Finalist for storySouth’s Million Writers Award

A new awesome thing:

My story “Invisible Men” (originally published in Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse Online and reprinted in Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction) is a finalist for storySouth’s Million Writers Award!

The award is given out annually to celebrate the best short fiction published online. Needless to say (but I’ll say it): I’m thrilled to be recognized, and for that story to be recognized especially.

So here’s the thing. A jury selected the top ten finalists, but the winner is selected by popular vote. So if you’re reading this, please consider the list of potentials and vote.

Vote for my story, of course! ;-)

You can venture over to the storySouth Million Writers Award website and find the listing of finalists by clicking here.

And you can find the voting form by clicking here.

Thanks for voting!

Where Thy Dark Eye Glances

This month brings out an interesting anthology from Lethe Press, edited by Steve Berman. Entitled Where Thy Dark Eye Glances, the anthology collects stories from writers who are engaging with the work of Edgar Allan Poe in a queer manner.

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The anthology is divided into sections that categorize the type of interplay you’ll see from the writers working with Poe’s stories and poetry: Poe the Man (the man himself as character), Poe’s Writing (retellings), and Reading Poe (stories in which reading Poe is integral to the plot or characters).

I have a story of my own in the Poe’s Writing section, (“For the Applause of Shadows”) retelling his famous doppelgänger story “William Wilson” from the point of view of the doppelgänger, which, in my version of things, isn’t a doppelgänger at all, but a real person with whom the William Wilson who narrated the original story has had a sexual relationship, and in an attempt to bury that relationship, murders him. It rewrites the original tale, which is almost always read as a story about a narcissist whose double, representing his conscience, haunts him for his bad deeds. I’ve literalized that haunting, and have hopefully added a different dimension to the story by reading it as a tale of spurned love and revenge.

The anthology has a lot of wonderful stories in it. Richard Bowes’ story, “Seven Days of Poe” has got to be one of his finest pieces of fiction to date, and I seriously hope readers seek the anthology out for this story alone, because it deserves to be read and to be awarded things for how good it is. Matthew Cheney appears with his own retelling of “William Wilson” that is so completely meta, I felt truly disembodied while reading it. And Steve Berman himself puts a really cool spin on Poe the man, especially facile with writing in a Victoriana manner, with “Poetaster”.

One of the very cool things about this anthology is that it’s actually a part of a kind of series. Lethe Press has previously published a similarly themed anthology of queered revisions called A Study in Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes, in 2011. And after this Poe anthology, Lethe will be releasing another Queering the Canon anthology that employs the Bram Stoker’s most famous creation, Dracula. That anthology, Suffered from the Night, is due out next month, and I’m happily reading a pre-release copy at the moment (stories by Livia Llewellyn, Laird Barron, and Lee Thomas all really excellent).

Talking with Steve Berman recently, he plans to continue the series with an anthology dedicated to Arthurian Legend. A Good Deal More Than a King should release in 2015, and I’m reallylooking forward to it.

Reviewing Reviews

I’ve been remiss in blogging all of the reviews that Before and Afterlives has brought in. And while reviews don’t always interest everyone, they usually interest the writer of a book. So either indulge me or flee as fast as you can! One only has a book come out every so often (at least if you write at my pace), so I’m trying to enjoy the first several months in the life of my newest.

Last month, Lambda Literary reviewed the collection, and said this:

Barzak has a talent for pulling you into a story within the first two or three paragraphs. All writers strive to accomplish that, but few do with such regularity and finesse as Barzak. He weaves complex plotlines into a short space and brings to life an assortment of characters and personalities that each stand on their own as unique and believable, even amidst the supernatural hauntings.

– See the whole review by clicking here. 

Likewise the book lover Curt Jarrell had this to say:

Reading these tales is akin to consuming a literary banquet. You will be rewarded with the rich blend of fine, often lyrical writing, touches of the otherworldly (i.e. ghosts, mermaids, etc.), subtle plotting and characters you’ll identify with, people who will touch your heart. 

  The collection also contains a story I consider a masterpiece.Each detail, every word and description build images and emotions that linger in the mind and heart long after reading.

The Boy Who Was Born Wrapped in Barbed Wire” is a beautiful and terrible tale of a child born with a unique affliction. Easily the most lyrical of the collection, the story overflows with joy and sorrow, blood and laughter, love and loss. It is thought provoking and emotional. It reminded me of a story Flannery O’Connor might have written. I was dazzled, moved by it’s beauty and brought to tears at it’s conclusion. Wow!

You can read that entire review here.

And over at the Lit Pub, Eddy Rathke reviews the collection too:

Who is to say that the unreal and the real cannot inhabit the same pages? Barzak’s skill here is making a foundation in reality so solid and believable that when the world’s glimmering shifts fantastic you are so swept up in it that it had to be that way. His fiction does not contain magic and monsters to illustrate magic and monsters but to show how beautiful and unknown and haunting our world is. 

The entire review is readable by clicking here. 

James Sallis reviews Before and Afterlives

Something really amazing came in this week: a review of my collection by James Sallis, in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

When I say it’s something amazing, I mean it. Because, man, I have never read a review that was written so eloquently and with its own poetic energy to it like this one.

And on top of that, it’s a great review of my collection, bookended with reviews of Kij Johnson’s latest collection and George Saunders’. Great company to be in!

In any case, I received permission from the publisher to show a decent chunk of the review here on my blog. I’m still bright-eyed from reading a review like this, by someone who reads really closely. This excerpt is the main body of the review for my book, but there are other bits in the whole review, which I’ll link to once it goes up on the magazine’s website:

Boxes, black or not, come in every imaginable size and shape. And there’s that word again. Imaginable. Imagination. Image.

