flicker of wings. Maybe the prairie would win.

I waved at Charlie Bouchet as our cars passed, and he waved back at me, smiling, on his way out of town to what I still think of as his parents’s farm.

You get born in one instant in ever-changing time and you think, this is it. This is what the world is like. But if you avert your eyes for a minute, you see the tail of it slithering away.

The prairie I thought of as endless, changeless. The people I fought with, played with, smoked with in the sandhills, the ones as idle and curious and mad at life as me, all moving away or stepping into their parents’ shoes and shifting everything around. The houses, the trucks, the fields. All ploughed up and planted with a whole new world. One I cannot understand.

I drove through Portage and continued past fields, farmhouses, great grunting machines bouncing over broken land, drove toward a low gathering of trees that extended over a large area and concealed the marsh, the prairie’s hidden heart.

As soon as I was there, I wanted to go the whole way. Not just peek at the marsh, but go to the research station. See what they were doing. What everyone was so excited about. I might have gone into science myself, if I had stayed in school. Studied the things these lucky people were studying. I was always very interested in the wild.

I steered the car up a short road that ended in a cluster of buildings. No one was visible. I sat there with the motor idling and looked at the dark buildings, the pale grey of the sky mirrored in their windows. I felt like an intruder, and certainly I had no claim to be there. What would I say if someone challenged me? “What the hell are you doing here? This is private property.”

I put the Mustang in reverse and drove back a ways to where there were some cottages, a couple of canoes left on their sides, and access to the public beach. I parked the car and climbed out, bringing my breakfast and walking along the path until I got close to the ice-fringed water. From the path I took, the marsh itself was hard to see. All I could catch was the occasional flat, reflected sky, with a view of ducks floating in conjoined pairs: one rightside up and the other upside down. Mostly all I could see were reed grasses and cattails, the dead of other years underfoot of the strong erect blades of this year’s growth, and some late-leaving red-winged blackbirds lecturing from the tips of the cattails. I walked along the wellworn path until I found a place to stop and look around. A flurry of feathered bodies scattered when I arrived, darting through the water, trailing black and silver Vs.

I drank some coffee, ate a few of the biscuits, listened to the chatter of the birds. When I’d been still awhile a wren came out of hiding among the rushes. A pair of gadwalls drifted by.

I thought about my mother. A long time ago she’d been jittery, excited, flaring up one minute and cheery the next. Other times she’d be staring out the window at the weather, her eyes large and questing, for months on end, it seemed. And then she’d be, “Come and sit with me, sweetie,” so I’d go and sit, but her attention would wander off till pretty soon I didn’t want to go to her anymore. Better to build castles out of popsicle sticks till it was time for bed. Better to look for empty bird nests, and mating snakes, and pitcher plants, their feet in muck, their pouchy faces open to the world.

I remember her, but it’s like a movie I saw years and years ago. No feeling, no colour even. Just that clamping on my chest.

A lady blackbird settled on the top of a reed. She was dull brown, pretty. I sat motionless till she dropped to the mud, scaring off the wren, and started kicking through the rushes. More blackbirds dropped down, or swooped in and clung to the tall brown stalks, or gathered in the bushes, clamouring.

This was it. This was where I needed to be. I felt that clamping ease a little. I breathed in the tart air. I was glad I was here.

At last the cold got to be too much, so I stood up stiffly, rubbing my hands together, frightening the birds away again. I walked back to the car, turned on the engine, the radio, the heat, and stared out ahead of me at fragile leaves on slender trees, paint peeling off the wobbly, incomplete fence, scratches against the bellies of the overturned canoes.

It was noon. Dad would be asleep still, most likely. I could go and wait for him to wake up. Try to get him to talk while he was sober. I could do that.

That dislocated, suspended feeling came over me again, like I was stranded in a bubble, floating apart from everything else. Nothing mattered; everything was bleak. I switched off the radio and headed back to the research station.

The buildings seemed deserted. I went from one to another, knocking loudly, shocked at the noise I was making, at the angry bludgeoning of my arm against the doors, but there was no response. I’d turned away from the last door, tears welling, and was walking away when a young woman stepped out from between two buildings. I waved at her, as normally as I could, walked up to her, smiled a thin, tight smile, said I was interested in their work, asked if I could have a look around.

She listened with a sort of forced patience, nodding. Of course I would be interested in their work. Their work, unlike everything in my world, was intrinsically fascinating. Above my level, probably. Over my head. But she decided to be nice. Or diplomatic. I imagined the cogs turning in her head.

She was a student, she said. She offered to show me around, which she did in a perfunctory way, with a half-smile, and then led me to a lunch room and gave me a seat at the table. A number of other students looked at me curiously as they came in with their food.

My brief, wild anger was gone, drained back into the marsh. I was deflated and regretted having come, but saw it through. I drank the coffee she made me, glad of its heat. I brought out the last of my biscuits and gnawed on them while the others ate their lunches. She sat beside me as if I was her guest, but we had little conversation, and she joked with the others about their research. At one point I asked what she was working on.

“It’s a little hard to explain,” she said, and they all laughed. “People don’t generally understand. But it’s going well, it’s going very well. Only problem is I’m running out of ducklings.” She looked at me with a grin and said, “I cut the tops of their heads off, and somehow they don’t last too long after that.” I stared at her, hoping this was a joke. She looked at a fellow across the table from us. “You got any ducklings I can borrow, Tom?” He shook his head emphatically. NO.

After offering to help with the dishes and being refused, I went back out to the car. I had a little trouble getting my key in the ignition.

I drove slowly through the rain, minding the traffic, listening without comprehension to the radio. When I got back to Dad’s I eased the car into the garage and sat there with the motor off, staring at the damp, unpainted wall ahead of me, the tools hanging there, the cluttered counter, the dirty windows. I stayed a long time, just breathing, barely conscious of my thoughts.

Dad was sitting in the living room when I finally went inside, the lights off despite the bleakness of the day. His eyes were bleary and he didn’t respond when I said hello. I pulled off the rubber boots and jacket and went into my room to change. I sat down creakily on the bed, then lay back and let my gaze drift gradually over the far wall. An old jigsaw puzzle hung there in its frame. Two wolves snarling at each other, blood dripping down one’s brawny shoulder, a smaller wolf, a female maybe, or a big pup, cowering in the background. On the dresser lay a couple of books, and some socks, nicely folded, that I’d left in the laundry basket some other day. When Mom was still alive. A small crucifix hung over the dresser. More death.

After a long while I heard a movement in the doorway beside me. Wondering if I had drifted off, I turned to look. It was Dad. His eyes still bleary, his legs a little unsteady.

“Can I come in?” he asked me.

“Sure,” I said.

