Hunger pays a heavy price to the falling gods of speed and steel
– Bob Dylan in Dark Eyes (1985)
parable on a country road
The boys, two-up on a motorcycle, stop when they see Cute Guy walking ditch-bottom up ahead. Then they drive slowly by, the passenger dragging up dust with his feet. Jesus, he should have an ass under him, the foot-dragger says, and instantly both tires go flat. Cute strides upright and steady on mowed cattail fronds and marsh grasses. When he catches up with the boys he helps them lift the bike back onto the road and suggests they follow him. They push and run and find a way to ride on flat tires until they disappear beyond their cloud of dust.
a midsummer’s eve
An hour before midnight Evgeny finished a plate of cold char – delicious;
rice – dry around the edges and crunchy; and what appeared to be the butt ends of asparagus spears – green, soggy.
Oh well, a supper cobbled together in the hotel’s kitchen; from the fridge labelled in felt-tip: leftovers – put a date on everything. He scraped his plate into a bin marked Compost for Roberta, grabbed a couple of plums from the fruit bowl and headed to his office in B Shed. On the way over he tried Donnie . . . left a message: I’ll be out of touch for the day, Donnie. Look for me next at that midsummer soapstone thing. I’ll be shooting.
Minutes later he left the office by the back door, through a spaghetti of Bill’s welding cables, and headed west. He carried camera equipment on his shoulder, nothing more than his D4 mounted on a tripod with panning motors, and walked to the shale beach by way of the whalebacks, night frost on the sunlit stone, congratulating himself. I didn’t slip. I love these shoes, he said. Further down the shore: a curl of chimney smoke from Bill’s summer camp, its hoary logs nestled in bud-fat cranberry at the foot of Muskox, the mountain reaching an ice-cleft hoof into warming waters.
From where he stood, the whalebacks hid most of the town from view. A few things stood out. The unstressed sheet-metal frieze banding the school glowed with a dull sheen: blue, he thought, cerulean or tekalet, resonance of a colour that an ocean uses; unlike the corrugated blue of the municipal sheds, the back sides of both in view, and just now unaffected by his distaste – what should he call this blue, municipal blue? It’s the colour you would paint a child’s truck, he mused. The south wall of the hockey arena loomed white and windowless. Evg loved that building where his Midgets won the territorial playoffs in May. Beyond it, in the distance, he thought he saw the vertical stabilizers of two, maybe three, military transports waiting on the tarmac, ready for a mission. The lower Ulittaq skyline produced another arc of information: the aerials and dishes on the roof of his hotel; aggressive smoke rising from a generator running soundlessly on its underground float, a technological marvel; the towered corner of the Northern Co-op grocery-hardware-snowmobile-parts-and-hunting-fishing-everything store to which his arcade was attached, finally attached. Only last fall had he been able to connect the two buildings with a lit corridor fabricated from a rusting quonset abandoned at the quarry. The near shore of the bay was not in view except for the very end of the federal pier. The coastguard ship was out. On the far point, he could just make out a jumble of undifferentiated white slabs criss-crossed with black lines that might be melting shore ice in front of his beach house; no, no, that had to be melted by now; more likely the ice-mangled marble pavements and balusters of Giardano’s terraces, still unrepaired. Ha, last full moon he and Donnie sprayed bullets into the Italian’s villa with the posse’s vintage Kalashnikov.
Evg watched the midsummer sun through a bank of yellow-green fog that hovered over the ice, about a nautical mile out he guessed. It was almost midnight. It was warm. The onshore breeze picked up waves from the shimmering edge of the ice pack and splashed them onto the scaly gravel at his feet. Leathery leaves on a lone stick of willow trembled. Should he be naked? He decided not. Too film-school, too sixties. He still feels the tug of an art house audience hungry for abstraction and skin. It’s old skin now, he thinks, his mind rising to the surface it sees in mirrors. No no. Faded Levi’s, a white T and Converse, red ones, still a classic look.
Evgeny programmed his phone to direct the aperture and timing of the shots: every hour for twenty-four hours, his body turned fifteen degrees, his head following the sun. Five minutes per shot. In the editing room they’ll fade into a two-minute, three-hundred-and-sixty-degree illusion of myself, he thought.
