Short story

Literature

St. John of Kuttenberg (Short Story)

St. John of Kuttenberg
Ryan Napier

Bosch-Wayfarer-v2.jpg

His father owned a silver mine in Kuttenberg. John was the second son—a good, obedient child. His father wanted him to be a lawyer, and John studied law at the University of Prague.

One Christmas, he returned to Kuttenberg to celebrate with his family. As always, there was a great feast—rabbit and venison, rich sauces, pastries and pies, barrels of wine. Before the meal, John’s father rose and prayed, thanking God for the feast and for their wealth. “We offer God our prayers,” said his father, “and in return, he blesses us. Our great faith is greatly rewarded.”

The dishes were passed, and the barrels of wine were tapped, but John did not eat or drink. The prayer had turned his stomach. For his father, John realized, faith was just another transaction, no different than a bargain with the butcher or the wine merchant: I pray to you, and you bless me. This was no faith at all.

That night, John dreamed that he was at an enormous feast, chained to his chair. He ate and ate until he was sick, but the feast would not end. Dishes were stacked on dishes, sauces dripped and congealed, flies buzzed and swarmed—and still the food kept coming. John woke before dawn, slipped out of the house, and rode back to Prague.

He tried to resume his studies, but the nightmare tortured him. Night after night, he sat at the endless feast. He began to read the gospels, and when he found Christ’s words to the rich young man—“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”—he feared for his soul.

Soon, he understood what he had to do. He wanted a pure faith—faith for its own sake, not for any benefit or reward. But only if his faith gave him nothing could he know that he truly believed. And so he decided to renounce the world.

He explained his decision in a long letter to his father, and his father replied, saying that if John became a monk, he would lose his inheritance. John was glad. In August, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, he joined the Cistercian brotherhood at Sedlec Abbey.

The brothers lived simply, tilling their fields and brewing their ale. Shoulder to shoulder with them, John sowed and plowed and prayed, and his soft white hands grew cracked and brown. He loved his life at the abbey—the dignity of the work, the satisfaction of his sweat, the low chants of the evensong, the fellowship with his brothers. He had renounced the world, and he was happy.

But as the years passed, he began to worry. If he was happy, how could he know if his faith was pure? He had renounced the world, but did that mean that he loved God? Perhaps he only loved life at the monastery. Had he made his own exchange, sordid as his father’s, trading earthly riches for this happiness?

The nightmares returned. The endless feast piled higher and higher.

John knew what he had to do. It was more painful to him than the break with his father, but that was how he knew it was right. After seven years, he left Sedlec Abbey.

With only the white robe on his back, he wandered east, into the forest. These were the lands of Count Czernin, famous for their white deer. John lived there alone, sleeping in the mud beside the river, eating acorns and grass.

He found himself thinking about the abbey, so he broke a branch from a wild rose bush and wrapped it around his thigh, and the thorns tore his flesh. Every morning, he twisted the branch to keep the wound from healing. He thought of little but his pain, and his faith became purer and purer.

The summer ended, and the leaves fell from the trees, and John grew weak and gaunt. His cheeks sank; his eyes bulged; his teeth dropped from his mouth one by one. Soon, his thigh was too thin for the circle of thorns; he twisted it tighter. The white deer no longer fled from him: he no longer seemed to be a living thing.

On New Year’s Day, the forest shone with frost. Count Czernin offered shelter in his castle, but John refused. He dug a hole in the snow-bank near the frozen river and pulled his robe around his body. The blood from his thigh stopped flowing, and the tips of his fingers turned black. He had never been more miserable, and he thanked God.

The sun set, and the wind screamed, and John wondered if he would survive the night. In a few hours, he might be in paradise.

At that thought, his soul sank. Paradise—that would be the reward for his faith. All his suffering would be exchanged for eternal bliss. It was yet another transaction. It had been there all along, tainting his faith, and he had not seen it.

John crawled out of his hole and put his forehead to the snowy earth. The tears froze on his cheeks. A prayer began to form in him: he feared it, but he knew that he had to pray it.

He shut his eyes and asked God to exclude him from paradise. For the purity of his faith, he renounced heaven.

He lay there for a long time. A strange warmth suffused him. Now that he had made his prayer, he was no longer afraid. He would be tortured forever in hell, but he was satisfied. It was finished. His faith could not be purer.

Finally, he raised his head, and there before him was Christ. The savior stood knee-deep in the snow.

“O Lord,” cried John, “see your servant! I have given up everything for your sake.”

But Christ frowned.

“What else can I give?” asked John. “I have renounced it all—even heaven! I have made my faith pure.”

“You must give up even that.”