     “Lying here in this abandoned hotel, I have done it once again. Once every year or so, depending on my finances, I allow myself to die. […] Now comes the burning sensation of re-entry, a tingling sensation that grows to feel like fire. As I find myself returning to my body, every cell expands, flooding with electricity. […] I gasp for a first breath, then howl like a newborn. After this I can see the people who killed me hovering over my body, their oval faces peering down, curious, amazed.”

“A Resurrection Artist” is a story that wears its subtext like a second skin just beneath the first, something that might be said of many of the stories collected here in Before and Afterlives. Are they about haunted houses, the death of a classmate one hardly knew, a world in which mermaids wash up so regularly on the beach that the police have clear procedures to deal with them? Yes. But for all their high fantasy and somber tones, the stories speak clearly and directly about straightforward things — verities, daily struggles, and choices. Like going on.

     And they move, forever restless, forever reaching.

     He has a taste for blurriness, Christopher Barzak has said in interviews, for stories that change shape as you read them, for writing fiction that skates around various genres, sometimes going straight through their territories, other times just around the edges, and oftentimes starting out in one kind of story and ending up in another.

     “What We Know About the Lost Families of — House,” the social history of a haunted house, abounds with the stories of those who inhabited it and with finely wrought sentences such as “And Jonas’s father, the gun cracking his life open like a pocket watch, to let all of the time spill out of him.”

     Much as Kij Johnson’s “Fox Magic” led to her novel The Fox Woman, Barzak’s “Dead Boy Found” later grew up to become his novel One for Sorrow. Part coming-of-age story, part the portrait of a dissolving family, part ghost story, it recreates for us the far-reaching effect of a boy’s murder on a fifteen year-old classmate barely managing to hold himself together, tugged this way then that, in the flash and tamped-down fury he sees about him.

     Another begins, “There was once a boy who was born wrapped in barbed wire. The defect was noticed immediately after his birth, when the doctor had to snip the boy’s umbilical cord with wire cutters.”

     Like Kij Johnson’s, Christopher Barzak’s stories do not take the shapes we anticipate; they continuously mutate, changing as our eyes move down the page, as language doubles back to catch its breath, as a comma pauses to hook its tail into a sentence. And dense as they are — “Dead Boy Found” spins from a domestic argument to the mother’s paralysis in an auto accident, to discovery of the murdered child, to the haunting of the girl who found the body, to Adam’s own unsettling encounter with dead Jamie, then flashes forward to what his life will be — the stories unfold easily, nary a bump in the road.

     Determined that something undeniable and nontrivial will happen to the reader.

Kirkus reviews Before and Afterlives

A late but  better than never review from Kirkus Reviews came for Before and Afterlives at the tail end of last week. It’s a goodie. I’m happy. I can only post a couple of lines from the review without infringing on copyright stuff, lalala, so I’ll post two of my favorite lines here, and then link to the rest of it, which you can read at the site itself.

“The 17 stories collected here bring readers into worlds where mermaids beckon to the sea, where a boy wrapped in barbed wire becomes wrapped up in love, where the end of the world is just another way to find yourself, and where ordinary characters meet extraordinary circumstances. Barzak takes what readers know (or think they do) and skews the view, exposing a new side of reality. Fans of speculative fiction especially will enjoy this ride through the fantastic worlds Barzak conjures.”

Read the rest by clicking here.

Sneak Peeks of Before and Afterlives (The Ghost Hunter’s Beautiful Daughter)

Today’s preview from Before and Afterlives is the opening of my story, “The Ghost Hunter’s Beautiful Daughter,” which originally appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction. It’s a story about a young girl named Sylvie, who has a talent for manifesting ghosts around her, making them visible to others. And it’s about how her father, an out-of-work laborer, recently widowed, capitalizes on his daughter’s ability by becoming a ghost hunter. Set in Warren, Ohio, this is one my favorites of my “locally set” stories, because it features a scene at the Ghost Walk in Warren, an annual tour of the city’s historic district and mansions held in the month of October that I’ve like to go on for kicks since I was a teenager. Little did I know as a teenager that going on the Ghost Walk would give me a scene to write into a story fifteen or so years later.

Also, in case you’re not an Amazon.com shopper, Before and Afterlives is also now available at Barnes and Noble.com and Weightless Books.

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The Ghost Hunter’s Beautiful Daughter

 

Syl-vie! Syl-vie! Syl-vie!” her father calls through the hallways of the house.  The ghost hunter’s beautiful daughter sighs, wipes a tear from the corner of her eye, looks out the cobwebbed window of the attic.  Sometimes it’s the basement, sometimes the attic.  Occasionally a house has a secret crawl space, and if she sensed it, she’d go there and wait with the creepy crawlies and spinning motes of dust.  Through the false eyes of the portrait of a lady with her toy poodle sitting on her lap, she’d watch her father negotiate the living room, the swathe of his flashlight cutting through the dark.  “Syl-vie! Syl-vie! Syl-vie!” he’ll call–always call–until the ghost hunter’s beautiful daughter finally says, “Here, Daddy.  I’m in here.”

“Sylvie,” he’ll ask, “my God, how do you do it?  Tell me how to find you.”

How does she do it?  If only Sylvie knew, she would try to stop it from happening.  The whispered calls, the bloody walls, the voice of a house, the way it told you how bad it was hurting.  If she could turn it off, she’d gladly do it.  She’s had enough of houses, their complaints, their listing, the wreckage of their histories.  If only she could be normal!

