Monthly Archives: February 2014

Seven Gates

The first gate looked like a roadside attraction. They almost drove right past it, but Carter called out as it whizzed by.

Back in the car Carter kept unsticking his thighs from the vinyl of the seat. “Hey, does it seem a little hot in here?”

Niall laughed. “Probably.”

This got Carter laughing too.

The second gate was made of iron rebar. It hadn’t just been welded together either, some of the bars seemed moulded into an almost-organic shape. Niall looked all the way up with his hands on his hips.

“How big d’you think it is?”

“Hmm?” Carter was fiddling with his lighter.

“Like, how tall?”

Carter looked up. “Dunno. Doesn’t seem that tall. Tall as a barn, maybe?”

Niall squinted. “What d’you think they do for semi’s driving through here, and such?”

“Semi’s?” Carter laughed. “Carrying what? Avacados? You think refrigerated trucks go this way?”

Niall picked at a burr in the denim of his jeans. “Aren’t there other people on the road with us?”

Carter cocked his head and didn’t speak for a long while.

“Gotta be.” he said.

The third gate had fallen down, so they drove past it.

“My parents took me to this church meeting once,” Niall said.

Carter had a mouthful of jerky, so he nodded.

“It was weird. I mean, I didn’t think they were religious, but that night we just walked in the door and shit, there they were.” Niall shifted a gear. “All these boys my age wearing white—all fucking blond, can you believe that?”

“Mmph.” Carter swallowed. “I believe it.”

“Yeah. So, they’re all looking at us when we walk in—no, at me—and smiling. Creepiest thing that ever happened to me. I thought I was in huge trouble.”

Seconds passed with only the tick of the pavement beneath the wheels.

“And were you?”

“Hmm?” Niall had both hands on the wheel, he was looking ahead.

“Like, had you done something? What happened after that?”

Niall took a handful of jerky. “Damndest thing,” he said, “I don’t remember.”

The fourth gate was covered in graffiti. Not all of it was English.

“Check this out.” Carter snapped a few shots of the left pillar. “What is this, Arabic? What’re these squiggly lines?”

“Egyptian?” Niall was relieving himself against a fence post. “Does it have little bird guys?”

“The hell? No, man, are you even looking at these? This is goddamn special, you got to mark the occasion. No telling if we’ll ever be back out this way.”

“Do you have to take a picture of each one?”

Carter looked at his camera as if noticing it for the first time. “What? No, I guess. I didn’t do the third one.”

Niall shook his head. “’Don’t know when we’ll be back out this way.’

“Well, we don’t,” said Carter .

They looked up.

“Want me to drive for a while?” Carter asked.

They had promised Stig that they would hit the fifth and turn back. That had indeed been the original plan. The argued over who had convinced whom to go the whole way.

“—yeah, because I have Tracy.” Carter was now driving. Niall had fetched the maps from the glove compartment and was shuffling through them. “I got a future, man, no way I’d do something stupid now. What’re you doing? You really think there’s a map for this place?”

Niall sighed. “Look, Tracy don’t enter into it. I’m just looking for something.”

“For what? What d’you mean Tracy got nothing to do with it?”

“You got the whatsit. Fear of intimacy. It’s why you still haven’t met her parents.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, firstly, I haven’t met her parents because her dad is a dick, okay? And second—”

“Keep your eyes on the road, dammit. I didn’t come this far to die in a ditch.”

“Fuck you, I’m an excellent driver. And second I was the one who wanted to move in together, okay? And I got rid of the hog. For her.”

“Dude, you were never gonna fix that piece of shit anyway, who are you trying to kid?”

“I sunk a lot of money into the hog, dammit, that was an investment I gave up.”

“Investment in what? It’s not like that broken down piece of shit is gonna appreciate—”

They argued right past the sixth gate.

The car was quiet. Niall reached behind his seat and cracked the back window.

“You wanna turn back?”

