26 April 2009
So, the latest topic about which I'll be shoehorning tidbits into whatevs: falconry! Which is, of all things, totally still practiced. The book is Falconer on the Edge: A Man, His Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West, by Rachel Dickinson.
You'd think my being generally freaked out by birds (their little skittery feet! the unthinkable juncture of feather and pebbly skin!) would have kept me away from this title. But kestrels, especially, sound sort of cute.
by Cynthia Leitich Smith
rating: 3 of 5 stars
Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Tantalize was my favorite young-adult vampire tale of last summer (yeah, I’m coming out: totally not Team Edward), so I was pretty Beatlemania’d to hear she’d written a sequel (and eventually, a trilogy! Squee!). While Eternal doesn’t share an overarching narrative with Tantalize (nor, sadly, the mouthwatering Italian menu—though we are treated to an unorthodox dip for fresh-baked pumpkin bread), it’s set in the same world, where both vampires and all manner of werefolk exist (though the former keep a low profile, while the latter struggle for civil rights).
Here, Smith also introduces a new supernatural angle, in the form of guardian angel Zachary, who’s watched his charge Miranda grow into a sweet but awkward teenager with dreams of dramatic greatness. She ends up on a larger stage than she’s meant for one night when Zachary’s unauthorized interference keeps her from her destined death: he’s stripped of his wings, while she awakens as not only a vampire, but the adopted daughter/bride of the latest Dracula himself, royal head of the entire undead—sorry, “eternal” is the preferred nomenclature—population. Suddenly, Miranda is clumsily navigating the political machinations of the bloodsucking elite, desperately trying to stay on the unstable monarch’s good side, and oh yeah, drinking human blood. The fallen-but-still-immortal Zachary, on the other hand, is recruited from a slough of despond to accomplish a divine mission that remains unclear: but soon he’s Miranda’s new personal assistant, trying to balance his disgust for her lifestyle—and that of the other human servants, who somehow reconcile their duty to their masters with the presence of cell-bound “bleeding stock” in the basement—with his love for the girl she used to be, and maybe still is.
Told in Zachary’s and Miranda’s alternating voices, Eternal is a great addition to the ever-expanding vamp canon, switching up the usual outside-looking-in viewpoint and creating realms of Whedonesque moral ambiguity within the paranormal framework. Apparently Smith’s forthcoming title Blessed will feature crossovers between the casts of both Tantalize and Eternal. Here’s hoping the mozzarella, parmesan, and gorgonzola ravioli makes an appearance.
Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip
by Matthew Algeo
rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’m not sure if this is adorable or insufferable, or a combination of both, but when I’m reading a fact-based book that I like at all, I can’t stop interjecting salient (or not) points into conversation; it’s almost a tic, as my brain rushes to juxtapose newly absorbed information with whatever it is I and my interlocuters are discussing.
So here’s some stuff I babbled about while reading this chatty, charming travelogue about a road trip just-ex-president Harry Truman and his wife, Bess, took in the summer of 1953: Truman was the last president without a college degree, and the first to have a TV in the White House (2 grand, and I’m guessing the picture was iPhone-sized). He’d only been vice president eighty-two days when FDR died (I calculated this would be like Biden having taken over this Easter. But with, you know, a world war on). The genesis of the Trumans’ trip from Independence to the East Coast and back was Harry’s re-entrance into partisan politics—he gave a speech at the Reserve Officers Association convention in Philadelphia, blasting Eisenhower for, of all things, cutting the defense budget. Farther afield: the first motor vehicle fatality in the U.S. was in 1899, when Henry Bliss exited a streetcar at 74th St. and Central Park West and was mowed down by an electric-powered taxicab. The first cross-country automobile trip was undertaken on a $50 bet by a doctor and his chauffeur, who in 1903 drove from San Francisco to New York in only six weeks. By 1925, the same trip was possible in under a hundred hours; today, you can do it in forty-eight.
The journey, unprecedented and unsuceeded, was covered in excruciating detail by local and national press; though Truman dearly longed to retreat into civilian life, folks recognized him everywhere, and despite the fact that he’d left office with a record-settingly grim 22% approval rating (only recently equaled), people were thrilled to see him. Algeo’s research included as often as possible driving over the same roads, eating at the same diners (the Trumans were big fans of fruit, and good tippers), and staying in the same lodging as Harry and Bess. In many ways, the book is also a synecdoche on the change and erosion of rural America, as well as a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of the ex-presidency. During the 1800s, plenty of former chief executives simply faded into obscurity and poverty (Franklin Pierce apparently drank himself to death). Truman had no presidential pension and hadn’t been a senator long enough to have a congressional pension (and having been a government employee, he wasn’t eligible for Social Security), so his only income was from his stint as an Army colonel in WWI: $111.96 a month. He also wasn’t entitled to Secret Service protection (and would have chafed at it anyway).
The picture that emerges of Harry should be familiar to anyone with Midwestern ancestors: a genial, practical, plainspoken gent with a twinkle in his eye and a nigh-unlimited capacity for handshakes. He was fierce in his convictions, and devoted to his wife (when a Washington newspaper referred to Bess as “dumpy,” he countered that she looked exactly as a woman of her age was supposed to look). He loved little better than driving (even as commander-in-chief, he sometimes piloted his own limousine). And he drove, almost always, a little too fast.
Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry
by Leanne Shapton
rating: 4 of 5 stars
You’ve (almost certainly) never heard of the movie Repo! The Genetic Opera, so let me elucidate: it’s a gory horror musical, the magnum opus of the director of the first four “Saw” flicks, set in a near-future dystopia where designer organs are available on the installment plan—but if you don’t make your payments on time, the repo man (played by Anthony Stewart Head of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and 80s Taster’s-Choice-commercial fame) comes a-callin’, to extricate the defaulted-upon pound or so of flesh, all the while trying to protect his beloved daughter from the imprecations of the world. Also, Paris Hilton is totally in it, and her face totally falls off. It’s not good per se—the music is grating and repetitive, for one—but within its palette of blacks and blues and bloody reds, it’s one of the most beautiful movies in my recent memory (seriously, I’d compare it to Moulin Rouge on the opposite side of the spectrum), and there is this to say for it, which means a lot to me lately: it’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen.
An equally singular but far more successful work of art, Important Artifacts starts with an ingenious concept: to chronicle the forging, progression, and unraveling of a romantic relationship through the cast-off possessions of the couple, told in the form of an auction catalog. In photographs, documents, and dispassionate explanatory prose, author Leanne Shapton brings food writer Lenore Doolan and itinerant photographer Harold Morris to heartbreaking life. Here, an envelope of confetti she mailed him for a New Year’s they were apart. There, the contents of his shaving kit on a trip they took to Venice; there are five different kinds of over-the-counter sedative. Two pairs of clogs: “One pair powder blue women’s, size 8, the other red, men’s size 11. Some scuffing to leather.” Perhaps my favorite “lot” is 1204, a set of duplicate paperbacks from Lenore and Hal’s blended libraries, ironically containing twin titles of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair.
The meticulous collection and assembly behind the book is staggering, but it’s the stark poignancy of so many ordinary objects that really amazes me. This is the detritus of love: the battered toothbrush cup they shared, homemade mix CDs, scribbled conversations on theater programs. There’s no breakup “scene,” no final fight. After a few years of photos of the two on Halloween there is suddenly a sketch by Lenore of costumes for her and her sister. There are champagne corks and crumbling pressed flowers. There are, in the end, only indifferent things as witness to who these people were to each other.
25 April 2009
The sky is crouching down but under it I feel lighter,
as if the cloud is rising from my palms, empty and full.
And yet, and yet, what is being removed is not burden but its opposite
because what remains is locked room, laceration.
Am I being clear? Clear within ambiguity, I mean?
Why is this a struggle when this is what I do,
when it’s supposed to be what I’m best at?
I could blame this feeling on a lot of things,
although feeling isn’t the right word, and that’s part of it—
that feeling is contact, that this is lack,
a layer of blank around my stretching skin, a pushing
of intent through the bulletproof void—
I want to blame this: that I haven’t written a poem in a year,
that I haven’t been kissed in two.
They’re connected: they are.
Because if I can’t finish, why start?
Throw the pen down, bite back the banter, the smirk.
Don’t make it worse on myself by trying.
Accept this lonesome stelae, perpendicular to the grey horizon.
This storm. This island.
15 April 2009
My fancy-pants French translation is on hold for a bit whilst I read Dead Until Dark, the first in Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse vampire-y romance-y mystery novels (inspiration for True Blood, if you have HBO. I don't.) Lest you think this is dipping too low in the lit echelon, allow me to quote from pg. 76 of Elegance of the Hedgehog:
"I learned that this contamination of my aspiration to high culture by my penchant for lower forms of culture does not necessarily represent the indelible mark of my lowly origins . . . but is, rather, a contemporary characteristic of the dominant intellectual class. . . . As part of a study on the evolution of the cultural practices of intellectuals who had once been immersed in highbrow culture from dawn to dusk but who were now mainstays of syncretism in whom the borders between high and low culture were irreversibly blurred, my sociologist described a classics professor who, once upon a time, would have listened to Bach, read Mauriac, and watched art-house films, but nowadays listened to Handel and MC Solaar, read Flaubert and John le Carre, went to see Visconti and the latest Die Hard, and ate hamburgers at lunch and sashimi in the evening."
So you see, I'm perfectly normal.
rating: 3 of 5 stars
Some would say that I, at 29, am too old for Hello Kitty. They would be wrong. Dead wrong. Neville-Chamberlain-“peace-in-our-time” wrong. As a practicing khairailurophile (a term of my own coinage, meaning roughly “greeting-cat-lover”), I’ve got clothes and tchotchkes galore—in fact, I recently redecorated my bathroom with accoutrements honoring my favorite bow-wearin’ Japanese goodwill ambassador. (My brother’s gonna love it when he comes home from college this summer.)
