Issue 124 — Dudko, Helms, Padhi, Payne, Rodriguez, Rosen, Wilkes
In this issue, works by
Lois Rosen, and
Goblin Valley State Park, Utah
Copyright © 2019 by Anna Dudko
The Thousand Francs
Jacques Charcot stood in the middle of the single room, thinking. He was drawing close to five and fifty, and each year showed as a wrinkle on his forehead. He still had hair on the back of his neck but was smooth otherwise. He had a habit of snarling, raising the left side of his upper lip. He stood short and squat with massive hands that had swung many a pick in the mines deep below the surrounding bleak lands of the town of Le Fleur. Still, he carried the marks of soot embedded into his fingers and a long angry scar on his forehead suffered during a rockfall. His wife, that nosy b—h Ursaline, was out and about on this cold November day in quest for eggs and a little butter.
Jacques had been searching his humble abode for the past six months, but he would not give up. A sudden thought came, and he rushed to the clay vinegar jar and lifted the lid. Perhaps she had fastened it there, but he was once more disappointed. He sat on one of the two straw-bottomed chairs and racked his brains for he knew that the thousand francs were in that house. She had hidden it from him and boasted of her cleverness, which was driving him mad!
He sat there and wiped his running rose on the sleeve of his tattered woolen jacket. There was a fire in the stove, but there was no more coal, and he wished to buy more. A pot of water for coffee bubbled on top. He let out a long breath like a cloud of cigar smoke and drew his hands inside his sleeves. It wasn’t that he wanted to spend the money, although he would surely pay to have the roof fixed, but he could not stand the idea that Ursaline had outwitted him. He felt a cramp in his belly and lifted his leg, laughing at himself, basking in his own stench.
He had turned over every flagstone, searched every drawer, and even had examined the gaps between the poles and the roof. She was a witch that wife of his! To make use of Ursaline’s absence, he decided to check the battered wardrobe, the only furniture other than the bed of iron, the two chairs, and a table made from an old door. A lonely blackened crucifix clung to the wall. As he was searching the pockets of Ursaline’s two spare dresses, she barged in. Caught!
“Ha! Still looking, you old fool!” said Ursaline. She held a basket with four eggs, but there had been no butter. Ursaline was shorter than her husband and twice as round. Her cheeks, red as if whipped, made her sallow nose seem dead. Even though they lived on a starvation diet, having an income of 350 francs per year from the mine’s pension fund, the two seemed rather fat and this made others wonder. The stash of the thousand francs was no secret to the townspeople, and perhaps there was more.
“Oh, you scoundrel! I shall find it. You move it about. You know you do. I shall find it or die.” He puffed, angry, and shut the wardrobe door. “I shall go for a walk, and I expect my bread upon return. Next, you’ll be hiding that.”
Ursaline grinned. “Oh, you old fool. We shall have eggs for breakfast and your bread as well. Thank God for his kindness.“
“Eggs, eggs,” said Jacques putting on his coat, just scraps of old curtain sewn together. “I shall return and begin my search anew, so hide it well, my dear. Hide it well.” He opened the drafty door and put his head down into the brisk breeze.
Ursaline hurried to fry the eggs, still warm in the basket, before the fire expired. She removed the pan of hot water and measured out a single spoon of coffee to steep. She then rubbed a lump of pig fat in an iron pan and cracked the eggs. She still had a bit of salt and threw in a pinch. His eggs would be cold but so be it.
The thousand francs had been her inheritance from her dear old mother who had died six months prior. She had taken to her bed one day with a mighty fever and was gone before nightfall. Ursaline’s mother had liked Jacques when he was younger, but she grew to hate him, his peering beady eyes and gassiness. “Don’t you give him a sous” had been her parting words, and Ursaline aimed to respect her mother’s wishes.
Dressed like a farmer’s wife, her tattered hem rubbing the cold flagstones, she wore a dirty green velvet jacket over an old sweater of wool. She owned neither hat nor gloves, but once the old man was dead she would buy them.
Jacques took his route past a lumber yard and a pile of old railroad equipment rusting in the biting chill. Often he imagined that Ursaline had hidden the money there, among the cast-off machinery and railroad ties. He had searched but had found nothing. He constantly worried that someone would find the money, and then they would both be robbed.
He came upon the Darjean children playing with a barrel hoop and ignored their jeers.
“He’s looking for the money, he is,” said the oldest, who then made a rude sound to the delight of the others.
At the mercy of children! What could be worse? In the distance over a rolling plain he could see the mine works and wished that he was down below where it was warmer. The men had begun the day shift, and no one was about except old hags and children, most wives being careful to keep the houses shut up to stay the heat if there was any.
Thinking of his two daughters, both married to miners, he wondered that they would be subject to the same miserable life that had been his. If only there was some progress, some evidence that breaking his soul for coal had rendered more good for his children. But, alas, there was only that shaft into the earth taking men to the black, glistening seams. A tear squeezed out and blurred his vision.
His mind wandered back to Ursaline. Before the children, they had been so happy. Neither had brought any capital to the marriage, and they had lived on love alone. She had been such a pretty thing with a soft white neck. She had been a virgin, for his mother-in-law told him so. He walked farther afield, beyond the last hovels, passing pastures of dead grass and a lonely chestnut tree. His life wounded him, and all he wanted was peace, but Ursaline stood in his way. He drew a deep breath and coughed.
Back home, the fire just a pile of warm embers, Jacques removed his coat and hung it on a nail. Perhaps she had dug a hole in the plaster and then covered it. He had looked behind the crucifix and saw no marks, but he would have to go over the walls carefully. He took his place at the table, two eggs fried lying on a broken plate with a small piece of unbuttered bread. He grunted an appreciative word for Ursaline.
“So, you’ve had your walk, old man. Do a bit of thinking did ya? Oh, it’s hidden, well hidden. Ha, it makes me happy, gives me joy to have that all as my own. You would spend it, no doubt. You would drink it away in cider and brandy at Le Pantera. I know you, you old—”
“Hold your tongue!“ Jacques eyes trembled and ticked. “I’ll eat my eggs in peace, you old wench. I will find it in God’s time. I have been praying no less. You should be ashamed. We are married and what’s mine is yours and so should it be in reverse!” He tapped his fork on the plate, a red flush coming to his face. He lifted his leg.
