“Solid Objects” — Virginia Woolf

“Solid Objects”


Virginia Woolf

The only thing that moved upon the vast semicircle of the beach was one small black spot. As it came nearer to the ribs and spine of the stranded pilchard boat, it became apparent from a certain tenuity in its blackness that this spot possessed four legs; and moment by moment it became more unmistakable that it was composed of the persons of two young men. Even thus in outline against the sand there was an unmistakable vitality in them; an indescribable vigour in the approach and withdrawal of the bodies, slight though it was, which proclaimed some violent argument issuing from the tiny mouths of the little round heads. This was corroborated on closer view by the repeated lunging of a walking-stick on the right-hand side. “You mean to tell me . . . You actually believe. . .” thus the walking-stick on the right-hand side next the waves seemed to be asserting as it cut long straight stripes upon the sand.

“Politics be damned!” issued clearly from the body on the left-hand side, and, as these words were uttered, the mouths, noses, chins, little moustaches, tweed caps, rough boots, shooting coats, and check stockings of the two speakers became clearer and clearer; the smoke of their pipes went up into the air; nothing was so solid, so living, so hard, red, hirsute and virile as these two bodies for miles and miles of sea and sandhill.
Continue reading ““Solid Objects” — Virginia Woolf”

Read “The Three Castles” an Italian folktale retold by Italo Calvino

“The Three Castles”

an Italian folktale retold by Italo Calvino

translated by George Martin

A boy had taken it into his head to go out and steal. He also told his mother.

“Aren’t you ashamed!” said his mother. “Go to confession at once, and you’ll see what the priest has to say to you.”

The boy went to confession. “Stealing is a sin,” said the priest, “unless you steal from thieves.”

The boy went to the woods and found thieves. He knocked at their door and got himself hired as a servant.

“We steal,” explained the thieves, “but we’re not committing a sin, because we rob the tax collectors.”

One night when the thieves had gone out to rob a tax collector, the boy led the best mule out of the stable, loaded it with gold pieces, and fled.

He took the gold to his mother, then went to town to look for work. In that town was a king who had a hundred sheep, but no one wanted to be his shepherd. The boy volunteered, and the king said, “Look, there are the hundred sheep. Take them out tomorrow morning to the meadow, but don’t cross the brook, because they would be eaten by a serpent on the other side. If you come back with none missing, I’ll reward you. Fail to bring them all back, and I’ll dismiss you on the spot, unless the serpent has already devoured you too.”

To reach the meadow, he had to walk by the king’s windows, where the king’s daughter happened to be standing. She saw the boy, liked his looks, and threw him a cake. He caught it and carried it along to eat in the meadow. On reaching the meadow, he saw a white stone in the grass and said, “I’ll sit down now and eat the cake from the king’s daughter.” But the stone happened to be on the other side of the brook. The shepherd paid no attention and jumped across the brook, with the sheep all following him.

The grass was high there, and the sheep grazed peacefully, while he sat on the stone eating his cake. All of a sudden he felt a blow under the rock which seemed to shake the world itself. The boy looked all around but, seeing nothing, went on eating his cake. Another blow more powerful than the first followed, but the shepherd ignored it. There was a third blow, and out from under the rock crawled a serpent with three heads. In each of its mouths it held a rose and crawled toward the boy, as though it wanted to offer him the roses. He was about to take them, when the serpent lunged at him with its three mouths all set to gobble him up in three bites. But the little shepherd proved the quicker, clubbing it with his staff over one head and the next and the next until the serpent lay dead.

Then he cut off the three heads with a sickle, putting two of them into his hunting jacket and crushing one to see what was inside. What should he find but a crystal key. The boy raised the stone and saw a door. Slipping the key into the lock and turning it, he found himself inside a splendid palace of solid crystal. Through all the doors came servants of crystal. “Go
od day, my lord, what are your wishes?”

“I wish to be shown all my treasures.”

So they took him up crystal stairs into crystal towers; they showed him crystal stables with crystal horses and arms and armor of solid crystal. Then they led. him into a crystal garden down avenues of crystal trees in which crystal birds sang, past flowerbeds where crystal flowers blossomed around crystal pools. The boy picked a small bunch of flowers and stuck the bouquet in his hat. When he brought the sheep home that night, the king’s daughter was looking out the window and said, “May I have those flowers in your hat?”

“You certainly may,” said the shepherd. “They are crystal flowers culled from the crystal garden of my solid crystal castle.” He tossed her the bouquet, which she caught.

When he got back to the stone the next day, he crushed a second serpent head and found a silver key. He lifted the stone, slipped the silver key into the lock and entered a solid silver palace. Silver servants came running up saying, “Command, our lord!” They took him off to show him silver kitchens, where silver chickens roasted over silver fires, and silver gardens where silver peacocks spread their tails. The boy picked a little bunch of silver flowers and stuck them in his hat. That night he gave them to the king’s daughter when she asked for them.

The third day, he crushed the third head and found a gold key. He slipped the key into the lock and entered a solid gold palace, where his servants were gold too, from wig to boots; the beds were gold, with gold sheets, pillows, and canopy; and in the aviaries fluttered hundreds of gold birds. In a garden of gold flowerbeds and fountains with gold sprays, he picked a small bunch of gold flowers to stick in his hat and gave them to the king’s daughter that night.

Now the king announced a tournament, and the winner would have his daughter in marriage. The shepherd unlocked the door with the crystal key, entered the crystal palace and chose a crystal horse with crystal bridle and saddle, and thus rode to the tournament in crystal armor and carrying a crystal lance. He defeated all the other knights and fled without revealing who he was.

The next day he returned on a silver horse with trappings of silver, dressed in silver armor and carrying his silver lance and shield. He defeated everyone and fled, still unknown to all. The third day he returned on a gold horse, outfitted entirely in gold. He was victorious the third time as well, and the princess said, “I know who you are. You’re the man who gave me flowers of crystal, silver, and gold, from the gardens of your castles of crystal, silver, and gold.”

So they got married, and the little shepherd became king.

And all were very happy and gay,

But to me who watched they gave no thought nor pay.

Read “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace,” a very short story by Donald Barthelme

“The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace”


Donald Barthelme

In the abandoned palazzo, weeds and old blankets filled the rooms. The palazzo was in bad shape. We cleaned the abandoned palazzo for ten years. We scoured the stones. The splendid architecture was furbished and painted. The doors and windows were dealt with. Then we were ready for the show.

The noble and empty spaces were perfect for our purposes. The first act we hired was the amazing Numbered Man. He was numbered from one to thirty-five, and every part moved. And he was genial and polite, despite the stresses to which his difficult métier subjected him. He never failed to say “Hello” and “Goodbye” and “Why not?” We were happy to have him in the show.

Then, the Sulking Lady was obtained. She showed us her back. That was the way she felt. She had always felt that way, she said. She had felt that way since she was four years old.

We obtained other attractions—a Singing Sword and a Stone Eater. Tickets and programs were prepared. Buckets of water were placed about, in case of fire. Silver strings tethered the loud-roaring strong-stinking animals.

The lineup for opening night included:

A startlingly handsome man

A Grand Cham

A tulip craze

The Prime Rate

Edgar Allan Poe

A colored light

We asked ourselves: How can we improve the show?

We auditioned an explosion.

There were a lot of situations where men were being evil to women—dominating them and eating their food. We put those situations in the show.