He came over to the bed and sat down gingerly. He stared at his hands, stained fingers folded together. He stared at the floor. He stared at the wall. Finally, he looked at me. He pulled himself up and put on his Grownup look, and said, “Well, I guess you’ve just got me now—” Somewhere around ‘just’, or ‘me’, his voice broke and tears came spilling out of him. I was shocked, but I didn’t move, betrayed nothing. He turned away sharply as if he was letting me down to see him break, as if the best thing he could do was what he felt he’d never quite been able to: stand tough and be a man. “I shouldn’t cry,” he said. “I just never thought she’d go.” Then he did the other thing he had never quite been up to. He put his arms around me and held me, a big sob tearing from his throat. I turned my face away and stared at the wall.

 

There is a moment when the electric light in my dad’s yard is caught up to by the wakening light of day. At this moment, my eyes struggle open. The curtains are wide. A snore, low and steady, comes like waves of comfort from the next room.

On the wall the perpetual battle ensues, wolf against wolf, wolf bitch/wolf child cowering in suspense.

A thin blade pierces a tiny skull. I feel it piercing: accurate, calm, unhesitant.

A peeling back of down, of film-slight skin and paper bone. Like a tiny plum, a brain is revealed. No pain. In silence. Death.

 
 
 

Fourth-Dimensional Tessellations of the American College Graduate

Marie Vibbert

Alana’s ex-boyfriend, Steve, met her at the driveway to Windermere Farms, his three-acre orchard wedged between the Rapid tracks and East 15 Street. “Thank you for coming so fast!” He backtracked like an excited border collie, leading the way up the weed-choked brick driveway.

“Is it taxes?” Alana’s friends were always asking her to do math for them, like it took a degree in mathematics to calculate a percentage, and since Steve’s text had said “Urgent!! Need U ASAP!” she assumed he was in legal trouble.

“No. This is a real math mystery, I promise! With bees!”

Steve’s latest scheme involved buying different strains of honeybee from around the world. He hoped to solve global bee collapse and make enough money off honey to pay his rent. Neglect and white flight had left this farmhouse preserved and cheap. It was surrounded by chain-link fences topped with broken segments of barbed wire weighted down with wild grape vines. Vacant-eyed apartment buildings stared over it all.

“The closed ends of honeycomb are trihedral sections of rhombic dodecahedra,” Alana said. She loved the sound of the words, the hard consonants repeating like the repeating angles bees built into structures.

Steve’s beehives, like a miniature apartment complex, stood in three ranks on the concrete slab where the home’s garage had once been. “Huh? Yeah, you are so the only one who can solve this mystery.” Steve threw a bundle of mesh over her. Alana struggled with the netting while Steve lifted the wooden cover from a beehive. Then he knelt to unsnap clasps like old suitcase closures on the front. “Look!”

Alana felt a welling of feeling—of magic, sexual excitement, of fear. Like the feeling when you crested the first hill of a roller coaster and looked down the track.

“Well?” asked Steve. “What is it?”

Alana knelt. The wax was warm and sensual with glistening honey. Thin lines formed, not hexagons, but elaborate shapes, something broken, with polyhedral sections branching off and crossing through each other and seeming to undulate.

“It’s not even tessellating,” Alana said. “Honeycomb is supposed to tessellate.”

“I know!” Steve bounced on the balls of his feet. “Is it completely random? Do I have chaos bees?”

“I’m not . . . .”

“I took a section for you!” Steve ran to the house.

Alana stared. The shapes were impossible to track, but there was some order; it lacked the grace of pure chaos.

Steve pushed a Lucite cube at her nose. “This was a photo frame of my dad’s. Photo-cubes. He had them all over the house. Not the point. Look at the section. Is it fractal?”

Alana turned the cube. In motion, the seemingly random shapes tessellated—they repeated.

“Alana?”

“Hecatonicosachoron,” Alana said. Syllables locked into each other, building meaning like links build a chain.

She felt Steve move the wooden hive-door in the grass and kneel beside her. “You know what it is?”

“I think . . . .”

She reached out and poked a hole in the beehive with her finger. The hole closed. When a fourth-dimensional object rotates, it will seem to heal because not all faces are perceived in the third dimension. “I think it’s a 120-cell. A hyperdodecahedron. Maybe. Tiled with other shapes. I need a camera.”

“I already took some pic—“

She shoved Steve. “Quickly!”

“Hey, there’s no rush. It’s been like that for . . . .”

“Go!” She slapped at him until he ran for the house. She didn’t want to take the time to explain her fears. It wasn’t hot enough to melt the wax, but wax deformed with weight, with gravity. What if the shapes went away, like unobserved quanta?

By the time she got all the angle shots she wanted, she was sticky with honey from pressing close and pulling sections of wax apart to capture the structures within.

She looked down at the smeared camera. She tried to lift her veil and it got tangled in her honey-slimed fingers. Steve was standing near at hand with the smoker pot. “Wait, where are the bees?” she asked. The next rank of hives were covered in a soft, moving matt of bee bodies all along their fronts, but there were none on the open hive and only a few in the air nearby.

“I don’t know.” He laughed. “I haven’t seen a bee on this hive in months. I thought the queen was dead. I found the weirdness when I started taking it apart. The honey is just . . . appearing. Isn’t it wild? I was so scared there wouldn’t be enough honey to sustain the hives, or enough pollination for my grapes.”

Alana walked away from the hive. She had to think and she couldn’t look and think at the same time. The complex geometries and the inner glow of wax and honey were too mesmerizing. She sat down on an overturned tub. A police siren wailed in the distance.

A glass of iced tea, sweating, presented in front of her, attached to Steve’s hand. She took it. “So,” he said, “You still haven’t explained it—I mean, you gave it some names, but what is it? What could have made my bees do that? At first I thought it was disease or poison . . . the messed up area gets bigger each day. It’s jumped to the two closest hives. But the honey is still good!”

“It’s a fourth-dimensional shape,” Alana said.

The hollow tub echoed with the force of Steve’s butt dropping onto it next to her. “Whoa. Fourth-dimensional bees? Are my bees invisible? I could be stung by invisible bees!”

“No, it doesn’t mean that. We perceive three dimensions. Fourth-dimensional shapes appear to us as three-dimensional. It’s . . . if you poked your fingers into water, a being who perceives only the water surface would see five circles, not the one shape of your hand. We see what intersects our plane of existence.”

Steve shook his head. “Wait, wait—the fourth dimension is time, isn’t it? Fourth-dimensional bees sting you in the past! I’ve already been stung! My bees are dead! It’s a paradox.”

“The fourth dimension isn’t time.” Alana had to breathe out slowly and calm herself down. This wasn’t the fiftieth time she and Steve had had this conversation. Usually some movie or TV show was involved. “Look—this is—yes. Thank you. Fourth-dimensional geometry is my specialty. I never thought anyone would ever call me about my specialty.”

Steve smiled goofily. “What are you going to do?”

“Analyze the photos. Write a paper.”

“Okay, but I’m going to start advertising honey from beyond our dimension, like, yesterday!”

