Cafe Racers & King of the Fish People

Here are two story-starts I worked on this semester. I don’t see a bright future for either, but I might come back and tinker with the lengths. I’m a very slow writer, and publishing is a very slow business, but I’d like to have something on the blog. So, here are two short pieces I’ve had fun writing. Not all my work is this incomplete! Just the stuff I’m allowed to publish myself (because of The Industry).

Thank you for reading. Your encouragement keeps me writing bigger, longer, more exciting things.

 

Cafe Racers

I saw the café racers only once, a roaring pack cresting the dark empty street a half mile away. They are outcasts, scofflaw, champions of street justice on the empty city streets. The 3 a.m bar door closed behind me and I stood on the sidewalk, wobbly and starving for salty foods. Then I heard it. The sounds came from far away, carrying from almost a mile away up the street where no cars were out at this time of night. The pack came over the summit of the hill, each in a polished bright helmet that turned their heads into glossy beetles, striped creatures fresh from the undergrowth and out into the night. Their bodies were low and folded over the bikes, quick, angular things with stiff handlebars and paintjobs that matched every sexless rider’s outfit, as if rider and machine budded from the same exotic plant. There must have been forty riders altogether, speeding down Broadway as fast as they could in a huge coordinated swarm. I balanced on the sidewalk curb and held my hands out to feel the rush of air as the café racers zoomed past—BMWs, Moto Guzzis, Yamahas, one very rare Ducati—and it was over as soon as it began. In their wake, their collective smell traveled so fast I had to lunge into the road to catch the scent. There it was. Vinyl, gasoline, hot rubber, and a grab bag of other scents less powerful but more distinctive. Before I could identify them, they were gone.

I’m told it takes no effort to fall asleep. “Just lie on your back and close your eyes,” sleeping partners have instructed me over the years. But I have yet to sleep with, beside, or in the vicinity of someone cursed enough to face the same vertiginous experience of falling asleep. Nights of peak neurosis, I feel as if I am plunging toward my final sleep. Yet doctors have discovered no reason to believe I, at a healthy 30, will die unexpectedly and of natural causes. But this doesn’t help me at 1 a.m when my muscles are wound tight as steel cables and my brain is coked out on irrational fears. I grind my teeth all night, anticipating the next heartbeat in my ears will be my very last. When my jaw aches and my eyes sting from concentrating on the ceiling fan above my bed, the work to rebuild my life can begin.

My nightly routine includes a Wellness/Financial/Personality audit of my life to date. First on the agenda is Wellness, so I tap each tooth with my tongue to feel for stability and assess the status of my periodontal health. I pinch each of my fingers and toes to check for numbness in the tips and areas of potential instep pain. I grip my receding pelvic bones and vow to run the next morning, 5 a.m, no excuses this time. My hands hunt for lumps, scars, skin tags, and bruises, welcoming back the familiar textures and analyzing newcomers for threats. Everything usually checks out ok and I begin the stage two: Financial audit. This is the hour of multiplication and division, strategies to make more and spend less, analysis of the most recent items purchased. Did I really need a summer coat? What about food—that time I offered to pay for Lindsey’s drinks. That time I threw away half a tomato I swore I’d finish, what a waste. The financial audit is the most circular and ultimately pointless, so for me, it’s counting sheep. The only dramatic change I’ve ever made after a night of considering my monetary worth was returning the glass bottles with the $2 deposit that had sat in my kitchen for almost five years.

Neither of these audits compares to the Personality audit—the tedious and soul depleting task of digging up to examine with exhaustive scrutiny gunk and regret buried deep by time, maturation, and pure denial. Oh it’s in there, I know it. That girl I pushed into a hedge when she told me I had a rat tail, leaving my brother behind on the playground to be eaten by fire ants, lying to my family so often they took me to a priest. I experience an elliptical rotation from my morning attitude—I easily blame everyone else for my problems when the sun is in the sky. But this changes at night. What the hell is wrong with me, like, on a spiritual level? I think about dozens of relationships, broke apart or wasted, people irreparably damaged because I appear in their lives, exaggerated, mean, a fount of unfortunate behavior. There are two types of personality audit. Type A is the audit that lasts all night until I pass out twenty minutes before my alarm. Type B lingers through the following day, referencing all my bad decisions as I make new decisions in real time. I close my eyes in bed and try to wrap up the Personality audit. I picture everyone I’m too embarrassed to speak to ever again. All those eyes staring, waiting to approve a confession. By the time I’m finished, it’s almost 3 a.m and I’m free to think of other things.

