Category: Stories

Opium Den, Part The Second

Sometimes I go to a concert with the usual pilgrims. We sit in line for hours, licking lipstick off our teeth. In square formation, lying on raincoats, we lean in towards each other, hair held in limp buns, swapping confidences. Some boys and girls abandon the front and trade spittle, fingertips playing along the fault lines of the sternum. Eyes done up in black and pink, showing off thighs and purple braces, we are a sight to behold.

When it is finally time we run as though chasing down foxes, winding through the back of the open-air auditorium.We push and tug at sleeves, blitzkrieg time baby, nabbing a central position from the enemy. Backs to each other, brothers and sisters, we’ll protect you. We’ll make it as close to the music as we can.

It’s hot, sweet Jesus, it’s so hot. Packed in tight, molded into the contours of strangers, breathing in foreign fluids. The weatherman had predicted precipitation and we await it like dogs for masters. Oh it’s raining, is it? Strobe lights color us neon and gold, a modern, a glossy spin on mini dresses and striped sweatshirts. We let the rain fall upon us, we lap it up like beasts digging into the heart of a deer, sucking up blood thick as honey. I swivel on my heels in time with the bursts and crunches of the stereo. We are a mass of a thousand plebes matching their heartbeats to the thump of pulpy paganism, running down our throats.

I imagine you somewhere in the throng. Maybe you’re eyeing a girl’s glittering make-up, maybe you’re even sticking your hands up her armpits and thrusting your nose into the artificial perfume of her yellow hair. That lavender was created by a chemist off the New Jersey turnpike. That waxy glow on her cheeks is factory-made, processed and standardized, spun up in a Petrie dish like candyfloss. The first thousand to wear her chapstick were a generation of white guinea pigs, engineered to be quiet in battery cages and docile under the microscope. But still you bare your teeth and her breasts underneath the skylights.

It’s a game of will. The hours pass and concert-goers feed on the vision of a singer they’ll never share anything with. There’s nothing substantial in their relationship, but still they feel that shortening the distance to the stage will bring about fresh closeness. It’s a tenderness they transmit through screams and whoops, feet pounding against the tarmac. But how could you hope that a few transient hours would bear fruit? There’s no way he’ll ever spot you in the crowd, absolutely no way your eyes will meet and he’ll fall instantly and irrevocably in love with you. How dare you even think of such a thing? Famous boys don’t care for your sort, dear, famous boys would be wasted on your bland looks and personality. I can just imagine the both of you seated on a tartan-print sofa, looking away from each other, thinking of other things. He’d be thinking: what a mistake, what a mistake it is that I’ve made.

Somewhere you’re letting your hands stray underneath the elastic hem of a girl’s jeans. The extraordinary only ever love the extraordinary. What a fool. What a fool I was, to ever think otherwise.

Opium Den, Part The First

Sometimes I go to an arcade with the usual pilgrims. We flit from golden basketball hoops to confessional-sized shooting simulators, ripping the attached cords from the plastic rifles. A pair at the billiards table shoot and sink balls, letting sport be the medium for their hot and heavy remarks (“got that one good, didn’t you?”). Dropping coins into pitchers of alcohol and air hockey tables, shaking their hips free of proverbial lingerie, divvying up and diving into the arms of a one-time-only other half. Occasionally, a gutsy schoolchild will try to seduce a prize out of the chain smoking pseudo-priest behind the ticket counter. Gender doesn’t matter to him, just as long as you’re pimple-free and he gets his fill tonight.

I play the dinosaur hunting game, sweating inside the makeshift cubicle painted orange and black to look like a safari vehicle. Raptors crow at my back, thumping along the pixelated scarlet jungle, but somehow I avoid a Technicolor demise. This is a miracle in itself, for I am not even looking at the screen. I am turned towards the one-way panel of darkened glass that hides me from my compatriots. The light bends and refracts in such a way that I can see, with a clarity that turns my stomach, their endeavors everywhere: a femme fatale in cowhide boots running her hands over the baize, a male duo sticking mutilated coat hangers up a ticket dispenser, a birthday girl reapplying purple gloss in a dank corner. But these objects of teenage action and reaction do not hold my interest. The gaze swivels and searches, and finally alights upon the objective of the pilgrimage. Over there, to the far right, in blue jeans, that’s you, losing your soul to the DDR machine.