In the summer of the show, grave robbers appeared in the show. Famous graves were robbed, before your eyes. Winding-sheets were unwound and things best forgotten were remembered. Sad themes were played by the band, bereft of its mind by the death of its tradition. In the soft evening of the show, a troupe of agoutis performed tax evasion atop tall, swaying yellow poles. Before your eyes.

The trapeze artist with whom I had an understanding . . . The moment when she failed to catch me . . .

Did she really try? I can’t recall her ever failing to catch anyone she was really fond of. Her great muscles are too deft for that. Her great muscles at which we gaze through heavy-lidded eyes . . .

We recruited fools for the show. We had spots for a number of fools (and in the big all-fool number that occurs immediately after the second act, some specialties). But fools are hard to find. Usually they don’t like to admit it. We settled for gowks, gulls, mooncalfs. A few babies, boobies, sillies, simps. A barmie was engaged, along with certain dumdums and beefheads. A noodle. When you see them all wandering around, under the colored lights, gibbering and performing miracles, you are surprised.

I put my father in the show, with his cold eyes. His segment was called My Father Concerned about His Liver.

Performances flew thick and fast.

We performed The Sale of the Public Library.

We performed Space Monkeys Approve Appropriations.

We did Theological Novelties and we did Cereal Music (with its raisins of beauty) and we did not neglect Piles of Discarded Women Rising from the Sea.

There was faint applause. The audience huddled together. The people counted their sins.

Scenes of domestic life were put in the show.

We used The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace.

It is difficult to keep the public interested.

The public demands new wonders piled on new wonders.

Often we don’t know where our next marvel is coming from.

The supply of strange ideas is not endless.

The development of new wonders is not like the production of canned goods. Some things appear to be wonders in the beginning, but when you become familiar with them, are not wonderful at all. Sometimes a seventy-five-foot highly paid cacodemon will raise only the tiniest frisson. Some of us have even thought of folding the show—closing it down. That thought has been gliding through the hallways and rehearsal rooms of the show.

The new volcano we have just placed under contract seems very promising . . .

“Fans” — Barry Hannah



Barry Hannah

Wright’s father, a sportswriter and a hack and a shill for the university team, was sitting next to Milton, who was actually blind but nevertheless a rabid fan, and Loomis Orange, the dwarf who was one of the team’s managers. The bar was out of their brand of beer, and they were a little drunk, though they had come to that hard place together where there seemed nothing, absolutely nothing to say.

The waitress was young. Normally, they would have commented on her and gone on to pursue the topic of women, the perils of booze, or the like. But not now. Of course it was the morning of the big game in Oxford, Mississippi.

Someone opened the door of the bar, and you could see the bright wonderful football morning pouring in with the green trees, the Greek-front buildings, and the yelling frat boys. Wright’s father and Loomis Orange looked up and saw the morning. Loomis Orange smiled, as did Milton, hearing the shouts of the college men. The father did not smile. His son had come in the door, swaying and rolling, with one hand to his chest and his walking stick in the other.

Wright’s father turned to Loomis and said, “Loomis, you are an ugly distorted little toad.”

Loomis dropped his glass of beer.

“What?” the dwarf said.

“I said that you are ugly,” Wright said.

“How could you have said that?” Milton broke in.

Wright’s father said, “Aw, shut up, Milton. You’re just as ugly as he is.”

“What’ve I ever did to you?” cried Milton.

Wright’s father said, “Leave me alone! I’m a writer.”

“You ain’t any kind of writer. You an alcoholic. And your wife is ugly. She’s so skinny she almost ain’t even there!” shouted the dwarf.

People in the bar—seven or eight—looked over as the three men spread, preparing to fight. Wright hesitated at a far table, not comprehending.

His father was standing up.

“Don’t, don’t, don’t,” Wright said. He swayed over toward their table, hitting the floor with his stick, moving tables aside.

The waitress shouted over, “I’m calling the cops!”

Wright pleaded with her: “Don’t, don’t, don’t!”

“Now, please, sit down everybody!” somebody said.

They sat down. Wright’s father looked with hatred at Loomis. Milton was trembling. Wright made his way slowly over to them. The small bar crowd settled back to their drinks and conversation on the weather, the game, traffic, etc. Many of the people talked about J. Edward Toole, whom all of them called simply Jet. The name went with him. He was in the Ole Miss defensive secondary, a handsome figure who was everywhere on the field, the star of the team. Continue reading ““Fans” — Barry Hannah”

“The Brother” — Robert Coover

“The Brother”