Alana’s current boyfriend, Huy, smelled of turpentine, as did his attic apartment on Hessler Street. Splatters of paint—a past resident’s work in a mathematically improbable evenness—decorated the slanted walls. A bower window looked out on the top of an oak tree and let in the smell of someone grilling on a porch below.

Huy was as excited as Alana. He propped the painting he had been working on against the sofa and put a fresh canvas on the easel. “Fourth-dimensional bees.” His fingers moved quickly, just a tremble, a quick wiggle, and golden lines formed on the canvas. “Bees change gender chemically, you know.”

“Only at birth, and you wouldn’t want to be a drone,” Alana said, lying on the bed, which was musty from not being changed, perfectly boy-like. “As soon as food was scarce, the hive would kick your gigolo ass out.”

Huy laughed with his tongue against his top teeth, which were white and strong and always set Alana’s heart racing. “You know, Steve is cute,” he said, teasing her back. A mutual attraction to Steve had been their first connection. Art was their second. Once Huy painted water on her with his favorite sable brush. It was a sweltering day, and what started as a cooling technique became breathless foreplay.

The same brush strayed through sunshine yellow and goldenrod and ochre. “What are they building, these mathematician bees? What do they think they are making?”

“Bees don’t understand geometry,” she said, “But they make perfect hexagons. These bees . . . they can’t know fourth-dimensional physics or what they are creating.”

Huy crawled onto the bed. He teased her with the possibility of brushing paint on her belly where her shirt lifted. “Blind, passionate instinct,” he said.

“So where have the bees gone?” Alana asked. “They aren’t dying. They are just . . . gone.”

He shrugged. “That is the weird question.” He bent backward, unfolding in a boneless way that made her want to touch him. Huy had been a dance major, first, before painting. It left him unfairly graceful. “What are you going to do?” He went back to his easel.

“Find them,” Alana said. She twirled a finger in her hair, locking the curls into a column. “No one else has published on this. I checked.”

“Better get cracking, then.”

Alana twirled another lock, then another. She remembered twisting her younger sister’s locks, making tessellations of little puffs of afro. She glanced at the cracked mirror above the dresser. Could she make a hex pattern in her hair? She was procrastinating. She picked the twists apart as she looked for her laptop. She only had an hour before her shift at the coffee shop, and after that she had a MATH 102 class to teach.

The oddest question was: why hadn’t the bees made a 24-cell? That could tessellate on its own in four dimensions. Mathematicians called the pattern “tesseractic honeycomb.”

Alana was in her favorite coffee shop—not the one she worked at—a reclaimed Victorian druggist’s, the teas sorted in tiny little drawers with brass label-holders. The corners were braced, making flat hexagons, and she unfocused her eyes, turning her head to appreciate the honeycomb of wood.

She stopped. She looked down at the photographs and notes splayed out in front of her. She had printed out perspective drawings of three-dimensional projections of hyperdodechedra and other hyper-objects. She had been laying these, on tissue paper, over the photos and marking similarities and differences. And there were differences.

She got up without paying for her second cup of mocha.

Steve didn’t answer her text, but he showed up shortly after she was arms-deep in one of the hives they hadn’t opened yet.

“What are you doing?” Steve asked. “Careful! Don’t waste the honey.”

“I’m . . . rotating it.” Alana huffed with effort. She did damage the honeycomb, and spill honey, and there was a terrible ripping sound of two layers coming apart, but then she had the comb turned. She sat back and licked a glob on her arm.

The tessellation was off. There were interruptions in the pattern. Of course there were—120-cells didn’t tessellate. They didn’t stack like hexagons; they needed structures between them. Joinings. Ligatures.

Wiping her hands as quickly as she could on the grass, Alana got the camera out and took pictures. “There’s . . . something in there. In the math. It’s not simple repetition, there’s chaos in it, randomness.”

Steve said, “Well, yeah, it looks random to me.”

“But it’s not perfectly random. Do you know what that means?”

Steve shook his head.

“It suggests intelligence. It suggests direction. It suggests . . . .” Alana almost couldn’t breathe. “It’s a message.”

“Cool! From who? The bees?”

“I don’t know!” Alana’s sticky fingers hung in the air in front of her face. Evidence of non-human intelligence dripped and sagged in front of her and she didn’t know how to prove her theory.

Steve guided her onto the back porch and sat her down. The screen door opened and shut with a yelp of springs and a slap of wood. He brought out a bowl of warm water and washed her hands and arms and face. The rag smelled of beeswax and lemons. “There we go. Easy. This was supposed to be fun.”

Alana sniffled. She felt so comforted. Why had she ever broken up with Steve? “I don’t know how to interpret the message. I have data . . . but is it language? How do I decode it?”

“Hey, you know who is a whiz at that stuff? Laurel. The programmer? Why don’t we call her and have her take a look?”

“Are you guys still dating?”

Steve rolled his eyes. “You’re joking. Laurel was before Christian.”

“Oh. Right. Is he around?”

“Alana. Seriously? Christian was two girlfriends and a boyfriend ago.”

Laughs bubbled up through Alana. She bent over. Misunderstanding, Steve set his rag aside and hugged her. “Hey, hey. It’s okay. You’re okay.”

Alana got control of her breathing with a snort. “You have a repeating pattern,” she said. That was why she’d broken up with him. He didn’t get the joke.

Huy peered into the hives with all the absorption of an artist. “It’s more meaningful in three dimensions,” he said. “I should sculpt. Or just . . . heavy paint. Slather the canvas in dripping amber.”

He backed up into Laurel, who had been looking over his shoulder. She was taking a break to smoke a cigarette while her computer ran a dozen pattern recognition programs on the series of ones and zeroes Alana had interpreted from the presence and absence of ligatures in the honeycomb. Laurel was very well groomed. Her eyebrows were like black tildes marking her blue eyes as operators.

Alana didn’t like the way Laurel’s eyes travelled down Huy. Worse—he blushed and looked away.

Steve came out of the house with a tray of glasses. He puffed his chest up. “Who knew in undergrad we’d be unlocking the secrets of the universe at my farm?”

“The odds were good it would involve your exes,” Laurel said. She took a glass. The lemonade caught the sun. “Was there anyone you didn’t date? We could use a biochemist.”

“What for?”

“Alana thinks the honey might be alien.”

Alana felt everyone turn their attention to her. She hoped she hadn’t been scowling. She cleared her throat and sat up straighter on the hay bale. “It might be helpful to see if the honey was formed from different pollen than Steve’s other, normal hives.”

Laurel’s computer beeped. “Oo! That’s the compiler.” Laurel handed her lemonade to Alana and bent over her laptop, which sat on top of another hive. They were all ignoring the usual safety precautions around the strange hives. No one had been stung by an invisible bee yet.

