Categories
Fiction

Acrostic

by Madisyn Mettenberg | Fiction | Fall 2018

Image by Brady Marks

M.


In stories where a powerful evil (see: witches, demons, nameless voices crooning from dark pits) sets out to control another (princesses, flutists, scrappy sidekicks hiding untold riches), always of extreme importance is that the evil never learns the name of its target. Once the evil knows what to call the tiny figure quivering at its lip, it will be vested with complete control over them. This has been well documented in fiction.

If I were to build off this with my own fairy-tale logic, I would guess that not all names are equal. For instance, when the voice from the pit rasps And just who are you? and you answer in despair, voice choked in agony: Dana, my guess is that the pit will feel slightly cheated. After leaving the mysterious cavern, you will likely receive a bill in the mail for a cable box that you did in fact return. Many will turn from you in disgust for returning their hellos with “What’s crackin!”—an inclination that before the pit you showed no sign for. Other than this your life will continue in utter banality. No greater evil can be accomplished (and no greater good besides, though the Pit has no interest in this).

This is why the Crooning Pit dreams of girls named Constance or Esperanza or Aurelia; Lydia and Ivy and Cassandra. In its greatest fantasies it has ensnared women named for stars and cities, rivers, luxury cars, empresses who committed suicide as the enemy horde closed in. These are lives imbued with more magic, more potential; these are the kinds of women who can be compelled to end up in books.

The pit subscribes to all baby naming blogs, stays up to date on the Social Security index of most popular names. It gobbles up handfuls of Alexandria and Gwendolyn and spits Sandra from the corners of its mouth like shells from sunflower seeds.

A.


The Crooning Pit scoffs at alternate spellings. It is uninterested in any newfangled portmanteaus—perhaps save for JonBenét, a story morbid enough for its own depraved tastes.

Rumplestiltskin was one of its own; they trained side-by-side at Villain Academy, aced their group final on Maiden Manipulation. But both of them are stubborn, ungraceful in defeat, and since the whole firstborn child debacle, neither have been on speaking terms.

D.


My mom wanted to call me Louisa. Dad didn’t. It was, and clearly remains, a source of unusual angst.

If I were Louisa, things would have been much different. I would have had an instinct for running through wide green meadows laughing and clutching my skirts, eyes shining in the brightness of the sky. I would have innate knowledge for jumpstarting cars, butchering pigs, weaving lilies into my hair. When I cried, it would be rare and profound, and the moment I turned fourteen all the world’s knowledge of flirtation and seduction would suddenly fall into my lap in a brightly-colored box.

When I was younger I asked Dad: Why not Louisa?

Dad’s name is David. Davids are truth-tellers but are very grounded, literal, always stick to their guns.

I knew you were Madisyn, he said.

Yeah, but what does that mean?

He peered at me over his glasses, confused why this was hard to understand. It means, I knew that you couldn’t be anything else.

What if I had been a boy? What would my name have been then?

I knew you weren’t, so we didn’t pick one out.

You mean you knew I was going to be a girl?

No, we didn’t.

So I would have been Madisyn if I had been a boy? That’s even worse than the y.

No. I knew you would be you.

One thing that Davids are not are prophets. They are not soothsayers or oracles; their dreams reveal no hidden doorways or celestial symbols. His insistence on this platitude—that I was always me, and me was always Madisyn—must have come from somewhere else. Normally, I would say my mom—Kathleens see faces in the clouds and feel cold spots floating down halls—but she didn’t insist on Madisyn. She would have chosen Louisa.

Mom’s eyes are always wide, slightly guilty, when we talk about this.

You can always grow up and change it, she says, even now.

But there’s something mystical about the fact that Dad, the truth-teller made of only earth, had such a vision. If there’s any magic in Madisyn, it’s that. 

I.


Aside from devouring the blogs of housewives, scouring book after book, registry after registry, the Crooning Pit is partial to celebrity gossip magazines. In them, it finds the most beautiful the world has to offer right alongside the most unspeakable evil, since the rich and famous always name their children without fear.

The Crooning Pit understands that once you reach a certain annual income, you evolve past the fear of meaning and become entirely devoted to syllables. It hovers over a page: Apple Martin, daughter of Coldplay frontrunner Chris Martin and actress/healing witch Gwyneth Paltrow. Ah-pull. Ah-pull. If you say it over and over again, the small red-or-yellow fruit on an outstretched bough disappears completely, converts itself to air, voice, the still unwritten destiny of a small blonde celeb-spawn. The same goes for Spike Lee’s daughter Satchel, Rick Ross’ son Billion, even the little girl named Audio Science, daughter of now-defunct early 2000s star Shannyn Sossaman—though the fading of her mother into obscurity has lessened the shine of these particular syllables, for the Crooning Pit at least. But still shine they do, since only the children of those straddling the world’s stage have the power to pry sounds from their meanings. 

S.


Of course the world of naming is more than just syllables. There is the beauty of defiance. There is Blue Ivy Carter, the twins Sir and Rumi, Ryan Reynolds’ daughter James, Hillary Duff ’s daughter Banks. There are the Kardashians and the Cruises and the Jolie-Pitts, but they won’t be explored further, since their progeny will one day make up entire branches of government.

The Crooning Pit flicks a page, licks its lips. Sage Moonblood Stallone. Aviana Olea Le Gallo. Seraphina Rose Elizabeth Affleck. Lily-Rose Melody Depp. The Pit laughs, gurgles, sneezes. The pages whir by in a flurry of Onyx and Ever, Lea and Luna, Sienna and Iris and Ivanka.