Robert Coover

right there right there in the middle of the damn field he says he wants to put that thing together him and his buggy ideas and so me I says “how the hell you gonna get it down to the water?” but he just focuses me out sweepin the blue his eyes rollin like they do when he gets het on some new lunatic notion and he says not to worry none about that just would I help him for God’s sake and because he don’t know how he can get it done in time otherwise and though you’d have to be loonier than him to say yes I says I will of course I always would crazy as my brother is I’ve done little else since I was born and my wife she says “I can’t figure it out I can’t sec why you always have to be babyin that old fool he ain’t never done nothin for you God knows and you got enough to do here fields need plowin it’s a bad enough year already my God and now that red-eyed brother of yours wingin around like a damn cloud and not knowin what in the world he’s doin buildin a damn boat in the country my God what next? you’re a damn fool I tell you” but packs me some sandwiches just the same and some sandwiches for my brother Lord knows his wife don’t have no truck with him no more says he can go starve for all she cares she’s fed up ever since the time he made her sit out on a hillside for three whole days rain and everything because he said she’d see God and she didn’t see nothin and in fact she like to die from hunger nothin but berries and his boys too they ain’t so bright neither but at least they come to help him out with his damn boat so it ain’t just the two of us thank God for that and it ain’t no goddamn fishin boat he wants to put up neither in fact it’s the biggest damn thing I ever heard of and for weeks wees I’m tellin you we ain’t doin nothin but cuttin down pine trees and haulin them out to his field which is really pretty high up a hill and my God that’s work lemme tell you and my wife she sighs and says I am really crazy r-e-a-1-l-y crazy and her four months with a child and tryin to do my work and hers too and still when I come home from haulin timbers around all day she’s got enough left to rub my shoulders and the small of my back and fix a hot meal her long black hair pulled to a knot behind her head and hangin marvelously down her back her eyes gentle but very tired my God and I says to my brother I says “look I got a lotta work to do buddy you’ll have to finish this idiot thing yourself I wanna help you all I can you know that but” and he looks off and he says “it don’t matter none your work” and I says “the hell it don’t how you think me and my wife we’re gonna eat I mean where do you think this food comes from you been puttin away man? you can’t eat this goddamn boat out here ready to rot in that bastard sun” and he just sighs long and says “no it just don’t matter” and he sits him down on a rock kinda tired like and stares off and looks like he might even for God’s sake cry and so I go back to bringin wood up to him and he’s already started on the keel and frame God knows how he ever found out to build a damn boat lost in his fog where he is Lord he was twenty when I was born and the first thing I remember was havin to lead him around so he didn’t get kicked by a damn mule him who couldn’t never do nothin in a normal way just a huge oversize fuzzyface boy so anyway I take to gettin up a few hours earlier ever day to do my farmin my wife apt to lose the baby if she should keep pullin around like she was doin then I go to work on the boat until sundown and on and on the days hot and dry and my wife keepin good food in me or else I’d of dropped sure and no matter what I say to try and get out of it my brother he says “you come and help now the rest don’t matter” and we just keep hammerin away and my God the damn thing is big enough for a hundred people and at least I think at least it’s a place to live and not too bad at that at least it’s good for somethin but my wife she just sighs and says no good will come of it and runs her hands through my hair but she don’t ask me to stop helpin no more because she knows it won’t do no good and she’s kinda turned into herself now these days and gettin herself all ready and still we keep workin on that damn thing that damn boat and the days pass and my brother he says we gotta work harder we ain’t got much time and from time to time he gets a coupla neighbors to come over and give a hand them sucked in by the size and the novelty of the thing makin jokes some but they don’t stay around more than a day or two and they go away shakin their heads and swearin under their breath and disgusted they got weaseled into the thing in the first place and me I only get about half my place planted and sec to my stock as much as I can my wife she takes more care of them than I can but at least we won’t starve we say if we just get some rain and finally we get the damn thing done all finished by God and we cover it in and out with pitch and put a kinda fancy roof on it and I come home on that last day and I ain’t never goin back ain’t never gonna let him talk me into nothin again and I’m all smellin of tar and my wife she cries and cries and I says to her not to worry no more I’ll be home all the time and me I’m cryin a little too though she don’t notice just thinkin how she’s had it so lonely and hard and all and for one whole day I just sleep the whole damn day and the rest of the week I work around the farm and one day I get an idea and I go over to my brother’s place and get some pieces of wood left over and whaddaya know? they are all livin on that damn boat there in the middle of nowhere him and his boys and some women and my brother’s wife she’s there too but she’s madder than hell and carpin at him to get outa that damn boat and come home and he says she’s got just one more day and then he’s gonna drug her on the boat but he don’t say it like a threat or nothin more like a fact a plain fact tomorrow he’s gonna drug her on the boat well I ain’t one to get mixed up in domestic quarrels God knows so I grab up the wood and beat it back to my farm and that evenin I make a little cradle a kinda fancy one with little animal figures cut in it and polished down and after supper I give it to my wife as a surprise and she cries and cries and holds me tight and says don’t never go away again and stay close by her and all and I feel so damn good and warm about it all and glad the boat thing is over and we get out a little wine and we decide the baby’s name is gonna be either Nathaniel or Anna and so we drink an extra cup to Nathaniel’s health and we laugh and we sigh and drink one to Anna and my wife she gently fingers the little animal figures and says they’re beautiful and really they ain’t I ain’t much good at that sorta thing but I know what she means and then she says “where did you get the wood?” and I says “it’s left over from the boat” and she don’t say nothin for a moment and then she says “you been over there again today?” and I says “yes just to get the wood” and she says “what’s he doin now he’s got the boat done?” and I says “funny thing they’re all living in the damn thing all except the old lady she’s over there hollerin at him how he’s gettin senile and where does he think he’s sailin to and how if he ain’t afraid of runnin into a octypuss on the way he oughta get back home and him sayin she’s a nut there ain’t no water and her sayin that’s what she’s been tellin him for six months” and my wife she laughs and it’s the happiest laugh I’ve heard from her in half a year and I laugh and we both have another cup-of wine and my wife she says “so he’s just livin on that big thing all by hisself?” and I says “no he’s got his boys on there and some young women who are maybe wives of the boys or somethin I don’t know I ain’t never seen them before and all kinda damn animals and birds and things I ain’t never seen the likes” and my wife she says “animals? what animals?” and I says “oh all kinds I don’t know a whole damn menagerie all clutterin and stinkin up the boat God what a mess” and my wife laughs again and she’s a little silly with the wine and she says “I bet he ain’t got no pigs” and “oh yes I seen them” I says and we laugh thinkin about pigs rootin around in that big tub and she says “I bet he ain’t got no jackdaws” and I says “yes I seen a couple o£ them too or mostly I heard them you couldn’t hardly hear nothin else” and we laugh again thinkin about them crows and his old lady and the pigs and all and my wife she says “I know what he ain’t got I bet he ain’t got no lice” and we both laugh like crazy and when I can I says “oh yes he does less he’s took a bath” and we both laugh til! we’re cryin and we finish off the wine and my wife says “look now I fyiow what he ain’t got he ain’t got no termites” and I says “you’re right I don’t recollect no termites maybe we oughta make him a present” and my wife she holds me close quiet all of a sudden and says “he’s really movin Nathaniel’s really movin” and she puts my hand down on her round belly and the little fella is kickin up a terrific storm and I says kinda anxious “does it hurt? do you think that—?” and “no” she says “it’s good” she says and so I says with my hand on her belly “here’s to you Nathaniel” and we drain what’s left in the bottom of our cups and the next day we wake up in each other’s arms and it’s rainin and than God we say and since it’s rainin real good we stay inside and do things a round the place and we’re happy because the rain has come just in time and in the evenin things smell green and fresh and delicious and it’s still rainin a little but not too hard so I decide to take a walk and I wander over by my brother’s place thinkin I’ll ask him if he’d like to take on some pet termites to go with his collection and there by God is his wife on the boat and I don’t know if he drug her on or if she just finally come by herself but she ain’t sayin nothin which is damn unusual and the boys they ain’t sayin nothin neither and my brother he ain’t sayin nothin they’re just all standin up there on top and gazin off and I holler up at them “nice rain ain’t it?” and my brother he looks down at me standin there in the rain and still he don’t say nothin but he raises his hand kinda funny like and then puts it back on the rail and I decide not to say nothin about the termites and it’s startin to rain a little harder again so I turn away and go back home and I tell my wife about what happened and my wife she just laughs and says “they’re all crazy he’s finally got them all crazy” and she’s cooked me up a special pastry with £rcsh meat and so we forget about them but by God the next day the rain’s still comin down harder than ever and water’s beginnin to stand around in places and after a week of rain I can see the crops is pretty well ruined and I’m havin trouble keepin my stock fed and my wife she’s cryin and talkin about our bad luck that we might as well of built a damn boat as plant all them crops and still we don’t figure things out I mean it just don’t come to our minds not even when the rain keeps spillin down like a ocean dumped upsidedown and now water is beginnin to stand around in big pools really big ones and water up to the ankles around the house and Icakin in and pretty soon the whole damn house is gettin fulla water and I keep sayin maybe we oughta go use my brother’s boat till this blows over but my wife she says “never” and then she starts in cryin again so finally I says to her I says “we can’t be so proud I’ll go ask him” and so I set out in the storm and I can hardly see where I’m goin and I slip up to my neck in places and finally I get to where the boat is and I holler up and my brother he comes out and he looks down at where I am and he don’t say nothin that bastard he just looks at me and I shout up at him I says “hey is it all right for me and my wife to come over until this thing blows over?” and still he don’t say a damn word he just raises his hand in that same sillyass way and I holler “hey you stupid sonuvabitch I’m soakin wet goddamn it and my house is fulla water and my wife she’s about to have a kid and she’s apt to get sick all wet and cold to the bone and all I’m askin you—” and right then right while I’m still talkin he turns around and he goes back in the boat and I can’t hardly believe it me his brother but he don’t come back out and I push up under the boat and I beat on it with my fists and scream at him and call him ever name I can think up and I shout for his boys and for his wife and for anybody inside and nobody comes out “Gowdamn you” I cry out at the top of my lungs and half sobbin and sick and then feelin too beat out to do anythin more I turn around and head back for home but the rain is thunderin down like mad now and in places I gotta swim and I can’t make it no further and I recollect a hill nearby and I head for it and when I get to it I climb up on top of it and it feels good to be on land again even if it is soggy and greasy and I vomit and retch there awhile and move further up and the next thing I know I’m wakin up the rain still in my face and the water halfway up the hill toward me and I look cut and I can see my brother’s boat is fioatin and I wave at it but I don’t see nobody wave back and then I quick look out towards my own place and all I can see is the top of it and of a sudden I’m scared scared about my wife and I go tearin for the house swimmin most all the way and cryin and shoutin and the rain still comin down like crazy and so now well now I’m back here on the hill again what little there is left of it and I’m figurin maybe I got a day left if the rain keeps comin and it don’t show no signs of stoppin and I can’t see my brother’s boat no more gone just water how how did he know? that bastard and yet I gotta hand it to him it’s not hard to see who’s crazy around here I can’t see my house no more I just left my wife inside where I found her I couldn’t hardly stand to look at her the way she was

