Simple Life, Sinful Death

The monk had come to greatly savor the simple things in life.  The wind ’s music through the mountain ’s maple trees.  The trickle of creek water sweeping lazily between the mossy stones.  The fine taste of hot green tea with ginger and the soup made of onions, seaweed, soybeans and radishes.  Simple things expanded his awareness of larger things —of greater things.  And so he was contented.  His days spent serving the old temple alone in the mountains consisted of sweeping the old wooden floor, tending to his bulbs of onions and ginger roots like chicken feet, long walks down to the sea to harvest seaweed, and the long walks up the mountain, harvesting mushrooms from the woods.

 And, of course, he spent many hours in prayer and meditation.

 As the sun set in the West he would pray to Buddha in thanks and admire the warm glare of the setting sun peeking through the windows of the temple, touching warmly the sleepy face of the Buddha ’s statue at he head of the temple.  Often the monk longed to fall asleep likewise, and often did, maintaining his cross-legged position throughout the night.  He woke in the morning stiff and aching, for he was very old, and sometimes he regretted waking in such pain.  Yet, he rose, as always, and set about his usual day, listening to the wind ’s music and drinking his simple tea and eating his simple soup, doing his simple chores, and finding simple contentment once again in his long day of peaceful isolation.

 But the years dragged on and the monk felt the dead weight of them growing heavier, like decades of fallen leaves bundled atop his shoulders.  He did not walk so well in the morning, even after sleeping on his simple straw mat.  He had to lean on his hoe intermittently when tending to his garden.  When walking up and down the mountain he had to rest on a log, here and there, taking much more time each day to accomplish his foraging.  He began to forego such strenuous trips, venturing every other day, and only once each day rather than the many trips he once dared.

 And his mind began to fail him.  He would boil tea over his fire pit, then forget about it until the leaves had burned.  Sometimes he would pick an onion from his garden, eagerly peeling it only to find that he had once before picked an onion for soup that week.

 And then the shadows began to come to him.

 They came at sunset while the monk was beginning his prayer.  They enumerated around the room as the sun ’s rays touched the brow of the Buddha statue.  The figures crouched in the dark corners of the small temple, away from the statue.  The monk watched them sometimes as they loped about, or somersaulted, tumbling end over end in mischievous mirth.  The shadows were small at first, but lengthened as they sun waned, drawing themselves upward with the weak light of the monk ’s single candle.

 The monk was never upset or unsettled by the shadows, no matter how stranger their shapes and movements.  He observed the shadows impassively, much the same as when observing swallows darting about the cliffs of the mountain, or foxes flitting through the bushes.  He knew that his mind was a thing of the material world, and so fickle and prone to wits that would fade in time, bringing with their weakness the phantasms of an unbridled imagination.  He accepted this fate calmly, and so let the shadows do as they willed while he prayed impassively, grateful that the Buddha should allow him the wherewithal to understand the looseness of his mind and, therefore, resist its indulgent fancies as the hallucinations grew more vivid.

 But then came a nightfall when the shadows ceased their jovial prancing and devilish tumbling.  They stood around the monk, arrayed along the temple ’s old walls, flickering as the single candle flickered, and staring.

 Simply staring.

 And then they stepped forward from the shrouds of their shadows, the figures manifesting at last in corporeal form.  They were now flesh and blood —or so near as yokai might have been —and the old monk could smell them, could see them clearly, and, had he dared, could have reached out and touched them.

 Yet, the old monk was not perturbed.

 Foremost among these demonic figures was a creature very much like the monk himself.  He had a bald head, prayer beads around one wrist, an old stained robe as modest as the old monk ’s, and a wrinkled brow.  Had the monk owned a mirror to know what he, himself, looked like now, after years of isolation, he would have known that this creature was the perfect reflection of himself.  That is to say, the perfect reflection except for the third eye embedded in the creature ’s forehead.  It was a mockery of the Mind ’s Eye, its pupil slitted like a serpent ’s.

  “You poor wretch of a monk, ” the three-eyed monk said.   “For decades you have served the Buddha, and for what reward?  Aches and pains and old age. ”

 The old monk responded with a level voice.   “Humility comes by many means, ” he said, “and is its own reward. ”

 The three-eyed monk shook his head in mock-pity.   “And yet you have not achieved Satori.  So much sacrifice —decades of one ’s life in lonely wilderness —and all for the profligacies of a deaf-mute statue. ”

 Again the old monk replied with a level voice.   “Buddha speaks and hears as he ought, ” he said.   “If I utter a prayer, and it is unheard, then it is still heard by the Buddha within me. ”

 The three-eyed monk laughed, his dusty cackles echoing in the dark, candlelit silence of the temple.   “We shall see what answers you when given temptations.  Yes!  Then shall we know how true a Buddhist life you lead, for anyone may be a Buddhist monk who hasn ’t the temptations to lead him astray from the Path. ”

 The three-eyed monk clapped his hands and a figure stepped forward among the grotesque throng.  It was a voluptuous woman in a silken gown.  No, two women!  They shared the same kimono, and then, letting it slip to the floor, they revealed that they shared the same body, conjoined so that there were two heads, two arms, two legs, and three breasts between them.  They were beautiful, their womanhood glistening wantonly in the candlelight.  They beckoned to the old monk and moaned, kissing one another as they batted their long eyelashes at him, fondling their breasts and caressing their womanhood with their hands.  Their twinned voices rang out in ecstacy.  The three-eyed monk leered at them, and leered at the old monk.

  “You have been celibate your whole life, ” the three-eyed creature said.   “Be embraced by Desire itself, before it is too late and you vanish into the unfeeling shadows once and for all. ”

 The old monk trembled slightly, in desire and in repulsion at his own desire.  Yet, he remained cross-legged upon the floor.

  “No, ” he said, his voice quivering.   “The kiss of the wind on my brow is more than I ever needed. ”

 Other demons among the throng readily took hold of the voluptuously twinned wanton and drew her in amongst themselves, pleasing her and themselves as was their wont.  The three-eyed looked on a while, grinning, then gestured to another creature.

 There came flowing out from among the demons a long serpentine dragon that glittered brightly.  Its scales were of gold and jewels, and these treasures rained down upon the temple floor as the dragon streamed and bent and twisted about the temple.  Clutched in its clawed hands were large pearls wherein reflected the old monk ’s face.

  “You have been poor your whole life, ” the three-eyed monk said.   “Take of these precious treasures and buy a kingdom!  Buy two!  You would live in comfort and . ”

 The old monk could see himself in the pearl, carried around in a palanquin by strong young men through a palace hung with silk and ornate with golden statues of Bodhisattvas grinning vastly.  Young women in lovely kimonos served him fruits and played music for him as he lounged among them, reclining among pillows stuffed with peacock feathers.

 Seeing himself luxuriate brought to mind the aches in his lower back, and in his hips, and in his knees and bones all over.  He trembled to think how wonderful such comforts might have been.  But he felt shame.

  “A roof above my head to keep out the rain, and a small fire to fend off the chill…that was always wealth enough for me, unmatched by any other earthly treasures.  Wealth is the reward from the work of others, heaped unjustly upon one ’s lap.  Why would I debase others, and myself, by encumbering them with my earthly burdens.  Our chains are ours alone to bear, and easy chains of jewels and coin bind us all the more strongly. ”

 The figures among the throng laughed as they scrambled to scoop up the wealth shed by the golden dragon.  The three-eyed monk watched them with great pleasure at their haste and havoc, especially as they fought over the jewels and swore and grappled.  After a time, he clapped his hands and the yokai retreated, their arms and tentacles and appendages encoiling great wealth.  The three-eyed monk grinned, beckoning forward another among the grotesqueries gathered there.

 Coming forward with a clumsy, ponderous step was a Tanuki.  It ’s large eyes gleamed beneath its straw hat, its bulbous belly (and sack) bouncing together as it stepped forward, carrying in its hairy arms a large cauldron.  The cauldron steamed fragrantly, redolent with meats of every kind; of ox and fish and chicken, all flavored with spices from the West and the tastiest vegetables the old monk had ever seen.  Heaving the cauldron up, the Tanuki slammed it down, sloshing the delicious broth and shaking the temple to its withered timbers.

 The Buddha statue, however, remained unmoved.

  “You have abstained from flavor your whole life, ” the three-eyed monk said.   “So feast, now, and know the true bounty of the earth in all its splendor. ”

 The monk opened his mouth —but whether because of hunger or refusal, even he did not know.  His stomach gurgled at the spicy flavors that tantalized him as they breathed fulsome in the small, crowded temple.  The monk moaned silently, but did not move.  At length, he spoke, though speaking was made more difficult by the salivating of his mouth.

  “A simple soup and tea nourished my body, mind, and soul unto great satisfaction, and I neither wanted or needed more. ”

 The three-eyed monk squinted suspiciously.  Shrugging, he waved a hand at the throng gathered, and they all converged upon the cauldron, scalding themselves unmindfully as they scooped out the delicious food and gobbled it down.  Not even a droplet of broth remained after they emptied the cauldron.

  “So much you have abstained from, ” the three-eyed monk remarked.   “And yet, so much could return to you at a word. ”

 He raised his hands and clapped them yet again, the candlelight flickering as if struck by a shearing gust of wind.  When the shadows around the temple wobbled back into a steady candlelight, all which the old monk had denied himself was once again before him: the conjoined wanton and her three breasts, the golden dragon and its visions of luxury and comfort, and the Tanuki ’s cauldron, brimming with succulent meats and spices.

  “Now choose, ascetic, ” the three-eyed monk said, gesturing to the temptations arrayed around the old monk.   “Choose to indulge or abstain.  It matters not either way, for upon this final night of your life your deaf-mute god does not care.  No one cares, except yourself. ”

 The old monk looked at the splendor before him, and he looked at the indifferent, graven statue of the Buddha.  With a wheezy voice, the old monk spoke.

 What he said, only his inner Buddha heard.

      ***

 It was many years before another monk was sent to the isolated mountain temple.  When he arrived he found it deserted.  There were swallows in the rafters and the garden had overgrown with weeds.  The Buddha ’s statue sat as it had always sat, his eyes closed in sleepy detachment.  The young monk did much work that day, preparing his home, and much more work the next.  For a week he worked to make the temple habitable again.  He did not remove the swallows, but let them remain, diligently cleaning up after them when they made messes upon the temple floor.  Later, when he lit his candle one evening to finally pray as he knew he should, he saw a shadow flicker from the candle that was not his own.  Whose it was, he did not know.  When he glanced around, he saw no one.  Only he and the Buddha statue occupied the temple.

 For a time.

Yasuke

They call me Yasuke here in this foreign land of short, almond-eyed people.  Being a slave, I dare not contradict them.  By the grace of Allah, these people find some novelty in me, and so esteem me better than my Jesuit master, Alessando Valignano.  Perhaps they will buy me from the Jesuit.  I would be far from home, but I would be far from home regardless. And the mule prefers the bug bites in Spring to the bug bites in Summer.

 My new tongue has not improved much.  I doubt they would think better of me were I so fluent in their tongue; no more than the Jesuits think better of me for my mastery of their tongue.  And yet I speak with more tongues than they, and not so falteringly as others so split between tongues.  Valignano does not suspect how many tongues with which I may speak.  If he did, he might well beat me for presumed insolence.  The gnat whines at the ear of greater creatures, thinking the ear insolent in its size.  And my back stings with the bites of this Jesuit gnat.

 By the strength lent by Allah, I endure.

 Lord Nobunaga must think well of me, however, for he gifted me generously a chest of copper coins, and all for the sake of the novelty of my dark skin.  He thought it some sort of trickery at first.  He bid me doff my clothes, head to waist, and his servants scrubbed at my chest.  In vain, it was, and so Nobunaga was pleased.  The Jesuits were pleased, too, and commandeered the coins for the works of their God.  I was not sad to see the coins go.  It was a trifling amount compared to the riches of the Caliphate.  Moreover, no amount of wealth might buy me my freedom from these infidels.  But as Allah sees fit, I abide.

