We’ve also included a podcast discussion between Founding Editors Leila Philip and Robin Hemley in which they discuss their vision for the magazine and why they thought there was a need for such a journal. While we’ve also written a kind of speculative manifesto to set forth our goals and the identity of the journal, we try not to define too narrowly what a speculative essay is. To do so, would be not only futile but would also go against the expansive aims of this project. We’re here to advance the dialogue well beyond the truth versus fiction debate, to see what else we have to talk about when we talk about nonfiction.
by Gretel Ehrlich
All writing is a report from the coiled intestines of consciousness and walks the bridge between natural fact and human meaning always remembering that plants, animals, trees, oceans, mountains and rivers came first, and we arrived later.
And faintly the mountains. Thick snow clouds settle with gestures of affection and are torn away by columns of sunlight, angled rays that stray and collapse. Winds haul massive snow clouds out of the west to cover the peaks. We all have our chores. Mine is to feed and water the horse, haul dirt to the garden. The old cabin I bought is 100 years old, tiny rooms, no closets, but the creek that winds by and spills into a waterfall lured me here and keeps me still.
Up early. Log on fire. The white row of mountain teeth chatters. Between morning and nothing, snow melts. A shelf of wine glasses drops and shatters. Frost-fall dazzles and strikes with glass-like chards. Long-armed stick trees quiver, having forgotten how to bear leaves. Night comes too fast, too early. But it's in the dark hours that I understand fruition. Grasslands smooth out in black carpets. A half-moon stands straight up as if on tiptoe.
My little piece was written in early spring. I try to leave together outside and inside, external and internal views. From the gut to the eyes. I write in all genres and shudder at the idea of boundaries between them. All writing is a report from the coiled intestines of consciousness and walks the bridge between natural fact and human meaning always remembering that plants, animals, trees, oceans, mountains and rivers came first, and we arrived later. We need to be modest in the face of nature's grandeur and complexity of which we are only a tiny part. I write from the wormhole of an abandoned slab of wood.
Gretel Ehrlich is the author of 15 books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry—including The Solace of Open Spaces, Heart Mountain, This Cold Heaven, and Facing the Wave, which was long-listed for the National Book Award. Her work has appeared in Harper's, the Atlantic, Orion, the New York Times Magazine, and Best Essays of the Century, among many other publications. In 2007, the National Geographic Expeditions Council sent her around the top of the world to explore with indigenous Arctic people in Alaska, Nunavut, Greenland and Arctic Russia, how their lives were affected by climate change. She lives with her partner, Neal Conan, on a farm in the highlands of the Big Island of Hawai’i, and a cabin in Montana.
by Joshua Wolf Shenk
“Speculative” is the ordinary mode of my mind. When I heard the aesthetic direction of this new journal, I thought: What if I gave my attention over, with pen in hand, to this natural course of thinking?
Part I. The Tower
1. On an ordinary Monday morning, early August, 2018, the speculator walks east on Baltic Street in Brooklyn.
In his forties, balding, he wears blue shorts; a short-sleeved, white linen dress shirt; and sandals. He can hear the low roar of the BQE behind him. He is walking away from Hicks Street toward Henry.
He flew, the night before, from Cincinnati, where, over the weekend, he sat for several hours each day with his mother in her nursing home. To see his mother, stripped of language like a car set upon by vandals, stupefied the man. He hardly wrote in his notebook, though he admonished himself that he must. There was so much to notice: the hang, in her black pants, from the bulge and weight of an adult diaper; the cloudy look in her brown eyes; the strange words and phrases.
“Tell me,” she said, a few minutes after he entered her room. It was the first time he’d seen her in six weeks. He was struck by the clear, albeit ambiguous phrase. What came from her mouth next were sounds that, when he transcribed them from a recording, the speculator wrote down as “tee me.” But he felt frustrated by the errant clarity and misleading specificity of the letters “t-e-e.” The sound had not felt contained like those three characters. The sound was more enigmatic, more awful. “Tell me,” she said. “Tee me.”
2. The speculator comes to a coffeeshop on Henry, just north of Baltic. Two overhead fans push on the warm, languid air. The fans are white. There is an air conditioner over the window. Not on. A woman enters the shop, in a white t-shirt, with a phrase, in red type, in a typeface the speculator associates with Barbara Kruger.
The phrase is “c’est la life.”
3. A man enters pushing a red baby carriage. He has salt and paper hair and glasses. The child, perhaps 18 months, has long-ish brown hair, a soft face. A girl, thinks the speculator. The man buys a drink, and a pastry, and leaves.
4. The speculator’s mother is placid, usually agreeable, often sleepy. She is in advanced dementia. She fusses with her blankets. She checks her closet. She sits on the couch with the speculator’s step-father, watching the Cincinnati Reds. She dozes, then wakes with a start, and begins again. But she grows furious when the aides try to change her diaper. She screams. Sometimes she screams words that cohere. Sometimes she screams like speaking in tongues. What is happening for her? The speculator reflects that she grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in segregated south Texas, and he reflects, further, that the aides at the nursing home are mostly African-American. Related? Is the fury a suppressed subterranean race fear? The speculator reflects, vaguely, on the primal energies in the regions of the body covered by the diaper, and in the sensation of a hand, of a stranger, wiping, broadly, a wet cloth, treated with alcohol, across the anus.
What does this feel like? What does it conjure? What are the images in his mother’s mind?
5. There is a box in the coffeeshop, a sort of open box on legs, lined with what the speculator holds firmly to be burlap sacks, formerly for coffee beans. The box holds children’s books. This neighborhood has mommies and daddies. The speculator sees a white book jacket, with a drawing, and the word “Where” and, beneath it, the skimmed-top of three more letters. The speculator knows this is Where the Sidewalk Ends. He is sure of it. No, he corrects himself. It must be said nearly sure. For just moments ago the speculator was sure the type reading “c’est la life” was all caps. He wrote this down in his notebook when the woman left the building to check on her dog. But when he looked again, when she re-entered, he saw it was lower-case. Had she left to check on her dog? It must have been her dog. The speculator went over the chain of events: She entered. She glanced back through the window. She exited but quickly returned and got her beverage. Then, a few minutes later, he saw her in the doorway with her dog in a tote bag. She must, then, before, have gone to check on her dog. This feels safe to assume but, then, the speculator supposes, nothing feels really safe to assume. “I am”—the speculator thinks, remembering that he looked himself up in the dictionary this morning—“always in the tower.” The specula.
6. The woman in the white shirt has exited but not left. She stands by the door. It is raining. She has dirty blond hair. Does she color it? The dog hangs in a tote on her left shoulder. She is typing on her phone, which is in her right hand. Is she texting? She could be doing all manner of things. The speculator presumes, assumes, believes, guesses, imagines that she is texting. A couple—she’s in a red blouse, sleeveless; he’s in a blue t-shirt; she is putting on a black, short-sleeve sweater; he is holding a blue umbrella—leave the shop and stand by the door, too, and when they move, the woman in the white shirt, with the red typeface, with “c’est la life” written on it in a bold typeface that the speculator associates with Barbara Kruger is gone.
7. The man returns, 20 minutes later, without the baby. Has he left the child with her mother? Her nanny? Her odd uncle who has a little flab? Or has he done something else with that baby? The speculator wonders whether he should be troubled by the images of violence that pass, jump cuts, quickly through his mind. Of bodies. Of closets. It is almost certainly a puerile fantasy. It must be that the baby has gone to day-care, or to pre-school, or to another care-giver. But the speculator cannot help himself.
8. The woman in the white-shirt is not, strictly, gone. She exists. She has presence. She has headed north or south on Henry Street, or east or west on Baltic Street. She — the speculator follows his mind into an imagined life for her. She has a closet, or drawer, from which she drew the t-shirt. She felt good about it, or she didn’t think about it, or she wishes she had something else that was clean. She has a drawer of underwear from which she selected the pair she is wearing. Or she slept in the underwear. She wanted to put on clean underwear but she had slept over at his house. She had slept over as a matter of routine. Or it was unusual. She knew she would sleep over. She dreaded it. She regretted it. She didn’t think much about it.
9. It is so hard to let the fragments be. The speculator wants more from them. What is it he wants?
Part II: The U.N.
1. The man across from me on the 4 train from Borough Hall to Bowling Green has a scar on his right cheek. He wears white, wireless earbuds. He scrolls, slowly, through text on his phone. He has a green bag between his white Nike shoes. He is wearing short white socks.
Is it a scar, or—now, seeing his face (he just moved from the elbows on knees reading position to sitting up) a form of acne, or eczema? He has brown hair. I would describe the hair on his arms as “generous.”
Why those socks?
The jacket he’s wearing, which he has rolled up just above his elbows, has a zipper that runs halfway down the chest. The zipper pull is a silver-colored ring, about the size of a wedding ring. Who chose that? A designer? A team in the corner office wedged into a factory in China? Someone chose it. Or some group. Somehow, a choice was made. Plans were drawn. I am plagued by this interest. If I let myself, I will fall into the hole of that zipper pull like a five-year-old in the water, and I will splash around in these questions until someone, or something, pulls me out.
I am five in this metaphor, not, say, two, because it is not, quite, fatal to my imagination. But it is on the edge of danger. I always feel on the edge of drowning in what I want to know.
Did the man’s girlfriend have an opinion about the jacket? Did his mother? Has he been complimented on it? Does he know it’s time to move on?
From the other side of the car, I hear a low bellow, from a large man, in a red shirt, with white sneakers, and the Bible cradled in his left hand. “The Bible,” he tells the 4 train, “is concerned with our day today.”
The man on the blue plastic seat across from me, with a scar, or eczema, is wearing dark blue dress pants. I don’t love this man. I don’t feel attached to this man. Yet, I want to know about him. He gets off on 14th Street. He puts his green bag over his left shoulder. His jacket has a hood.
2. I hear it first. A sound I can’t make out. At the top of the escalator, out of the subway, at the edge of Grand Central Station, I hear a holler. Then I notice two police, both in dark blue shorts, black shoes, the usual gear on their waists, patches on their right shoulders. Then I notice that one is holding a man against the wall.
The man is saying “Get the Fuck Off Me.” “Get the Fuck Off Me.” He repeats the phrase every few seconds.
The cop holding him has short dark hair. He’s a little heavy. The man being held has dark pants, red socks, black shoes. His left foot is out of the shoe, crushing the heel.
A woman in a blue dress, sandals, chipped polish on her toes, comes over and asks me if I know what the man did. And do I know how if someone is recording it? And do I know how close we can legally get?
3. The man is being held against a brass railing. Now he is repeating “Get off me.” Now the cop is repeating, softly, “Stop resisting.” But how is he resisting the woman next to me asks? The man’s arms are around his back. There are now four police. Two of them are wearing pants.
The woman is in a blue dress. She has brown hair. She is slight. There is a rumble and moan of trains underneath. There are people rising from the escalators, and pushing through the doors out to the street, and pushing through the doors inside. It’s like Grand Central Station in here. A man in a yellow vest and an orange hardhat and jeans runs into the station through the door from 42nd Street. A man in a suit jostles into a woman in a white sleeveless blouse. A fifth cop arrives. He is bald, heavy, has a kind of slumped look in his shoulders of someone who might be in charge.
4. It is now 10:40 a.m. It is 7:40 a.m. in Los Angeles. My son is on his way to school for the first day of third grade. I FaceTime him. I ask if he’s nervous and excited. He says yes. He is in the back seat of his mother’s car. I tell him I want to hear all about his day when he’s done. I tell him I want to know who his teacher is, and who is in his class and what they get for homework the first day, and what’s the first book they read from, and who scores the first goal in the first game of soccer on the yard.
5. The man held against the wall wears a black jacket with a white stripe down the sleeve. His hands are cuffed behind his back. On his left wrist, there is a white band that I associate with rock concerts and hospitals. He looks at me, sees me looking at him, and he gives me a look that feels cold and neutral and knowing. More police come, until there are ten, and then someone in an FDNY jacket. They have brought an ambulance for the man. He is on his way—to the hospital? To the psych ward? I watch it until it pulls away.
6. Downstairs a man plays keyboard in the food court. He plays “Ironic,” by Alanis Morrissete, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” by Nirvana, and “Candyman.” He thanks us for coming out. I give him a dollar and walk east on 42nd Street to the U.N. I have lunch with someone who works across the street. The flags of the world’s nations fly. The barricades, shaped roughly like large, three-dimensional commas, rise from the ground in front of metal gates. This is a protected space. I admire the architecture of the U.N., and wonder about what happens inside. I think, I should get the Lego set, for me and Oliver. I think, if it was all very small, then I could see the thing whole.
“Speculative” is the ordinary mode of my mind. When I heard the aesthetic direction of this new journal, I thought: What if I gave my attention over, with pen in hand, to this natural course of thinking? The formal decision to make the two moments, which are both driven by direct observation, into separate sections, one where the narrator/observer is identified as “the speculator” and the second where the narrator/observer is identified as “I,” reflected my interest in the multiplicity of choices that present around how to shape the material of one’s observing mind.
Joshua Wolf Shenk is an essayist; the executive and artistic director of the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and editor-in-chief of The Believer magazine. His essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Harper's, The New Yorker, Slate, and Riverteeth, among many others, and in the anthology Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression. His mainstage Moth story “You Can Come Back,” appears in the forthcoming collection Occasional Magic: True Stories about Defying the Impossible. He is the author of Lincoln’s Melancholy, a New York Times notable book, and Powers of Two, a national bestseller.
by Lina Ferreira
A whole world isn’t the whole world, isn’t seven billion specks of abstract dust, it’s one, or two, maybe three people made of hangnails, and earwax, and billions and billions of told and untold stories. Intangible incipits of infinity. The whole world is never the whole world and it takes imaginations to perceive reality.
This is the way it goes. Lina hears a pop. She wonders what it is. Not a pop though; there is meat in that sound, around it. Then a scream. It’s Lina screaming, but she doesn’t realize that right away. Then an instant without thought or sound.