Niall rested his head on his forearm. “What’s the point?”

They fell silent again. The road ticked by.

“If you wanna turn back and see it, I mean, we’ve gone this far…”

Niall squinted in the dying light. “How do we get back? After, I mean.”

Carter picked a Hershey bar off the dash. It was near-liquid. “Just…make a u-turn and follow the road, I guess.”

“You think it leads back?”

Carter laughed with a dry throat. “Sure, man. Where else would it lead?”

Niall didn’t answer and continued staring out the window.

Carter made a hole in the wrapper with his teeth and sucked out the chocolate. It only made him thirstier.

“You think they’ll miss us?” Niall said suddenly.

“What, who?”

“Everyone.” Niall had to speak up over the roar of air passing by the window. “If anything happens to us. Will they think to check down this way?”

Carter held his breath.

They drove until is was dark.

“It’s gotta be around here somewhere,” Carter said. He and Niall had switched places again, now he tried to read a map in the dome light.

“Well we’ve been out here, for…” Niall squinted into the dark. “How long has it been?”

“We started at five…” Carter pretended to study his watch, which hadn’t ticked in hours. They had all four windows rolled down now, and there was no water left in the cab. The heat had not abated with the setting sun.

The car swerved. Shuddered. Carter dropped the map. “Shit, is that the radiator?”

Niall took a sharp breath. “No…shit man, no. Shee-it.”

“What?” Carter peered ahead in the scant few feet of illumination the headlights provided. They both felt, rather than saw, the road run out from beneath the cab of the truck. They bounced on grass and ruts of earth before slowing to a stop.

“Jesus,” Niall said.

They got out of the cab.

“You think there’s anyone down there?” Carter held the flashlight while Niall fished a tire iron out of the truck bed.

Niall laughed while grunting with effort. “Who? Bigfoot? Sasquatch gonna take you away to be his UFO bride?”

“Dude, that shit’s not funny.” Carter’s attention was turned to the dark around them. “There might be—”

“Careful, you’re letting the light drop!” Niall stood up and handed him a can of Raid. “Okay, back me up if we get into the shit, alright?”

They didn’t have to walk far before they encountered a man sitting in a camp chair beside a small card table. He sat oddly alert and watched them approach, not appearing at all surprised by their presence.

They stopped short. Carter coughed into his hand.

“Um, hi. Are you the…is this the…?”

“Is this THE?” the man repeated back harshly.

Carter dropped his hand. “Look, you don’t gotta be like that. We were just wondering—”

“Wondering what?” The man’s gaze was unsympathetic. “Wonder in one hand and shit in the other and see what piles up first.”

Niall spoke up. “Dude, he was just asking a question.”

The man swiveled his head very slowly and deliberately. “My name isn’t ‘dude.’”

“Whatever. Can you just tell us where we are?”

The man regarded them. He tilted his head back, the angle made it look as if he were smiling slightly.

“It’s closed,” he said, “they closed it down. It’s somewhere else now.”

Niall dropped his arms. “They what? You can’t just do that! We came out all this—look, don’t you have a supervisor or something?”

The man definitely was smiling a bit. “Nope.”

Carter put a hand up to Niall. “Sorry if we’ve offended you, it’s been a long—we’ve been driving a long time, can you tell us where the last gate is?”

The man swiveled his gaze to Carter again, and it was like getting hit with a heat-lamp.

“Tracy called,” he intoned, “while you were out dicking around, something bad happened. A car crashed into a house. Maybe two.”

The hairs on Carter’s forearm rose as one. “The hell are you talking about?”

The man did not answer, just stared.

Carter shook the can of Raid. It refused to rattle.

“Gone,” the man chanted, staring him right in the eye, “gone away, gone dead, everybody dead.”

Niall hit him on the temple with the iron. It was a direct hit, made a damp thud. The man didn’t go down. He grabbed a handful of Niall’s shirt, throwing him off balance.