 Presently, we ride to Kyoto on a long road.  Valignano is a fool, as are his followers, but they have about them an escort of samurai.  This is a pretty land, as unique of feature as its people, and I admire its beauty.  The plum trees are especially pretty.  Yet, I feel misplaced among this infidel splendor.  Though much honored, I am still a foreigner among these small people.  More so than even the Jesuits, despite their idiotic faux pas and petty squabbles of conversion.

 Even among the Jesuits I am an outsider.

 We camp for the night beneath a copse of maples, around a fire.  I sleep apart from my Jesuit travelers.  We have been warned of bandits, and so I keep my hand ready upon the sword which Lord Nobunaga gifted me.  I sleep lightly, dappled by the pale light of the moon as it peers between the branches like the face of a houri.  My Jesuit brothers sleep well, for I hear them snoring.  The samurai, too, sleep well.  I cannot sleep.  This land entices me to prayer, for Allah made this land too, though I know not why its people are infidels.  The wellspring from which they sprang conceals its truths with its lovely mists, or perhaps their land reveals other truths of Allah which are not known to us in Istanbul.

 I pray in the direction of Mecca.  I hope Allah does not begrudge me the late hour.  I can never pray when Valignano is awake, for he admonishes me severely for the practice.  He berates the people here, too, and despises their religion of the Buddha.  Why Nobunaga has offered him samurai for protection, I know not.  Perhaps he wishes to protect me.  But I need no earthly protection, for I have Allah.  And Allah restrains my hands from choking the life from Valignano.

 Prayer often offers me comfort, and reawakens my faith, instilling strength for my daily suffering.  It is the light guiding me through this unending darkness.  The shadows fly at the words exulting Allah.

 Yet, when I rise again I realize that the moon no longer shines on my face.  Rather, a giant shadow looms over me, the moon at its back.

 “Hello, brother,” a voice growls.  It is like the bones of a thousand sinful men grinding beneath the millstone.  “Why do you share fire with these tasty creatures?   Let us make a feast of them beneath the moon.”

 The crackling of the campfire flares at the suggestion, and I see a three-eyed man with dark black skin and horns such as a bull on his broad head. He is taller than even I and reminds of a demon or djinn.  I believe such a creature is called an “oni” in this land.

 “Speak, little brother,” he growls.  “Or do you claim them all for yourself?”

 His breath stinks of rotten meat, and his voice is edged like a scimitar with challenge.

 “I am not of your kin,” I confess, still clutching the sword at my side and ready to draw it against this infernal creature.  I stand up, slowly, and find that I am two heads shorter than the oni.  “I am a man.  But I will fight like a demon if you attempt to harm me.”

 The oni squinted his three eyes, the third eye in the center of his forehead.  “Yes,” he says.  “I see my mistake now.  Far too small to be my kin.  And already cooked, by the look of your flesh.”

 “I am a Moor,” I say.  “From faraway.”

 “A rare meat, then,” the oni says.  “I shall savor you.”

 He reaches for me with clawed fingers.  I unsheathe my sword, clumsily.  I have not had the practice of its uses yet, though I The oni pauses, and withdraws his hand.  But not because of my blade.  He sniffs and frowns.

 “You have the stink of a foreign god about you,” he says.

 “Allah—may he ever have mercy—claims my soul,” I say, or as well as I might in the foreign tongue.  “If I die here, or anywhere else, it is by his will.”

 The oni grimaced, his large white fangs grinding within his mouth.

 “A foul stench,” he says.  “I do not care for it.  It fouls your soul, little black man.  A foreign god in my lands, and a foreign god in your heart.”

 I nearly struck out at him for the blasphemy.  “Allah is no foreigner in any land or heart,” I say.  “For he made all, including you, demon.”

 The oni laughs, insolently scratching his loins beneath a skirt of flayed skin.

 “But he smells of other winds and other waters.  I do not like his smell.  It is arid.  Stagnant.  It reeks of death, but not such as there is pleasure in it.  Only a wild, exultant zealotry which I care not for.”  He pointed to the Jesuits.  “No different, I suppose, than the smell of the god on those hairy little men.”  He sniffed some more, leaning closer to me, his foul breath enveloping me.  “But there is a more interesting scent beyond the gods that claim the lot of you.  A smell of many other gods.  Faint, but spicy, and not so lost as you would wish them to be.  Gods grown in more interesting lands.  Lands more honest to their gods than whatever place you now call home.  Better gods.  Truer gods.  Gods displaced by this foul being that claims you like a spider a butterfly.”

 “You speak blasphemies!” I say, readying my blade.

 The oni turns away, indifferently.  He chuckles, lumbering toward the edge of the copse.

 “I will not partake of this feast,” he says.  “There is already a feast taking place: a feast of fools, and your soul is being shared among them.  What will be left of you when they have finished gnawing your soul with their many petty little mouths?”

 Laughing, the oni fades into the gathering mist, vanishing like a shadow beneath the awakening day.  His voice growls faintly one last time.

 “All that will be left will be your dark black skin, and by this will you be known.  By nothing else…”

 I stand in the ensuing silence, shaken.  After a long moment, I sheathe my sword—fumbling a little, and, so, loudly.  The sibilance wakes Alessando Valignano.

 “Yasufe?” he says, scowling at me.  “Make no more noise, for the sake of God!  Or I will thrash you for your stupidity.”

 “My apologies,” I say, bowing my head.

 Valignano grumbles, then adjusts his robe and turns over, sleeping on his side.  “Dim-witted animal…” he mutters.

 My rage finds me but a moment, as a djinn unleashed from a bottle, and I wish to draw my sword again and drink blood as any demon would.  But I let the spark extinguish.  Left alone once again to the silence of the forest, I think about gods and demons, of man and meaning, of tongues and truths.

Lo Fi Firefly

Soft tread, soft glow, she’s a firefly

in a black hoodie, black mood, she’s walking by

on a country road, with snug bug headphones

pumping lo fi beats, piano tones.

School blazer, senpai-hazer, plaid skirt,

breezy frills, black stockings, mid-thigh flirt,

luminescent crescent lunar-lobed ear

sprouting diamond petals, her black bangs sheer;

ambling, rambling, moontime walk,

hill humps, roadside bumps, cricket talk,

stars distant, obi-bright, pebble speckled,

blue nebula banners helter-skelter freckled,

full moon brimming, limning, dreaming radiance,

the moonbow spectrum and its gleaming gradients.

The tanuki strolls up along beside her,

a raccoon bear without a care, as tall, but wider,

straw hat, sleepy gaze, whistling his song,

swaying arms, masked face, bobbing along,

no words, no eye contact, just some space

in warm Summer air, and the slight trace

of matcha tea, of forest freshness, quite mellow,

now street signs glowing here and there, bright yellow,

two figures part at the coming parkway yield

and he lays down in a nice rice paddy field.

Shoegaze drone now, briny oceanic breeze,

kiss of soft-flung surf, the low-key ease

of tides glaze-lazing to a lounge rhythm,

the tip-toeing piano cadence within them,

lulling stroll, gloss-stare, the forgetful sands,

sonorous seaside cliffs, echo-waves, drowsy lands,

a mountain sloping to a nonchalant crest,

encoiled in a centipede of silent forest,

eyes aglow in the syncopating serpent depths,

old monk mantra along tottering treble clefs,

shuffling silent sneakers seeking inland,

a pink valentine card held in hand,

the fireflies blinking with a mild, beguiled beat,

the pitter-patter of phantasmal feet,

pale-faced spirits hopping in the high tree tops,

beyond the Shinto shrine sheltered in the copse,

jittery, chittering childlike babble,

a somnolent little branch-borne rabble

and concordance with the green leaf rustle

in the torpid winds, quiet hustle-and-bustle,

never hurrying, yet coming, by and by, along

as she follows her innocent inner song.

Power lines, now, streetlights, lamp posts,

electric hum, neon lights, jaywalking ghosts,

small town midnight-twilight, insomniac windows,

no headlights, no bed-frights, the wind blows

unheard, unseen, her black hair still,

unmoved, slight frown, turning of her heel

down a sidestreet, panes dim, white wall alley

as percussion beats palpitate, then rally.

Long walk without talk, she reads the address,

still bobbing to mellow music, a raven tress

gone astray, the headphones looser now,

but not off, firefly glow waning on her brow.

A crow crosses the moon, wings like eyelashes

as the moon’s eye blinks, and the car crashes

in flashback, (crash-smack), soft as a dying mist

in dim memory, and now this long-sought tryst.

A waking dream, long-sought scheme, a lost lullaby

as the lo fi beats fade, fade, fade, the heartbeats die.

Looking up at his window, she sees, she knows

the music stopped hours ago, and now the wind blows

but is unfelt, unknown, a thing now apart

like the valentine card, and his beating heart.

Setting the card down, she turns away,

fading out with the music, and the coming day.

Still Life

Still Life

 

I first met Antonio Petras when I was twenty-eight years old.  I had been one among the premier sculptors in Rome for four years prior, yet had not to produce a work of skill sufficient to elicit appreciation from his discerning tastes.  One does not know the name Antonio Petras unless he wants one to know it.  Moreover, he was known on a first name basis only with Cardinals and Mafia dons, and no one— including his own mother, may she rest in peace—called him Tony.

Instead, everyone called him Padre, for he was the Father of the Mediterranean.

I still remember vividly our first meeting.  I had been informed that my sculpture, “Ganymede Spirited Away” had been purchased for a lordly sum, and that the buyer expected to meet me.  I informed his agent that, for the lordly sum rendered, I would bear such an honor with delight.

“Yes,” he said solemnly.  “You should be honored.”

Yet, I did not meet my mysterious patron until two weeks later.  I was taken— by private boat— to a privately owned island in the Mediterranean.  Padre’s primary residence, as I came to know it, was a palace of marble columns and mosaic tiles.  It was all white and cerulean, like the Mediterranean itself, lounging lazily beyond the verandah.  To complete this anachronistic Romance, all servants who personally obliged Antonio Petras customarily wore himations and robes.  The overall effect was that the palace existed in a bubble apart from Time.  Nor were there any electronics or modern light fixtures throughout the palace.  All was illuminated by the Mediterranean sun or by brazier; nought else.  And the silence of that place!  The tides swept about and hushed the beach, breathing salty through the open-columned passages of the palace.  It was as if the palace resounded with the lullaby of the sea.  Wherever one walked, the sights and the sounds of the womb of Hellenic Greece were ubiquitous.

Of course, as breathtaking as the natural seascape was, nothing compared to the collection to which my work had been added.  My work— though the best I had ever produced as yet—was humbled among that collection.  Indeed, I do not doubt that Padre was putting me in my place by having my work positioned in the back area of his massive gallery, whereas the best sculptures I had ever seen were positioned to the fore.  It was not a matter of cruelty, either, this humbling arrangement, but rather Padre’s strict observance of rank and privilege, which I no doubt know was intended to inspire competition for the talents involved, and thus betterment of the exclusive gallery as a whole.

But what of the man?  Well, people called the Pope “Padre”, but they only called Padre “God”.  Upon initial glance, however, he reminded me of Urban II: a weary old man in his chair, his wispy white beard straggling from his withered face.  Due to his rheumatism he shook, always, and otherwise moved slowly.  But his thoughts were swift; swifter than Zeus absconding with Ganymede.  I still do not know where his vast wealth originated, but I know he was well-read on a surprising number of topics.  Science, Music, Literature, Religion.  He was a Renaissance Man.  But his one single most powerful passion was Art, and of the Arts he— like Michelangelo—prized sculpture above all other mediums.