Kai is standing over her when she opens her eyes. Lina’s on her back and she is stupid, but Kai will help her up. Though he will, however, still tell her she is an idiot when she puts weight on her leg.
“Stop standing on it, you idiot,” and she smiles, maybe laughs a little. Children run to her because something different is happening, and different is close enough to be exciting for them to bounce up and down and up and down asking, “What happened? What’s wrong? What happened? Are you ok?”
And of course, Lina says, “Of course, I’m fine!” But she’s wrong. Kai knows it already, but Lina is stupid when it comes to these things, so she repeats, “I’m fine.”
When she drives herself home in a blizzard, and warm things begin to get cold, she’ll feel something rattle inside her leg. Only then does she start to get it. “Please, please,” she’ll say, “Please God. Don’t let it be as bad as it feels.” She may cry a little and clutch her knee as the snow falls on the road, but she will still somehow remember to return that movie she never watched to the video store.
Needless to say Lina does not go to a hospital. She is a cliché and the knowledge that this is true does not save her from it. Though that is not exactly why she does not go to the hospital; even clichés have occasional lapses of common sense, and there is nothing like raw, torn things to snap you into them. But just as she remembers to return that movie because she can’t afford the late fee, she also remembers that she has terrible insurance and she can’t really afford a trip to the ER, and though she does not yet know it, it will take her a full year of dodged, past-due phone calls to pay off the cost of a torn knee. So instead, she drives herself home—though first to the video store.
She’s a little distracted, and the tires slide on layers of black ice and dirty snow, so she ends up parking about two feet from the rusted, dumpster-like Hollywood Video drop-off box, which is about two feet too far for her to reach. But she tries anyway; she’s like that, knowing how something’s going to end and doing it anyway. She lowers the window and tries to lean out by pivoting on her ribcage, by stretching her arm out, long and taut like a tug-a-war rope. She is almost there, she tells herself, “Almost.” Though she is not and for an instant she is hanging halfway out of the car window with a DVD case between her fingers before the pain in her knee slurps her back in, like a loose strand of spaghetti. So she falls back inside, she clutches her knee with one hand and turns the steering wheel with the other, moving slowly toward an empty parking space across the street while the driver behind her plays a Morse-code symphony on his car horn.
Then, as she steps out of the car, she briefly hopes she is exaggerating and the pain is really mostly in her head, “I’m actually fine, all fine, no harm done,” but then immediately she feels a tightness in her chest as she contemplates the prospect of paralyzing hypochondria and a kaleidoscope mind that bends light and a world like balloon animals and melting metal beams. So she self-corrects, and hopes it’s actually much, much worse than it feels. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” she thinks, “to be numb and brave.”
The road is Teflon and loose gravel. Ice covered oil spill, and she has to stretch out both arms like a tightrope walker to simply stay upright. She tries to walk across the parking lot, tries to imitate her normal gait, but it is like walking through a nursery of sleeping infants with a gameshow buzzer strapped to the soles of her shoe. Weight on her heel, Buzz! Weight on the outside of her foot, Buzz! Tiptoes, and grimaces and stiff limp. Buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz!
She tries to bend her body around the pain like those melting steel and curved light beams she keeps imagining. Anatomy and reality and self-contained agony. She tries to place all her weight on the inside of her foot, tries to bypass her knee and move with her toes, and she is trying an impossible feat when she hears tires spinning and realizes that she is suddenly standing in a blinding stream of SUV headlights. The car rolls slowly but inevitably toward her, and it is instantly clear that the driver has no intention of stopping. No plan of curving trajectory around her broken body and allowing her to continue standing absurdly in the middle of a black ice road. And yet, she does not immediately move. She stares into the light and feels winter chewing on her toes through her cloth sneakers, and trying to pivot on a torn knee, the feeling of winter teeth on her skin is replaced by the grinding sensation of untethered bones and snapped ligaments. The driver slams his fist into the horn and Lina feels the sound of it in the black pit of her curdled-milk stomach, so she shuffles forward. She tries, at least, dragging her feet across the ice like she is cleaning a spill with paper-towel slippers. But the road is at an incline, and she has not made it far before she begins to slide back down on black ice. “Hey! Idiot, move!” A man yells from the driver’s side. So she shuffles forward again, a little quicker this time, but then slides right back just as slowly. Forward, back, forward, back. Again, again. “Move!” Lina on the ice and on a loop, a honking horn and abuse yelled out a rolled-down window. So Lina looks up, a moment through a frosted windshield, a driver waving his hands like he’s trying to land a plane, and she takes firm hold of the car’s grill, puts all her weight on her injured left leg and pushes forward with her right.
A foot like a skateboard and the inside of her knee like the grinding gears of a shattered clock as she rides a torn leg to the edge of a metal Hollywood Video box and crashes into it. “Now,” she thinks, “I know for sure.” Feeling all at once the elation of certainty and the disappointment of surety. This, she realizes, is not an injury that can be thought away and muscled through, this is reality itself screaming and stomping and kicking down concepts and doors, so Lina begins whispering tragically predictable protestations into the opening of a frozen Hollywood Video storage box.
The pain she is feeling is neither special nor unique, but there’s nothing like pain to make one feel in high relief. Simultaneously carved out of existence and smack-dab at its center. But even then, she can’t tell one thing apart from the other. This irrefutable pain, she is sure, is not actually inside her leg. It is on the ground and on the ice. It is in trying not to slip, to keep a leg together, a life together, an idea of what she could be despite what she is together and intact. To keep it all in the tension and anticipation of an imminent icy blow. “If, I can… just…” Avoid every pebble, every crack, learn to float over the ice. “Just…” be perfect and perfectly still, be the sort of girl who doesn’t spend her nights doing things that tear ligaments, break bones and bruise knuckles. “If…” But she can’t even follow that thought through, because her knee has been turned into a tiny but powerful amp and she hears with pulsing nerve endings every imperfection in the pavement, every stone, every snowflake piled too high. The sound of an acoustic street travels through an electric limb and fills her like an avalanche in a concert hall. “LEARN TO WALK YOU IDIOT!” She watches the SUV drive away and understands perfectly that every bit of this is self-inflicted.
She hangs on the metal side as if it were the only fixed point in the universe and she is expecting a cosmic flood. She tries to remember that thing about reality people sometimes say, about how it is the thing that continues to exist after belief is dispelled, or whatever—a saying she doesn’t particularly like, but which makes her think, momentarily despite all evidence against it, that maybe it can work in reverse and if she can just believe enough, she will be able to wind herself back in time to the moment right before she heard that scream, and that pop, and Kai saying, “Stop putting weight on it, you idiot.” Or, at the very least, believe herself into a warmer place where people will agree in big exaggerated motions that this is objectively disastrous and nothing can compare, though even then Lina knows better.
So instead, she clutches the box with one hand, slips the video in with the other, and as snow melts on her bare skin, she reaches down, rubs her knee, and whispers, “I’m sorry.”
When Lina gets home there is about an inch of snow on the ground and her leg has begun to swell. She stands at the bottom of the staircase counting steps and patches of ice. She stares for a while, then counts again. It does not occur to her to call anyone, to ask for help. Though she does make a mental note to call work and let them know she might be late the next morning. She tastes the salt of drying sweat on her lip and worries it might be hard to take a shower standing on her one and only-working leg. She imagines a doctor holding his nose as he inspects her the next morning and, as the patches of sweat on her shirt begin to freeze, she decides that no matter what she will shower. It’s not rare, though perhaps worth noting, that she has not slept more than an hour or two in a couple of nights and perhaps she shouldn’t have been driving in the first place. Not “perhaps,” but probably “definitely.” She does not think to ask someone, anyone—her roommate who is awake upstairs—for a ride, however, this is within her imaginative realm. Nor is it asking for help now, so she counts the steps again. And again, and again until finally even the steps begin to feel unreal.
So she places her right foot on the first step like Thomas placed a hand inside an open wound. “There” she says to herself, “there you are, there you go,” and gripping the frozen rail with her bare hands she begins to pull herself up slowly to the second step. She wants desperately to be alone in a familiar space. She wants to lie down on her stomach, with her face on the carpet so the knotted, gnarled, and twisted branches of all her private heartbreaks and disasters won’t sprout out suddenly, ripping through her abdomen and tearing her to shreds. Ribs, leaves, red-green trees and Lina in a fantastic puddle of her own self-pity.
She curses. She’s loud—but it’s ok, she tells herself, because everyone is asleep. “Everyone is asleep,” she says to herself, and feels safe enough to mumble something like a prayer, nothing specific, just, “God, oh God.” She is aware of the length of ligaments and tendons, the woven hinges of shoulders, and elbows, and knees. She has dislocated shoulders and ribs before, sprained wrists and ankles, broken her nose and thumb. And she realizes, also, that this injury is a speck, and what it means to her is not what it really means at all. Its reality is subjective, and she’s subject to that. She sets down a foot on a frozen step, salt grains amplified, an electric limb orchestra and the prophetic pain of a lingering future limp. She reaches a bit farther up the rail, but does not pull herself up, instead she lays her forehead against the cold metal and feels the sleep that has evaded her for nights descend lightly atop snowflakes and an icy chill. “I’m an idiot,” She says, and tries to think things like work tomorrow morning, Kai and Sab on Saturday, and Korea in six months. Of course she realizes these things aren’t real anymore, if they ever were. And even when and if they were, they were only ever pieces of the cardboard corpse of the person she might have liked to be, and never was. Might have could have been, had she stayed in just one place long enough to be known for something other than being the person who came from somewhere else. And that’s when she hears the voice. “Help?” It says. “Help?” It repeats and looks over her shoulder in its direction.
Huh. She thinks to herself. Because it’s a strange thing to find in the middle of the night in the middle of a storm. A boy of ten, maybe eleven. Dirty and alone in the shallow darkness of a small college town. “Do you want help?” She hears him say, but still she does not turn. And feeling a sudden sense of urgency she grips the rail a bit tighter. “I said,” the boy starts again, “do you want help?” But Lina does not respond, she does not turn. She’s still stuck in a loop somewhere and she cannot bring herself out of it. “It’s like one of those jelly-thick postinsomnia dreams,” she’ll explain later, “Where you wake inside a dream exhausted and sleepless and can neither fall back into the sleep of sleep, or wake from it.” To anyone who’ll listen. “I know I am asleep, and that’s what I say to myself. ‘You are sleeping. You can’t be tired. This is not real.’” But the realization does nothing to the enormous weight she feels in her arms, in the dream, and the certainty that her blood has turned dense and toxic. So in the dream she lies down at the edge of a cliff and tries to fall asleep without falling off. She has insomnia, and she dreams she has insomnia, and all the websites she consults say that as long as she is still dreaming there is nothing to worry about, but she hangs her head off the edge of that cliff—red and raw, as if the gravel had sanded her down to muscle and bone—and she worries she might need to worry at some point.
“Hey, can you hear me?” The boy stares up from an inch or two of snow and asks a third time, “Do you want help?”
And finally Lina turns toward him, and says, “No.” She doesn’t look at him, not really. Barely sees him, even. A blurry snap of a boy in a snowstorm before hastily turning back around while her heart races as if he were chasing her. Maybe it’s the knowledge that someone is watching, that after all she can still be seen that makes her this way. Wouldn’t it be nice…? She still thinks, Wouldn’t it? So, “No,” she says again, “I’m fine.” Again, “Just fine.” She lets go of the rail with one hand and picks up the pace. Then a thought which will later seems strange and inexcusable, though in the moment feels like the only logical conclusion. She leans on the rail and concealing her hand with her shoulder, she makes a fist. She begins to turn the heel of her good leg and thinks she can still pivot on her good leg and land a punch hard on the bridge of this boy’s nose—if she has to.
“If…” She wishes she had though, but what she really thought was, “When…” And “Come on, come close and meet me.”
Silence. “One more step,” she thinks, “One step higher,” picturing herself turning and driving a cold gravity lead fist into the boy’s face. So, one hand after the other, one foot, one step, one after the other, after the other. She pulls once more and then again, clenching her fist between each pull, waiting for a tug or a small hand on her back, to let her know when to turn around in a full swing, and plunge a fist into a small boy’s head. Later she will consider all this in the shocking calm of a university health center bed, but right then and there, there are no thoughts left. Only the intent to break something in someone else’s body like she feels she’s broken something in her own. So she pulls on the railing, she knows it’s nearly time to settle it and she begins to turn, begins to see it unraveling in her mind. Her fist on the bridge of a ten year old’s nose like a bridge collapsing over a sleeping man. She’s ready to pivot, ready to fall upon him as if she were his natural predator, as if he were hers. A boy’s body like a broken sled, wood and spine splinters against the ridged back of a frozen staircase.
But the tug never comes, the boy never speaks again, and by the time Lina reaches the top, he’s gone.
Then there’s nothing left to do. Lina limps the rest of the way, she doesn’t give the boy a second thought. She takes a hot shower, though she really should know better. The water will strike the surface of her knee and dilates already swollen vessels ushering in a flood of blood and liquid, making it swell like the small, distended bellies of parasite-infested children. And only then does she begin to think about the boy at the bottom of the staircase.
It was only a glance, she had a lot on her mind, and yet it has stopped making sense. How dark the boy’s skin, how strangely and lightly he had been dressed in the middle of a Utah winter. How perfectly alone, how terribly late. How much he looked like so many Bogotá homeless gamin boys, shelter kids and displaced children at intersections she’d left behind when she left Colombia. How much like a boy she saw once holding a rain-soaked sign with outreached arms. Like one sitting on a sidewalk and in the gutters, lighting up a cocaine-paste cigar, clutching his swollen knee and limping through the rain while yelling at huffed-glue apparitions—one too many hits, one too many blows to the head, one too many kids on the street. Like another who mugged Lina once by pressing what turned out to be a sharpened stick against her abdomen, right into the spot where red branches threaten to sprout. And it strikes Lina, suddenly, how she knows all her barely-in-their-twenties neighbors and how none of them have children, only one has dark skin, and when she thinks about it she can’t be sure if the boy was wearing any shoes.