“There you go, you old locomotive, fouling the house! Like an old mother cow. Oh, you disgrace me.” She poured two cups of coffee. “Here’s your coffee, and I shall open the door.”
Jacques pounded the table. “You shall not open the door! You shall freeze us! I will beat you as I have done before.” His last words came in low and desperate. He finished his breakfast and coffee and felt belligerent. He had thirty sous and decided to spend some time at La Pantera. He would have a sympathetic ear no doubt as he sipped his brandy. Without a word, his eyes scanning the nearest damp wall for imperfections, he put on his coat once more and left.
“Be gone with you, you gas bag!” Ursaline laughed.
Spring arrived. Production at the mine was up due to new steam-powered drills, but the men of the town were worried for their jobs. There had been a near riot when the mine proposed to increase the cartage fee. The miners had to pay from their wages to have the coal carted topside. The company had backed down, the owner, Monsieur Debardeleben, fearing a strike.
The weather mellowed, warm winds passing over the bare fields. The women once more gathered at the town’s two wells to chat and pass the time while the men worked. Ursaline stood about with her compatriots, wearing her sad blue dress that did not cover her manly arms. A patched bonnet wrapped her head.
“If he would do some work, he would not worry about the money,“ said Ursaline. ”He is useless. He could do like Lantier’s husband, with only one leg mind you, and scavenge for mushrooms, but no, he sits about the house, turning it upside down when I leave. Why at this moment he is clawing at the walls. I know it.” She cackled like a fat hen.
Ears listened, but they were jealous of this secret thousand francs. The Gascon woman spoke. She was tall and gangly like a dried cornstalk.
“If I had a thousand francs. I would put it to use to draw some interest. It is foolish to hide such a sum.”
“Ha!” said Ursaline. “Why you yourself said the other day that you would buy your daughter a wedding dress with gold thread. You are a liar, no doubt.” Ursaline sat on the edge of the well, shifting her stumpy legs.
“A liar! You are using strong words, madame. You will repent,” said the Gascon woman.
“Oh, come now,” said another missus called the Goat, for she had whiskers. “One would only hope that such a fortune could be shared. If it was I, I would share it with the poor orphans looked after by Father Huigot.” She folded her long arms across her flat chest. A little girl of three tugged at her dress, wanting the breast.
“Share?” said Ursaline. “Who has ever shared with the likes of me or my poor husband? Do my daughters ever bring me a lump of coal or a clean dishrag? No! If there is to be sharing, then all must share. The Bible stands on it!”
The Gascon woman cleared her throat and spit at the base of the well. “Oh, so now you have the Bible on your side. What drudgery you make of the scriptures. You shall be punished.”
“Am I not already punished? What has God done for me?” said Ursaline.
“He has given you a thousand francs,” said another woman, the wife of the town drunk.
“My mother gave that to me! My dear mother, and God had little to do with it.” Ursaline hopped down from the well. “I shall be going. I suffer too much.” She waddled away toward home, skirting a large puddle of mud.
In the poor house with its disintegrating tile roof, Jacques was under the bed, looking at the mattress for tears in the cloth. He held a candle with which to see better. The cold flagtsones felt good to his sore back, and he espied a small rent. A thrill rushed through him as he poked his finger into the hole. But, he felt nothing other than the corn shucks, which filled the mattress. Perhaps the money had become lost inside? He would need to have an excuse to tear open the sordid mattress. With the thousand francs they could buy a new bed, a larger bed that didn’t hurt his back so.
Ursaline crept up to the door, careful to avoid the dirty window. She pushed down on the latch and rushed in with such a frenzy that she nearly fell down. He was under the bed!
“What are you doing?” she asked. “Have you fallen and broken your neck?” She rubbed her hands together.
Jacques slid out from under the bed, gasping for breath. He turned to his stomach and stood with little grace. He had to go back to his knees to retrieve the candle.
“I’m looking for bedbugs. I felt a terrible itch in the night.” He grinned, his yellow teeth showing.
“No doubt you itch, for you need to take a bath in the river,” said Ursaline. She hobbled to a chair and sat. Upon the table was the town crier known as Reveille, printed by the mine, which cost twenty centimes. She could not read and tapped her fingers upon it.
He walked over and sat with her. He put his hand on her hand. She looked at him with alarm as if he would lash out.
He’d had an idea during the night, but it seemed improbable, and there was only one way to find out although it revolted him.
Looking her in the face, he said, “Let’s worry no more about the money. We are husband and wife and should put this behind us. The money is yours and for it I will look no longer. Has not the priest denounced covetousness? I have been wrong in my actions.” He wanted to lift his leg but refrained.
Ursaline was astonished at this soliloquy of his. “Are you now cured of your fever? I do not believe it.” She withdrew her hand from his, feeling his eyes upon her as a greedy child in a candy shop.
“We’re not so old you know? In our younger days we lived by passion. We cared not for the fruit of the earth, only for our embraces.” He smiled as best he could. He moved his foot so that it was touching hers.
A mild panic overcame Ursaline. “Yes, the children ruined that. You know it is true. You began to see me merely as a beast of burden, a bearer of children, but that is the way of nature.” A little tear came to her right eye, which burned her.
“I have a small present for you,” he said. He lifted the newspaper and beneath was a violet pressed to a card. “I have little to give, but with this I show that I still love you.”
Ursaline’s mouth dropped. She’d not a received a present from him since he used to bring her pears, which she so much loved. This small token, this pressed violet, made her weep. Jacques pulled his chair closer and put his arm around her. He felt her melting beneath his touch, which he had so long withheld. He fought the urge to lift his leg, and in this manner the thousand francs were soon discovered.
Copyright ©2019 Russell Helms.
About the Author
Russell Helms, a Best American Short Stories nominee, has had stories in Whitefish Review, Driftwood Press, Bewildering Stories, Drunken Boat, Sand, antithesis, and other journals. He holds a lectureship in English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. His latest novel is Fade, (Unsolicited Press, 2019). His other novels and story collections are with Sij Books.
A Song for Duryodhana*
You remain alone inside
your own history.
You are jealous as a cat,
corrupt like human flesh.
You continue to live within
your indestructible shell of anger,
never to be touched without
consequence, rarely discovered.
They never told us
more than this.