The morning had been spent in figuring out the order of the message—how do you start and end in four dimensions? Top-bottom, left-right? Horizontal or vertical? There were 384 combinations in a fourth-dimensional grid. Steve presented the solution: time. “The fourth dimension!” he crowed, though really it was a first-dimensional solution. He talked endlessly of travel-stain and brood-comb—beekeeper jargon that helped track the age of each section of wax. Steve traced the ligatures into an order, oldest to newest. Alana had assigned each ligature shape a number, creating a string of numbers for Laurel to put in her computer.

Codes. Line up a string of numbers. Guess that the three represents an E because there are more threes than other numbers. You start to see two numbers always before 3, they are T and H. You’ve accomplished the code-breaking of middle school passed notes. Alana had thought—and gotten excited thinking—that she would have to write new algorithms to detect patterns, but the business of code-breaking was well-trod ground for computer scientists and Laurel hadn’t even had to download any new software.

Laurel stepped back from her computer. “Huh. Um. Crap.”

“Did it not work?” Steve asked.

Laurel frowned and typed furiously, ash scattering from her cigarette still held between two fingers.

“What is it?” Huy asked.

Alana tried to see over Laurel’s shoulder. Lines of text scrolled up the screen.

“I don’t like that look. That’s a bad look,” Steve said. “She looked like that when we broke up.”

“Shut up,” Laurel said. She picked up the laptop and carried it to the porch.

Alana, Steve and Huy followed. Alana drank the lemonade. It was too tart and cold.

Laurel had the laptop balanced on her knees. Her cigarette burned down, forgotten between two fingers. Alana was amazed at how she carried it like a ring, tossing smoke curls as she gestured. “There’s a pattern, all right. I’m sorry, guys. I don’t know how else to interpret this.”

“Is it a message?” Alana asked.

“Yes, and the message is: Danger. Quarantine.”

“Are you sure?” Steve asked.

Laurel gave him an insulted look.

“But who is the message for?” Huy asked, “Is it for Steve? Humanity in general?”

Laurel flicked her brassy hair away from her tildes. “We’re the ones who are killing them off with pesticides. It’s a warning to other bees.”

Alana got out her phone. “Steve dated a biochemist. I’ve got him on twitter.”

“Maybe we won’t need him,” Huy said. He opened Steve’s refrigerator. “I was researching honeycombs and color for my project. There was this wild story. It was in Salt Lake City. Suddenly, all these bee hives were producing red honey, in three different counties.” He stuck his head deep in Steve’s refrigerator, pushing and sorting jars and take-out boxes. “Dude. Clean up now and then. Anyway . . . yes.” He straightened, brandishing a fat jar half-full of red liquid. “Turns out, it was a maraschino cherry factory dumping its wastes. The bees would fly past miles of flowers just to eat corn syrup and red number five. Or . . . whatever is in this.”

Steve and Laurel had gone back onto the porch, talking over each other. “That’s idiotic,” Steve said. “Alana! Do you know why she’s interpreting this message that way? Semaphore.”

“It’s a beautiful visual system.” Laurel leaned in the doorway. “What would you use to communicate across languages? Shakespeare?”

Huy pushed between the two of them. “It’s certainly human to jump to the conclusion that everything is a warning. Everything is out to get us, so spray the bullets and the chemicals!”

“Easy, art school,” Steve said. “This is about data, not emotion.”

Alana helped Huy lay a cookie tray in the middle of the hives. The cherry juice shone like stained glass in the sun, like it had depth beyond the scratched tin sheet.

“The pattern repeats in a perfect checkerboard,” Laurel said. “It’s exactly the semaphore signal for danger or quarantine, minus the color.”

“Maybe it’s not a message at all,” Huy said. “Maybe it’s art.”

“How long until we can tell if the invisi-bees are eating the cherry juice?” Steve asked, argument forgotten.

“Invisi-bees?” Huy said. “Really?”

“I haven’t patented it or anything, dude.”

Alana stopped at the corner store after work and loaded two jars of maraschino cherries in her backpack alongside her laptop. She had wanted three, but there wasn’t quite room. As it was, she worried about the clinking sound when she went over potholes on her bike.

Huy and Laurel were already at Steve’s, playing cards with him on the screened-in porch. A jar of de-juiced cherries sat in the middle of the table, like the eggs of some alien insect.

“Hey,” Steve jumped up. “Do you think it’s been long enough to check the hives for red honey?”

“No,” Huy and Laurel both said, glaring at each other. They glared like the rest of the world had vanished. Alana felt uncomfortable. Steve ran into the kitchen. Alana followed.

Steve lifted an old-fashioned microscope onto his counter. “They’ve been arguing all day. I think they like it.”

Alana bit her lip. She set her backpack, laptop, and jars of cherries on the counter that separated the old butler’s pantry from the kitchen.

Laurel swung the screen door open with a bang of her hip. She held two glass slides and a lit cigarette aloft. “Anyone who looks at the math can see the pattern.”

Alana opened the file of data.

“Hey, you can’t smoke in here. We’re doing science.”

“Oo, so commanding.” Laurel bumped Steve with her hip, too. She played at holding the slides away from him.

“Quit it. You’re getting ash on the science.”

Huy shouted from the door, “Is anyone going to help me clean up?”

Steve waved Laurel away like she was a fly and bent to the microscope, adjusting the knobs. “Yes! There’s red in there. So is this one the weird hive or the normal hive?”

“If I tell you before you check both samples it will bias you. Here’s slide B.”

Alana had been trying to concentrate and listen at the same time. Something jumped out at her in the numbers and she stopped listening. She checked her figures. “It’s tessellated.”

“What?” Laurel said. “Shut up,” she said, when Steve tried to tell her about the slides.

Alana said, “The message—the pattern you found. It’s not one pattern, it’s a repeating pattern of a repeating pattern.”

Laurel nudged Alana out of the way and nearly burned her with her cigarette. Laurel said, “Loss-prevention. Redundancy. That’s why it looked like a checkerboard. They really cared about the message coming through.”

“Makes sense,” Steve said, “If you’re sending a message through beeswax. I mean: one fire and kaplop.”

Alana nudged Laurel out of the way as she saw her about to mess up a perfectly good formula. “I’ve been doing work on tessellations and fourth-dimensional geometry. Wait . . . stop.”

Laurel tried to push her aside again, then stepped back. “Okay, but don’t forget the second-order changes.”

Alana felt even more anxious than the first time, higher on a steeper roller coaster. A clean line of numbers formed. “There it is. Our message.”

“But . . . .” Laurel’s tilde eyebrows were tighter, almost square-root signs. “But what does it mean? What language do we decode it to?”

“How about English?” Steve asked. Alana realized she’d forgotten about the boys. Steve shrugged. “I mean, these are American bees, right? What other language would they have seen?”

Huy shouldered his way into the kitchen with the honeycomb separator and eyedropper. He pushed Alana away with his elbow when she tried to touch him. “I’m sticky,” he said. He bent over the kitchen sink.

“I love a man doing housework,” Laurel said, luxuriating on every vowel she spoke like it was the dirtiest joke.