Lina doesn’t sleep that night either, no more than one or two pinpricks of an hour. She’s stuck on a loop, hearing a pop and a scream, telling a barefoot child who leaves no prints in the snow that she’s fine, “Just fine.” Telling herself that this matters objectively, that she is who she says she is, that she is safe if not warm, and everything is going to be ok. And as she dreams of trying to put a five-hundred-peso coin in a homeless kid’s hand while he swats away invisible spiders, she lies half-awake on the couch holding her knee like a memory of a dream, like unreliable certainty, like the side of a metal box and the rail of a frozen staircase.
Excerpted with permission from Mad Creek Books, an imprint of Ohio State University
After the death of her mother Yaneth fell to pieces. She drank all day and listened to sad rancheras all night, and when she tells the story she says, “See the thing was, my whole world had just ended.”
So sometimes, while I lay awake at night, I count people like sheep leaping over barbed wire fences. One, two… three, forward, and back, three, two… one. Because, “It’s not so simple,” Yaneth told me. A whole world isn’t the whole world, isn’t seven billion specks of abstract dust, it’s one, or two, maybe three people made of hangnails, and earwax, and billions and billions of told and untold stories. Intangible incipits of infinity. The whole world is never the whole world and it takes imaginations to perceive reality.
Lina M. Ferreira C.-V. graduated with both a creative nonfiction writing and a literary translation MFA from the University of Iowa. She is the author of Drown Sever Sing from Anomalous Press and Don’t Come Back, from Mad Creek Books, as well as the co-editor of the forthcoming anthology Essaying the Americas. Her work has been featured in various journals including The Bellingham Review, The Chicago Review, Fourth Genre and Brevity, among others. She’s been the recipient of the Best of the Net award and the Iron Horse Review’s Discovered Voices award, nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and is a Rona Jaffe fellow. She moved from Colombia to China to Columbus to Richmond, Virginia, where she works as an assistant professor for the Virginia Commonwealth University.
by Margo Jefferson
It’s true -- we tell ourselves stories in order to live, But what about queries, quandaries, chains of thought and feeling that thwart a conventional story? Endings that are midpoints or alternate beginnings? “Diaphoreisis” began with my puzzling over sounds, and sensations, even beliefs that would not leave me and would not cohere.
A young novelist asked me: Why did you choose to write criticism?
I wanted to make my way to the center of American culture, and find ways to de-center it, I told her.
Why did you choose to write memoir? she asked.
I wanted to make my way to my own American center and find language for the fractures there, I answered.
I stare at the album cover: BUD POWELL: JAZZ ORIGINAL.
When I’m alone I take it out of the record cabinet and stare, whether or not I intend to play it. Sometimes I put it back unplayed. And think on that face, that dark, sweating face.
The camera presumes to walk up and stare. He’s closed his eyes. His face is shadow and smoky light against a gray & muted- black night expanse. His hair and mustache are black. There’s a patch of white shirt and striped tie, a patch of suit. He could be floating alone in a cosmos of his own design. His lips are parted. (Humming, breathing, as he sweats). He’s possessed by his music. In a state of ecstatic — let us use the Greek word for sweat — diaphoresis.
Black people with ambitions need to be wary about their relationship to sweat. Sweat is a word for hard physical labor, sweat is for workers who have no choice but to labor by the sweat of their brows, the sweat in their armpits, the sweat that soaks through their clothing, making it stained and smelly. “Sweat Sweat Sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!”
Louis Armstrong, Satchmo The Great, dares to sweat before multitudes. He knows many of his white fans think it’s happy sweat. Smile and sweat, laugh and sweat, play music, sweat! Onstage and on television he’s never without his white handkerchief, wiping the sweat from his face, wiping the spit and sweat from his trumpet valve. His African mask of a face (the beaming-grimace smile, the fixed popped eyes) makes this a ritual though, not a necessity. His ritual of artistic diaphoresis.
I play Ella Fitzgerald’s records but I do not enjoy looking at her album covers. I am a teenage girl, I am a black teenage girl and I long to be physically impeccable. Even when she is posing sweat-free for a photographer, Ella Fitzgerald is without the sumptuous glamour of Billie Holiday, without the meticulous beauty of Lena Horne. And she sweats -- in concert halls, in nightclubs, on national television shows. Sweat dots her brow and drips, even pours down her cheeks. Sweat dampens her pressed and curled hair. Sweat runs into the stones of her dangling earrings. Like Louis Armstrong, she uses a white handkerchief. But he wipes his sweat vigorously, proudly; she dabs at hers quickly, almost daintily. If one dabs at sweat it becomes more refined. It gentrifies into euphemism; it becomes “perspiration.” White women, even white ladies are permitted to perspire. But on television white women singers do not perspire. Which means that, even as she swings, scats and soars, Ella Fitzgerald’s sweat threatens, to drag her back into the maw of working class black female labor.
Does she perspire this much because of her size, her heft? Do her fans, white and black and other, call her “big” or do they just go ahead and call her “fat”? Did she start to sweat like this when she entered menopause? Do her male musicians, black and white, joke about menopause behind her back — offstage, where she can’t control them with her ravishing diaphoretic musicianship?
Ella Fitzgerald, you worked hard for your sweat.
You earned your sweat like real musicians do. Like artists who must labor, to be beautiful.
You sweated commes des garcons.
And those garcons should have begged for the elixir of your sweat.
I beg for it.
It’s true -- we tell ourselves stories in order to live, But what about queries, quandaries, chains of thought and feeling that thwart a conventional story? Endings that are midpoints or alternate beginnings? “Diaphoreisis” began with my puzzling over sounds, and sensations, even beliefs that would not leave me and would not cohere. It began with memories that I craved, even – especially -- when they troubled and confused me. Troubled and excited me after years of stern critical thinking about my aesthetic passions and principles. Troubled me because they still had the old taints of shame, of guilt, of longing to be what I was not and could not be. I found that I needed the word “diaphoreisis” – a lofty Latin word – to work with and against those taints, embodied in the words “sweat” and “perspiration.” Embodied and transformed in the labor of. Bud Powell, Louis Amrstrong and Ella Fitzgerald; Embodied and longed for in this brief, fragmented record of my own emotional and intellectual labor.
Margo Jefferson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of Negroland and On Michael Jackson. Negroland won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, The Bridge Prize, The Heartland Prize and was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize. Her essays have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including The Guardian, The New York Times Book Review, New York Magazine, The Washington Post, Bookforum, The Believer, Guernica, O, The Oprah Magazine, VOGUE, The Best American Essays of 2015; The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death; Best African-American Essays, 2010; The Mrs. Dalloway Reader and The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. She lives in New York and teaches in the Writing Program at Columbia University.
by David Shields
I care about almost nothing except remarks anymore. I read almost nothing anymore except books of aphorisms and epigraphs.
Do you want to dramatize the world’s actions or contemplate the world’s ideas?
It’s not a rhetorical question—which is it?
Are you sure?
What’s “real”? What’s “self”?
Do you prefer quotation marks around such outmoded terms, or no?
Was that sort of your epiphanic moment?
Do you even realize what the etymology of “epiphany” is?
What is memory?
What is knowledge? What is knowledge? Of self? Of another? What’s reality? What can we know?
Okay that no quote marks around these outmoded concepts?
As you see it, what’s the difference between Oprah’s/Trump’s/NYT’s/Fox’s brand of truth and the truth that essayists supposedly seek?
What is knowledge What’s truth? What’s imagination? What’s history?
Still no scare-quotes?
Okay, how has the last century of modernism and postmodernism—relativity, subjectivity, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the contested space of "nonfiction," etc, etc—paved the way for in a way Trump? To what degree are we all complicit in minor ways?
The death of the imagination. No white person can write about a black person, etc. Yet you made a movie about Marshawn Lynch, and I think it may be the best thing you’ve ever done. Is human empathy over, etc? Is this an old white person's stance?
How do we leave with knowledge gained, wisdom gleaned? What chaos have we helped create? What shit have we blown up?
Is your goal in life to become blogger in chief? Disrupter online?
How to do this without becoming incredibly annoying?
Did it not even happen like that?
“Like how” or “And how”? There’s quite a difference, n’est ce-pas?
Doing what exactly?
Does that make sense?
Do you even have a sense of yourself?
No one can put every relevant fact in; everyone chooses what to put in and what to take out. Is that unfair to the reader? Is every act of writing an action of an autocrat?
Did or did not FDR have polio? Can we not agree on any facts whatsoever? What’s the difference between “facts” and “truth”?
What’s the lifespan anymore of a fact?
Where do we draw the line?
Can we please, please, please—not stop talking, please—but stop thinking about the world in such black-and-white terms?
To what degree are you sympathetic to my framing of the argument, and to what degree do you want or need to push back?
Can a biographer tell a kind of truth?
If so, what kind?
What kind (if any) untruths can biographers engage in?
Another way to put it might be: what are the truths or untruths that biographers can tell?
How is this different from the truths and untruths that autobiographers can tell?
If everything can be disputed, what’s “real,” as they say?
Sure, this is Trump 101, but isn’t it also Post-Modernism 101?
Truth or Dare, as they say?
You didn’t do too well with that one, did you?
Remember Spin the Bottle?
Is there a more fraught game in the child’s pantheon?
I guess what I’m trying (and failing) to get at is nothing less than: Isn’t the real how we interpret it?
I do think this is so, don’t you?
Your phone battery is dying; should we stop and re-record?
So, really, if the ground is constantly shifting, that’s all that really matters?
That’s your entire project—making sure the elevator stops in between floors of the department store?
That’s a noble intellectual journey, in your view?
How do even begin to function in a life completely drained of meaning?
When you said “entrenched,” what did you mean?
Who truly knows, eh?
“When we are not sure, we are alive”—are you sure this is something that Graham Greene said? Can you prove it?
What does J-Stor stand for—any clue?
What about existence (beyond frogs belling in mud) can you truly affirm?
Does that ring true to you—the archetypal Coetzee gesture?
How do you live life, given the “fact” (lol) that it (life) has no grand meaning?
“Everything is significant, but nothing is meaningful”—that’s your default gesture?
It’s just another quote, ain’t it?
Where to start?
Not entirely sure what "speculative nonfiction" means. I think it means any attempt to write an essay is inherently speculative. I agree with that. Any attempt to understand is, by its very nature, an act of speculation. Wow, when I look up the word, this definition comes up: "the forming of a theory or conjecture without firm evidence." Because, of course, for what is there firm evidence? I, too, am weary of the term "lyric essay"; it justifies a huge amount of indulgent work. But I'm always wary of the traditional capital-E essay; let's all genuflect at the feet of Addison and Steele. That doesn't wildly interest me, either. I do love the essay form with all my heart and soul. I love the book-length essay; I even like it as a term--the "book-length essay." Do seven people know what that means? Probably not. And, of course, when you say "essay" to your in-laws, they think you're writing a paper about flower imagery in Middlemarch.
I wonder if "speculative essay" has to do with "speculum." I like this definition of "speculm": "metal or plastic instrument that is used to dilate an orifice or canal in the body to allow inspection." That is beautiful--what is the essay but the dilation of an orifice of the body to allow inspection." I'm tempted to close up shop right there. That's a description of how I've spent at least the last 30 years and more like the last 40 years. This project in progress: I've tried to remember every question ever asked of me and I've tried to pour these questions into thematic silos (otherwise known as 'chapters'), and I've tried to organize each chapter and each micro-movement of each chapter to within an inch of its life. It's a "real"book; it's really about journalistic investigation and internal investigation and asking questions and wondering if remarks are or are not literature. I've always loved that Gertrude Stein dictum to Hemingway--Remarks are not lit, and yet, of course, I couldn't disagree more. I care about almost nothing except remarks anymore. I read almost nothing anymore except books of aphorisms and epigraphs. What else is there to say. But enough of this speculua, speculae, speculum.
David Shields is the internationally bestselling author of twenty-two books, including Reality Hunger (named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications), The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead (New York Times bestseller), Black Planet (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), and Other People: Takes & Mistakes (NYTBR Editors’ Choice). The Trouble With Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power is forthcoming in 2019. A recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships and a senior contributing editor of Conjunctions, Shields has published essays and stories in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire, Yale Review, Salon, Slate, McSweeney’s, and Believer. His work has been translated into two dozen languages.
by Lia Purpura
To attend to speculative space is to care for the incoming stories the world gives and gives.
That wasn’t snow.
But it should’ve been, looks to be, lacy with dirt, side of the road, gouged and firmed by the melt/freeze cycle. What was it I passed, 60-something degrees in late December -- not proper snow but a snarl of grey cotton, scoured and cinched, in the snowy habit of catching flung dirt.
And what’s this, a block later, a snow-colored eggshell (also wrong in December), resting as fallen shells rest in the grass, gently and up — though what happens with eggs is not at all gentle, that breaking apart of a known world for another. The not-eggshell is a packing chip. In pasta terms, an orichietta, a little ear, or when I was a kid, the half-shell I loved, all that delicious foam for licking, Venus’s floating hair for braiding and I’d help her down into scallopy waves and swim with her, body to body, fully the animal I knew myself to be.
There’s more not-snow on the east side of the neighborhood -- this handful (why so much cotton today?) spotted with blood like a sick X-rayed lung, part of a rough tableau on the grass, sifted round with packets of sugar, a burned plastic bottle and inside the bottle, a needle (addicts, too, have their weird, tidy gestures like anyone fitting the cap on a jar before tossing it out). Hard to imagine this wasn’t arranged -- just, come upon, the story so clear. Light on the shoelace tourniqette, sugar for cutting, matches for cooking. Someone’s next moment gauzed up in this spot, a sweet blameless hour, soft, with no edges hastening back, the fog-world easeful and grainy and fat -- and here’s the full mess of that peace.
