The craft of writing is an often overwhelming practice. In what way does the narrative voice interpellate you into the story? How has the author utilised silences? What are the particular character inflections that emerge through the tool of perfomativity? Is the narrator omniscient or is he/she subconsciously fallible? What are the political subtexts of the creative work?
The group of writers who formed the collective presentation, entitled Writing the Ache,are members of the Creative Writing postgraduate community at the University of Melbourne. We are all pursuing postgraduate degrees and each are necessarily in constant dialogue with creative writing theory and style, cultural studies, history, mechanisms of voice etc. There is a tendency within the academic community to demand the theorisation of creative practices. As creative writers within an academic setting, we are doubly accountable – both to ourselves as artists and to the institution- for each moment within our texts.
As a group we have chosen the creative act of writing as our tool of expression. That said, our group presentation contains examples of both creative writing AND a deconstruction of the creative process in relation to the said question of ART and PAIN.
The False Accusation
Most childhood images engraved in my mind are retained and enlarged through the experience of pain. Rather then dwelling on ache and grief, I am interested in taking an objective look at pain as a consequence of the absurd configuration of enmity and fellowship among human beings.
Through pain, one can learn to experience and perceive the world in a certain, personal way. A thoroughly miserable childhood is an enviable asset for an artist¾ I heard this a few times: “you are so lucky, you had such an interesting life!” lucky indeed, what with the displacement, homelessness, hunger, group victimisation – and the list goes on and worse – I could hardly complain. Yes, I find it all very useful, as long as the artwork embodies the crystallization of pain, not solely the pain itself. I have the ambitious desire to juggle, paint, sing and meditate with words. To indulge instead in relieving myself from my personal anguish could result merely in – well – Crap!
To illustrate my approach to my work, I had like to explore the editing process of a paragraph, where I attempt using writing as a cool medium to juxtaposes words of pain into a multi-faceted narrative. My notes were added post writing & editing, as an analysis, a reconstruction of my mental process of writing:
There is a loud rapping on the door, unexpected at this time of the night. Dora turns the long metal key in the lock and the door flings open. We are speechless at what we see.
In the narrow entrance stands the bulky husband of The Windowpane-Cow pushing his adolescent daughter in front of him, and on the girl’s pale face a patch of fresh blood is spreading under her nose. A group of their relatives are pushing behind them and hurling insults at my mother, and before she can utter a word, the husband of The Windowpane-Cow has thrust his ringed fist at her. ‘That will teach you a lesson old madwoman’ he says and pulls his daughter away.
I hold my mother in my arms and I taste the saltiness of her blood and her tears.
[From The False Accusation, a chapter from a book about Dora Behmoiras by Josiane Smith-Behmoiras]
….Dora rests her hands [or does she lay her hands, or rests them on the fatty, glistening pasty skin?] on the chicken neck for a moment. [Has a man ever held her hands? Cracked and creased, they look lonely on the chicken neck]
‘He had endangered his life, taking me, a Jew, during the Nazi occupation, to be his bride.’ [“Rice” should be the next word, to symbolically follow from “bride”] Now that the stuffing of rice and parsley is incased inside the skin, she pushes her double-threaded rusty needle [well, a dead chicken won’t get tetanus, but what about my mother?] once more into the chicken throat, to secure the cotton with a loop [round in circles and into a knot, like her life] and she says, ‘One day, I will sew your wedding dress.’ [Precede the calamity with a dream]
There is a loud rapping on the door, unexpected at this time of the night. Dora turns the long metal key in the lock [Dora’s as a sacrificial lamb] and the door flings open. [An abrupt opening into the outside – the world as a menace] We are speechless at what we see.
In the narrow entrance stands the bulky husband of The Windowpane-Cow [does the reader remembers the tragicomic circumstances of this nickname, made up by my mother?] pushing his adolescent daughter in front of him, and on the girl’s pale face a patch of fresh blood is spreading under her nose [or expending, like a budding flower?]
A group of their relatives are pushing behind them and hurling insults at my mother, [is this sentence implying that they are family and that they really do love the girl?] and before she can utter a word, the husband of The Windowpane-Cow has thrust his ringed fist at her. ‘That will teach you a lesson old madwoman’ he says and pulls his daughter away. [Are these different manifestations of intimacy & love? Or is one of them the image of evil in disguise?]
I hold my mother in my arms and I taste the saltiness of her blood and her tears. [Is the use of Body and Blood & Tears too iconic? How can I describe my own feelings of pain in my story? They aren’t in the dictionary. I think I will have to invent new words
Womanly in Manly
The woman is tall with stately bearing. She is wearing a black sKivvy that ends just on her rounded belly. Her jeans are strung low and form a tight mound over her buttocks. Between her black top and jeans, her brown flesh bulges. The ties of her long black apron dig into the flesh on her hips.