Huy gave her a heated look. “Thanks for not helping, assholes.”

Alana left without looking at them.

Alana stayed in her own apartment that night, a joyless single-bedroom box all in cream and taupe. She wanted to move in with Huy, but for now she was glad she hadn’t. Math was a better boyfriend. Numbers didn’t care if you understood them, didn’t get angry or jealous. They just were.

She had dozens of texts. She didn’t read any but the one from Steve saying that both populations of bees had fed on the red cherry juice and to please stop buying cherries. She’d read it because she saw it was cc’ed to everyone.

There was a knock at the door. She ignored it. Then there was the sound of a key in the lock. She put her pillow over her head.

Rustle of paper bags. “I brought Chinese,” Huy said.

Clink of plates being set out on her table. She was not going to give in. But she was hungry and now she could smell ginger and soy sauce. She burrowed deeper under the pillows to block the delicious smells with her own hair-oil and sweat.

Huy touched her elbow. “Come on. I got dumplings. You love dumplings.”

Alana made a muttering sound she hoped could be interpreted as both ‘go away’ and ‘thanks’.

Huy sat next to her. The mattress dipped toward him, creating a gravity well she could easily fall into. She wanted to wrap around his comforting solidity. She held firm and scooted toward the wall.

Huy plucked the pillow from her face. “I flirted with Laurel. Laurel, I think, flirted back. It was childish and stupid. I’m sorry.”

Alana wanted to stay mad so she scowled and stayed put. He backed up, pulling her off the bed. “I’m not interested in her. Be more worried about Steve. Or dumplings. There’s your smile.” She fell against him naturally. His hand on the small of her back, he rocked her in a four-step. He started singing, “Dumplings . . . dumpling dance come dumpling dance with me.”

Alana froze. Huy frowned. “What?” he asked.

“Dance. Bees communicate through dance.”

Huy laughed as she clambered over the bed to get to her laptop. “I thought you were mad at me!”

“I am,” Alana said. “Bee dances are all about repetition and angle.”

Angles. She had been treating the ligatures as binary—presence and absence. Then she had tried shape—thin, fat, hourglass. What if it was the angle of each that mattered? Relative to what? The center of the polyhedron? She scampered to her dresser and found her initial photos and drawings still laid out.

“I’ll put the food in the fridge,” Huy said. “And call Steve.”

Laurel was at work, so they met in her research lab. “All right, I admit, I was totally wrong about the danger flag. It’s English.” She frowned at Steve’s smug grin and said, “Hush. Anyway, the language predictor said 98% chance of English, so I did the translation assuming that, and there are, like, sentences.”

She laid a tablet on the table. “This is real arm-hair-raising shit.” She backed away.

We have gone where you cannot kill us. You see us but we also see you. We could take our food. We could starve you.

“I . . . need to check your math,” Alana said.

“Please,” Laurel said. “But once I saw there were 26 distinct angles, I just assigned a letter to each and brute-forced it. I cold have done this on a napkin with a pencil.”

“We chased them into the fourth dimension,” Steve said. He slumped against a slate counter. “Guys? Humanity just got dumped.”

“There’s more to the message,” Alana said.

Laurel said, “I wanted to be sure. There’s about fifteen percent more, if I got the punctuation marks right.”

“It’s not going to end with ‘lol kidding’,” Steve said.

“Have a little faith.” Huy put his hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Let’s get coffee while the girls get their math on.”

An early winter storm lashed the storefront as they gathered four months later. Laurel chewed her nails, staring hard at the “no smoking” sign while Steve fetched their combined coffee orders.

“To us!” Steve declared, holding a glass aloft over the magazine spread on the table. It was as glossy as a freshly painted nail. Real print. Huy’s painting graced the facing page at the beginning of Alana’s article. They were all co-authors.

“I like Margot,” Huy whispered, glancing at Steve’s new girlfriend. She was a rubenesque beauty with a passion for organic foods. “But I’m not going to grow attached. Seeing him with a new partner is like seeing a kid with a new goldfish.”

Alana poked him in the ribs and he kissed her bicep.

Laurel said, “What gets me is the large size of fourth-dimensional space. It’s huge, right? Way more room for way more bees. Enough to build a hive mind larger than ever before. Forget writing us messages—these bees could be creating singularities! We could have a whole other article on measuring hive-intelligence.”

“What gets me,” Steve said, marveling at the article, “is how the weird hives stopped. I mean, for a while there . . . .”

“We should have taken measurements,” Alana agreed.

“More weird hive by ratio each day,” Steve said. “And now . . . it’s steady. Maybe it’ll shrink.”

“Maybe they know their message was received,” Huy said.

All four friends grew quiet, reading the displayed page. Above the technical title, “Fourth-Dimensional Aperiodic Tessellations in Geometry of Honeycomb,” was the text of the bees’ final message, as near as they could figure, in English.

The end of the message made Alana’s heart clench. Made her squeeze Huy’s hand under the table.

“We love you,” it read. “We forgive you.”

 
 

I’m the Villain, Ok?

Mary Alexandra Agner

I want to sit in my SUV

combust dead dinosaurs

into aerosols as tangible as need

I want the Monsanto magic

    for my lawn, my Big Boy tomatoes

I want to wait in the drive-through—

    engine roaring, gas escaping,

    invisible music pumping into my box

    sealed and thus safe from the outside—

    for my chicken made of corn

    my shake made of sugar (made of corn)

    my fries fried in corn

What matters is this moment

    the right tempo to tap my fingers to

    phone surfing, wifi filling space

        from here to Saturn as the years drag on

    to know no matter how much I cut

    myself off from touch, taste, smell

    I am not alone

 
 
 

The Complaint of All Living Things

Joanne Rixon

This is a memory: a white-washed picture frame around a needlework bouquet of roses. It hangs on a wood-paneled wall in the only direct sunlight in the room, a thin sliver of bright coming down the stairs and slicing in half the wall, the roses, the pull-out couch’s thin, raw-springed mattress.

I am holding myself very still, on my back, thinking about needlework. I think about Midwestern farm-kitsch, about the musty smell of old cardboard rising off the boxes stacked here beside the couch in his grandmother’s basement. He moves over me, inside me, making wet sounds—this blanked out space of a person I’ve almost entirely erased.

I still have a few of my thousands of memories of him. His dirty dishes left on the coffee table, the way his jaw tightens when I ask him a question, the way he threatens to break up with me even though, he says, he doesn’t know where I’d go if I wasn’t staying here with him in his grandmother’s basement. I let him fuck me because he’s right. I don’t know where I’d go either.

I hold myself very still. He grunts and sighs. His movement moves my body and I think about doing laundry so there are clean rags, so that when my body recovers enough from this that I can stand, I can dust the picture frame, the needlework roses. This is what security looks like: the way he moves hurts my injuries but he never takes that long. The dust on the picture frame bothers me. I’m supposed to keep the basement clean—I clean because I don’t pay rent here—and I worry that in my fog of pain I’m not doing a good enough job.