Around the corner, a single not-snowflake in a sidewalk crack where it won’t unmelt, whatever it is, confetti far from its parade, or a fallen snow-planet. It’s not meaning I’m looking for in the way these things come, if indeed they come from anywhere, or were bent on arriving and being seen, or speaking to me in a language we share. All I know is, I’m the site-of. I’m where they meet. Under pretense of snow. Suggestion of snow. Under snow’s wing or a snow-scene setting up, calling its characters in, down, and here. Practice snow. Snow attempts and alerts. Where the white bits found and arranged their thinking, patterned themselves into an order, I get to be a gathering spot, like a ring of rocks in clear, shallow water where trout float over their pearly young.
Such are the happier snow-like things. Snow-like betters. Stuff not made of waste or grief. This dandelion held in its final white phase, unblown, geodeisic, still wrong in December, but so unto itself there’s no need to translate it out of garbage and junk. Either way though, so much is given. All these versions of looking into what’s always been there and suddenly, the filling commences. There are relations, one comes as another, things are re-kinned.
A vision is nothing a person chooses – a vision comes flying, comes landing, unwalled, light laved if you make of yourself a hospitable place that won’t melt a thing, step on, step over, or proceed with the business of a day, which so often means: nothing to see here, keep going, enough with the stopping and sniffing, move on.
But if things pile up, as they do if allowed, then, here we go:
Tufts of white dog-hair combed out or shed. Husky fur. Collie fur. Dry and nest-ready. Once I found a nest made entirely of human hair. So perfectly bark-colored, soft and expandable, that air-and-light weave, imagine how easy to work with, a dream! -- though as a nest, a total mistake: too sheer, no sticks or mud mingled in. There it was, the extravagant thought, or evidence of a mind being new to a task, technique coming clear after going so wrong, the bird-light blinking on, the way obvious now -- a bird reviewing its failed, fallen nest, head bent to the side (you’ve done this, too, revising a thought) -- something like Oh. Right. I get it… twigs. Then work some hair in – but only a little.
Here’s a piece of popcorn ducking behind a blade of grass. It looks at first like chewed gum or a molar and then more like cotton, but raw, from the field. The first time I saw the real thing, Tuscaloosa, I asked my friend to stop the truck, right there, side of the road, so I could get out and touch it. I was in my mid-forties. A a mid-forty year old person who’d never seen cotton -- not those gray photos in the Brittanica list of major state crops, not packed tight in a blue first aid box, but a form that moved into the neck and back, bent to the task, ache in the gut – and then it became a whole different drive, my fresh cotton rough in its boll in my hand, the weight of it gone entirely strange, very dense, sort of cold. Like holding a bullet for the first time.
This is bird shit, rain-thinned on the sidewalk, a splotchy snow-shadow, gathering, as all this stuff is, for the eye training toward it. Offerings that come once the frame is constructed. Likenesses finding a home. Vision forming. Out in a field where I’m to meet it. Out in a field where I’m also the field. I don’t know what the moment’s thinking, but it’s telling itself. Things are alive. Without me, and within. There is nothing shut up or remote, but everywhere is “clothed with what itself adorns.” I mean I’m getting rearranged by all the seeing and being seen.
Turning the corner, this little stone rabbit – corralled with stone frogs in a garden scene – is hunched in a position called sniff-the-ground-and-show-off-my-white tail-forever. The white tail is more cotton and up comes the moment when, as a kid, the words first pulled apart – cotton and tail, and it wasn’t one single blur-of-a-word, cottontail, just some sounds that meant “rabbit.” How often I missed things so clear to everyone else. Adult versions persist: still having a hard time pronouncing waistcoat as weskit, and remembering to drop the “c” in victuals so as to align with those who know vittles, say vittles, and mean it. Or as we said growing up, “the roast pan” – since it belonged to the roast alone, and was hauled out only a few times a year. A friend corrected me -- supposed to be “roasting pan,” but I’m sticking with the original, my language: roast pan – talisman bringing my grandmother back every December, her kitchen, the heat, the big dinner coming.
So goes my white-spotted world, neighborhood at least, all the found things that come to me. Come to be held. Hear that? “Beheld”? -- the intensified form, the stand-back-so-as-to-see-the-light version, or angle that promises by holding a thing, I’ll be held by it, that attention swings both ways at once. And what to do with that thought?
I think “go on for a bit” is a reasonable plan. I’m nearly home now.
Here’s a pod from a black locust tree whose inner white bed isn’t full white but cut-with-cream, fuzzed like young antlers in sun, the whole thing softening me so unexpectedly that I can’t tell which came first, the pod’s velvety sheen, or that it approached without words and went something like -- here’s how you feel about that beloved friend you hardly ever get to see.” And in this next pod, one loaded with seeds -- here’s how you feel with her around: multiplied and fed, loaved and fished! Then comes a compact pod-for-two, which might also be a dinner table, a diner table is more precise, since we like to eat bacon and eggs together. Or, it’s a skiff -- “skiff” is old-timey, or “bark,” or “dory,” or best of all “corracle” -- since these fit exactly her sensibility and she’d get a kick out of it if I said, pointing down with my toe, “look, there’s our boat, come on, get in!” Because you can do that with some people, row so easily far from shore.
So here, this pod is how distance breaks up, loss softens, leads back, little gift embedded in litter, in leaves – it’s how a letter the day wrote me arrived. All these letters arriving. I keep being read to. So much comes in and arranges (today, whitely), comes shining, comes brimmed, in pangs and shocks. Alongside-running, on rounded, fat, wet – or steep, spired moments. So much figures forth. I must be wanting. I believe it takes a very great yearning to call down so great a giving.
Reprinted with permission from Sarabande Books.
A “tidal wave of strange imaginings” from the manifesto feels recognizable to me and true. This piece, Walk with Snowy Things, speculates its way through stories and places and a love for both forming up, unbidden, and trusts in the act and capability of the come-upon objects to tell stories, knot together into meaning. As I walk, I watch. As I walk, I am watched. This essay believes in both gestures, and locates itself at the center of those two reciprocal forces. Land/air/trees/things will find and acknowledge us, too. It’s a responsibility to listen -- I mean to really listen into forms and intentions and beings and events that might only be noted sidelong. Or overlooked entirely. As Italo Calvino says at the end of Invisible Cities, in his own kind of manifesto: “…seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” Implicit in that urging is a form of care. To attend to speculative space is to care for the incoming stories the world gives and gives.
Lia Purpura is the author of eight collections of essays, poems, and translations, most recently a collection of poems, It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful (Penguin.) On Looking (essays, Sarabande Books) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her awards include Guggenheim, NEA, and Fulbright Fellowships, as well as four Pushcart Prizes, the Associated Writing Programs Award in Nonfiction, and others. Her work appears in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Orion, The Paris Review, The Georgia Review, Agni, and elsewhere. She lives in Baltimore, MD, is Writer-in-Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop’s MFA program. Her new collection of essays, All the Fierce Tethers, will be out in March 2019, with Sarabande Books.
by Jerald Walker
As Robert Atwan notes . . . on the website Essay Daily, “The essayist is restricted by a criterion of truthfulness and verisimilitude that is not demanded of the more ‘imaginative’ writers. This criterion is relatively new; it did not apply to Addison and Steele—who invented an entire club of personalities and situations—or to Samuel Johnson and the many other periodical essayists of previous centuries.”
You are on Amtrak’s regional from New York to Boston editing a student’s essay when your pencil slips from your hand, lands on the adjacent seat, and rolls under its passenger’s right buttock. Only the eraser remains visible, and not all of it at that, just a millimeter or so, though that’s enough, you think, to be pinched free. Give the consequences of a mishap serious consideration, however, for the passenger is female, and white no less. She’s in her twenties, thin, blonde, and has large blue eyes, but you are speculating about her eyes because they are closed, as the woman is asleep. Her head rests on a bunched-up sweater pressed against the window, her body angled away from yours, which is why her ass is partially airborne and you are envisioning a scenario whereby it descends, suddenly, onto your forefinger and thumb.
In this scenario, the woman, upon feeling something beneath her, wakes to see you snatch back your hand, and screams. Passengers rise from their seats to look your way, including the three members of your family. Your first thought is if you’d sat with one of them this wouldn’t be happening, but when you entered the car it was already crowded with only scattered seats remaining. Your fifteen-year-old is directly in front of you, your seventeen-year-old is directly in front of him, and your wife is further down the car. When she pinpoints the source of the scream she weaves through the dozen passengers now gathered in the aisle, reaching your side as the woman accuses you of groping her.
Swear you are no groper. Say you are an honorable man traveling with your wife and sons, and then, as evidence of your good character, mention you’re returning from seeing three Broadway musicals in three days, but given the cost of Broadway musicals some passengers will be as skeptical of this as you were when your wife said the tickets were on sale. One of these skeptics calls for security, a member of which just happens to have entered the car, and who, like you, just happens to be black. Rather than take comfort in his race, however, be put-off by his comportment—his upturned chin, for instance, and his pompous sneer—and decide that in the olden days he would have been a house slave, the kind who despised his brethren in the field, where you undoubtedly would have been. After you explain to this Uncle Tom what happened, he lowers his chin and says, “So let me make sure I’m understanding you correctly. You lost control of your pencil, it fell down, and then landed up under this lady’s rear end?”
Here your fifteen-year-old, who of late has made a habit of contradicting you, says, “Wouldn’t that defy the laws of gravity?”
The security guard nods at him. “So you see where I’m going with this?”
“My husband isn’t some pervert,” your wife interjects, at last rising to your defense. “He’s just a klutz and goofball.”
Your seventeen-year-old agrees and offers proof. “That’s why when we were in the airport last year,” he explains, “he went into the ladies’ restroom.”
Take issue with his choice of verb; went implies a deliberate act with forethought and, in this instance, malicious intent. He should have used wandered, which allows for someone to have been reading a text instead of the bathroom’s gender designation. By the time you looked up, you were standing alone before a row of stalls with nary a urinal in sight, but instead of recognizing this clue for what it was and abruptly turning on your heels, you proceeded to do your business, rejoicing at the thought that finally someone had designed a men’s room with an eye toward discretion. Having a full bladder, in your estimation, is insufficient reason for men to hold their penises in public spaces mere inches from other men holding their penises without a substantial partition between them, especially since, should one of these men wink at you while stepping back from the urinal, there would be an unobstructed view of a penis in service of something other than a bladder. The man who did this to you, you’d wager, had not arrived at the urinal next to yours by wandering.
“I wandered into the ladies’ restroom,” you say, “while looking down at my phone.”
“At yet,” your fifteen-year-old responds, “you stayed, even though there were no urinals.”
“But there were no women either,” counters your seventeen-year-old. “Not like there were that time last month in the ladies’ restroom at his college.”
Technically speaking, there were no women there either, but rather a woman, a close friend of yours, thank goodness, for who knows what would have happened had a stranger exited a stall to see you at the sink washing your hands. After saying hello, your friend strolled to the sink next to yours and turned on the faucet. “You do realize,” she said, pumping the soap dispenser, “that this restroom is for women?”
“So I’ve gathered,” you replied.
“Then why, if you don’t mind my asking, are you in here?”
“I’ve obviously made a mistake.”
“To be honest,” she said, “it’s not very obvious. Because assuming you didn’t see the image of the woman on the door, in a skirt—“
“—And I didn’t---”
“—okay, assuming you didn’t, it would be difficult for someone not to notice, once inside, that the room only has stalls.”
“Which was all I was looking for,” you said, resting a hand on your belly. “Bad sushi last night.”
Later that day, when you told your family what happened, your fifteen-year-old noted that he’d eaten the same sushi and felt fine, as he notes now in your imagined scenario. You would have done as well to say a group of women pulled you inside the restroom and held you captive, since that would have been just as unbelievable, even though something like that actually happened to you when you were nine. While zigzagging through the halls of your elementary school, your attention on the blue and white floor tiles as you pretended to be a human checker, you looked up to see a half-dozen teenaged girls bearing down on you. Two of them suddenly grabbed your arms and another cupped your mouth, their actions swift and coordinated enough to suggest the plan was long in the making, though you understood it not to have been after they’d ushered you into the girls’ bathroom and one of them said, “Now what?” No one had an answer. So they thought the matter through while grooming themselves in the mirror and smoking cigarettes. Meanwhile, you stood against the far wall trying not to cry, which made your wails all the more powerful when they finally erupted. Your captors rushed to your side, each taking turns giving you a hug and telling you that everything was okay, but you knew otherwise because if there were a greater evil than a boy being in a girls’ bathroom it had not been made known to you. And then it was made known to you; one of the girls, after escorting you to the door, kissed your cheek.
Perhaps it is the nature of fifteen-year-old boys in general, and not yours specifically, to challenge your view of things, for when you informed your older brother of that age what happened he told you to count your blessings. After that you felt less tormented by the incident. Indeed, when you reached puberty, you longed for its reenactment, though no amount of time spent loitering near the girls’ bathroom could bring it forth. So you settled for its memory, which often brought a smile to your face and occasionally, four-plus long decades later, still does. But you are not smiling now on the train because it has just occurred to you that perhaps, on some subconscious level, your recent excursions into the wrong bathrooms are linked to that incident. Maybe you are more than just a klutz and a goofball. Which would mean, by logical extension, that your pencil slipping from your hand to land where it landed was no accident. Do you see where you’re going with this?
You do. And you don’t like it. Get out of your head. Retrieve your pencil, as any honorable man would do, and continue editing your student’s essay. But first, as a matter of prudence, check to see if the woman is still asleep. She is, thankfully, and she remains so until your fingers are an inch from the eraser, which is to say an inch from her right buttock. Her eyes, as you’d speculated, are blue and large. As they grow larger, stammer, “I, um, I dropped my…um.” Point to the thing you are trying to say. The woman glances down, sees and picks up the pencil, then smiles as she hands it to you. Thank her. Now stare at your student’s paper but only pretend to be reading it because you are back inside your head again, imagining a scenario whereby your train has arrived in Boston. As you make your way through the car, a half-dozen women approach from the opposite direction. There is no one else in the car, only you and these women, and midway between them and you is a ladies’ room. Turn abruptly on your heels. Walk away. And do not, under any circumstances, look back.