Then he said aloud, It’s time. Bowing his head, Evgeny spit one of the two plum pits into a wave and chased it with a long piss up and down the shale. Have I lost my appetite for it, he wondered? But since he’d decided to die here, he was indeed hungry for this image of himself on earth, an earth which was inclined, today, to let the sun shine on Ulittaq through the night. He set up the Nikon to frame himself in the foreground, the Arctic Ocean beyond.
When the sun reached the low point in its northern sweep across the world, two thumbs above the horizon by his estimation, Evgeny took a few steps into the foamless waves. He got down and lay face up, his back scraping over gravel in the lap of water. Shivering woke him violently every hour and for a minute or two his eyes would open and flicker with the light of whitecaps breaking and spitting in a steady wind. For twenty-four hours Evgeny’s mind raced along the coma edges of its many borders, puzzled, lost in its tracks. His spirit dipped and splashed, streamed and sank into the stony bed. Oil from ruptured tanks washed him. The earth completed its rotation and the sun bottomed out once again to mark the solstice. The tide had turned Evgeny’s head north as precisely as a clock, his body dangerously cool, close to that degree where everything is silly and warm.
on the day
On the day Evg first stepped off a plane in Ulittaq he decided to walk the two kilometres of graded shale to the hotel. I might be walking funny, he thought. My first steps on permafrost. About half way to town a maroon van passed him on the road, then veered and clanged across a strew of jagged rocks that served to disambiguate a navigable surface across the tundra. It came to rest on a flat tire frocked with overwintered blue-black berries on twigs with leathery leaves and two guys got out, one a high-pitched squeaker saying to the other, Shit man you lost it; the other came around to look, silent, a permanent smile with teeth exposed on the right side.
Hey, said Evgeny, walking up.
Both looked at him smiling. Evg dropped his backpack and had a quick look under the van. Three good ones, no spare?
Spare, said the one, holding up his phone.
The boys shook Evgeny’s hand in quick succession. The squeaker said, Welcome to Ulittaq. Take a ride?
While they stood around small-talking a young male muskox approached, hesitating between short bursts of speed. He won’t hurt you laughed the squeaker. The other added too big a grin. Evg thought him odd. A row of six more muskoxen rose out of a depression in the land, an apparition in the middle distance; heads, torsos, then legs. A bull noticed the attention paid to the young’n and headed their way, slow, no hesitation. It stopped, snorted. The calf fled past it into the family circle and all together they sank back into the earth, running hard. A pair of sandhill cranes lifted above the thunder and settled on a sandy hill.
There’d been a lot of corporate and government suits on Evgeny’s plane who, he learned, were not quite close enough to the Department of National Defence to be invited aboard the military flights. The executives had nevertheless come north to attend the opening of NORAD’s expanded Forward Operating Location, assigned to congratulate the Defence Minister on the selection of their unique services. Though warmly solicited to join them at the base, Evg wandered into town where people were going about their business, avoiding the festivities but obviously enjoying the economic spinoffs of big spenders come among them.
On a TV in the hotel bar Evgeny saw suits, uniforms, dresses, skirts and kid fashions swarming the pilots and military equipment parked within an acreage of white steel walls. Commander Larry Blakkap was hoisted onto the deck of a mobile missile launcher where, with cameras working several angles and zooms, his diminutive figure became a large silhouette against the skin of an F-35. He congratulated everyone for the excellent job, under severe and adverse conditions, of extending the runway to accommodate the interceptors and support aircraft which the defence of sovereignty required. All afternoon fuel-poisoned air drifted this way and that through the town, broken by the sound of large guns, the hiss of rockets, and the thunder of an air show. Brave southern souls ventured out of the hangar onto fresh tarmac to peer through their new wolf-shrouded hoods at the brilliant blue sky crossed with smoke, and to read the witty writing on war machines and weapons. Combat aircraft screamed for several seconds and passed.
In the intervals, while examining the Northern Co-op’s prices for goods and groceries, Evgeny caught bits of news from several TVs mounted high on the walls next to walrus and muskox heads: promises of more military might and money for the area; video bites of civilian engineers explaining last night’s revelry turned mayhem in the town, adding an expression of gratitude to Tulah for her mediation, and; an interview with the mayor who had just spoken to the regional toxicity officer, also arrived on Evgeny’s flight with lab reports and authority to remove six species from the local diet: three fish, a sea mammal and two game birds. Farm-raised, non-polluted facsimiles of these would be shipped in and sold at southern prices. A lot less hunting and fishing would be required to feed a family.
