“The town lives under the sign of the Weed, of wild, avid, fanatical plant life bursting out in cheap, coarse greenery–toxic, rank, parasitic. That greenery grows under the sun’s conjury, the maws of the leaves suck in seething chlorophyll; armies of nettles, rampant, voracious, devour the flower plantings, break into the gardens, spread over the unguarded back walls of houses and barns overnight, run wild in the roadside ditches. It is amazing what insane vitality, feckless and unproductive, lives in this fervid dab of green, this distillate of sun and groundwater. From a pinch of chlorophyll it draws out and extrapolates under the blaze of these summer days that luxuriant texture of emptiness, a green pith replicated a hundred times onto millions of leaf surfaces, downy or furred, of veined translucent verdure pulsing with watery plant blood, giving off the pungent herbal smell of the open fields.” — Bruno Schulz, “The Republic of Dreams” (trans. Wieniewska)
“The honor of parents is a fair and noble treasure to their posterity, but to have the use of a treasure of wealth and honor, and to leave none to your successors, because you have neither money nor reputation of your own, is alike base and dishonorable.” — Plato, Menexenus (trans. Jowett)
“What do I look like? Sometimes I see myself in the mirror. A strange, ridiculous, and painful thing! I am ashamed to admit it: I never look at myself full face. Somewhat deeper, somewhat farther away I stand inside the mirror a little off center, slightly in profile, thoughtful and glancing sideways. Our looks have stopped meeting. When I move, my reflection moves too, but half-turned back, as if it did not know about me, as if it had got behind a number of mirrors and could not come back. My heart bleeds when I see it so distant and indifferent. It is you, I want to exclaim; you have always been my faithful reflection, you have accompanied me for so many years and now you don’t recognize me! Oh, my God! Unfamiliar and looking to one side, my reflection stands there and seems to be listening for something, awaiting a word from the mirrored depths, obedient to someone else, waiting for orders from another place.” — Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (trans. Wieniewska)
Usually, once I’ve published a piece, I make no more modifications to it. This is a rule I abide by strictly except for those occasions when I choose to break it.
This week I’m posting “Karen and the Dropout,” a story published in 2010 in White Whale Review. Prior to publication, Randi Shapiro, the fiction editor at WWR, emailed me that she thought there was something a little off about the ending, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. I fiercely and in detail defended the choices I had made, and we let it go at that.
About six months later, as I was preparing “Karen and the Dropout” for inclusion in a collection of short stories, I saw that whatever it was Randi had seen and I couldn’t see, it did seem that if I cut the final five words from the story, the ending would be much tighter and significantly less wistful. So that is what I did, and that is the version I have posted to this site. You can go to the WWR site and see the previous version, but I wouldn’t. This one’s better (I emailed Randi after I made the cut, and she agreed).
“At last came the season of autumnal winds. On its first day, early in the morning, the sky became yellow and modeled itself against that background in dirty gray lines of imaginary landscapes, of great misty wastes, receding in an eastward direction into a perspective of diminishing hills and folds, more numerous as they became smaller, until the sky tore itself off like the wavy edges of a rising curtain and disclosed a further plan, a deeper sky, a gap of frightened whiteness, a pale and scared light of remote distance, discolored and watery, that like final amazement closed the horizon.” – Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (trans. Wieniewska)
“Casserole Man” was a story I wrote in the mid-90s. It took me the rest of that decade to get it right, and once I had, it was published in the now-defunct Chiron Review. That would have been around the same time (spring of 2002) I met the woman I’m now married to–or, to whom I am now married, if you prefer.
(NB–That “of” that you think should really be “off” is not a typo.)