She peeked her head out the side of the false wall that time, waved, and he gasped.  “Clever girl!” he exclaimed a moment later, his shock fading, replaced by a grin.  He ambled over to put his arm around her and squeeze her affectionately while he admired the dark passage behind the deteriorating gaze of a two-hundred year old society woman and her once white poodle.

He calls now, too.  His voice comes from the floor below her.  Upstairs is where this house’s ghost lives, in the attic.  They are so dramatic, ghosts, thinks Sylvie.  If only they’d settle down, give up on whatever keeps them lingering, maybe their lives would get a little better.  No more moaning in pain, no more throwing things around in frustration.  No more struggling to get someone to notice you.  Give up, thinks the ghost hunter’s beautiful daughter.  Why don’t you just give up already!

“Here,” Sylvie whispers.  When her father calls again, she speaks louder.  “Here, Daddy!” she shouts.  “I’m up here.  In the attic.”

His feet thud on the pull-down steps until his head rises over the square Sylvie climbed through half an hour ago.  The ghost here hadn’t tried to hide from her like some.  She hates that, the way some shudder when they see her, wrinkle their noses, furrow their brows–the way they disdain her very presence, as if they are saying, You’re not who I was waiting for.  You’re not the one I want.  This ghost, though, had little expectations.  It had few conditions or requirements.  It was an old woman, and old women aren’t as picky as lost children, spurned lovers, old men whose sins were never forgiven, people who cannot bury hatchets, people who cannot bear to leave even after life has left them.

“Sylvie!” her father gasps.  “Oh my, Sylvie, what have you found?”

The ghost is barely holding itself together.  At first Sylvie wasn’t sure if it was even human.  It might have been some strange sort of animal.  She’s seen those before, though they’re rarer.  Afterwards, they don’t always know how to hold the shape they had in life.  The old woman is gaseous; she probably doesn’t even know what she’s doing in this attic.  Liquids are sorrowful, solids angry, throwing chairs and mirrors and lamps across rooms at their leisure.  Gases, often confused, are usually waiting for some sort of answer.  What is the question, though, Sylvie wonders.  What don’t you understand, old woman?

The ghost hunter nods at his daughter briefly when she doesn’t answer, then goes directly to the old woman’s figure in the corner.  The old woman turns to look at him.  Her face is misty.  Wisps of moisture trail in the air behind her when she turns too quickly.  She is like a finely composed hologram until she moves, revealing just how loosely she’s held together.  She looks past the ghost hunter, over his shoulder, to meet his daughter’s gaze.  Sylvie turns away from her to look back out the cobwebbed window.  A long, wide park of a yard rolls out and away, trees growing in copses, with a driveway unspooling down the middle of everything, leading out through the wrought iron fence to the tree-lined road.  This was her father’s favorite sort of grounds to hunt, his favorite kinds of ghosts lived in places like this, usually.  Sylvie can’t bear to look back at the old woman.  She knows what comes next.

There is the click, the sucking sound, the high moan of the old woman’s ghost, and then the silence ringing in the dusty attic.  Her father sniffs, coughs, clears his throat, and Sylvie knows it is okay to look now.  She turns to find him fiddling with his old Polaroid camera, pulling the film out and waving it in the air until it begins to develop.  “That’s a good one,” he says.  “Not the best, but not the worst either.”  The old woman’s ghost is gone.  He looks up and sees Sylvie watching him.  Blinks.  Sylvie blinks back.  “Thank you, sweetie,” he says.  Then:  “Come on now.  The Boardmans will be back shortly.  We should get going.”

*

     The road is gray, the tree trunks are gray, the sky is gray above her.  There are no discernible clouds, only drops of gray rain pattering down, speckling the windshield of her father’s car as they pull away, and further away, from the haunted mansion.  Sylvie remembers visiting the mansion once with her mother.  In October.  For Halloween.  The mansion, one of many, sat in the historic district of one of those small Midwestern cities in one of those states with an Indian name.  Each Halloween, members of the community theater hid among the mansions and family cemeteries of the historic district, buried themselves in orangey-red leaves, covered themselves in clothes from the previous century, adopted slightly archaic ways of speaking.  They were ghosts for an evening, telling stories to small groups of people–parents and children, gaggles of high school boys and girls who chuckled and made fun of their dramatic renditions–who had come on the Ghost Walk through the park and along the river, where once the people whose ghosts they now played actually had walked, loved, hated, drowned themselves out of unreciprocated affection, hid amongst the tombstones from abusive husbands, hung themselves before the police came to arrest them.  Her mother’s hand holding hers, how large and soft it was, moist, how her mother’s hand quickly squeezed hers whenever a ghost brought his or her story to a climax.  “This is it, Sylvie!” said her mother’s hand in that sudden squeeze.  “Something wonderful or terrible is going to happen!” the hand told her.

Out of those park-like promenades of oak and maple lined streets they drove, back into the center of their shabby little city.  Warren.  Named after the man who surveyed the area for the Connecticut Land Company that pioneered the Western Reserve, Sylvie had learned in Ohio History class only a week ago.  Before that, when someone said the name of the city, she had always thought of mazes and tunnels instead of a man who measured land.  She misses picturing those mazes, those tunnels.  Though the city is small, shrinking each year since steel left these valley people decades ago, it is tidy and neat, not maze-like at all.  It’s a city you could never get lost in.