“In sculpture even the infirm may appear powerful,” he told me.  “Made of marble, Man may withstand the tides of Time.”

This was his introductory greeting as he walked stiffly to meet me in his gallery.

“Even the statue of a withered old man like myself might stand forever, untouched by God’s forgetfulness.”

He abided no servants while he spoke to his artists.  We were alone in his gallery.  All I could hear was his dry voice, and the pendulous rush-and-retreat of the sea.  We sipped wine— rare vintage, naturally—and he escorted me through his collection, praising some, faulting others, but discrediting none more than my own.

“You must improve much before you gain my true respect,” he told me.  “Make living flesh from stone.  Only the artist that can transcribe every imperfection perfectly may be esteemed in my judgement.”

We arrived, by now, at my statue.  It was the largest I had ever sculpted, and it towered above us.

“Your feathers are wanting,” he said, referencing the eagle clutching at Ganymede’s hips.  “You must make them light and airy.  They must appear as if they can flap and lift with the wind, rising in defiance of their heavy stone.  Do not meant lift and rise despite their clay mold?  So must you transpose your art that it may endeavor Sublimity in its realizations.”

I took no offense.  How could I?  He had paid me handsomely. Moreover, he belittled works that were, to my eyes, superior in every way to my own.

I surveyed all of his sculptures as we walked and talked and sipped wine.  He did not discriminate of size or subject, just the skill of rendition.  There were nudes, of course—men and women of splendid proportions realized by a meticulous craft, their bodies such as would tempt the Olympians down from their mountain in amorous haste—and there were robed figures, their stone cloth rendered so smoothly that the eye should have doubted the hand’s report.  There were animals, too, from powerful tigers to delicately limbed birds, flamingoes and herons and a spoonbill preening itself.  There were busts of famous people, and of nameless models.  These, too, ranged wildly in every respect except the skill required to render them.  Witnessing so many talents, my pride crumbled even as my Ganymede soared in immodest grandeur.

I noticed, though, that Padre possessed no old works from masters past.  This, he confided to me, was quite a matter of intention rather than means.

“The old masters were too polluted by Greek ideals,” he said.  “Donatello and Michelangelo.  I would not offer a soured wine for either of their ‘masterpieces’.  Realism is what matters.  Capturing life, exactly, is what matters to me.”

There were sculptures certainly never to be confused with Greek ideals.  A fat whore was rendered in all her ugly minutiae, her pock-marked face seemingly ready to offer herself for a pocketful of Euros.  Other models were less than ideal, also, yet more esteemed within his collection, dominating the fore of his gallery by that sighing sea.

And then we came to a sculpture which no human hand or eye or discipline could produce.  This, I swear without caveat.  It was beautiful, odd, and terrifying.  Seeing the look on my face, Padre leered.

“Exquisite, isn’t he?  Unequaled, too, I promise you.  And the cost?  A human soul could fetch as much.”

It was a man staring in perplexity, bordering on horror.  He was nude, but his body was neither idealized or abstracted.  It was wholly realistic.  Too realistic.  More than any of the rest, this sculpture of a pudgy middle-aged man made me feel keenly the crudity in my own abilities.

“Who made this?” was all I could mutter.

“A woman I found in Crete,” he said, slightly amused.  “She has a gift…or a curse…depending on how you look at such things.”

“It must have taken years for her just to refine the skin,” I said, passing my eye over every smooth surface and creased wrinkle.  “The veins are extraordinary.  Please tell me how long this took.”

“She accomplished this in….what is the American saying? ‘In a flash’?  Yes.  That is how long it took.”

I did not understand his sense of humor, but he seemed amused by some private joke.

“Enough, my son,” he said.  “Now we will discuss your next work you will do for me.”

“You will be my patron?” I said, delighted— and overwhelmed—by the prospect.

“If you prove yourself more capable than your previous effort.”

Again, I took no umbrage in his condescension.  Rather, I took his money and promised to deliver something as profoundly realistic as anything in his gallery.  Anything in his gallery, excepting the nude man that this mysterious woman made “in a flash”.  Even as elated and inspired as I was, I entertained no delusions of surpassing such a piece, nor ever truly equaling it.

 

***

 

Fourteen frenzied months later I sent photographs to Padre’s agent.  He rejected my work outright.  I was upset.  I was at a loss.  After all, the piece was superior to my Ganymede piece.  The only word I received in answer was “Artificial”.  I had labored upon it with my daemon undiverted.  How could it not belong among his gallery?  I spent four more months refining it, smoothing the skin and softening the flesh of Icarus until he might well have melted alongside his wings.  Again I sent photos from my studio.  This time I received a longer letter— one sentence—and a single photo.

“Improving,” the letter read, “but nowhere near as good as this.”

The photo enclosed in the envelope was not, as is often said, “worth a thousand words”.  It was ineffable.  The subject matter was unremarkable—a nude woman, again with the same quizzical fear upon her face—but the execution!  I despaired that I should ever approach such mastery.

Still, I was yet determined to prove my own meager powers, if only above all others except this mystery mistress of chisel and hammer.

 

***

 

When next I heard word from Padre, he informed me— in his antiquated longhand—that he wished for my presence on his island.  This was an abrupt honor, and I wondered if he desired my statue.  He did not, for the same letter informed me that he would only command an afternoon of my presence, after which I would be returned to the mainland and expected to resume my work.  Frustrated, but also curious, I met one of his servants at a port, just before sunrise, and was taken to his island forthwith.

Watching the waves part from the boat put me in a mind of Ancient Greece: of Homer and Aeschylus and Sophocles and the beautiful Siren call of Greek tragedy.  Could I ever aspire to render from marble the white froth that turned over and collapsed in upon itself?  Could I ever capture the liquidity of life, of flowing forms, in the defiant marble that stubbornly stood in its myriad forms amongst perpetuity?  How might I capture the sands of the beach in unyielding stone?  How might I dare to capture Cronos himself in static manifestations?  Meditations in marble were things of sweat and tears and curses and sighs.  The marble sculpted the sculptor as much as the sculptor revealed the figure within the marble.

A wise artist never endeavors to understand the business of his patrons, particularly those like Antonio Petras.  That said, I had my suspicions.  Banking.  Drugs.  Human trafficking.  Religion, which concerned all the previous and more, no doubt.  To see his island palace was to see but a fraction of his wealth and power.  It was to see a favored nook in the large expanse of affluence and influence that he wielded around the world.

And yet, in the end, such things amounted to nothing.

Arriving upon the island, I was taken again to Padre’s gallery whereupon I was given wine and instructed to wait at the leisure of my patron.  He arrived shortly after, walking more slowly than before, his body betraying the enfeebling effects of age even while bronzed by the Mediterranean sun and lifestyle.

“I do not know if I should appreciate your obedience,” he said, wryly.  “Had you been more preoccupied with refining your statue you might have disregarded the summons and remained behind to concentrate on excelling among my gallery here.”

I disregarded the insult, knowing that men of his position and power could afford to insult the gods themselves.  For all his power, however, there was no concealing the infirmity of his body, nor the anguished grimace upon his withered face.

He suddenly called out to a servant.  “Bring me the mirror!”

Motioning me to follow him, we left his columned art gallery and came to the verandah that faced the sea.  The mosaic tiles glittered in the sun.  He went to a bench shaded beneath a rotunda of columns with a dome.  Astride the dome lounged a mermaid of some kind, but Padre suffered her to lounge there headless.  It seemed a strange choice for a man with so much wealth.  He could have easily procured something less damaged for his fine palace.

Sitting down, Padre gestured that I join him.  I did so.  It was an idyllic vista, the expanse of shore and sea spreading out beyond the shade of the dome like the cradle of the gods.

“Such a pity, the Pieta,” he said absently.  “The proportions are cartoonish.  Mary is a Philistine giant, whereas her son is but a doll crumpled in her colossal lap.”

I deferred to his opinion, naturally.

“Yet, the Pieta will last and last,” he said.  “Such are the injustices of this world.  Unfair and innumerable.”

Again, I deferred to his opinion.  Suddenly, a great paroxysm betook him to sit up straight, as if struck with lightning, or, as it were, some zealous monomania.

“Cronos is the most high God,” Padre said.  “And I intend to defy him.  I intend that you defy him.  Defy him and all of the gods.  I had chosen you because you are yet young, and ripening with potential.  But I am overripe, and running out of time.  Cronos seeks to detain me, and unmake me, before I may exact my defiance.  Even now his pendulous scythe seeks me, slicing away at my bones and my nerves and my mind.  I hear it, like the ticking of the clock, or the ebb and flow of the sea.  He devours all his children, you know?  Whether god or human, he devours us all.  And you must keep his gluttonous mouth from me.  As a stone I shall defy him, as did Zeus his father.”

“I am honored, Padre,” I said.

He dismissed such obsequiousness with an impatient wave of his hand.

“I have sufficient capital for as many such sculptures, and sculptors, as I desire,” he said.  “All have attempted my dream.  All have failed.  Save for her, of course.  She works expediently.  She works…unnaturally.”

He spoke as if he had said a joke, smiling through his pain.  What the joke was, I did not understand.

“Then why hire any other artist?” I said, feeling irritated.  “Why not let this…this…Protean woman people your gallery with all the statues that you desire?”

He smiled mirthlessly; that wry smile that seemed embittered despite all outward appearance of joy.  Like a colorful fruit with an alluring rind, sour to its pulpy core.

“Because I push human limitations,” he said.  “Why shouldn’t we equal the powers of the gods?  I want another artist to succeed as she has done.  Not with so much ease, naturally, but with perseverance and discipline, as is the needful habit of Man.  Then I should hire such a man, or woman, to sculpt my own likeness.  And to them I would give all my riches, just for such a grand satisfaction.”

“All of your riches?” I said, disbelieving him.

“This island,” he said, “is but a small corner of my empire.  And you should have it all, should you accomplish such a feat.  Pygmalion may have done such a thing once, though that conniving goddess interfered from pure vanity to stamp her own miracles upon his work.  I should like my present flesh rendered steadfast in ageless stone.”  He coughed into a trembling, mottled fist.  He smiled sardonically through the pain.  “Frailties and all.”

Presently a servant girl in a himation arrived, her black hair curling like an Ionic capital.  One breast was bare.  She handed a small, circular shield to Padre.  It was rimmed with copper and in its center was a mirror.  Its glass was as immaculate and clear as air itself.

“This is my aegis,” Padre said.  “Though it has not always belonged to me.”  He held it up, with some effort, and looked into it, grimly.  A moment later, he handed it to me.  “Look into the glass and tell me what you see.”

I took the mirrored shield in both hands and gazed into its looking-glass.  What I saw was a truer reflection of myself than any other mirror had hitherto given.  It revealed as much as reflected, its soul-gazing glass more genuine than what eyes might see unaided.  The mirror was scrutiny itself; it concentrated the essence of the gazer and revealed what they dare not seek to know of themselves.

Trembling, I almost dropped the aegis.  So unsettled was I that I did not notice the dry, dusty chuckling of the old man beside me until he took the mirror from me.

“The aegis has that effect on men,” he said, “and women, too.”

“I thought…I thought it was supposed to have a gorgon’s head in the center,” I said after collecting myself.

“And so it does,” he said.  “Every gorgon is revealed when someone peers into its glass.  It was made by the gods, you know.  Athena herself, supposedly.  That is why it does not age.  That is why it is untarnished after so many millennia.”

He motioned for a servant, and the dark-haired woman returned, taking away the aegis.  Padre regarded me with one of his knowing looks of wry amusement.

“Which would you prefer, a painting of yourself or a photograph?”

“A painting,” I said, “if the painter be worthy of the oils used.”