“Girls and young women return from the market. Some have serious and regular eyebrows and walk looking sternly from under them, slim and glum–angels with basketfuls of vegetables and meat. Sometimes they stop in front of shops and look at their reflections in the shop window. Then they walk away turning their heads, casting a proud and mustering eye on the backs of their shoes.” – Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (trans. Wieniewska)
“Everyone is stuck within himself, within the day to which he wakes up, the hour which belongs to him, or the moment. Somewhere in the semidarkness of a kitchen coffee is brewing, the cook is not there, the dirty glare of a flame dances on the floor. Time deceived by silence flows backward for a while, retreats, and in those uncounted moments night returns and swells the undulating fur of a cat.” – Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (trans. Wieniewska)
“We all know that time, this undisciplined element, holds itself within bounds but precariously, thanks to unceasing cultivation, meticulous care, and a continuous regulation and correction of its excesses. Free of this vigilance, it immediately begins to do tricks, run wild, play irresponsible practical jokes, and indulge in crazy clowning.” – Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (trans. Wieniewska)
Colorado is one of the places where God kissed Mother Earth. Susanne and I spent the past few days there, in and around the Conejos River valley.
When we arrived at our lodge, the first thing management wanted us to know was that a bear had been through the compound the night before, thoroughly inspecting the trash cans. The District Wildlife Manager had been by later that morning and had left a supply of circulars to be circulated, “Be Bear Aware.” We have bears near where we live, so we already generally were. One of the things the circular instructed one to do “if bears are present” is to “remove all bird feeders, including hummingbird feeders.” Lodge management had taken down the hummingbird feeders not long before we arrived. The hummingbirds were pissed off. They were diving down on the chains from which the newly-removed feeders had been hanging, and were flying about with the angry buzz they put in their wingbeats when they are upset. They’re fiercely territorial animals, as anyone who’s ever been buzz-bombed by one can attest.
We didn’t get to see the bear, it didn’t come back around while we were there. We saw deer, which is not hard to do in Colorado. They were mule deer, so common they might be considered the four-legged finch of the Rockies. There were also plenty of GEICO squirrels, playing Truth-or-Dare with passing vehicles. And free range cattle, there were those, at one point a herd of them being driven down the road by two mounted drovers (“cowboys,” yes) and an Australian sheepdog.
There was a train, the Cumbres & Toltec, which pulls carloads of tourists through the mountains along a narrow-gauge track that a century and more ago was the way to get around up there. The train is pulled by one of the little engines that could, chugging along, slightly sulfurous black smoke pouring from its funnel. Susanne and I rode it, taking the parlour car, which is the last car on the train, far removed from the smokestack. We were served Danishes, fruits, and rum cake, while the car attendant was quick to evict anyone from the car who hadn’t secured parlour-car passage. No, the attendant did not throw the miscreants under the railcars, simply shooed them back to the cattle-car where they belonged. Several of the Republican guests in the parlour car complained, having preferred to see the interlopers tossed from the train and made to walk back down the mountain to the station, but the Democrats, who always outnumber the Republicans though at times are slothful and inattentive, would have none of it and proposed that everyone on the train be allowed into the parlour car. “Let them eat rum cake,” the Democrats said, “a crumb apiece for everyone,” to which the Republicans struck up a chant of, “Nanny-staters! Nanny-staters!”, until the car attendant got everyone settled down and back in their proper and duly-purchased places.
Susanne and I spent the next day along the banks of the Conejos, sitting under the trees while the waters rushed by. Downstream a little ways, a fly-fisherman cast and cast again. Susanne had her pencils and her sketchbook, and she sketched. I had a copy of the manuscript I’ve been working on, and on it I did work. Robins and crows and other birds were about. Mosquitoes sought meals, and many died for their efforts. Hummingbirds remained angry and went elsewhere.
“Conejos” means “rabbits,” but we didn’t see any of those.