I thought about Louise and her neighbors, Dorothy and Lloyd. According to Louise, Dorothy, from across the street, has “a Jehovah’s witness knock.” Three forceful raps and then she lets herself onto the screened in porch and raps again on the window. Louise told me she is either half clothed, working on her cobblers bench, or smoking pot, so she hides in the broom closet until Dorothy leaves her baked goods at the door. Wholesome things like apple cake and ginger cinnamon cookies. Louise says she suspects Dorothy watches for her to come home through her old lady curtains before she runs across the street to deliver more baked goods.

Her next door neighbor, Lloyd, is an old Confederate weirdo. For some reason, he has Louise’s number (some drama with the washer and dryer in their basement belonging to him, on a loan to the landlord, and some debt has not been paid in their tenure) and he will call Louise at times of the day when she is not prepared to take a call. “I seriously think this guy is on drugs. He calls me and talks my ear off about nothing.” Sometimes though, it’s about the neighbors. There’s only about six occupied houses on that off-path cul-de-sac. In one yard, a rebuilt 1985 Norton Commando sits tilted to the left on a kickstand. I imagine it will come to life with a “screech!” Lloyd says, in his mysterious way, “we all got each others’ backs out here, you know? You gotta look out for your neighbors around here like they kin.” Louise, who had just ingested a small amount of acid when Lloyd called, had no way to respond to this manifesto. Maybe if I imagine a conversation between Louise on acid and Lloyd on whatever Lloyd takes, I’ll tire myself out enough to fall asleep. The phone rings. Louise stomps over to the coffee table. Across the street, a curtain parts in the window. The phone rings again and she answers it just as she hears a loud rap against the door…

Jesus, stop.

I blink at the dark ceiling, awake. Where was I going with all this? I run my hands behind my neck and over my face, pressing palms against my eyes until the dark gives way to a bright red sky. I open my eyes and they adjust back to the black room. The neighborhood is quiet except for the inconsistent rustle of possums through dried leaves in the yard. The time is 3 o’clock. Some nights I try too hard to fall asleep and I never fall asleep. For years, I have been awake enough times at enough quiet hours to hear the café racers speeding down Broadway. It’s late February, but there had already been a series of warm days leading up to the weekend. I hear a motor scream, a high pitched roar that starts far away and continues for a long time after whatever passed was blocks away. But I never got out of bed to locate the source of the sound, or why it seemed to occur at the same time each evening when all the roads in Midtown should have been completely empty. I’m awake for so long, it’s just a matter of time before I hear the racers again.

If I’m still awake after I hear the café racers pass, I begin the auditing process all over again. Wellness: revisit the irregular lump behind my ear. Are you sure that isn’t a mole? What about the new dimple inside my thigh? I should start going to the gym. If I do fifty crunches a day for two weeks and run one mile a day at least three times a week, will I fit into the shorts I bought last year or will I overcompensate and get too tone for the tight cuffs around my thighs? Is that really an issue I’m worried about—getting too muscular for my clothes? Has this ever been a problem before in my life? God, what an ego. Might as well segue into the Personality audit from here. Why did I tell that stranger at the post office what kind of earrings I was wearing? Not everyone has been fortunate enough to own sapphires, even if those sapphires were a gift from my father before I even had my ears pierced. She looked at me like I was a god damn colonialist. Did my dad know I didn’t have my ears pierced? Was I about to get them pierced? What did he say to me when I opened the black velvet box on my 7th birthday? Something along the lines of: “Those belonged to your great grandmother, Penny King,” and smile at me, in one of his rare good moods the year before he and mom finally got a divorce, and his hair wasn’t fully gray that year and he still thought my brother might get the hang of the football team. And didn’t I, in this unexpected glimmer of compassion and family intimacy, say something like “Ok thanks for the old lady earrings, dad.”? I remember my father’s face falling to pieces two years later when I came home with a black eye and fat lip from a fight on the playground. “You’re too pretty to fight like that,” he said, even though he knew I had bucked every feminine convention thrown at me since my youth. Maybe that’s why he chose to give me earrings, these delicate blue sapphires set in soft white gold, dark and glittery in the right light, on late nights when I wear my hair to the side and lightly perfume the white tendon of my neck. How much could I get for those earrings if I sold them to the right buyer? Would I make enough for a car payment, a bag of food, or new glasses? How much do I have in the bank now? If I spent $22 on food last night and $18 on gas this afternoon, and the rent has gone through as of this morning, how much does that leave me until payday next week? I should cancel plans for the next five or ten days and sit at home, think about all the ways I’ve failed myself and the people I love in the daylight. That would be the polite thing to do.