Y.


In fourth grade they teach us about acrostic poems and we all write one using our own names as a template. The teacher asks us to share.

Not nearly shakily enough, I get up before the class. I’ve written an excellent poem. It’s one of the best ever: I’m a superstar, a poet, a young icon. I begin to read out loud. It probably goes something like:

M is for Musical

A is for Amazing

and so on, just like the teacher wanted—I’m looking into myself and recognizing my strengths, my talents, the fact that I have some shred of confidence before puberty comes to snatch it away—and then I get to the y.

Y is for Yearning

From the back of the classroom, Sean McDonald (future reverend, quarterback, breaker of musical props and Allie Claire’s heart) snickers.

Yearning? Isn’t that when you, like, pee everywhere?

To illustrate his point, he stands up, cups his tiny genitals and whirrs around the class-room in an unmistakable sprinkler motion: whoossssshhhhh! The classroom dissolves into laughter. I ball up my poem and throw it at him, storm back to my desk, never even get to the n.

Even if he was wrong, even if the word he was thinking of was urinating and it came to him in one of the many revelations of spite that would seize him throughout the years, it’s possible it was a blessing in disguise. Yearning is expected, cliché; maybe Sean recognized that I could do better, that one day I would have to reconsider and reinvestigate the value of y. It’s an ongoing process.

Y is for:

            yours!
                 ytterbium!
                  yogurt!

                                   yacht club!
yahoo!

yahtzee!

yabba-dabba-doo!

                     young at heart!
yeoman?

                                    y tho? 

yippee.

N.


While my name was sacrificed in honor of trend, my younger sister Piper was named for a family icon.

Mom’s maternal grandmother was called Helen Piper, but the kids called her Grandma City. Growing up, Mom and her siblings waited for the weekends they could be whisked away from the sheep farm in Watertown to visit her in Minneapolis.

She golfed, bowled, spoke German, drove a pink-and-ivory car with a figurine of the Virgin Mary quaking on the dashboard. After her railroad worker husband died in 1961, 

she used his benefits to fund solo trips across the United States, to Germany to meet relatives, to Italy to meet the Pope. Framed photos of her travels punctuated her home’s pristine walls, which she scrubbed without fail every spring. She wore bright-red rouge kept in a shiny gold ball in her medicine cabinet, and sometimes when Mom and her siblings pulled up to the neat little house, she would be there, kneeling in the grass, trimming the front lawn with a pair of sewing scissors.

Of course, no one would know until much later that Grandma City adopted Mom’s mother, that she wasn’t blood at all. If I consider my sister Piper’s wardrobe of exclusively track pants an affront to her namesake, it’s entirely imagined. There is no DNA linking my materialism to hers, no genetic predisposition for the women of my family to love pretty things and witchiness.

Piper is slightly taller than me, athletically built, has white-blonde hair that shudders at the thought of dye. At first glance you might not know we’re sisters, or even related. She goes to a school full of frats and jungle juice, always insists on hearing all sides before becoming emotional, once had a seizure waiting in line to win SNL tickets and returned to claim them some scant hours later.

But as she’s gotten older, I’ve begrudgingly accepted the fact that there’s probably no right way to wear a name. The Pipers in my head can’t take the form of batty great-grandmothers I’ve never met, no matter how independent their souls or polished their windows. Instead, a sea of white-blonde athletes raise their chins, quote an ancient Andy Samberg skit, ask if I’ll join them at the gym later.

I won’t. But I know, at least, it’s not because my name is Madisyn.

K. (addendum)

The Crooning Pit recognizes that while men are more proficient at the art of murder, they rarely have names interesting enough to meet the heinousness of their crimes. This must be why so many killers assert not two names but three—John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, Gary Leon Ridgway, Paul John Knowles, John Wayne Gacy—the Crooning Pit has been boiling beneath our feet for millennia. It knows firsthand that men and compensation is not exactly a new phenomenon.

The Pit could consider the pathology of their crimes, the misery of their childhoods, draw lines and find similarities between victims, methods—but it all comes down to that one extra name, the one similarity that makes all the difference. In some places, you get an extra name for acts of bravery or achievement. Schooling, if attended long enough, also earns you an extra title. And of course some people—not always killers, though just as audacious and perverse—go by their first and middle name (add two points to the tally of evil if it’s hyphenated).

So is the middle name tacked on in some kind of title distortion? Or, like the college freshman wanting to rebrand themself as Blaire, is it a grandiose stab towards individuality? Fewer women head Fortune 500 companies than men named John. Perhaps in order to stand apart from the herd—in order to make a name for themselves among all the Jameses and Kevins and Charleses—this extra name became vital.

In a surprise twist of fate, the Crooning Pit does not claim these killers as its own. It finds their crimes predictable, uninspired, lacking connection to any greater purpose—issues that an extra name couldn’t fix, no matter how glorious, not even if it was Edward.

But all those Johns in their high towers, with their exotic potted plants and floor-to-ceiling windows—those are men the Pit holds closest to its black and pulsing heart. At night, as they fall asleep beneath downy blankets and mistresses and sheets of stars, it creeps into their dreams and paints pictures. 