I can’t keep my eyes off her. I watch her as she walks silently picking up plates from the stainless steel tables. Her rounded belly weighs her to the ground while the skivvy holds up her head high like those brass rings women wear in Africa.
She is reticent. Her eyes look to the floor after she leaves each table. Her plump cheeks and her down-turned eyes contrast with the display of flesh below her waist. She moves surely, neither looking for approval in the eyes of her customers nor for confirmation of her beauty in the reflective surfaces of the cafe.
She must be a stranger in town. The other waitresses, thin as bean poles, chat by the register. One has short boyish hair and the other one of those ugly back the front fringes hanging over her neck from a pony tail.
She rarely speaks. She wears a pink hibiscus in her frizzy hair. It is her only adornment. She has dark brown eyes and a nose that curves gently before ending bluntly above full lips. Her round cheeks and lips mark her beauty above the tight neck.
She laughs at herself as she gives but the barest details to customers about the food.
“We have a menu,” she says, smiling, fending off questions about eggs. She takes the order, looks at the ground then moves off as if propelled by something else rather than the demands of work.
I could watch her all day as I sit in the corner of the café. I have come from the south where the winds blow from the pole and we need to be prepared. Here I am traveling light. A small bag sits at my feet and a notebook in front of me. I am here to learn something but it could easily pass me by so I have to be vigilant.
At the next table is a customer with pink eyes and white teeth, prominent as she chews on toast. Beside her a group of Germans talks loudly. Next to the window sits a man with reading glasses and curly grey hair. He is correcting a manuscript. His skinny legs in white sox stick out like some kind of insect’s.
I watch him. He raises his hand to his mouth, the silhouette of his pen pointing at his nose. His concentration is intense. He could be a novelist. Perhaps he’s a writer from the Sydney Push of the 1970s who is sitting there, awash with random recollections about horny women in bars. What if he writes juicy works that win prizes? He could be a famous author and I am just beginning. I don’t want to end up like him. I would rather be the waitress.
The light rests like pale gold on her cheeks. They are chubby like mine. She bounces as she walks to the tables. Perhaps the writer at the window has written about waitressing. Perhaps he has developed a theory about the value of it as work. It is her calling, he thinks as he sits with the white pages above his white sox.
Chapter Six. I struggle to make out the heading on his manuscript but he turns the page. I can see point forms. It is definitely not a novel. Thank goodness. I could not bear it if he had captured the sensuous detail of the waitress in his prose.
The metal leg of his table sits at the centre of a star with eight points held within two circles, all in parquetry. Outside the window banksia form an extension to his hair, as if his thoughts have now moved out to the ends of their boughs and hang there like little grey pods.
His eyes rarely leave the manuscript. I don’t believe he is interested in the woman who, looks so intelligent in her beauty, who makes a comment to a customer then turns her back looking shyly at the floor. He is missing so much as he edits the perfect manuscript.
Would he throw all of his work away to go to bed with that woman? Why not just look up in wonder instead of sitting so dried up in his corner with the window behind and the white page between him and the world.
To me. she is a goddess, moving, not speaking, each of her movements an exercise in grace. She approaches the writer and reaches over him to clear the table. Her belly is at his eye height. Across the pouch in her apron the words Vittoria Coffee are written and the white of her notebook peeps out like a joey.
“I would like my bill,” he says without even looking at her or feeling her presence. She brings it on a small saucer. Still he sits until finally he finishes editing his manuscript and closes it. I look over to read the title. “Recovering Humanity”, it says.
The man steps up to the register and is able to pay without even looking at her face.
It seemed that way
After phone calls with her daughter Madeleine Abramovich has to enter each room in her brick-veneer unit in suburban Melbourne and touch objects. The re-upholstered (once beige, now rouge) corduroy chairs. The re-installed, now non-dripping, steel kitchen faucet. The extendable jarrah-wood table.
Objects that once were and now were no-longer. Concrete objects that stave off the memories. For a time.
In 1976, after seven years of traveling, of following her husband, of teaching to support them both, she had returned to Melbourne. She had come full circle. From Melbourne to Europe to the United States and back again. Only to return to the same place, the same name, the same identity that she had as a girl. The same identity except that she could add the categories DIVORCED and SINGLE MOTHER to her character traits.
And even then, when she had worn her shame like prescription lenses across her face, she would write her name on a clean white napkin: Madelaine Abramowich nee Rhine nee-nee Abramowich.