I gave an interview once in which I spoke of my overactive imagination and how I must constantly guard against it less I violate the conventions of the essay—conventions, ironically, that fall outside the genre’s long tradition. As Robert Atwan notes in a brilliant article recently published on the website Essay Daily, “The essayist is restricted by a criterion of truthfulness and verisimilitude that is not demanded of the more ‘imaginative’ writers. This criterion is relatively new; it did not apply to Addison and Steele—who invented an entire club of personalities and situations—or to Samuel Johnson and the many other periodical essayists of previous centuries.” And so when Leila and Robin contacted me about their new venture I welcomed the chance to let my imagination have its say (which, not surprisingly, was quite a bit) in the manner of the forbearers. Half of what occurs in this piece does not occur outside of my mind, and yet an argument could be made—I am, in fact, making it—that no part of this essay is more true or real than another.
Jerald Walker is the author of The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult and Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption, recipient of the 2011 PEN New England Award for Nonfiction. He has published in magazines such as Creative Nonfiction, The Harvard Review, The Missouri Review, River Teeth, Mother Jones, The Iowa Review, and The Oxford American, and he has been widely anthologized, including four times in The Best American Essays. His next book, Once More the Ghetto and Other Essays, will be published in 2019. He teaches creative writing at Emerson College in Boston.
by Inara Verzemnieks
No writer of nonfiction can truly know the inner consciousness of those we are writing about, and this is where the art of speculation becomes inextricable from research, from careful, in-depth reporting.
Harijs positions himself by the kitchen window and tests whether it is true that after nine decades, he now sees what no one else can. Outside, the last of the summer storks plow corkscrew paths through the sky and in the distance, the neighbor’s dog rises on two legs and begs the mailman to polka. It’s the absence of what he once thought he knew that he now tracks, like the sun’s corona, visible only during an eclipse. Is the sky really still the sky if all the clouds are gone? Why can’t a dead birch leaf also be a fallen apple? If I am 16, then why are my hands withered and spotted, like fruit left too long in the sun? If I am 16, then who are these people who have come to visit, who say they are my children, my grandchildren, my relatives, not yet born?
A stroke last May left half Harijs’ world shrouded in shadow, the line between what belongs in the past and what exists in the present blurring, too. It is the summer of his 91st year, and he is sitting at the window of the house he summoned from wood and brick with own two hands, and here is his wife—for whom he built this house and who has shared it with him since their wedding day sixty years ago and where together they raised four children—returning from the garden, carrots where her fingers should be.
Where have you put your old hands? he says.
She waves the orange nubs, seamed with soil, beneath the faucet. But where there should be water there is only a sad hiss, like the sound the storks make when happy.
Oh, no, she says. Electricity’s gone.
Electricity, he says, tonguing the syllables. But I put it in these walls myself, it should still be there.
No, no, father—they are fixing it somewhere. Not here.
He knows what it is to be not here, even as he is here, sitting at the kitchen window as his wife considers how to finish cooking their lunch. It is how he can find himself in this moment suddenly twenty years in the past, lying in a hospital bed in Riga, waiting for the cancer to leave him, sick with radiation. Will his teeth fall out and come back in soft like the boy born in the months after the news of what happened at Chernobyl, when it all still seemed so far away, and everyone placed their babies on blankets with their toys to feel the sun and the wind on their bare skin that summer, while their mothers sang to themselves and weeded potato beds?
Out, he says, without speaking, shaking a pan of oats, signal to the mare she should follow. Now he is 40 years old, recently assigned the care of all eighteen of the kolkhoz’s draft horses, and he has trained them to plow and to pull with the barest of commands, a whisper of air, a tongue’s click. He attends the birth of each foal, helps skin them from the linen-colored membranes of afterbirth that caul the foals’ eyes.
I can’t see, he says.
What do you mean, you can’t see, she says.
I can’t see the clouds, he says.
That’s because there are no more clouds in the sky today, she says. That’s good eyesight, not poor.
Oh, he says.
His wife, Ausma.
She remains the one thing he can’t or won’t see in terms of what is gone or what has never been, the last piece of the present that remains fixed, absolute.
Not long after the stroke, when they knew his body would survive, if not his mind, when he still required constant care, and did not seem to know where he was or who was around him, the nurses found him one night wandering the hospital hallway with a pained certainty, trying each door.
What are you doing, they asked?
Looking for my wife, Harijs said.
And now she is looking for something with which to light the old wood-fired cook stove that he built and that she used for nearly forty years before her daughter bought an electric model from the West, not long after Latvia declared its independence.
If the electricity is off, then we will go back in time, she says. Do this the old way.
She crinkles old newspapers, pulls from the pile of paper wrappers she keeps neatly folded on top of the tinder—catalogs promising fifty percent off electric blenders and foam memory pillows and home manicure kits that they study but never order, empty sugar packages. At the very bottom, she finds a secret nest of candy wrappers.
Ah, a little mouse has been eating, she says.
Harijs smiles and winks.
Listen, father, she says. Stay here. I’m going to go draw some water from the lower well for our soup.
What kind of horse is that, he says aloud, watching a four-wheeler race down the main road. It is not a question.
Ausma totters back into the kitchen, listing under the weight of a metal pail. As she strains to pour some water off into the soup pan, the kitchen faucet, which she has forgotten she has left on, sputters, spits, then streams all over the kitchen floor.
What is this new excitement, says Harijs.
Oh no, says Ausma, running for a mop.
They have not known the thrill of this much unexpected agitation in a very long time. And then yesterday, it started with the shriek of sirens—the first sirens they’d heard in maybe a year (the modern tragedies of the remote countryside being those that are borne largely in private, in grim isolation, rarely rising to the level of collective intervention). Immediately, they’d tried to imagine the cause. Tanks, suggested Harijs, who had been a teenager during World War II, and who had watched his childhood home cinder and smoke when Russian troops torched it in retreat. He had only been half wrong. While there were no tanks, there was in fact fire, this blaze stoked by a man who had taken a match to his own apartment, but only after he had hurled all his furniture from the balcony, watched the couch, then the television bounce and splinter.
These are my things, he told the police. I own them. Don’t we all have the right to do with our things as we please?
Ausma scoops pooling water from the floor with a dustpan, as if baling a leaky rowboat. Once Harijs tried to cross a frozen river on horseback and the horse’s hooves punched through the ice. He is thinking about holes now, his mind working associationally, poetically.
Where is my pail, he asks.
What do you need a pail for?
To fill it with apples.
It has been an unseasonably hot summer, the trees giving few apples. Those that fall are meagre, already hollowed by the work of worms and yellow jackets. But this is something to do, a hole that can be filled. So she finds him a bucket and he trundles outside and sets to work, scooping fallen fruit with his two hands. The air smells of sweet flesh turning, yeasty, sugared.
Yesterday, a man who serves as the historian of a town not twenty kilometers away—a place where many of the worst secrets of the war are buried, the bodies of all those who were taken there to die; first, when the Russians invaded, all the Latvian military’s officers and soldiers; then when the Germans invaded, all the area’s Jewish residents—said that he tells people they must start preserving their memories this very instant, that by the time anyone thinks to try, it is already too late.
All the things we have lost, he said, because we do not even possess enough understanding to know what we should ask.
Where are you, Ausma calls. She cannot see where he has gone.
Harijs does not answer, and yet he does. He has made his way to the front of the house, in view of the window where he likes to sit. She does not know that he has planted himself in the spot where they held their wedding celebration. Back then it was all grass and sky. Now the place is thick with trees, gnarled branches. He has found a limb downed by the wind, laden with fruit, and it was as if the apples are growing upside down, from the ground, like potatoes. He has never seen so many apples in all his life. And so, he digs, with the joy of a man who has lived long enough to know that such things are possible in this world, how much of what we think is hidden from us, is just waiting for the asking.
I have been travelling to Latvia for close to eight years now, spending summers in the countryside with my grandmother’s younger sister, Ausma and her husband Harijs. They have taught me so much about how to live in the present, and how to do so with incredible grace and strength and love and humor. Their generation has lived through multiple occupations, mass exiles and violence of a level that few of us who have not seen war first hand can even begin to fathom. Now in their 90s, with Latvia fully independent and finding its way as a newly embraced free European nation, they have been witnesses to the full arc of the country’s complex history, its joys and secrets. This trip was the first time I had spent time with Harijs after his stroke, and could truly feel the ways in which his memory now functioned differently. No writer of nonfiction can truly know the inner consciousness of those we are writing about, and this is where the art of speculation becomes inextricable from research, from careful, in-depth reporting. Even as the very notion of trying to capture reality became complicated by his loss of memory, I had the benefit of all those trips to Latvia over the years, all my notes, and all our many previous interviews, which I could combine with careful present-day observation and conversation to create a portrait of Harijs right now, at this moment and time in his life.
Inara Verzemnieks’ critically acclaimed memoir, “Among the Living and the Dead,” was published by W.W. Norton. A Pushcart Prize winner and the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award, as well as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing, she teaches in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program.
by Mary Cappello
I’m in love with the terror and the joy that underscores wonder, and the notion that all discovery is a species of dream.
Excerpted from Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack, The University of Chicago Press, 2016.
The hypothalamic nuclei are connected to the cerebral cortex whose functioning underlies meaning—but how?—and also to the limbic lobe of the brain stem whose functioning underlies affects. At present we don’t know how this transfer takes place, but clinical experience allows us to think that it does actually take place (for instance, one will recall the exciting or sedative,‘opiatic,’ effect of certain words). –Julia Kristeva, Black Sun
When Julia Kristeva talks about the sedative or opiatic effect of certain words, I don’t think she has in mind the mood-altering capacity of the meanings that accompany words—those bulky overcoats—even though that word (“meaning”) appears in her gloss. I suspect she’s talking about words as sound-forms whose texture and timbre have the power to, as the saying goes, touch something in us, and in the touching, to either create a new mood, if such a thing is possible, or to conjure the residue of a mood that’s gone missing. Psycho-phonologists read high frequency sounds as capable of producing states of heightened awareness in we humans, acting as they do on the cochlea, whereas low frequency sounds can calm us to the point of stasis and torpor: if the liquid inside the semi-circular canals of the ear’s vestibule is made to rotate enough, by repeated low-frequency drumming, say, a state of trance is the result. Then we are said to be “captives of our vestibules.”
But what about the effect of language on our “neurobiological networks”? Is it possible to identify words that at one time made us happy exclusive of “candy”? And how about words that exert a drone or din? Just as worry is easier to bear in a particular place, so worry is easier to bear surrounded by particular words. Can words in themselves have this power or does it depend on the quality of the air through which words move? There’s the rub: doesn’t it all come down to voice, the ineluctable wooing of one by the other—word and voice, ear and tongue and throat, lips and lungs? If pronounced in her voice, all words create the best mood in me. That’s the ticket. All distinctions fall away.
Use the next full minute to list words that come to mind as likely to produce a soothing or pleasant mood in you. Go!
denizen versus citizen
hoolahoop versus tire iron
glockenspiel versus man’o’war
harmonica versus accordion
charlotte, but now we’re back to ice cream, or dessert.
Swarthy, swatch, and glade; recluse and surcease; recant and disuse; delve, shelve, elve; elevate and conjugate. Jugular and Jaguar. Constantinople. Fructify. Gina Lollobrigida. Riff-raff. Rinky-dink. Edgeless. Leavening. Sausalito. Somersault.
The mood-producing effects of such words must have to do with the nap of each person’s individual fur, each person’s causeway-like zags, marbleized or plush, the orientation and density of our inner and outer linings. And maybe, too, with the mechanics of an accented rise and fall of the voices that originally coaxed us into being, “Come out, come out,” they said, “for now it’s time to come out.” Or, “sleep, now—there, there—it’s time to sleep.”
We leave it to poets to return language to its roots in the body, to restore language’s place amid the elements, earth, air, fire, and water. A sentence can move as mesmerically as a reversing Falls Falls like the small and quiet ones hidden inside trees more majestic than those that pound pound for pound and measure for measure weight of their force drawn down down or up the sentence sentenced to reverse itself to meet but not to find itself again drawn back upon itself not by itself alone alone upon a pad this pen and that heart draws it forth and back until a feeling is produced by it and then it stops.
We turn to poets or to the poets we, ourselves, become when called to attention by distillates even in the most analytic prose. Then I gather such phrases for their capacity to say everything that needs to be said, that are in themselves all the mood-thought we need to understand depression, (for example), as from, Kristeva the word-pools,
“prisoners of affect”
“the delights of suffering”
“our most persistent despondencies”
“to tame and cherish sadness as an object for lack of another”
“a lucid counterdepressant”
“to unfold language’s resources”
“our basic homeostatic recourses”
“faced with the impossibility of concatenating”
“psychic crypts” or “psychic voids.”
In order to effect a mood out of language, need a writer put words through the same process that herbs are subjected to in the creation of mood-enhancing cordials? Steeping, distilling, infusing and macerating, all of which share the requirement of soaking and softening, condensing and extracting, supply the idea of a liquid aesthetic, and who wouldn’t wish to produce in a fellow being the combination hum and high of cranberries soaked in bourbon?
Maybe a poet’s charge is to un-steep words and in doing so to perform an only seemingly simple operation of extraction, to allow us to hear what we never hear inside the words we always hear, for I know I am put in a mood part joyful and part curious—not an opiatic mood but a wakeful one—when met with the word “seemly” over and against the more commonplace unseemly; when prompted to imagine a “sheveled” rather than disheveled appearance; to be made to consider what “whelms” me as distinct from what overwhelms me; to comprehend the way in which each repetition is a renewed “petition”; to find loose leaf pages—a “quire”—at the center of all requirements and inquiries; to posit positively against the force of certain words’ tendency to exist only in negation—to eke out the “choate” in the inchoate, the “ane” in the inane—to “bibe” and “bue” without a consuming “-im”: to saturate.