Categories
Fiction

Brittle

by Maxwell Van Cooper | Fiction | Spring 2018

Prints by Bridget Conway

Irene’s teeth were brittle from the lemons she sucked. Ever since she was a small child, she’d take the curious yellow orbs, delicately place one atop her tongue, and bleed it dry. Sometimes, as a little girl, she’d beg her mother to slice them after eating fish sticks and watching TV. The citrus would sting the inside of her nostrils, just like the man’s cologne—clean and crisp, like his white oxford shirts her mother ironed for hours as he sat smoking a cigar. Citrus and smoke clung to the furniture, even hours after he left in the morning. Sometimes, as a small child, when Irene was very displeased with him, she’d cut them herself, and piece by piece she’d suck every last drop of the entire fruit down. Her teeth felt strange and static, but the tartness was alarming, and that was nice. She could never think over the acidity.

***

Forty lemons for the forty years perched sweetly across her kitchen counter. Pink and rose tiles covered the kitchen, accented by the lace curtains that were oh-so-divine. Black-Eyed Susans stood in a vase on the corner table, overlooking her neighbor’s front yard. Near the flowers was a lounge chair where, in the morning, she would sip her chamomile tea and read last month’s Life magazine. Always tea, never coffee: it stained the teeth. She liked to look at the celebrities and think about their lives. Where did they play when they grew up? Why did they all wear the pink, not red lipstick? What were their fathers like? Had they been good fathers? Irene liked to imagine getting tea with them. Patrick Swayze would compliment the yellow drapes in the dining hall. Molly Ringwald would ask for some lemonade. And Irene would just giggle like a schoolgirl. Not a hair out of place, not a stain on their teeth. 

Sometimes as she drank her tea, she’d see Mr. and Mrs. Sanders’ children playing ball. How dirty their clothes got in the springtime. Irene took quiet solace in knowing that if they were her children, they’d always be very clean. They’d run in after their play, wipe their shoes at the door, and she’d offer them some meringue pie. They’d eat at her little table with the marigolds, always asking for more. How funny children are. Their stomachs are never quite full. Thomas is outgrowing his clothes already, the brute. Jane has dimples just like her father. But somehow, the dirt always seems to seep into the saffron tablecloth. They know she bought it last week. Why put their grubby hands on the table, their muddy legs kicking against the stools? How ungrateful. Their piggy smiles mock her, their laughter echoes in the house. Sometimes children have to have the dirt beat out of them, just like her Persian rugs. Sometimes there are white crisp collars and large hands, and sometimes there are grains of dirt everywhere, embedded in her skin like a code. He leans down, the sharp acidic scent splits the nerves in her body, he says if you have dirt on your soul, you won’t go to heaven. But it’s a good house for children. A good house indeed.

After her morning tea, she would get into a gray muted dress suit, pick up her briefcase, and drive her yellow vintage Cadillac. She was a makeup saleswoman. Enchanted Cosmetics was the nice company that had given her a job when she was seventeen after her miscarriage, and they’d treated her oh-so-fine. She was one of their most esteemed employees—she even got a card at Christmas. Thanks for the years – X, red-nosed Rudolph exclaimed. She kept every single card above the electric fireplace. It was nice to be appreciated. Irene loved her job—she’d knock on a door, and some nice woman in her thirties would answer, maybe with a daughter or son clinging to her dress, they’d chat, Irene would introduce herself, and after a couple minutes, the nice woman would invite Irene inside. Indiana had such nice neighborhoods.

Image by Rachel Weinstein

While the mothers apologized for the mess, offered her a seat, or scolded their children, Irene would survey the domain. Sometimes the houses had couches she had seen in Pottery Barn catalogues, sometimes the wood was varnished and shined, sometimes the women wore pearl earrings. But sometimes the houses were cramped, the dishes dirty, the floor chewed and clawed. Irene liked these homes the best. She would raise an eyebrow, purse her lips. My, what lovely curtains you have. 

Either way the suitcase was opened, and out came lipsticks and mascaras, eye shadow and eye primer, and her favorite—a yellow eye shadow called Bumble Bee Bliss. Irene was a professional. No matter what their homes looked like, she’d smile and treat them all the same. And the mother with the curly mop of hair and the mother with the tooth gap would ooo and aaa at the beautiful display. Yes, it is quite beautiful, Irene thought.

Sometimes a waiffy, confused mother asked her to leave. Irene puckered her lips. It displeased her so. She rose slowly to give her a second chance. Don’t you want to look pretty for your husband? With things so crazy, she said, with the Soviet Union about to nuke the world to bits, isn’t it nice to just enjoy the little things in life? And the mother did stare at her so queerly. Irene wasn’t queer. Sometimes the mother said, no, no, her husband would be coming home soon and it was really time to go. It displeased her so. How she would like to tell that dumpy mother her home is ugly. Her children are brats, her floors are dirty, and she mustn’t be so so so very selfish because he won’t like that one bit, not one bit, not a bit of dirt not a bit of dust don’t track in the mud Irene your shoes are filthy, you are filthy. He puffs his cigar and says that we won’t be accepted to the Kingdom of Heaven if we aren’t clean in and out. Straight from the gospel itself. Take a sponge and wipe the dirt away, confess and God will wash away the sin and grime. His teeth are like razors that cut his fresh linen, and she does shiver as he takes her hand, like raw lemons being squeezed on a fresh cut, but it’s ok, Mother says it’s ok. Maybe it isn’t so strange to suck lemons, maybe she likes her saffron curtains and marigolds. 

No one ever bought Bumble Bee Bliss.