Dry goods overflowed into adjacent sections of the store: high piles of parkas, mitts and moccasins, sealskin pants and knitted beaver head gear. A pile of snow goggles carved from caribou horn spilled out of a cardboard box.
Taku, a tall kid, wandered over, smiling, expecting a sale. He was enthusiastic. He told Evgeny that Mr Ned had called every Northern Co-op and supplier around the Rim to get their tourist inventory shipped to Ulittaq. The Expansion, he said, would ‘ka-ching ka-ching’ be the biggest sales event the store had ever seen. Not just the store; every business in town. I mean bigger than the fiscal year to date! One weekend! Not even fucking summer!
Evg knew then that spending the day in town had been the right choice. I own nothing. Everyone is happy here. This would be his community, his settler home.
Taku showed him the locked cabinets in the gun section, now expropriated for carvings.
What are these? he asked, pointing to a shelf of misshapen and broken pieces.
Aha! You spotted the most valuable ones right off.
Can you show me that one?
Once they worked out which one, Taku opened the case and reached for a tall figure in a parka with what looked like a mass of hair flying sideways from the head. The shapes were amorphous.
Is this a god?
Well yeah, it’s Etta. Etta on The Island.
Taku looked puzzled. He quickly showed Evg a shiny carving of a figure, this one short and fat but with the same sideways hair. The fine detail clearly displayed a female presence.
That’s a raw Etta before the sea completes her. It’s too late to finish her. She’s been seen.
What do you mean?
Now Taku was eager to tell Evg how the carvers finished their work in the sea, and that pretty much everyone was a carver, every kid studied it in school. Like the missionary letters, he said.
Yeah, you know. Like the copy book. Everyone carves something. Stones, bones. With files and knives. Look, the unfinished one is quite a bit cheaper, but shiny new, eh? No one buys the finished ones, so council decided we could sell raw ones to tourists. Lower prices. Volume sales!
Sorry, how are they finished?
Oh yeah. Thrown into the ocean out by Muskox. On Summer Night the town goes and gets them. Whatever you find that night you get to keep or trade or sell to foreigners, whatever. They’re done.
So I could buy this finished one?
The pitch worked and Evgeny bought the finished Etta, Taku telling him what a good eye he had. He bought the raw one as well.
For the first few weeks Evgeny stayed at The Hotel (which he later purchased from the town for unpaid taxes) and wandered about. He looked at everything, walked on the land, and with his guides took rides on a variety of machines and dog sleds over land and ice. He felt people’s desires deeply and had a quick eye for gaps that the Departments of Defence and Welfare left in their lives. Within a few short years nearly every opportunity he saw turned into a job-creating enterprise providing many honest days work and paycheques for some people. His efforts helped a lot of them adjust to the rapid changes. In fact, wherever Evgeny went in the North, tiny economic miracles blossomed.
praying with Peter
This phenomenon did not go unnoticed. Shaman initiates from around the Arctic Rim were sent to Ulittaq for six-week apprenticeships with Evgeny in order to learn the value of money. At first the mentor job had bothered him. Carmen, Hamlet Councillor and Secretary, asked him how he could advise complete strangers on the exchange value of one thing for another. Didn’t you tell us at church that money was most sacred and should be quietly contemplated in the inner sanctum of each one’s heart? Yes, he’d said that, and he actually decided to quit at one point, but Peter, the oldest and most northerly shaman, heard about his misgivings and he himself travelled to Ulittaq after Christmas.
On the way through the shop to Evgeny’s B Shed office, Peter caught sight of the stove works and several projects on charge-neutral tables.
What’s that? He pointed at a shoe, wired like a head in a brain lab.
Oh, that’s a boot crammed with pneumatic studs, sensors and inertia triggers to prevent slipping on any surface. You can climb down your snow-covered stairs, take an ice-clad sidewalk to the corner store, step in and out of shops with ceramic floors, whatever. No more slips and falls for old folks in the city.
That doesn’t exist?
Does now. We’re just one trial away from commercializing, but try getting liability insurance against doddery old folks on icy stone steps!