The clock says 5 a.m and I am exhausted. Without warning, my thoughts shut down. Deep in the survival part of my brain, the switch turns off and I am able to sleep in jerking waves for about thirty minutes. I wake up at a time when the light feels lifted from a dream, and I hear an unexpected sound. Throttles. Revs. A sound like the road is peeling away from the ground. They return to the streets in another swarm and I leap from the bed. I fling open the window and lean out to bear witness their return. Once more, the café racers speed by, prodigal, mysterious, their long exhale a scream for atonement in the endless night.

 

 

King of the Fish People

Two carnival tents pop up on the wharf during the last weekend of summer, taking over the moldering boardwalk with creaky rides, grease traps, and gaunt ride operators whose exhausted yet skittish appearance made them seem neither dead nor alive. Low concrete dikes divide the water from the carnival grounds, supporting the considerable proliferation of goose barnacles and mussels adhered to the algae-slick surface. Here, the ocean surf carries carnival waste out into the open water, sweeping up sawdust and tickets and candy wrappers that are lost among the coastal isopods and predaceous worms. The temperature ascends to the mid-nineties and by the early afternoon, visitants of the carnival squeeze together inside one of the two tents, beneath the broad shade that covers pageantry as exciting as portrait painting elephants, acrobatic septuplets, and the Fish People.

The sawdust floor in front of the Fish People is mostly undisturbed, since their modest booth is placed unfavorably equidistant between the public restrooms and the pen of tattooed pigs. When the spectators come to the Fish People, they don’t know what they are, where they came from, or what they do, but they rarely stick around for the answers to these questions because the smell from the pig pen and the public restrooms is, understandably, unbearable. Fish People are patient and amiable, which comes in handy during long hot hours filled with pungent waiting. They need no supervision, no gregarious ringleader to whip aside a velvet curtain and broadcast the Fish People’s story to a crowd. They need no traveling hype man to communicate the difference between the Fish People and the rest of humanity. In fact, the Fish People can speak for themselves, although their language is muddled and flecked with unfamiliar vocabulary used to describe what we might consider negligible conditions of water and light. But they’re easy enough to understand if the listener is attentive.

The Fish People sit on uncomfortable folding chairs with their feet in an inflatable pool. There are three here today. At a distance, the Fish People resemble children, but as you approach, you begin to notice big differences between the Fish People and humans like you and I. Their bodies are squat, and their shoulders create a gentle slope connecting their necks to their torsos, cutting a shape like the soft peak of an egg. Their eyes, while on the front of their faces like a person, are slightly farther apart, giving the Fish People a countenance of perpetual surprise—even dimwittedness. But above their delicate, rubbery lips, their eyes can see just fine, and Fish People enjoy better peripheral vision than the average human. This is convenient underwater, because Fish People are able to move in a nonlinear swimming pattern the landlocked do not fully appreciate. The Fish People can live for periods of time on dry land, but after a while they are susceptible to sloth and depression, often gaining an obscene amount of weight in as little as a month. Most prefer to live in the water, but there are some who migrate onto land, searching for a better life under the rules of democracy and the free market.