So I’m 100% behind this adorable, practical kit, which uses Hello Kitty’s Svengali-like power for noble ends: getting kids outside and playing! It includes sidewalk chalk (Mark Bradshaw’s favorite), a yo-yo, a jump rope, an inflatable ball, and a color-in storybook about the joys of open-air frolicking. Pair it with Fancy Nancy’s latest—all about exploring nature—and you’ll have trouble keeping even the girliest girl inside this summer!
by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
rating: 4 of 5 stars
Amy Krouse Rosenthal & Jen Corace are a winning combination: their previous collaborations “Little Pea” (about a wee vegetable who has to eat all his candy—yuck!—before he can have spinach for dessert) and “Little Hoot” (about a young owl who wishes he could go to bed early like all his friends, and didn’t have to stay up and play) are my go-to picture books for three- or four-year-olds, kids who are just beginning to understand the humor in topsy-turvy stories. Their latest, “Little Oink,” continues the laughs, with the tale of a piglet whose least favorite time of day is “mess up time,” when, at his parents’ behest, he has to unmake his bed, unfold his clothes, and muddy up his T-shirt. Even that’s not enough, says Papa Pig: “I still see toys in their bin, mister. Please—not another word until this room’s a total pigsty.” Only after he’s untidied to Papa & Mama’s specifications can he play his favorite game—house! Where he gets to sweep and scour and scrub as much as he wants. With whimsical, colorful illustrations (Papa Pig’s mustache is a hoot) and a sneaky message about delayed gratification, this is a great read-aloud for clutterful little ones.
09 April 2009
08 April 2009
My novel: Muriel Barbery's translated-from-French The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which is dark and funny and very smart. It does my heart good to know that there's a book on the bestseller list that contains, in its first 50 pages, an amusing and cogent gloss on phenomenonology. Though I think she's kinda hard on Husserl.
rating: 4 of 5 stars
My recent doxographical inamorata The Book of Dead Philosophers relates this anecdote about Ludwig Wittgenstein: “After he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer . . . [a friend:] presented him with an electric blanket on his birthday and said, ‘Many happy returns.’ Wittgenstein replied, staring back at her, “There will be no returns.’” Not a cheery man, was Ludwig (though perhaps vindicated by his death three days later).
But he came by it honest, as I learned reading this well-researched and diverting biography of his family, written by Evelyn Waugh’s grandson Alexander. Depression certainly was a hereditary curse: three of the five sons of Karl and Leopoldine Wittgenstein committed suicide—Hans simply disappeared; Kurt, an officer in the Austrian army, shot himself at the end of the Great War; Rudi theatrically drank potassium cyanide at a cafe, after requesting his favorite song. But the Wittgensteins were also brilliant, musical, and driven. The other surviving brother, Paul, made his debut as a concert pianist in December 1913, an inauspicious time for any young European man to start a career; less than a month after war was declared, he’d lost his right arm and been captured by the Russians. He spent months being shuffled amongst Siberian prison camps, rewriting concertos—from memory—for just the left hand, tapping out the arpeggios on tables and packing crates. Astonishingly, he spent the rest of his life playing piano professionally, commissioning works for the left hand from Strauss, Prokofiev, Ravel, and Britten, among others.
The story of this idiosyncratic and unhappy clan serves as a microcosm of larger experiences. During the late 1930s, for instance, when Austria joined with Nazi Germany in Anschluss, the siblings found themselves suddenly Jewish: three sets of grandparents were born in that faith, and their later conversions meant nothing to the Reich. Ludwig was in Cambridge, and safe; sister Gretl was married to an American, thus untouchable; but Paul had had two children with an irreproachably Aryan mistress, making him guilty of “race pollution.” He fled to Switzerland and eventually Cuba, and managed to smuggle out his mistress and daughters too. Hitler’s genocidal ideology, however, was not immune to corruption, and the Wittgensteins were rich. Very rich, even after losing a great deal to runaway inflation in the decades between the wars, when consumer prices in Austria rose 14,000-fold. (Gretl’s American investments took a hit in 1929, of course, but she was still left with an income of $30,000 a year.) The Reichsbank essentially held the two sisters remaining in Vienna hostage until the others relinquished a great deal of their fortune, whereupon one of their grandfathers became the illegitimate son of German nobility, and presto! they were Mischling (half-breed), a far more advantageous social and legal status.
Ludwig famously ended his most significant work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, with the engimatic proposition “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence,” and I’m afraid I must echo him here: I can’t possibly tell all the stories I found in this lively history, so I’ll just end the attempt.
The King's Rifle: A Novel by Biyi Bandele
rating: 3 of 5 stars
Every now and then you read some galling statistic about how many American adults think the Germans attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1861, and if you’re like me (and really, you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t), you always feel a heady mix of horror and amour-propre. With a historically-minded papa and more books on WWII in the house than you could shake an Enfield at, I thought I was pretty well up on the conflict, so I was surprised and chagrined to learn of an entire theater I’d never heard about: Burma, where thousands of Japanese and British troops perished in brutal battle over some of the most inhospitable territory of the war. And, like so many discoveries of mine, it came through art: one night Turner Classic Movies broadcast the 1956 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner, Kon Ichikawa’s haunting The Burmese Harp, about a young Japanese soldier’s quest to bury his fallen comrades; then, a few weeks later, I picked up The King’s Rifle, Nigerian writer Biyi Bandele’s stark, spare rendering of one West African soldier’s experiences during the campaign. (Realizing that Africans, as British colonials, played their own part in WWII was another humbling moment.)