Christ lifted John from the ground, untwisted the branch from his thigh, and kissed the black flesh of the wound. John fainted, and when he woke, the wound was closed, and he was alone. But a white stag stood on the opposite bank of the river. John crossed the ice and followed the stag to the edge of the forest. It began to run, and he lost it in a blinding field of snow.

On a hill, far in the distance, was Sedlec Abbey. John returned and lived a long life there among the brothers, content that God had taken everything from him.


Ryan Napier is the author of Four Stories about the Human Face (Bull City Press, 2018). His stories have appeared in Entropy, Queen Mob's Tea House, minor literature[s], and others. He lives in Massachusetts. Twitter: @ryanlnapier – Website: https://ryannapier.net/

Literature

The Three Sneezes (Short Story)

The Three Sneezes
by Roger Duvoisin

Via The Public Domain  Review

Via The Public Domain Review

Jean-Marie the Farmer climbed up a tree to cut some wood for his stove. His donkey, standing below, closed his eyes and went to sleep. 

Just then a stranger on horseback happened to pass by. “Heh, there,” cried the stranger, “have you ever sawed wood before?”

“Why, if all the wood I have sawed in my life was gathered together it would make a fine forest,” Jean-Marie shouted back.

“One wouldn’t think so,” said the stranger.

“Why not?” demanded Jean-Marie.

“Because when you have sawed through that branch on which you are sitting, both you and the branch will fall to the ground.”

“Be off with you, stranger,” said Jean-Marie. “I can see that you know nothing about sawing wood.”

So the stranger went off, and Jean-Marie went on sawing. Presently there was a terrible crash, and both he and the branch fell to the ground.

Jean-Marie picked himself up, and when he had rubbed all his bruises and found that his back was not broken, he bethought himself of the stranger’s words. “Surely that was a wonderful man,” he thought, “for he told me that the branch and I would fall to the ground, and so we did. He must know the future. I will go after him, and ask him a thing or two.”

So Jean-Marie got on his donkey, and away they went after the stranger. Presently they came to a turn in the road, and there was the stranger, ambling along on his horse as though nothing had happened. 

“Ho, there!” cried Jean-Marie.

“What is it?” said the stranger, stopping his horse. 

“I see that you can read the future, so I want to ask you a thing or two.”

“What makes you think I can read the future?”

“You said that when I had sawed through the branch, both of us would fall to the ground, and so we did.”

“Oh,” said the stranger, smiling, “I see. Well, ask me your questions, but I warn you I can only answer one of them.”

“Very well,” said Jean-Marie, “just answer me this. When am I going to die?”

“That’s easy,” said the stranger. “You will die when your donkey has sneezed three times.” And with that he rode away. 

“My donkey never sneezes,” thought Jean-Marie, “so I shall live a long time.” And he started for home feeling very happy.

Now donkeys are very stubborn, and they always do just the very thing they should not. When they should walk, they will not budge, and when they should keep still they are always walking away. So it was not very long before the donkey opened his mouth and…

“Aatshoum!” he sneezed, loud and long. 

Jean-Marie was aghast. All his happiness was changed to terror. He jumped down and pressed both hands against the donkey’s nose to stop the next sneeze (for everybody knows one always sneezes more than once). When the danger seemed past, he resumed his trip, but now he did not dare to ride. Instead, he walked beside the donkey so as to prevent any more sneezes. 

Presently they came to a freshly plowed field, and there Jean-Marie paused to admire the rich brown earth. What a fine crop of wheat would grow there next summer. Forgetting all about the sneezes, he bent down to feel it with his hands, and…

“Aaatshoum!” sneezed the donkey for the second time.

Jean-Marie snatched his hat and put it over the donkey’s nose and held it tight.

“Two sneezes already! Two horrible sneezes!” he lamented. “I am only one single sneeze from death, one miserable donkey sneeze. Surely I am the most unhappy man alive. I am sure that stranger must have been the devil. He not only told the future, he is making my donkey sneeze. He bewitched my donkey!”

But he was holding the hat too tightly over the donkey’s nose, and the donkey, finding he could not breathe, reared up and kicked Jean-Marie very severely.

“Some other remedy must be found,” said Jean-Marie. “For if my donkey sneezes again I am a dead man.”

Then he had an idea. He picked up two round stones and placed them in the donkey’s nostrils, like corks in a bottle. “There, just let him try to sneeze that out,” he thought. But he had reckoned without the contrariness of donkeys.

“Aaaatshoum!”

The stones flew out like bullets from a gun. They hit Jean-Marie in the face.

“Ah! Ah!” said Jean-Marie. “I am dead. Very, very dead.”