Fuck!” he shouted as he went down, out of the flashlight’s beam. Carter found he couldn’t run and hold it steady, so he chose to run blind.

He tripped. He sprawled.

Niall was sobbing wretchedly.

Carter made fists and pushed back up again. It felt like he had fallen on a bed of cattle horns. His left leg didn’t want to support his weight anymore.

Dude,” he groaned. Niall was still weeping.

Something grabbed hard on his scruff. The man wrenched him backwards, the beam passing quickly over his face gave him redeye like a dog.

Ah,” he gasped. The man shook him, a quick, violent jerk.

“Care to take a picture?”

Carter didn’t feel like he could have nodded if he wanted to. He grit his teeth.

“Fuck, dude, what? What the hell?”

The man nodded, slowly.

Carter’s breath sobbed from his body. “This is it? This is the seventh gate?”

The man leaned closer, his flesh shone pink-white translucent in the beam of the flash.

“You passed it hours ago. The first gate was destroyed. Everyone thinks it starts at the second gate now.”

Carter gasped. The air was like breathing soup. “Wait, no, no one said—”

The man clicked his tongue. “You know, the first gate was to keep people out. The rest…” he touched a fingertip to Carter’s tear duct, then to his tongue.

“….were to keep me in.”

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Cristoph’s Salomé

Salomé: A study in shadows was the talk of the 1895 Salon de Paris. Spectators said it had an uneasy, implicative quality to it, critics called it an overblown mess. The painting was a figure study executed in Post-impressionist style. A female nude reclined in deep shadow, gold highlights just barely picking out her facial features. She appeared to be laughing. If viewed very closely, for what is assumed to be a very lengthy amount of time, spectators are supposed to be able to pick individual shapes from the shadows, turning the woman’s face into something resembling a bed of writhing worms.

The artist known only as Cristoph had come practically out of nowhere. Of the few semi-concrete details of his life, it was known that he was Austrian-born, of poor lineage, and lived in the bohemian areas of Paris. Oddly enough, he was not well-liked by his peers, societal outcasts that even Gauguin refused to drink with.

Cristoph had been experimenting with dark-on-black painting, what he dubbed “shadowlight.” As light struck from a prism created a rainbow, a similar palette, he reasoned, must continue in the other direction. Not content with simple shades, he sought to revolutionize the artist’s concept of of hue and value. He sent away for strange minerals and plants to grind as pigments. The artist was hospitalized, twice for mercuric poisoning, once for a mysterious rash, yet continued to apply himself with scholarly(some say suicidal) dedication. Cobalts and coals, oxides and fugitive dyes were mixed in the pursuit of absolute black. Though he had achieved a small degree of success in his earlier paintings, Cristoph still sought after a pigment that would absorb all light. By achieving this, he theorized, a painter could thereupon work backwards to create an entire spectrum of shadow.

As to where he got the funds for such experimentation, whispers abounded that he had a private patron and that Salomé was not only a study, but a portrait.

Cristoph’s reputation grew when Salomé was purchased by banker Piers Vallet, who subsequently squandered his life and fortune on an attempt to locate the model in the picture. Cristoph remained reticent abut her identity in the face of scandal.

Thought Cristoph continued to work heavily, Salomé was the last finished painting to show in a gallery. All paintings that followed after were either sketches or works-in-progress, though the layperson may be forgiven for mistaking them for completed works as they lack only Cristoph’s signature “shadowlight” objects.

A month after Vallet’s suicide, the artist announced he would undertake his most ambitious project to date: painting his own shadow. The piece would be done on the wall of his own small studio, which had already been prepped with a special black gesso. Five days after the announcement, his landlord admitted himself with his own key to complain about Cristoph’s cat, which had been bothering other tenants for food. The studio was empty. No trace of the artist was ever found.