Bandele, who lives in London, takes an ancient theme—the absurdity and suffering of war, old hat practically since the Iliad—and adds to it the only way any writer can, with a sharp and specific snapshot of an individual unwittingly taking part in the universal. Farabiti (dialect for “Private") Ali Banana is barely fourteen, but eagerly left his village to fight for Kingi Joji; shipped to Burma, he is deployed with the Chindits, a multicultural strike force that fought entirely behind Japanese lines. In graceful, dispassionate prose, Bandele chronicles pride and bravery against daunting odds: disease, homesickness, rough terrain (not just jungle, mountainous jungle!), even the multiple languages necessary for the polyglot unit to function (Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba, Burmese, Hindustani, Nepalese), all seem to doom them before the shooting even starts. The King’s Rifle is a reminder that we will never know enough about war, even when we think we know too much.
05 April 2009
Then let me quote the whole first paragraph, so you'll have to read it:
Just because Laura Rider had no children didn't mean her husband was a homosexual, but the people of Hartley, Wisconsin, believed that he was, and no babies seemed to them proof. They could also tell by his heavy-lidded eyes that were sweetly tapered, his thick dark lashes, his corkscrew curls, his skinny legs and the springy walk, and the fact that he often looked dreamily off in thought, as if he were trying to see over the rainbow. In the municipal chambers at a public meeting, a town councilman had once said that Charlie Rider needed a shot of testosterone. It was a mystery to Laura that in Hartley, population thirty-seven hundred, people who had never been to a gay-pride parade or seen any cake boys that they knew of outside of TV actors, were so sure about Charlie. She assumed that, like any place, the town was laced with fairies, not visible to the naked eye, but Charlie, she could testify, was not one of them. Laura herself had not been to a pride parade, but her personal experience included her flamboyant uncle Will, her outrageous cousin Stephen, her theatrical playfellow Bubby from the old neighborhood, and also her Cousin Angie, who had tried to shock them all by having a lesbian phase in college. No one in the family, it turned out, cared.
Then let me gush a little about the astonishing metanarrative all of this serves. Because of course, this is a novel about novels, writing about writing, and seems to me to ask the question: does an author have a moral obligation to her characters? Is her complete control over their lives, by definition, despotic? There's also wonderful, witty musing about the culture of the amateur, the creatureliness of even the intellectuals, and the banality of love. Jane Hamilton's doing a book signing at my store April 21st; I'm just a little bit giddy at the prospect.
03 April 2009
The wings had been inside her as long as she could remember. Mostly they were in her throat, when she tried to greet a neighbor or turn a phrase—beat, beat, beat, came the wings, and they blew out her breath so that she could not speak at all. When the storms came up from the coast, the wings hummed about her heart and stomach, and her mother would smooth her matted curls and coo quiet, and the wings would fold themselves away and lie still. When her mother died, the wings were everywhere—she was amazed that she stayed on the ground, stayed in one piece, for there were hundreds of wings beating her in a hundred different directions. She watched the flames from her mother’s pyre leaping, twisting, soaring to the skies, and the wings burned back in turn, beat, beat, beat.
The hooves came later, when she was eleven, kicking insistently at her chest until the flesh pointed and sagged and fell, heavy, towards the ground. They thrummed down her belly and beat like wings between her legs; she feared the coiled hair that began to grow there, feared that the hooves were driving out her guts. Then blood poured out, matting the hair, the hooves tearing her apart inside, and the blood ran down her legs. The wings came up behind her eyelids, and the tears came down like blood, and the blood came down like tears. The women of the household found her in the stable, on a clotted pile of straw, and they took her in their cloaks, in their arms, and cooed quiet. She tried to tell them of the hooves and wings but they did not understand. They told her that she was a woman now, that she belonged to them. But she knew that was not true. It was the wings and the hooves that owned her, that beat and kicked and changed her.
They took her to live at the temple. A motherless girl could not ask for more. If she could have formed the words in her throat, had it not been for the wings blowing out her breath, she would have asked to go to the temple of the Mother, to watch the holocausts and incense burn, the flames leap like wings towards the skies. But they took her instead to the temple of a god, not the father she had disappointed by the fact of her birth, but a young and handsome god, his statue covered in gold, with blue eyes like stormless skies to match the draperies his acolytes wove anew every year. She stood before him all in white, consecrated, and the hooves began to thrum below, remorselessly, on one small piece of flesh, sending flames up and down her skin that even the beating of the wings could not extinguish. She loved him. She would serve him well.
After that were days of ritual, of oil and chant and the stench of freshly killed oxen rising like flames before the god. She bowed her head as men passed by, come to the temple to pray for success in wrestling and lyre-playing; but she met the god’s blue eyes every morning, every evening, and felt the hooves thrum away till she feared the force would shatter her, cracks radiating out from the center, and she would fall to pieces like a dropped goblet.