“And why is that?  Is it because of the labor rendered to us by another human being?  Is it the skill?  The interpretive talent?  Or is it the sacrifice of the venture?  Is it the Time involved in capturing your likeness and bringing it to life on lifeless canvas?”

“All of those reasons,” I said.  “A deft hand and a deft eye are invaluable.  Why not indulge one’s vanity”

“And yet you cannot, as they say, ‘take it with you’ when you die.  So who is the painting really for?”

“For my posthumous pride,” I said.  “For the ages.”

“Perhaps,” he said.  “Vanity, in its ultimate form, is the desire to live forever, isn’t it?  Or at least to be remembered forever.  But that is not the reason I seek a worthy visionary to reproduce me in stone.  No, it is war.  It is revenge.  Revenge against Cronos and his insatiable appetite.  I entertain no delusions as to live forever.  I am not yet senile enough in my old age to believe fallacious half-hopes.  I only want to avenge myself.  And, by extension, humanity.  That is my intention.  That is the raison d’être.”

He became silent.  Pensive.  Gloomy.  Like a storm distant at sea, he brooded, not yet breaking toward the mainland.

“Painting was changed by the advent of photography,” he said quietly.  “Only a meager handful may paint so realistically that their brush strokes are indistinguishable from a photograph, and even that is discernible at nearer distances.  Conversely, anyone with hands may take a photograph.  Therein between lays a vast gap of deficiency.”

“It is good that I am a sculptor, then,” I said, lightly.

Upon his weathered, withered face was a galvanized intensity that struck dead like a thunderbolt all the flippancy I formerly felt.

“Unless there was a thing to take photos in 3-dimensional space.  Yes?  Unless there could be rendered, in a moment— as if an insight drawn out directly from the sculptor’s mind—the very idea that had been buried in thought as thick as granite rock.”

I frowned.  I knew of computer programs with which Hollywood men might take photographs and feed them into a computer, the computer thereafter fabricating a 3D model with algorithms and such technobabble to generate a digital model from the various photos.  They could even— from what my limited knowledge provided on the subject—use large machines to “print out” 3D sculptures of the model recorded in vertices and polygons and the like.  But that was not the same as carving out of marble a sculpture.  Perhaps they might someday undertake to use a computer to render from marble a sculpture such as Michelangelo could praise, but it would not be the same as a sculpture born with careful hands and keen eyes and the labors of a soul possessed.

Then again, was that not the very same argument made on behalf of painters in the past when confronted with the fiend of photography?

Padre suddenly raised his hand above his head, snapping his fingers aloft.  A servant came hurrying over, nearly tripping over his white robe.  With outstretched arms he held in his hands a leather satchel which, by his manner and his fearful expression, might well have contained explosives ready to detonate at any moment.  He very gently handed this satchel to Padre, then hurried away.

Padre cradled the satchel in his arms, letting it rest on his lap.  The satchel moved as it lay there, a sibilance sounding suggestively from within.  It was as if angry coils slithered about, tangled inchoately in an inextricable knot.

“You hear them?” he asked.  “In the beginning, before Cronos and his ilk, there was merely Ophion and the dancing maiden on the primordial waters.  Time did not exist. Neither life nor death existed.  Only a moment existed, eternally. A moment existed, and that was all, and that moment was Maiden and Ophion copulating upon the waters of Chaos.  What is Chaos but timelessness?  It is the calming of the waters.  The ceasing of the waves.  Lest we forget, when Cronos was castrated by his own scythe his genitals fell among the waters, causing waves to crash against the sands of Time.”

 

As I left that day, I glanced back again at the great palace beckoning to me; taunting me with its grandeur.  Seeing again the domed rotunda of columns, I scrutinized the headless mermaid upon the dome.  In the bright Mediterranean sun I saw that it was no fishtail with which she luxuriated, nor was the repose with which she reclined one of ease. Her tail spiraled in serpentine coils.  Her posture was of defeat and death.

 

***

 

I had not heard from Padre or his servants in some time.  Months passed.  I feared he might have lost patience with me, or worse, confidence, and so presumed to send a letter.  I was informed, at the passage of a fortnight, that Padre had suffered a fall and was now confined to a wheelchair, recuperating however he could.  The letter did not indulge much else for elaboration.  All that was said was that I would be contacted when Padre was ready to receive my new work.  Furthermore, I was informed to improve upon it in the meantime.  This I did resentfully, for I thought it already the most eminent of my works.  Simultaneously, I also acknowledged that while it very well would have been gladly displayed in the Louvre, it was yet worthy of a place amongst the forefront statues of Padre’s exclusive gallery.

And so, unsure whether my patron would live to see what I had achieved for him, I threw myself into meticulous refinement of my Icarus piece.  Begrudgingly, I had to admit that I had, in time, vastly improved the feathers and the overall realism of the work.  To make stone so airy and soft was my obsession for a time and I do not believe I oversell myself by stating that aspiration was equally met by talent.

It was the following year that I received a letter from Padre’s servants.  They had arranged that my work would be shipped to the island within a month’s time.  This was highly unexpected and so I prepared for the date in a nervous hustle.  When the time came, I went with the servants, escorting my piece from studio to port to island.  I was given a room in the palace while the piece was moved into the gallery.  Padre did not present himself and I suspected that he may not have been on the island.  This suspicion was fed by a week of isolation on the island.  Meals were made for me, and I was given clothes— white robes like the rest of the island’s inhabitants—and I lived in a paradisaical state of luxury.  I enjoyed long walks on the beach, swimming in the sea, and the satisfaction of two years’ work.  I shunned the gallery for fear of growing doubts in my mind.   Already they gnawed at me and the need to know Padre’s opinion on my magnum opus grew in my mind like restless insects.

Then one day, while out on a walk, I was summoned to the gallery.  While I waited I stared out through the colonnade, toward the sea, ignoring the other statues in the gallery.  I did not even wish to look at my own work.

A servant wheeled Padre beside me as we traversed his gallery.  He did not say anything. He only pointed toward my statue, and so we went.  We came to my magnum opus and he sent the servant away.  He stared at the piece, and I stared at him.  He was frailer now, shrunken in upon himself.  Were it not for the wheelchair holding him, I would have thought he would crumble to dust at that very moment.  His scraggly white beard had thinned.  His sallow cheeks sagged.  However, the same fiery light of intelligence blazed within the shadowy sockets.

At first Padre seemed pleased— eager, even, to devour with his eyes the work I had accomplished.  But the longer he surveyed the wings the more quickly did the luster of his hopeful gaze fade into jaded dimness.  The more he scrutinized the smooth flesh, the less pleased he was with the want of wrinkles.

“It is a fair piece,” he said flatly.  “But it yet aspires beyond its reach.”

“I am sorry,” I said, too much in shock to mutter anything else.

He shook his head.  “No, it is I who am sorry.  Had I another ten years you might achieve the skill I require.  There is so much potential in you, and that was why I chose you.  So young and so much potential.  But not enough time.  He taunts me even now, you see?  Cronos will have the last laugh after all.”

“But what of your woman?” I said, trying not to sound bitter.  “What of her superior skills?  Why even bother with me if you have someone at your disposal who could achieve more and with lesser effort?”

“She…she is a last recourse,” Padre said.  “Her talent is too…dreadful to surrender to as of now.  Even in my crippled condition I am not so desperate for such an…irreversible option.”

He groaned and struck his fists against the wheelchair.  It was the most explicit expression of frustration, or any emotion, I had seen him allow himself.

“I am but crumbling clay when I should be timeless marble!  Had I only more time!”

The intense light in his eyes suddenly extinguished, like blown-out candles in the dark wells of his sockets, and his face grew lax as melted wax.  I feared he was having a stroke and made ready to fetch for his servants.  But it was a momentary disintegration and he soon gathered up himself into a grim sneer, the baleful light returning to his eyes.

“What now, little one?” he mumbled.  “Aspire still?  What hope have you?  You, who are as a maggot gnawing at the heel of the gods as they press you down into the filth of your birthplace?”

I did not know if such scorn was for me, or if it was rather for himself.  He said no more, except to summon his servants to have me boated off his island.

 

***

 

I did not hear word from Padre or his servants again.  I should have let such matters go, knowing I had failed to achieve what he had desired I achieve, but my pride ached.  And it was an angry ache; an ache of frustration and rage, of disappointment and resentment and action.  I restrained myself for a time, but the ache grew too severe, resounding awfully, and so spurred me to at last dare Padre’s wrath.

I rented a boat and sailed on my own to Padre’s island.  It was an insolent, presumptuous impulse, and I should have paid for it with my life.  Yet I did not.  Coming to the island, I found it abandoned.  There were no servants.  No signs of life.  No one lived there or stirred within that paradise.  It was as the tomb of a Minoan king, silenced with forgetful dust.

I did not inspect Padre’s gallery until after I had checked the various rooms and quarters for guests and servants.  Perhaps I felt that entering the gallery unaccompanied, and uninvited, was too intrusive.  Perhaps it was a creeping feeling of surreal fear that restrained me from entering it.  Whatever the reason, I soon found I had nowhere else to investigate.  So I entered that columned forum while the waves of the Mediterranean crashed amongst the silence.

No life stirred there.  The many statues remained inert, no matter how lifelike their visages and their manner of bearing.  My Icarus fell for eternity near the middle of the expansive forum, and while this was a more enviable position than my Ganymede, I yet felt bitterness at its middling placement.

I saw a leather satchel upon the tiled floor.  Recalling it from a previous visit, I wondered at its careless disposal.  Nearing it, I found it open and empty.  A brief thought of Pandora’s opened box— or amphora— flitted through my mind, though I knew such a fancy ridiculously born of my fear.

I heard rustling amongst the farthest shadows, near the back of the gallery.

“Padre?” I said.

Padre was pale, his countenance one of fearful confusion.  I asked him what was the matter.  He did not answer and I feared he had finally suffered a stroke in his old age.  As I approached him I realized my error.

It was not Padre, but a statue such as I could never have hoped to equal.  He stood half in shadows, looking into the deeper shadows of the corner of his gallery, where the sun did but faintly touch with its light.  Nothing sounded within that tomblike silence of his gallery except the waves throwing themselves to and fro.  And something else.  A sibilant sound emerged, nearer to me than the waves.  The hissing of many tongues, and the groaning of a woman.

The sun was setting and the gallery darkened.  I had an uncanny feeling that eyes were watching me. Pleading eyes frozen forever in place.  As I turned to leave I heard a muffled moan.  I hesitated only a moment, then fled from that place, running blindly through the gallery.  By the time the tides splashed my feet I was bruised and bloodied from my blind flight.  I went to my boat and left as quickly as I could.  I never returned to that island.

 

He still remains there, a part of his gallery.  Protected from Cronos, and entrapped by Cronos.  Forever, gazing among the waves breaking leisurely against the sands of Time.