Once past the downtown, on the other side of the city, the wrong side of the tracks but better than where they’d been living, her father likes to say, they stop at the Hot Dog Shoppe’s drive-thru window, order fries and chili cheese dogs for both of their lunches, then continue on to the house Sylvie’s father purchased several months ago.  “An upgrade, Sylvie,” he had said when he took her to the old brick Tudor with the ivy creeping up one of its walls.  Much better than the falling-down house where they’d lived when her mother was alive.  Sylvie still passed that house on her bus ride to and from school each day.  That house could barely hold itself up when they’d moved out last spring.  Now it really was falling down, leaning to one side unsteadily.  The windows had all been broken by vandals and thieves now, people looking for leftover valuables.  Not jewels or antique furniture.  Copper piping, aluminum window frames and siding–anything they could turn in for money.  They found nothing in that house, though.  Sylvie’s father had already stripped the place before others could get to it.

Inside he sits at the computer desk, as usual, one hand pressing the hot dog to his mouth, the other moving the mouse, clicking, opening e-mail.  They’d had a lot of work in the past year, after word spread that her father could truly rid homes of lingering spirits, temper-tantrum poltergeists and troublesome ghosts.  He’d built his own website after a while, and bought the new house.  He was going to give her a better life, he told her.  A better life than the one he’d had.  Sylvie wondered why he spoke as if his life was already over.  Her mother was dead.  Her father was alive despite his deathly self-description.  How could he not see the difference?

“Another one!” he shouts while chewing a bite of his chili dog.  He grabs the napkins Sylvie has placed beside the mouse pad and wipes away the sauce that dribbled out while he spoke.  “Listen to this, Sylvie.”

*

Dear Mr. Applegate,

     My husband and I have recently read in the newspaper about your ability to exorcise spirits.  Frankly, my husband thinks it is bullshit (his word) but for my sake he said he is willing to try anything.  You see, we have a sort of problem ghost in our home.  It was here before we were.  It’s the ghost of a child, a baby.  It cries and cries, and nothing we do stops it except when I sing it lullabies in what must have been the baby’s room at some point in this home’s history.  Sometimes we’ll find little hand prints in something I might spill on the floor–apple sauce, cake batter I might have slopped over while I wasn’t paying attention because I was on the phone with my mother or perhaps a friend.  If it were only the hand prints, I don’t think it would matter very much to us.  But the crying just goes on and on and it’s begun to drive a wedge between my husband and me.  He seems to be–well, I’m not sure how to put it.  He seems to be jealous of the baby ghost.  Probably because I sing it lullabies quite often.  At least four or five times a day.  Sometimes I worry about it, too, when I’m out shopping or seeing a movie with a friend or my mother, and I’ll think, How is that baby?  I hope the baby is all right without me.  I mean, it won’t stop crying for my husband even if he was at home.  The baby doesn’t like him.  And often he’ll leave and go to the bar down the road when that happens until I come home and sing it back to sleep.  We’re not rich people, though, Mr. Applegate.  And the prices I read on your website are a bit out of our range.  Would we be able to bargain?  I know it’s a lot to ask, considering the task, but as of now we could afford to pay you eight hundred dollars.  I wish it were more, but there it is.  You’re our only hope.  Would you help us?

Yours sincerely,

Mary Caldwell

Sneak Peeks of Before and Afterlives (The Drowned Mermaid)

There’s been a break in the sneak peeks of Before and Afterlives, but I’m back with the next one, the opening scene to my story, “The Drowned Mermaid”, which originally appeared in the magazine, Realms of Fantasy. This story is one of my few that take place in southern California, where I lived for a short stint in the late 90s. I wrote it after walking along a strip of beach one night, down below a short cliff where these amazingly beautiful houses were perched above with these decks that came out from the cliffside almost like small piers themselves. Down below the decks, though, I noticed groups of people huddle in sleeping bags along the breaker rocks, and asked the friend I was walking with who would be sleeping under a deck in sleeping bags like that. “They’re homeless,” was my friends answer, and I realized I had had trouble placing what should have been easily perceived because I found myself in a different landscape from the one I was used to back in Ohio. I started to think about the people in the amazingly beautiful houses above the decks, and the people sleeping below those decks, in their torn-up sleeping bags, and thought I saw a large tail flip out in the moon-spangled ocean, which all together were the elements that led to the creation of this story.

 

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The Drowned Mermaid

     On the morning after the storm the body of a drowned mermaid was washed ashore.  She was curled in an almost S shape, her arms thrown over her head as if to block out the glare of the sun.  Her skin was pale, rubbery and white.  The kind of pale that comes from living either beneath the earth or beneath the sea.  Her black hair was twisted with ropes of seaweed, and a bruise, golden brown and purple, stained the skin of her right cheek.

Helena found her.  She had woken that morning from another dream of her daughter Jordan, from another night of terror and mystery in which she played the lead role.  She’d been in a casino this time, after receiving instructions on how to win Jordan back:  “Go to the roulette table, place your bet on black thirty-one, walk away from the wheel without collecting your winnings, and believe me,” a disembodied voice told her, “you’ll win.  Walk toward the nearest restroom, but don’t go in.  A man in a dark suit will meet you by the door.  Take his arm.  He’ll bring you to me.”

She’d done as instructed, but as usual, never found her daughter.  Never won her, never opened the locked safe without tripping the alarm.  Or in another situation, she might be fooled into thinking Jordan was behind a certain door.  But upon opening it, she would find nothing but a dark, empty room.  As in the shell game, Helena could never pick the one under which the con man had hidden the ping-pong ball.

So she had come down to the beach after waking, leaving Paul asleep in bed.  The sun had just risen, dappling the waves with light, and gulls screed in the air, circling and diving over the water.

From a distance the mermaid’s body looked like driftwood, smooth and round, silhouetted by the morning light.  It was only when Helena came closer that she noticed the scales glinting in the light; the thickly muscled tail; and after moving one of the mermaid’s arms off of her face, the bulbous eyes, black and damp as olives.