Could I lay something on you? Peter asked.
I built this travel machine; a sort of boat sled buggy all in one. Boslebug. She’s a bit clunky but gets me where I want to go. Like your boot, over whatever: ice, water, tundra. I bet you could make it stronger and lighter. Stealth would be nice. And it should fit in a standard barrel to qualify for cargo discounts. I could give you a design credit and a manufacturing licence. Want it?
It was clear that Evg had struck a cord with Peter. I have a room for you at the Hotel, he said.
I’m at the CoHo, thanks. Tulah got to me first.
You know Tulah?
Fixed gaze . . .
She never . . .
Wide open grin . . .
Then Peter invited Evgeny Downtown to pray. Downtown was built in the fall when people followed bears onto the ice, far enough from Ulittaq to imagine it a refuge. When the ice pack broke from shore in spring, its homes were gradually abandoned until a day when it drifted too far away and all but dream stragglers returned to Ulittaq.
There was daily traffic to this winter camp from Ulittaq and Peter arranged two rides for them next day by taxi, a large qamutiik which the driver called Troop Carrier.
When they got there, Peter walked Evg through the winter village of hunter camps, meat caches, bear-warning wires, women and children making homes and playgrounds, working and companion dogs tied and untied, a place where the dead bodies of walrus, bear and seal, and once a nephew’s narwhal, were dragged, cut up and stored. Dogs licked blood in the ice, children chewed on strips of fat.
The east perimeter wire protected an assortment of small igloos. Some had crosses on them; some barely distinguishable mounds in the white crust.
I officiated some of those, Peter responded to Evgeny’s sweep of an arm. There was a line up before Christmas. People have always wandered onto the ice to die, but now we get the drugs at the clinic and freezing to death is actually not fun, quite painful, or a bear might catch you. Here you can die pain-free in a quiet little place you build yourself, farther from the noise of war but still convenient if your family wants to put you in the cemetery in spring. There are more this year. The high school poetry club built that row there and all but two died sniffing gasoline before the holidays. Normally, kids come out on weekends to get high and fuck. I’ll show you.
They picked up their packs at the taxi stand and headed north. Peter helped Evgeny cross the wire and they marched side by side to two large igloos joined by a five-metre tunnel and decorated with nipples. The tits were built for ceremonial get-togethers or parties, the two rooms facilitating all number of arrangements. Evg noticed there was no door into either one.
No doors, he said.
Ah, right. People are supposed to seal them when they leave. We won’t use them.
They built their own prayer igloo, a mons veneris complete with furrowed entrance an anatomical distance from the tits. Once inside, they cut a hole in the ice, drank tea, and, for the first time in his life, God appeared and spoke clearly to Evg, audibly, no mistake. And even though it wasn’t his God exactly, he felt adopted.
unnoticed in Klee
Cute Guy grew up unnoticed in Klee, a religiously insular village on the eastern edge of the prairies. In 1930, at seventeen, he sold the pigs he’d raised all summer, bought a Ford roadster, and drove to Hollywood, California.
He achieved some success in show business, first as a horse trainer, then trick riding, then with a camera crew shooting two B-movies for Carl Weinbrenner. He became fashionable and fluid in Hollywood society, serially sharing beds with several women and finally another shy boy whom he refused to penetrate, who left him and broke his heart. Only three years after arriving in California, Cute drove his car back to Klee and into a pond at the gravel pits, setting aside Hollywood’s best interests for him in order to live alone in a cabin hidden from view. It was well within a poplar bluff near the village, a dwelling and lab for him and God.
He believed that his church, whose community of farms and shops surrounded his lamp-black walls, was a decorative religious folly, claiming to be at odds with Hollywood’s worldliness, but best described as Hollywood’s inspiration and product.
Within a month of returning to Klee, Cute established his rule in the cabin and never left the bluff after, unless it was to march on a Sunday to the pulpit of his church where he listed those ways of the world that mirrored the sins of his congregation. Once subdued, he would be driven home from these excursions, and several times taken to the hospital in Winnipeg where he’d be sedated and checked into the psychiatric ward for observation. His social connections over the years were few and tenuous: a series of public health officials, women who prayed for him and brought him baked goods and clothing, a preacher who wanted to lay hands on him came once, an electronics technician often, and a series of grocery delivery boys and girls. Towards the end a Metis boy came almost every day to run errands, cook and clean. His primary guest had been the weekly visit of a long-suffering brother who took care of Cute’s official business with governments, church and family.