“Municipal Noir,” a very short tale by Hob Broun

“Municipal Noir”


Hob Broun

from Cardinal Numbers

MADRID, IN NEBRASKA’S SOUTHWEST corner, in the wide terraced plain below the Platte, had a Hog & Hominy Fest annually until 1978. There are three taverns in the town, two hardware stores, a Boys’ Club, a pistol range, and Strunk Fabrication, where crèche figures and baptismal fonts are made by a system of injection molding.

IN August of 1977, Ron Maddox was planning a future there. He had come to his wife’s country from North Dakota. Ron’s Pythagoras ABM Silo Group Commander, Lieutenant Benkelman, had been the best man at the wedding in Minot. Bonnie was expecting a child, but she wasn’t pregnant yet.

IT was only the fact of having once received a Visible Man anatomy doll for Christmas that prepared Kallinger for what he was to find all over the kitchen of Unit No. 6 at the mobile home park just off the county blacktop midway between Madrid and La Paz. Interim Coroner Perk Feed had so little to work with that even a preliminary finding seemed unlikely. Feed’s right leg was some two and one quarter inches shorter than his left, due to a fraternity initiation.

WAS Fran the kind of woman who would go all the way to Yankton for bridgework? Why had Lute Strunk rotated his best acres into sorghum? His CB handle was “Fledermaus,” and some said he had peculiar ideas about Jews.

AT 9:15 a.m. on Friday, Miss Clara Musil reported that her collection of little glass animals had been vandalized by a one-armed man. The light-blue hatchback had been abandoned next to the Elks Hall. Both Reverend and Mrs. LaFollette were treated for hyperventilation.

KALLINGER, at the subsequent awards dinner, wearing a strap-in-the-back “Go ’Huskers” baseball cap, refused to eat his portion of tapioca pudding until someone had tasted it first, and later proposed a curious toast “to Negro banking interests.”

“HE wanted the best of both worlds,” said a bureau insider.

Donna, Benkelman’s estranged wife, disagrees. Living in San Diego now, she has legally adopted Fran’s two sons and works as a commercial illustrator.

“Gas spectrometry is fine. Fiber analysis is fine. But people want a good, human story, and in this case they didn’t get it.”

SUSPICION of multiple sodomy focused on a “drifter” with a history of bronchiectasis. Someone had caused Jud Musil’s feed troughs to be infected with hog cholera. These were theories congruent with mutual distrust.

“We lacked a fallback position,” one resident later observed. “Pictures just didn’t tell the story.”

AND then on a crisp October morning, during the final hour of Ingo Feed’s Stop & Swap radio show, a strangely insistent man phoned in to offer his entire collection of bat-wing fans in exchange for “the global freezing design.”

BY now people were beginning to ask hard questions about the investigative reporter in their midst. Complicitous terrorist supplying atrocity photos to clients in Melbourne, Rome, Pernambuco, and Dubai? Semiliterate impostor becalmed in a delusional world of Mod Squad reruns?

OVER treacherous, ice-glazed roads, normally temperate, circumspect farm families drove the forty-five miles to Arbeiter Mall so they could dine at a Polynesian restaurant. Owner Gus Triandos would boast once too often about his acquaintance with high-level research. The baby back ribs were moist, tender, imaginatively sauced.

TRIAL proceedings, convened at the county seat of Bogota, began the first week of the new year under the guidance of Judge Pangloss LaFollette, no relation.

Dr. Shah, for the prosecution, explained that, as an “outsider,” he’d had little success in convincing the authorities, even in the face of corroborative evidence from a degreed caseworker, that the dozens of cigarette burns on the chest were cause for alarm. Dr. Zweig, for the defense, described Ron as “a man without qualities.” Fran, according to the testimony of a Chicago psychic, was operating a barge on the Loire.

“QUITE simply, there are no words to describe what Mrs. Maddox has already paid in suffering,” said a friend of the family.

BONNIE appeared each day in the same oyster-gray ensemble, occupied the same front-row seat. Her only change of expression, a slight moue disarranging normally serene features, came as a result of Kallinger’s breakdown on the stand, his admission that “I never learned to hit the curveball.”

THE jury, perhaps overly sequestered, imposed its inability to reach a verdict.


Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” but just the punctuation.

, , . , . , — — . – , – . , , , , . , — — — — . . , — — . , , – — — , , , , , . . . , . , . , , . , . – , . , . , . , – , , , , . , , . , , , , . — — , , . — — ‘ — — . , . . , , , — — — — ( ) . , , , , . . , . , , . , – . , , , , , , , , . — — ! — — , , — — . , , , , . ; , , . . . , , , – , . – – , , , ! , , , . — — ‘ — — , , ; , , , . , . . , , , . , , , . , . . , , . . , — — , , . , , , ? , , , ? , , . — — — — ‘ — — . , , ; — — , ; — — , ; — — — — — — — — . , . . . , , , . . , . , . — — . , . , , . , , , . , , — — . , . ” ! ” ” ! ” , . , , . . ‘ . — — — — . . , , . , — — , , . . – ; , , , . , , , . ; , , – , , . , , , , , . , , , , , , . , . , . — — — — , . ; , , . , , , , . , , . ; — — — — . , , , . ; . , . , . ; — — — — . , . ; , , . , , , ; — — — — , , . , , , , , , , . , , , , , , , , . , , . . , , , . , , , , , . , , , , — — — — . — — . — — , ‘ , — — , . , , , , . , , ; , — — , — — , , . — — , , , , — — , , — — — — ! — — , — — ! . — — — — — — , — — ! ! ! , , — — — — ! , . — — . ; , , , , , , . , , . , , , . , , , , , , . . , , , . , . , , , . , , . . , . , . , — — , , , . . — — . . , , . , , , , , . , , , . . – , , , , , , – . , , , , , . , . . . , : ” , , . ” ; , , . , , ; , . , , , . ; , , ; , ! , . . , , ! ! ! . , . — — . . , , , , . , , , . . . , , . . . . , . . . , , . ” , ” , , ” . , . , , — — – . ” ( , . ) — — ” – . — — , ? — — ; ” , , , , – . – ! , ! — — , , , , , , — — — — , , , . . , . , . , . . , , . , , , . !


Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” but just the punctuation.

Read “Love on the Bon-Dieu,” an Easter story by Kate Chopin

“Love on the Bon-Dieu”


Kate Chopin

from Bayou Folk (1894)


Upon the pleasant veranda of Père Antoine’s cottage, that adjoined the church, a young girl had long been seated, awaiting his return. It was the eve of Easter Sunday, and since early afternoon the priest had been engaged in hearing the confessions of those who wished to make their Easters the following day. The girl did not seem impatient at his delay; on the contrary, it was very restful to her to lie back in the big chair she had found there, and peep through the thick curtain of vines at the people who occasionally passed along the village street.