And he lay down in the road, for it is not right for a dead man to stand up.

Literature

The Island (Fiction)

The Island

By Ashton Politanoff

From  Oedipus Rex  by Pier Paolo Pasolini

From Oedipus Rex by Pier Paolo Pasolini

From the mainland, he’d been searching for the island’s coastline day after day. Some mornings he could see it, depending on the smog. He wanted to escape the hustle, the bustle, so he looked at the boat schedule and made a reservation. He’d go for the day.   

The morning of, he arrived at the harbor near the port and parked his car under the green bridge. A section of bridge was being repaired. Every time a car drove overhead, he’d hear a loud clatter coming from the steel plates. 

After picking up his ticket at will-call, he took a seat under the sail tent. The speaker above his head played swing. He took a Dramamine and as other people showed, he placed his bag next to him so no one could sit too close. There were several boats in the fleet and he was hoping for the catamaran—that boat, he knew, could slice through chop like butter. Instead, when the crew called for them to stand in a line and split their tickets, they were directed to the old mono-hull. He swallowed a second Dramamine and walked across the gangplank. He mounted the stairs of the ship to the upper deck. He tested the white aisle bench with his finger and used the back of his backpack to soak up the cool morning dew. Then he sat down facing the front of the boat. A tall woman in a peach dress sat directly across from him. She had leathery skin and two earrings in each ear—a hoop and a diamond. She already had a drink, a Bloody Mary, and sucked it through a straw. When she was done, she removed the pickled green bean and ate it, showing her front teeth with each bite. 

What are you doing on the island? she asked. 

Getting away, he said. 

Oh, she said.

When he didn’t say anything else, she said, Well I’ll be eating and drinking. 

That’s nice, he said. I’ll be getting off on the second stop. 

He was thankful when the boat finally started to move, and when a family of four had crowded next to them—he wouldn’t have to talk to her anymore. The father of the family told his children about the sea life they would see, and the animals on the island. Buffalo, he said. A red fox.

A red fox? the young towhead with neon green shoelaces asked. 

Yes, the father said. A red fox. No one knows how it got there, the man said, but it lives on the island. 

Through the harbor, the boat passed a container ship with scrapings on the side.

From going through the Panama Canal, he heard the father say. 

They passed the prison. He couldn’t get a view of it, just the watchtower. Abandoned warehouses stood nearby. In the dark water, a seal popped up and then took a dive. 

Soon they were at the break wall, and once they emerged through the passage known as Queen’s Gate, into the open ocean, the boat sped up. The water was no longer calm, the wind blowing. A swell coming from the west pushed against them, the boat lifting and lurching. He steadied his eyes on the horizon line and zipped up his windbreaker. He raised the hood and wore it, pulling the drawstrings tight to create a hole with just enough space for his nose and eyes. With his fingers, he slowly and carefully tied a square knot. 

As they approached the leeward side of the island, the water calmed. The island was mountainous coastline peppered with sandy coves with yachts in each. Some coves had cabins or yacht clubs. Others had quarries. The air was cleaner here. He could finally see the sky’s ceiling, the low clouds that were starting to burn off. 

The first stop was in the touristy section where there was a casino and shops that sold trinkets. The boat slowed and briefly docked and the woman got off without saying goodbye. The family left too, as did most people. The next stop—his—didn’t have a hotel. The only passenger in sight was a man holding blue prints. He wanted to burn the man’s blue prints. 

Out in the ocean again, they climbed north for close to twenty minutes before turning into the intended harbor, a place known as the isthmus—another harbor was just on the other side. The neighboring mountains dipped down creating a flat strip of land. From a distance, it looked like two separate islands. He could feel the wind blowing across from the windward side as they approached the pier. 

Tied up, they disembarked starboard. He had four hours before the boat would come back again to take them home.  

The town itself had one bar, a diner, and a general store. There was a shower for those who had been at sea, but it required eight quarters for three minutes and twenty seconds of usage. 

At the diner he ordered a bagel sandwich and a large cup of coffee. The chair he sat on had a cushion that deflated. He tried another with the same result. Plants hung from the ceiling and a spinning fan wobbled a little. It looked like it could break off and fall any second. The diner started to get packed. He felt elbows, smelled odors. He ate quickly and didn’t finish his coffee.

Outside, after, he headed to the beach with the imported silica sand, the palapas available for rent. But there were kids and families with dogs and a group of teenagers, girls and guys, with floaties and blue cups that concealed alcohol. Yes, the water was clear, but people were in it with their kayaks and stand-up paddleboards or snorkels. So he walked to the other end that was cobblestone instead of sand. There was only one person there, a thin man in a Speedo. The man was lounging in a beach chair, taking sun with his eyes closed. 