In sum, Cute’s emotional disturbance as a boy, though subdued by the nurture of religious and political conformity, matured into cultural disturbance while he was in California where the image-making machinery of 1930s Hollywood first excited and then repulsed him. His reclusive life of prayer and reverie in Klee organized itself around electronic equipment: a collection that began with a crystal radio receiver and ended with satellite dishes and antennas clustered on the roof of his cabin. At first he thought he would isolate the voice of God out of all the despicable noise his radios and TVs were spewing forth. By the time he mastered digital data capture from the heavens, his search for a singular message gave way to an analysis of radial inference; that is, input from every direction at once. His data-crunching algorithms were continuously splayed out in real time on monitors and speakers pointing at him from the walls and ceiling. He called his sessions radialactive opportunities for a medial message. He was ready, in position, as he waited for word.
Cute continued to fine-tune a materialist ascetic close to the borders of sanity until the age of ninety-two. It was a mad awareness and hyper-sensitive critique of media-mediated phenomenon that served him well right up until his ascension on a January afternoon.
Arguably, Cute himself was a child of only one parent: Ethos. His mom and dad represented the single male-dominant bisexual habit of the commune which bore him into the world. When pressed, however, Cute could explain his existence: a head had burst through the scummy quantum surface of the ethers below; that is, out of nothing that has any meaning, but something. Whether the ethers sent along the requisite organs or whether the head just thought them up, Cute was nevertheless produced, perhaps reproduced, certainly overproduced. There were those who claimed brother and sister status. These ethers were of no interest to Cute, of less interest even than quantum particles, but it was a comfort to know they were there. If there is a source, however ethereal, one can feel better about chaos; that is, deny it. With this explanation Cute became immortal: sort of died and went straight to heaven.
but, praying with Peter
Evgeny’s customary God, still the one and only Moses-Jesus-Mohammad one but branching out, the one whom he worshipped a little each week at church, was rich and famous and allied to most of the money in the world. God knew money every which way, flip-side up and down, and continued to impress capital. Bankers feel in their bones His importance for money – far better than the gold-oil-weapons standard by itself. Although Evgeny was disappointed that fat-assed capitalists knew God as a friend of cheap labour, he marvelled at how reliably they could follow His missionaries around the world to find it. God left capitalists and their capital pretty much alone, not wishing to show Himself or speak directly to anyone but the poor. The rich man finds Him in his heart anyway; a highlighted bible marked with numbers and arrows decorates his destiny on the night table.
But, praying with Peter, God met him in drag. Evg felt blessed, de rigueur, a touch of that Toronto after-hours sex chill back in the heady days of tax-fuelled cinema. She wore metallic clothes, black anodized tights and a copper-green bra stitched in gold. Her hair was a floating mass of bright salmon roe washed by ocean currents. Evg could only think Bay Street trans, but Peter guessed retro-Berlin, say 1910, and a sweet nod of recognition passed between God and him. Her cigarette breath and bad teeth put Evgeny at ease. She squeezed his leg and whispered, I want in. The slavery be damned. Finance my people, she said. She took him over the ocean: I give you the whole shore. Go all ’round the Rim and make consumers. She took him down to her abode. How could you hurt us more than you already have, you kind generous man? she cooed. That’s true, I will, he promised. Scissor-legged and arm-locked they twisted and bumped along the ceilings of her lair.
Peter shook him.
My god, I ejaculated, Evgeny said when he’d recovered his senses.
Well yeah. I’m such a sucker for God and sex.
What do you mean?
It gets ground into God, or some cosmic thing, Evgeny said.
Well, now you’ve fucked God, eh? Or at least that Sedna. Peter was amused.
While they packed up their stuff inside the vagina, Peter wondered aloud whether he and Evgeny should try a landing at Etta’s.
Where? asked Evg, trying to recover his head by focussing on his hollow stomach. Then, following Peter, Evgeny crawled out of the vagina and there they stood in silence, blinking in half a sun sliding on ice, fraternal twins of a hand-made mom.
Etta’s island is far, a long trip, Peter said. You’ve heard of Etta, surely?
