The Word


Out in the hotel courtyard a man was talking. Jeremy strained to hear what he was saying, but couldn’t understand the language. Almost an hour later he realized that it was only a growling dog. Sighing, he closed his eyes and tried to go to sleep. In the morning he’d really lay into that plumber. It had been five days now since his family started living out of a hastily packed suitcase, clinging to the man’s vow that the oak tree that had pushed its roots into their sewer pipe would be out of their way before they knew it. To his credit, the plumber – a thin, sunburned man named Lionel – was paying for their stay at this decrepit old hotel. It was nearly a consolation until Jeremy remembered that he had stood in front of his students in the same pair of pants three days in a row now. And he still had to look forward to cleaning all the shit from the burst pipe out of the living room carpet once the job was done.

hotel

I shouldn’t have to be here. I should be at home gulping down cider and watching sports. But which sport? Which home? The day that had just passed was Thanksgiving Thursday in the United States, the day that Americans gave thanks to some long-forgotten nation that didn’t have wit enough to let itself be swallowed up by the Peace. They didn’t parade nor dance in the streets but celebrated with gluttony and a sport called football instead. As always, Jeremy got his mother’s invitation – a plea – that he come visit her in Olive Branch for the occasion. As always he ignored it. This time it wasn’t her scorn towards Aziyadé and Ghislaine but out of fear of what he would admit if he dared write her back. If Jeremy could’ve salved the gash between them with only her favorite phrase, “You’re right, Mom,” he would’ve written to her immediately, but he knew that she would gloat over her victory and would ask for details. She’d never let it go.

Ghislaine slept like a sack of potatoes in the bed closer to the window. Jeremy could see her still outline against the glowing curtains. They’d chosen the Hotel du Phare from among a smorgasbord of seedy budget hotels in Neakita mostly because it was only a few blocks from her school. Aziyade’s car was in the shop again, and he needed his to get to the university.

Ghislaine had taken the first few days of banishment in good cheer. In a city where private pools were an almost unspeakable luxury even the Hotel du Phare’s small, kidney-shaped tank full of cloudy water was a thrill. She and her friends spent every afternoon there until an attendant shooed them away to lock up for the night. The girl was finally starting to crack though, over the same clothing issue that was needling Jeremy. They couldn’t go back home to fetch more clothes until the biohazard warning was lifted.

Leighton called one of those evenings, that was a surprise. They hadn’t talked much since Leighton and Ashley’s paint-by-numbers storybook wedding. And even on that day not much. In the meantime Jeremy had forgotten, actually, how annoying it was that his best friend pronounced his name “Germy.” The phone call was occasioned by Leighton’s sudden recollection of a hot Neakitan girl who’d managed to evade his clutches. Her cunning maneuver took place about seventeen years ago – when Leighton visited Jeremy in grad school – but you’d never know from the way he described every curve of her ass with mathematical accuracy. “Any given day I could’ve gotten her out of those ridiculous leather pants,” he declared.

waiting for a ride

“Maybe,” Jeremy agreed, thinking: but on your given day, you didn’t. There’s no denying that Leighton is loyal, witty, and generous. If he has any faults as a friend Jeremy couldn’t name them. As a person, though, he still had the frustrating childish quality of never quite knowing what he wants. Or at least never willing to risk what he already has to get it. So on his given day he gave a Neakitan beauty a ride to the airport and didn’t even slip her his number. Why? Because he suddenly remembered something his old granny used to say about talking to strangers? Jeremy could hardly believe that this guy who sails into stock trading every morning like a pirate with a death wish could never trust himself to take the risks that really mattered. And too late now. Ashley was consolation enough for any man but she was a big red stop sign on the adventure highway if he ever saw one. 

When he was through reminiscing about the ass Leighton mentioned that he bought a house not too far from Olive Branch, at the foot of a ski resort, which was curious because he didn’t know how to ski. Six bedrooms and two baths. “Only two?” Jeremy asked. Leighton huffed that some of the bedrooms had been servants’ quarters and so they didn’t have their own bathrooms and of course he would make the necessary additions to his home once he had the chance. But he hadn’t even moved in yet, Jesus! Then, because he didn’t know that Jeremy was scrolling through the vide and mistook his silence for rapt silence, he added: “It’s such a safe neighborhood, buddy. You should see it. No crime, no libertines…” At the cusp of his midlife crisis Leighton still didn’t understand that everyone to the left of you is a libertine. Everyone to the right of you is a prude. Both make for frustration but at least the former tells better stories. There had been a time when Jeremy had treasured Leighton precisely for that reason. No one else he knew swam out to Bannerman Prison to sell cigarettes to its inmates or went over Niagara Falls in a barrel – twice. He was born an adventurer. Always up for whatever everyone else out of prudence abandoned. Nowadays there was something about Leighton that bored Jeremy nearly to rages of tears. The phone call before this one was a soliloquy about the most pedestrian near-overdose of cocaine in the history of the world. It was almost as if Leighton had deliberately transgressed his limit for the stuff just so he could tell the story later. Or maybe the overdose hadn’t happened at all, which was likely considering how much the tale sounded like it was lifted and sifting from those depressing human interest stories that New York’s newspapers always like to print.