As she wrote she would always try to laugh. There had been no alternative. He had given her no alternative:
The build-up of dirt on the stove reminds Madeleine of the edge of the pier in St Kilda, where it meets the ocean and the silt and algae merge with wet wood. It was where she would go as a teenager, walking alone towards the water, pretending she would not stop at the edge. Pretending she could swim, far away, despite the fact she had never learned.
That this sink, this old peeling sink in their rented University of Miami flat reminds her of home is not surprising. Now, with her burgeoning belly, almost everything reminds her of home. As if every motion, movement or sound would be somehow easier THERE.
Madeleine shakes the memory away and once again scrubs with the boiling water and the cream cleanser. She moves her arms violently.
It is midnight when he returns.
“I’m lucky to have met her,” he says, smelling of cheese and beer, receiving her mis-aimed kiss on his shoulder.
“So you had fun then,” she asks quietly, attempting again to reach his face with her dehydrated lips.
And despite the fact that his smell makes her feel the same sickness that she feels every morning, she still allows his cold feet to rest between her thighs, still accepts his iced back against her chest.
Madeleine’s experience of relationships had been limited in Melbourne. Three boys, three dinner dates and one matinee film at the Victory Theatre on a Saturday. Not exactly a catalogue of knowledge from which she can draw reference now, as she listens to him talk of his Puerto Rican research student and her extensive knowledge of Debord (Or was that one Dutch ¾ ? After all, there have been so many). And, while Madeleine resents the fact that she hasn’t read Society of the Spectacle and did not manage to sit through the film version with subtitles and dense imagery, (when would she find the time?), she does not warm to his description of the girl. Not least because she knows that this girl, this young, fresh and vibrant child, is feeling her husband, is being felt by her husband, is TOUCHING while she is not.
And, when she awakes that night, after her first nightmare in fifteen years, he does not speak to her. He lies still, like clay, unmoved by her awkward attempts at cuddling. And when she turns on the lamp, desperate for an end to the images ¾ of guns, of needles, of other people’s sex ¾ he returns to a sleep as solid as a policeman’s badge.
And when she rises ¾
He groans ¾
And when she pulls the heavy blanket away from their horizontal bodies¾
He moans Jesus Christ and turns away.
And when she returns, sweaty and shaken ¾
He is sound asleep.
And yet, she will still make his morning tea with honey and a touch of milk as if she is structuring an important lecture for presentation.
Not all events are watched and praised, she reminds herself. Not in this flat
She HAS tried to make the best of it ¾ curtains, flowers, dishes washed every day. And, in their basement bedroom, she has even removed the neon bar from the low, aqua-painted ceiling ¾ but that only seems to annoy him all the more, complaining that there is not enough light for reading, that he strains his eyes through his black, square framed spectacles.
She can not help it, she justifies. There are no other bulbs.
Before she was pregnant she taught full time. At Miami Dade Public Primary School. She had been busy then. She had not noticed the way in which he hardly talked to her; the consistency with which he left the room when she entered. But that was six months ago.
And while Madeleine had known that the baby would do little to aid Rahjiv’s overall career plan she still imagined they were new lovers, happy to return home to each other, eyes bright when the other walked into the room. And with Maddy’s tendency towards migraines having somehow disappeared… the pill seemed inconsequential.
Seemed ¾ but Madeleine is unsure now of what she knows. Of what she thought she knew. But she knows now ¾ with the certainty of her belly ¾ that she can not compare to a young Puerto Rican/Dutch medical graduate student with large breasts and a tight abdomen.
She was right. He had left her six weeks after the birth.
“Good luck,” Madeleine whispers. “Good luck to whichever poor fool has to deal with you now.”
Now ¾ in Mumbai, the “poor fool” who is about to “deal with him” is not a fool, and is determined not to be poor for very much longer. She is young, mid five-foot height, Sagittarian. She is the third of the Rahjiv ‘Naipaul’ Rhine tryptic.
She is Estella Mary de Reynas.
“What do yo-ou tink?”
Wearing a three-quarter cream slip, trimmed with thick black lace and a dark mid-length halter top, Estella de Reynas (in the unpublished opinion of Rahjiv “Naipaul” Rhine), looks like a dove from his very own Ark.
“Think?” Rahjiv asks, buying time, knowing that he can’t… think.
“Yea-hs. We immp-oort to Cuba from Myami and In-dya.”
“Sounds good¾ ” Rahjiv pauses, as he lifts Estella’s top away from her left nipple with his pinkie.
“Yea-hs tis very good doctor. Tis very, very good.”
And, although he doesn’t know it yet, Rahjiv “Naipaul” Rhine is about to discover that he has been thirty-eight for one Sagittarian sweetheart too long.