Of the three Fish People at the carnival, one is a full-time land dweller. He left the ocean in his youth to start a business selling boat lacquer to seamen. He has become obese and a little depressed, but he has also become financially comfortable. People assume this Fish Person makes his sales by swimming under the boats that need new lacquer and performing his assessment up close, but he has not gone for a swim in the ocean since his younger days and, frankly, has no desire to return to the water. He is not married and never reproduced or cared for a domestic animal, but he has a compact car with internet radio that he upgrades once a year with his expendable income. The lacquer business has had a fine quarter. The Fish Person suspects changing sea temperatures are having a negative effect on the old boat lacquers covering most commercial vessels, and has toyed with the idea of launching his own line of lacquers designed to counter these effects—with a chemical obsolescence of around five years to keep demand high.

He has come to the carnival booth at the behest of his sister, the second Fish Person at the carnival. She remembers their youth together—her brother always stiff and rule abiding, but a great orator with an excellent memory for historical events. She is here at the urging of her son, who plucked a watery advertisement out of the surf and begged her to let him perform. She surrendered to his insistent pleas, but even after her brother agreed to provide the story for their show, she still cannot understand why he left the sea to become a lacquer salesman. She does not like to leave the water for too long. Sudden oppressive gravity is not a joy for everyone to experience, and she can already feel her mood falling as the day in the tent drags on. The third Fish Person, her son, is an inarticulate youth who performs the Fish People’s story in a costume woven of shells and sea grass, with a crown of dead starfish on his round head. Sea lice entwine in and out of the damp ensemble. Together the Fish People wait in their little booth for an audience, and when a timid family wanders over from the public bathrooms, the youngest Fish Person jumps out of the pool and sets the stage for action.

This is the story the Fish People tell in their muddled underwater language while the youngest performs a choreographed dance, donned in his salt-encrusted costume.

 

The King of the Fish People

Down below the turquoise waters there is a region that—from the point of view of a scuba diver or aquatic outsider—seems Utopian. Long shoots of eel grass outline the kingdom’s borders. Acres of dense coral colonies fade into cool blue drop offs and through underwater meadows of a rich green weed. Like the Fish People themselves, the kingdom is so idyllic and safe, it appears dull. When he came into power, the King of the Fish People ruled inside his tunicate guarded by sea urchins. Monarchy had been the way of the land, and the royal family’s influence seeped like oxygen into every part of daily life. But the altruistic king died at the fantastic old age of fifteen, leaving his draconian son in power. In his first afternoon on the anemone throne, the young king consumed the queen and all the amber eggs cemented to the royal nursery. He ordered the echinoderm army loose from behind bars—an ancient skeletal prison made from the carcass of an unlucky sea lion. The thirteen-armed starfish, now free to follow their only instinct, devoured the young and elderly Fish People with protruding stomach acids, capturing all they crawled across in their muscular arms. They leveled the kingdom in a few days, creeping silently along the ocean floors at night and raiding the once-protective corals with fleshy, destructive appendages. Here in the story, the young Fish Person flopped to his stomach and inched along the floor, nipping at the exposed ankles in the audience. Once the Fish King had destroyed the region and most of its population, he called patrol away from the borders and opened the kingdom to hunters. Raids and slaughters continued as rapacious predators got wind of the open season, and the Fish King capitalized on his immunity by offering up the newly raped land to violent carnivores who could make the region fearsome again.

Few Fish People survived the feeding frenzy that ensued, but the ones who escaped with their families to deeper waters were too ill-suited for the light and temperature changes to thrive. Refugees grew weak in the cold dark depths, or else washed up into tide pools and baked in the summer heat. A number of Fish People tried their luck on land in temporary relocation tents along the coastline. But these colonies suffered a failure of constitution, succumbing to the harsh gravity while grappling with the grief over their loss of a homeland. In the dusty dimmed light of the carnival tent, the young Fish Person slumped onto the ground and wept into the sawdust, then shot up and wheeled around to dance the disorienting imbalance grief exerts on a fragile spirit. He collapsed on the ground, shaking loose sea lice that skittered back into the pungent green folds of his costume.