The Offering

20200317_224706-1-1

I have smiled at him, but my sweet Nie has not smiled back. He has eyes only for pretty little Uba, that Ganguro slut with her blonde wig, caramel tan, and sparkling pearlescent eyeshadow. What can my plain lips do against her glittering white lips? And those scintillating stars at the corners of her eyes? Those long black eyelashes that would make a horse wince in envy? Oh, my sweet Nie! You belong to me, not to that painted-up whore. But do I even have a chance?
“Do you like the lanterns?” Uba asks him.
“Yes,” Nie says, but he cannot see the lanterns as they line the streets. He is too dazzled by her red eyes. The orange lanterns hang all around the town. It is the lantern festival, the Obon time of the year when a young man’s heart is at its fullest and can be stolen from his true love by a devilish yama from the mountains.
“Do you want to hold my hand?” Uba asks him.
He chokes on the word “Yes” and holds his hand out as if he is touching a sacred shrine. She takes his hand, and takes his heart, and they walk farther along the lantern-lit streets. The glow around them that turns the starry night into a lurid dusk. I follow, for he is my Nie, not hers, and I will not let her take my Nie for herself.
“I like to hold your hand, my Golden Boy,” she says.
He blushes and I feel my hair rustle with anger. It tingles all the way to the beads and barbs.
“You remind me of someone I used to know,” she says. She slips her overly tanned arm around his waist. Her fake fingernails are gaudy with glued-on jewelry; a kitschy coral reef capping every fingertip.
Can he not see how fake she is? She is but a wile—a glamor and guise in complexion and bearing and fashion. Whereas I am traditional; very traditional. Pale-skinned, raven-haired, and wearing a respectful kimono for this festival, as is only proper. My sweet, sweet Nie! Please look at me and see me smiling! Please smile back! That is all I ask.
They stop by a charm shrine. Nie buys a silver ofuda amulet and tries to give it to Uba. Ah ha! You stupid hussy, what will you do now? She turns away and my poor Nie is crestfallen. He does not understand. Of course not! How could he? I see my opportunity and wave to him. He sees me, sees my smile, but turns away, following that Ganguro slut as she slips away— never far away from him, but always in sight among the throngs of people lining this street. Dear Nie! Do not follow her! It is but a game, and she will lead you on and on.
He has dropped the amulet. I dare not pick it up. It is meant for Uba, and I will never accept secondhand gifts.
But I will accept you, Nie!
Beneath the spherical lanterns Uba and my Nie reconcile. They stand in front of a Niomon, the two wooden warriors standing guard before the shrine. The warriors’ expressions are fierce, unflinching, and Nie wants to go inside to pay respects to his dead. Again, she drifts away, aloof, pretending at upset. He follows her like a forlorn puppy— follows her golden thighs and hot pink skirt and flower-blasted tanktop. It is an illusion, Nie! It is all an illusion!
They slip farther away from the shrine, and the center of town, nearing the outskirts. Here the lanterns are like full moons along the streets, hanging from the eaves of shops and shrines and restaurants. Nie and Uba move through the throngs of people as if they are moving through figures of mist, whereas I am caught in the torrential flow. Too many charms here. Too many ofudas. I am snagged on every little bauble, my hair unruly and my barbs and beads tingling with panic and terror and excitement. Tonight was supposed to be our night, Nie. How could you abandon me for that gaudy Ganguro slut?
A woman approaches me, blocking my view of Nie and Uba. She smiles widely— a jagged-lipped smile that is too wide.
“Do I look pretty?” she asks.
“Get out of my way, slut.”
I shove past her. I don’t have time for silly games. My Nie is escaping me, and the night is fleeting.
The woman stoops to pick up her scissors, but they are lost in the crowd.
I am distraught. I cannot see my Nie! My hair is disheveled, and quivering. Nie! My scalp tingles for you! This lantern festival was supposed to be ours to share!

I spot Nie and Uba down the street. Relieved, I slip closer and follow. Nie is walking toward a vendor of sweets.
“Want some mochi?” he asks Uba.
No, my Nie, neither of her mouths eat sweets.
“Yes, please!” Uba says, chiming like a bell. Her voice is sweeter than any ball of sugar and gelatinous rice and red bean paste could ever be. But it is a wile. It is as false as a demon’s bell of summoning.
Sweet Nie buys a large mochi so they can share. Uba pretends to eat it, but does not truly swallow. When they continue down the street her other mouth spits it out from beneath her blonde wig. Oh my naive Nie! You are not meant for her! She is a thief aglitter with gold and stars and pearlescent makeup all stolen. It is an artifice! Do not trust her smile, either! It is falser than a Noh mask of lacquered wood! But my smile, Nie, is genuine, and it is meant only for you. See my smile, Nie, and smile back.

As I follow them I can feel the thunderous drumbeat of drummers down the street. They beat their drums like a storm and I fain think it might rain. But the night is clear, the moon is bright, and the stars sparkle lustrously; far more beautifully than those painted-on stars adorning Uba’s rounded cheeks. It is Obon season and the air is warm as if it, too, is celebrating the lantern festival. But I only feel cold. A chilly fear consumes me. Nie, please! Come back to me! I only wish to see you smile.
A handsome man in a tuxedo steps in front of me, grinning. I do not like grins, especially those with sharp teeth. I like smiles, but only Nie’s smiles.
“Hello beautiful,” he says. “Are you lonely tonight?”
“Shut up, dog-face,” I say.
His grin slides into a frown. He has his black hair oiled backwards into a pompadour. He is dashing, or at least he is to some women. To sluts.
“I am not a dog,” he says.
“No, but you’re not my Nie, either,” I say.
He nods, considering me up and down. “Very true,” he says. “Nor would I wish to be.”
“Your tails are showing,” I say.
When he twists around to look behind himself I shove him into a group of schoolgirls that happen to be passing by. He falls down upon one, groping for purchase like a clumsy idiot.
“Pervert!” they scream as he scrambles to get off of their friend. The handsome man tries to apologize as he rises, but grabs one of the standing schoolgirls by the skirt to try to pull himself up. He instead pulls down her skirt.
“Help!” the girls scream.
Several men and women come rushing, striking at the man in the tuxedo. He has so many tails, and yet is still a fool. I walk away. He is not a pervert, but he is desperate. We are all desperate in Obon season Even so, he deserves to be ran out of town, if only for lack of tact. He could have at least followed tradition by wearing a kimono, like me. But he is too conspicuous. Just like Uba, that slutty hag. They are cheating. Breaking the rules. It makes my hair stand on end, like a cat’s. It is quivering in disarray atop my head, trailing down my shoulders and covering part of my face in perpetual shadow. Those people who see me are dismayed and move out of my way.
But not my Nie. He will be able to see my smile, if he would only look. And then he will smile back and all will be well.

I have lost sight of Nie because of the tuxedo fool. I stop by a vendor serving strange meats on sticks. He has a big smile, but not the smile I am looking for. His smile is a mask.
“I am looking for my Nie,” I tell him. “Have you seen him?”
The vendor never blinks, and his smile never falters. His lips never move when he speaks. “Nie, you say?”
“Yes,” I say. “He was with Uba.”
“Lots of young men are with Uba,” the vendor says. He holds up a stick of pork-like meat to emphasize what he means. He does not sweat, even though his food stand is as hot as the underworld itself.
“He is not with her yet,” I say. “That is why I am looking for him.”
“I see,” the vendor says. “Does he look like this?”
He wipes his long kimono sleeve across his face, removing his eyes and nose and mouth. His face is as blank as an egg.
“No,” I say. “Don’t be stupid.”
If the vendor had looks, he would look disappointed.
I walk on, searching for my Nie.
There are two lions loose near the temple. They have silly faces, but they will kill me if I go near them. So I go around the long way, hiding behind a group of children holding a large lantern of Pikachu. The lions do not pay attention to the children.
“Komainu,” I hear someone mutter beside me. I turn and see a bald, turtle-faced man wearing a straw hat over his head. He looks green, like he might throw up at any moment. He swoons now and again, water trickling down his face. “I should have never ventured so far from the water,” he says.
Feeling irritated at his presumptuousness, I shove him out toward the lions. The water under his straw hat spills out almost completely upon the street as he tumbles to the road, frozen in a paroxysm of helplessness. He pleads for help, but people ignore him. The lions circle him and then pounce, tearing him apart. No one tries to help him. Why would they?
While the grimacing lions are preoccupied I go further down the street, looking for my Nie among the countless celebrants. I happen upon a group of children. They are wearing lanterns on their heads— all except one. He is in the middle of them, his head covered with green leaves. He beats a drum. Or at least I think it is a drum at first. Then I realize it is not. He is not even a child. And he has no sense of shame. He leads the children in a crude song:
“Tan-Tan-Tanuki’s balls. No winds ever blowing, but still they go swing-swing-swing!”
The chorus leader beats his hairy drums with a mischievous gleam in his dark-ringed eyes. He thinks he is so funny.
I see my Nie and the slut Uba watching a Bon dance down the street. The dancers are little girls all dressed alike in kimonos colored like pomegranates. My Nie smiles widely, waving to a little girl among the dancers. She smiles back at him.
“She is my sister,” he tells Uba. “She has been practicing the dance for weeks. She wants to do it perfectly.”
“She does it so perfectly!” Uba chimes, smiling widely. Her red eyes sparkle. “Such a sweet little treat she is!”
My Nie nods innocently, not understanding what she means.
“Come, my Golden Boy,” she says. “Let’s go someplace more private.”
Angry now, my hair tingles and twists, tress against tress. I must stop her! He is my Nie!
A trio of priests wade through the crowd. One is dressed in red and the other two in white. They see Uba and Nie walking together. Good! Perhaps they will repel her back into the mountains. They are looking at me now? No! Go after Uba! She is the monster! She must have put a spell on them. I must flee them into the crowds near the sea, then into the trees. And so I do just that. Kneeling down in the undergrowth, I watch the priests. They look around, then stick charms upon the torii gates leading into town. They leave. I weep because I do not see my Nie. Where has he gone? Where has that star-cheeked slut taken him now?

There are people on the seaside, setting their lanterns in the water. The lanterns glow to lead spirits away, or to reconcile ancestors, or to help find young people love, or whatever it is humans think the lanterns do. What it really means is to make an offering. But where is my offering? Where has he gone?
A presumptuous woman waves to me. She is carrying a red peony lantern.
“Hello, Hari,” she says. “Any offerings yet?”
“Uba has my Nie!” I confess to her.
She nods sympathetically. She is pretty, but only in a certain light.
“Then you should let her have him,” she says. “And find another. Anyone would be delusional to think they could take anyone from Uba.”
“You are delusional!” I cry, shoving her aside. She almost drops her lantern. I do not care. I would not care if she turned into a pile of bones in front of all the celebrants.
I walk along the shore, feeling very upset. The sea is serene, but my heart is a tempest. Where has my Nie gone?
I fall to my knees, steeped in bitterness like an overripe tea. What more can I do? My Nie forsakes me. I could have done what Uba has done— I could have painted myself up like a whore. But if he does not want me for me alone, then so be it! I will not even carry a peony lantern to falsify my beauty. Love me, as I am, Nie, or let me rot!
I sit upon the shore, and look out at the languid waves. It is a black sea, but calm. I realize there are two moons in the sky. Gazing indifferently, I sigh. The two moons move closer to the shore, riding a mountainous surge of dark water that rises over me as if it will crash upon the shore. It does not crash, however, but lingers, its two luminous eyes glowing sullenly from within dark torrents. Its shadow engulfs the beach.
“Go away, monk,” I say. “I am in no mood for company.”
The gigantic wave does not leave. It lingers, watching me with its large, luminous eyes. I stand to leave, and the head from the abyss follows me along the shore, its eyes unblinking like an apoplectic pervert. I stop and shout at him.
“Leave me alone!”
“Do you have a ladle?” he asks. His voice gurgles like a drowning man’s, and vibrates like a storm at sea. Otherwise there is silence. Even the wind is as still as a dead thing.
“No!” I say.
“I have a ladle,” he says. “I used it to sink a ship for my offering. The sailors made sweet music as they sank into the sea.”
“I do not care!” I shout. “I only want my Nie!”
The giant head turns left and right, its eyes searching the shoals. “Does he like to swim at night? Take him for a swim tonight and I will show him beautiful wonders at the bottom of the sea.”
I ignore him, leaving the shore behind. I feel upset and lost, for my Nie is lost from me. Oh, how I hate stupid monks!