But in some of our unusual dreams,
in which things are not
what we’ve been told
they should be,
you move with the wind
over the tall arrow grass
your broad face shining
in the sun’s borrowed light,
your finger and toes
still dripping wet
from the viscous stuff
of the river of blood
that on your son’s
cold body you swam across
to arrive at what now is part
of our exceptional dreams.
*Duryodhana, the eldest of the hundred Kaurava brothers in the Indian epic, Mahabharata, was a character at once villainous and tragic.
Copyright © 2019 by Bibhu Padhi.
Every year I have been thinking
of putting them up, with hedge plants
along their straight borders,
just before the coming of the rains.
so that their greens could grow soon
and cover up our barrenness,
and together they would hold us safe
from harmful games, insecurity of place.
The field is open even today
except for weeds and thin branches,
cactus and untended grass.
The words always move across
the roads to the dark interiors
of conspiring neighbours—
sluggishly, without my knowledge,
in sleep, diffused company.
Dark words, untouched by the sun
or our children’s gentle intentions,
finding their own selfish ends through
the night’s irreproachable dark.
How does anyone care to hear
that which has been so painful for me
in the best of times? Words
that I always thought I had fenced in
by the barbed hedges of the mind
safe, trustworthy, unyielding?
Even then it seems there are other means
of travel that they know and I do not know.
What then is the use of raising fences
around the house, growing hedges?
As someone said, fences are for
keeping off animals and trespassers
who might not know that there are things
which might not be their own.
Things and words have their own ways
of finding themselves at all those places
where we are afraid to go.
And hence, I shall just wait and watch
how words take birth, grow.
Let them go, find their own fences now.
Copyright © 2019 by Bibhu Padhi.
The players have done their job well.
I can think of nothing except thinking of
their shadowy figures moving through the mind.
The play has ended, and now
the bare stage begins to take over—
sly, like an unwritten play.
I continue to sit at my allotted place
like one who has witnessed all
and so cannot move.
The world ends exactly here.
I know, I need not move
from this place.
Copyright © 2019 by Bibhu Padhi.
About the Author
Bibhu Padhi, a Pushcart nominee, has published eleven books of poetry. His poems have appeared in distinguished magazines throughout the English-speaking world, such as Encounter, Contemporary Review, Poetry, Review, Poetry Wales, The Rialto, Stand, The Atlantic Review, The American Scholar, Colorado Review, Commonweal,, Confrontation, New Letters, Poet Lore, Prairie Schooner. Poetry, Southwest Review, Tulane Review, TriQuarterly, Antigonish Review, Queen’s Quarterly, and The Toronto Review.
His poems have been included in numerous anthologies and textbooks. Four of the most recent are The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, Language for a New Century (Norton), 60 Indian Poets (Penguin), and The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (HarperCollins).
He has also written a book on D H Lawrence and, with my wife, Minakshi Padhi, a reference book on Indian Philosophy and Religion.
Far to the north there is a group of people who cut off the tips of their fingers and bathe in the blood of seals. From these slaughtered animals they take bone and blubber; and from themselves they take their sense of touch—slice it off at the budding tip. They are not natives, but they are a tribe now. They haunt an island just off the coast, ghosts preceding the dead, and the place is afforded the respect and berth of all such cursed places.
An old man told this to Sharon at a bar, at some staunch but decaying shack at the edge of the world. The old man was very drunk and very bald, his wrinkled face bristled around his jaw like a boar, his features all cut to be sharply angular by the Alaskan wind. The reason for it all, he said to Sharon that night, was to remove the nerves, take away the feeling. Around him the wooden slats of the walls rose and fell, shuddering like some frozen mouth trying to come undone. The Boar Man’s whole body shook and one of his eyes is forever glued shut by the excess of alcohol that he consumes nightly. But Sharon was certain he is not lying. He asked the Boar Man if he knows where those people were, if he could take him to them. The Boar Man considered it for a moment. He said he would in the morning, if Sharon had a vehicle, and that he would take that vehicle as payment. Sharon agreed to this without hesitation.
Now that man is sleeping in the night underneath the overhang of the bar roof. Icicles are there, dangling over the old man’s face, a tantalizing threat. It is spring and they drip on his face. He snores open-mouthed through it all.
Sharon does not sleep at all. Instead, he smokes cigarettes. It will be his last time smoking—the seal hunters on the island do not smoke. There is over half a pack left. He smokes them all, one after another, and with each cigarette he thinks of another life burning out under the firmament. Then he becomes the only thing in the night, a light on to himself, and how odd to him that every corpse in his lifetime, and every corpse in the lifetimes before his own, should amount to this moment in time: him, smoking like a dead fire over a pile of sizzling butts, ash curling at his fingertips and rising underneath a blinking heaven, each star another eye to go cold until there is nothing—only blackness absolute. And there is only inhalation—tainted breath—and in doing so the inward drenching of tar and the realization that the cool burn of the cigarette would choke itself out inside him and dwindle there in his shriveled lungs and fill the space dry and empty forever. And from that predication he will mold himself, and from that he will never go back.
His fingernails catch in the moonlight. He notices how clean they are, notices the absence of dirt between that space of nail and flesh. Just empty, nothing. He recognizes the space there, squeezes the nail so it passes through and into the flesh. He can feel how his thumb pushes up into the skin, tries to get at the curved edge of the bone; he imagines what it would be like to twist it now, to tear it off at the nerve, to cast his blood-soaked fingertips into the night. He squeezes the tip of his finger until the blood wells up and it turns red through the skin. Then he stops, takes a deep breath. In the black sky above he sees some distant ember arc across that endless canvas and in that eternity end itself. One cigarette left—last time. He smokes it and flicks it away into the night. No joy there.
Sharon has a silver watch that was given to him by his mother. It was his father’s, but he died before he could give it to him. His father was a fisherman. There was some sort of freak accident involving taut lines with metal hooks swinging around too fast. His father had been cut in half. Sharon didn’t understand the details—he wasn’t a sailor. In any case, the watch had been given to Sharon’s mother, along with a paltry amount of other meaningless possessions, and so she had given it to him. Sharon was only four years old at the time.