The Cat Xylem

The cat Xylem is older than you, that’s for sure. But then again, the cat Xylem is unsure what words like “older” or “younger” even mean. He does not see them as independent terms, corresponding to items of human concern, but rather as amalgams of the alphabet, floating beyond his comprehension. He does understand the gist of the language of humans, (in fact, at one point he could even speak it, like all of his kind) but what he and most have can hardly be called “communication”, not even its primitive ancestors “sound”, “gesture” and “feeling.” Like a derailed train chugging hopelessly along a seashore, the cat Xylem functions without a vital component. His vocal chords have been ripped out.

In the unrecognized micronation of Nounaim, the cat Xylem is something of a phenomenon. He travels on the underside of horse carriages, he feeds on children’s candies. All doors in Nounaim are built with compartments specifically for his use. All drainpipes are painted purple (a color he despises) so he will not, in a fit of disorientation, attempt to crawl into one. The cat Xylem is a lot of things, but he is not particularly slender.

The cat Xylem, despite his quick paws and careless stare, is not a free agent. The cat Xylem goes to wherever his paper collar indicates. It is always an address in Nounaim, printed in the Scientist Phloem’s neat small caps. 3 OSMOSIS STREET, that was the very first, a skinny panelled house sandwiched between the glossy pastel shingles of 2 and 4, belonging to Cambium.

(a brief tangent for the uninformed reader: Cambium, who in a daguerreotypes of old is a young lady of exceptional and expert grace and liveliness, a female to put even Parenchyma to shame, sending any fellow into fits of weeping at the very sight of her rainbow bow and ankle-length velvet skirts. Today, almost three hundred years after the cat Xylem’s visit, neither he nor she have aged visibly at all, but her rainbow bow lies shredded at the bottom of a landfill.)

Cambium had knelt before the cat Xylem, offering him first salami, then hunks of discolored bread, then a bowlful of milk (no? Are you minding your figure? Two percent fat, maybe?), until finally her butler Trichome (Stoma’s elder brother, taking up the mantle of Cambium’s care like a true lovelorn gentleman) had dropped half a sheet of drying salt water taffy into the cat Xylem’s maw. He had bent down and, pinching the edge of the paper collar, ripped off Cambium’s address. 3 OSMOSIS STREET crumpled up into his fist, revealing 6 PHOSPHATE DRIVE underneath. Thus began the cat Xylem’s love affair with sugar and his long voyage.

THE MEMORIZATION OF PLANT TISSUES AT MIDNIGHT

Plant tissues stick to the mind more more readily when you associate them with human beings. I am a sucker for crafty and convoluted mnemonic devices.

GROUND TISSUE

Parenchyma: the most superlative-worthy of three sisters, she is the oldest, the prettiest, the smartest and the most murderous. Sly and dandy Parenchyma, in an unknown man’s Persian blue sweater, stepping out of the family car and turning her head this way and that, getting the full scope. She’s a most dedicated actress, playing the part of virginal scholar in class and fleshing herself out during recess, swelling like ripe fruit. Unflappable, she licks at her love wounds like a tiger (hickeys and scorned schoolboys, she can take anything you dole out, dear).

Collenchyma: the buttery, soapstone middle child, she folds her sister’s clothes, packs their lunches and scrubs their backs in the clawfoot tub. The evening the cat Xylem arrives, paws ripped open like chocolate wrappers, it is she who packs him in newspapers and sets him near the ticking oven, she who feeds him syrup and salted crackers. In gratitude, Xylem grants her a ring of daylily fibers that will protect her from harm; she slips it on sweetheart Sclerenchyma’s little finger. Not long after she is hit by a bus.

Sclerenchyma: the baby for whom one older sister perishes, and another is robbed of her true love (dashing Stoma with his pearl cuff-links and breezy countenance). She is the finicky blonde simpleton always found in family trees, removing the cords of her red hood from the branches of paternal morality and descending into the swept-up, deep dark undergrowth. Dumb but desirable, she is on first name terms with nearly everyone in the two grades immediately above and below hers. Her giggles teeter on the brink of innocence and seduction, drawing males and females alike.