She knelt beside the body and rested her ear against the chilled skin.  A sluggish pulse still pumped through those emerald veins:  a slow, locomotive beat.  Unconscious then, Helena decided.  She stood again, turning her head one way, then the other, scanning the beach to see if anyone else had ventured down this way yet.  There was no one around at this hour.  But that would change soon enough.  It was the end of summer.  Within an hour the beach would be strewn with bodies laid out for the sun to take.  A ritual sacrifice.

Working quickly, she lifted the mermaid’s arms and shoulders from underneath and started to drag her.  She pulled her away from the hissing waves that collapsed under their own weight, turning to foam as they reached the shore.  She dragged, then paused to catch her breath, then picked the mermaid up once more to go a little farther.  And all the while the mermaid’s head lolled on the stalk of her neck as if it had been broken.

It was a long, exhausting journey.  But in this way, they reached home soon enough.

 

Before and Afterlives is also now available at Barnes and Noble.com and Weightless Books.

Sneak Peeks of Before and Afterlives (Born on the Edge)

Today’s preview from Before and Afterlives is the opening of my story,”Born on the Edge of an Adjective”. It’s a story about two lovers who can’t get it together, one of whom moves across the country to find himself, and is instead found by a different sort of love, an alien love. I mean that, too. An alien love, though you won’t be able to tell just how alien from this excerpt, which will seem fairly realistic. The story originally appeared in the very cool zine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.

Born on the Edge of an Adjective

“I was born on the edge of an adjective,” Neil tells me from San Francisco.  He’s calling on his new cell phone.  He bought it because he thought it would add a little something to his image, but now he’s not so sure.  “Everywhere I look, people have these stupid things,” he says.  “I didn’t realize till I had one of my own.”

“You were what?” I ask.

“I was born on the edge of an adjective,” he tells me.  “That’s for you,” he says, and pauses to drag on his cigarette.  “For your next song.  At least a line, if not the title.”

Neil’s calling from a bar called the Shamrock, which he’s frequented since leaving Youngstown behind.  In the background of his voice, the crack of pool and the sound of eighties music. I can almost smell the smoke, see the haze.  Neil hates eighties music, so I’m wondering why he’s there.  I’m wondering why he isn’t here with me.

“That’s a great line,” I say.  I don’t tell him that I don’t write songs anymore.  That when he left, the music went with him, that I haven’t written since.  “You should write it,” I tell him, and light a cigarette for myself.

“That’s your thing, Marco,” he says, and it still sends a thrill through my body to hear that name, instead of just Marc or Marcus.  Only Neil calls me something different from everyone else.

“So when are you coming back?” I ask, then immediately revise my question.  “When are you going to visit?”

“You know I can’t, Marco,” he says.  “I can’t come back, at least not for a while.  I have to find out who I am.  Ohio only obscures it.  We’ve gone over all this before.  Besides, I’m unboyfriendable.  You need someone better than me.  Someone solid.”

I nod in agreement, even though Neil can’t see.  He went a thousand miles away to find himself, which sounds lame as a talk show conversation, but he did it, and I still can’t help but ask when this self-imposed exile is going to end.  Neil might not know himself, but I could tell him.  I know who he is, he’s just not listening.  But when do any of us listen to what others have to say?  I don’t write music anymore.  I only listen.  If Neil asked me, I could sing him his song.

“I have to get going,” Neil says impatiently.  There’s the click of his lighter and the exhale of smoke.  “I have a date with this woman.  I need to meet her on the other side of town.”

“A woman?” I ask.

“She’s cool,” Neil says.  “A dancer, real light on her feet.  It’s like gravity has no effect on her.”

“So she floats?  That’s pretty amazing,” I say.

“Seriously, Marco, she made me practice lifting her for her next recital.  It was like picking up a teacup.  An empty  teacup.  You would like her.  Don’t be a cynic.  She’s our type.”

“That’s great,” I say.  I tell him, “Call me soon,” and put the phone down on its cradle.  I turn up the radio, thinking she is not our type, not mine at least, and I wouldn’t like her.  I already hate this woman, Neil, and she’s probably a bad dancer.  Her legs are skinny like a flamingo’s, and her hair is most likely blonde.  Also, she floats.  People who float aren’t people.  It’s like a law or something.  No floating for humans.

Neil likes his men different from his women.  He prefers his men quietly smoldering, with dark eyes and thick hair.  He likes his women blonde and loud as ambulances, with legs up to their chins.  He used to read books with grand plots and lifeless characters.  Now he reads books without plots that have grand characters, who think a lot throughout most of the book.

Take my hand, I want to tell him.  Let me lead you through the hall of mirrors.  I know your way.  If I were alone, I’d be lost myself.  But with you, I see the way clearly.

He wonders who he is, what it means to live in this world, how he’s supposed to be.  I’ve seen him clap his hands over his ears, as if the world grew too loud suddenly, and he sank down on my bed and curled into a fetal position.  He wants to know what he’s like, where he’s going, where he’s been.  He’s a blank slate, he tells me, a tabula rasa.  But this is not true.  A more accurate description is possible.

He was like a book left behind by some weary traveler, in a country where no one knows how to read.

Take my hand, I want to tell him.  Even though I’m blind on my own, I can see your path clearly.

*

     Where are you going?  Where have you been?  These questions were our constant conversation.  The first time we met, we were both at The Blue Note, one of the bars where the band I wrote songs for sometimes played.  They still have an ongoing gig there, but I don’t stop very often.  They leave messages, various members of Winterlong, the lead singer, the bass guitarist, the piano player, Harry, who always says they’re going downhill and need an injection of something new and different.  “Give me a call, Marcus,” he says.  “Let’s get together on something.”