The audience stood still, waiting to hear the end of the story. But the Fish People were quiet, and both audience and entertainers looked at one another with dumbfounded expressions, each awaiting a conclusion neither party knew to offer. Eventually, the timid family walked away, whispering on their journey to the tattooed pigs, who grunted in greeting as their first audience approached. The youngest Fish Person picked himself up off the ground and brushed the sawdust off his costume. At the end of the day, the lacquer salesman checked his watch and put on his coat, said a one word farewell to his sister and nephew, and made his way out to the car.

 

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The Timepiece

Hanan looked at her watch at eleven o’clock. The timepiece on her wrist felt lighter than it used to, although the old silver was heavy with old fashioned gears and a thick glass face. When she removed it at night, she thought her arm would float up above her head and stay there like a helium balloon. But on her wrist it felt natural, a sheath she had grown into. By some miracle, it still worked. Hanan wound the watch each day until she felt tension from the main spring inside. At eleven o’clock, she tied her hair back, wrapped a burgundy scarf around her head and pulled on a long garment that touched her ankles. She was uncomfortable and hot. Hanan found her shopping bags and left her apartment for the crowded Friday market. Her feet ached in the women’s slippers that blistered her ankles until rivers of hot, clear pus burst from the skin. She longed to go home and change into the plush leather shoes made for men. Hanan wondered why men’s shoes were so comfortable when it was the women who did all the walking, while men sat in cafes, judging what was appropriate for others to wear.

The men in the square used to laugh at her hair until she covered it. They had laughed at her men’s shoes until she switched to the women’s slippers. The men in the square laughed at her watch—her father’s watch—but this, she refused to relinquish. Each time she walked by, the lazy men who sat on the roundabout curb chortled and gaped at the big silver timepiece wrapped around her wrist. A men’s watch! She wears a men’s watch! A woman must wear an appropriate watch, one that is dainty and covered with false diamonds or gold, or one that cracks easily like a woman’s emotions. Her father’s watch was wide, sturdy and discolored in places the silver had started to patina. The tick of the minute hand was loud and authoritative, appropriate for a man who wanted the world to know his time was important. Hanan ignored their comments, preferring to retreat into her personal history with the watch, which, her father said long ago, originally belonged to a powerful woman. Who was she? Hanan never knew.

Hanan was examining potatoes when a fisherman slopped a bucket of sardines beside her. A careless wave jumped the cart of ice and sloshed Hanan with the fishy juices.

“Smeh-li,” the fisherman said and continued the job while Hanan dripped with sardine water.

“Really?” she said to the fisherman, but he pretended not to hear her. Have compassion, she heard her father’s voice in her head, as she often did. You be quiet too, she told the voice. She paid for her potatoes and rushed home to change. Stray cats followed her at a distance, delighted by the odor.

Hanan unclasped her watch and patted the leather band dry with a towel. The smell endured. She set the watch on the windowsill to let it air in the sun. Hanan removed her dress and changed into jeans and a t-shirt, took the scarf off her head and let her curls of dark hair fall back into a natural order. The thought of changing back into cumbersome clothes on this hot day made her weary. Hanan dropped onto the bed with a sigh. A flea landed on her skin and she smacked it down. How did a flea get into her room? She glanced at the windowsill, where an orange cat perched, looking at her. Two pieces of soft leather hung from its jaws as the cat clamped down on the silver face of the watch. With a cry of protest Hanan lunged for the window, but startled the cat, who hopped off the sill and galloped out into the street, watch in its jaws. Panicked, Hanan slipped on the nearest shoes—the men’s shoes—and dashed after the animal. The orange tail slipped through her fingers as the cat made a sharp turn into the streets of the lively medina. Hanan raced after it.

***

When she was a girl, her father would let her wear the watch around the house. Back then it was heavy on her wrist, almost slipping off her on the tightest clasp. Before she could tell time, she stared into the face and watched the thin hands tick around the numbers, sometimes for a full hour, only for the pleasure of the movements. During the Revolution, her father’s work took him to rallies and secret meetings, or into hiding in Madrid or Lyon. When he left town, he would let her keep it, and she would sleep with it under her pillow at night. Each muffled tick of the hand was a reminder of him and his eventual return. As she drifted into sleep, lulled by the reliable stroke of the watch, she imagined her father lying awake at the same time, feeling his wrist for the timepiece. She would have rather lost a front tooth than lost her father’s watch.