She was slender, with a frailness that indicated lack of wholesome and plentiful nourishment. A pathetic, uneasy look was in her gray eyes, and even faintly stamped her features, which were fine and delicate. In lieu of a hat, a barege veil covered her light brown and abundant hair. She wore a coarse white cotton “josie,” and a blue calico skirt that only half concealed her tattered shoes.

As she sat there, she held carefully in her lap a parcel of eggs securely fastened in a red bandana handkerchief.

Twice already a handsome, stalwart young man in quest of the priest had entered the yard, and penetrated to where she sat. At first they had exchanged the uncompromising “howdy” of strangers, and nothing more. The second time, finding the priest still absent, he hesitated to go at once. Instead, he stood upon the step, and narrowing his brown eyes, gazed beyond the river, off towards the west, where a murky streak of mist was spreading across the sun.

“It look like mo’ rain,” he remarked, slowly and carelessly.

“We done had ’bout ‘nough,” she replied, in much the same tone.

“It’s no chance to thin out the cotton,” he went on.

“An’ the Bon-Dieu,” she resumed, “it’s on’y to-day you can cross him on foot.”

“You live yonda on the Bon-Dieu, donc?” he asked, looking at her for the first time since he had spoken.

“Yas, by Nid d’Hibout, m’sieur.” Continue reading “Read “Love on the Bon-Dieu,” an Easter story by Kate Chopin”

Read “A Man and Some Others,” a tale by Stephen Crane

“A Man and Some Others”


Stephen Crane


Dark mesquit spread from horizon to horizon. There was no house or horseman from which a mind could evolve a city or a crowd. The world was declared to be a desert and unpeopled. Sometimes, however, on days when no heat-mist arose, a blue shape, dun, of the substance of a specter’s veil, appeared in the southwest, and a pondering sheep-herder might remember that there were mountains.

In the silence of these plains the sudden and childish banging of a tin pan could have made an iron-nerved man leap into the air. The sky was ever flawless; the manoeuvring of clouds was an unknown pageant; but at times a sheep-herder could see, miles away, the long, white streamers of dust rising from the feet of another’s flock, and the interest became intense.

Bill was arduously cooking his dinner, bending over the fire and toiling like a blacksmith. A movement, a flash of strange colour, perhaps, off in the bushes, caused him suddenly to turn his head. Presently he arose, and, shading his eyes with his hand, stood motionless and gazing. He perceived at last a Mexican sheep-herder winding through the brush toward his camp.

“Hello!” shouted Bill.

The Mexican made no answer, but came steadily forward until he was within some twenty yards. There he paused, and, folding his arms, drew himself up in the manner affected by the villain in the play. His serape muffled the lower part of his face, and his great sombrero shaded his brow. Being unexpected and also silent, he had something of the quality of an apparition; moreover, it was clearly his intention to be mystic and sinister. Continue reading “Read “A Man and Some Others,” a tale by Stephen Crane”

Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” but just the punctuation

; ‘ . . , , , , , , , , , . — — , , . ; – , , , . — — , — — — — – — — — — — — – — — – — — . , , — — . — — — — ? ; . , , , , . , , , , , ; , , , — — — — , – , – . , . , , ; . , , — — — — , , . . . — — — — , , , , . , , — — — — ; . , , , . . , , , , , , , , , , , , , . , , , , – , , , ; , , , , . , , , , , — — , , , , , , , , ” ” — — , , . — — — — . — — ? — — . , , . , , , , — — , , . — — , , , — — , , , , – . , . . . , – . . ; , . – , . , , . , , , , . , . , . , , , , . , , . — — , , , , , , — — — — . , . , , . . . . , , , . , ; , , , . . , , , . , . . , , . , , , , — — . , , . ; , , , . , , , ! . . ; , , ; , ; , ; , , , ; – ; — — , , . , , . , , . , , , , , , , , . — — ; — — . , , , . . ( ) — — , , , – — — , – , , , . , , . , , . , , , — — , , . . , , ; , , . ; ; ; ; ; , , . . ” , ” , ” . , , , . , , . , , , . , , , — — . , , , , . ” , , , , . , , , — — – — — , , , — — , , , , . , , , — — – — — — — , , . ” , ” , , ” ( ) . ” , ( ) , , , . ; . . , , , ; , . . , , . , ; , ( ) ; — — , , . , ; . , , , . , , , , . . , , , . . . , . , , , , — — ( ) . , , . , . , , , , . , , , , . , , , , . . , ; , . , . , , , , . . , , , ( ) , . . , , , , , , , . , ” , ” , , : — — . , , — — — — . ‘ — — ! . . , , , ; ( — — — — ) ; , , , . . ‘ – ; , ( ! ) , . . , , , , , , . . , , ‘ ; ( , , , ! ) , , – . . , – ; , , , , — — . , ‘ ( * ) , . , , . , , , , , . , . , , ( ) . , , — — , , — — , , . — — — — , , ( ) , . , , , — — . , . — — , , — — , , . ” ” ; ” ” ; ” ” ; ” ” ; ” ” , ‘ , ; ” ” ; ” ” . ” , ” ; , , . , , — — — — . , , , , , ( ) , . , , , . ( ) , , – . , , , , . , . , . ( , , ) , , ; , , . , , , – , , , , , , , . , , , , . , , . , , . ; , , , , , . , , — — . , , , , . , , , , , . , , . . . , , . , , — — . ; , , . , , , . , , , , , . — — . , , . , , , . — — . . , , — — , , , , . . ; , , . , , , , — — , — — , , , . , , ( ) , , . , . . , , , , . , , — — , , — — . — — , . ” ? ” , — — ” ? — — , ! . ” , , , . . , , , . ; ; ( ) – , . — — , . , , . ” — — ! ” , , , , , . ” , , — — . ; — — . . , : — — . ” ” ” ; ‘ ; , , . , , ; , ( ) . , , , , , . – , , , . , , : ” , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ; , , , , – . ” , , ; ( ) — — , , , , , , ( ) . , , ; , , , , , , , . : ” , , ; , , , , , ; — — , ; , . , , , , , , , . ” , — — , , ( ) , , , — — ‘ . , , , , , , , . ; , , , , . , , ; , . — — , . , , — — . , , : ” , , , , , , ; , , . ” , — — , , — — , , , , , . , ; . . , . , , ; ; , , , . , . ” ? — — , , . — — — — — — , , , — — — — , , ! — — — — ! ! ? . — — , — — — — ! — — – — — — — ! ! — — ‘ , – , ! — — , , , , ! ! ? ? ? ? ? ! ” — — , , — — ” ! ! ” , , , . — — . , . — — , , , – , , . , , . . , ; . , , – – , , . , — — — — — — — — — — ” . ” * , . , , . — — ” , ” . .

Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” but just the punctuation.

A very incomplete list of good or adequate (and primarily indirect) 9/11 novels and short stories

The Names, Don DeLillo (1982)

In the Shadow of No Towers, Art Spiegelman (2004)

“The Suffering Channel,” David Foster Wallace (2004)

“Twilight of the Superheroes,” Deborah Eisenberg (2006)

Falling Man, Don DeLillo (2007)

“The Vision of Peter Damien,” Chris Adrian (2008)

Point Omega, Don DeLillo (2010)

Open City, Teju Cole (2011)

“Home,” George Saunders (2011)

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon (2013)

Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish (2014)

“Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” Denis Johnson (2017)

My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part IV

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first and writing about it.