Occasionally you’ll hear it on the radio, how the confident mood of capitalism turns hysterical. Then mad throngs storm the vestibules of Walmart intent on a wide-screen TV, trampling to death a guard in the process. What words create the frequencies to inspire mass motility numb to the sound of voice and tongue and throat, lips and lungs, heart and mind and memory pulsing underfoot? I think of Thoreau’s different drummer, of Dickinson’s poetry of tilt and whirl. I wonder if poetry undelivered, distant but there, poetry requiring that we crane just long enough to pause indeterminately can avert the disaster of stampede.
The author gratefully acknowledges two references herein: Julia Kristeva, “Life and Death in Speech,” in Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, translated by Leon S. Roudiez, NY: Columbia UP, 1989: 31-68, and Pierre Sollier, Listening for Wellness: An Introduction to the Tomatis Method, Lafayette, CA: Mozart Center Press, 2005: 65.
A line of flight that is not an escape; analogy and play; about-face turns and forms, unfolding. I’m in love with the terror and the joy that underscores wonder, and the notion that all discovery is a species of dream. If, for me, speculative nonfiction invites the free play of the imagination, that’s only because, as a young queer person, I suffered an acute and stultifying fear of my imagination for all too long a time. My contribution here draws on two speculative modes: compositionally, the piece is a riff, an improvisation on a theme, but it also, I hope, offers an uncommonly liberating reading practice for those who find themselves allergic to or afraid of the discursive densities associated with philosophy or critical theory. Even if I don’t “understand” in a prosaic sense all that Julia Kristeva is saying in her chapter, my essay says that it’s ok to cull something from it, to let her writing take me someplace simply by my being open to its sounds and as impetus to my thought. This is speculative reading as sympathetic vibration. If this is strange, the speculative drift that drives my micro-essay is stranger: to lend credence to a hunch, to indulge a hint that is not a clue: that the sound of words and the air through which words move govern our movements, moods and acts. I’m not sure we know how to take that proposition seriously. Speculative nonfiction isn’t shy about desire. This is mine: that a scientist, happening upon my hints, will feel moved to drop my essay into her own environment-of-knowing—not in order to “prove” my speculations—but to discover something that I could never see there, imagine, or foretell.
Mary Cappello is the author of five books, including Awkward: A Detour (a Los Angeles Times bestseller); Swallow, based on the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum; and the mood fantasia, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack. A Guggenheim and Berlin Prize Fellow, and a recipient of the Dorothea Lange/Paul Taylor Prize from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, Cappello is a former Fulbright lecturer at the Gorky Literary Institute (Moscow) and currently Professor of English and creative writing at the University of Rhode Island. A co-authored experiment in essayism with James Morrison and Jean Walton, Buffalo Trace: A Threefold Vibration, appeared in September 2018. Cappello is currently composing a book-length essay on dormancy, and a collection of literary études.
by Nicole Walker
“If we can, could, specutively, change how we think about our pasts, perhaps we could speculate on how we think about our futures.”
You can choose what you remember. You can even choose what you think about. When you think of love, you want it to flow like water. You want to go in it like you go into a stream, naked-toed and body-hot, like you want to lay your body against the warm waves of Bermuda, like you want to jump from the edge of granite into the murky brown lake water and come up swimming. You want love to swirl around you like it swirls through your hair. The currents of water you want to be the same as love: constant. Always in motion. And completely beyond your control. But love doesn’t work like that—it’s not all floaty and swirly. You can’t always feel the water move. Sometimes the current stops. To make motion requires the work of the swimming. It is up to you to make your brain swim in a loving direction.
We had only been dating three weeks when Erik woke up at six-thirty, whispered in my mostly sleeping ear that he would be right back. Two hours later, he returned. He dug through all his drawers and boxes. He upended his mattress. He lifted nightstands and checked in Levi pockets until he found the ring that his dad had given his mom. The metal was hammered. The stone was as dark, uneven, mottled with what might have once been lichen. His parents had been divorced forever. The ring didn’t mean perfection. It didn’t mean forever. It meant, I only have one of these. I’ll give it to you.
He asked me to marry him again on the deck of a cabin in Torrey, Utah and he asked me again by the Provo River in Sundance. He asked me to marry him all over Utah. I said yes every time.
I remember how I insisted you listen to me tell you who I’d slept with before to make sure you knew that I had a history, that I was a bit of a Superfund site, not pure Evian—that I wasn’t fresh, unsullied but complex, murky. I poison quickly. I could, if I wanted to, remember how we argued over the word “collateral.” You insisted it came from the idea to collect. That collateral couldn’t be avoided. I argued that no, collateral is what you owe me. If I don’t take out any loans, no one will be hurt accidentally. You didn’t understand. You brought up Iraq. I brought up gambling in Wendover, Nevada. That poor dog we tried to rescue. That dog that we waited with at a Humane Society that never opened. That’s collateral. Wendover owes me. You said, “only if the dog lived,” which led me to cry in the bathroom and to you driving off in the car with our dog named Cleo who we got at a Humane Society that was not in Nevada. I could remember this but instead I remember the way I went out to the car before you drove away and handed you part of a toenail that I had torn on the bottom of the bathroom door. I handed it to you and you shook his head but ate it anyway.
How else will I dive into him?
It is only through water that memories are made. Like oysters, nothing changes us too much, until it does. Erik read me a story from the Salt Lake Tribune even though we lived far away from Salt Lake and oil drilling at the time. He was bothered by the way the water turned oily in Liberty Park. A man-made lake that when he was young he rode paddleboats on and where when I was young I threw bread to the ducks and where when we were both young and both there at separate times and spaces, we threw sticks under the bridge to see the water usher them under but then later when we were old and almost stick-less, an oil pipe broke nearby flooding the lake and the ducks and the bread and the sticks. He took his metaphorical stick and raised it high. He said, they are ruining that lake. They must be stopped. And although neither oil nor spilling stopped at his very insistence, the stick he holds reminds me that memories float.
One day, we were talking, fighting really, about ‘pi.’ When our daughter asked how to define ‘pi,’ I said that ‘pi’ helps describe a circle. Erik said no. He laughed at me! He said, pi is used to define circumference. The area of a circle is pi times r squared. I know that. I hate it when people think I can’t do math. I took my wine and marched upstairs to watch TV without him. A divorce of staircases.
He did not apologize. Nor did I when I said maybe it’s not a math problem but an English problem since you don’t seem to understand the word “describe.” Scribe means to write. I’ll draw a circle for you. But he has a system. A three-touches-to-the-shoulder system. And then he says something stupid to me, instead of “I’m sorry,” he says, “you can never have too much cheese. Especially if it’s in a circle.” And I have no idea what he’s talking about but I laugh and I’m lost and the staircase carries me back to the ground floor where we avoid talking about cheese or circles ever again or at least for an hour.
It was Erik who told me the oysters were dying as the oceans turned acidic from global warming but it was also he who strapped on his camera and said let’s make a movie about people who are not fucking up. About how people are unfucking if not whole oceans than at least whole puddles of nitrate-ridden water, about how people understand how microclimates pinch their Grenache grapes cold but ripen their Chardonnay grapes sweet and how, if we begin to follow microclimates that maybe we can be like the grape and reorganize the way we bend into the flow of canyon air streaming down to us in Sedona from Flagstaff on high, that if we massage micropreemie babies they will go home sooner and sooner and he brought the information to me in the way the internet brings information, in a flow, similar to water when I’m sunk in sadness at the memory of water broken by oil spills, broken by stupid fights, broken by nitrates, broken by pi, broken by global warming, broken by choose, he stands in front of me and agitates. Like a washing machine.
We used to spend a lot of time in that cabin in Torrey, Utah. Right outside of Capital Reef National Park. Sandstone is dry and sculpted and you are in no need of clothes. I wore Levis without a shirt. Erik played guitar on the deck. We took hot walks to hot rocks and had hot sex on them. Once, we were walking up the river bed, (this is later. After we had kids) and I suggested that maybe the hot sand in the dry river bank would be a good place for hot sex but he said no, this is a thoroughfare. He was right, five minutes later, a man came from behind us carrying the morning paper and coffee in the middle of the desert in the middle of a dry riverbank and Erik knows more than most about the ways of rivers and dry people in dry lands.
Sometimes we did not live together and so coming back together was like bringing the water to a dry land. Erik had been in the northwest for school. He drove his truck there and he drove his truck back carrying this time thirty-six oysters for him and me to share in the desert city of Salt Lake, where I grew up loving oysters even if growing up there was the wrong place and time (desert. The eighties.) and he brought three dozen to my doorstep. We had lemon and an oyster knife and no real skill shucking. We’re from Utah. We know bees. But he found a notch. He knew where to place the knife and I watched to try to figure it out. I held the oyster in my hand. I pressed the knife against the lip although I couldn’t tell if I was springing the back hatch and prying upon the front hood. I pushed with the knife. The shell flaked. The lip closed tighter. The one time I managed to slip the knife wholly through, the oyster clenched his hinge so tight, I lost the blade to the creature. Well-armed oyster militia. Erik took the oyster and the knife and twisted like he whistles—so softly you can barely hear him. The oyster opened. The muscle revealed. I slid the knife under the oyster to cut foot from food. Erik had really done the work but he let me take credit. “A perfect one. Good job.”
There are water problems like flammable water. There are water problems like water full of dry cleaning chemicals, of rocket fuel, of nitrates, of pesticides, of birth control pills and Prozac, of coffee and of urine. There is dirty water. There are these awesome things though called water treatment brains and while there is a lot of water that can’t be helped there is a lot of water that can be helped. In the cerebellum, you expose the water to air. This deletes almost 50% of the bad memories. Then, you anaerobically contain the water. Putting a lid on it. This deletes almost 45% of the other bad memories. The last 5% of bad memories can have their pollutants dissolved by acts of kindness by microorganisms which turn the bad memories good. It’s like A Clockwork Orange for water although the water does not need to have his eyes peeled back. The microorganisms are more on the positive reinforcement side. They take a nitrate and say, hey you, let us mingle. I’ll toss off one of your oxygens and you will turn into sweet, sweet, nitrogen. Nitrogen is safe for all. Perfect nitrogen. Good job.
Of course there was the bad time when we were walking on campus and two women were walking toward us and he nudged me off the path to give them more room. And there was the time when he bought himself a new toothbrush but not one for me. He leaves beer bottles and towels everywhere. He does not cook or really clean. One time, he claimed we went out to eat more than anyone he knew, which would be a fine thing to say, if he ever cooked. Of course, when he tries to cook, I try to oversee, checking on the temperature of the onions (should be on low), of the seasoning (more than you would think), on the adding of cold oil to a cold pan (you can’t do that) so perhaps the cooking is less a won’t than a won’t be let to but sometimes he emails me to see which kid to pick up first and I say Max but then calls me when he can’t find Zoe’s dance room and I say, ask Max who is three but good with directions and he says I came to get Zoe first and I say I said to get Max first so he could show you where Zoe’s dance room is. Why did you email me twenty minutes of typing and I say the dance room is at the very end of the elementary school and I hang up all mad but I text and ask where is the bad husband room and he texts and says but my heart is pure and still we go to dinner and we take both kids, one who lies down on the benchseat, the other who still eats at age 7 with her hands and we sit and we talk all at once to each other and everyone is eating oysters and eating lots of cheese. We can talk about circles again. We have already forgotten what describes a circle. Nothing describes or defines a circle. Like love, like water, circles just are.
The oysters are not doing well but this is no time to waver in our love for them or for each other. We have a secret. One day, we are going to move north to where the oysters are. Erik is going to build a yurt. We are going to learn about harvesting biofuel from algae. We are going to have solar panels for the seven days that there is sun. We are going to live close enough to the water that we will insert, as into a womb an IUD, wires that will roll with the incoming and the outgoing of the waves, making turbines, filling batteries, making sure that the internet is off the grid but still turned to “on” because otherwise how would we know what kinds of oysters we should grow in these beds of ours down by the sea. Do we need a wooden box or some chicken wire? Do we need to feed the oysters or just sway the plankton over them with tree boughs from our nearby Douglas fir?
Speaking of Douglas fir. Perhaps I am wrong about love and water. Perhaps it is not the swirling of hair-in-water that is love. Perhaps it is in the choosing and felling of tree. Perhaps it is in the sewing and hewing. The measure. The determination of tools. It should not take more than one or two trees to make a large yurt. Perhaps this yurt is not sustainable exactly although once felled you do plant two new trees and these two-long-lived, long-limbed trees can serve to build your off-the-grid home. Erik, although he knows many things about water and oysters, is, almost preternaturally, a carpenter. He leaves more saws around the house than beer caps. He makes perfect circles with his planer and his awl. I could describe them with pi but he will define them with sandpaper and oil. He will rub into them linseed and polyurethane. He will join and shim these circles. The circles will stack and the rooms will grow like hives. He will set windows through which sun will flow like honey and we will warm ourselves sustainably with the sun honey and the love that we chose to remember. Like misshapen rings inside this perfectly shaped circle on top of the impossibly polluted world, we will sit by the ocean, hoping our oysters learn to like a lower pH in their water as we will have learned to stop talking circles about the exact definition of words and instead circle our meaning in metaphor. Sometimes, when you’ve been hanging out in water for so long, you don’t even notice that water doesn’t need to move to be and that to be is still a verb.
First published in “Sustainability, A Love Story" by Mad Creek Books, an Imprint of The Ohio State University Press
This piece is speculative because it’s invested in both hope and fear. What is going to happen with climate change. I can roll out a million scenarios. Some good, some bad. The future, though, is a function of the past and how we remember our pasts will predict how we imagine our futures. If we can, could, specutively, change how we think about our pasts, perhaps we could speculate on how we think about our futures.
Nicole Walker is the author of two forthcoming books Sustainability: A Love Story and A Survival Guide for Life in the Ruins. Her previous books include Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg (only every third book has the word “egg” in its title). She also edited Bending Genre with Margot Singer. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.
by Xu Xi
In my piece, I borrowed from Gulliver’s Travels, a classic speculative nonfiction travel narrative to develop a framework for various components of my satiric piece, all of which can be defined as speculative or imaginative nonfiction
 You cannot make this stuff up so you might as well default to fact, and suspend disbelief.