His mother died exactly fifteen years later, on the same date, of stress. She told Sharon on her deathbed it was him who killed her. He had been a poor son—always crass, always virulent, always pushing everything past the breaking point—and so a poor man in that. Sharon figured that was true. The doctors told him that her heart gave out, its beat unsteady and oscillating on the electrocardiogram. Sharon figured that was true, too, and he thought about it frequently: what it was like to have your heart rattling around in your chest like that, thumping against your lungs, beating against your ribcage like some raw-knuckled inmate in a jail cell, desperate to be let out—until it exploded.
His watch told him it was a quarter past six when the sun rose. The sun in Alaska rose the same way it did anywhere else, except it looked much colder. Here, a frozen star, fire underneath a veneer of translucent ice, its rays of light like a flat-fingered hand laid down on the earth with careful precision, cutting around the trunks of trees and curling around the wavering bodies of those few drunk men that stumble from the bar and shout in reverence of the light.
Sharon goes to wake the Boar Man sleeping behind the bar and is mildly surprised to see that he is already awake. The Boar Man is on his back, his feet elevated on a small pile of wood, staring up at the overhang, watching the icicles drip on himself, right between his open eyes. He does not blink. Sharon watches this for a while and then asks the Boar Man if he will take him to the island. The Boar Man shifts his gaze to Sharon. The water is still falling between the Boar Man’s eyes, and he lets it. His eyes are raw and red, but they are dry, absent of any swill. He has moved past the pain. He tells Sharon that he will and asks if he remembers their deal. Sharon drops the keys on the Boar Man’s chest and instinctively reaches for a cigarette. The Boar Man watches him pat himself down, fingers twitching into his pockets, pulling out the lint and loose threading. Sharon is angry and flushed red by the time he realizes that they are not there.
The two men drive in silence. The roads this far up north are unfamiliar to Sharon. There are trees on either side of the road, and as they go on, they seem to grow closer and closer, the road becoming narrow and uneven. The have hands on their limbs and they reach for the skin stretched thin over his face. He considers that maybe he should have slept last night. He runs his fingers across his face. In the pallid reflection from the window there are now red marks where the fingers were.
The Boar Man seems to be getting more alert as the road goes on, as if he has been plugged into the car like a machine and has received a jolt of electricity. He is giddy as tree limbs scrape at the metal. Sharon notices that the Boar Man is sweating, even though the heat is broken. He glances over at Sharon periodically through the sides of his eyes. They have not exchanged words since this morning. It occurs to Sharon that they are driving to the middle of nowhere and he is exhausted. The Boar Man could be taking him anywhere. Perhaps the Boar Man has murdered people before, and he is taking him out in the woods to kill him, this being so despite already owning the vehicle. It would be a murder not of function, then, but a murder of pleasure; his perspiration borne of elation. It does not seem unlikely.
But Sharon is not sweating. He holds his fingertips out, feels the cold air sifting through the vehicle’s framework, takes note of their steadiness. He curls them, thinks of tender throats, how you force the Adam’s apple downward and drown it, how the fingers shook afterwards—only once. Now he is neither afraid nor anxious—such things have not visited him for some time—just disappointed. Sharon looks at the Boar Man and doesn’t let up. Perhaps he senses it, because he locks his eyes on the road ahead. Then he speaks: They take your toes from you, too—as if Sharon somehow cared more about his toes than his fingertips—and your tongue. Your cock too, I reckon. Everything—they take it all from you but it don’t mean a thing.
Sharon pulls his eyes off. He leans his head back and watches the trees. The road is very narrow now, and the trees have closed in on either side, so that their fingered branches caress the curve of the windshield, scraping by until they get too close and snap off. Sharon is very tired. His fingers have grown cold. With his skin he can only feel a throb, like something was once there. Sharon grinds his teeth together. There is nothing to do of it.
Then release. How tired. His eyelids flutter, and a branch lays its flat palm on the windshield, and it curls towards him so that for one brief moment he thinks they will pierce the glass and puncture his skull. He shuts his eyes and submits.
Several hours have passed by the time Sharon wakes up. The sky does not look it. They have reached their destination: a fishing town in a dell by the water, dipped down from the pavement of the road. All of the trees are gone, and in the village there are only dirt roads or ruts from sleds. There is a dock and nestled between the fishing vessels is a flat barge. The horizon in the distance has a small white lump on it, a sterile tumor. The Boar Man tells him that is his destination. Sharon nods. He is vaguely disoriented. He stumbles like a drunk man out of the car and beings walking towards the village.
The boar man rolls down the window with the crank. He looks uncertain. Then: Thank you. I feel like I can get away from it all now. And then he shifts the gears and accelerates and is gone in a short-lived torrent of snow and dirt.
Sharon walks to the dock. Men pass him. All of them could have been his father sewn back together. He approaches the ferryman with the barge. He points to the tumor in the distance: There, I want to go there. I want to stay there, Sharon says. Most of the ferryman’s face is obscured by the white fuzz of an untrimmed beard, but his eyes are blue and clear and he examines Sharon to see if he is sure. He looks at the way the blood runs through Sharon’s eyes and decides that is enough—he sees there in the veins pulses his only desire.
Sharon is allowed on the barge. Their journey is silent except for the way the water gurgles up around the wood and iron, getting trapped in the undertow of the barge and spitting up, wanting to get out. It is like the voice of a child whose voice has been deepened by the thumbs at his throat. Sharon closes his eyes, thinks on the cries of babes, of how they pop out thick with blood and ungrateful of the conditions of their birth, unhappy about the very fact of their existence, such as it is. Sharon thinks on how unhappy he was when he first saw a bald-faced baby sprouting from his woman. He had never wanted anything from her, least of all that. His displeasure felt like someone taking a hammer and chisel to his head. Now, with his eyes closed and the waves lapping at the barge like hungry tongues, his head feels like it had been disconnected, wavering in uncertain hands.
Sharon vomits into the ocean. From this he is granted lucidity. His eyes are open now and they are on the horizon.
The journey is surprisingly short. By the time Sharon has blinked again he is on the shore and the ferryman has turned silently around and is pushing the barge back to the village. Sharon realizes how small the island is. Mostly it is flat. In some places drifts of snow have solidified and now serve as hills. To the north it has somehow all risen into vaguely mountain—like structures, hollowed out by God-knows-what so that there are passages therein that gape like mouths or empty eye sockets.