/ˈælfə sɛnˈtɔri/ Part The Third

On the fifth day, Dahlia follows Mina around the amusement park. The stalking hadn’t been a planned affair, but somehow seemed inevitable. There was that way Mina kept her hair tied up in elastic, fingers red and constantly in the company of each other, that manner of looking shaken-up and in need of a shaking-down. Mina the waif. Mina the lurching urchin. It keeps Dahlia nearby.

The amusement park Mirana, a seaside collection of spit-bright surefooted young’uns and their mechanical rolling counterparts, fossilized plum-colored planks twisting up in dramatic curlicues, emanating a suffocating blue heat. The Italian owner had had space divvied up and colored in the style of his home country: Dahlia’s quick eye spots Mina the fiend disappearing into the golden boughs of Toscana.

Tracing her steady voyage, it’s easy to see where she’s headed. At eleven in the morning, when Dahlia had started following her, she’d been in blue-white Sicilia, onwards to Calabria (all-you-can-eat pizza, Miss Oliver Twist has seconds and thirds), Basilicata, Campania (fun house in which Dahlia catches a thousand reflections of Mina in as many scalloped mirrors), Lazio, Umbria, leading up to Toscana. It’s a trip marked by indications, which Mina reads aloud as she passes them, taking care to step only on the orange tiles of the color-alternating path:

THIS WAY TO FLORENTINE FERRIS WHEEL ((Hello lovely blog readers (all six of you), Emma here, à la glorious footnote. National Novel Writing Month starts tomorrow! Please wish me luck and fruitcakes.))

/ˈælfə sɛnˈtɔri/ Part The Second

At her mother and Samson’s wedding reception, Dahlia steals candy buttons from gift bags and tells Auntie how upset she is at not being able to walk around the house topless any more.

“Can’t do it with him around,” she says, licking her lips colored Yellow Number Five. “and even if I did, just look, just look at ‘im! He’d snitch to Momma for sure.”

Auntie chomps down on her teeth, Pan-Cake foundation wet on her hook nose and sloping collarbone, offering Dahlia nothing. She knows better now, than to give the child reason to believe she agrees with her. Momma! Auntie thinks your new hub’s a tattler too, she went and told me so! Ohoho, not going to happen again, Auntie’s determined, the babe can be kamikaze all by her lonesome.

Auntie’s eyes paw Dahlia’s courtesan’s bouffant and fingernails, painted with orange permanent marker and glitter glue.

“I know, Auntie,” Dahlia whines, “but how was I supposed to get dressed up for this, huh? It’d be like letting Momma win.”

Auntie’s sympathizes, but not enough to brave the primeval waters of mother-daughter conflict. The cellophane mammalian eyes, which through the magic of natural selection are also Dahlia’s own, circle once, twice, careening from the daylily flower arrangements (Dahlia thinks monocotyledon, sophomore Biology, Miss Rittenhouse’s China red cardigans) to the collapsing Neapolitan ice cream cake dead center (Dahlia thinks sacarose, fructose, lactose, I want to go home, I want to go home).

Color-alternating strobe lights, Mr. and Mrs. Samson Faktorowicz waltz by, merry-go-round, tight turns and whorls quick enough to make the brand-spanking-new Dahlia Faktorowicz’s head spin. It’s a storybook affair, but Samson ruins the effect by letting his hands stray below Dahlia’s mother’s waist, and she, the DayGlo princess rotting, lets him, drunk and reveling, revolving, revealing.

“Oh Good Gad,” Dahlia says, “great Gods. Save your humble servant.”

“Better get used to it,” Auntie says, unable to resist getting a hit in with her perilous problem niece, “you’re going on their honeymoon, aren’t you?”

Churning loud, huffing and puffing, a wounded Dahlia skulks out to the parking lot.

/ˈælfə sɛnˈtɔri/ Part The First

Even from several hundred meters away, her feet are clearly visible. Pink socks, it seems, carnation pink like a decomposing hog’s tongue. She’s in what appears to be a large woman’s blouse, gauzy fabric that billows out behind her as she pads along the sand. The shirt her sails, the long neck her mast, and that dark whip of hair? Flag. A flag to match the red one set up by the Red Cross on the shore, meant to mean: these are not safe waters.