It was days like these when she’d pack up her baggies of cosmetics, throw them in the trunk, slam the trunk of her yellow Cadillac, get in the door of her yellow Cadillac, turn the key in the ignition of the yellow Cadillac, and by God she would drive that yellow Cadillac all the way down the South End. Past all the cornfields and stop signs, as a tempered sun glared in her rearview mirror. Past the peeling playgrounds, and the water treatment center, past the cornhusks, there she’d find the trailer. Its silver reflection wavered under the sun. A dulled jockey statue with a broken eye guarded the front door, its plastic frame decorated by weathered Christmas lights. A faded sign that read Madame Mystic’s Palm Reading hung aslant on the window’s screen. The trailer was next to the county graveyard, small tombstones christened the earth in rows, tall monuments proudly towering behind. 

Irene ignored the various broken beer bottles, and opened the trailer door. The stink was undeniable. Irene was greeted by a squirrel and a crow, new additions to the taxidermy collection which sprawled throughout the trailer. Irene raised an eyebrow. Across the trailer, an old crone in a Christmas sweater sat by the TV. Next to her was a half empty bottle of Jack Daniels, and a small tin of chewing tobacco. She crooned from her corner. Knock, why don’t you? 

Ma’am, I don’t mean to disturb you ma’am, but I gotta see him, ma’am. Irene quivered with excitement. She was practically levitating. Ma’am, please. 

The old woman coughed, and waved her over. Irene took a seat on the TV. Her own home was far nicer. The woman settled into her faded arm chair and spat a thick black liquid into a can on the floor. Her face looked like a prune, her teeth yellow from years of black coffee and chain smoking. Irene took out three twenties, her hands shaking, and let them fall into the woman’s palm, careful not to touch her paper skin. The woman’s face twisted into a grimace, she took Irene’s hand, and squeezed it so tight, so tight she thought it might break. Calm yourself, Irene. Lemme see what your father has to say. The old crone closed her eyes, and rocked back and forth like a small child. Her lips rippled with inaudible words. Irene wished the psychic had drapes. Some yellow drapes would really help lighten up the place. 

After seventeen and a half minutes, the crone opened her eyes. Her lips parted as if to speak. Irene eagerly leaned in. The old woman’s eyes widened, and she erupted into a fit of coughs. Irene winced. He says, the old crone spat, he likes what you’ve done with the house. He says, he likes the couch you bought from Sears. He’s sorry for what he’s done. You know that, Irene.

           Can you ask him to leave me alone?

Lord, I sure will.

           Does he really like the paisley?

He says it matches the rug from Bed ’n Bath.

           I thought of him when I got it.

I know you did, Irene.

***

Irene would arrive home around 6:30 PM. Tulips and roses encircled her house. She’d enter and admire the spotless baseboards. She’d make herself some chicken and peas, and eat it on the circular table with the Black-Eyed Susans. They’d smile at her as she ate in silence. It was too dark to see Mr. and Mrs. Sanders’ yard or children. Overall, it would be a good day. She’d turn on her cassette player, and Billie Holiday’s clear voice would fill the room. 

I’ll be seeing you
           in all the old familiar places
that this heart of mine embraces
           all day through

As she delicately dabbed the corners of her mouth, she felt his presence. He sat across from her, just as he did when she was a child, and it is oh so nice for him to be home. And she forgives him for all the terrible things the man does, as men do. She offers him some chamomile tea, he compliments the new china. This is how it was always meant to be. His citrus cologne enwraps her, and she knows she is home.

           Would you like a lemon? 

Yes, I think I would.

Categories
Interlude

Not Long Ago

by JRRL | Interlude | Fall 2017

Image by Julia Friend

Brad Segro and the Great Information Virus.


ABSTRACT


In this three-part history, I propose a re-writing of how we understand the decline of our predecessors based on the remarkable findings within the recently excavated journals of Brad Segro, the progenitor of the virus that wiped out information technology in the third century Before Descendance. Selections of the thirteen volumes discovered pertain to Brad’s involvement in The Event, as it is commonly dubbed, that so dramatically changed the course of human history. Much of that information has been distilled into a coherent narrative in the first section. The second will consider the difficulties of working with Brad’s journals, and begin to juxtapose what they don’t tell us with what they do. The third and final will finish discussing the journals’ limits, and in their context propose questions to guide our research moving forward.


At the turn of the last century, there was an undergrad student named Brad Segro, who studied literature and computer science, among other things. Brad read a lot of interesting articles about so-called “deep learning” computer programs that were tackling problems of natural language processing—predicting an author based on a sample of text, for example, or translating from one written language to another. There were even some programs that could generate text or images after reading a great deal of examples.

Brad was excited by the possibilities of this technology, but he was always disappointed to read the texts produced. He saw them as poor imitations of the human art of writing and came to believe the machines generating them were far from capable of telling meaningful stories. He did a little reading and decided that since machine learning algorithms generally improve with larger samples, he could address the problem of meaningful creation by building an artificial neural network that would read every single text, ever.

That’s not exactly what he accomplished, of course. He exclusively considered texts presented in language, ignoring texts with other forms such as images or audio. Brad also limited himself to such texts as available on the internet; he figured there was enough material uploaded already and recognized that whatever small number texts he might upload individually would fail to have an impact in such a large pool. He did not exclude any languages, however, resulting in a sample of over 40 languages majorly represented.