There is wind there and it is constant and always will be. Sharon is cold, and it hurts. Not far away are igloos, and Sharon walks towards them. Snow on the wind, light but hard-edged, scraping past his skin like it might erode him. He pulls his hood tight, the fur-rim offering protection, like someone holding fingers over his sclera. Sharon looks at his watch. The face has frosted over, and the hands are still—rigor mortis already set in. He unclasps it and his fingers are so cold that he cannot feel the frigidness of the metal. He drops it in the snow. He does not see where it falls but underfoot there is a crunching that is not snow and its shattered face now and always imbedded into the surface of that island.
The village like lumps on flesh. It is of interconnected rings of igloos, circling round unevenly but only shortly into the distance. Inset in each circle is a fire blazing with the detritus of animals and brackish bark. Sometimes there are people gathered around them, but they do not seem to be particularly drawn to its warmth. For chairs they use hacked chunks of wood. Their coats are thick and fleshy, the skin of seals. They have chosen this.
With small eyes they turn upon Sharon and his approach. They look at him, faces pale and wide open. Some of them may have been amiable, once. Underneath their translucent skin Sharon can see where some of the nerves ended, where some of the tendrils snaked willfully away and then popped. They have no expression.
There are no children. Nearby there is a woman whittling bone with a knife. She is very old, her skin cracking, and only through those wrinkles can her flesh be differentiated from the snow and ice of the igloos behind her. She looks at Sharon, but the knife blade keeps on scraping at the bone: methodical. Flick, flick—into the snow ridden air, shavings borne away until the flames lick them and with tiny flashes they are gone. There are no gloves on her hands and the skin is taut around the bones. Her shoes are of open-ended cloth and from there Sharon can see that she has no toes. One of the lobes from her ear is missing and the other one is gone entirely, an ugly scar in its place. She spits into the fire and it sputters, and Sharon can see that she has no teeth. There are others around the fire but none as maimed and none as old.
A man lumbers towards Sharon. He is thick, his legs like tree stumps, and the span of his body almost inhuman, the breadth of two men. He is a tower, a frozen sculpture of white flesh, and he appears placid but is not. He holds a long-handled pick, the blade sharper than the air. Pressed into his skull are black little eyes. A smile was once there, perhaps, but the cold has smoothed it out. His mouth is covered by a thick scarf and so swaddled it nearly appears that he does not have a nose. A hairy hood is draped over his head and even though it is overlarge, and it is windy Sharon gets the sense that nothing could dethrone it. This man asks Sharon why he has come. Sharon says he is here because he wishes to see the way the bones ripple through their skin. They stare at each other until some of the others walk away. The Old Woman peels the bone with her knife. The man looks at her and then looks back. Then he turns around and tells Sharon to come. His voice is very soft.
We will feed you now, he says.
On that first day Sharon was given seal meat. The meat was rubbery in his mouth and did not taste much like anything he had ever had, or anything at all. This he became used to. The man—who informed him that his name was Walther—prepared the meat for him in an empty igloo. Sharon was not questioned any further for his purpose in coming. Walther sat cross-legged and watched him eat. He did not remove his hood or his scarf. When Sharon was finished the man said, Tomorrow, we will cut off your fingertips. Be prepared. And then he stood and left.
They did it the next day out in the cold. Sharon walked out bare-handed and saw that many of them had gathered, and so encircled him. He would later learn that they did not interact with those outside of their own igloo ring a great deal. The Old Woman was there, sitting by the fire with a bucket of hot water. She dipped her knife into the bucket and held it to the wind and it could be heard cutting the air and the flames from the fire became silent. Everyone watched the water solidify on the blade and Sharon felt the cold coursing through his fingers, and it was as if the nerves at the ends of his fingers had been inverted in on themselves—feeling inward so that they reached the very core of his fingertips and landing on each and every pulsating nerve, enveloping them with sharp-edged bone so it was the feeling of being seared with cold fire or punctured with a dry bite from unwhetted teeth. Then the woman held the knife over the fire and the ice melted and she held the blade out to the crowd, the blade sizzling in the air. Walther emerged from the crowd and grasped the blade in his hands. He had open-ended gloves and the ends flapped uselessly in the wind—hollow. Underneath the fingertips black and smooth. Walther approached, the knife miniscule in his huge hands. With his tiny black eyes—holes in the skin—he looked at Sharon, and he did not look away even as he grabbed Sharon’s hands and squeezed and placed the blade just above the distal joint and smoothly moved the knife through each similar joint, one by one, the blade popping up and down like a tire over potholes and hot blood silently gushing forth. He did not stop until the fingertips on both hands were gone. Then he seized the end of one of Sharon’s thumbs and removed it with a chopping motion and did the same to the other. He stepped away. Sharon fell to his knees and tears streamed freely with his blood until both were made solid in the wind. He whimpered and all gathered heard him.
For the next two days he was confined to his igloo. He stared at the ends of his bandaged fingers. They shook, quivering from the palm. He stared into red ends and wondered then if the igloo was specially made for him, if they knew he was coming all along. The Old Woman would come in and feed him seal meat and change his bandages. Slowly they grew less red and by the end the bandages were stark white when they were taken off and he could not tell what color the ends of his fingers were. That entire time she did not speak to him.
Walther came in with her on the third day. He did not inquire about Sharon’s fingers. He said Sharon was to contribute, and so he was taken to the common igloos where a handful of other people would work sullenly. Dead seals hung stiff from wooden beams or were otherwise scattered about. It was at these places that he was shown how to gut one of the things and string its innards out in the wind and how to harvest the blubber. He was shown how to repurpose bone. The Old Woman was especially good at this and instructed him silently. She would come to his igloo and under her tutelage he made a knife from the ribs of one of the seals. One day Walther showed him to make snowshoes, taking Sharon into his own igloo, and there was a seal hide hung there by hooks, empty-eyed and splayed open and just empty. Walther sat under that like a tarp and cast himself a silhouette, only his black eyes somehow more pronounced, and from there silently instructed Sharon in the making of snowshoes and the making of ice picks and would only rise to destroy Sharon’s failed attempts in the fire.