Previous entries:

Stories 60-55

Stories 54-49

Stories 48-43

This post covers stories 42-37.

47. “The Crisis” (Great Days, 1979)

“The Crisis” is a bit of a toss off, a bricolage of the last decade (’69-’79) that never coheres into a duet, monologue, theme, or even punchline. Its plot, such as it is, details (details is not the correct verb) the circumstances of an absurd failed revolution. Ostensibly a dialogue (or is it a chorus?), “The Crisis” doesn’t add up to much, and is perhaps best summarized in one of its closing images:

Distant fingers from the rebel forces are raised in fond salute.

Is Barthelme shooting his readers the bird?

The story feels like a slapdash riff on Walker Percy’s weird and wonderful satirical novel Love in the Ruins. (Barthelme was a huge Percy fan.)

46. “Our Work and Why We Do It” (Amateurs, 1976)

“Our Work and Why We Do It” is self-consciously postmodern, a mash-up of Beckett’s absurdism, Benjamin’s seminal “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” burgeoning Marxist aesthetic philosophy, and the modes and means of modernism. The opening line seems to satirize capital’s relationship between art, artist, and the means of production: “As admirable volume after admirable volume tumbled from the sweating presses . . . ” The ellipses are not mine; rather, Barthelme sets the stage here for a print economy of capitalist transactions. The Wells Fargo man arrives, gun in hand, to pick up the “bundle of Alice Cooper T-shirts we had just printed up.” He hurries the “precious product” — that’s all it is, product, content — to the “glittering fans”.

We then learn there’s a bit of conflict between the owners and the workers.

A few lines later, the narrator quips, “And I saw the figure 5 writ in gold.” Barthelme copies-cuts-pastes the modernists into his collage here—we get the visual of Charles Demuth’s painting, itself copying-cutting-pasting Willliam Carlos Williams’ “The Great Figure.”

Publication is a rough business: “If only we could confine ourselves to matchbook covers!” laments the narrator–

But matchbook covers are not our destiny. Our destiny is to accomplish 1. 5 million impressions per day. In the next quarter, that figure will be upped by twelve percent, unless

The hanging “unless” is Barthelme’s rhetorical trick and not my oversight—the punchline is “leather,” by the way.  “Leather is the way to accomplish more impressions. But the real hanging punchline is that word “impressions,” with its many connotations.

45. “The Great Hug” (Amateurs, 1976)

Such a great weird little story—is it about a toxic relationship between the Balloon Man and the Pin Lady? is it a metaphor for relationships in the modern era? is it an autobiographical riff, Barthelme’s love woes scribbled into a weird parody? —an oblique comment on e.e. cummings “in Just” — look, I don’t fucken know, maybe read it here. It’ll only take a few minutes, and then you can think about it for a week or so.

44. “The School” (Amateurs, 1976)

“The School” is wonderful stuff, and will take you like, what, 9, 10 minutes to read, if not less.

It’s a monologue I guess, delivered by a sorry educator whose schooling has killed off all manner of creatures. In the first three paragraphs we learn about the school’s failure to keep alive trees, snakes, and herb gardens, but then there’s a more drastic turn:

Of course we expected the tropical fish to die, that was no surprise. Those numbers, you look at them crooked and they’re belly-up on the surface. But the lesson plan called for a tropical fish input at that point, there was nothing we could do, it happens every year, you just have to hurry past it.

We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy.

We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy—goddammit Donald Barthelme. This line made me laugh out loud. And then it made me sad.

Reviewing my summary of the first three paragraphs, I’m tempted to make something religious out of it all—trees, snakes, gardens, and the like—but I don’t think that’s the gist. Or maybe it is the gist (Barthelme grew up Catholic). Is this a goof on the Eden thing? Humanity’s failure to be good stewards of the planet, etc. etc. etc.? I don’t know. Look, it’s a funny little story, read it.

43. “The Sergeant” (Amateurs, 1976)

“The Sergeant” reads like an oddity in Barthelme’s catalog—although not really, I guess, when that catalog is all oddity.

On one hand, “The Sergeant” is narrated in a seemingly-straightforward Hemingwayesque first-person I. This narrator is clearly based on a version of Barthelme. Barthelme served in the Korean War, but the real backdrop of “The Sergeant” is the Vietnam War–which was also the backdrop of much of Barthelme’s writing career (he arguably best addresses that folly in his 1968 story “The Indian Uprising,” which I’m still a ways from).

On the other hand, “The Sergeant” comes from the school of Kafka—it’s the bad dream we’ve all had, the nightmare repetitions of past duties we didn’t even sign up for. “The Sergeant” reads like a short blueprint for much of the Kafkaesque fiction that would follow it, including the labyrinths of Kazuo Ishiguro.

But Barthelme punctuates his nightmare-tale with a mythological touch: “Penelope!” cries the narrator, extending Barthelme’s anxiety riff into an ageless epic.

42. “I Bought a Little City” (Amateurs, 1976)

I Bought a Little City” is likely regarded as one of Barthelme’s greatest hits, possibly because it’s a more straightforward affair than his collages, pastiches, and oblique parodies. There’s a mean streak to this story about a rich man who buys Galveston, Texas. The story is about a lot things—control, desire, community, and creativity, maybe best summed up in two of its early lines: “What a nice little city, it suits me fine. It suited me fine so I started to change it.” People love to blow up their lives, but the asshole narrator citybuyer starts to blow up other people’s lives. He shoots six thousand dogs, for example. He humiliates a cop by making said cop buy him some fried chicken. He tries to steal another man’s wife, but it doesn’t work out. Maybe “I Bought a Little City” is about creative failures; maybe it’s a satire of capitalism. Or maybe it’s just another Barthelme goof.

Summary thoughts: Uh…the stories in Amateurs are generally better than those in Great Days. The weakest one here is “The Crisis,” from Great Days; the other stories feel more of a piece with each other. I enjoyed “The Sergeant” the most, but mostly because it has a different flavor from the other stories. “The School” is probably the best of the batch.

Going forward (in reverse): We continue backwards through the seventies, where we eventually hit (what I think might be a top-ten Barthelme hit) “Eugénie Grandet.”

“Ulrikke” — Jorge Luis Borges



Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley

Hann tekr sverthtt Gram ok leggri methal their abertVolsunga Saga, 27

My story will be faithful to reality, or at least to my personal recollection of reality, which is the same thing. The events took place only a short while ago, but I know that the habit of literature is also the habit of interpolating circumstantial details and accentuating certain emphases. I wish to tell the story of my encounter with Ulrikke (I never learned her last name, and perhaps never will) in the city of York. The tale will span one night and one morning.

It would be easy for me to say that I saw her for the first time beside the Five Sisters at York Minster, those stained glass panes devoid of figural representation that Cromwell’s iconoclasts left untouched, but the fact is that we met in the dayroom of the Northern Inn, which lies outside the walls. There were but a few of us in the room, and she had her back to me. Some-one offered her a glass of sherry and she refused it.

“I am a feminist,” she said. “I have no desire to imitate men. I find their tobacco and their alcohol repulsive.”

The pronouncement was an attempt at wit, and I sensed this wasn’t the first time she’d voiced it. I later learned that it was not like her—but what we say is not always like us.

She said she’d arrived at the museum late, but that they’d let her in when they learned she was Norwegian.

“Not the first time the Norwegians storm York,” someone remarked.