 

From part one of my story about the Great Kanadaga of Neakita. Thanks for humoring me! 

Whenever Jeremy had to get through Vieille Ville in a hurry he took the shortcut down Jolicoeur, along the side of the cramped trailer park that itself lay along the side of Aurore-Chevrolet Park. The people who lived in the trailers were mostly migrant workers from the American state called Georgia. Their home communities had been slowly strangling to death since the 1790s. The people simply refused to do anything other than raise peanuts and tobacco that no one wanted to pay for anymore. Not at those prices, anyway, and now the long decline’s finally over. Late last year a wealthy New Yorker bought up most of the Georgian ghost towns. God himself may know what he wanted them for; Jeremy couldn’t guess. The luckiest of the refugees were here but most were being expelled, in rags, from one American state after the other. The reporters on the vide say they don’t come here because they’re afraid of learning a new language. It doesn’t matter that Neakita is the only place on the continent that welcomes them. Dozens of new charities dedicated precisely to their plight have already sprung up. Mayor Jolimot, for once with solid bipartisan support, proclaimed them permanent citizens. The casino construction meant to employ them while they learn southern Iroquoian was indeed funded by the city. But of course, few of the Georgian refugees had relatives here. Without family support they were still much worse off than even the most down-on-his-luck native.

 
It was already late when Jeremy drove by and the trailer park to his right had already gone quiet for the night. The Georgians, happy to be getting paid on time for maybe the first time in their lives, were notoriously industrious. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if the casino opened ahead of schedule.

 
To Jeremy’s left the many auto body shops and other odd storefronts were lit up. Strange, that none of them ever seemed to be open before sunset. The wild-haired natives who gazed out at Jeremy’s Aurore seemed annoyed, or even angry, though he certainly drove under the speed limit and made sure to give the broad-shouldered, gleaming mid-century hot rods parked in neat rows on the side of the road a wide berth. It was a mystery to him. As was the fact that even though the Jolicoeur short-cut shaved an easy ten minutes off driving time he always seemed to be the only one using it.

 
The streets of Vieille Ville were pocked with holes. They weren’t any worse in that regard than the average Neakitan street. The thing is that whenever it rains like it did that morning these holes become invisible under the water. Jeremy tried to recall their whereabouts from memory; the Aurore’s suspension was one bottoming out away from the auto graveyard. Although it had stopped raining hours ago all of the cars were still slowly, gingerly threading their way through the grid of pavement. They made little wakes that rolled off the grass.

 

 

 

Puddle Kanadaga

 

 

An excerpt from the first part of the book I’m writing. I got a bit of unexpected encouragement this morning and it means the world – thanks, M! So grateful!

 

Here we stand in the veil of the sun
Soft burn over last night’s bliss
Give me all that’s left in light concealed
A promise so deep it can drown, a kiss     


Here the threads of mercy were spun
No cloak but a summer dress
Throw the wheel against years presumed lost
Without fear of joy, without tears possessed

 

In twelve sudden years our tent was raised
In one night’s slow pleasure, burned

 

Now the trust of the trail must be won
Fall these careful steps can’t vex
Give her your gorgeous warmth when I go
A promise to keep, hold true to the next

 

Fehr leads his caravan to Mexico now and then. He tells me that my son Tenahaheka isn’t there anymore but stays a three days’ ride from the city. He lives in a very big building of shaped rock, and everyone who lives with him is either a boy or a man. Even the person who cooks his dinner is a man. In the morning they sing together without any dancing at all. In the afternoon everyone sits by themselves in silence, except those whose bad dreams at night oblige them to run through the stone cabin whipping themselves and crying out. Fehr says that all these boys and men also wear very itchy robes, though I can’t be sure of his judgment in these things, his own taste in clothing being very extravagant and almost unmanly.

Seminary
Tenahaheka never answered my letters. Only once did he ever send anything back with the traders at all, three small loaves of very nice soap which smelled like flowers and which Minekewaka used up before I knew what she was doing. I complained that Tenahaheka had surely meant some of it for his sister. “Marie Josephine’s filth is beyond the power of any soap,” Minekewaska sneered. I chuckled as if she were a great wit. She always shouted that I was too stupid to understand when I was being insulted even though it was she who was too stupid to see how easy it was to make her furious this way. Well, and if the spirits are finally calling in my debt by damning me to misery with this vain, spiteful woman, how can I call it anything but justice? More than justice even – it was a mercy for them not to take it out on the children. Even Tenahaheka whose life sounded like one of boredom, loneliness, and bad eating, so that it was hard to believe that this was really what he’d wanted. I asked Fehr over and over again if my son looked happy in that big stone cabin. Each time he promised me that he did.