With mask and snorkel, he butterflied around finless. The water was colder than expected—he should have brought a wetsuit top. He saw the orange Garibaldi, the clingfish. He took a deep inhale and dove to the bottom, running his fingers through the eel grass swaying from side to side. When he breached the surface, he blew the water out of his snorkel with a burst and lifted his mask. The man in the Speedo waved and smiled. 

He got out of the water and gathered his things. He didn’t wait to dry off, to heat up again in the sun. He just left, until he was on the oiled dirt road that led to the windward side, the other harbor. He only saw one car, a van with taxi written in the dust of the rear windshield. He wasn’t sure if this was a real taxi or not. 

He appreciated the natural flora and fauna surrounding him, the leaning foxtails, cacti, the sticker bush. There were tall bundles of eucalyptus that looked like giant bouquets in the clearing. A wooden swing hung from one of the trees. There were dwarf palm trees scattered about too. 

The other harbor was less busy; there were only a few vessels, sails down, and a woman rowing in her shore boat. He could see people hiking on a ridge, but they were far off—it would take them hours to reach him. But then, two elderly women claimed a nearby bench. He hadn’t seen them coming.

He left the main road into the clearing, walking until he settled on a breezy meadow. There, he pulled out his Mexican blanket and rolled it out on the dirt to lie down. The dry grass tickled his face, his bare arms, his feet. It was nice. He felt things in his hair but didn’t care. Through a squinted gaze, he watched a cloud drift. 

           

The peel of three loud horns woke him and he found this appealing at first. He checked his watch and saw the time. It was his ship, about to back out of the dock, he knew. He shot up and grabbed his bag, but felt a tug of something else, a red flash in his periphery. He craned his neck and saw the bushy tail high and the erect ears, frozen still. He let go of his bag and ducked down until he himself was on all fours, peeking above the grass. 

He set his face forward, unblinking, and sniffed before plunging deeper into the meadow, for what he wasn’t sure. 


Ashton Politanoff lives in Redondo Beach, CA. His writing has appeared in NOON, Golden State 2017, Sleepingfish, Hobart, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Green Mountains Review, and elsewhere.  

Literature

People in General (Fiction)

Short Story from “People in General”

By John Colasacco

Pennsylvania_Station,_NYC,_Waiting_Room,_Cassatt_Statue.jpg

Once I tried to imagine what it would be like to have to say something to my best friend if she were dead. I spent the whole night by the open window, getting dressed and undressed, and it was almost as though many years had passed. After a while I no longer felt qualified to say anything. When I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror there was something awkward about my body, the way it looked and moved. I used to know what it was but the rain made me forget it. In the morning I went to school, and I moved through the crowd with a piece of fruit in my hand, looking for a table with an empty seat. When I found one I sat down and put the fruit on the table next to me. Suddenly it flew apart, disintegrating into a million little pieces. I listened to the voices all around me; some were laughing, and others were angry, or pretending to be. I asked someone what time it was, and they told me it was only nine o’clock. It felt like I was snowing inside myself. Now I am sitting in the train station again. My hands are freezing cold and I have a stranger sitting near me kicking his feet against the legs of his chair. A minute ago he leaned in close to me, as though he wanted to whisper something private in my ear. Am I thirsty? he wanted to know. I have the same few words going through my head over and over, he said. It’s maddening, but it’s how I learned to speak. I stayed very still and rigid while he told me this, never flinching or turning to acknowledge how close to me he was. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that he was holding something, and from the way he cupped it in his hands I knew that it was probably a lighter and a pack of cigarettes. Sure enough, a second later he settled himself back into his own seat and began tapping the pack against his palm. He peeled away the cellophane and opened up the box, then pulled the foil wrapper out and immediately crumpled it up. I kept waiting for him to put the piece of foil in his pocket or get up to throw it away. He never did though; he’s still holding it now, kicking his feet, with a very faint rumbling sound coming from the back of his throat. Oh, I see, I think to myself, noticing the huge globes of light on top of the old fashioned street lamps standing in the open waiting areas of the station. People file by on their way to the coffee shops and souvenir stands that line the edges of the concourse under these huge, swollen lamps, which don’t need to be as intense or beautiful as this. It reminds me of being home, and leaving the door to the attic open for just second or two, and in that moment while my back is turned feeling certain that one of the cats has just slipped upstairs.