2018 was the year that the journal Deficit, Disquiet & Disbelief (hereinafter “DD&D”) ceased operations for good, probably because China had become rather too difficult to ignore about Diaoyu. But for the editors (hereinafter “Anox+1”), this duo would forever after think of their journal’s home base as Senkaku, because origins being what they are, mere nomenclature will never transform anyone’s worldview.
But my task is to write a brief history of the journal, rather than speculate on the reason for its demise. As a contributor to DD&D the quarterly (the exception was 2006 when one editor came down with typhoid, of all diseases, and they only published two issues of Vol 4), I know enough about its origins and evolution to do so. Besides, I myself am from Feiyudao (Chinese) or Tobiuo-Shima (Japanese), aka Pinnacle Point Island of Diaoyu or Senkaku and so am a native daughter of these islands. There is some dispute as to whether or not my home island really belongs as some argue it is actually an exclave. However that argument is specious, as most thinking persons understand that a floating island will, by its very nature, hover around the borders of the archipelago below, and occasionally will even float beyond those invisible boundaries out to the ocean. It’s rather like a child riding her rubber alligator in a swimming pool; you don’t expect her to stay in one place. To insist on pinpointing exact coordinates is as pointless as expecting the shouting of opposing facts to cease by those nations claiming ownership of these islands.
However, here are other indisputable facts. Most historians agree that the manuscript “A Short Voyage to the Outer Limits of Japan” by Lemuel Gulliver, unearthed from the caves at the easternmost tip of Feiyudao in 1746 by Chinese speleologists, offers sufficient evidence for our uniquely mongrel origins. Despite his short voyage, Lemuel impregnated a number of Japanese and mixed-race women; these “discomfort women” were forced on him by the Emperor and he was ordered to have sexual relations with them in lieu of his having to trample upon a crucifix, which he declined to do. The women and he were shackled and sent to Tobiuo-Shima as it was then known and which was mostly uninhabited, and trapped there until proof of their loss of virginity was provided to armed soldiers who accompanied them. It is a disturbing history, and the manuscript records Lemuel’s helplessness and distaste at having what he termed “unclean intercourse with these strange and terrified foreign girls,” because they were mostly “young girls, some barely past puberty, the oldest being no more than twenty years of age.” The most shocking aspect of his experience was that these girls had all been willingly sacrificed by those wishing to please the Emperor, young virgins offered by families who were shunned because of the unclean intercourse of one of their own, Japanese women who had either been raped by Dutch or Chinese traders, or were prostitutes, and who had given birth to mixed-race children. Other families with members who were known to be Christian also sacrificed their girls. In other words, the mongrel caste. This was, to him, even more shocking than the further assaults he witnessed by soldiers on these girls during their imprisonment, because “some of these young women developed affection for their captors who rewarded them with extra food or other comforts.” It is a fact that several of the soldiers returned to the island later and took up residence alongside the women and their offspring who were not allowed to leave. Lemuel stated that he never wanted to return to this island — the horror was too profoundly distressing a memory — and took no interest thereafter in the numerous progeny that resulted from his “journey of deficit, disquiet and disbelief.” This is of course how DD&D got its name. It may also be the reason why he chose not to publish that book of his travels, and left it behind in the cave that was his dwelling during his month-long stay. However, I digress and speculate as I really should not do in the writing of a history, especially given the editor’s instructions that I “stick to the facts for a change, if you can.” (Note to self: I don’t care for this editor’s sarcasm and may cease writing for him soon)
Yet this awful history does not appear particularly unusual when we regard the history of our world, does it?
DD&D was conceived as a travel journal that sought to publish pieces about cosmoplitan life in contemporary Asia “without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.” A little study might perhaps have made for a more successful launch issue. The by-now infamous line of the editorial manifesto in Vol 1, No 1 to “extoll the beauty and wonder of Senkaku with travel writing that will attract numerous tourists to its shores, especially from China” created, naturally, a controversial clang. What were Anox+1 thinking? The year was 2003 and to call the islands “Senkaku” guaranteed the Chinese would take umbrage, which they did. In fact, there are those who believe that the launch issue of DD&D contributed to escalating the political dispute. I should note here that neither one of Anox+1 were Japanese (I say “were” because both editors died shortly after announcing the cessation of publication in what was possibly a seppuku suicide-murder. Anox+1 owned a collection of Samurai artifacts and a bloodied sword was at the scene next to their bowels. But such speculations are better left to the Hong Kong Police who found their bodies on Fei Zyu Dou — the floating island that hovers regularly over Lantau where Hong Kong’s international airport is located, much to the distress of Air Traffic Control — that much is fact, their deaths I mean).
Despite its inauspicious beginnings, the journal continued to have a highly successful run for the next few years, attracting thousands of subscribers with their giveaway of a catty of flying fish. They also paid their writers well, in any freely convertible currency of their choice. However, for one piece that was by an unknown writer whom the editors wished to locate, they offered to pay “a modest fee for this contribution to our journal, in any currency except the Euro which may not last beyond this century.” I do wish to keep the facts as straight as possible.
Several subscribers have confirmed that they did indeed receive their catty of flying fish which was, according to one enthusiastic gourmand, “awesomely delicious, flesh flaky enough when steamed to slice with chopsticks, I kept subscribing using each of my ten siblings’ names just to get more fish!” It was difficult to determine how Anox+1 were able to acquire such a lot of fish. Eventually I located one Mr. Tseng, a Hong Kong taxi driver and avid fisherman who confirmed that his many fishing trips with his brothers and buddies to Diaoyu (being Chinese he did not say Senkaku) always yielded an extraodinary catch. It was “as if the fish were flying to be caught.” What is historically less certain is how the journal obtained money to pay writers. Subscription was free so despite the huge number of readers there was no revenue, and Anox+1 were violently opposed to courting advertisers, insisting on editorial independence unsullied by commerce. This was possibly (forgive this final speculation) why the publisher finally terminated publication and fired the editors and all the staff. I can confirm that for the two short book reviews and two travel pieces I contributed, I was paid a total of £55,000, which still startles me when I recall it today (or is this yesterday?). It is so rare to have your worth as a writer rewarded handsomely, and even rarer that not a single word is changed by copy editors, intern readers, editors, publishers, or even accidentally by designers and their perpetual typos. Instead, every grammatical lapse, punctuation error, syntactical malfeasance and literary illogic of your original text are preserved, which made it a wondrous publication to behold.
So that is a brief history of DD&D, warts, blemishes, beauty marks and all.
 飛魚島, literally, the Flying Fish Island as it is indeed somewhat fish-shaped. Pomfret, not swordfish.
 It has never been determined why our British ancestor left his manuscript behind. This unpublished book of the account of his travels would have helped readers better understand his third book about the voyage to the floating island of Laputa, Feiyudao’s sister territory, although we came into existence earlier. The reason I use its Chinese rather than Japanese name is due to my lack of fluency in Japanese, even though I am of partial Japanese ancestry and have hardly any Chinese blood. But China has taken such a hold of all us Feiyudaoists, that we cannot help acquiring at least a nodding acquaintance with their language, while Japan, alas, being the exonym that it is, has lesser claim in the 21st Century as a land where the sun originates. This saddens me because I love traveling to Japan, probably even more than traveling around China. My acquaintance with English is similar, as Britain, and subsequently the United States, have made such economic and linguistic conquests of our world that even Feiyudaoists all begin studying English at the ridiculously early age of two. What has spurred us onwards to master English has been none other than Mr. Ma himself, the former English teacher and founder of Alibaba who now owns the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English newspaper, a testament to English becoming so global it is virtually Chinese. Yet I am no more British than I am Chinese, although I obviously have English ancestry, but should really be conversant in Dutch, since even Lemuel G (as we refer to our ancestral Big Daddy) pretended to be Dutch when he visited Japan and was conversant in the language.
 In Book III of Guilliver’s Travels, the author wrote “fake news” on this point, evading any clear explanation of why the Emperor did not insist he trample a crucifix as other visitors had to during Japan’s 200-year isolationist, anti-Christian phase at that time, when only Chinese and Dutch nationals were permitted entry.
 The editorial manifesto cites this from Gulliver’s Travels Part III, Ch V “A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnagg, and Japan,” echoing the mission of the Advancers of Speculative Learning at the Academy on Laputa, where their famous invention sought to create, among other things, “an universal Language to be understood in all civilized Nations,” something the typhoid stricken member of Anox+1 greatly desired DD&D to achieve.
肥豬島, transliteration Cantonese, literally fat pig island, although locally often referred to as Siu Yuk Dou燒肉島, meaning roast meat (or pig) island as a fat piglet is ideal for roasting to make this dish.
 Fei Zyu Dou only came into existence in 1998, the year after Hong Kong’s handover to China, at the peak of the Asian Financial Crisis. Its origins are murky, as several journalists then reported that this was undoubtedly the initiative of a cabal of the city’s richest property owners and developers, all seeking an offshore haven for their wealth. However, this remains unproven and was decried as “fake news” by the city’s second Chief Executive of China’s post-colonial rule, the man eventually imprisoned for graft and financial malfeasance, proving yet again that you can only make up some of the facts some of the time before they catch up to you. What is fact is that there are no offshore banks on Fei Zyu Dou, although it is where Columbarium City is located, a development by Flying Wax Death Ltd. www.flyingwaxdeath.net; this Hong Kong Stock Exchange listed company has made huge profits selling expensive columbariums to the city’s population desperate to secure afterlife property for their loved ones in Hong Kong’s over-priced real estate market, even for the dead. How the company secured any Building Authority’s approval for construction is another story as the island’s ownership is under dispute, claimed by the three cities of Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou; China, curiously, has not had a dog (or pig) in this fight.
 Chinese unit of measure for food, a little over a pound.
 “Canine News” Vol 13 No 4, 2015, later republished in my book Insignificance: Hong Kong Stories, Signal 8 Press, 2018, which I considered a significant Hong Kong story for which I gave full credit to DD&D. Some critics still accused me of plagiarism but that is definitely fake news, so rampant these days even literary expression has fallen under its spell.
 Tseng was born at sea into a family of boat people who were later reesettled on land, and never lost his love of fishing, often bringing home catch for dinner.
The Senkaku-Diaoyu islands controversy is a serious political question for China and its neighboring countries that is an absurdist drama. At the same time, it potentially can and does create unnecessary military maneouvres as countries posture over their real or imagined boundaries. Imaginative speculation allows me to take this (or any other real-life political absurdity, of which there are many) and push the drama to its limits through satire. In my piece, I borrowed from Gulliver’s Travels, a classic speculative nonfiction travel narrative to develop a framework for various components of my satiric piece, all of which can be defined as speculative or imaginative nonfiction, including: a literary journal, history of the islands and its people, the missing story of Lemuel Gulliver in Japan as well as the very existence of the supposed writer of the piece Fei Man. This allowed for multiple layers of satire around real world political realities beyond the drama of Senkaku-Diaouyu. This evolved as a continuation of an earlier piece about the literary journal that informs the title. It also afforded an opportunity to “write back” to the 18th century, and Swift, as all post -colonial -historical -national -reality writers from Asia should feel compelled to do.
XU XI 許素細 is author of thirteen books, including Insignificance: Hong Kong Stories (Signal 8 Press, 2018) and a memoir Dear Hong Kong: An Elegy For A City (Penguin, 2017). She is Faculty Co-Director of the International MFA in Creative Writing & Literary Translation at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, co-founder of Authors at Large and fiction editor at large for Tupelo Press in Massachusetts. Follow her @xuxiwriter on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.
by David Carlin
There is nothing more thing-y than a speculation, and nothing more speculative than any ordinary thing . . .
It used to be possible to believe that apples were forever, and you were the apple of my eye, and every year would bring the season of apple blossom. Now nothing seems so certain anymore…
When I hear the word bacteria, I reach for my penicillin.
It was a year earlier; I was somewhere in the U.S. In fact, I was in Flagstaff, Arizona, where my friend Nicole lives, for a writing conference, at an after-hours clinic. The doctor, or cost-effective quasi-doctor, took out a biro and traced the outline of a puffy continent of microbes across the top of my foot.
“If it starts creeping above this line, that’s when you need to worry,” he said. “If you see red lines snaking up your ankle, get yourself to the hospital quicksmart. They’ll put you on a drip. Turn over.”
He shoved a syringe full of antibiotics into my backside.
“Okay, wait 15 minutes to make sure you don’t react, and then you’re free to go.”
He flicked his rubber gloves off.
Free to go hand over my credit card to the woman at the front counter is what he means. Free to go back to the conference to peer discreetly at the battle line drawn across my foot, listening to helpful stories from acclaimed science writers and former medicos about how so and so’s leg had to be amputated, or whoever-else had picked up something in New Guinea and died of what I’ve got: that being, cellulitis.
From a tiny irritation between my toes caused by chafing in the Manila heat en route from Melbourne, matters had abruptly escalated up here on the high plains. The raised red blob of skin on my foot was apparently the sign of a host of microorganisms massing and multiplying rapidly—as they do, apparently, through binary fission, no sex required. Except I was the host, they the unwelcome guests. Unless comprehensively doused in antibiotic poison, they would, having established their beachhead, fan out through the skin and blood cells of my body in a manic hunger, eating me alive from the inside. True crime.
“You don’t want to find yourself in that hospital,” remarked the taxi driver in his Arizonan drawl, as he waited peaceably for another two-mile freight train to pass by. “They got superbugs in there like you wouldn’t believe. I know people gone in there, come out with something ten times worse.” The boomgate rose. He shook his head. “Don’t pay their staff enough.”
I’m thinking, please take me home to Australia before I die. We have universal healthcare, if nothing else.