She knew that she served the god well, more than just adequately, unlike the motherless mumbling girls beside her. She grew to look down on them, useless automatons; they spilt the oil, botched the chant, filched grapes from the god’s feast. The god would never love them as he loved her. She could fill a goblet to the very top so the strength of the wine was cut sweet with water, and she could carry the goblet high above her head, her hands wrapped in a white garment so her impure touch did not profane the god’s drink, and though she moved swiftly across the temple’s bright courtyard, not one drop of purple stained the cloth. Her length of his draperies was always a little finer than the others; she combed through the wool for hours, in secret, and palmed the best for her own use. Though she did not know the meanings of the chant—they were in a long-forgotten language known only to the high priestess—its vowels on her tongue tasted more familiar than ordinary speech. As the years passed, she looked into the god’s statue’s eyes every morning, every evening, and she could feel her love begin to pierce the stone, change the cold marble to living flesh, and she knew the god was looking back at her, not like a father, but like a lover.
So when the boy came, she knew what to do. She saw him first in all the crowd at the festival. He was perfect. Hair like gold, not just in color but in the way it bent and curled in the heat; eyes like stones made flesh. Hooves and heart and wings all leapt in every way at once, reddening her skin and causing such a headache her vision swam beneath the sun, though the boy’s outline remained clear. This was her reward, at last. Her love had brought the god to life.
When the boy looked up at her during the ceremony she looked out at him, pushing her desire through her pupils, fanned by the fluttering of wings. He did not seem the least surprised by her invitation. After all, higher-ranking women from this temple often entertained men during the spring festivals; how was he to know she was of common birth, unworthy of receiving a lover in place of the god?
That night they met in the cedars outside the temple’s stout columns. Without a work, they clasped hands and entered the sacred place to make love in the shadow of the god. Upon the altar she rode him as if she were going into battle. "My lord!" she cried, as her wings spread full, as she gasped at the updraft that seemed as if it would carry her away; as the wings spread wide, so that she could feel each individual feather, and she reached each one, separately, to the sky.
She awoke among the virgins, at the first caress of dawn, and walked down to the river to wash. She loved disrobing under the sun which was her god’s; she shuddered at its rays, touching her like a lover. As she stepped into the water, a bird left its perch in a nearby tree and flew, warbling its morning greetings, towards her. She whistled back with joy; the bird turned its head and looked her in the eye.
And fell, suddenly deadweight, into the water at her feet.
Immediately she crouched down to touch it; immediately she recoiled. For the bird, it seemed, had disappeared; in its place lay a perfect stone replica, carved beyond any master’s skill, exact down to the smallest headfeather, the clutch of its tiny claws, as if it had died of a fright so deep all breath had fled. But beyond the strange little statue, painted on the water, was a still more incredible sight: her head, her face, contorted in shock, surrounded by dozens of writhing, black-tongued vipers.
She screamed, screamed until the noise was outside of her and she blocked her ears against it. A viper slid between her fingers, and she screamed again. The bird’s body rocked from side to side in the ripples.
She seized a rock, one of the black jewels of the volcano god, and splintered it into wafers, sharpened it frantically on the boulders of the bank. Half gagging, she seized one of the snakes on her head by its throat, pulled it taut, and began to saw at it with the makeshift knife.
And screamed again, without wishing it, at the pain that seared through her skull. Blood trickled down into her eyes; she dropped the snake to the ground, horrified, and stared at it; immediately it ceased all movement, blanched white, a companion piece to the bird who spread lifeless wings by the river bank.
Past screaming now, she splashed water on her brow, donned her white robe, and closed her eyes. She crawled back towards the temple, feeling for the imprint of her footprints, which paced serenely in the opposite direction, away from her forever.
She would put out her eyes, she decided halfway home, like the old man in the story who could no longer look at his own life. Pausing to scrabble in the pebbles by the roadside, she found the remains of a broken pitcher, dashed to the ground by a careless traveler; she selected the sharpest shard and plunged it deep into a socket.
She vomited at the pain, and spent several minutes moaning on the ground before she realized that she could still see. She could see, in fact, the shard itself, cutting her vision in half. She pulled it out, the bile rising, and once again saw everything perfectly. The trees shuddered ashen at her approach. A line of ants with their heavy burdens turned to chips of marble under her gaze, as if a sculptor had forgotten to sweep his workshop. She put her hand to her eye and felt no blood.
Whimpering, she groped her way back; the motherless maidens had not yet arisen. From her tiny store of possessions, she selected a diadem which pinned the snakes to her skull, pulled her hood firmly up over her head. She must tell the god. Surely he would not allow this to happen to her, the most devoted of his acolytes.
Keeping her eyes firmly on the ground, she sidestepped the girl usually charged with the morning rite. "I will do it today," she said, and the girl was too young to hear the tremor in her voice.
She lit the wrong incense, the kind forbidden to all but the high priestess, the kind that allowed her to speak directly with the god. It was acrid at first, holding her head in the smoke, so that she coughed, and felt a viper jerk free and hiss in triumph; but as she kept breathing in the fumes, they became sweet, sweet like wine, sweet like blood. And suddenly she heard him; he spoke in her ear, in the voice of the snake.