Yes, I have two carvings. One polished and one . . . complete, worn down by the sea. What’s that about?
Ah! Keep that finished one safe until we go. Etta might relax if she sees you with it.
She has an island?
She does. Tropical. Hot springs and tundra. Banana and coconut trees, a pride of lions, a monkey.
Way south . . .
No, north of here. And east.
Never could land. It’s a bit tricky.
But we could go.
Sure. With our new device!
On the six-dog express to town, Peter outlined what he knew. Going only by offshore sightings, having floated by several times without daring to disembark due to a siren pull he feared, Peter thought of Etta’s island of tropical tundra as little more than a piece of land that had meandered over a tectonic hole, a hotspot, a lid on a pot of core lava. The land was formed, Peter explained, by a spherical plateau in the low-lying Hellenic Spit off the northern reaches of the Oolof Shelf which had risen late from its ice-age subniviation, only eight hundred to a thousand years ago. The highest elevations were already fifteen metres above sea level, an accelerated bounce-back compared to Ulittaq, he said. Ulittaq generally rises, but every fifty years it sinks a few centimetres. A little alarming. Anyway, over at Etta’s, sufficient heat radiates up through the rock and soil to melt the permafrost and produce a shallow-dome climate which, for a meter or two above the surface, can be described as tropical when it isn’t blown away. The somewhat reliable warm weather, along with deep and peaty soil, supports whatever life the ocean currents and jet streams throw at it. Equatorial life forms accumulated, and for a few hundred years at least, including the arrival of Etta’s cargo and entourage, species from far flung climes, flora and fauna that could adapt to the island’s low ceiling and limited expanse, proliferated on a footprint about the size of Cape Wallow.
Animals adapt quickly. The Rhesus monkey, for instance (there was ever only one), grew a long shaggy coat in winter, even a downy face, but totally unexpected was a colour change in its fur from grey-brown to a slightly rouged white, a pale pink, indicating an ancestry of snow dwellers, white camouflage triggered by long nights.
This animal, which Etta loves almost as much as the tiger cubs, Deckie and Anj, has no name. It’s referred to as the ghost and hangs out in the topmost branches. During long winter nights it’s the only animal apart from sedentary terns that shines in a moonlit sky.
Plants have a harder time, but those with bonsai ability are doing okay. Due to high winds off the ice, which for eight or nine months blow snow across the island every few days, plants get packed around their stems and lower foliage, often for hours at a time before the drifts melt into their warm roots, soaking the debris of branches and leaves. Plants programmed for height can manage a canopy at two to three metres in the lee of large rocks, and many species of palm hug the south side of sand dunes along a peninsula that juts east like a disapproving finger. Coconuts and bananas are easy to harvest without ladders. But apart from those relatively tall ones, hundreds of plant species keep low to the ground where they tangle over and under each other, swathing their simmering tundra home.
While Peter’s exposé flew with the dogs into the wind, Evg produced The Island, formulated his internet search, his calls. He knew Wayne at antiarc.ca could be trusted. Peter went silent on the subject of Etta herself. He wanted to talk about these dogs, broken patterns: three mostly white, two mostly black, one all grey; all hungry for home. When he used dogs, Peter only ever travelled with one, his blue-eyed Iji. Passengers and dogs fell silent, claws and runners ticked on the frozen track and Evg wondered whether that finger of yellow sun was sinking or rising.
that after-hours sex chill
Evgeny asked and she said yes. Three others sitting with them in the curved corner booth, waiting for the cue, slid out and let them disappear into the night. Carmen came quickly and often, a surprise to Evgeny.
Why did you bring me here? This is a dump, she said, looking for a sock, getting ready to leave.
You can do better, I know.
Not what I meant.
How much do I owe you?
Also not what I meant. Where are we?
My mother’s house. I camp in the basement.
Upstairs must be immaculate. Does it smell up there?
No. I mean yes . . .
You wanted Imogene I’m guessing.
You know what Evg? I love Imogene. I love hanging out in this cinematic world you have going on. I get it; you need her to play me. But as consultant hooker, I must tell you: she’ll be redeemed. Not me.
She’s not playing you. Aw shit, Carmen. Is the redemption thing so tacky?
No, no. You do what you have to. Someone else’s story.
But without you we won’t get it right.