Five years later, this is not yet a memory: I crouch down and pick up a three-legged sea star out of the wet rocks at the high tide line. Its pale orange exoskeleton is rough against the pads of my fingers, the sand wet with the kind of thick, grimy water you only get on the Gulf coast. The irregular, broken-off stubs of two of its legs show signs of re-growing, the budding of recovered flesh slowly reforming into something new. When so much is broken, the re-growth must form an entirely new creature, I think. I wonder what it remembers, if it can still feel the missing leg-tips like ghosts attached to it forever.

I feel it in that moment, not a ghost but whatever makes a ghost before it dies: the sea star as vast as the ocean beside me in its small perfect broken shape. For a long time I don’t feel anything else. I cradle the sea star in my scarred, crooked fingers and it makes me as vast as itself, as perfect.

Then I set it down again and keep walking, settling the memory of the sea star in the socket in my mind that used to hold needlework roses. The sea star pushes out the picture frame and unbalances the rest of the memory, dulls the bright stab of sunlight to something a little more bearable. That feeling of peace, that huge, cool depth, echoes through my ears like I’m underwater, like I can hear the crabs scuttling along the bottom of the Gulf. Even hours later, when I limp back to my car, I walk with a joyful swagger only half caused by the way my cane catches in the sand.

Padre Island Seashore is a good place to camp. There are plenty of people who stay out here, even in the winter—if you can call this winter, this balmy south Texas January. I’ve stayed worse places. Rest stops, gas stations and Walmart parking lots are full of people who want you to hurry along, who measure your stay in hours not days. Same with municipal parks. State parks are sometimes alright, but more often you have to pay steep fees to stay there, sometimes $25 a night.

High-density residential areas aren’t bad, but relative anonymity is balanced out by sidewalks and the high-strung apartment-bound dogs that people walk along them at six a.m. And even if the parking isn’t metered and you’re careful to park in different spots from night to night, eventually people corner you and ask what you’re doing there.

Rural neighborhoods are the worst. People spread out in houses on wide acres shouldn’t care, but they’ll call the cops on you if you park there for even a minute. Half the time I can play Nice White Lady and get the cops’ sympathy. But then there’s the other half.

No, national parks are the place to be. And Padre Island Seashore is a good one; pay twenty bucks for the annual pass and they’ll let you camp on the beach for free for two weeks. Then you leave for two days and come back for another two weeks on the same pass. And so on. In some national forests, you can camp without breaks, for free, but here not only are there toilets, there are free showers. Cold water, but clean is clean.

Today the cascading water reminds me of something: I was in east Texas, near Nacogdoches, in Angelina National Forest. This was maybe two years ago, and I was spending a couple of weeks in the woods. One night a thunderstorm rolled in fast, hot like a swollen belly, the sky crackling. Long red-brown pine needles caked the forest floor, inches deep and so dry. I had the seats down in the back of my car so I could sleep flat, and I swung my head around so I was looking up at the sky through the back window even though I was parked on a slant and the front end of the car was higher. I lay there, all the blood waving inside me like a jostled coffee cup, and watched the storm break the sky open, wondering if I was going to burn alive in the middle of falling water. Half wishing I would, just for the thrill of the fire.

After my shower, I re-park my car on the sand up away from the high tide line and then pull out my worn little notebook. “Lightning in Angelina” is written in the middle of the second-to-last page; it’s relatively recent. Many of my notes are like that, good memories. Even more of them, I no longer understand. I keep those on purpose, I re-read them. Not every day, just sometimes. Just when I start wondering if I could live differently.

“Endlessly talking, red and blue lights harsh on his face.”

“He held my hand while they picked the fragments of glass out of my thigh.”

“The bathroom with the cornflower tiles on the wall behind the toilet.”

“The IV with the kink in the line.”

I don’t know what they mean. I don’t want to.

I settle down in the passenger seat of my car, flip on the solar LED lamp attached to the dash as the sky darkens into night, and make myself a peanut butter sandwich with the fixings tucked into the crate in the footwell. Then I dust sand off the spine of my newest paperback from the fifty cent bin and get lost in the complicated betrayals that plague this band of Scottish highlanders.

The next morning I wake up as the sun rises. Already there are a scattering of other people awake and out on the beach, retirees mostly. They like Padre Island for the same reasons I do, even if for them ‘cheap’ means they park here in their fifty thousand dollar RV, not a 2008 Toyota Yaris with tinted windows so no one can see me sleeping in the back. One gray-haired man walks with his pant legs rolled up as a fluffy white dog gallops through the surf nearby. A woman sits in front of her RV a dozen meters down the beach in a folding chair, sweatshirt hood up to block the wind, drinking coffee.

I do wish I had hot water. I’ve thought about getting something, maybe a tiny kettle I can run off my car battery. But I’ve been wary about anything that drains my battery ever since—ever since I can remember.

I drag on my own sweatshirt, hunch my way into the front seat and resign myself to air temperature instant coffee shaken into the water in an old plastic water bottle, like I do every morning. Looking out the window, I realize that the memory I’d been thinking of setting loose today—the heaviness of July air in St. Louis when the AC in my car went out, the hunger-nausea in my belly, the way I sat paralyzed in the hospital parking lot for an hour wondering if I could sleep there beside the hospital safely or if they would call the police on me—isn’t right for the day. The beach is littered with blue blotches. I could squint and still not see them well, but I know what they are: man o’ war, freshly washed up onto the sand.

I drink my coffee and think, letting the echoing from the sea star memory yesterday strengthen my bones. Man o’ war are special. As the sun rises, my certainty grows: it’s a sign. I’m here, in the right place, in the right time to rid myself of a major thread in the mess of my old pains.

I leave the car as the sun leaves the horizon, sinking a little into the sand as I walk down into the water. Ankle deep, I turn southwest, into the Mexico-end curve of the coast, and start wandering. The waves suck at my feet, and I go very slowly.

This coastline isn’t as impressive as the cliffs of Oregon or the white sand beaches of South Carolina. Dull brown sand, not a tree in sight, ugly sponge-scrub bushes that hug the dunes, sand flies buzzing in the air above them. But nothing can make the ocean ugly, not even the trash tangled in the brown, rotting seaweed that washed up with the man o’ war.

And the man o’ war are magnificent. Blue so bright it looks like plastic, root-vegetable shape with long tentacles trailing off the thickest end, rippling crest the sun shines through. As they die and deflate, they lose their beauty, but it’s early and they’re still damp and glowing in the sunlight. They look like aliens. The first time I ever saw one, I didn’t think it was real, but I loved it.

After half an hour of poking along, I find what I didn’t know I was looking for: a pair of man o’ war, tipped up against each other, tentacles tangled. When the waves set them here, they grasped at each other. I squat down beside them, toes inches away from being stung. From this angle, I can see down the beach through the nearest man o’ war’s glassy sail.