By the Old Woman again he learned how to make a coat from the skin of seals, how to weave and tuck and string it all together. He did not do well at this—then he was still prone to spasms from his hands, fingers curling in and out like twitching whiskers. The Old Woman became frustrated and bent over and hacked from her mouth and Sharon could see how black her gums were and how black the discharge. It dribbled down her chin and she stepped outside the common igloo. He tried to continue his work but by nature of his spasms pricked himself with a bone needle. Blood bloomed like a rosebud. A young woman there with thin fingers that appeared long even without the tips moved to help him, but he jerked away and continued on his own. She stared at him and then said, Not my fault, and continued her own work.
This carried on for some time. Sharon spent his evenings in his own hut watching his fire in solitary or, when he desired company, he would go outside and watch the flames there. The Old Woman was always there and Walther was also. Mostly those gathered would not talk. Sometimes people from other rings would mill about in the night around them or clap their hand on the shoulder of one present at the ring and they would exchange quiet words. Occasionally there would be some talk of seals or the ocean or some other deeper thought invoked by such topics or else the shuddering of the flames but Walther would cull these almost as soon as they began and they would sit silent again, Walther there in his great, immutable form, wreathed by the flames on one side and the ocean on the other, gatekeeper to those two elements. He himself never spoke unless it was in the service of silence.
One evening Sharon elected to spend time alone in his own hut sitting by his fire. Idly he held his hands over the flames but then stopped to look at them. He held up a hand, touched the stump ends of his fingers one by one with the stumps from his other hand. They didn’t feel like anything. When he looked at the fire again the flames had receded into themselves and he sat alone as the light shrank into the pit and then he plunged his hands into the coals and held them until the ice and his skin turned blue and the light dimmed and he felt them seer and he did not know how long he kept them there and, knowing that, he asked himself when he thought his mother had been born, what he still remembered. If he remembered what death was and how that must feel to other people. He released the coals. A dim glow from before. He wondered what it would be like to be cut in half.
Unannounced Walther entered. He stood rigid for a moment and only his small eyes moved around, so black it was impossible to tell exactly where they were looking. Then he asked Sharon if he knew where the igloo had come from, who made it. Sharon told him that he did not. Then Walther asked if Sharon wished to go hunting for seals. Sharon did. To that end Walther expressed that he wished to tell him a story: Walther was hunting with another man. This man was not named by Walther, but he made clear that the man had been with them for a handful of years, perhaps five or so. At this moment Sharon saw fit to ask when Walther had come to this island and Walther said nothing but spread his hands wide and moved to the fire, displacing Sharon. For but a moment there was silence with Walther hunched over the pit, guardian to its abyss, and then there was a flash of light and Walther stood in this illumination resurrected and said that in any case they—him, this man—had been tracking a herd of seals. The weather was so unkind. Moreso than usual. Unfair, one might say, if they did not know any better. Walther put a finger under his eye and tapped it. We got separated, both of us lost, both of us—well, in weather like that you become one with the snow. It was so much, so sharp, and you can only welcome it then, let it draw your own blood and from that find your own warmth and . . . he trailed off, blinked once, blanketing the little black pearls in skin. By the time I found him he was nothing but a pair of hands—too bony, too crunchy: the seals, they like it when they can just slurp it down. This was the same man who owned your igloo. Before him someone else owned it, and before them another.
Sharon asked him who built it, if they were still alive.
Tomorrow we will take your toes, said Walther, and then he left.
This is where they have Sharon now. He is sitting on a stump and laid backwards so that both of his feet are propped up separately. The Old Woman is holding his head, but she does not look at him and will not for the entirety of the event. It is dawn and the sun rises white like a blind eye over the sea and through that the silhouette of some deathless creature stepping forth, all its skull domed by the stitched skin of others, dead hair catching wildly in the wind, and in its thick hands a knife is clutched. The ends of its hollow gloves flapping in the wind—useless.
The procedure is much the same as before. One by one, the hot knife blade passes through his toes, starting at his little one and going through on to the two big ones—hanging just a little—and then back across to the little one, severing them all silently. He tries to bite back tears the entire time, but they leak out and, in the end, he cries all the same. Blood streams down and stains the stumps. Later they will burn the stumps and the toes alike.
For two days Sharon is seated by the fire in his igloo. Again the Old Woman soundlessly brings him food, checks his bandages. While she prepares the new ones, Sharon holds his toeless feet to the fire, lets the flames lick at the soles. He sighs as hot tongues wash his feet white. Only a few tears escape his eyes and he holds them there until his feet are white and his face is dry and he smiles, nearly sighing. The Old Woman sees this and shakes her head.
Three days following now the removal of his toes and Walther enters the igloo with a pick and hands it to Sharon. The blade is sharp and the back is a blunt head. Sharon prepares and then they go out into the snow together, walk through the light wind in silence nearly complete. They come to a fallen tree in their path and Sharon lifts his snow shoes, heavy with snow, and trips and falls. This Walther observes but he does not help Sharon up. At length they come closer to the shore and they can see trails in the snow.
Walther asks if he knows how to hunt a seal proper. Sharon suggests the usage of the pick. Walther nods but clarifies that they are dangerous animals. Remember they will eat you, he said. Remember that they love blood. Remember that they love to eat. This will make them happy, and so therein is their weakness. You have to find them when they’re happy; you have to find them when they’re full, and their day has gone well, and they bask fat in the northern sun. Then you split them open. Catch them in their mirth and gouge it from their faces, pull it from their bellies.
It was as such when they came to them. They found them, a group of five, perhaps a family of sorts, preying on a hapless flock of puffins, little, screaming things. Sharon and Walther watch from a hill. On some occasions Sharon’s hands shudder as the air is punctuated with the squeals of the birds. When the puffins are finished the seals lay under the sun and roll around like silver packs of meat along the shoreline, entrails of the lesser beings scattered about.
And so then just as Walther had said. The seals should have seen the two men coming then: one unsubtle, his breath labored, heaving his icepick over his head; the other silent but huge, a great formless shape under the sun, some legendary creature from the frozen reaches of an elder world draped in the skins of their ancestors. By the time the seals notice, Sharon is already prying the blade of his pick from the belly of one struggling animal and Walther had already split the skull of another. They try to clamber away screaming but black shadows fall upon them and only their yelps and cries are carried across the waves and sink to the bottom. All of them lay slain in their own blood pooling red on to the white shores but one. He is younger than the rest, only a babe, and he leads a crimson trail from his belly and through the gore carries himself nearly to the water. But to what end? For himself to spill into the ocean, that illimitable body from which all had been born, and in doing so seek resurrection? It is not to be. Sharon steps over it and the thing screams and its eyes quiver and in that moment it very well may have been crying in the light until the blade broke from the sun which it had been raised to and fell steady.