A Subtle Difference
by Antonia Pont
A conference is built on words and ideas
And the tenuous fabric we string
Let me sew for you
A lovely garment of homespun semantics.
I read it somewhere, in a book
Perhaps of poetry, or in the letters of a
South American friend, that
There is a difference between pain and suffering.
The distinction made was that
Suffering is passive, and
Pain is active.
Two synonymous units which are
Not the same thing at all.
Suffering as an
Off with the fairies, head in the clouds or
A flying off the handle and no breath in between the insults
Kind of thing;
Pain as a
Not running, a sidling up close to, a face to face with
Nerve to nerve interaction with some
The tearing of the vaginal walls, comes to mind
Or the renting of the beloved’s image
Or the gap
Where something once was.
In Pop-Buddhist parlance
Suffering (the under-belly of pain) is considered the natural consquence of desire
For attachment I read
Wanting A and not B, and
Getting barely a trickle of A and
Lashings of B
Even though A was immaculate
And B a hideous letdown in every respect.
The Not-getting, and the
Imagining-missing-out-on and the
The Not-having, Being-forgotten
Forsaken, abandoned, left to wander in the wilderness
Suffering blooms gorgeous
Like Patterson’s Curse in the sunshine.
The world is at fault.
The world is a miserable place.
Scratching around with our implements of precision
We may curiously discover THAT
Suffering does not dwell in the dissected cadaver of
Deprivation or coercion,
But in the concoction these create within us
We the casseroles of slow-baked suffering, enamel vessels
Professional generators of it.
We, the unconscious manufacturers of the most
Product worth nothing
Since the market is flooded with it.
The second limb of our original theorem states that:
Pain is suffering turned active
Turned ‘get up and go’ or
‘Lie down and receive’
Turned something with a bit of zest or stature.
Whatever your definition of that might be.
Three men with a footy each and a child
Amble/run down the street.
They appear to me objectionable
(Because I am sometimes fearful of popular culture)
Little parcels of my suffering, out there in the sunshine.
And I just sit here, with the image of them hunting me through the window.
We need to identify the precise moment when suffering metamorphs to pain.
I will simply ASSUME that it does
With no justification…
Because words are arbitrary and
Logic is a scratchy jumper.
Before the haze of suffering
We begin with bliss
Slipping out of the soft, coral canal of
Perfect nutrition and soft-serve peace
With no attrition on the horizon yet
Suffering starts to clothe us like a cloistering skin
Like a veil with millions of holes
In the once-perceived-Perfectness.
We learn to fear the world galloping at us
Arms open, face luminous and loving us maniacally.
We perceive the wrinkles on the face of the world
The irregularities in her trusting eyes.
The swill of sweat from her now craterous pores, and we
Judge. And we
Rattle off one hundred reasons.
Call these deep, firmament breaths, these pretty pauses, these luxurious lacks
Imperfection. And it would seem that all is lost.
We begin to talk at dinner parties
Of protein diets and deadly disease.
We suffer like oil-laden birds, squirming in the weighty black of velvet seas.
Our original hypothesis of suffering intends that we
Pant and wait politely for death.
Our suffering would seem to be wedded
– Often and almost monogamously – to our disappointments.
I am disappointed in you, Susie.
You spilled muesli down your blue velvet smock this morning and then
This afternoon you wiped
Your fingers after eating chippies on your stockings.
I will have to stain remove now. And oh! how that bores me.
The world I wanted wasn’t like this, Mummy.
Somewhere… perhaps at the bottom of the kitchen drawer where all the
Takeaway menus are kept.
At the Multinational Calorific Provider
On the corner, we order food
That doesn’t taste of anything.
So at least it’s not offensive.
Forgetting to look for other options
Under the pile of papers, and the nails
Old matches and rows of half-used blu-tak adhesive.
There was the option of proper food
Despite fatigue and a gaping fridge.
Manages to clean out the kitchen drawers and turn
Suffering into possibility
There is a birth and it is bloody and
And banal, so banal
Having happened trillions of times before
Our little foray into housework.
Suffering wakes to itself
All lain out on its back in the hessian sun
It sits up.
Bony on the paving bricks
With the weeds growing up symmetrical in the
Green hexagonal stars in the shape of soft wheels.
Suffering grabs itself, stands up.
Shakes off gritty blooms of dust
And strides forth
To put out the washing
And to stare straight up, fierce, into the
Mouth of the sun
Which is not so unpleasant when it sucks on
Suffering becomes a new thing: PAIN
Erect. Upright. Or fluidly still.
Pain is suffering engaged with.
To engage with
To play with
To look at
Pain is suffering respected.