I fill my lungs with the humid smell of decomposing seaweed and salt.

I breathe easy these days. It wasn’t always like that.

I draw the memory down into my fingers: I’m flat on my back, holding myself carefully motionless under the bright lights that are shining down on me. Masked figures bend over my body below my ribcage, moving over me. I can’t feel exactly what they’re doing to me, because they’ve used a local anesthetic, but when they cut deep enough the sharpness of it lightnings through me.

Worse, whenever they cut away a piece of tissue, at the end of the cut, there are wet noises and tugging, pulling the flesh tight so the scalpel can slice cleanly. That tug panics me. I start to shake and can’t stop, can’t breathe because my chest won’t work right. They’re taking me apart.

I don’t know how they can perform surgery on my stomach when my chest is heaving like this, my limbs trembling.

Somehow I hold myself very still on the table. I don’t bolt. I don’t pass out, either, though I get lightheaded and dizzy from the way I can’t get my breath. A long time passes, and somewhere in the middle of it, one of the nurses turns to me and says, absently, “It hits some people this way. Mostly it’s the toughest old men who cry during surgery, isn’t that funny?”

She laughs.

I breathe in the salt air.

Squatting slowly, I examine the man o’ war as close as I can get my face to them. In a way, they’re like the physical embodiment of a laugh: I’m in love with their impossibly blue-purple glossiness, their asymmetry, their shape like nothing else I’ve ever seen, the clutch of their tentacles: holding on and holding on. The world is so big; it contains such strange things; it contains so much love.

The man o’ war are a better memory, of course. I pull it into me, letting it crowd out the other thing: the sound, the sense of desolation. The echo of a laugh falls away the way wet sand dries on your skin and then is brushed off: leaving the faintest of after-sensations but nevertheless completely gone. The memory of the man o’ war, in my mind and also still in front of me on the sand, lifts me up like sunshine in my blood.

I go along the beach a little while longer, trading a brief flash of a silent waiting room—doubled over, pain-sweat itching between my shoulder blades—for a purple-cream seashell half worn away by the waves into the shape of a minnow. I exchange the constant beep of a monitor for the wing-flick of a gull that screams as it flies away from me. For mouse tracks on the sand underneath the dune grass, the persistent, rhythmic twang of old mattress springs.

Too many exchanges in too short a time: my mind rebels, leaving an aftertaste in my peripheral nervous system, a creeping malaise. I lie down on the soft sand, hiking up my t-shirt and edging down my track pants so my soft, scarred belly is naked to the sunlight. Sometimes when I lie flat the scars pull; sometimes the stress on the sliced nerves makes them tingle and spark with pain. But the sun’s warmth makes up for that. I plop my forearm over my eyes and let myself drift, neither awake nor asleep.

Sometimes living like this is terrifying: whenever I see a police car my heart jerks nervously, whenever I park somewhere I’ve never been before I can barely sleep because I can’t settle off high alert. Having nothing between me and the world but a car window and whatever basic decency a citizen might scrape up for someone like me—it rattles my head.

But other times being homeless is everything I’ve ever wanted, and this is one of those days. The sun is crayon yellow in a watercolor sky, high white clouds blurring softly into the blue. The old man with the dog is fishing, far enough down the beach that I couldn’t hear him over the white noise of the waves even if he shouted, and other than that, it’s just me and the sea birds, in love with each other, in love with ourselves.

A week later, I return from two days parked on the side of the road near an intersection with four apartment complexes on adjoining blocks. Nobody gave my car a single suspicious eyeball, and I had a chance to spend time in the public library. Of course I can’t check out books without an address, but I got online and checked my bank balance to make sure my disability benefits, all $350 a month, haven’t been mysteriously stopped. They turn off the direct deposit sometimes, if they try to deliver me mail and can’t, but this month everything is ticking along, and I have money for gas and food.

I’m lucky. Plenty of street people have to panhandle, but I never picked up a habit, and I eat light.

The next morning I wake up early so I get out and sit on the hood of my car to watch the sunrise. Something about the way the birds wake before the sun does, the way they start talking to each other, sends shivers of happiness through my muscles. Even on nights when I can’t sleep because of the pain, my heart lifts a little when I hear how interested the birds are in every single new day. And then the soft pearl of the sky as the light begins.

Today is a good one for birds. They’re migrating, of course, though I’m honestly not sure if they’re going north or south. It’s late January—it seems like it could be either. I don’t know. All I know is that a congregation of many different kinds of wings surrounds me. Little shorebirds with stilt-legs, gulls with wide nasty beaks and attitudes to match, a few bulky brown pelicans. They settle down in the fresh tide, picking through the seaweed and shallows as the water recedes.

Even this far south, the air is cold this early, and my muscles are tight. My mind aches, too, memories all tangled up, stuck to themselves and other things, sticky adhesions like a wound healing wrong, stitches only half dissolved. Blank spaces in the middle of everything, connections reduced to feeling, not knowing: this is the price I pay for living only in the present moment. Shapes cut out of my brain and replaced with the stunning loft of redwood trees in Six Rivers National Forest out in California. I can see the arc of the memories, where they used to be, but those spaces are filled with the softness of moss and ferns in the middle of a dense, dark wood.

This is a memory: I’m standing in front of a desk covered with papers, leaning heavily on my cane as a man speaks sternly to me about the consequences of pretending to be injured when I’m actually fine and need to go back to work.

This is a memory: the man whose grandmother lets me stay in her basement snaps a question at me, irritated. He wants money—my disability benefits, I think. He was working part-time, but lost his job, or quit. I’m not sure; I haven’t asked. He wants to know if I’m planning on contributing anything at all worthwhile to this household or if I’m deadweight. I don’t know, I say, very quietly, no breath to speak with, and he slams his way out of the room, disgusted with me.

This is a memory: a medical exam room is instantly recognizable by the posters on the wall urging flu vaccination, hand washing. I’m frozen on a pneumatic exam table covered in paper sheeting. There’s a distinctive smell to these rooms, like they all use the same brand of antiseptic cleaner, and it terrifies me.

I close my eyes, then open them and lurch off the hood of the car, aiming myself down the beach where the sand is wet enough to be solid. Holding myself still only makes the memories stronger, so I move even though it hurts. I stumble over wet sand—I’m not walking very straight, my hips are all wrong—I fall on my ass. My hand lands very near the shallow waves. When I lift it up, water seeps into the handprint like a mirror. It’s enough. Grateful, I let the smell of antiseptic slide away from me into the salt damp.

I sit on the beach until the sun is high and I’m sweating, t-shirt sticking to my back. Memories wash in and out of my mind like waves, and I let them. Down the beach, four or five gulls squabble over something they’ve found in the piles of brown seaweed. The wind is coming in off the water, a steady rush of noise that smooths me out like my mother running a brush through my hair.

That isn’t a memory; I read it in a book, but I like the idea of it.

