Winner, 2014 “Best Book Award” from Tacenda Literary Magazine and BleakHouse Publishing, given annually for “a work that sheds a humane light on the nether world of penal institutions, as well as other repressive settings, practices and beliefs.”
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The Most Natural Thing
Anicka cracked a walnut into halves and filled the halves with wax. A birthday candle in each one, she set the halves afloat, in milk. Gently she lifted the spine of the carp: it rose from the flesh in one sweeping motion. The carp lay on the table like an unbuttoned sleeve, the spine did not seem to belong there anymore. We ate the carp, the candles fizzling down. On the table was a watch, a white handkerchief. On the floor lay a doll, the eyes half opened, like hers, like mine, its painted eyebrows raised.
I am running under trees and clouds, this is how I see my life. But sometimes I touch Anicka's collarbone along the fissure, an old accident. Two kilometers from Krasna we sleep like that, in her dead grandmother's bed, my hand resting softly on her once broken shoulder. It is the room her mother made for us. Her parents, too, step into their massive wooden beds. Moon pours through the window on our bones. Gardenia's painted on the walls. Death's white calmness. A room that has filled up with sheep.
"May I See What You Are"
I was waiting for what stirred inside the reeds to stir again, when I asked: "May I see what you are," and quieted myself, felt my heart clank like a cup inside, up and down the cell bars of the ribs. But nothing moved. I thought about the day reprieves won't come despite my having other plans; how I would beg but lose myself; lose you, Anicka, an apocalypse. A wave smashed up against the shore. Then in the reeds the stork began to flush and--now see what I am?--open its colossal wings.
Eyelids in the Dawn Years of Perspective
Time kept passing and I wasn't getting born. My parents called for me, made me a room, erected a tiny straw bed. Greece fell and shattered into tiny bits; then Rome took a broom to the world. It was passing before I could open my eyes, but my eyelids so thin I could see apparitions, figures floating just beyond the scrim. Suddenly Breughel the Elder lifted a brush, tilting his horny, drunk dancers. At that point the day and the night slammed together, which locked me in their forceps hold.
Let my grandfather eat in his silence again, except for the scrape of his fork. Let him make a little sound when food runs through the laryngectomy. Let him spin a little column of spaghetti and chew slowly, filling himself until he's fat. Wide and fat. Let him pluck sardines and chew their bones inside his mouth. Who am I to say? I ask no questions of my grandfather. My grandfather asks no questions of me. The meal is finished. And with that, with that weight, let him push from the head of the table.
We must hit to the jaw, my father says. I know his hands ache in their taping and mine do, too. As a young man in a bar in Barcelona he was hit from behind and fell into his attacker's arms, who cut him in the face. We must hit to the jaw, and when it's my turn the bag is still swaying. He is seventy three years old. He holds his hands in protection, up high. He is filled with these crazy expressions: Hit to the jaw. Keep up your guard. Punch hard, once. Don't think you have forever.
From its pellet-like source the universe widens. Our car broke down near the fairgrounds that winter. There I saw the World's Tallest Man, harrowed by his ankylosis, his knees like liquidy magic eight balls. He sat in a chair, waving to us. Then he stood as if climbing up a rope. Five o'clock, just about dark. The tow truck arrived. It cranked down its hook on a chain. It hoisted the bumper, lip of a fish, until the car was almost vertical. All together we climbed in the truck, the father, the son, the quiet driver.
Is it my end or my beginning? The appendix began in my grass eating time. It craves the cud the dawn horse chewed, and the buffalo herds in the oceans of plains, and the giraffe whose mouth hoards a muscle so enormous, it must be kept at great distance from the heart. But the appendix began before all that, even before the grass eating time, it began as primordial cell: hungry, an inner life that craved an outer one. Now it floats, a post-script of itself, a large bloated tongue in the viscera.
Enormous Yellow Sky
Like everyone I hunted mushrooms before I was born, under the two dimensional plane of sky. These were the woods where one meets the deer, the goddess in disguise. Her symbol: What is hidden would like to be known. She led me to a banquet in the clearing. Several guests sat talking at a long table. "Soon no one alive will remember the eighteenth century," whispers my father into my mother's ear. "One day too this will be a fairy tale," says my mother from behind her carnival mask.
To feel each branching-outward part. I do not feel each part, though I have prayed to hear the small breath of my cells at Wet Mountain. The aspen grove sends messages in leaf-code to its heart, a clutch of roots. Mildew zones out in provinces. Burn up, burn up, the yellow aspen says, burn up—which is another way of saying remember who you are, as you move in your beautiful, arched-upward body, believing yourself your own kingdom, believing yourself to be only yourself, instead of the land.