Of course, with billions of pages and exabytes of data, Brad’s learning program toiled for weeks. In the interim, Brad’s term of studies ended. He left his computer running and went outside for a while. When he came back one day, he was surprised to find that his program had output some text. The following symbols had been printed to Brad’s terminal:

Illustration by Ramzy Lakos

Brad looked it over briefly. He was not a linguist. Even if he was, this small output would not be enough to derive meaning from the symbols. Brad adjusted the parameters and instructed the program to output some more, an amount that would have printed to nearly 100 pages. He wrote a little note explaining what it was and sent it to his university’s linguistics department.

***

At this point, the information in Brad’s journals begins to intersect with what we’ve compiled from our predecessors’ public records. Interestingly, little of what Brad documented during this period actually concerns his machine. He took quite a lot of notes—40 pages in the week following the completion of his program—but the vast majority of those concern a romantic relationship he was having at the time. When he does mention his machine, it is very much within the emotional modality in which he had been writing—he expresses curiosity as to its products, anxiety that they won’t be of value, and a rich pride engendered by the faint hope that his program would be a success. He speculates wildly as to the fame and wealth that it would bring him, even while acknowledging to himself that it was too early to tell.

What Brad did mention is that he got a little note back from the department chair right away, saying, “Thanks for the email,” and that they would take a look at it. On the same day that the Springfield Chronicler reported that the bodies of the missing linguistics department members had been found, Brad writes the final entry in the last volume of the journals:

“March 17th

Did he really not think that dude was flirting with him? Is he really that naive? Or is he just defensive because of the way I accused him?

“Entre las formas que van hacia la sierpe
[…]
dejaré crecer mis cabellos”
—FGL

“The wackness is spreading like a plague”
—Guru

The scents are maddeningly bland. I pull air from my hand and smell the sweat Its musk grows and I veer towards sanity

“n k’aba’a a’an Yack. xik kue sa’ kuakax nin chal tz’ibitz patux”, right? I return to her letters and it’s all unraveled.

if only… It isn’t nearly real enough. It’s not that simple. But maybe I will get out of town for a while”

It’s tempting to try to read some sort of meaning into these messages that could connect them to his program, which was beginning its catastrophic work even as he was writing this, but the reality is that they don’t tell us much at all. Reading this single page is representative of what it was like working with his journals as a whole—parsing masses of irrelevant personal content for slight clues, trying to calculate the truth from the probabilities of many unreliable statements. It’s possible that Brad did get out of town, which might explain why he suddenly stopped journaling, but there are many other plausible reasons for this phenomenon, and none can be ruled out without further evidence. It was only a few days later that the last issue of the Springfield Chronicler was printed, and other media organizations began reporting the destruction of Brad’s university, followed by many others. Brad does not appear again in any of these records, so we have no idea what happened to him after this date. Nor do we know the extent to which he was affected by his own creation, or if he or any of his contemporaries ever discovered his role.

If we imagine the spread of the virus across a network of institutions responsible for the production of knowledge, then most of what we know about it comes from nodes in the network just outside of the portion of the network already affected. Unfortunately, some elements of the virus spread faster than the system’s own ability to recognize it—for, as we all know, institutions of storytelling showed signs of the madness even as they reported on other institutions suffering from it. What’s so frustrating about Brad’s journals is that they’re so close to the absolute center, and might be the first documents we’ve discovered related to the virus that were unaffected by it, but they don’t show so much as an awareness that the virus existed. Their position in relation to our historical problem is a great tease, and although what we have been able to draw from them about his program is critically illuminating, they are ultimately a disappointment.

***

The monumental significance of the discovery of Brad’s notebooks is matched only by the challenge of actually making sense of it. Most importantly, we now know for sure that The Event was caused by the work of a single human being. Folklore and popular fantasy will no doubt draw great meaning from this realization. But I am a historian—we are historians—and we must resist the temptation of speculation and sensationalism. Brad’s importance is that he documented his life in a manner that survived the Great Information Destruction, and perhaps more miraculously, that the paper on which he wrote survived for over three hundred years.

Not long ago, human society reached a level of informational complexity that is daunting to conceive of. The proliferation of computers and the “Internet” that connected them enabled a vast production and sharing of knowledge, which at its onset was theoretically democratic in that almost any individual with a computer could produce information and share it with anybody. In the span of a few years, however, the sheer volume of information produced and shared made it impossible for the consumer of information to navigate it in any meaningful way. Thus arose institutions of several classes to assist the consumer in finding relevant information: one was the search engine, which directed the consumer to sites containing information it deemed useful based on a query by the user; another was the sites themselves, often maintained by the same groups of people that had controlled the distribution of printed knowledge before the computer era. These two classes worked in tandem to empower certain information and disempower the rest by its placement in highly trafficked sites.

It’s interesting to consider what we can glean about Brad’s program from his journals in the context of the informational structure he inhabited. His program read everything, including the information his society had sought to marginalize and effectively destroy. Perhaps humanity was not ready for the iterative power of the machine to deliver unto it everything it had tried to throw away. This would have fascinating implications for the nature of the relationship between dominant and oppressed literatures, implications I’m sure will be seized upon by socio-information theorists. I caution against this for now, for we can’t confirm these ideas until we better understand the mechanism by which the virus worked.

Oral tradition tells us that our ancestors destroyed everything the victims of the virus ever wrote, or even touched—we thought we’d never see the symbols until we found Brad’s journals. As far as we can tell, the small printout he kept wasn’t enough to affect us, and we assume that it didn’t affect him, so hopefully our institutions of knowledge will still be around when the next piece of the puzzle is unearthed. If not, I apologize for sharing this paper with you. Let us hope that our predecessors fully paid their debts, and that we may survive to continue the pursuit of our past and of the truth.