Sharon came back drenched in that blood and would come back drenched in it many times again. His old coats he burns and gloves he burns and from the leather of the slain beasts he fashions himself new ones. This is not the custom of all but a choice of his own. He sews with the woman with long fingers. He improves. They say nothing to each other.
Darkness falls as it would any other night. Sharon is sitting by the fire. Walther is there as he always is. The Old Woman is not. In her place Sharon is whittling bone for a new knife at a stump and is watching the flecks of it catch fire and be incinerated. The woman with whom he sews comes by and chooses a place next to him. She, too, is whittling bone, and for a moment the two stop and look at each other. Then there is the scrape of bone on bone, and another layer is shed into the flames. The woman looks away and continues. So does Sharon. Walther watches them both, black eyes abysses granted light and clarity by the fire. He is so close to the flame, immense from the skins of so many seals, for each new animal he kills he skins and folds its flesh over the old which is already on him and in his igloo alone he stitches it all into himself forevermore.
A day passes and then two. Walther enters Sharon’s hut. He informs him the time has come for him to be castrated. He leaves. Sharon stares into his own dwindling flame and is unsure if he is afraid. He holds his hands over the fire and for a moment they are still and then they shake. Faintly he remembers a woman screaming at him as he stood by the shore, watching his hands quiver, and then how he watched a star descend over the sea: the certainty of that. He was not afraid then. Under ice now he clenches his hands and looks up to the sky and sees only the igloo—sees nothing.
That night Sharon is in the hospital again with the woman he once had. Around him the sounds of all the equipment are that of the waves gurgling like a newborn. Walther is the doctor and he helps deliver the babe. She has given birth to a seal. It is unpleasant. Walther tells him to leave the room and he goes outside and paces and the Old Woman is there, whittling away. Then she looks at him and speaks and says that she will not feed him tonight, that she has nothing prepared for him, that she never has and never will, and in that he should see the world.
Then Walther emerges. He has a bundle in his arms. She’s dead, he says, but at least you have the seal. Instead of him gone it’s her. He offers it to Sharon. Behind him the Old Woman shakes her head and he can see it.
The ritual of castration is not done in the cold for reasons of practicality. Instead it is done in a large, common igloo in the center of all the other rings. Sharon sees faces there, thinks he may have never seen them before but that maybe he has. Everything is indistinct. He is standing naked over a stone pit of fire and his arms have been tied to two poles, as if those around him had come to see him split open from head to root like a seal. Directly below him is a steaming bucket of water and with his groin he can feel its heat. He has been like this for an hour, maybe more. With his eyes he searches for the woman he sews with, but she is not there. Nobody has stepped forth. He cannot even see Walther and on him are only dozens and dozens of dulled eyes at the end of deadened nerves who observe his nudity without expression. Even so the heat from all of their bodies swaddled in the heavy skins of seals is pressing upon him and almost overbearing even in relation to the fire.
An enormous figure presses itself through the entrance. Huddled underneath its thick arms is the frail form of the Old Woman. It is only because everyone there speaks so little that Sharon can hear her coughing. Walther’s hooded head moves to her face and he is whispering something, but she does not answer with either word or gesture. Then she pushes him away and he backs startled into the wall and the others swallow him up, even though his huge head hangs above them, solid black eyes quivering.
The Old Woman comes to Sharon and stands right beside him. The knife is already in her hand and she holds it low, its tip nearly at his own. She is so old and so close, and her breath is on him and for the first time he smells it as something distinct, as something other than the guts of seals or brine on weather-worn skin. It is from some inner part of her body, something that lays past the bones and nestled in between all of the organs, and now she breathes its reek on his face. For once she is looking directly in his eyes. A slight movement by the woman, and in that it seems as if what little sound was in the room is sucked out. Flame sizzles over metal. He is not looking down but straight ahead, his vision clear. Walther has his head cast downwards, and Sharon can almost hear the Old Woman turning the knife over, rolling the handle in the notches of her fingerbones like one single piece of meat on a spit. He does not know how long she holds it over. He realizes he is holding his breath. He lets it out.
A sudden movement, a controlled twitch from her arm. A plunk in the bucket below. His teeth are clenched, and his eyes closed. His hips shudder involuntarily. The woman brings her face back up to his. So, so close. They are breathing on each other, no one else in the room. He is not crying.
I can still taste you, he says.
There is a female seal and its cub. They are dragging a puffin’s bloating corpse with them, up into the hills, up toward those hollowed out caves that look like plucked eye sockets. At the puffin’s neck there is a bit of blood and its feet are shredded and dangling and some blood is trickling behind it on the ice. Every now and then the female seal stops to encourage the cub by nuzzling it. The wind is parlous. It is hurting Sharon’s eyes.
They are hunting: himself, Walther, the woman he sews with—he has refused introductions with her, but they have begun hunting regularly. They are behind Sharon, some distance away, and they are slaughtering the seals at the site of their own slaughtering of the puffins. Even with the wind as it is, he can hear the seals screaming. The sound of it all is being carried to him, for him. Earlier that day the woman told him that winter has just begun. In that way they are lucky to find as many seals as they did.
These two seals, now alone before Sharon, saw them coming, saw the snow whirling around Walther’s great form, his body carved of ivory and whale bone together and in that construction forming a spell to deflect that wind, to mask the monstrous approach of him and his horsemen. These seals saw through that illusion and took what they could and ran into the ever-frozen hills where no things grow and only the defeated stalk and in themselves decay in grim endurance. Again, the mother stops to encourage the child. With her wet eyes she looks at Sharon and the wind whips at his face. His eyes hurt. He turns and walks away.
The Old Woman is dead now. They found her half-frozen in her hut. Walther was in there first along with another man and then Sharon came after. He watched them peel her arms from their position draped at her knees and fold them along their sides, being very careful and slow lest they snap off. The fire had died some time ago and it was not even smoldering.