One of the five basic shapes bacteria come in is the comma. But don’t assume this means they will pause midsentence to digress before they kill you. One such comma-shaped bacterium is vibrio cholera, feared everywhere and with good reason. Another shape popular with bacteria is the rod. Elongation, according to my research, is associated with swimming. Rod-shaped bacilli love to swim. Beyond this, they have been known to form differing arrangements of which the best-named is the palisades. Here, the rods line up like Mahjong tiles or a picket fence made by a drunk. But if a palisade implies a defensive wall, like the well-meaning biro line across my foot, you only have to click through a textbook page or two to discover bacteria organized for murder. “El Garatillo” (the strangler), aka diptheria (corynebacterium diphtheriae), is the most infamous of these non-pacific palisades. Diptheria bacteria colonize the throat and produce a toxin that attacks tissue willy-nilly: heart, muscle, nerves, kidneys, liver.
Whichever way you turn, bacteria lead to fantasies of evil. And yet, don’t forget, bacteria put the tang in yogurt. Bacteria put the sour in sourdough. Bacteria are tireless recyclers. These are the well-meaning, progressively inclined microbes we can make alliance with.
I wonder: why do things go viral on the internet but never go bacterial? One meme has it that the average human body contains ten times as many bacterial cells as human cells, so to be human is actually to be 90% bacterial. New research suggests it is more like half and half. We are roughly half human and half microbial. Still, half a cake is half a cake, and if you leave any cake out long enough, in the end the bacteria will take over. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and bacteria all the way.
Bacteria have been around on Earth for 3.5 billion years, which is about 17,500 times longer than humans. They’ve survived all five of the previous Great Extinctions and will almost certainly survive the current one as well. Really, they mean no harm, and no good either—as Darwin said, meaning and intention don’t enter into evolution. They are just doing what they do. There wouldn’t seem to be a form of life less worthy of our care and empathy. But that’s probably what all of the other species on Earth would say of us, right? Except for, maybe, cats and dogs. And rats. And pigeons. Cockroaches. Goldfish? All of which, I’m willing to bet, are approximately 50% bacteria.
There is an email I’m not opening. I’m just not. I will when I’m feeling strong enough. It’s not anything in particular or dramatic. But there’s a small chance that it might be.
There was a boy I used to avoid in high school, back when I was growing up in Perth, before the America’s Cup, before Alan Bond got famous. I’d stolen one of this boy’s cigarettes. I didn’t smoke, but I was young enough to think I might begin to smoke, and old enough to know it’d be cool to swipe one. It was at a school camp. The box of cigarettes was there, beside his bed in the dorm. How did he even know it was me? For six months afterward, maybe a year, I avoided him in the playground. He spun it out, the threat, and I used to dream about him coming around the corner of a brick wall in the distance, seeing me.
The internet is totally crazy. There is something called alektorophobia: the fear of chickens. Chicken squared. But there is also cucurbitophobia (fear of pumpkins) and ideophobia, the morbid fear of new ideas and thoughts. Sharon Elizabeth, the star of American Pie, suffers from a fear of chickens, according to many sources, whereas for Jake Gyllenhaal, the problem is ostriches. Katie Holmes “freaks out” about raccoons.
Do you have an anxiety disorder? Test your fear level. What do you fear? Share your phobias with visitors on this site, read their stories, and connect with them. While you are here you might also like “One Cup Of This Before Bedtime Burns Belly Fat Like Crazy!” and “50 Unique Women You Won’t Believe Exist.”
I click. I’m afraid I do.
“15 Rare Images Of Things You Had No Idea Existed.”
I have come to a world in which Everything Is In Title Print. There are so many things to click. A bag of money. A smoking gun. A smiling couple sitting on the bonnet of a luxury car. Kim Jong Un applauding. These are only a few of the things tagged Bizarre, Unique, and/or Women.
The chicken is an actual animal. It is related to a real-life bird still found in various real-life locations in India and Southeast Asia called the red junglefowl. A beautiful, elegant creature. But chickens, like so many other living organisms, have long since been domesticated by human beings, and now to a level of unsurpassed mad-scientist industrial efficiency. It wasn’t until the 1950s that human chicken production and consumption went into full flightlessness, courtesy of chicken-feed additives that made sunlight an optional extra for keeping chickens alive long enough to grow them dinner-sized. Henceforth the birds could be cooped up in mega-sheds doused in cleansing ammonia, their bodies and metabolisms reimagined as single-purpose biological machines for converting corn and soybeans into protein. Cheaply cheeping if they must. Artificially enhanced breasts, more white flesh, from cute hatchling to Crunchified Chicken in seven weeks. Seven weeks! Yes, but six weeks would be worth billions! And yet chicken seems so sweet and innocent on the palate, don’t you think? This is white meat, not that crazy, hairy-chested red meat.
They say the reason humans first captured chickens alive might not have been for eating either flesh or eggs, but to watch them fight for sport. If a chicken is a wimp, a cock is the king of the playground. Cocks are the tumescent fantasy-appendages of every male, after all. Show me your rooster, big boy! From plump breasts to virile cocks, it is as if the chicken has been force-fed with every artificially-flavor-enhanced, 11 different-herbs-and-spices metaphor of human sex and power. Computer games feature chicken-kicking competitions, chicken-punching mini-games, and macho chickens you can fight with. But in a common and ironic cock-up, if you look closely you will notice that the toughest macho chickens in the business are rendered exquisitely as hens.
Being chicken is particularly an anxiety of men.
Down by the marketplace of our local urban community environment park in inner city Melbourne, where I go once a week to splurge on handmade groceries, if I arrive before they open in the morning there’s nothing much else to do but wait over on the far side by the chickens. Ten minutes with the chickens is a long time. They ignore me and do chicken things, of which easiest to notice is pecking at the seeds their humans must have scattered. The little door to their coop is open, but most of them seem to enjoy taking in the morning sunshine. Their fenced domain extends down the hillside, with gates opening onto other unseen spaces they can wander into as they wish.
There must be a hundred individuals in this plump of fowl, each making its own path and its own decisions about where to peck and where to look and who to follow and who to stay away from, and each one finding different things to tread on and feeling the wind blowing across its feather in a different way, presumably, depending on who it’s standing next to or which bush it is underneath. If I’m going to eat chicken, which I might or might not, but if I’m going to eat chicken, let it be one of these, let it be something special to save up for, let it be sacrificed with full honors.
And yes, I’ll open the email.
The world is on fire, and some people want to live forever. Maybe everybody, on a given day, wants to live forever. Although that’s clearly not true: I can think of too many who, on a given day, came to a different conclusion.
Our backyard in Melbourne is a veritable rabbit cemetery. Our children, Esther and Louis, were spared the full horror of the crime scene that time the dogs got in, but Esther was a big one for making crosses out of old bits of wood we found in the shed— nailing them together in the simplest of hardware acts, applying some varnish and some decorations. RIP, she would write. I suppose we taught her that crosses and RIP were how you responded when something that you cared about had died. Even if you didn’t believe in Jesus or God.
Once we had shoveled the dirt on top of the shoeboxed rabbits and planted the lacquer-dry wooden emblem at the head, like pretend grave-diggers, we put the tools back in the shed and went on with the next thing and never once gave those rabbits another thought. At least I didn’t. Certainly not to their decomposing bodies in their decomposing cardboard coffins. It is not considered normal or healthy to watch things decompose. It is viewed as morbid. Even serial killers, so far as I’m aware, would prefer to chop up their victims’ bodies and put them in the freezer or bury them under the house, rather than sit at the kitchen table, breathing in the stench, as maggots metamorphose into blowflies and liquids pool in Rothko hues. Or whatever.
Decomposition could also mean to unwrite a book. To sing an opera back to nothing. To edit is to compose by decomposing. Every composite requires an opposite. Two taps forward, one finger on delete. Besides, it all depends which way you look at it and who you are. My decomposing body would be inspiration for whole legions of thankful creatures in the soil. Even ink and paper might be better off digested. Not so much my laptop—that will take a million years to decompose, give or take.
They say that peat is helping to slow runaway global warming. The organic remains of plants and animals release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when they decompose, thanks to the industry of fungi, microbes, flies, beetles, crows, vultures, foxes, and so on. But in a peatland, normal rules of decay do not apply. Regular processes of decomposition are suspended in a watery goo. The creatures that would attack your everyday serial-killed body or your beloved rabbit and munch it into oblivion can’t breathe underwater in such places: there’s not enough oxygen. Decomposition slows and slooooooooowwws. Think of a long lugubrious, rippling note played by a Lewis Carroll walrus on a deep bassoon.
A peatland can be called a quag, a bog, a mire, a fen, a morass, a slough, a sump. Typically, these waterlogged domains have been cast as gloomy, uncanny places where nothing grows and bodies float to the surface, or don’t. For centuries, they’ve been drained to make land useful for agriculture and dwelling. Now it seems it might have been better to leave well alone. Peatlands trap vast amounts of carbon that plants have captured from the air through photosynthesis across millennia. They are much more efficient carbon banks than forests, for example.
To say that we are mired, then, in planet-sized problems, is misleading. What we need above all else is mires. The impulse to drain the swamp is exactly what got us into this mess in the first place.
Slooooooooow, sounds the walrus, as if unmaking opera.
I make a mental note to from now on better appreciate peatlands, and their subtle arts of un-decomposition. All things are in motion, cycling through beginnings after endings, but it is beautiful if they get bogged down here and there.
There is nothing more thing-y than a speculation, and nothing more speculative than any ordinary thing—this could be the seen as the premise of my piece here. Bacteria, chicken, even decomposition: all of these are not only things in their own right but also, as I approach them, inevitably jangled with metaphor, entangled with atmospheres, freighted with fantasies. This trio of miniature essays is extracted from a larger alphabetical set Nicole Walker and I have written to make the book The After-Normal (Rose Metal Press, 2019). Essays that look aslant and try to feel out what is happening. Each essay brings a new object into view, something big or small that insists somehow to be taken note of and responded to.
David Carlin’s books include Our Father Who Wasn’t There (2010), The Abyssinian Contortionist (2015), and the forthcoming The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet (written with Nicole Walker) for Rose Metal Press (2019), and 100 Atmospheres: Studies in Scale and Wonder (written with MECO Network, 2018) for Open Humanities Press. David’s essays, plays, radio features, exhibitions, documentary and short films have won awards and featured at numerous international festivals. He co-edited with Francesca Rendle-Short an anthology of new Asian and Australian writing, The Near and the Far (2016); also, with Laurene Vaughan, Performing Digital (2015), about the Circus Oz Living Archive project he led. David is a Professor of Creative Writing at RMIT University, Australia, where he co-directs WrICE and non/fictionLab.
by Ander Monson
Any first-person narration from someone other than the self is necessarily speculative. But I think too that even when we are narrating ourselves in essays, that’s fiction too.
I want to punch a slack-jawed motherfucker out a chopper door and look down on him so he can admire my grin as he descends. I hope he keeps a memory of me—the little halo of my mouth—as he hits the fog and disappears. I wish it made a little poof like in cartoons. What he sees after only he can know. No one will remember him, not even me, not soon. Days I’m onscreen you’ll remember me: you’ll want me or want to be me, sometimes both at once. At least you’ll want me on your side.
I’d like to blow myself all the way out of myself and see what’s left without me there. I make Blain moves and think of Blain. Say the same Blain things I always say. Are they evidence of he or me? Who knows? Who cares? Then I dream of air, and, after that, of nothing. Is there such a thing as nothing? Can you see it if there is?
I know how I’m seen, a sexual tyrannosaurus with my little arms and ridiculous mouth pumping into everything faster, just like the future. If you’d told me that ten years on from this I’d be telling deer hunters in Minnesota that it’s cowardly to hunt at things that can’t shoot back, that the only hunting worth respect is hunting men, and then getting elected governor, then after that hosting a television show entertaining conspiracy theories like the one about the Denver airport secretly being built atop a huge satanic nuclear bunker I’d have bled you in the jungle.
I am mostly pretty sure that I will never die. If I pay little enough attention to it I can stop time.
The wars I was built for have come and gone but I stay on camera where I belong and become a hymn I sing to man, a homophone for him. The idea of being one—a man, a body—I still think about it after all this time. I know that I’m alone out here, surrounded by these other men I cannot know, but when I see them look at me I’m full. They want to believe, and I do too, and so I do, and that’s how we make the magic.
When night falls in the jungle and my memories of muzzle flash begin to fade, I start to see things differently. Here I’m far from where I began; I think of ham, hard lives, and then of God, an action film, my forever home. I say I don’t believe in him but when I am stilled and the world is too and I have nothing else to do I find myself listening—what for if not for God?
I should know by now the song I sing is suicide. When I stop speaking I begin to feel myself, a sensation I do not like. And the more I feel the less I’m full, a fallow field, C4 without a detonator, a big unloaded gun. What am I to do? Remember? If I focus all of my energy on the past I can almost believe it’s there beyond the lens. Maybe I knew them well, those fields, those folds of corn, that loneliness. How I feel must mean I came from it: a state with one I and a lot of sky.
I am lonely when I rest: I can’t stand being second-best. When I finally find the time to bleed I find bleeding’s all I do. All I was then was holding in, and now all I am is emission, exhalation, a sign of smoke, a scent of rain remembered from the plains where I am telling you I’m sure I must be from, I have to be from somewhere, a little hum coming from my mouth before I even notice what I’m singing and I see the alien fire bursting out of me, and only then do I begin to believe.
“Blainsong” occupies a space—for me—between fiction and nonfiction. I suppose it could be called a kind of fanfiction, if the fiction it aspired to was more interested in the stuff of fiction (or of fanfiction). The project it comes from began as a poem about the 1987 movie Predator. Then it became a book. Then it became an essay. I think it is an essay, and it’s interested in the stuff of essay and indeed of nonfiction: cultural phenomena, politics, history, film, celebrity, masculinity. In the narrowest definitions of nonfiction it’s not, is it? It imagines Blain’s interiority and moves through it to Jesse Ventura’s, the actor’s. Any first-person narration from someone other than the self is necessarily speculative. But I think too that even when we are narrating ourselves in essays, that’s fiction too. We exaggerate; we tweak; we edit; we build characters of ourselves in sentences and in how and what we see and how we tell or think about what we see. How much of the I in an essay exists anyway before it sprawls out on the page? How much of a speculative leap is it to jump into another’s vehicle instead and speed off with it?