Just then I see a little girl in a pink jacket standing by a white mannequin that’s been stripped of all its clothes. Her feet are pointing in one direction but the rest of her is turned toward me, and she’s looking at me with big, unfocused eyes. I stare back at her for a while, then I stop looking at her, and in my head I see the train station the way it was before it filled with people. There’s moonlight on the floor, pouring down from the skylights, and the huge antique clock on the wall says that it’s 2:40 a.m. There are a few passengers here and there, none of them close by. I watch them moving slowly toward the far end of the terminal. One is a blind man in a heavy winter coat being led by a service dog. When he disappears around a corner I realize that over the past few minutes I’ve gradually become afraid of something. The inside of my mouth hurts, and my hands are so cold now that I wish I’d brought gloves. Just when I feel like I can’t stand it anymore, I look up at the hole in the wall that I thought was a clock, and the last thing I notice is the smell of rice cooking.


John Colasacco’s books include Antigolf, The Information Crusher, Two Teenagers, and the forthcoming The Wagners. Other excerpts from the manuscript People in General can be found in Enclave’s #finalpoems and Dennis Cooper’s blog. Anyone interested in written/artistic collaboration can email at jacolasa@syr.edu.

Literature

Sand (Short Story)

Sand
by Rav Grewal-Kök

johnbrianking-sickcity

For eight years, or ten, the world outside her apartment was a stage. In the subway, people looked at her with envy or admiration—her slender ankles and wrists, her beautiful hair. At work, her colleagues listened for her voice in the hallways. Strangers held doors for her and offered their seats. Bartenders didn’t let her wait when she raised her hand at the counter. She led the kind of city life a teenager in a dying town might recognize from a television show, and want for herself.

Each August she left the city to go to the shore with a man. Often she didn’t know the man very well, but for two weeks they spent their days next to each other on plastic chairs on the sand wearing almost nothing. They read intelligent magazines, sipped fruit-flavored cocktails, rubbed lotion onto each other’s backs, and talked about the delightful weather. Twice each day during those two weeks—once in the morning and once in the afternoon—the woman walked from her plastic chair to the water’s edge. She let the waves lap over her toes but went no farther. At night the woman and man ate dinner at a restaurant. They drank another cocktail, shared a bottle of pink wine, and talked about the weather they hoped for the following day. Then they returned to their hotel room, took off all their clothes, and got into bed.

After these vacations, what the woman remembered most fondly was not the sun, the water on her toes, the cocktails, wine, food, or bed, and certainly not the man, but her walks from the plastic chair to the surf and back. Sometimes she slipped off her shoes while she sat at her desk and imagined that she was once again at the shore. She loved the fact that sand wasn’t anything more than rocks that had crumbled into dust. And she loved that when she walked on sand she sank only a little with each step, before the softness turned to steel under her feet.

• • •

One year, to her surprise, there was no man to go with her to the shore. So she went by herself to sit almost naked on a plastic chair on the sand. At first, she walked twice each day to the surf and back, as she’d always done. But with no one waiting for her in a plastic chair of his own, she began to wander. Soon she circled the beach for an hour at a time. Her mind was clear now that she was alone. As the days passed, she set aside her cocktails, lotion, and intelligent magazines. She realized that since walking on sand was the best part of her vacation, she should do more of the walking, and less of everything else.

The next year she signed up for a hiking tour of the desert near the city where she lived. The sand in this desert wasn’t as pure as the sand at the shore—it was marked by cactuses, boulders, and even the occasional coyote skeleton—but she was happy there was so much of it. Still, the other hikers distracted her with their chatter. She couldn’t keep her mind clear. On the third day of the tour, as she walked behind a man and two women who were talking about musical theater so loudly they were almost shouting, she decided she needed to visit a desert in a foreign country whose language she didn’t know.

A year later she flew to such a country and joined a tour through a desert much larger than the one near the city where she lived. This desert was flat and without shade. It would have been dangerous for tourists to walk under all that sun, so they rode camels instead. The other tourists talked among themselves. They gestured, laughed, and posed for pictures. One man sang arias from beneath a wide-brimmed hat. The animals emitted a terrible stench. Despite all this, the woman passed her first day in a state that was almost tranquil. Because she didn’t understand what the tourists were saying or singing, she found it possible to ignore them. After she sprayed perfume on her scarf, she could forgive her camel its smell. When the group stopped for the night, and while the guides boiled lentils and barbecued a goat, the woman took off her shoes to walk around the campsite. It was only then that she realized she hadn’t yet found the right desert. The sand was full of hidden rocks and even beetles.

For her next vacation, she planned a trip to the biggest desert she could find on the globe she kept on her bookshelf. She arranged for someone to meet her at an airport on the desert’s edge. She stepped out of the plane into a vast but empty terminal. A man in a blue jacket and cap stood waiting with a sign that had her name on it. She followed him to his car. Silently, he drove out of the airport and onto a highway that, within minutes, was empty of traffic. The sun dropped behind them. The land turned red, then black. The woman fell asleep.