When unrest bubbled in the region, each loud tock of the watch became a reminder of the fragility of power, the delicate line that separated life from death. Her father’s work during the Revolution cost him his life. With his death, the wisdom he taught her slipped into a similar fate, a little at a time, until Hanan had a partial graveyard of old values spread out inside her. Hanan now wore a scarf around her hair, traditional slippers on her feet, and covered her eyelids in black shadow. As the years went on, she betrayed her father by blending in, by doubting her own strength in the world. But through her transformation, through all the cultural rules she learned to accept, the watch remained on her wrist.

When watches were still a new invention, men wore them on chains in their pockets and women wore them on their wrists. As a little girl, Hanan laughed when her father said this, pointing at the silver piece wrapped around his wrist.

“You’re wearing a girl’s watch” she said. Her father smiled.

“That’s because it belonged to a fearsome female pirate,” he answered and unbuckled the thick leather strap, soft from time.

Before the industrial era, women pirates controlled the river that ran along the southern border of the town. Hanan’s father told her stories of the ungovernable women who took the river as their own and ruled the waters with violence and compassion. Riches entered the city in the hulls of hulking boats, absconded from Italy, Spain, and the sub-Saharan nomads. Men stockpiled the treasure and transformed overnight from modest workers to living like pharaohs. They bought enormous houses and exciting clothes and wore diamonds and gold on every finger. As long as the pirate women—who had no use for material goods—continued to raid the Mediterranean sea, the city would brim with riches. This was the lifestyle, until the kings of other countries sent boats and men out to recover what was stolen from them. Roundups lasted years and many foolish men died protecting their ill gotten means. Only those who were discreet and resourceful slipped passed the search while everyone else was stripped of their gold. Hanan’s father tapped his watch with one finger and winked at his daughter.

“And they never could find all the treasure. Some pieces are still missing.”

Hanan’s mind filled with tales of the Mediterranean marauders, who inlayed ivory and gold in the city walls. She gazed at the silver watch with amazement. Her own father possessed an item of particular value. Who knew how the watch came to him, or his father, or his father before. Hanan longed for every detail.

Then the Revolution came. The old walls exploded, leaving only a cracked and colorless canvas for the soldiers to vandalize. Propaganda still flaked off in ugly tatters years after the fighting ended. When she closed her eyes, Hanan could still see the images of these stories imprinted in her mind from when she was a child, but when she opened them again the city was nearly in ruins. She wanted to go back, to be a pirate untamed by society, to be a woman who was more fish than human.

***

Silver flashed past a pen of chickens. Hanan leapt over pools of grey water feeding into the gutter. The medina ran through the city like an artery, pumping the lifeblood of commerce to the little roads and alleys that fed the seaside port. As she chased the cat past the half walls of the old quarter, where ancient women crouched in doorways and muttered prayers at passer-bys, she imagined she was in the old city under hanging baskets of silver and gems. Instead, more cats watched the chase from their window perches overhead, like tabby gargoyles, indifferent to the outcome of the hunt.

Suddenly, she couldn’t see the orange cat. She halted in the middle of the medina, the center at which all roads converged. When she stopped, she realized she had left the house in men’s shoes, with her hair down and legs stuffed into jeans. The whispers began, then grew louder until they filled her ears. She caught her breath and spotted the cat under a cart of onions. The cat had the watch on the ground and was licking off the sardine slime that still clung to the face. A-ha! She leapt and once again the cat picked up the timepiece and took off down a narrow side street, one that lead deeper into the residential slums. Hanan ran past closed doors made of heavy wood with great iron rings dominating the façade. Family quarrels thrummed on the other side of barred windows. The cat bounced ahead of her, its thin hips protruding, moving like pistons beneath the skin. Just as she was closing in on the animal again, the cat launched itself up to the top of a wall and disappeared down the other side. Thinking quickly, Hanan continued down the residential path. A few more turns and she was on the trail again, chasing the swift animal through the colored light filtering through the blue tarps that covered the narrow street. They ran between shops under banners of hanging green peppers and pale dead chickens, naked of feathers with beaks locked open. They skidded around corners populated by bags of black and red spices. They ran together between women with only their eyes showing, eyes that cut to Hanan’s modern clothes in disapproval. When she caught up with the cat at one final turn, it was by the river. Hanan was out of breath. Had she really run all the way to the river? The sparkling waters lead to the Mediterranean and out into the old waters once commanded by the pirate women. If the watch was swept into the stream, Hanan would never see it again. It would be fished out by a toothless old man who would pawn it for a net, or it would drown under the waves until the loud tick was silenced forever. The cat dipped to the water and released the watch from its mouth. Hanan dove to the bank to grab the timepiece and plunged her hand into the cold river, but she missed. She watched it sink to the bottom, the watch that survived her girlhood, the Revolution, and her father.