Neil was standing at the bar, in front of an empty stool, drinking from a pony-necked bottle.  I sat three stools down.  Finally, after the band took a break, he walked over, sat beside me, and, without looking at me, said, “The songs are good, but they need a new singer.”  I laughed involuntarily, almost spitting out a mouthful of beer.

“Really?” I said, grinning.

“Most definitely.”

“And the songs?  What makes them more deserving?”

“They’re full of raw emotion.  The lead singer doesn’t know how to get that across.”

It was something I’d heard other people say about someone else’s music.  Something you might read in a review, or hear on a college campus amongst earnest but not so humble students.  But Neil was flattering.  This quality is a necessary attractor.  I was attracted, I cannot lie.

We went home that night together, after the band stopped playing, after closing down the Blue Note, and when we woke in the morning, him lying on his stomach, me flat on my back, his arm flung over my chest, I told him that I was the song writer.

“I knew that,” he said.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because you knew I knew.  Really, don’t act so innocent.”

Sneak Peeks of Before and Afterlives (Vanishing Point)

Today’s preview from Before and Afterlives is the opening of my story, “Vanishing Point”, which first appeared in the Canadian literary journal, Descant. It’s a story about a mother whose son has been afflicted with a mysterious disease that is plaguing her community. People begin to vanish slowly, to become invisible and to lose their solidity in increments, and over a period of time, they disappear altogether. The narration style is a monologue, or a letter, however you’d like to imagine it, in which she speaks to a social scientist who is attempting to collect narratives from people who have lost a loved one to the strange illness.

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Vanishing Point

 

You asked me, sir, to tell you about my son’s disappearance.  I must admit that I did not know what to think when your first letter arrived.  And when you phoned, I think I was a bit startled by all your attention.  We don’t get many phone calls here, you see.  But since last week, when I told you an interview was out of the question, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about Nathan and how, as a mother, I have a duty.  Others should know the truth.  You wanted to know what life was like here, in my house, in my family, with Nathan and then, afterwards, without him.  It’s not as simple as that, though.  A person isn’t here one day, then gone the next.  If I’m going to tell you anything, it won’t be what you’re expecting.  It might not be what you want to hear.  But, in any case, I’ll tell you what I know.  What I know is the truth.

From the beginning, his growing absence was oppressive.  If I was not in the kitchen making supper for Sarah and myself, I was attending to my son in his room.  We seemed to eat a lot during those days.  An affliction of hunger consumed us that could not be satisfied.  As Nathan disappeared, Sarah and I ate and ate.  I made meals we’d never heard of, recipes out of foreign cookbooks, fancy dishes that required an orange peel or a sculptured radish rosette on the side.  We were pretending to have money, even though we had no money.  I do have money now, though.  Now that Nathan is not so demanding.  Yes, sir, Sarah and I are off the dole.

We ate exotic foods, Thai and Indian curries.  We ground our own spices in the coffee grinder.  Also we had a peculiar taste for Ethiopian, and Sarah and I would sometimes joke about this.  You know, how starving those people are and how we craved their recipes.  What a laugh!  It was a laugh then, I tell you.  I had my own boy starving.  Starving for solidity.  Sometimes he could barely move off of his bed.

Do you know those movies where a person suddenly acquires the ability to walk through walls?  The ones where someone becomes transparent to the point that no one else can see them unless looked at very hard?  The Invisible Man?  Movies like that?  Let me tell you, they’re a pack of lies.  Those people never seem to have problems.  They move through life more easily in fact.  Now they can walk through moving traffic and never have to wait for the light.  Now they can strip off their clothes and sneak into shower rooms to watch people, bodies, drifting through steam, larger than life, without ever getting caught.

There were days when Nathan couldn’t bring himself to go to the bathroom on his own.  There were days when Sarah and I tried to help him into the shower, but he fell through our hands, through the hardwood floor, down into the living room.  We’d find him lying under the coffee table, his arms threaded through the table legs.  Or, once, splayed out in the middle of the broken plants and pottery he’d landed on.  I was always frightened.  Someday, I thought, he will fall and fall forever, and then where will he go?  I remembered how, when we were little, we thought if a person dug a deep enough hole in the ground, they’d fall through to China.  Our parents frightened us with thoughts like that.  Why was it they wanted to frighten us?

Nathan never fell to China.  Or if he did, he fell back in time for me not to notice.  I don’t think this is possible.  I don’t think this ever happened.  Still, though, I’ll leave it open.  I have learned to leave things open, sir.  Have you?

*

     It was a Friday last September the school called me.  The school nurse said, “I think you need to come down.”  I told her that I had to work, and she said, “I really think you should come down, Miss Livingston.”  She said my name real tough-like, like she was gritting her teeth.

“All right,” I said.  “All right.  I’ll come down.”

Nathan was waiting for me in the nurse’s office.  He was lying on a table, like in a doctor’s exam room, with the crackling paper rolled over its top.  Only that paper didn’t crackle.  It didn’t make any noise at all.  Now being a doctor yourself, sir, you know you can’t shut that paper up.  Even though you are up there at the university studying “the social implications of phenomena”, as you put it in your letter, and are in great need of “personal narratives” and “statistics” so that the research will be “pure”, and are not a real doctor, practicing medicine and such, I’m sure you have been on one of those tables before.  Not even staying completely still, which is impossible if you ask me, will shut that paper up.  I asked, “What’s wrong?  What’s happened here?”  And the nurse, a woman who was not as severe as I had expected, a woman who wore a fuzzy blue sweater and did not have her hair up in a bun but let it fall over her shoulders like dark cream, she said, “I’m so sorry.”