Categories
Fiction

Critter and the Dragonfly

by Christopher Kennedy | Fiction | Fall 2017

Drawings by Martina Hildreth

Saga of song, witches, and sweet potato.


That thick fat summer sweet smell of the ball field, tan clouds rising up off the dirt like smoky hippos. The thwack and smack and back-to-back delicious screams as the pea soars into the raw freely-bleeding palm of a leaping boy. The crows screaming “Yah!” and the spit. The mean, sweat-drippin’ snakey eyes of the pitcher from the hill before he throws you a yakker, then the symphonic crack like a broken bone as you hit that wilson right on the screws. No Lord, there is nothing like it.

I’m Catfish. I’m the best goddamn batter in the goddamn Ash Lands. I’m the second oldest and the third tallest of all of us. They call me Catfish because once down by Dog River after a pale shadow caught my eye I plunged my left paw into the spicy black chemical water and yanked out a dead catfish, the king of catfish—my hand searing and crimson from the evil river. Stomach tight and numb from weeks of protein squares and canned corn, I bit its head right off and spit out the spongy bones. I gave everyone else a bite, too. Most delicious meal we’d had in months, even though our bellies and chests stung for hours afterward from the chemicals in the fish and we couldn’t play baseball that day on account of our thunderous headaches. But it was worth it. Before that I was just Lefty.

Critter was crouching behind my legs—he’s permanent catcher. He’s a shaggy little kid from Tennessee who doesn’t talk much—just murmurs and growls like a pup most the time. He’s the only one who’ll ever play catcher.

Over on second, I can see Smokey Pete. He’s bald as a fruit bat. “Heybattabatta, heybattabattaaa… ” He’s already starting.

Way behind him, I spot Gizmo, our goggled outfielder, who we’ve always gotta holler at during games because she’s fiddling with radio parts and floppy disks and old eye-phones instead of catching fly balls. Jelly’s also outfielder, poised probably too close to Gizmo. We call him Jelly because he wears a dirty old jellyfish hat he got from who- knows-where. Windmill Wendy can read and told us the label says “Sea World.” When you try to take off his jellyfish hat, he screams.

So anyhow I’ve named Critter, Gizmo, and Jelly. Then there’s Goliath, Baby, Windmill, Cyclone, Wild Joe, Dynamite, Worm-o, and Drone. (None of us even remembers why we call him Drone, but every time a drone flies over up in the clouds we whistle at him and he does The Monkey.) I won’t say much more about any of them now except that Worm-o is my brother.

Then of course there’s the King. The King calls the shots. Her eyes are angry and black like a Great White Shark’s, and she’s got a long scar running down her chin and throat. Says a specter did it to her when she was a kid—tells the story sometimes and we all listen to it with wide white eyes and are silent for once. We ain’t afraid of specters or nothing but the ways she tells it you gotta shut up and listen. Once Jelly hollered out “BullSHIT!” while she was telling us about killing the witch with a stick. The King went quiet, jaw twitching, then clocked Jelly on the mouth, knocking him down. She leaped on top of him and clamped her hand hard on Jelly’s tiny Adam’s apple and whispered in his ear for a while things we couldn’t hear. You don’t cross the King. She hammers on her chest and when she does that we hammer our chests too. When you look in her eyes she threatens to eat you. You don’t cross the King. She’s taller and older than all of us, with ropy muscles and long chin hairs. Don’t. Cross. The King.

We stick together. We stay up late in the hot nights, racing around the scorched ground of the Ash Lands, galloping around in the warm, dead breeze, and then stand at Heaven Cliff and howl up at the big yellow moon. We hurl ancient bottles and plastic pieces into the Void. We howl and whistle and moan, together with all the starved hounds in Ohio.

We fight off night-ghasts when our games go past dusk and the foul stringy things come loping around our field with their veils and long fingers. We share protein squares and gamble with spider parts and sometimes even find squirrels to cook. We fight and knock each other down and bite and scratch; we sing, we talk dirt, we spit, we mash tongues. I’m telling you it for hell sure gets real hard in the unholy breathless industrial landscape of the Ash Lands, this godforsaken depopulated city ridden with witches and parasites and vultures and ghasts. There’s even a Cyclops that lives in the I-K-E-A. We poke around warehouses sometimes looking for food cans and wilsons and such and one time Windmill Wendy went to I-K-E-A wanting some wood and saw it through the shelves by the toilets. She said it was eleven foot tall at least, head was all wrapped up in soggy bandages but she caught a bit of its bleary red eye glaring through. You can bet she ran faster than a jet plane away from that thing.

But anyhow, we got baseball. Jesus God we got baseball. And when we’re playing rough and wild under the angel-pink pollution sky, wilsons snapped and cracked and caught searing hot in our calloused hands, kids whooping and screaming and hurling their bodies in a gleeful dance, we’re made electric by the Cuyahoga Holy Ghost, the sore and lovely spirit of the crying Today, the heat, the hunger. The Floods. The craziness everywhere in the streets and skies and shadows, the craziness in our bones. When we play baseball, mighty and burnt on the cracked-dry diamond, we’re gods, baby. Even though we’re skinny, even though we’re kids, even though Smokey Pete has worms.