On the first day, Dahlia goes out to meet her. Dahlia’s been taken on her parent’s second honeymoon, a word she’ll associate for the rest of her life with Maraschino cherries and ungainly coitus. She doesn’t try to avoid her mother and Samson’s frequent displays of affection, though she doesn’t avoid stating how distasteful she finds it either. It pleases her, to see her skittish skylark skank of a mother go out of her way to find privacy, to avoid her daughter’s critical grin. Dahlia opening the closet to see her mother with her coils fingering Samson’s hair, lipstick marks like tiger stripes.

March the fourth, and Dahlia’s tired of hide-and-go-seek with her skinny Ma and her pseudo Pa. She spots the girl and runs to her, heaving, feet sinking and staining the beach: Dahlia’s size nine cobalt blue Mary-Janes. She wraps her hand on the girl’s shoulder, bony joint coated in thin blouse like white sea-glass.

“Hello,” Dahlia says, bringing the unknown to a standstill. She’s small, smaller even than Dahlia had anticipated, a veritable scrap, shipwreck. The skin in the folds of her knees is pale and clear, but the rest of her is burnt black. The color has spread even to her eyelids, like watercolors, or wildfire.

“Hi.” She answers, quite coolly, turning to face Dahlia. She has a pert nose and squinty eyes, maybe thirteen years old to Dahlia’s seventeen.

“I’m Dahlia,” Dahlia says. This is how she operates, stun, shock, wait for a reaction. This is why Dahlia doesn’t have a boyfriend, and why she couldn’t stay back home while her mother and Samson rode out this vacation. No one wanted to keep her, and no one was willing to leave her alone.

“I’m Mina,” she says, and from that moment (and various moments in the twelve day span that followed) onwards, for the rest of her life, Dahlia will associate pink socks, blouses, boats, bells and dying with that name.

615 Pharmacology & therapeutics.

When you circle someone for an eon, you undergo a gradual process of self-awareness. The aura of the beloved, normally two inches wide alongside the body, grows to a foot, sometimes two. The eyes of the enchanted are pliable, plastic, and they cannot be relied upon.

So she picks you up and hangs you out on a rafter, out to dry, swinging like Foucault’s pendulum, an object oscillating in a circular plane. It’s common after an eon of self-awareness, albeit self-awareness that arrives much too slowly, and much too sporadically. Your head’s making a sine wave in the air, the rush of blood, a blitzkrieg of blood, breaking into your brain barriers and flooding every single memory except those related to mathematics. Mathematics, as everyone knows, has nothing to do with her and, thus, neither does it you. By imagining a right triangle extending from your arms to the floor, and to the wall, and by estimating lengths, you have a rough picture of the space between you and imminent doom. Too bad it doesn’t really change the fact that your cranium’s the most pathetic lie concocted on mankind, foramina at the base of the skull cracking open upon impact, imploding like fruit stepped on. The heads of the enchanted are hard, hollow, and they cannot be relied upon.

Shortly afterwards, the hard vacuum starts. It’s even more common, after an eon of self-awareness, than the cruel treatment of the beloved, the hanging of rafters, pendulums. Decompression sickness sets into legs, bubbles forming in solid tissues upon descent. You do not automatically boil, nor do you automatically freeze, you do so at the rate of growing self-awareness. Mathematics proves this, with formulas, and it is not afraid to tell you what’s what. Or rather, a mathematician isn’t afraid, but do you know any mathematicians? The containing effect of your skin helps, but that has its limits, and you’ll get pimples if you’re stressed anyway. The skin of the enchanted is uniform, yielding, and it cannot be relied upon.

Sometimes, stuff works out. Chambers are re-pressurized, the aura of the beloved shrinks to a an appropriate (while somewhat indulging) size, a blitzkrieg becomes unconditional surrender. Your sine wave is now a sawtooth wave, and she’s plucked you from the rafter, tucked her arms around your back so that her hands rest on your stomach. Hey, beautiful, hey. What’s not to love? Somewhere, a mathematician is going mad in a box that decreases in size at the same speed it takes the mathematician to find a way to get out. At least he’ll die with an epiphany, which is more than we can say for you. The reason of the enchanted is empty, submissive, and it cannot be relied upon.