She woke up the next morning with the sun in her eyes. They had stopped where the highway stopped, at the foot of a dune that seemed to her as tall as a mountain. The driver, who was already standing outside the car, held the door open. The woman got out, took off her shoes, and began to walk. The sand still held the night’s coolness. It was smoother and softer than any she had stepped on before. She had walked only a few yards from the car when she found herself sinking to her ankles. With each step of her climb she sank deeper. Soon the sand reached her knees. She was halfway up the dune when she realized that this desert—the greatest desert, formed of the purest sand—was an ocean. She hoped to reach the top, and to see it all, before she plunged beneath.


Rav Grewal-Kök’s stories and essays have appeared in the New England Review, Missouri Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Hunger Mountain, online at The White Review, and elsewhere. He was a National Endowment for the Arts fellow in 2016. He is a fiction editor at Fence and lives in Los Angeles, where he is working on a novel.

Featured image from the series “Sick City” by John Brian King.

Literature

Some Perspective (Short Story)

Some Perspective

By Ari Braverman

The jet arcs over the plains, carrying the woman toward her family obligation. The closer she gets to her native geography the more raw and receptive she becomes.

Once, years ago, her English teacher said, “If you poke me, do I not squeak?”

It’s like that, the woman thinks, except it’s the world poking, and she’s in public so she can’t make a sound. This is perhaps a side effect of contemporary living: she, a human animal, was never meant to travel so quickly.

Now everything hurts and feels good at the same time.   

The woman interprets the interior of the plane as a vast, communal living room.

Right before takeoff, a young man in a cropped Capote coat had sauntered toward her down the aisle. His khaki-colored hair swept back toward his crown. The passenger drew herself up taller in her seat, prepared to make conversation because his beauty convinced her he was a good person. But he had swung into row seven and the woman walking behind him—effortless, long-limbed, dark, chic even in sweatpants—folded herself into the same compartment. When she pulled a handful of natural hair out of her collar and pushed it over her shoulder, the woman could smell her perfume.

“Yeah, babe, you’re right as per usual,” said this other passenger. “But the point is that I didn’t know that I didn’t know those things. So how could I have done differently?” And she leaned over to kiss the handsome man with her whole mouth.

Hearing an admission of such a human foible from someone so glamorous, the woman decided she adored them both.

Now, twenty-thousand feet over the surface of the earth, instead of reading her book, she watches them cuddle and share a water bottle. From behind, she can almost believe their cheekbones convey a moral message. It is obvious they have money but it doesn’t matter whether it is earned or inherited; their grace remains the same.

After a while they settle down into a single shape, sharing a long gray scarf like a blanket.

With only thirty minutes from touch-down, they still haven’t moved. The passenger retrieves two mandarins from her carry-on, peels and eats them both, feeling furiously, swallowing the seeds.

Back home, she lives with her own lover in a small house on a cul-de-sac. She thinks of his small teeth and predictable sense of humor. Of his reliability and scrotum. Her phone contains a message in which he bids her a safe flight, as though his courtesy could prevent a plane crash.

Still staring at the couple in row seven, the passenger considers that such a finale might be the best way to go. The least-lonely option. A surge of filial adoration warms the inside of her body. She thinks about the community the three of them might make among themselves, if only they knew she was there, behind them, brimming with love. She imagines touching their bodies as the plane tumbles out of its trajectory, the imminence of death obliterating the personal boundaries that have always disappointed her.

She’d tell them: “I very much believe in God, but only when things are going bad for me,” and afterward her heart would be light. Her new companions would nod silently, thrust beyond language by the extremity of their situation, grateful for her honesty. The woman might smooth the hair away from her temples, or push a tear away from the bridge of her nose. She thinks of their arms around her amidst all the noise, the rushing air, the alarms, the nausea, the crying, the ugliness in everyone’s face.

Her row-mate, a fat person whose elbow has colonized the armrest for an hour, does not factor into this fantasy because it is erotic.

The peels have become sticky in the passenger’s fist but she can’t drop them onto the floor and won’t allow herself to hide them in the chair pocket at her knees. The barf-bag is long gone; she needs a trashcan.

She decides to take her refuse to the bathroom in order to walk past the couple, up and down the aisle, to force them, gently, to contend with her presence as she has contended with theirs. A tiny reckoning. To know for certain if she could ever belong to their little family, if only for the duration of the crash.

Standing, though, she can see their eyes are closed. She sits back down.