I walk for a while, feeling dejected. Moaning, I glance up at the forested mountains. There are lights floating in among the trees, like lanterns in the middle of town. They are onibi; lights from souls. A few flare here and there, white and yellow and blue. They remind me that time is fleeting and I must hurry to save my dear Nie from that Gungaro slut. The lights lead the way, trailing up the mountains. They might lead someone else astray, but they will not fool me. They know better.
An onibi moves to block my way— flaming large, like an orb of fury—but when I walk through it, it dissipates and extinguishes like a snuffed cigarette butt. It had likely been a man in its former life; a man both dramatic and ostentatious and empty. Unlike my dear Nie. Nie is not shallow. He has depth to his whole being.
And I yearn to explore those depths.
There she is! I could see that gaudy glow from the other side of Japan. She glows among the shadowy forest path, eclipsed here and there by trees, but unmistakable. She is heading up the mountain with my Nie. If she takes him up to the craggy summit then he will be lost from me forever. All will be over. All will be wasted in this world, and the next.
I hurry to follow them. Passing under the torii gate, I creep up the path, staying far enough away that they cannot see me.
“It is much more beautiful at the top of the mountain,” Uba says. “The stars are closer and the moon brighter. We will be able to see the fireworks much better. It will be so kawaii.”
Her voice chimes again, like the daintiest prayer bell. I want to shove a giant bonsho down her throat and hear what her voice sounds like then.
Toro are on either side of the mountain path, their stone angles gray and green with moss. They are lit, but not by human hands. They burn with the light of the onibi. Farther ahead I see a procession of men and women carrying lanterns up the mountain. They are only kimono phantoms to me, but they all turn to watch that slut Uba with her gilded face and her meretricious getup. They speak to each other like the rustling of leaves. Stupid gossips. Their heads are as empty as their eye sockets. I push my way through their throng. They part like mists, and then become as a mist girdling the mountain. Their lanterns flare off and on like fireflies. What airy-headed fools!
The mountain is high, like a stairway to the stars. I do not know when I can rescue my poor Nie, but it is not right now. I must free him from Uba when she is most distracted, otherwise all will go wrong for me and my Nie.
I pass an abandoned shrine crouching within the woods. Its wooden eaves are covered in lichen and moss and fungus. Its eyes are hollow and dark. Faces— barely discernible from the darkness—stare out from the scrolled eaves of the shrine.
Suddenly, a monk appears out of the mountain mist, grinning.
“Hello, lovely,” he says. “Would you care to…”
“I see past you,” I tell him absently.
He cranes his long, slender neck up, up, up, grimacing, but does not bother me, walking by on his footless stumps. I am so tired of monks today!
Trailing behind Uba and Nie, I listen to their idle chatter.
“I want to go to Tokyo University,” Nie says. “Become a physician. Help people who need it. That is my dream.”
“Wow!” Uba says, her voice like a koto string plucked, its notes lingering on and on. “Cool!”
“You think so?” he asks.
Uba nods emphatically.
You have such a big heart, my Nie. But you waste it on Uba. Give it to me. Please. One smile, my dear Nie. One smile and you will open your heart to me! My hair quivers at the thought of it!
“What do you want to do?” Nie asks the false-faced slut.
Uba pouts. “Oh, I do not know,” she says in a melancholic tone that is still too bright and cheery. “I’m not as smart as you are, my Golden Boy.”
“Sure you are,” he says, rending my heart. “You can do anything if you just put your mind to it.”
“I really just want to be a mother,” she says, batting those paste-on eyelashes. They flap like bat wings. “Raise a Golden Boy of my own.”
My dear Nie laughs nervously. She keeps her arm around his waist, holding him close to her lest something take him away from her. But she has taken him from me! The thief! I will win him back, though! She will not have you, my Nie!
A bothersome badger walks in front of me, grinning. Before he can say anything I kick him off the path. The fat little busybody wails as he rolls down a fern-cluttered ravine. I hope he gets stuck and cannot transform himself a way out of it. So many nuisances today! I almost lose Nie and Uba in the woods. I follow fast, but stay silent. I do not want Uba to know I am following her.
My dear Nie. I love you. I yearn for you. No woman can desire you as this heart desires you. Your dark hair and your warm brown eyes—warm as sesame oil over a flame— are mine. Your flesh, though not so pale as mine, is mine, and so delicious in its tone. Come with me! Forsake Uba and her golden makeup! I need you.
I am not so out of touch to know that young Japanese men are jaded now. Black hair and pale skin do not attract like they once did. Such features were once enough to lure a monk from the Path with a wink and a smile. But now? So jaded. So spoiled. They wish for blondes. They wish for fashionistas. No one cares for a drab traditionalist like myself. But Nie…my sweet, sweet Nie…you were supposed to be different. Why do you follow her faux-glow around like an apprentice monk enthralled to a kitsune? You are special to me. Can you not see? Uba is not worthy of you. But I am. You belong to me.
A hairy man leaning on a crutch approaches from down the mountain. He is very old and has only one eye. Perhaps he fought in the War.
“Help me down the mountain, child?” he asks.
I help him down the mountain by kicking his only leg out from beneath him, sending him tumbling to join the badger in the ravine. I have no patience for mischief-makers, especially not on this beautiful Obon night.
Even so, I am squandering my Obon night. This is the night I was supposed to spend with my Nie. I am becoming tired. I am becoming disheartened. Like the moth among the heavy smoke, I grow heavy-headed and drowsy as the bonfires burn on. I will return to sleep soon, but I cannot let that happen until my Nie is mine.
“You could come with me to Tokyo,” my Nie says. “My parents have connections. You could live well in my apartment while I go to school. Would you like that?”
“I like you, my Golden Boy,” Uba says, her elated voice like a clanging bell amidst the silence of the mountain. “What you want, I want.”
“That is wonderful!” Nie says, mincing my heart with the happiness in his voice. “Of course, I can’t let my mother and father know. What would they think? We must keep it a secret for a while. Maybe a year, and then I can let them know we are dating.”
“Whatever you wish, my Golden Boy,” Uba says.
That manipulative slut! She teases him too much, and is unworthy of him. Kabuki harlot! It is all a show to her. But Nie’s feelings are real, and I want him to feel my adoration and know that it is not false like hers. His heart is important to me.
They continue the ascent, and I continue shadowing them. The night grows chilly and Uba holds Nie even more tightly against her. I wish to cry out. To shriek. To rage. But I must not.
I become more disheartened and start to fall behind. Dispirited, I walk more slowly up the mountain, trudging dejectedly beneath all the weight of my languid hair. It no longer tingles. It no longer floats buoyantly. My head hangs low with the weight of it and I stare down at my bare feet as I walk the path with a slowing pace.
Sensing something nearby, I look up. The moon is caught in a web spun wide and vast between two trees. It looks like a large wispy cluster of eggs. A voluptuous woman hangs down from the tree to my right, her breasts falling out of her black kimono.
“What do you do here?” she asks.
“I am fetching my Nie back to me,” I say.
“Oh really?” she says, licking her lips. “Is he handsome? Is he…delicious?”
“He is mine, you slut,” I say. I grab her by her cobwebbed hair and tug her down to the ground. She lands on her head, collapsing into a spasmodic sprawl of many legs. I kick her fat, hairy butt before she can right herself up on her many legs, then I continue through the forest. I have no time for a spinner of lies. She reminds me of Uba, that bitch that has stolen my Nie.
Uba, I may not be able to overpower you, but I will not let you take my Nie. But why would you want him? You are older than me and could have anyone as your Golden Boy. It is sad. It is pathetic. You are always trying to reinvent yourself now. For modern Japan. Whereas I am true to tradition. You have prostituted yourself out with blonde wigs and fake nails and glued-on glitter like some Barbie doll tramp. And you will not steal my Nie. My hair tingles and writhes at the thought of it!

My hair drags behind me, collecting twigs and grass and rocks in its tresses. It is more disheveled than ever now. I feel no hope for it or for my Nie. Obon is ruined! The festival is nearly over!
It is at the summit, beneath a solitary Cherry Blossom tree, that I find my Nie and the Ganguro slut. She sits down upon a flat rock, not unlike a bench. Her pink skirt shrinks away to reveal more of her smooth, caramel-tanned thighs. The conniving harlot!
“Kneel before me, my Golden Boy,” she tells my Nie.
Dutifully, my Nie kneels in front of her. She spreads her knees, drawing my Nie to her with one hand while her other hand pulls her flower-blasted tanktop up, a large breast plopping out. The slut is not wearing a bra.
“Suckle from me, my Golden Boy,” she says, her voice sweet with cheery cadences.
No! My Nie! Don’t! You break my heart! That slut! That harlot! That disgusting bitch.
I circle around the Cherry Blossom tree, entering its shadow to conceal me from the bright moon. Uba is too enthralled with my Nie to notice me. Quietly, I sneak behind her. I am as silent as the unmoving wind. Only my hair makes a sound, and even that is but a soft sibilance unheard beneath the distant music of the lantern festival.
I wait but a moment, steeling myself, and then I leap forward, snatching Uba’s blonde wig away from her hoary head. She gasps and tries to clutch it back, but I hold onto it triumphantly. Her makeup melts off her face like molten gold, revealing her withered old face. Her breast shrivels in Nie’s mouth, along with her thighs and her whole body, until only her true self remains—an ugly old mountain hag.
Nie cries out in terror, flinging himself away from her. I go to his side, helping him stand. His sesame oil eyes are agog and all he can do is point and tremble. Sputtering, he says only one word.
“Yamauba!”
Uba sneers at me as if she will bury me beneath her mountain. Then she looks at Nie and, smiling shamelessly— the old, stubborn crone!—she holds a hand out toward him while with the other she offers him her saggy, pendulous breast.
“My sweet Golden Boy,” she says, her voice now a harsh wind skirling through mountain crags. “Please be my Golden Boy. Please watch the fireworks with me tonight…”
My Nie staggers backwards in horror, gasping. “No!” He turns toward me for strength, and I embrace him and soothe him, scowling at Uba through my lank black hair.
Uba realizes she has lost. I can see it in her red eyes. Glaring balefully, she turns away, leaping down into the nearest ravine, caterwauling wildly while her second mouth atop her head screams in hungry rage from within her scraggly white hair. The valley below echoes with her screams and laughter.
My Nie begins to sob as the fireworks bloom in the night air around us. He sniffles, then wipes his sesame oil eyes dry. He looks at me now, and the fireworks sparkle in his eyes.
“Thank you so much for saving my life,” he says. “My name is Eichi. I owe you…owe you everything!”
He weeps again, his whole body rattling with sobbing terror. My poor Nie!
I wipe his tears away with my sleeves and caress his face. From up above, in amidst the pink-and-white glory of the Cherry Blossom tree, I hear the caw of a crow. It is like the laughter of a tengu. Encouraged, I smile at my Nie with the fullness of my devoted heart. At long last he smiles back.

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My heart hammers in my chest, brimming, and my hair tingles all over my head, now at last fully alive. Nie! My one and only Nie! I want you so much. I want all of you.
My black tresses flail wildly and entwine him, lifting him into the air above me. His screams are lost beneath the thunder of the fireworks. I open my mouth, smiling, and it finally rains as my sweet Nie opens his heart to me.

 

(This story features a lot of Japanese myths and I wrote it as my own “Nie” or “offering” before I stop posting. Blogging encourages me to write, but have I really made any headway as an established writer? Not really. I am once again going to brave the yokai of the traditional publishing world and see if I can submit something a legitimate publisher will want to publish. I have had very bad experiences in the past when attempting to publish anything and, being somewhat thin-skinned, I chafed at the criticisms (sexist against women and men, really?) Anyhow, no more poems or short stories or art. I am disillusioned. Maybe I will post in the future when I gain more traction. Maybe not.