If one visits the studio space in Montmartre(and indeed, guided tours are still available) one may view the last known location of the artist. Cristoph’s palette lies before the wall as if set down only a moment before, a packet of Job rolling papers lie on the stool he used for long nights at the easel. And before them, the semblance of a human shadow painted masterfully onto the wall. Critics of the time called it an exceptional example of Trompe l’oeil, from core to penumbra it resembled hyper-realistically its intended subject.  Its most notable feature went undiscovered for decades afterwards. For it is said that a mute face is just barely visible on the head of the shadow, revealed not by illuminating the wall further, but by extinguishing all light.

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A List of Firsts

First kiss

Eddie. Kindergarten. I did it because it was funny. He had a bad Mohawk his mom had done at home. The other kids giggled and screamed when we kissed. It lasted a day.

First hug

I barely knew him. Leaving a friend’s house, winding a scarf around my neck. He stepped in close and I dodged left because I thought he was reaching behind me for something. He caught me with the other arm. I could still smell his cologne on me after.

First lay

We were nervous. We were neither very interested in the other. He asked me, as we got our clothes on afterward, whether I thought it was worth it. I said, “sure,” as flippantly as I could.

First burn

His nail scraped my knuckle as he withdrew his hand from a doorknob. I had been reaching for the light switch and flinched back when he grazed me. He caught my hand in both of his. “Sorry,” he said, “sorry.” It only bled after he left.

First cruelty

He insulted my tastes, insulted my friends, insulted my family without ever realizing it. I put him on a slow burn, finding thousands of little ways to kill him every day. The thousandth blow was a trip I had alluded to but hadn’t explicitly mentioned. He showed up at my house the day of. I called him from the car.

First obsession

I don’t know if he even exists, but I find his eyelashes in men I see on the street. Commuters in the morning bear his chin. There are those close enough to him that they could be his brothers, strangers all. I am sick with him for days at a time.

First embarrassment

This one seemed so much more than me. My grocery list of dysfunctions was no match for his utter normality. He had come from a place where there were no raised voices. I spilled soda on him during karaoke. While he fetched napkins, I snuck out the side door.

First fear

He didn’t even love me. But he couldn’t stand the idea of not having me. I endured slow, steady weeks of poison. I gained a pardon when he fell in with an ex. He kept my stereo as compensation.

First disappointment

He was gay. How could I not see he was gay? Worse, his boyfriend was spectacular. I was denied the luxury of hating either of them.

First death

He told me “I feel like I don’t even know you,” across the table at Denny’s. I had nothing to say to that. I sat staring at the snow outside long after he left.

First fall

Have you ever suspended gravity for someone for a brief period of time? It’s never for a good reason, either. They asked you to lift your foot, and you upend the world.

First conflict

I’m sorry. I really, really, really don’t like the things you like. I can’t keep quiet on them anymore because you keep shoving them in my face. I’m sorry. I don’t even know what I like about you anymore. I can’t stand Madonna, hate spice, and utterly loathe Wes Anderson. Sorry. Not sorry.

First night

We sat on a bridge, I think. Snow was drifting down. After a while he said, “We should go.” Neither of us got up. Eventually my hand found his pocket. He was warm.

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Totenschiffs

The Germans call them Totenschiffs. They’re barges that have seen too many days, or a trawler that’s seen bad weather, or perhaps just a re-purposed wreck.

You will know the second you step onto one. The air will be stale and tense, like someone’s wake. No one will make eye contact with you. The seamen are drunks on their last legs, or perhaps just old skippers who don’t want to wind down their days telling tales in front of a fire. Desperate. You must be too, to accept work on one of these barges. Maybe you’ve lost one hand of cards too many, or maybe you’ve run out of distractions on the land. Whatever it is, you’re ready to spend your last coin on the ferryman.

It never happens right away. A smart man will space out the journeys, first a short run to the next coast for supplies, then maybe a little further away for some foreign goods. Eventually comes the biggest journey, where the ship will be loaded with riches to make trade, or so he says.  You’ll know what’s really coming. Every creak of the boat could be the one to send you downwards. A smart man will plan for you to go down with the ship. He might poke holes in the lifeboats, fill the jackets with sand. It’s in his best interest that you never make it to shore.