Spine, support of the body, support of mathematical functions, will probably fail you when you see her. Perhaps your bowels as well, and you don’t need a mathematician to tell you just how unattractive that is. The aureole of hair, framing the face consumed by aura, colored deep orange, twisting, twirling around you as she packs! The clammy stare, the eyes, stinging you at the back of your throat! A Polaire, a Mata Hari, there’s a graph made, detailing how fast she can strip you of possessions, dignity and dental hygiene (it’s well documented that the heart-broken forget to brush their teeth). Perhaps instead of Polaire, polar bear? In any case, the mathematician will not lend you a shoulder to cry on. Mathematicians care not for the weaker portions of the anatomy. Self-awareness always comes a split second too late. What can you really expect, after an eon? The universe enacts its revenge, lovely loving umbra. If you want to appear jaded, I suggest you take up Schopenhauer. Or accounting, maybe then you can recover the funds she stole from you, and maybe a mathematician’s grudging friendship. The hearts of the enchanted are rigid, fragile, but they can be trusted entirely.

I ONLY GET TO HOLD HER WHEN SHE’S INJURED, I ONLY GET TO KISS HER WHEN SHE’S SORE.

The paunch isn’t visible when she stands up in the tub and looks down, but it is when she turns a little to the left, towards the bathroom mirror. Her upper body feels heavy, not because of its actual weight but because of the weight of her gaze, examining all the crucial aspects of her anatomy, or at least those she deems crucial.

She wonders if she’ll look okay in that dress she’d seen in a store window, a dress she feels she has neither the physical nor the mental attributes necessary to pull off. A good dress requires sass, she recalls someone having told her, and she possesses none. It’s not that she’s self-deprecating, it’s just that she understands to a level exhibited usually only in the solving of mathematics problems. She’s an analytical mind, so to speak.

She can remember the exact moment of her life, down to the exact second, that it became important to her that she look good in a dress. Before that moment, she had adopted an attitude not unlike that those of social deviants, except she harmed no one, and her deviance was restrained to the two feet to every side of her. She had given off a mildly caustic aura, like a two-day-old whitewashed wall. After that moment, she was suddenly consumed by a desire to please, not generally but specifically, and in her desire to do the latter she found herself unwittingly complying with the former. It’s not something she is used to. It’s not something she’s happy about, and how’d she become the girl who makes herself unhappy in the process of attaining happiness?

It used to be something she laughed at, even condemned. Her personality was set in stone, and what a personality it was! Rough, blunt, uneasy, never eager. She’d known it, and she’d brushed off the people who told her what an ugly fact of her life it was. She was a modern St. Benedict, and she knew one didn’t change the what one doesn’t like.

How’d she become the girl who stares at a dress? What she wants is to change the image you have of her, but not her image in itself. What she wants isn’t the dress, but rather the image of her in a dress, safeguarded in your brain’s pleasure center. How’d she become the girl who wants you?

Actually, it isn’t difficult to figure out how, or why. As with many matters, it was mainly about timing. The ticking hidden inside her breast combined with your sudden, impossibly opportune and impossibly coincidental appearance in her life, making you both a welcome and puzzling diversion, one she does not understand but wants to understand with a maddening intensity. You had very little to do with it. How’d she become the girl who could become possessed by your presence, or lack thereof?

It occurs to her that she is reforming herself in an attempt to reach you. It’s an idea she hates, one that makes her plop back down into the bathwater again. She’s going against the grain, she’s going against her principles. She’s knowingly becoming a better person, or rather, putting on an impressive show of one. She’s acting, and while she’s surprised and pleased with her performance, she’s conscious that that’s just what it is: a performance.

No one would have guessed she’d act this way, pulling at her flesh in the bathroom mirror, imagining herself in an infinite series of dresses, each more appealing than the previous one, and the last of which will guide you to her. But then again, no one can be expected to guess the inner workings of a heart. No one can be put to blame, pushed against a wall, seated beneath a solitary light bulb in a darkened room. It’s no one’s fault, not even your’s, even though you’re the catalyst. You go about life, complaining about this thing or that thing, picking up dry cleaning, trimming your nails, unaware of what you have started.

When she stares at the dress, tulle, white, flashy collar, a yearning begins in her head and travels down to her stomach, wallowing, spreading out. It’s inconceivable that this feeling might not make its way into the floor, across several city blocks, into your feet. It’s unimaginable that you do not sense it in the throbbing of your toes, or at the very least your gut, like a far-away molecule feels the rumblings of a chemical combustion. When she looks at her naked body in the mirror, clinically, logically, how can you not lift your head up and realize it, whether slowly or suddenly?