The King just sent me two mean curve balls. One strike CRUD. Two strikes DOUBLE CRUD. Third pitch, I smack that wilson right where it hurts and it goes hollering for its mama as it zooms toward outer space—it goes past Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, the Sun! That was what’s called a homer, good folks. A tape measure blast. I go jogging to first base backwards, a wide smile on my face.

“That’s a tater!” murmurs Baby.

“A real moon shot!” says Windmill. She leans back and whistles long and slow.

Finally I arrive still trotting backwards onto home plate and do a little dance, singing “Yippee who-oo! Yippee yoo!”


It’s not easy to remove the poison from things
we found them their leg was broken shivering
in the humid dusk The air around them stung
and all around them we could see their spirit
stinging sprawled out on the forest floor we
carried them to camp and our medics set their
leg the poor kid shook and growled and yelled
their leg bound we washed them with rosewater
and rosemary amaranth and thyme We burned
rosemary as well prayed and Dan played her guitar
We massaged the kid’s arms and neck and gave
them teas and stew their eyes were salmon colored
one time they woke up and said are you witches


So here’s what’s going on: Nobody’s seen Critter in three days.

We’ve never gone so long without seeing one of the boys. And so we’ve been without a catcher. Wild Joe’s been substitute, but he never catches the wilsons, just lays on his side and eats dirt most of the time. After our game at noon we went over to sit down in the Taco Pete parking lot and mull things over.

“Maybe it’s the witches that got him,” said Baby.

We shuddered, all having heard some pretty awful stories about the witches and what they do—capturing kids and melting them, turning them to trees, takin’ out their eyes, even turning the suckers to witches themselves. Maybe they were all just tales but that’s what we’ve heard.

“What if he’s lying in a ditch somewhere? What if he’s dead and he’s got mice in his arms and crickets laying eggs in his noggin?” Drone piped up. “What if—”

“Quiet, Drone!”

“Shut up, Drone.”

Wild Joe was praying. Worm-o, my kid brother, was real still, looking at his hands. He was scared and pale. I decided to speak up.

“Y’all quit talking like that. Critter’s fine. Probably just constipated and hiding by the river ‘til he feels better,” I said.

“You’re constipated, Catfish!” called Cyclone. I leaned over and yanked on his hair. He cried out then shut up.

“Critter’s fine,” I said.

“No, he’s not,” the King murmured, and we all looked at her. “The Government took him, and now they’re using him in experiments.” She looked stern and serious, laying on her back with her hands under her head, cobalt blue sunglasses. I wanted to tell her it was a lie, mostly for Worm-o’s sake, but the King would clock me.

Then a drone flew overhead. We whistled, and Drone hopped up and down like a flea, waving his hands around and kicking. He did The Monkey. We hollered and snapped, and when he landed, he turned his eyelids inside out with his fingers.


Today we gave them sweet potato they turned
it around in their mouth and said are you witches
or is this heaven We laughed and said what’s your
name they said CRITTER and my legs hurts we gave
them root to chew on How did you hurt your leg I
was climbing a tree We said you were trying to catch
a dragonfly they looked scared were you watching
me No but we can see the past sometimes they said
you’re witches all right get me out of here KING
CATFISH WINDMILL HELP we said are those your
friends they said they’ll come rescue me we said we’ll
let you go as soon as we can but your leg is healing and
you would not be able to run from the night ghasts


We went into town and knocked on Jaden and Louisa’s door to ask them about Critter because sometimes he sleeps on their living room floor. They have a big store with shelves and shelves of cans and water and firewood and hooch. Always have guns strapped about them but love us kids—one time even slipped us a packet of jerky I’m telling you that was the closest we ever came to having Christmas.

Louisa answered the door, “How can we help you, little roaches?”

Louisa always wore these blue dangly earrings and has a gold tooth. Today she had a cut her eye—we asked her about it, but she shook her head. Jaden came down too.

“We can’t find Critter. Have you seen him?”

“He hasn’t been by here for a while. Did you look by the creek?”

Yes.

“Did you check the Mall?”

Yes.

“Is he at his mom’s?”

No way.

“Have you asked Rod?”

We went over on Rugby Street to Rodney’s shop. Rodney does haircuts and exorcisms in his shop, styling and snipping during the day and in the after hours casting out demons and elves from people’s souls. A lot of them are on powder or glue. Sometimes we hang around outside his place to listen to the screams as he purifies. He’s a public figure and gets around, so we figured he might have heard some news about Critter.

We swung open the screen door of his shop and filed in. Rodney was cutting his nails in a wheely chair, his feet on the counter. The King got straight to the point.

“Rodney! You seen Critter?”

Rodney eyed us for a moment.

“That boy with the scab nose hardly ever says a word? Dog boy?”

We nodded.

“Nah I haven’t seen him. Not in a while. He could use a haircut. Doesn’t look like he’s ever gotten one. You bring him in when you find him. I’m handing out coupons. Twenty-five percent off on shaves. Can’t beat that deal.” He held out the coupons.

Baby took one.

“You keep an eye out, Rod. We need our catcher.”

Rodney looked at each of us in turn and ran his hands over his hair. He leaned back in his chair then continued cutting his nails.

“Try the Bird,” he said.

The Bird Man always seems to be popping up everywhere, to be everywhere at once. He’s a wild old man all dressed up like a huge black bird with dark rags, feathers, trash bags, and oil drawn out in spooky designs on his skin. He doesn’t speak human words unless you give him potato bread. Thankfully, Baby still had a sack from the last distribution.