I went over to Nathan and looked at his eyes.  His eyes were open, but he didn’t seem to see me.  They were blue eyes, watery eyes, my father’s eyes.  When he was born, how happy I was to see those eyes!  Not my husband’s, who was a drunkard and a cheater, not his eyes.  I said, “Nathan?  Honey, what’s wrong?”  His lips trembled.  I thought, What am I going to do?  Already I knew without knowing what afflicted him that things were going to change.

The nurse put her arm around me and said, “Be calm.”  She unbuttoned Nathan’s shirt, one button at a time, her fingers were so deft, and pulled back each side of his shirt like a curtain.  If you could see what I saw that day.  It was not always like that, I assure you.  Nathan:  his chest, only his chest, had gone translucent.  I saw those lungs filling and expelling air, two brownish, soggy sacs going up and down, up and down.  And his heart, it throbbed beneath them.  The blood slid through his veins and I thought of blue rivers winding on a map.  The nurse covered him over again and began buttoning his tiny buttons.  And look here, I thought, even those buttons are clear.

Perhaps I am exaggerating this all a bit.  I don’t know.  This is how I remember it:  his lungs, his heart, the blood in his veins and arteries, the webbing of his nerves.  Sir, I know you are a not a real doctor and all, but let me ask you something.  Have you ever seen anything like this?  Have you ever seen your own child like this?  Sir, do you have children?

I took my son home and, while we drove in the car, neither of us said anything.  Nathan looked out the window at the passing mills and factories, the ones that all closed down years ago.  Their smokeless stacks loomed above us, gray against the gray sky.  I live on the South side of town, not the best place to raise children, Lord knows, but I did the best I could.

The factories we passed were tattooed with graffiti.  The gridwork of their windows was busted out.  Kids used to come down to the mills to paint their names, to spray-paint their useless childhood loves, to mark down their childhood enemies as though they were making hit lists.  They threw rocks, pieces of broken concrete, at the gridded windows high overhead.  The glass would shatter and rain down at their feet, onto the factory floors, and oh, how we laughed and gripped each other’s shoulders at these small victories.  It felt good to bust up those places that broke first our parents’ backs, and then, after shutting down, their spirits.

I think Nathan and his friends did this, too.  To let out frustration.  I don’t know.  I’m only guessing.  It’s something I’ve learned to do.

Sneak Peeks of Before and Afterlives (The Language of Moths)

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll  be posting previews from the 17 stories in my new short story collection, Before and Afterlives. If you like what you read, take a hop over to your favorite online bookseller and purchase either the print book or the e-book, and leave a review when you’re finished reading. It helps other people figure out if they’d like to read the book (and strokes my ego, at least when they’re good reviews). ;-)

Today’s preview is the opening to my novelette, “The Language of Moths”, which was a Nebula finalist in 2006.  It’s a story about a family from Boston who travel to the Allegheny Mountains, where the father, an entomologist, is seeking out a moth he remembers seeing as a young person when his family camped there, one that he knows has not been identified before. What they find, however, are the fault lines in all of their relationships as a family. And in the case of some characters, they find a new language to speak when they encounter a deeply magical place.

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The Language of Moths

1. Swallowing Bubbles

The four of them had been traveling for what seemed like forever, the two in the front seat rattling maps like they did newspapers on Sunday mornings.  They rode in the wagon, her favorite car, the one with the wood paneling on its doors.  The wagon wound through the twisty backroads of the mountains, leaving behind it clouds of dust through which sunlight passed, making the air shimmer like liquid gold.  The girl wanted the wagon to stop so she could jump out and run through the golden light behind her.  She climbed halfway over the back seat and pushed her face against the rear window, trying to get a better look.

The little old man beside her shouted, “No! No! No! Sit down, you’re slobbering all over the glass.  Sit down this instant!”  He grabbed her around her waist and pulled her back into a sitting position.  He pulled a strap across her chest, locking it with a decisive click.  The little old man narrowed his eyes; he waved a finger in the girl’s face.  He said things at her.  But as his words left his lips, they became bubbles.  Large silver bubbles that shimmied and wobbled in the air.  The bubbles filled the car in mere moments.  So many words all at once!  The girl laughed delightedly.  She popped some of the bubbles between her fingers.  Others she plucked from the air and swallowed like grapes.  She let them sit sweetly on her tongue for a while, before taking them all the way in for good.  When the bubbles reached her stomach, they burst into music.  The sound of them echoed through her body, reverberating.  She rang like a bell.  One day, when she swallowed enough bubbles, she might understand what the little old man beside her was saying.  All of the time, not just now and then.  Maybe she’d even be able to say things back to him.  She wondered if her own words would taste as sweet.  Like honey, maybe.  Or like flowers.

2. Being Selfish

Eliot is watching his mother hang bed sheets from a cord of clothesline she’s tied off at two walls facing opposite of each other in their cabin.  “To give us all a sense of personal space,” she explains.  Eliot tells his mother that this cabin is so small, hanging up bed sheets to section off rooms is a futile activity.  “Where did you learn that word,” his mother asks.  “Futile.  Who taught you that?”

“At school,” Eliot says, paging through an X-Men comic book, not bothering to look up.

His mother makes a face that looks impressed.  “Maybe public school isn’t so bad after all,” she says.  “Your father was right, as usual.”