98% of people are stricken by a familiar feeling in their lifetimes, she once read in a magazine article, and she’s horrified to learn that she shares something so personal with just about everyone. It’s supposed to be noble, she’s learnt, unselfish. Unselfish? She’d always been told she only thought of herself, had it thrown in her face by various people on various occasions. She doesn’t think of you constantly, but she thinks of you when it counts. Damn it all, she thinks, damn it all to Hell, what is this crap? And after thinking this she smiles a little, and then more broadly. She’s absurdly pleased to learn that, despite everything, she hasn’t lost her bad habit of cursing.

Accelerated Gestation, Or, When Things Are Right.

On Wednesday the babies of Petrichor disappeared from three thousand four hundred seventy-two collective wombs. Fifty-four gynecologists told three thousand four hundred seventy-two women that, within forty-eight hours of each other, their fetuses had vanished completely and absolutely selfishly, without even a bloody stain to mark the divorce of organisms.

The fetuses had ranged in age from 11 weeks to 39. The oldest fetus had a name, twelve newly-sown booties and a trust fund. The parents of the youngest were not even aware of its existence, but for days afterward his mother would feel a certain soreness in her belly that she could not attribute to any medical condition.

Some of the mothers, labelled “carriers” in the case filed twelve hours after the emergence of the first twenty incidents, were within prime reproductive age, had salaries well above the poverty line and enjoyed relatively peaceful lives on streets known for aesthetic qualities and family-friendliness. Thirty percent were either much too old, Jeopardy watchers (what is birth control?) or much too young, get lucky girls. Two out of every ten were lactose intolerant. Two out of every ten held decidedly unsavory professions.

Over the course of a week, three thousand four hundred seventy-two females began falling by the wayside, into clumps and cleavers and wells of their own specific construction. A few took it completely in stride, swallowing up the harsh hand of chance with personality and a dab of gumption. Almost all of them told themselves that it didn’t matter, not for a fetus, not for that, not, not at all. Three thousand three hundred wept into toilet paper in the bathroom, fifty-four took up smoking again. One set up a group for grieving, and she would have found three thousand four hundred seventy-two exactly like her, had it not been for that night’s meteorological forecast.

It just so happens that, on Tuesday, six days after the disappearance of three thousand four hundred seventy-two babies, the usual weather man on Channel Four, a slippery-slick man fifteen of the three thousand four hundred seventy-two had once nursed painful crushes on, was replaced by a small, spaghetti-skinny girl in slacks. “Tonight,” she said, peering a little sleepily into the camera, “at eight fifteen, it’s going to start raining children.” She got in a wink before an authoritative arm pulled her off the air.

Not all of the three thousand four hundred seventy-two women, females, carriers, mothers saw the broadcast. Most of them, in fact, didn’t see it until two days later, while they were being individually interviewed for a police report. Upon their first viewing, one thousand seven hundred started sobbing from sheer force of impact. One started sobbing because she owned the exact same slacks the mystery forecaster wore.

In any case, at eight fifteen in the evening, Tuesday, exactly three thousand four hundred seventy-two women found themselves jumping off hospital beds, abandoning ovens, jolting out of mail rooms and going outside, for no real reason. And then, almost through divine intervention (even though nine hundred of them were hardcore atheists), they all stuck their arms out split seconds before, out of nowhere, babies catapulted out of some atmospheric layer, falling with all the force of human beings weighing from five to eleven pounds, crashing in the most perfectly ungainly way possible, but beautifully, beautifully, beautifully, safe and sound and a few suffering from mild infection, into the cradling limbs of three thousand four hundred seventy-two women.

None of the babies were paired with their biological mother. One woman managed to nab two, twins not related to each other by any conceivable bond other than that of simultaneous falling. And yet, no posters were put up and no children were reclaimed. Each mother felt, more strongly than any of them had ever felt before, that she could hold her babe up and know that it was rightful, she and those other three thousand four hundred seventy-one women and three thousand four hundred seventy-one kids, absolutely rightful in the purest sense of the word.