Anyhow we found old Bird Man way far up in a tree. He was rubbing his feet and was rather still, looking off. His knitting hung from the branches around him like Spanish moss, long scrolls of twine and straw.

Baby tossed up the sack of potato bread and yelled, “Cover up your ding-a-ling, pervo-birdo! We wanna talk!”

The sack went up, up, and fell back down. The Bird did not move to grab it. Just moved his head a little toward us then back at the sky. He looked like a gargoyle, half erasered, a smudge in the nest of tree capillaries.

“What’s eatin’ ya Bird Man?”

“Bird Man have you seen Critter?”

“Did the angels get him Bird Man?”

“Bird Man, speak!”

He seemed sorrowful today. We looked at each other.

“Anyway just tell us if you see him.”


5:40 PM Dear diary the witches gave you to me said
you’re a tape recorder and showed me how to speak
into you and tell my story so here’s my story I was
climbing a tree and saw a green wasp and then
my leg hurt my head hurt and I was saved by the
witches they let me listen to their CD player and I
heard the song johnny b goode the witches are not
like we thought they shine they sing they paint
themselves decorate their tents with drawings
and herbs One of them has a gun and another has
no legs so they carry him I don’t know how many
there are my favorite one is Isabela she says she is
from Down South too and calls me holy one


We slept all together tonight. Have not played ball for days, just been looking for our compatriot. Usually we spread out into our favorite nooks and crannies all over the Ash Lands, two of us maybe under the overpass, three or four up in the trees by the river maybe, one or two in somebody’s apartment here or there. But tonight we were all huddled together in the old Dairy Queen on Main, cheered up just a little, giggling and spooning on the grimy floor as the moonlight streamed in and the moths high-fived the windows. Gizmo brought an old battery lamp and put it in the center of us all, and we cheered up even more—sprinkling dirt in the ears of the little ones when they fell asleep, Jelly and Joe kept yanking up each other’s shirts and purple nurpling one another to kingdom come. The King was off to the side in her old hammock she’d tied up between the beams, smoking her clumsy cigarillos. Smokey Pete told the story about the time he kissed tongues with his cousin Angela. We hooted and yapped.

When Gizmo flipped off the light, though, we were all thinking about Critter. And about witches, and angels, creek goblins, ghasts, dogs, tuna people, mosquito clouds, and cannibals. Just to name a few of the night mares trotting around behind our eyes. We had barred the doors shut and hung garlic from the windows outside, but every once and awhile you’d still hear a night-ghast thumping up against a window in the darkness.

After an hour or so, Windmill and I caught one another’s eyes and knew neither of us could sleep. We crept out and headed for Heaven Cliff, not saying much. We raced to the old familiar spot and leaned against the Void and groaned, exhausted by all the being-afraid. We gazed up at the thick dark sky and I thought about how Louisa said once there used to be many more stars you could see. Tonight I counted seven. Then we screamed. Damn hell, we screamed until our throats burned and the tears flowed free down our cheeks like fresh hot blood from a wound. Where once we had howled and sung and beat our chests, we now screeched and wept like blind baby animals, scared for Critter. We leaned on each other as the darkness stared at us, unblinking and dense. Poison pulsed in the earth, and our stomachs seized up, and our hearts rang like hand bells, looking into the giant stunned face of the world.

“Damn you, Critter!” Windmill yelled. “Damn you!”


Today we told Critter some about who we are we
said Critter we are a people trying to become whole
we are Insects doing quiet repair Critter we’re
learning to pray to the day and ask for things from
the ground and battle together The world has not been
killed yet we are growing and may even save ourselves
We see bits of the future going by like comets but are
not very good yet at reading it we told Critter about the
god Sun the god Now the god Ground we stay hidden here
because you people kill witches you kill angels that is
why we stay here with our gardens and fire and lipstick
our crosses our dances love and rage If you want you can stay
with us here there’s plenty of sweet potato and planning to do


Days had passed and we figured Critter was dead. We had a funeral for him and buried a dog leg we found in the gutter. Nobody said much—we just buried the dog leg and the King socked anyone who cried too much. We placed a glittery rock over Critter’s grave, and Windmill Wendy wrote “Critter” in the dirt. That was the end of it.

Today’s the first time we’ve played in what feels like a long long while now. The Sun is up in the sky frowning like a huge mean baby dumping down white light and heat. We’re playing slow motion and dumb, throats dry and noggins aching—there hasn’t been much water. A drone flies over us way high up in the sky. We stop to watch.

Everyone’s been striking out more often than not, but finally Cyclone hits one and the wilson shoots off like a furious bird. We watch, panting, from the ground as it streams away from the world.

“Look!”

I turn, tired and stupid, to where Gizmo is pointing. There, shimmering through the heat, is Critter.

“Holy moly…”

There are antlers twisting out from Critter’s shaggy head. His skin seems to shine and sparkle, and he’s wearing clothes I’ve never seen before. Critter walks toward us, then breaks into a run, smiling and weeping, stirring up clouds of dirt. The wilson lands somewhere behind him and we barely notice it.

He stops, bends back, and unleashes a howl. Slowly, we begin to whoop and race toward him, surround him, hug and grab him, sweep him up, clobber him, shake him.

Jesus, Critter!

Where’d you get those antlers?

We thought you were dead, Critter!

We had a funeral for you!

Well, spit it out, Critter! Where you been?