"Why have you summoned me?"
She opened her mouth to stammer the proper salutations, and choked on the smoke once again. Chastened, she stared into the flame as she had seen the high priestess do—at least it continued to move as she did so—and used her heart to speak. "Help me, my lord. A terrible curse has befallen me."
"A just curse has befallen you, whore," hissed the god.
"Why? Why? What could I have done?"
"Stupid girl. You should know. You defiled my temple, my very altar, with a mortal. A worthless piece of meat, when I am your only lover."
"No! It was you, I know! I saw him. I felt it."
"You thought yourself worthy to be loved by a god?" The snake curled its body into a sneer. "A motherless girl with matted hair. You exist to sweep up the ashes, to throw the rotten food to the dogs. I would never touch you."
The wings furled themselves away. The hooves fell silent. "But I loved you. I wanted you only."
"So shall you have me. Every man you look at with your whore’s eyes will look like me. The only god you ever knew. A man of stone."
Her body fainted. Her will dragged her to the farthest corner of the temple, where she would never be noticed, and she wept the silent shrieking sobs of the brokenhearted.
Night fell. A storm was brewing, bubbling like a cauldron, off the coast. She held still for a very long time, unwilling to risk the least noise of maiden or mouse, before she opened her eyes to pitch black and breathed the barest sigh of relief. Before, she had been frightened of the dark, the way it hid life away; but this night was blessed.
She made her way to the shallow stone basin that held the god’s feast, and fell on it ravenously, olives and stale bread and watered-down wine. The girls would take it as a miracle in the morning, she realized; but she did not smile at the thought. She looked up at the god, and now in the moonlight she saw the flaking gilt, the blank blue pupils, the carved lips pressed together in a cruel smirk. Just stone. Not a man at all.
Too late. Lost in reverie, she did it all without thinking until it was too late. He reached out for her, as he had the night before, tentative but burning with need. He walked up behind her form robed white in the moonlight, in the shadow of the god, and reached out his hand toward her shoulder, the way a child reaches for the rainbow. His touch, soft but sudden, made her turn so fast her head fell back, the diadem clattered to the floor, the snakes stretched forth with a satisfied hiss, and her eyes met his, blue as stormless skies. "No!" she screamed, too late, and closed her eyes, too late, and reached out to push him away, too late, so that her hands struck hard against the stone of his shoulders. She shoved against the stone, sobbing, and finally laid her cheek against the cold of his chest, let his forever-outstretched arm hide her, and clung to him as if tears could melt the marble.
When she pulled back to look at his face, white as the temple columns in the moonlight, there was no fear on it. Instead, his eyes looked down at her tenderly; his lips, far from being twisted in terror, smiled wide and warm. It was then that she knew the worst of the god’s punishment. Even crowned by vipers, even endowed with eyes that killed sure as the moon goddess’s arrows, she was still beautiful.
How she got to the island she never knew. It seemed she had simply drifted there, lost consciousness and let the wings and hooves take over, and in their flight from all that was mortal and vulnerable, they had carried her body, without her knowledge, over mountain and wave, till she came to her uneasy rest on this scabrous rock, black and twisted as the snakes that slithered on her brow.
It was an island for lost things, for things that never wanted to be found. No lichen brightened its soot-black stone; no strange sea creatures of slime and tentacle dwelt in its tidepools. Even the waves seemed to break against it with undue haste, as if they, too, were eager to leave.
She named the isle Solitude on her first day, as she sought in vain a comfortable place to lay her head. The others did not come out till that first night, when she woke to four coal-red eyes in the night, and the hiss of hundreds of snakes. "Hello, little sister," they said with one voice.
Once again too late she closed her eyes tight, and heard low laughter, less mirthful than a funeral lament. "No need to hide from us, little sister," said the one voice that was two. "Open your eyes and look."
They were hideous, their faces like those of old women who had lied and hated all their years. Their eyes were red, their lips black; their hair, like hers, was nothing but vipers, who held somehow the same look of malice and deceit in their lidless eyes. Their bodies were gnarled like starved trees; their breasts hung like sacks of grain. Their skin was leprous as the rock they lay upon, mottled purple and white and green, one continuous bruise. They had wings but no feathers, rather scales, chipped and broken, wings that had never been stretched forth in the joy of flight. They were creatures of dark anger and wickedness, like the Furies of old; yet they had called her sister. Was this what she had become? Her hands went to her shoulder blades, and to her horror found there the same fleshy, reptilian wings borne by these two hags. "These are not my true wings," she cried.
"They are the wings you have," they murmured in response. "We have adopted you, little sister. You are so like us, but for your mortality. We cannot die, we who were born to this thousands of years ago. But we understand you now. We are the only ones."
"Go away!" she cried. "I am nothing like you. I am beautiful." She ran from them, dragging the ponderous wings, but the other side of the island came too soon. There was nowhere to hide. She fell to her knees, wrapped her arms around her head. She would not give in.