“Quite right,” she said. “England was ours and we lost her—if, that is, anyone can possess anything or anything can really be lost.”

It was at that point that I looked at her. A line somewhere in William Blake talks about girls of soft silver or furious gold, but in Ulrikke there was both gold and softness. She was light and tall, with sharp features and gray eyes. Less than by her face, I was impressed by her air of calm mystery. She smiled easily, and her smile seemed to take her somewhere far away. She was dressed in black—unusual in the lands of the north, which try to cheer the dullness of the surroundings with bright colors. She spoke a neat, precise English, slightly stressing the r’s. I am no great observer; I discovered these things gradually.

We were introduced. I told her I was a professor at the University of the Andes, in Bogotá. I clarified that I myself was Colombian.

“What is ‘being Colombian’?”

“I’m not sure,” I replied. “It’s an act of faith.”

“Like being Norwegian,” she said, nodding.

I can recall nothing further of what was said that night. The next day I came down to the dining room early. I saw through the windows that it had snowed; the moors ran on seamlessly into the morning. There was no one else in the dining room. Ulrikke invited me to share her table. She told me she liked to go out walking alone.

I remembered an old quip of Schopenhauer’s.

“I do too. We can go out alone together,” I said.

We walked off away from the house through the newly fallen snow. There was not a soul abroad in the fields. I suggested we go downriver a few miles, to Thorgate. I know I was in love with Ulrikke; there was no other person on earth I’d have wanted beside me.

Suddenly I heard the far-off howl of a wolf. I have never heard a wolf howl, but I know that it was a wolf. Ulrikke’s expression did not change.

After a while she said, as though thinking out loud: “The few shabby swords I saw yesterday in York Minster were more moving to me than the great ships in the museum at Oslo.”

Our two paths were briefly crossing: that evening Ulrikke was to continue her journey toward London; I, toward Edinburgh.

“On Oxford Street,” she said, “I will retrace the steps of DeQuincey, who went seeking his lost Anna among the crowds of London.”

“DeQuincey,” I replied, “stopped looking. My search for her, on the other hand, continues, through all time.”

“Perhaps,” Ulrikke said softly, “you have found her.”

I realized that an unforeseen event was not to be forbidden me, and I kissed her lips and her eyes.

She pushed me away with gentle firmness, but then said: “I shall be yours in the inn at Thorgate. I ask you, meanwhile, not to touch me. It’s best that way.”

For a celibate, middle-aged man, proffered love is a gift that one no longer hopes for; a miracle has the right to impose conditions. I recalled my salad days in Popayán and a girl from Texas, as bright and slender as Ulrikke, who had denied me her love.

I did not make the mistake of asking her whether she loved me. I realized that I was not the first, and would not be the last. That adventure, perhaps the last for me, would be one of many for that glowing, determined disciple of Ibsen.

We walked on, hand in hand.

“All this is like a dream,” I said, “and I never dream.”

“Like that king,” Ulrikke replied, “who never dreamed until a sorcerer put him to sleep in a pigsty.”

Then she added: “Ssh! A bird is about to sing.”

In a moment we heard the birdsong.

“In these lands,” I said, “people think that a person who’s soon to die can see the future.”

“And I’m about to die,” she said.

I looked at her, stunned.

“Lets cut through the woods,” I urged her.

“We’ll get to Thorgate sooner.”

“The woods are dangerous,” she replied. We continued across the moors.

“I wish this moment would last forever,” I murmured.

“Forever is a word mankind is forbidden to speak,” Ulrikke declared emphatically, and then, to soften her words, she asked me to tell her my name again, which she hadn’t heard very well.

“Javier Otárola,” I said.

She tried to repeat it, but couldn’t. I failed, likewise, with Ulrikke.

“I will call you Sigurd,” she said with a smile.

“And if I’m to be Sigurd,” I replied, “then you shall be Brunhild.”

Her steps had slowed. “Do you know the saga?” I asked. “Of course,” she said. “The tragic story that the Germans spoiled with their parvenu Nibelungen.”

I didn’t want to argue, so I answered: “Brunhild, you are walking as though you wanted a sword to lie between us in our bed.”

We were suddenly before the inn. I was not surprised to find that it, like the one we had departed from, was called the Northern Inn.

From the top of the staircase, Ulrikke called down to me: “Did you hear the wolf? There are no wolves in England anymore. Hurry up.”

As I climbed the stairs, I noticed that the walls were papered a deep crimson, in the style of William Morris, with intertwined birds and fruit. Ulrikke entered the room first. The dark chamber had a low, peaked ceiling. The expected bed was duplicated in a vague glass, and its burnished mahogany reminded me of the mirror of the Scriptures. Ulrikke had already undressed. She called me by my true name, Javier. I sensed that the snow was coming down harder. Now there was no more furniture, no more mirrors. There was no sword between us. Like sand, time sifted away. Ancient in the dimness flowed love, and for the first and last time, I possessed the image of Ulrikke.

“The Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story” by Angela Carter

“The Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story”


Angela Carter

Therefore that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forebearing of labor, feasting, or any other way upon any such account aforesaid, every person so offending shall pay for every offense five shillings as a fine to the county.

Statute enacted by the General Court of
Massachusetts, May 1659, repealed 1681

‘Twas the night before Christmas. Silent night, holy night. The snow lay deep and crisp and even. Etc. etc. etc.; let these familiar words conjure up the traditional anticipatory magic of Christmas Eve, and then — forget it.

Forget it. Even if the white moon above Boston Bay ensures that all is calm, all is bright, there will be no Christmas as such in the village on the shore that now lies locked in a precarious winter dream.

(Dream, that uncensorable state. They would forbid it if they could.)

At that time, for we are talking about a long time ago, about three and a  quarter hundred years ago, the newcomers had no more than scribbled their signatures on the blank page of the continent that was, as it lay under the snow, no whiter nor more pure than their intentions.

They plan to write more largely; they plan to inscribe thereon the name of God.

And that was why, because of their awesome piety, tomorrow, on Christmas Day, they will wake, pray and go about their business as if it were any other day.

For them, all days are holy but none are holidays.

New England is the new leaf they have just turned over; Old England is the dirty linen their brethren at home have just — did they not recently win the English Civil War? — washed in public.

Back home, for the sake of spiritual integrity, their brothers and sisters have broken the graven images in the churches, banned the playhouses where men dress up as women, chopped down the village Maypoles because they welcome in the spring in altogether too orgiastic a fashion.

Nothing particularly radical about that, given the Puritans’ basic premises. Anyone can see at a glance that a Maypole, proudly erect upon the village green as the sap is rising, is a godless instrument. The very thought of Cotton Mather, with blossom in his hair, dancing round the Maypole makes the imagination reel. No. The greatest genius of the Puritans lay in their ability to sniff out a pagan survival in, say, the custom of decorating a house with holly for the festive season; they were the stuff of which social anthropologists would be made!

And their distaste for the icon of the lovely lady with her bonny babe — Mariolatry, graven images! — is less subtle than their disgust at the very idea of the festive season itself. It was the festivity of it that irked them.

Nevertheless, it assuredly is a gross and heathenish practice, to welcome the birth of Our
Saviour with feasting, drunkenness, and lewd displays of mumming and masquerading.

We want none of that filth in this new place.

No, thank you.


As midnight approached, the cattle in the byres lumbered down upon their knees in homage, according to the well-established custom of over sixteen hundred English winters when they had mimicked the kneeling cattle in the Bethlehem stable; then, remembering where they were in the nick of time, they hastily refrained from idolatry and hauled themselves upright.