Coyote Antics

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In the frosted field, beneath the night,
the hunter aims his unerring sight
for the king of stags with the crown
like a forest with its leaves fallen down,
and sitting in the crook of an old oak tree
he waits with his gun upon his stiff knee,
hearing the chorus of a raucous pack
of coyotes tracing the wild game track
where the stags and does often walk,
where the lesser-wolves often stalk,
and hearing their yipping, yowling laughter,
the hunter wonders what they are after
as they run manically to and fro
like dogs with a humor humans know
when witnessing hubris exact a price
and costs a man much for his vice.
The hunter loses patience with the pack
as they deny him his most desired rack
by chasing away all such grandstanding deer
that may wander thereto, or near enough here,
so the hunter might stake covetous claim
with apt opportunity and an expert aim.
Still the coyotes laugh wildly at him
while racing about the field’s moonlit rim.
Impatient for his next fireplace mount
while the coyotes run about without count,
he takes aim at the wry pack ever abounding
and pulls the trigger, the loud shot sounding
throughout a night that is otherwise silent
except for the coyote chorus, all defiant
at the bullets churning up the frosted turf—
dirt and grass, rock and root and earth.
The hunter loses his temper ever the more
when they all zig-zag around the old arbor
where he sits, his gun raised to his eye
while cursing the moon-lobed, lunatic sky.
He knows his aim true, yet none ever fall,
each shot striking as though the phantasmal,
the cross-hairs on their beastly hearts
and yet striking none of their fleshy parts.
Cussing the night, his gun, and each coyote,
he clambers down from the old oak tree.
But his hand slips on bark and he tumbles down,
falling head over heels, landing on his crown.
His rifle, too, falls roughly to the ground
and fires its anger with a deafening sound,
the bullet cutting a bloody red rut
through the core of his lily-white gut.
The coyotes converge, now, in a circle
and proceed to laugh, yip, and smirk till
one by one they fade away, the last
being the largest of all, in moonlight cast.
Coyote then dons his human skin
and stands upright, flashing a grin
as a black-haired trickster and new-come stranger,
animal and man, a deadly skin-changer.
He waves to the hunter as the man dies,
his bloody mouth agape, and wide his eyes
as he looks upon this primeval creature
who is coyote in spirit, but man in feature.
Coyote then takes a large black flint blade
from his corded leather waist braid
and cuts the scalp from the hunter’s head,
bringing it through the woods to his homestead
and adding it to a large stone wall within
covered in the scalps of other such men
who each mistook himself as a master
while scorning Coyote and his frightful laughter.

dreamcatcher

 

(For those who know of my Native American Apocalyptic Myth series, this is just another poem set in that universe concerning Glooskap and Tawiskaron.  I have several short stories set in the universe, alongside the first novel “The Dark Dreamer”, published under my pseudonym SC Foster, and eventually I will finish the second novel “The Hunter Comes”, though it is slow going since I have so many other things I am currently working on under my other real name [SC Foster is my real name, too, but selectively excised].  There are simply not enough hours in the day to pursue everything and I feel a little bit overwhelmed.  Not that I should complain, I suppose.  Better the floodgates open than a drought beset the brain.)