For a long time she did not move. They came to her from time to time, called her little sister. They never asked her to join them, and she came to know that this was because she had no choice. Alone on this blasted rock, cursed as she was, they were offering her solace, as no other being in the world could. And so one day she got up, she crossed the island, she dropped her body heavily into the nest they made of each other, their arms and legs welcomed her; she slept, and as she did she fell into their breath, one long in and out, even, uncaring. As she fell asleep, she could feel even the snakes greeting each other, twisting together for warmth, ceasing their hisses in slumber.
For a while the three women behaved like three women behave—like one soul in three bodies, flowing easily like breath between them. In her youth she completed them. They were Stheno and Euryale, and she became Medusa—the first time she had needed a name, the first time she had been more than one useless girl among many, daughters, sisters, servants of the god.
They showed her what the island concealed. It was not so featureless as it seemed. There, in the roof of their grotto, tiny jewels that never caught the light; this was what had happened, they said, when they rolled their newborn eyes to the ceiling and glimpsed the merest bits of seaweed, brought in by a tide even older than they. Here, a few steps down from Medusa’s desperate resting place, was the volcano god’s pool, which eased the mocking pain of their wings.
Her senses grew sharper as they strained for amusement. Soon she knew every inch of coastline for miles, and delighted in the greenery too far away for her to murder with a glance. Sometimes she even saw mountain goats, and once, a man, obviously a lost traveler, stranded on a crag. From him she turned her head away.
She learned to listen to the gossip of the waves, carrying news from far and wide. She learned of the great war which destroyed Ilium, flung many great heroes down to death; the waves spoke of tasting blood on the Trojan beach. The waves loved most to bubble up with stories of their lord Poseidon, and for a time they told nothing but the tales of the sea-god’s wrath, his pursuit of the man of weaving wiles, who had blinded one of his many sons. She lay on the beach and let the laughter, the anger, the wheedling of the waves wash over her.
And then one day the waves ran up the beach, to froth insistently between Medusa’s toes. News! The water was frantic with it. She followed it down by the shore; the undertow caressed her feet, held them close. The water was worried.
It told a story of a walled-in maiden seduced by gold, the father’s rage so great he sealed mother and infant in a chest and let the sea serve as executioner. But they had survived, the mother and the demi-god, and now, like so many other bastard sons of thunder, it was time for him to commit great deeds, rescue the princess, rule the people. An old tale; Medusa yawned to hear it again, and tried to shake off the sea’s grip. But it pulled tighter, sweeping her off her feet to float offshore, rocking her as if in a cradle. She must be still and listen.
This bastard son’s great deed would be to kill her, lop off her head to further his goals. Already, seethed the sea, he had tricked the Grey Sisters and knew where to find her. She must hide, hide in the grotto and never come out.
Medusa laughed at the waves’ concern. "You forget that I am a monster. He could not get close enough to behead me without being turned to stone."
Ah, but he had the help of the gods, as always, in proving himself. He had only to use a mirror; her reflection could do no harm. Her death was coming; her death was willed by the gods. The water ran down her face like tears. In her mouth, it tasted like blood.
It left her on the beach, her body covered in brine. She rose and told her sisters the news. "We will protect you," they cried. "We are immortal. We will shield you with our wings and keep you safe, little sister."
Medusa shook her head. "No," she said. "No, I think I would like to die."
Ignoring their wails, she left the safety of the cave and strolled to a place she had once favored for scanning the southern coasts. Her knees slid smoothly into the timeworn grooves. She folded her hands demurely over the matted hair between her legs and tilted her head back to look at the sky.
He was not long in coming. She spotted him as an ungainly black speck, winging towards her on magic sandals, lurching like someone trying to run in water. She laughed at the sight, and then brought her eyes down to the sea, to allow him to approach.
He was very, very young, and he looked apprehensive but elated, like a schoolboy picked to recite in front of class. The winged sandals were too big in the sole and the wrapping went up to his thighs; the huge bronze shield and short sword he carried clanged together arrhythmically as his hands shook. She thought to herself that hers were probably the first bare breasts he had ever seen, and with a ghost of vanity she looked down at them, still poised, still white.
His hand shook, but his stroke was sure. As his blade slid through her flesh she looked up at the bronze mirror he held, and was shocked to see there the same face she had worn to greet her lover, as if only an hour had passed. She smiled.
As her body sprawled on the rock the hooves began their ascent, galloping up her spine, and the wings followed, stretching to their utmost, flexing each feather. With a triumphant whinny, the winged horse leaped from the womb that had carried it, and spreading its true wings, flew away.
[This story won Newman University's 2005 Jeanne Lobmeyer Cardenas Prize for Short Fiction. And as it turns out, my idea that Medusa was cursed for defiling a temple of Apollo comes not from actual Greek mythology but Clash of the Titans.]
You couldn't see me as I passed.
I was just a whisper in the grass.
My feet were green all summer.
There wasn't a runner
anywhere could touch me.
They felt me as a breeze on their faces.
I whistled past their pumping thighs.
I was too fast for eyes,
too fast for men's bare feet.
When they, panting, reached the line,
I, who had been there for some time,
smelled to them salty and alive.