Mother Mary’s Letting Be.
To love your suffering – we are not talking co-dependently –
But real, grown-up, look-you-in-the-face and
See the other.
When you look at suffering and examine its
Limbs and flaws and funny posture, pitted skin and
Fickle whims – you
Make it into something new:
1 + 1 = 2
You find yourself in the act of loving.
The simple act of permitting.
Allowing it to be there.
To rise like a gigantic bird
All grey and black with underfeathers the colour of fruits.
Glorious with a wingspan to shelter everything.
Pain is your treasure
And your loss of the treasure lived.
Your bedfellow, your friend.
It is the plough creating the topography of your life.
Marking the turnings.
Making lines for you to colour in
With texta, even though the blue has gone streaky now
You’ve used it so much.
Sometimes, caught unawares your gut reacts with
The usual whining, grey oblivion
Some hazy, cowardly, little suffer-scurryings in the brain.
But later… You engage with it
You artists out there.
You with memory as an option, flecked with mercy.
And the capacity for slowing down that is:
To document. (Infinitive).
You the magician, the alchemist
Make some silver, mercuric, more precious
100% proof Pain.
The good stuff. Not of dictionary definition.
It is a lofty achievement.
All cheer and shout hooray!
Today there was a metamorphosis.
In my word-processor.
In my limbs looping intricate text
Across the expanse of a wooden floor
In my pots of colour smeared.
But this is
Not the age old (or New Age) advocating of pain.
It is not the same. IS NOT
Like the church
Like the ascetics, like alcoholism glorified or the fetishists of damage.
Living in garrets.
Rotting life and concreting veins
Such dramatic questings are mediocre and far too large.
If All existence is suffering (as the Buddhists like to tease)
We might conclude
All existence has the potential to become pain.
Dark, exquisite, strange, or
Light like meringue on lemon curd
Or the fickle trackings of a purple migraine.
Take it on your tongue and gaze deep into its
Find the smallest pain.
That which we call pleasure.
The towelling off of shower water in a cold bathroom.
Find the smallest pain:
This is the art.
The nice gleam of the skin stretched tight over the
Smiling cheekbone of a lover, who has to leave the bed
Or the fascination woken by watching blind, toothy mole-rats,
Who resemble walking testicles
Scrambling underground on the telly last week.
So you do not need addiction by definition.
But it is an option.
Like everything is.
Farm your pain from the quotidian.
The whole range.
The vast spectrum, stretched tight like a jelly snake
Pulled to its full potential.
For it is our loving and seeing and re-seeing
That is our art.
It is our taking up of little suffering bundles,
Holding them close, talking to them into the night,
Like teething children: and they become
Luminous, gurgling pain.
Our ways of getting close.
Our silent brushings of the surfaces of breathing.
I can’t tell you anything about pain and art.
For they may be the exact, same thing, and
The ability to have pain, to practice it rather than just to suffer –
The hidden nature of art.
That love we bring to the average and the startling.
Nobody in Particular
Henry Von Doussa
He was about to crack and show it all. All the terror, the embarrassment, the desire, the passion, and the anxiety that had been closeted for years was in danger of spilling out under neon light, ultra-violently erupting right there in the club. The guy was loaded with emotion, both barrels packed and cocked.
He couldn’t pretend I knew how to be among these men and it was written all over his face. Sure, he was young, inexperienced, wet behind the ears, letting his hair do its own haphazard thing—no product or pretensions—just the ticket in such a jaded environment. He was bound to be snapped up in next to no time. But the anticipation had him in ribbons. Who would have the guts to risk showing their own desires by pulling him out of the limelight? Which one of the festering queens lining the walls like medieval paneling would have the balls to throw caution to wind and chuck him a life-line. Which stale antiquity with a bleeding heart and an aching weather-beaten cock would risk a quiet uneventful Tuesday night and a mope home alone for triumph, for just one touch, or more, before this dazed kid came to and fled. Who would take the shameful punt on him not being able to say no? After all, it wasn’t a matter of who the kid wanted, of him making a choice, he didn’t know what he wanted and it showed. Scared witless. This is what whoever went in for the catch was counting on. They counted on a piece of clueless virgin arse too scared to say boo, and with gay etiquette as absent as a Naired hair. Really, so over ripe he was falling rather than needing to be plucked, a gimmy. But following the old adage about being in the company of such dandy fellow, the permanent fixtures kept their backs to the wall (the irony of the situation) and no one make a move. Maybe seeing these first tentative steps into the gay world was too startling and painful to witness; a reminder of how there’s no such things as queer trainer-wheels, no one to ease your new beginnings into the world for you. A drag queen just starting out might have trainers-heels or a teen bra padded with tissues to get her going, but she only got to that point by being faced with an enormous down hill slope, perching her boy-pussy on the edge, holding her breath, and going over. She did it her way, and now so would he. He would have to fumble his way through.