You’ve accepted anyway. No choice in the matter. It’s nothing to be missed, really, what’s one handful of sailors in the ledger of history?

But then sometimes you have passengers.

Maybe it’s revenge. Maybe it’s cruelty. Maybe it’s good old-fashioned business sense: he can point to the passenger list and say ‘see? see what I stood to lose?‘ Then it’s tragedy and time and a tidy sum for the bastard.

Maybe it’s some poor oik packing off for Australia, going to raise himself some sheep among the Eucalyptus. Worse, it could be a young couple too poor for a passenger ship, with a young gel between them, hair yellow-gold like cornsilk. She could’ve been your daughter in another life. Her happiness stings as you watch her skip up the gangplank. You know what’s coming. If you have any light left in your soul, she never will.

The weather’s always fair setting out. It’s like God himself is seeing you off. The docks never look more welcoming than when you’re traveling away from them. You could still jump ship; it’s possible to reach the shore, even in your arthritic crawl, but you stay where you are.

The passengers might remark on the food. It seems like you’ve been shorted proper rations for the trip, should they complain? They know someone, or are related to someone that does. You listen politely and then laugh behind their backs.

There’s a cog winding down in your heart. It’s the same in all the men’s hearts. It has been winding steadily down every time you’ve boarded one of these boats, and it’s never been refreshed by a step ashore. You have been making peace with death in your own way for years now.

No matter how you chart the journey, no matter how you catch the wind, you will always fall before you ever sight your destination. Even a stupid man who claims a cargo of gold when everyone knows he deals in lumber knows how to rig a hull.

If you’re fortunate there is poison enough on board to send you skyward before you sink. Kinder men would kill the passengers first, but death has made you selfish. If there is no poison, some hopeful fools might try to hobble together rafts from scrap wood. They know better than to touch anything made to look safe.

When it happens, you might be in the middle of a thought. One second you’re contemplating your misdeeds, or lost opportunities, the next Neptune bends your ship over and gives it the Flying Dutchman. The passengers would not panic, not at first, because they trust you. Their faith is a bitter canker oozing in your gut as the men scramble about on pretense of doing something effective. Perhaps they really will try to salvage one of the boats. They might lash and tar scraps of wood, tables, anything that looks like it might float. The passenger’s child might ooh at the swell of the boat, laughing and clapping at the display. You reside in a special kind of hell, one trapped entirely behind that girl’s eyes.

It is only when you tumble into the deep that you show signs of life. You have resigned yourself to death, but no one thought to tell your body that. You kick and crawl and fight to keep your head above the waves. You and your shipmates form a human chain, crowding like polyps against the ocean’s wrath. For the first time in the journey there is a sense of community, those that swim aid those that cannot. You supervise the lashing of a barrel to a table, your traitor body makes sturdy knots even in the cold.

You all reach stability and float in a crown on the surf, in surprisingly good spirits. There is a camaraderie that reaches between class lines, you have all gained the mantle of “survivor” and it unites you against the elements. You have fought so hard to stay afloat it becomes its own reason. You must keep living because you must keep living. Buoyed up by each other, you are promised the shore.

Perhaps it is the child who first spots the fins in the water. A shudder of excitement races through you as one: dolphins! Greek sailors called them dolphys and thought them gods in animal form. You are in no position to argue as you wave your arms, yell at the top of your lungs with your fellow castaways. Here, here! The fins draw eagerly close and now your plea dies on your lips. Perhaps you are the only one to see that their tails slice the water from side-to-side, or that they do not break the surface for air.

They call them “death ships” in English, and you realize only now that the reason is twofold. You have been dead since before the journey started. In a way, you needed this. As the sharks circle and your grip loosens, you are finally home.

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