Looking out the porthole window, the passenger believes she can comprehend the vastness of the North American continent. Frontage roads parcel the winter farmland into squares, where thicker lines indicate an occasional highway, all of it bound by a single unknown county.

When she looks up again, the couple in row seven has shifted positions and she can see their hands again. The man’s wedding ring—big, custom-made—glitters in the overhead light. The passenger takes a photograph of it on her phone.

The voice, when it comes to her, resonates with the round tones of her own heritage.

“Cute, aren’t they?” he says.

“I’m sorry?”

“It’s nice, right? Seeing a happy couple. It’s a rare thing, anymore.”

“What?”

“Would you like something to drink? Coffee, tea, pop?” This final word strikes her. She wants to laugh until her jaw falls off. Pop. Pop!

“I have these.” Her voice cracks and she shows the flight attendant her sticky handful.

“I’m sorry, hon, I’m only doing beverage service right now,” he says. Wrinkles frame his mouth and deepen when he smiles. The skin along his jaw looks loose, like her mother’s. Is he laughing at her? She wants to touch his hand, explain herself and the photo, but says instead “Well I’ll probably be here when you come back.”


Ari Braverman is from Iowa City and Denver by way of New Orleans. She was awarded a 2015 De Alba Fellowship from Columbia University, was a semi-finalist in the 2016 American Short(er) Fiction Contest, and was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart Prize. Some of her recent stories have appeared in BOMB, in the newest issue of Tammy Journal and at SmokeLong Quarterly. She is an assistant editor for Conjunctions and lives in Harlem, New York.

Literature

The Fall (Short Story)

The Fall

By Virgilio Piñera

We had scaled the three-thousand-foot mountain. Not to bury a capsule there at the peak, nor to raise the flag of the bold alpine climbers. After a few minutes, we began the descent. My companion followed me, bound, as is usual in these situations, by the same rope that ringed my waist. I figure we had descended exactly ninety-eight feet when one of my companion’s cleated boots glanced off a rock, causing him to lose his balance and somersault ahead of me. Since the rope wound between my legs, it jerked me hard, and to avoid being tossed over the edge, I had to twist around backwards. He, in turn, directed his fall to the spot I had just occupied. His decision was neither ridiculous nor absurd; on the contrary, he was responding to a profound understanding of those situations still unlisted in the manuals. The force of his movement caused a slight adjustment, and I suddenly saw my companion passing like a meteorite between my legs, and then the jolt from the rope—fastened, as I mentioned, to his back—turned me around into my original position of descent. He, undoubtedly obeying the same physical laws as I, and having traveled the distance permitted by the rope, was flipped over backwards, which naturally brought us face to face. We didn’t say a word, but both of us knew that the headlong fall was inevitable. And so it happened that, after an indefinite period of time, we began to fall. Because my sole concern was to avoid losing my eyes, I put all my effort into preserving them from the terrible effects of the fall. As for my companion, his only worry was that his beautiful beard—colored an admirable gray like gothic glass—reach the plain intact, not even slightly dusty. So, with utmost determination, I covered the bearded portion of his face with my hands; he, in turn, placed his hands over my eyes. Our velocity was increasing by the second, as is required in these cases of bodies falling through space. Suddenly, I looked through the slight spaces between his fingers and saw a sharp rock raze the top of his head. Suddenly, I had to turn my own head to confirm that my legs had been separated from my torso by a rock, possibly of calcareous origin, whose serrated edge severed anything that came against it with the perfection of a saw used in the construction of ocean liners. With some effort, it is only fair to admit, we were saving my companion, his beautiful beard, and me, my eyes. It is true that now and then—every fifty feet or so, as I calculate it—a part of our bodies would be separated from us. For example, during five such intervals, we lost my companion, his left ear, his right elbow, a leg (I don’t remember which), his testicles, and his nose; I, the upper part of my thorax, my spinal cord, my left eyebrow, my left ear, and my jugular vein. But this is nothing compared to what followed. A thousand feet above the plain, all we had left respectively was the following: my companion, his two hands (only to the carpal bones) and his beautiful gray beard; I, my two hands (also only to the carpus) and my eyes. A slight fear began to possess us. What if our hands were torn away by another boulder? We kept falling. Approximately ten feet above the plain, a pole left out by a worker capriciously caught the hands of my companion. Seeing my orphaned eyes left totally unprotected, I must confess with eternal, unforgettable shame, I withdrew my hands from his beautiful gray beard to protect my eyes from any impact. I was unable to cover them, for my hands were immediately caught in the same fashion by another pole pointing in a different direction from the aforementioned pole, at which point we were separated from each other for the first time during the entire descent. But I couldn’t complain; my eyes landed safe and sound on the grassy plain and could see, a little ways off, the beautiful gray beard of my companion, shining in all its glory.