I rest for the remainder of the day, getting up to eat soup from a can when I remember, in the middle of the afternoon, that I haven’t eaten. My milk-crate storage bin is full of soup cans, bought when I was in town. I won’t eat them all for weeks, but I can’t handle not having food with me. It makes me feel crazy, precarious. The cans take up space in my car but I just have to know that I have enough food around me even when hunger gets lost in all the other pains in my body and I lose track of eating. I’m not proud of this, this animalistic need that makes me feel homeless in a way sleeping in my car doesn’t, but it’s not a memory; I can’t send it away from me.

I creak the next morning, making coffee slowly and indecisively, poking around my car trying to decide if I want to go to the laundromat. I don’t need to, but I consider doing it anyway. I’m avoiding the memories crowding in on me: I’m holding myself very still. My lungs stutter so I can’t breathe. There is a very bright light in the corner of my eye.

I step onto the sand, feeling like a loose tooth about to come free.

I’m holding myself very still.

A dog runs up and down the beach, barking at the gulls as they fly away from him. Further along, a giant motorhome wallows in dry sand as the driver pulls out, leaving early. The bright light in the corner of my eye is only the rising sun. I rub my palms along my hip bones, pressing where it hurts to remind myself that this is my body. I am here, now, in the warming sunlight, smelling the salt-fish tide.

I just want to be done with this whole tangled mess. I’ve been working away at the knot of it, the helplessness, the despair. But it blurs together. I can only exchange one scrap of memory at a time, one detail for one detail. Now I don’t know: is there one arc of memory, or two? Much has been cleanly excised, and some of what I haven’t replaced is almost funny: the ER nurse scolding me viciously for not peeing in a cup for tests she needs to run, me in a ball on the floor too tight with pain to straighten even enough to sit on the toilet. Her primary-color scrubs signal allegiance to some football team I can’t identify, and she stands so close the matching shoes fill my vision. Matching shoes! Like a clown!

Don’t make me leave, I’m saying. He sneers. Why would I keep you around if you’re not going to put out? It seems like a fair question. Not fair to him to try to keep this relationship going under false pretenses.

No, that’s a memory. This is real: I hobble down the beach—my knee is bad today, I slept wrong. The birds are flocking this morning, hundreds more than I’ve ever seen, making a tremendous noise. The little brown stilt-walkers are my favorite. They dance with the waves, always moving in and out to keep the water just up to their knobby knees, the white foam painted pink by the sunrise.

The salt air smells like that one brand of antiseptic, smells like old cardboard, but I stop and watch the birds. The early morning cool plus the wind coming off the water make me grateful for my sweatshirt. I sit on the slope of a minor sand dune and breathe. There’s something, some seaweed smell, that layers under the particular regional smells that make beaches different. There’s always something that smells the same. It’s comforting, that the Gulf holds some similarity with the swampy beaches of South Carolina, the salt deserts of California. The wet Oregon coast, too, rocky and cold, has that same smell, that ocean miasma rising up from the deepness.

That makes me think of the redwoods, the way it felt to camp there the summer I drifted down the West Coast. I have a lot of memories of them now, stewing in the mess in my brain. The straightness of their trunks, the way they take up space in every dimension, unafraid to have mass.

I wonder, sometimes, where my memories go when I release them. If they fill up the redwoods, festering inside their trunks in some mirror-process to the gentle blossom of new memory in me. I don’t think they could. Maybe a tree could take on a memory, but how could a sunset, how could a particular turn of a half-wild rabbit’s head, the flicker and crash of lightning in the east Texas sky? No. I think the world composts my old pains, turns poison into fertilizer, into fundamental elements that grow something entirely new.

The birds flee a large wave and then instantly return to the surf. I begin to pick gingerly at the lump of memory that I’ve been chipping pieces off of for years. It’s much smaller now, but more prone to splintering. In the past I’ve been too abrupt with it, cracked it and let it bleed. This time I’m determined to treat it more delicately.

It’s slow going. By the time the sun is a quarter of the way up the sky, I’m sweating, and I have to take a break to find some shade. I stake a sheet between my car door and some sticks of driftwood, settle in the patch of shade with a box of crackers and get back to work.

The tendrils of memory are fragile, like little white roots crawling through the cracks of the bricks of the better memories I’ve built up around it. I pull gently on each one without snapping it off, rolling it up and pressing it into the main body of the memory. Tiny shivers of guilt, wavers of confusion, layers of contradictory facts that will shatter into sharp shards if I put pressure on the wrong edge.

Sometimes I slip, and the memory takes hold of me: I’m on my back, holding myself very still as someone moves inside my body. It hurts in a sick, tugging way that is unique to pains deep inside, where the nervous system is different. I tremble, and try to hide how scared I am.

I put my hand on the sand beside me, outside the patch of shade. It’s hot, almost painful, after hours in the Texas sun. The sting of it grounds me in the present and I keep on.

Finally, I hold the mass of it. It’s heavy, sticky, constantly trying to send out new shoots to re-attach itself to me. But I herd it together, balancing it.

I no longer know if this is one memory, or many. It doesn’t matter. I’ve gone through it, out the other side, and kept going, to the Gulf coast, to the ocean. To the man o’ war, in all their alien beauty. To the gritty brown sand and the small orange sea stars and the gulls flying low over the dunes.

Outside my mind, the sun is setting. Red and coral-orange soak the sky, the clouds like sponges absorbing the color. The waves coat the sand with a thin layer of water that reflects the colors of the sky for a moment and then sinks down into the sand. Over and over: orange to wet-brown, orange to wet-brown.

Two sandhill cranes stalk through the waves toward me. The red feathers of their crests rise off their heads into the sun-red air. Long, narrow beaks plunge into the shallow waves. I’m sitting so still that they don’t notice me, coming as close as the water comes to my feet: maybe two yards away.

I watch as one catches a crab. The other tilts his head, reptilian eyes coveting the tiny struggling thing. The crab must be mostly shell, small as it is. The crane gulps it down and the other makes a low noise, complaining.

I breathe in the salt air. When I exhale, my mind expands beyond myself. For the space of that breath, I am as big as the ocean. I extend into the atmosphere, into the heavy cumulonimbus clouds that hang in the sky and above them, through the breaks that the sunlight streams through. We—the rays of light, the cold clouds, the water, the cranes with their naked legs and gray wings—move on the same wave, expanding and contracting, like the pulse of blood through a heart, like the pump of blood out through an open wound.

When I contract again, the memory I was carrying doesn’t return with me. This moment, these two sandhill cranes teaching me the complaint of all living things, rests comfortably in the hollow I’ve made for it, already growing thin, tender roots into the matter that surrounds it. I feel so light I could rise upward on the road made by the sunset streaming through the damp air. The crane memory isn’t quite enough to take me up, but I’ve never been so close to the true soul of the world, so close to the love and forgetfulness that rests at the center of all things.