He was a spectacle at the bar. His rudderless solo excursion through a sea of bodies leaving the punters frozen between amnesia and past humiliations they couldn’t repel. They stopped, they turned and looked, they had moments of recognition, but no one went near him. No one wanted to go back there, to the place where wounds are still fresh, and where coming out is never enough to disentangle you from the anguish of the closet. The pain of it still able to suck you back. They wouldn’t go there even for a minute. Not even for a piece of pliable meat, a virgin opportunity, a taste of something unsullied. Each man expected and hoped (while secretly wishing the reverse) that another man would be the first to advance, the first to test the icy waters of fear and rebuttal. Nobody did. Who would have the balls to come through for him, to touch this kid and prove that the long wait had not been in vain? It was at that moment that he appeared from nowhere and swept him to higher ground.
The Christmas function was something he had to do, and it was done. Now, glowing in the warmth of the all-male venue, he was comfortable enough to be who he couldn’t be with the blokes at work. He was there to lose himself in the abandon of available bodies. He’d had a tough week and he was there to forget.
His desire for death and disappearance was simply a pretext to ‘a good fuck’, or was it the other way around? He let them have sex with him so he might die, and so that something new, chiselled into being by each thrust of a penis, might be born with in him. He remembered the first time he’d gone to the club, as scared as we was about what he was doing, about what he might catch, and about the consequences he may have to deal with after, he remembered, above all, feeling impregnated with hope. That’s what was different about being there and being at most of his other social functions he was expected to show his face at, at the club he was rejuvenated.
Perhaps, he hoped, as he rose from the black mat in the small hot cubicle, the fraudulent crummy guy he was might be left behind. As he wiped himself clean with hand towel from the dispenser, and prepared to find the next man, he hoped the putrid mistakes he’d made in the past might keep their heads hung low, their hands folded in their laps, and remain on the mat to be wiped away when the cleaner did his rounds. He was done with them. If someone else used the cubicle before the cleaner made it, his old leftovers might then, being the cunning and parasitic excuses for life they are, climb onto the next occupant’s back and be gone. They could exhaust someone else for a change, get under someone else’s skin with their constant quibbling over right and wrong. Either way, he was done with what was increasingly becoming inexcusable excess baggage. Something to be rid of. What worried him, though, as he left the cubicle, already well fucked and somewhat renewed, but nevertheless trailing a rough looking top he’d noticed earlier, was whether there’d be a decent burial for what he wasn’t taking with him? Was it even necessary? If he got up from all-fours, stretched and clicked his achy joints, blinked himself out of his revelry, would he see traces of what he had left behind. Would there be more than a puddle of cooling fluids, a torn sachet of lube, some sweaty follicles of hair, a pool of dirty little lies? Would there be some good part of him, which, through self-disgust and despair, he could not recognise, and which, being his more respectable and cherished part, might, as far as those who could recognise it were concerned, deserve an equally respectable farewell (or god-forbid resuscitation). What was to become of what he left behind?
To finish the job, he let a bunch of men go through him. The night was a doozy. His death had been accomplished. The last man he was with, himself mostly spent and so much less abrasive than the previous gang of hard fucks, was simply there to burnish the material the others had already laid. Steven, as he vaguely remembered, smooth and amyl-driven, wasn’t there to shatter him (this had been achieved), but rather, to lovingly nudged him a little further from the lousy disappointment who’d stumbled away from those happy Christmas idiots six hours earlier. At just the right pace Steven prepared him for the world outside.
Sore, tingling, and radiant, he stepped out of the club with expectation in his usually glum stride. He stepped into the inner-city sunlight.
Even a Child is Known by His Actions
Reuben’s been running tip ups with shiners and sucker minnows as bait since late November seeing he knows the ice was at least three inches thick. Up at the cabin, the lake freezes way earlier than the lakes around Failing. It might be that the water is left alone way up in the north woods, left to switch its heart to winter, whilst the lake and its ice is distracted providing light entertainment to Failing people. Come the end of football season, the boys from the wrecking yard put an banged up truck or such way out in the grand centre of the lake; talking about when the truck will go out on the ice come winter and when the truck will go through the ice come summer, keeps a majority of folks in our town occupied for a good four or five months each and every year. I’ve even heard talk that some of the bars in town have a board up where the drinkers can place a bet with money depending on when they figure the ice’ll break. I can’t say that it is true that they’re gambling on nature in the dark corners of Failing’s bars, but I can’t deny it neither.