Before it touched down on the silty sand of the riverbed, something happened. The leather band stretched out. The face became an eye that studied her. Amazed, Hanan caught her reflection on the surface of the rippled water, her black hair spread wild around her determined face. Like the pirate women of old drawings, she looked dark and formidable. She just had time to gasp at her reflection before the watch made its complete transformation. As she caught sight of her fathers old timepiece again, the watch joined a school of sardines rushing by, and swam back to where it came from, where Hanan suddenly felt herself rushing towards.

Morocco: Food and Dreams

IMG_3813Cous cous family meals are a traditional Friday affair in Morocco, but for lack of blood relatives, Green Olive Arts invites our makeshift intellectual family. Artists and writers from the area join us at the long table where we will partake in the age-old tradition of sharing a meal. Two towering dishes of cous cous are set on the table, ringed with boiled or steamed vegetables, rich and juicy from broth, piled high atop the quartered chicken marinating below the mountain. Caramelized onions and chickpeas with a brown sauce of sugar, cinnamon, and cumin top the grains and drip with sweet molasses. I had come to learn it was not a proper Moroccan meal until there was something sweet in the dish. Bowls of a salty, fatty broth passed around the table and ladled on the sections of the cous cous we claimed as our own. There are no plates, no borders between your food and your neighbor’s food save for the dam that naturally forms between the areas carved out by the spoons. Everyone is given a traditional glass of room temperature buttermilk and encouraged to dig in.

The multi-lingual meal is best complimented by arguments over which region of Morocco makes the best cous cous. Some add cashews, some use a fattier hen as the meat. Others have acquired a taste for seasonings more exotic than the traditional cinnamon and cumin. Most of this conversation occurs in Arabic, but friendly heated dinner conversations fall into a sort of predictable pattern no matter what language is spoken. Even the Arabic-illiterate Americans at the table understand the tone and timbre of friendly competition as we all stuff our faces. Conversations sprout off and become more focused between two or three people at a time, turning to anecdotes about religious upbringings that could be sinister in a certain way, but are lighthearted at the table. The buttermilk sits heavy atop piles of food in the stomach, but it’s hard to stop eating.

The sugary chickpeas and onions melt down into a thin and pleasant caramel on the tongue. The savory chicken bathes in its own broth, collecting in pools at the very bottom of the bowl, where all the flavors concentrate. As they say, this is where you get “the mouth of the goat”—the last of the meal that has spent time collecting flavors from the rest of the ingredients. The gooey center. The good stuff. When the not-even-close-to-empty bowls are taken away and stored for leftovers, steaming pots of mint tea are poured a foot above the small glasses. Bubbles form on the surface of the liquid, the “turban” of the tea, the aim of which is to cool and aromatize the traditional drink. Mint tea is semi-sweet, like an herbal agave, and aides the digestion of the meal and the offense of the breath. Post meal, since it is 2016, everyone pulled out their phones and exchanged facebook information, promising to stay in touch. I held a conversation about the challenges of being left handed that was entirely translated, but one thing that didn’t need to be translated was the fellowship of perfect strangers.

 

 

One night, two dreams disturbed me. In one I squeezed a pimple in the mirror and the head of a larvae emerged, wiggling. I squeezed more and it started to come out of my skin and then I reached up and pulled it out. It was two feet long and plump and writhing in the sink. I kept squeezing the spot and little maggots poured from my skin without end. I was screaming and crying and disgusted with myself and the contents of my head. I woke up and that spot on my face buzzed as if still trapped in the dream.