As for being married to Minekewaska, I should be fair. She felt as beautiful as she looked. She didn’t even have any scars on her body, she’d taken such good care of it. When I went to the forest with her she reminded me of those other noble Otter girls I’d known when I was boy. Maybe it was her tight braids or the smell of the bear grease she used on her skin that made me think of them. To think that before I became chief I wasn’t even allowed to unbind in someone like that, someone so haughty and smooth and soft! And silent. The best part by far was that when we went to the forest together Minekewaska didn’t talk much. I always looked forward to it, and of course in time she ruined that for me, too.

 

Please pardon this excerpt from the sci fi novel I’m writing! I’m finding that the threat of someone other than myself reading this stuff is good motivation to be a more thorough editor 🙂

We followed our war chief Yeritha to the Bear satellite near Stinky Swamp and then further towards the sun. Some of the men with us had just lost their whole families. I know it sounds stupid but until that day I’d only ever seen grief on the faces of women. I was surprised by these cold grieving men. They made no lamentations to the spirits at all, nor did they even speak of what happened – only of what would happen. Finally Giuahaca noticed it, too. The third time he told me about how he’d  found his mother’s body he suddenly cut himself short.

“Were you still able to touch her?” I hadn’t thought to ask before. But Giuahaca set his lips and stared into the forest. I brushed his elbow with a finger and whispered that he wasn’t a man yet, in case he’d forgotten, and he didn’t have to do all these man things.

Giuahaca slowed his pace a bit. “No, not a man,” he admitted in the same low voice. “But I’m going to war. I’ve got to think of what I’ll do to these snakes when I find them, not of my little mother. You should make yourself ready, too, Kanadaga.” But then he added, “No, I couldn’t touch her. She was already dead for a long time.”

We didn’t say much else until darkness fell. Then we talked about girls just to hear each other’s voices, to not get lost, because no one near us had a fire and the path wasn’t much of a path at all, only some shoving through the bushes in whatever direction Yeritha felt like in the moment. When we finally stopped for the night it was because he found a cave. War wasn’t much different from hunting except that nobody had much to celebrate here. We ate the berries and dried fish we’d brought along. Some of the men bragged loudly about killing the chief of the Red Line people or bringing tens of heads back to decorate their so-and-so’s grave with. “I’m going to eat the heart of the first Red Line I kill,” Giuahaca shouted at some point. This was greeted with laughs, of course. Everybody knows that nothing good can come of eating the hearts of cowards. I didn’t laugh. I was still thinking of what Giuahaca had said to me that morning, thinking that I should make myself ready, too.

Once the joking died down others kept calling out their own plans. I stayed quiet and chewed on that horrible fish that Debeyrit packed for me, which tasted like it had gotten wet at some point, rotted, and then was dried once again. Mostly I ate it so that I didn’t have to smell it in my pouch again in the morning. What would I do to the Red Line when we got to their villages? Kill them, hopefully, beyond that I couldn’t say.

In order to punish me for being so quiet, or maybe for not blacking my face completely earlier, Yeritha ordered me to keep watch for part of the night with Hagan-Ika. My father asked me some polite questions about Debeyrit and I asked him some polite questions about my brother and sister and that was nearly that. “Throw some more wood in the fire,” he commanded a long time later. I told him what a stupid idea that was. The fire was still pretty high and morning was coming. In front of us there was already a thin orange line separating the black of the forest from the black of heaven. Hagan-Ika answered that we aren’t going to take those sticks with us so we might as well use them now. Besides, it had gotten cold. So I reached behind me and pitched what we had left into the fat hungry flames.

My father sighed as the heat crept up his body. “This is better,” he said. “Now, little son. Do you remember the proper prayers for killing a man? Yes? That’s good – I was worried because it’s been some time since your rites. I want to make sure you use the right prayer, my prayer, the prayer of my people. The one I taught you.”

“You want me to put the heads in the ground?”

“Yes. Always make sure of that.  And make sure you come back to pray over it when you can. If you kill a man in a war like this they’re still dying an honorable death. Don’t mock the spir-“

“An honorable death? Shouldn’t I leave their heads on their necks, then, so that their people can bury them whole?”

My father for once looked annoyed. “I don’t mean bury their whole heads, you fool,” he hissed. He pointed on my own head where I should make the cut, just as the sun was going up and I could see mountains far away. I could feel the circle his fingernail traced all the rest of the way to the Red Line village. Just like old Yeritha said the village’s ramparts were low and weak. The flimsy cabins in it were raised above the ground with trees.

We were very cruel to them. I saw some of the boys of my clan take the mothers in front of their own little children, and none too gently. I myself cut the fingers from an old man who jumped me and made him watch me drink the blood before he died.

Just an excerpt from the story I’m writing! It’s science fiction set partially in the present, partially in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Next Page »