“Parenting is hard. As any one who has gone through the process and had enough leisure (and still functioning brain cells) to reflect on it knows, a lot of it is a crapshoot. Things go wrong that you have no control over, and, on occasion, things also go right, and you have no control over those, either. The experience is scary and exhilarating and often humiliating, not because you’re disappointed in your kids, necessarily, but because you’re disappointed in yourself.” — Elizabeth Kolbert, “America’s Top Parent”
“Suffering that is limitless, suffering that is stubbornly enclosed within the circle of its own mania, suffering to the point of distraction, of self-mutilation, becomes in the end unbearable for the helpless witnesses of misfortune.” – Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (trans. Wieniewska)
“Autumn is a great touring show, poetically deceptive, an enormous purple-skinned onion disclosing ever new panoramas under each of its skins. No center can ever be reached. Behind each wing that is moved and stored away new and radiant scenes open up, true and alive for a moment, until you realize that they are made of cardboard. All perspectives are painted, all the panoramas made of board, and only the smell is authentic, the smell of wilting scenery, of theatrical dressing rooms, redolent of greasepaint and scent. And at dusk there is disorder and chaos in the wings, a pileup of discarded costumes, among which you can wade endlessly as if through yellowed fallen leaves. There is great confusion: everybody is pulling at the curtain ropes, and the sky, a great autumnal sky, hangs in tatters and is filled with the screeching of pulleys. And there is an atmosphere of feverish haste, of belated carnival, a ballroom about to empty in the small hours, a panic of masked people who cannot find their real clothes.” – Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (trans. Wieniewska)
As a house that is solidly built ultimately falls into decay, so too are people subject to age and death. The night that has passed does not return, and the bountiful river flows on. The passing days and nights quickly consume the lifetimes of every living thing, just as in the summer the rays of the sun dry up the water in a pool.
Whether you stay at home or depart to another place, your lifetime grows shorter. Death walks with us as we walk and sits with us as we sit. Having traveled a very long distance with us, death returns along with us as we return.
When wrinkles have appeared on the face and the hair has turned grey, how can a man having decayed with age come back to his original splendour? People are delighted when the sun has risen and also when the day ends. But they are not able to perceive the waning in their lifetimes.
Seeing the onset of a season, people rejoice, as though it has come anew. But the succession of the seasons devours life. As pieces of driftwood floating on the ocean come together for a time, so wives, children, kinsmen, wealth and property come together for a while and then depart from us. Their parting is indeed inevitable. Here, no living being can escape its destiny, its birth and death. As a caravan is passing by on a road, one standing at the wayside says, I will follow behind you.
— Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhyakanda Sarga 105
“Who knows the length of time when night lowers the curtain on what is happening in its depth? That short interval is enough, however, to shift the scenery, to liquidate the great enterprise of the night and all its dark fantastic pomp. You wake up frightened, with the feeling of having overslept, and you see on the horizon the bright streak of dawn and the black, solidifying mass of the earth.” – Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (trans. Wieniewska)
This week I’m posting “Saved” to the Stories menu of this blog. It’s a story I wrote in the late 90s and was never quite happy with. I wrote it in first-person and sent it out, it got rejected, that’s okay, I rewrote it in third-person. I sent it out in third-person, it got rejected, but I didn’t mind, I wasn’t happy with it, I rewrote it in second-person. I sent it out, I still wasn’t happy with it, I hadn’t heard back yet, but that’s all right, I rewrote it again, in fourth-person for all I know.
Then I heard back. Gulf Coast had it and wanted to publish it, would I be so kind as to send a copy on 3.5″ floppy? Shit! Where was the version I sent them? Was I even sure which version it was? Could I ask them? Shit-shit-shit…. I dug deep into my backups, into the backups of my backups, cross-matched the file date-stamp with the database entry tracking my submissions, and sent them what I was pretty sure was the correct version. It was, and they published it in early 2002.
“A night in July! The secret fluid of dusk, the living, watchful, and mobile matter of darkness, ceaselessly shaping something out of chaos and immediately rejecting every shape. Black timber out of which caves, vaults, nooks, and niches along the path of a sleepy wanderer are constructed. Like an insistent talker, the night accompanies a lonely pilgrim, shutting him within the circle of its apparitions, indefatigable in invention and in fantasies, evoking for him starry distances, white Milky Ways, the labyrinths of successive Colosseums and Forums.” – Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (trans. Wieniewska)
“A night in July! What can be likened to it? How can one describe it? Shall I compare it to the core of an enormous black rose, covering us with the dreams of hundreds of velvety petals? The night winds blow open its fluffy center, and in its scented depth we can see the stars looking down on us.” – Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (trans. Wieniewska)
“Ordinary books are like meteors. Each of them has only one moment, a moment when it soars screaming like the phoenix, all its pages aflame. For that single moment we love them ever after, although they soon turn to ashes. With bitter resignation we sometimes wander late at night through the extinct pages that tell their stone-dead messages like wooden rosary beads.” – Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (trans. Wieniewska)