In another, I was alone in a dark hotel room. I could hear all my friends having a party in the room above me, heard them all talking and laughing together. I got up on the bed and pounded on the ceiling to let them know I was there and I wanted to come up, but the ceiling and walls were made of stone and nobody heard me. I tried to turn on the light so I could dress and leave, but I was trapped in the dark.

I did not anticipate the settling in of intense loneliness. It was the kind of loneliness that felt like an injury from which I might never fully recover. Even as I imagined my homecoming, as I eased myself back into the lives of the people I love, I couldn’t imagine ever feeling full again. I felt an unoccupied space in my mind, closed off like the haunted room of a castle, or that my body was missing some necessary nutrient. Yet, at least my prose did not suffer. I remember getting off antidepressants years before. My body made pounding waves as it craved the drug, but as time went by, these spells decreased.

It’s amazing how a month by oneself can shine light into corners you were too afraid to peer into before. I know I was afraid, but I had nowhere to go to avoid it. I was in the Deep Zoo of my mind, my work, my fictitious world.

But then, things changed. I stopped feeling some of the more intense edges of my emotional world after I had faced them. It was as if the edges flattened as my world expanded, a light rising higher above my head to illuminate a wider space that never was a drop-off at all. Now the things I am afraid of, the circumstances that make me feel vulnerable, are refreshingly new. I found new ways to love the people in my life and new ways to make peace, in the space of my mind, with others.

Is there any greater fear–to believe you are withholding love from the ones who deserve it most? I can think of few other personal disappointments that take up so much space in the inner life. What I discovered and am trying to put into practice is something I always believed: love doesn’t have an end point, only degrees of intensity. I sometimes dream of love as a circle. Now I feel an urge to deepen the emotional aspect of my work. As my own sense of self and emotional capabilities expand, I need to discover how it fits into the writing.

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Dear readers,

If you’re looking for short stories, be patient. The stories I wrote at Green Olive Arts will be available one at a time as they are edited by myself and my expert team. They will be published chronologically to give you the sense of how the work changed from the first story (a cat steals an important watch) to the final and longest piece (a woman goes searching for her mother). The landscape and emotional ambiance of Morocco plays a role in every story, and characters are built off of traits in locals and foreigners alike. There are more women than men, more pirates than not, and more questions than answers about the consequences of love.

In The Earth

Then there was the gentle but healthy pressure to have a hobby. Hobbies are the most wonderful, Agnes says, stroking winsome nightshade vegetables, distracted. Eggplants the size of your head. Don’t you just love the first sign of tulips? No, in fact. Short bloom, premature wilt. Area bees avoid pollinating a flower that crumbles at the lightest touch, like a reckless girl. I prefer the hardy plants—the carpet of moss, the juicy aloe, encroaching mint on everything. The community garden is divided by my tendrils of invasive herbs.

Overalls are what Agnes wears, like a Communist uniform, as she manages the tomatoes. Rotating sunhats for Maude, whose face is a tight paper bag. I simply go in what I’m wearing, being rebellious. I use my trowel to puncture the earth. I turn and knead until I can add the bag of Soil Enhancer. My soil will be so enhanced.

I pour half the contents in the ground and look inside the bag. Curled grey fur rests half buried, eyes closed. Its tail wound over its legs, pinched up to its body. I lift it out of the bag. The soil around it is warm. In my hand, the baby squirrel shivers, unfamiliar with a gentle touch. I have made a discovery in the dirt, like an archeologist. I hold this abandoned relic to my heart, beating like a child’s footsteps. I sink into the garden, holding the squirrel in my open palm. The potato bugs dig away, fleeing my unearthing.

Amber alert. Sirens. Dawn seen in the woods through the pale beam of a flashlight. The meteor impacts my heart, sending my careful saplings into extinction. A clump of yellow hair blooms from the damp ground. My search has ended.

My tulip. My child.

The squirrel stirs, opens her eyes. I lower her to the garden and brush a muddy patch off her fur. She thanks me by doing the only thing she can do: disappear.