Boston Bay, calm as milk, black as ink, smooth as silk. And suddenly, at just the hour when the night spins on its spindle and starts to unravel its own darkness, at what one could call, elsewhere, the witching hour —

I saw three ships come sailing in,
Christmas Day, Christmas Day,
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning.

Three ships, silent as ghost ships; ghost ships of Christmas past.

And what was in those ships all three? Continue reading ““The Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story” by Angela Carter”

Read a new Lydia Davis story, “How He Changed over Time”

“How He Changed over Time” is a new Lydia Davis story in the fall issue of VQR

Here are the first two paragraphs:

He used to play the violin, but then, as his fingers thickened and lost some of their agility, he became frustrated by trying to play, and then bored by it. He put the violin away in its case for good, had the case removed to a storeroom, and, instead, invited others in to play for him and his family in the evenings. In time, this playing by others, too, wearied him with its incessant sound and he no longer invited musicians into his home or willingly listened to any music, except, perhaps, at long intervals, from a distance, a patriotic march.

He used to provide what was needed in the way of food, equipment, and guides for parties of men to go off exploring. They would bring him not only reports of what they had seen but also handsome artifacts, such as feathered tribal headdresses and small handmade axes and other tools. These he would display in his roomy front hall, and visitors waiting for a private audience would pass the time studying the artifacts and learning about the indigenous tribes of the country. He had had exactly this in mind, to educate the public, when he directed that the artifacts be displayed thus on the walls and in cabinets. But then he tired of the artifacts and lost interest in what they signaled of other cultures, and no longer cared about educating the public. He had everything in the front hall taken off the walls and out of the house and sold to a museum. The bare walls, a relief to his eyes, were then to be painted gold. He no longer sent parties of men out to explore the wilderness, for he no longer had any interest in other landscapes or the wildlife or primitive peoples that inhabited them. Geography now confused him.

Read the rest of the “story” (really, it’s something closer to a poetic (and critical) essay on Thomas Jefferson). 

Read “The Piano Player,” a very short story by Donald Barthelme

“The Piano Player”

by Donald Barthelme

from Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964)

Outside his window five-year-old Priscilla Hess, square and squat as a mailbox (red sweater, blue lumpy corduroy pants), looked around poignantly for someone to wipe her overflowing nose. There was a butterfly locked inside that mailbox, surely; would it ever escape? Or was the quality of mailboxes stuck to her forever, like her parents, like her name? The sky was sunny and blue. A filet of green Silly Putty disappeared into fat Priscilla Hess and he turned to greet his wife who was crawling through the door and her hands and knees.

“Yes?” he said. “What now?”

“I’m ugly,” she said, sitting back on her haunches. “Our children are ugly.”

“Nonsense,” Brian said sharply. “They’re wonderful children. Wonderful and beautiful. Other people’s children are ugly, not our children. Now get up and go back out to the smokeroom. You’re supposed to be curing a ham.”

“The ham died,” she said. “I couldn’t cure it. I tried everything. You don’t love me any more. The penicillin was stale. I’m ugly and so are the children. It said to tell you goodbye.”


“The ham,” she said. “Is one of our children named Ambrose? Somebody named Ambrose has been sending us telegrams. How many do we have now? Four? Five? Do you think they’re heterosexual?”

She made a moue and ran a hand through her artichoke hair. “The house is rusting away. Why did you want a steel house? Why did I think I wanted to live in Connecticut? I don’t know.”

“Get up,” he said softly, “get up, dearly beloved. Stand up and sing. Sing Parsifal.”

“I want a Triumph,” she said from the floor. “A TR-4. Everyone in Stamford, every single person, has one but me. If you gave me a TR-4 I’d put our ugly children in it and drive away. To Wellfleet. I’d take all the ugliness out of your life.”

“A green one?”

“A red one,” she said menacingly. “Red with red leather seats.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be chipping paint?” he asked. “I bought us an electric data processing system. An IBM.”

“I want to go to Wellfleet,” she said. “I want to talk to

Edmund Wilson and take him for a ride in my red TR-4. The children can dig clams. We have a lot to talk about, Bunny and me.”

“Why don’t you remove those shoulder pads?” Brian said kindly. “It’s too bad about the ham.”

“I loved that ham,” she said viciously. “When you galloped into the University of Texas on your roan Volvo, I thought you were going to be somebody. I gave you my hand. You put rings on it. Rings that my mother gave me. I thought you were going to be distinguished, like Bunny.”

He showed her his broad, shouldered back. “Everything is in flitters,” he said. “Play the piano, won’t you?”

“You always were afraid of my piano, she said. “My four or five children are afraid of the piano. You taught them to be afraid of it. The giraffe is on fire, but I don’t suppose you care.”

“What can we eat,” he asked, “with the ham gone?”

“There’s some Silly Putty in the deepfreeze,” she said tonelessly.

“Rain is falling,” he observed. “Rain or something.”

“When you graduated from the Wharton School of Business,” she said, “I thought at last! I thought now we can move to Stamford and have interesting neighbors. But they’re not interesting. The giraffe is interesting but he sleeps so much of the time. The mailbox is rather interesting. The man didn’t open it at 3:31 P.M. today. He was five minutes late. The government lied again.”

With a gesture of impatience, Brian turned on the light. The great burst of electricity illuminated her upturned tiny face. Eyes like snow peas, he thought. Tamar dancing. My name in the dictionary, in the back. The Law of Bilateral Good Fortune. Piano bread perhaps. A nibble of pain running through the Western World. Coriolanus.

“Oh God,” she said, from the floor. “Look at my knees.”

Brian looked. Her knees were blushing.

“It’s senseless, senseless,” she said. “I’ve been caulking the medicine chest. What for? I don’t know. You’ve got to give me more money. Ben is bleeding. Bessie wants to be an S.S. man. She’s reading The Rise and Fall. She’s identified with Himmler. Is that her name? Bessie?”

“Yes. Bessie.”

“What’s the other one’s name? The blond one?”

“Billy. Named after your father. Your Dad.”

“You’ve got to get me an air hammer. To clean the children’s teeth. What’s the name of that disease? They’ll all have it, every single one, if you don’t get me an air hammer.”

“And a compressor,” Brian said. “And a Pinetop Smith record. I remember.”

She lay on her back. The shoulder pads clattered against the terrazzo. Her number, 17, was written large on her chest. Her eyes were screwed tight shut. “Altman’s is having a sale,” she said, “Maybe
I should go in.”

“Listen,” he said. “Get up. Go into the grape arbor. I’ll trundle the piano out there. You’ve been chipping too much paint. ”

“You wouldn’t touch that piano,” she said. “Not in a million years.”

“You really think I’m afraid of it?”

“Not in a million years,” she said, “you phoney.”

“All right,” Brian said quietly. “All right.” He strode over to the piano. He took a good grip on its black varnishedness. He began to trundle it across the room, and, after a slight hesitation, it struck him dead.

A very incomplete list of good or adequate (and primarily indirect) 9/11 novels and short stories

The Names, Don DeLillo (1982)

In the Shadow of No Towers, Art Spiegelman (2004)

“The Suffering Channel,” David Foster Wallace (2004)

Falling Man, Don DeLillo (2007)

“The Vision of Peter Damien,” Chris Adrian (2008)

Open City, Teju Cole (2011)

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon (2013)

Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish (2014)

“Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” Denis Johnson (2017)