But the ice up at our cabin’s Cranberry Lake is left lone to its own devices. She’s out there in the midst of the tall white pine and scrubby jack, freezing hard and meaning to ignore the straggling deer coming down off of the hill looking for a mouthful of water. Meanwhile, there are schools of fish—blue gill, perch, sunfish, walleye, and pike—swimming under the forming crust, their slimy hides slowing down for winter, their dawdling breathing becoming shallow, each gulp bringing in freezing water to chill along their skinny bones and flesh. That ice up at Cranberry isn’t thin and honeycombed like in Failing; no she’s a clear blue ice, a bit slushy in parts, but nice and new and you can trust her. It isn’t crispy river ice, but you still got to take a good look for soft pockets of water that prove a current is running under. Sliding through a fissure will get you good and wet and cold as you’ve ever been, so you got to always keep an eye out, especially when she’s still freezing, like she’s still freezing in December.
But the boys won’t pay me no never-mind, and have decided that we are all going out, and we are all going out today. Crunching through the snow single file like Indians, each carrying a bit of the gear—an ice auger, rusty old bait bucket, lures and hooks and jigs, tip ups and jigging rods, and a shinny new skimmer—we are packed down heavy. Samuel leads the way, tapping the ice with a stick before he leads us over; his ear can tell by the sound that comes back to him what the ice will hold and what it won’t. The shack is already out on the ice near a good spot for walleye thanks to Reuben begging Daddy for a week solid. We aren’t allowed to keep the gear inside though, as Daddy and Uncle Ingwald still think she might thaw in the night and we’ll lose the shack. Reuben begged like a dog saying that he listened to Cranberry every night, and that he couldn’t sleep for the sound of her cracking and freezing and cracking and freezing. Finally, Reuben had to promise that he and Samuel would rebuild the fishing shack, stick by stick, if she went through, so I guess the men had no choice but to let them fish.
I don’t have trouble sleeping for listening to ice. In my head instead there swims tangling ropes twisting and pulling tight, hard against me. Sometimes I dream that I am floating round the ceiling, sticking close to the tops of the walls, flying but afraid that I’ll come crashing down hard to the floor. When we’re sleeping at the cabin, if the bed and couch downstairs are full of grownups, all the kids got to go up the ladder into the attic and sleep with the squeaking bats and scratching mice. Sleeping at the cabin, under my grandma’s patchwork quilts, I still fall into the shifting and sliding dark dreams, but at least I’ve got Naomi laying there beside me. When dreaming, she tends to suck her thumb, and I tend to call out in a fright, but we keep each other company close enough.
Near enough to the shack, a split in the ice races out from where Reuben is standing and cracks loud and rippling across the lake. Echoing off of the wall of pines, the sound grows and gives me a shiver probably worse that it ought. Reuben is pretending he wasn’t ever scared, that he hadn’t already been picturing himself slipping through the ice, down down down into the freezing deep, his eyes peering up through the frosted water, trying to find the hole out that was his hole in. Throwing down his jacket and the jig poles he is carrying, he is scrambling to get on his hockey skates and clear a circle for a bit of practice. I know, though, that he could already feel the water filling and freezing his lungs and choking out his breath. I know he could because I could, and it wasn’t me that broke the ice.
I guess it is my fault, in the end, though, because I am watching Reuben and Samuel skating and not really keeping an eye on my feet. All of a sudden, the ice beneath me is swirling slush, and I feel my right leg slip deep into the water. Filled up with freezing water and chunks of ice, my boot starts to drag heavy and means to pull the rest of me into the lake and under the ice. Flailing my arms and screeching, I fight the pull downward to grab the edge of the hole and keep my left side, leg and arm and body and head, up above the water. I can’t say that I am praying, but I don’t know who else I am begging to let me live. I guess you don’t need to speak the name of God for Him to know that He is needed, because just as I felt that I would split right in two, Naomi and Reuben and Samuel are pulling me up and walking me away from the hole quicker than I even remember falling in.
Sopping wet, water dripping from my hip down to my toes, I can feel the rest of my body going numb and tingly. Looking back over my shoulder, I see there wasn’t ever any risk of me slipping through the hole, as it was only about twice the width of my thigh; my arms alone would’ve kept me up above with the living. That slushy hole I stepped into was made by a school of white fish swimming round and round together, whether to get air into the lake or to get revenge on ice fishermen, I don’t’ know. But at this moment, shaking from head to toe and teeth rattling in my head, I am sure those plotting scaly fish were out for retribution. I am having a hard time catching my breath at the thought of sinking into the deep mud at the bottom of Cranberry Lake, and my folks waiting until spring thaw to fish me out and bury me. Although the fear of drowning will soon pass, the risk of freezing out here in the sharp wind is mighty real. From my splashing, the hair inside my nose is freezing hard and crisp and I can see ice forming on the tips of my eyelashes, so I let my brother and my cousins bundle me into the shack.