Her body is taken to some communal igloo that looks sterile and cast in a blue glow, as if the ice itself has birthed light in defiance of the sun. Walther and the other man check to make sure that she is dead. Sharon watches. With their thumbs they press on her forehead and knead her back all the way down to the sacrum. They leave their prints in that withered flesh. They test the hinges of her jaw, working the toothless thing up and down and left and right as if to check if it is well-oiled. Before Sharon thinks to look inside, they have closed it and it stays that way as if the peeling lips are melded together. With hands like knives they beat on the bones of her legs, jab at the soles of her feet with sharp tongs, watch blood swell like a blackened rose and congeal, there blooming in minute finality. Sharon sees one man holding her hand while Walther has his back turned. Her stump fingers are stiff and rigid. Walther turns and sees this and removes the man’s hand from hers, and Walther’s eyes are on him the entire time. In the end they take out her eyes and Sharon asks why and Walther says they will be taken to another woman to bury in the snow. Sharon wonders who it will be.
It is unsurprising that they burn her. It is when it has grown dark like it would any other night. The husk dries up and blackens and rises away to become one with the void above. From her corpse no ash. Walther is there and he sits enshrined by the black smoke of her body and says nothing, the same as he always has and as all he had ever done. The other woman is not present, and Sharon feels certain that she is burying the dead woman’s eyes in the snow. By morning she has returned, and they do not speak about any of it.
On the next day Sharon goes hunting alone. The seals he finds are hungry and it is harder to take them by surprise. In the snow he manages to separate one of them and it is an impressive specimen. The beast knows that he is coming, and it lunges at him with its fangs and rancid breath and bites his hand as he tries to swing at it. The teeth clamp down and pierce his skin and they rip the glove off and leave an ugly gash and he screams empty into a colorless oblivion and his blood splatters in the snow and then is covered up again. By sheer force of will he unhinges the seal’s jaw with his other hand even as its canine teeth burrow inward. He kicks it away and for a moment it disappears in the whirlwind of snow, the only color in the world dripping crimson from his hands. Silence, but he knows the seal breathes through it. He takes up his pick and the seal lunges from out of the wind and snow and he swings the blade into its gaping jaws.
When he returns, he does not burn his old coat, but he burns the seal whole, its blubber popping in the night. His bloodied hand shakes, the pain living hot under the tendons. He closes it and opens it again and it stops and will not shake ever again.
Nobody sits with him this night. They know enough to give him a wide berth as is afforded to the spark of resurrection.
Some days later his nipples are removed. He does not cry but he is sad to see them go.
Sharon and Walther are hunting together. It is spring, but it still feels as if it is winter, feels like it always will be. Sharon thinks to himself that it is a pointless distinction and decides to voice this to Walther. Walther looks at him but says nothing. It is very cold, but the wind is slight. They are walking just past the shore and they can hear the ocean welling.
They come to a rock outcropping that the snow has drifted over, holding it in its cold grasp, aiming to keep it that way. From there it slopes down to the shore and below is a large herd of seals, perhaps a dozen. Beyond the ocean. On the distant horizon there is a formless mass of land that does not seem so far away. Sharon realizes he hasn’t seen it for the length of his time here.
The seals are feasting on lesser beings—such as they were—but just as the scheme of their being has positioned them in such higher places on the food chain in relation to their prey, so too are their feeble corpses lesser in number than those who feast upon them and thus not enough to satisfy the animals. Of this Walther makes an observation.
It is unlikely we will catch them unaware so starved, he says. They will not submit so easily—it will be difficult.
This Sharon has also observed. They are all like a convulsing mass of silver flesh, the seals, hungry and angry and terrified. Their bodies smack wetly against each other and they roll in the gore and the snow and the filth naked. Sharon takes a step back in consideration of this and from that derives the facts of their existence and in Walther’s words hears an irrefutable truth. He then grasps his pick with both hands and swings it through the air. It cuts through the wind and whistles. Walther hears it coming but by the time he has turned around the blade is already shorn through his knee. There he stands with his torso half-turned and quivering and for a moment they hang in time and Sharon can see his dead black eyes. There might be confusion welling up in there. Sorrow, maybe—or regret. Then Sharon pulls the blade out and time resumes and in an instant Walther has collapsed and is rolling down the hill.
For all the time after that Sharon liked to imagine how Walther must have felt during those last few moments. It happened like this: Walther rolled down the hill, his huge body unraveling as skin and seal flesh came unstitched, both of it tearing from his body as one as he fell, until he reached the bottom. The seals scattered at his coming—perhaps they recognized his presence, him, that thing from their past, that ancient and otherworldly harbinger of their doom—but then they sensed that very thing had come undone. They came to it sniffing with their whiskers wrinkling. Walther lay there, silent then as he was in his descent and as he had been in life, blood pooling around his knee. The seals pressed their wet noses to his skin, bared their yellowing teeth, hot breath on his face. Walther’s black eyes rolled about until they found Sharon, watching from over the hill. He raised a hand to him, shaking, his glove still just barely on, the ends of it flapping pointlessly in the wind as it carried over that barren expanse. Then a seal lunged and bit him at the wrist and Walther thrashed about, but the seal held on tight and in a panic Walther raised his other hand only to have it taken in the jaws of another seal and finally he screamed.
Then they were upon him, their bodies a rubbery mass writhing on their prey and the white shores stained red with blood not their own. His hands they ate first with snapping noises from their jaws. They pulled his boots off and gnawed at his toeless feet and his bloody legs twitched. The came for his head last: they wanted to see the fear in his eyes, the helplessness, let the completion of his existence—such as it was—sink into him before it was expelled forever. And all the while he screamed. Sharon watched until the ocean in its immensity and unfathomable purpose drowned out Walther’s cries. Sharon cast his pick down. It clattered to the edge of Walther’s carcass, and the seals looked up in time to watch Sharon’s feet disappear over the precipice.
Copyright © 2019 by Joseph Payne.
About the Author
Joseph Payne is an emerging writer and this is his first publication. He is studying English Language and Literature at Central Michigan University (CMU) and has a Bachelor of Science in that area. He returned to CMU to teach Freshman Composition and to pursue a Master of Arts in Creative Writing. Before university, he lived most of his life on a small farmhouse, which has fostered a quiet and contemplative atmosphere.