The smell never left them.
They breathed it like air.
It wasn't fair.
I pinned Achilles' father at the games.
I hunted boar with heroes.
I ran, on a woman's bare feet.
He didn't beat
me, not really. It wasn't right.
Those apples were so bright
in the sun. And after all,
didn't I deserve something golden,
something shining? Goddesses
have fought for less.
Like an arrow I fell to earth.
And no, the apples weren't worth
it. Neither is he, nor his hands in the dark.
I was swift as a lark. I was free.
How does he think he will keep me?
I run so fast.
[A version of this appears in the Ennead above.]
Swallowing the Sun
What does the sun taste like?
they ask me, and I say, Guess.
Butter. Lemon. Clover honey.
Sticky marmalade, crunchy
bell pepper, banana pudding
with Nilla wafers, green tea
steaming in a cup with no handle.
Caramel Delites melted in
the package. A slight taste
of chlorine and clementines.
Madras curry. Hatch green chile,
pad Thai in a bowl, with scrambled-
egg sunspots and flares like noodles
tugged by chopsticks. Sherbet, icicles.
Yellow Chartreuse and LSD.
A Brach's butterscotch disk
with a crinkly wrapper of clouds.
Novocaine. Broken glass. A coin
in the mouth, to still the voice
of the dead. Sweat on a lover's temple.
A 9-volt battery on the tongue;
it numbs deliciously, and leaves
a funny metallic aftertaste.
Try this: go to the greenest place
you know, where leaves drink light
till it spills like Chardonnay down
their chins. Lie down and join them.
Close your eyes and stretch your throat
wide towards the blazing sky.
[I can't take credit for all the images in the second stanza--I sent out an email to family and friends asking their guesses for the taste of the sun.]
Like Sleeping Beauty wide awake
she sets her spindle spinning round.
A fist of spider's wool she takes
to turn the thread by which we're bound.
Her fingers dab her lower lip
to wet the thread, to make it cling.
It comes together in her grip
and while she spins she sings, she sings,
and while she spins she sings.
She sings of Life, of blood, of mind,
of running past the wind.
Sings of the joy with which we find
our mothers, brothers, lover, friends.
Sings of the grief and loss and pain
that come as sure as every spring;
the seasons bring both sun and rain,
and while she spins she sings, she sings,
and while she spins she sings.
The miles of thread she daily spins
twist out behind her, coil on coil;
her sisters' lot the bitter end,
but she knows only Life's sweet toil.
She spins eternal warmth and breath,
foreer round the mortal ring;
her sisters' lot to bring us death,
but while she spins she sings, she sings,
but while she spins she sings.
She is the most methodical of girls.
She has no tools but her own body, so
she takes care not to change. As dawn unfurls,
arms wide, knees flexed, she wakes spreading her toes.
She does not sing her older sister's song;
while she's reaching, she works silently;
she twists to measure thread one whole life long.
She contorts gracefully, a Greek yogini.
Life comes to her in tangles she unwinds;
for every one of us she measures twice,
marks delicately with a knot, a sign
to youngest sister where her shears should slice.
You think you life is years; but she says Nay--
one nose, one left hand, two aureolae.
the thread. She marks
our death. The thread
unravels. We gasp
for breath, find only
void. It fills
our lungs. It clots
our veins. The blood
moves slowly, pauses,
faints. Our pulse
beats once, a closing
door, and then it beats
are sharp. Her stroke
is sure. No stitch
nor poultice can
this cure. We bleed
from cut, in throat.
in gut, from burst
in brain, from heart's
glut, from germ
in blood, from rot
in wound, from choking,
falling, sun at
noon, too much, too
little, too fast, too
soon, from anger, love,
slices swift, cuts
short the dance.
I may never eat again.
I'm thinking of living on tea and sunshine and strawberry lip gloss
and ignoring my hair until it twists in snakes around
my bare shoulders. I'm thinking of wearing a blue silk dress that
weighs as much as a cloud, and slippers of spun sugar...
I'm thinking of grey kittens, and spending weeks in mud, and
charting the movement of the stars across my ceiling in glowing lollipop
swirls; I'm thinking of the smell of cut grass and borrowed boys' clothes
and coffee brewing; I'm thinking of dandelion crowns.
I may never sleep again.
I'm thinking I should live on a hillside between a patch of snow
and a puddle of clover; I'm thinking of the taste of moonlight and sweat.
I'm thinking of tongues, and washing my blue silk dress in fog, and bathing
in milk like Cleopatra, and closing my eyes to see the sunset better.
I'm thinking of open windows in the night, and rooms covered with tinfoil,
and dancing in my spun-sugar slippers until the melt sticky between
my toes, and my hair feels like tinsel.
Happiness is a chemical imbalance
and truth a twice-removed black sheep cousin of reality.
And yet I'm thinking of packing up and following the butterflies
on their migrations; of swimming upriver in a blue silk dress;
of discovering the source of the Nile; of painting stocking seams
up the back of my legs and alphabets across my spine.
I'm thinking of silversmithing, and swordfighting, and saints' bones.
I'm thinking of you.