Over his knee, Reuben breaks branches piled next to the shack to make a fire to get my blood moving again; I figure he is awful worried that he will get the blame for my frostbite death and that Daddy might never let him out on the lake again. They pile the wood in the hole in the ten gallon steel barrel that serves as our stove and get the fire roaring quick. Embarrassed, I stand there soaking, waiting for the boys to leave so I can strip down to my bare skin and wrap up in the wool blanket on the bunk. Naomi catches my darting eye and hustles the boys out for more wood so that I can hold on to at least a semblance of my pride. As she helps me pull off the many wet layers of snow pants, jeans, long underwear, and tights, my body twitches and flicks like a muddy cow’s tail, and I think I will never again get warm. Naomi wraps me up in the green army blanket, and I lay down on the top bunk, shivering hard but breathing better.
A hand comes round the door, holding more sticks for the fire. Naomi grabs them up and thanks Reuben for bringing them. Sheepishly, he peeks his head through and barely whispers to ask if I am alright. Reuben’s scared wrinkled up face looks so worried I laugh out loud and tell him to go on ahead and get skating and fishing. Watch out for those whitefish, they’re gunning for you now! I tell him still laughing. His smile tells me that he is relieved, and with him stopping his worrying, I stop my worrying too and can see that I will well and truly live through a bit of a wet, old, cold leg. The plywood door bangs shut after Reuben, and Naomi sits down on the bottom bunk and pulls out a secret roll of chocolate caramels from her coat pocket. We are shoving them into our mouths, and she is rubbing my wet foot hanging off the side of the top bunk when Samuel comes in out of the cold.
You get out there and skate a bit, Naomi. Samuel always talks in that low voice. You didn’t walk all the way out to the middle of Cranberry to stuff your face full of candy. I’ll watch her. Naomi gets up and paces the room back and forth. She offers the caramels to Samuel, but he shakes his head. She stokes up the fire, but Samuel says it is burning high and right. She finally laces up her skates, throws a look over her shoulder at me, and slides out the door. Ahhh, it’s getting hot in here, isn’t it? Samuel takes off his jacket and snow pants. My jeans are a bit wet, don’t you think? He slides them off too.
By the time he climbs up into the top bunk, Samuel is wearing just his tight long underwear. He has to warm up now and he has to help me warm up too. His breath is hot and his hands are cold, and I can see the slit of his thing sticking out the top of his underwear. It isn’t an accident this time, and I can’t even pretend any more that it is. I know now that the other times, through the woods when we accidentally saw him skinny dipping, in my tent when he didn’t mean to come in when I was changing, at the swimming hole when he sort of rubbed against us in the water, at church during worship when his arm softy brushed against my chest, none of those times were accidents either.
During, I hear Naomi come to the door and quietly press her face against it and ask Samuel if she could warm up now. He tells her no, and she shuffles away. She comes back; he says no; she goes away. Samuel has laid on me and wriggled around before, earlier in the summer when Naomi was at Bible camp. But it was August and hot then, and because I am wet and cold, he has to really warm me now. He pulls at my nipples and rubs my chest with his rough calloused hands. He rolls on top of me. It never hurt before, though, and I push him away a bit, and then I push him toward me, and then I push him away hard. He says, low and slow like he always talks, If you don’t let me, I’ll go back to Naomi. Naomi. His sister Naomi. Naomi still sucks her thumb. Naomi is only a little girl. So I pull him down to me again and let him stay there until he is done.
If he could go back to Naomi, if he would go to his sister, that means that he has been to Naomi before. I know that what he does on me is not love or even making love, but I thought I was the only one. It hurts me to know that Naomi knows what he does on me. It hurts me most to know that I let him do it again, and I wasn’t even protecting Naomi’s baby girl life. Even with the shame, I thought I at least was different now—maybe might smell different now—but I’m not different, I am just the same as she is. Now, I am more like her than ever before; I am still just the same as them all. Jealousy burns through me, down to my core, like a hot splash of urine melting through snow. Pictures twist through my head, like tangling ropes: Samuel looking at me like a snarling badger hunting a snowshoe hare; Samuel pulling Naomi round the ice, her skates slipping in the slush and gleaming in the glare; Samuel stabbing a northern pike through the eye with an maple stick; Samuel, leaning against the side of the shack, pissing a high yellow arc steaming into the snow.
These men are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him. If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.”