Wish Come True

You boys need to sit a spell. It’s a helluva swelterin’ day to be out river-raftin’ and I reckon you could use a moment in the shade to cool yourselves off. I’m sure them rapids will still be waitin’ for you in an hour or so. They ain’t goin’ nowhere, ‘cept forward, of course. Funny how the river moves on, but remains in place. Even that turbulence. I’m sure it’s all wear-and-tear on the arms, fightin’ those currents and that mean old spittle of the river. Me, I couldn’t do it. Maybe in my youth I could. Then again, I ain’t so old as I appear. I know, I know. Time ain’t been good to me, but really it is the genes that are to blame. The bad blood in me. Too much inbreeding where I come from. Ain’t good for the specimen, or the species for that matter. That’s why I married me a girl from other parts. No need to have the branches entwined with the roots, if you get my meaning. Anyhow, yessir, I’ve been a chewer most my life. Chewin’ the leaf helps me chew the cud. Mastication, they say, means to chew things over. And I’ve a lot to chew over as I become an old man too soon. It ain’t a bitter leaf, mind you. And if it is, well, that’s just the type of flavor you like in your old age, however premature it may be in comin’ to you.
Yeah, you whitewater rafters have your skin in the game for sure. The river can be mighty fickle as it runs along. He’s a merciless daddy to piggyback on. But when I was a boy growin’ up in Appalachia, the thing most folks said you had to fear wasn’t so much whitewater as silent, still, stagnant water. My daddy’d get kidney stones all his life, and that was because there was a limestone spring where he grew up at, and he and his folks would get their water from it. Yessir, water and minerals all in one gulp and go, and then kidney stones later on. Damn near killed him, those kidney stones. Like givin’ birth for a man. Almost dropped him with a heart attack. But he’d pull through.
Anyway, what you really had to fear was stagnant water fed off from the river. Watershed lakes, is what I mean. You see, it is true that whitewater can chew you up and spit you out as bad as any black momma bear, but still water can devour your body and soul, inside and out. And I ain’t just talkin’ ‘bout chemicals and pigshit and the other stuff that enterprisin’ individuals like to flush down-river; I’m talkin’ ‘bout the history in the bottomlands and their watersheds. I’m talkin’ the torrent of history that bleeds off and gathers in little pools that are so silent and still that people forget about them until they find themselves steeped up to their chins in them, or else drownin’.
I’m talkin’ ‘bout myths. I’m talkin’ ‘bout the Pitcher Woman.
Where do I start? The bottomland was a place where the sun never looked in none. The floodwaters brought thick soils with them that grew them trees tall and taut together, like bundles of giant broccoli, their foliage a roof in a great columned hall. Moss carpeted the ground there, if anything, and lichen and mushrooms grew in fairy rings like portals between worlds. And they were portals between worlds, mind you, though the worlds were nothing you’d ever want to visit.
It waited there, in that stagnant lake, eating frogs and water fowls and whatever else wondered into that forgotten lake, save for when the floodwaters opened the way for the river to bleed prey into that natural cesspool. Deer disappeared there, too, and it was said that a family of slant-eyed tourists had died after eatin’ bad mushrooms near the lake. But that was not true. Their bones joined the others at the bottom of that lake, their souls long gone before that. No one picnicked on bottomland, even eccentric tourists. But you know how drunk kids are with youth. Piss and vinegar can wash away fear faster than a spilling river from a broken dam. And that dam bled freely in our hearts.
And by we, I mean me and my cousins. Not yet teens, but we thought we could rule the wilderness. We went walking along the river every weekend in that Summer. This was back when Summer break was a good three months or so, so the farm boys could help with the harvest. But me and my cousins weren’t farm boys. We was River Rats. Our kin lived our lives along and in the Birchpike River, like muskrats. Fishing, boating, noodling—my granddaddy had lost three fingers to an alligator snapping turtle while trying to pull out what he thought was a flathead in a hole. Didn’t matter to him, though. Said it was the best soup he ever tasted.
Anyway, my cousins and me often explored the backwoods and the backwaters. Hell, they was our home! Elm, oak, and birch were as much our kin as any of our distant cousins (and no cousin back then was really distant since we all lived near the same town).
But I’m gettin’ lost in the thicket. My cousins and me, we liked to push our luck in that treacherous maze of Nature. Cottonmouths and copperheads lurked under every root, rock, and clover patch. Fiddlebacks webbed the underbrush and scrambled through the decaying leaves of every Fall that had come and gone since we had been born. But we was intrepid— foolhardy, you might even say—and armed ourselves with youthful laughter and rusty machetes to clear a path through that riverside wilderness. Everyday of that Summer we cut deeper into the cluttering chaos of countless plants and silver-barked trees. We pressed on beyond the higher land near the river and crossed a muddy wash-out ravine, using an uprooted tree for a bridge, and then descended slowly toward the bottommost bottomland. I remember like it was only yesterday.
Just me and my cousins— Andy, Trevor, and Nick. We were all roughly the same age, give or take a few months, and so nobody was really a leader. We just sort of decided things, and had an accord. An unspoken compact. We would go as far along the river as that Summer would let us. It was a binding pact, too, and one none of us would renege on. Now, you have to understand something: we were all Christians reborn in the blood of Jesus Christ, but that didn’t mean the Irish threads in our souls had forgotten the pagan vagaries and mysticisms of the old country, even here in America. We were prone to our own moments of daydreaming and fancy. What’s more, the Cherokee threads pulled at our sense of awe, too, and so the exploration was as much a pilgrimage as it was a preoccupation to pass the time. We wanted to prove to ourselves that we were men; strong, brave, and independent from our mommas and daddies. Course, if one of us had been snakebit we would’ve realized how make-believe all that shit was in our heads. I guess it was no different than when we pretended to be cowboys shootin’ at Indians.
Actually, it might have been better had one of us ended up snakebit. Then perhaps we would have never dared to go so far along those bottomlands.
It all seemed like harmless fun, though, and so we kept at it for weeks. Chopping underbrush with our machetes, joking about the dummies at school, and talking about the cute girls that we liked, and laughing about how dumb the teachers were. It was how we passed the time when we weren’t fishing or helping dig lateral lines or shingle roofs or whatever. Back then I was too young for chewing tobacco, so I settled for candied ginger root. My cousins thought it something funny, me chewing ginger, since I was myself a ginger. Can’t tell it now that I’ve gone all gray squirrel, but I used to be redder than a fox squirrel in my youth, and speckled worse than Easter eggs. That fiery color’s all extinguished out of me over the last few years. I guess settling down with a woman— no matter how pretty and good she is, or how happy she makes you— will do that to a man. Anyways, ginger is good for ya. Good for allergies and sinuses and breath. Ginger and horseradish. They’re the twin doctors of good health. Maybe I ought to take them up again. Couldn’t hurt me. The good life seems to be killing me. Nowadays, tobacco is my only bad habit. Maybe it’s what’s agin’ me prematurely. Could be the chemicals they use in ‘em now, but I doubt it. Otherwise others would be agin’ like me, too. Nah, it’s just my bad blood. Stagnant to the point of sickness.
We didn’t see the lake until we were almost on its banks. The trees were thick here, too, and rose up around it like a half-assed wall. The lake was congealed thickly with duckweed and green algae. It stank of stagnation. Water that sits tends to do that. Blood does, too, if you know what I mean. That was one of the reasons I got me a wife from Boone County— far enough away to be wife, but close enough to be family without being actual kin.
As I was sayin’, the water stank, and the algae was slimy and green, like mucus in a pneumonic lung. Naturally, my cousins and me wanted to poke at it with our machetes. Each of us started to stir our machetes into the shoals, cocooning the algae around our rusty blades like spools of green gossamers.
Trees rose from out of that stagnant lake, same as they did in all other parts of the bottomland, and so the shadows stagnated too; long-lingering shades heaped black and deep. We did not see the waves when she rose from the center of the lake. We did not see the wrinkles or the rings or hear nothing. One moment the lake was a solid spread of algae and the next she stood upon the water, easy as Jesus on the Sea of Galilee. I’d say she just appeared outta’ nowhere, but that ain’t exactly true. No, it was more like we looked at her without seeing her— like looking at a snake in the bushes without knowing what you are looking at, and then, all of a sudden, you see the snake after being blind to it for so long. There she is! If she was a snake she would’ve bit me.
But despite her walkin’ on water, she seemed a broken woman. Her back was bent and her knees bowed outward in a squat, almost like a frog as her long arms held a clay jar as she hunkered over it. Even so, my grip on my machete tightened.
My cousins and me looked at each other for a second— all with the same gobsmacked look on our faces—and when we looked back at her, she was standin’ on the edge of the lake, close enough to grab us with her long arms. But she didn’t grab us. She just eyed each of us in turn, as if she was our grandmother and knew something we didn’t about how we reminded her of some other relative she might’ve known once upon a century ago, and she tilted her clay jar, or pitcher, toward us. We looked in, being boys, and couldn’t see no bottom. It was all dark as night in the pitcher. But lookin’ in it made me feel like I was fallin’ forever in a dream from which I couldn’t wake up. When I came to, my cousins and me were leanin’ awfully far over the mouth of the pitcher. We shook our heads and turned away from that jar, or pitcher or whatever it was. I could feel my blue blood all sloshy with ice in my veins. Later I’d wonder why I hadn’t run away, or cut at the pitcher with my machete, or at the old woman, but no story ever comes true if you get up and run away from it, now does it? Death is the only exception, and that is only because every story has to end.
Anyhow, the old woman spoke to us. Her voice croaked up out of her corded throat like a bullfrog’s imitatin’ a woman’s speech, and to hear it was to feel it in the deep of your chest, where what they call the fight-or-flight reflex is stalled and stays at the “or”, unable to do nothing but hammer the heart until a cold sweat leaks from your every pore.
“I am Pookjinsquess,” she croaked, “your dear Aunty Pookjinsquess, and you dear boys deserve your heart’s content. A boon for my dear, dear boys! For visiting your Aunty of the Old Waters.”
We were too scared to move, and overawed by the fact that the woman didn’t sink none, nor her pitcher, as she stood upon that filthy water. She was a sight to see, even if you don’t believe me. She was copper-skinned, humpbacked, and had an old man’s warty face full of spindly, long spider hairs. Her drooping breasts were so warty that they looked like mushrooms growing up out of overfull leather sacks. Her white hair had a radiance all its own that shone even in that darkness beneath the trees, and it was long and damp, thankfully covering part of her naked body. Seeing the ugliness of her made me want to fly, but I was like a damn rabbit fixed by the stare of a wolf. Goddamn I used to think rabbits were the stupidest animals I’d ever seen, but now I was the rabbit. Or maybe I was the fish hauled up from the river, hook in mouth and gawping like an idiot with my eyes wide. What a haul for her, too. Though my machete was tight in my grip, it was all but useless as my hand refused to move.
“My dear, delicious boys,” she croaked. “How lovely you all are! In your prime! Bones cloaked in your strength. Meat draped with perfect skin! So lovely, all of you!”
With startling speed, the old hag snatched a snake up from the water— a cottonmouth slithering toward my leg— and bit its head off with a quick snap of her long, crooked teeth. Crunching bone and meat, she looked dead-eyed into the distance beyond us. The sound of the serpent being reduced to pulp in her jaws must have stirred me and my cousins to move. Or maybe that old hag thing lost focus on us for a moment. But the moment didn’t last long enough for us to get away. We stepped back, but her attention snapped right back to us, and fixed us in place like nails to a board.
“Oh my dear lovely boys!” she mumbled, her jaws still working at the bone and meat in her teeth. She swallowed the cottonmouth’s head, her Adam’s apple bobbing up and down in her hairy gullet. “For spending time with your Aunty I will give you each your heart’s desire!”
“Our heart’s desire?” Andy said.
“Really?” Nick said.
“Of course! Of course!” the old hag said. “Anything you want!”
It should have been hard to believe that the old hag could give anyone anything, except leprosy, but I knew it had to be true. I knew it had to be true, just like I knew the sky was blue and the grass was green and I was a child dear in the heart of Jesus Christ.
“What’s the catch?” Trevor asked. He was always to the point.
“Oh, no catch!” she said. “No catch at all.”
This was not true. We were the catch. Her catch. She was hauling us up as she spoke to us, all of us caught in her net.
“Just a sweet little kiss,” she said. “A sweet little kiss for your Aunty.”
All of us shivered. I could feel the bile rising like hot vinegar in the back of my throat. None of us dared to kiss that hideous face. Would have rather kissed a pig’s muddy ass.
“Or,” she said, “if you can’t give me that, Aunty wouldn’t mind a little spit-shine on her pitcher. It is so dirty, and some boys like you could clean it nicely.”
The pitcher was as filthy as an outhouse shitter. Green and brown gunk clung to its fat flanks and the rim of its mouth.
“Why doncha’ just use the water here?” Trevor asked.
“We could take it home and clean it there,” Nick said.
“No!” the woman croaked. Then, in a quieter voice, “No, it’s got to stay with your Aunty. And the water here is no good for cleaning things. Just…just a little spittle is enough, my little darlings. A little spit in the pitcher will work wonders, and I will work wonders for you.”
I wanted to leave, but then Andy stepped forward.
“Can you stop my momma and daddy from gettin’ a divorce?” he asked, his voice all quavering.
“Of course, my poor dear!” she said. “My poor, poor, sad dear.”
We all knew about the fighting that was going on between Andy’s momma and daddy, and we all heard the whispers about them gettin’ a divorce. It bothered Andy more than he wanted to let you know. And none of us knew how to talk to him about it.
Before we could stop Andy, he leaned over the pitcher and spat into its mouth.
“That’s what I want,” he said. “For my parents not to get a divorce.”
“That is not a problem for Aunty,” the hag said, nodding. She seemed to stand a little more upright now. Andy teetered a bit, as if he was tired, but he didn’t fall. Boys recover fast at that age. The drowsiness lifted from him soon enough.
Trevor scoffed. “I think this is a bunch of hogwash,” he said.
The hag eyed him in her knowing, grandmotherly way. “There must be something dear that you desire, my boy. Don’t act all high and mighty and lose this chance. Aunty only wants to make your dreams come true.”
Trevor’s brow crinkled angrily, as it always did just when he was thinking, or when he was about to hit you in the arm. “What have I got to lose?” he reasoned aloud. He went to the pitcher and spat in it. “I want to be rich.”
“And you will be, my dear boy,” she said. “You will be.”
Chris shrugged and stepped forward. He spat into pitcher. “I want to be famous.”
“And you will be, my dear boy,” the hag said. She then looked at me. I won’t deny that part of me wanted to take my machete and lop off that ugly bitch’s head, and I won’t lie and say that it was the larger part of my mind. No, I was thinking about my wish and what I most wanted. A ginger like me was luckless with girls, and knew it would only get worse as I grew older. My daddy warned me so. He said I got the freckles of my momma, and that’s fine on a woman, but it is unmanly in a man. So I was afraid I would be alone for the rest of my life.
And me, I was a sucker for romance. Even then. I always wanted a woman of my own. This desire was stronger because my daddy told me I wouldn’t ever find it. But he was a bitter old coot after momma left him, so, that factors in, sure.
So, what did I do? I told my cousins to scram. I didn’t want them to hear my wish and mock me for it. And they would’ve, too. Sure as flies on a sweaty hog, they would’ve. So, when they had given me enough space, I leaned over that ugly woman’s pitcher and I spat into it and I said, “I’d like to find me a woman to love and marry till the end of my days— a faithful woman who no man would take from me.” Or something thereabouts. And that hag’s face crinkled all over something monstrous as her jagged brown teeth shown between her warty lips. Took me a moment to realize she was grinnin’. Somehow it scared me worse than the first time I had seen her. Again, if I wasn’t so scared I might have hacked at her with my machete.
The old hag winked at me. “Be seein’ you, darling.” She then raised her voice, croaking like a bullfrog. “All of you lovely, lovely boys! Your wishes will come true, I promise!”
Me and my cousins left without another word. Her spell had let us go, finally, or perhaps our nerves had had enough. We were four boys with four machetes, but it was like they had been dulled on our nerves. We stumbled home, feeling exhausted. We never returned to the bottomlands, and rarely went to the river after that.
And then the wishes started to come true. At the end of that Summer Andy’s parents were close to filing for a divorce. They fought constantly, and worked up a storm between them. But then came the car wreck, and both of ‘em died after swerving off the road and plummeting off a gorge. Some people think they were arguin’ in the car. Regardless, they never did get a divorce.
Me and my cousins never talked about what happened down at that stagnant lake. I don’t know if we was spellbound and couldn’t talk about it or if our own cowardice kept our mouths shut. Maybe we wanted to forget about it all. Maybe we wanted to act like it never happened, especially after what happened to Andy’s momma and daddy. I told myself it was a coincidence, a fluke of timing, and I am sure my other cousins told themselves the same. One thing’s for certain: we never followed the river into the bottomland again. Besides, life started to accelerate after that. The whitewater rapids of puberty hit each of us, and those craggy rocks of Middleschool, and then Highschool, and the plunge of the waterfall into the adult world. It was all right at first, mind you. We had mostly forgotten. Willfully so.
It took some time after the car wreck for the other wishes to come true. When Trevor hit sixteen he started working at a fast-food restaurant. There was a freak accident and an electric fire from one of the grills burned him up all over. His parents sued the franchise and won him millions of dollars. But he didn’t enjoy it none. He lived in pain for three years after the accident and then died. He had a closed casket funeral, which should give you an idea of what it was like for him while he was living.
It was a year after Trevor’s death that Chris was murdered by an exgirlfriend while he was at the mall. The security camera caught it all on film as the crazy bitch cut him up with a cleaver, loin to throat. It was ruled a crime of passion. The video leaked to the News, then found its way to all of the broadcasting networks. It was horrific to see. Gruesome. Horrifying. His wish had come true, albeit as twisted as a worm on a hook.
Shit washes downstream. Fish wash downstream. Bodies wash downstream. Why not other creatures? Why not terrible things? I’ve tried to look for answers, but all I’ve got is more questions. What can be said of it all? Things run far in the river. They wash off to the sides, too, and carry a long way off. Feelings do, too. Resentments. Old hatreds. They flow out and shed off and stagnate in areas. Maybe she was an old resentment for the Natives long ago, and now, stuck where she was, she hadn’t anything but to brood and stagnate and bless with her resentments. Baleful boons, I suppose they were. Curses in the guise of gifts. Whatever the case, she got almost all of us good.
Almost all of us. For whatever reason, I was spared. My wish came true without any fishing line attached to it. Maybe it was on account of me being so good-hearted with my wish. My cousins wanted material things, where I was always keen on love. Don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. Then again, Andy only ever wanted his parents to stay together, so that can’t be it, neither.
There were times when I thought maybe my wish wouldn’t come true. Maybe, I thought, I hadn’t spit enough in her pitcher, or maybe my curse was that the wish wouldn’t come true. Too good a wish to come true. I tried to convince myself it was for the better. Maybe I feared that what happened to my cousins would happen to me. Maybe my wish would be all twisted and grotesque, like the corpses of sparrows hung in a dreamweaver.
And then I saw her by that lake in Boone County. She was squatting down in the shoals, looking at her reflection in the water. It was love at first sight for this boy, I tell you what. I saw her and thought she had to be the prettiest damn thing in the whole of God’s green earth. And it had to be destiny, too, because I went right up to her as if the path had been laid for me and I said, bold as a shotgun with the safety off:
“Whatcha’ doin’ darlin’?”
And she smiled and said, “Waitin’ for you, darlin’.”
And by God if we haven’t been together every day ever since! We are absolutely perfect for each other, too. She likes for me to call her “pookie”, and I don’t mind it at all. It is old-fashioned, I know, but it’s better than “babe” or “darlin’” or “sugar pie”. People stare at her all the time when we go out for groceries or go see a movie. They just can’t believe how beautiful she is. And how considerate the angel is! She’s always bringing me a fresh pitcher for my chewing tobacco whenever the old one is close to overrunning. That’s love for ya’! Even your bad habits don’t matter to the love of your life.
That’s not to say that I’m not still haunted by that hag in the water. Sometimes I have dreams at night— nightmares, really— about that moldy old witch and her bottomless pitcher. I dream that she’s caught me in the big clay mouth and I can’t escape, and she laughs and laughs as the thick black swamp within her jar swallows me up. But when I wake up my wife tells me, “Shush, my dear lovely boy. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Give me a sweet little kiss and lay your head down to sleep. Be happy. Be content. Everything is a wish come true.”