1944


This story is an excerpt from Cold Tales, by Virgilio Piñera, translated by Mark Schafer.

Virgilio Piñera (August 4, 1912, Cárdenas, Cuba—October 18, 1979, Havana) was a playwright, short-story writer, poet, and essayist who became famous for his work as well as for his highly bohemian lifestyle. His best collections are Cuentos Fríos (1956, Cold Tales) and Pequeñas maniobras (1963, Little Maneuvers). Piñera’s stories blend the fantastic with the grotesque, with touches of paranoia, and even with madness. [via Britannica

Mark Schafer has translated poetry, novels, short stories, and essays by many Latin American authors, including Alberto Ruy Sánchez, Virgilio Piñera, Jesús Gardea, Antonio José Ponte, and Sonia Rivera-Valdés.

Featured image from the series “Sick City” by John Brian King.

Literature

The Autopsy (Short Story)

The Autopsy

by Georg Heym

The dead man lay alone and naked on a white table in the big room, in the oppressive whiteness, the cruel sobriety of the operating theatre, where the cries of endless torments still seemed to tremble.

The midday sun covered him, and awakened the death-spots on his forehead; it conjured a bright green out of his naked belly and blew it up like a big water-bag.

His body was like a giant shimmering calyx, a mysterious plant from the Indian jungles, which someone had nervously laid at the altar of death.

Splendid red and blue colours grew along his loins, and in the heat the big wound under his navel slowly split like a furrow, releasing a terrible odour.

The doctors came in. Two friendly men in white coats with duelling scars and golden pince-nez.

They approached the dead man, and looked him over with interest, talking in scientific terms.

The took their dissecting equipment out of the white cupboards, white boxes full of hammers, bone-saws with strong teeth, files, gruesome batteries of forceps, small sets of giant needles like crooked vultures’ beaks forever screaming for flesh.

The began their ghastly handiwork, looking like fearsome torturers, with blood streaming over their hands. They delved ever deeper into the cold corpse, and brought forth its inside like white cooks disembowelling a goose.

The intestines wound around their arms, greenish-yellow snakes, and the excrement dripped onto their coats, a warm, foul fluid. They punctured the bladder; the cold urine shimmered inside like yellow wine. They poured it into large bowls; it had a sharp, biting stench like ammonia.

But the dead man slept. He patiently allowed himself to be torn at and pulled about by the hair, this way and that; he slept.

And while the hammer-blows rang down on his head, a dream awakened in him, a remnant of love which shone into his light like a torch.

Outside the big window, a great wide sky opened up, filled with little clouds swimming in light in the stillness of the afternoon, like small white gods. And the swallows circled high above in the blue, shimmering in the warm July sun.

The black blood of death ran over the blue decay of his forehead. It evaporated in the heat into a horrible cloud, and the dissolution of death crawled with its gaudy claws all over him. His skin began to fall apart. His belly grew as white as that of an eel under the greedy fingers of the doctors who dipped their arms elbow-deep in his wet flesh.

Decay pulled the dead man’s mouth apart, he seemed to be smiling; he was dreaming of a glorious star, a sweet-smelling summer evening. His decomposing lips trembled, as if touched by a fleeting kiss.

“How I love you! I have loved you so much. Shall I tell you how I love you? As you moved through the fields of poppies, yourself a flame-red fragrant poppy, the whole evening was swallowed up in you. And your dress, which billowed around your ankles, was like a wave of fire in the setting sun. But your head bent in the light, and your hair was still burning and flaming from all my kisses.

“So you went on your way, turning all the time to look at me. And the lantern swayed in your hand like a glowing rose far off into the twilight.

“I shall see you again tomorrow. Here under the chapel window, here where the candlelight falls from within, turning your hair into a golden wood, here where the narcissi brush your ankles like delicate kisses.

“I shall see you again every evening at twilight. We shall never leave each other. How I love you! Shall I tell you how I love you?”

And the dead man trembled softly with happiness on his white table, while the iron chisels in the doctors’ hands broke open his temples.


This story is an excerpt from The Thief and Other Stories, by Georg Heym.

Georg Heym (1887–1912) was the son of a Prussian military lawyer and rebelled against his conservative family to become one of the outstanding poets of the Expressionist generation in Germany. His first volume of poetry, Der ewige Tag, was published in 1911 to great acclaim. In January 1912 Georg Heym drowned when he fell through the ice while skating on the Havel river in Berlin.

Susan Bennett is a freelance filmmaker, writer, and translator.