Eliot doesn’t know if his father is right, or even if his father is usually right, as his mother seems to imagine.  After all, here they are in the Allegheny Mountains, in Pennsylvania, for God’s sake, hundreds of miles away from home.  Away from Boston.  And for what?  For a figment of his father’s imagination.  For a so-called undiscovered moth his father claims to have seen when he was Eliot’s age, fourteen, camping right here in this very cabin.  Eliot doesn’t believe his father could remember anything that far back, and even if he could, his memory of the event could be completely fictional at this point, an indulgence in nostalgia for a time when his life still seemed open in all directions, flat as a map, unexplored and waiting for him.

Eliot’s father is an entomologist.  His specialty is lepidoptera, moths and butterflies and what Eliot thinks of as creepy-crawlies, things that spin cocoons around themselves when they’re unhappy with their present circumstances and wait inside their shells until either they’ve changed or the world has, before coming out.  Eliot’s father is forty-three years old, a once-celebrated researcher on the mating habits of moths found in the Appalachian Mountains.  He is also a liar.  He lied to his grant committee at the college, telling them in his proposal that he required the funds for this expedition to research the habits of a certain species of moth with which they were all familiar.  He didn’t mention his undiscovered moth, the one that glowed orange and pink, as he once told Eliot during a reverie, with his eyes looking at something unimaginably distant while he spoke of it.  Maybe, Eliot thinks, an absurd adventure like this one is a scientist’s version of a mid-life crisis.  Instead of chasing after other women, Eliot’s father is chasing after a moth that, let’s face it, he probably imagined.

“There now, isn’t that better?”  Eliot’s mother stands in the center of the cabin, which she has finished sectioning into four rooms.  The cabin is a perfect square with clothesline bisecting the center in both directions, like a plus sign.  Eliot owns one corner, and Dawn, his sister, has the one next to his:  That makes up one half of the cabin.  The other half has been divided into the kitchen and his parents’ space.  The sheet separating Eliot’s corner from his sister’s is patterned with blue flowers and tiny teacups.  These sheets are Dawn’s favorites, and secretly, Eliot’s too.

Eliot’s mother glances around, smiling vaguely, wiping sweat off of her brow.  She’s obviously happy with her achievement.  After all, she’s an academic, a philosopher, unaccustomed to cleaning house and rigging up clotheslines and bed linen.  The maid back in Boston–back home, Eliot thinks–Marcy, she helps around the house with domestic things like that.  Usually Eliot’s mother uses her mind to speculate on how the mind works; not just her own mind–but the mind–the idea of what a mind is.  Now she finds herself using her mental prowess to tidy up a ramshackle cabin.  Who would have guessed she’d be so capable?  So practical?  Not Eliot.  Certainly not herself.

The door to the cabin swings open, flooding the room with bright sunlight that makes Eliot squint.  He shields his eyes with one hand, like an officer saluting, to witness the shadowy figure of his father’s body filling the doorframe, and his sister Dawn trailing behind.

Dawn is more excited than usual, which has made this trip something less than a vacation.  For Eliot’s father, Dr. Carroll, it was never a vacation; that was a well-known fact.  For Dr. Carroll, this was an expedition, possibly his last chance to inscribe his name in History.  But the rest of the family was supposed to “take things easy and enjoy themselves.”  When Dr. Carroll said that, Eliot had snorted.  Dr. Carroll had placed his hands on his hips and glowered. “Why the attitude, Eliot?” he’d asked.

“Take it easy?” Eliot repeated in a squeaky-scratchy voice that never failed to surface when he most needed to appear justified and righteous.  “How can you expect us to do that with Dawn around?”

Dr. Carroll had stalked away, not answering, which didn’t surprise Eliot at all.  For most of his life, this is what Eliot has seen whenever he questions his father:  his father’s back, walking away, leaving a room full of silence.

Dawn pushes past Dr. Carroll and runs over to Eliot’s cot.  She jumps on the mattress, which squeals on old coils, and throws her arms across the moth-eaten pink quilt.  The quilt smells of mold and mildew and something a little like mothballs, as if it had been stored in a cedar chest for a long time.  Dawn turns to Eliot, her wide blue eyes set in a face as white and smooth as porcelain, and smiles at him, her blonde hair fanning out on the pillow.  Eliot considers her over the top of his comic book, pretending not to have noticed her.

Dawn is autistic.  She’s seventeen years old, three years older than Eliot.  But when she’s around, Eliot feels as if he’s already an old man, forced into an early maturity, responsible for things no fourteen year old boy should have to think about.  He blames this all on his parents, who often encourage him when he pays attention to Dawn, who often scold him when he wants something for himself.  “Being selfish,” is what his mother calls that, leaving Eliot dashed to pieces on the rocks of guilt.  He feels guilty even now, trying to read the last page of his comic book instead of paying attention to Dawn.

“I’m leaving,” Dr. Carroll announces.  He’s wearing khaki pants with pockets all over them, and a wide-brimmed hat with mosquito netting pulled down over his face.  A backpack and sleeping bag are slung on his back.  He lifts the mosquito netting and kisses Eliot’s mother on her cheek and calls her Dr. Carroll affectionately, then looks at Eliot and says, “You take care of Dawn while I’m away, Eliot.  Stay out of trouble.”

He walks outside, and all of them–Eliot, Dawn and their mother–move to the doorway.  As if magnetized by Dr. Carroll’s absence, they try to fill the space he’s left.  They watch him become smaller and smaller, a shadow, until he reaches the trail that will take him farther into the graying mountains, where his moth awaits.

“Good luck,” Eliot’s mother whispers, waving goodbye to his back, his nets and pockets.  She closes her eyes and says, “Please,” to something she cannot name, even though she no longer believes in higher powers, ghosts or gods of any sort.