Happy to help. I’ve never seen so much money.
You came like gangbusters.
It’s rare and special, Evg. You made a little refuge for me here in the city; even here in this fucking basement, she added. But wash those sheets for christ’s sake. Five months in an igloo was never this rank.
Donnie and Ray
So, goodness followed Evgeny all the way to Ulittaq, positioned him strategically between military and people . . . Where I prosper, he insisted at church, by the mercy of God; of one or another. Now, therefore, I, Evgeny, rededicate my entrepreneurial talent to meeting the demands of this peculiar god . . . he forgets her name momentarily. Sedna. The one who touched him and spoke directly to him, and with whom he experienced his first orgasm in the ocean, something he’d dreamed of. Peter was impressed by the underwater aspect.
Shaman novices were quick to tap Evgeny’s power to generate accounts receivable: some made horrible mistakes with the funds hard-won from government ministries; others found brilliant ways to get the money into people’s hands, to bring them joy while disguising it as ruinous frivolity.
One of Evgeny’s web students, Donnie’s brother Ray, commands a small band of saboteurs bent on humiliating the occupation. He trains and deploys bomb and IT technicians, and sharp shooters. Commander Blakkap saw his potential early. Alerted by the base chaplain to this kid’s fascination with the local magic and blowing things up, he ordered the Reverend Corporal to offer Ray a scholarship to radical rehab, a program in Winnipeg that was successfully recruiting fired-up youth from synagogues and mosques into military bootcamps.
Tell him this gig is on Larry. Should work for that pagan, the commander figured.
It had been a risk, but Ray did well in a broad range of ballistic and intelligence courses and returned to Ulittaq a better terrorist, exactly the poster boy the commander needed at the time. International threats were at a low ebb and he only got to scramble the 35s and intercept the odd Russian bomber or Norwegian reconnaissance flight anymore, mimicry of days gone by. No, jihad was where the career-makers were making it.
Ray just got in, Donnie shouted while rolling up to Evg’s porch. He missed the stairs, hit the wall. Arrived on the Herc! he said, slamming the door.
Use brakes, dammit! Evg had counselled Donnie about this more than once. Ray’s flying with them? That I can’t believe!
He got clearance under guard to attend a week of fuel school. He reports that recombinations of turbocharged aeration and volatile combustibles are key to dragster performance.
Ray in school?
He’s an A student.
You sure he arrived on the Herc? More likely on today’s sched, eh?
Yeah yeah, with the Herc squad. And he got you a studio, Evg. Ran across it at the school and got it for you. Says now he knows the bigger something is, the easier it is to steal.
Evg got quite excited. He immediately thought he’d work an angle or two with Ray, and managed to get him on the phone.
I didn’t do much, Ray said. I started asking about stuff I like and suddenly I’m dealing. I didn’t know the price of anything but didn’t have to. Was like I had a credit card stuck to my forehead. A delivery guy will drop the stuff at your shop. Sorry it was only a community college but there’re cameras, computers, sound equipment; a lot of cables, two consoles, a small library.
Wow. How does this work? Evgeny fished, and Ray explained. Commander Larry red-coded me and I thought, okay, maybe I could track him. Fat chance. We red codes get trinkets; they get whatever they want and no paperwork. Just fill the fucking ship. The studio’s two crates.
Ray was happy for the thank you and hung up. It turned out that he had one particularly embarrassing transaction to stick on the commander before he got out of there, which he did later, which was water off a duck’s back as far as the commander was concerned. By now Ray and Larry were each others favourites, enemies close-kept.
Evg can only nod his head when Donnie brings news of his brother’s movements. He’s jealous. Ray is embedded in the consciousness of the entire town and tweets on his tag are sprouting among fighters everywhere.
Ray’s gotta ride.
Ray bides his time.
Ray is a cool killer.
The networks noticed the nonaligned marketability of Ray’s killing cool. His image shows up in their freedom fighter and terrorist clips alike.
Evg knew that he himself was too wired for kindness to be a fighter. His own gift was actually larger and meaner, his abilities more like those of a director of monetary policy at a governing bank who can spend the imagined money. When he dug deeper into his dreams, all he wanted was to turn his financial skill to cinema. Cinema for high culture, polyvalent video for low, these were the weapons he longed to wield against the enemies of earth and sky. But the studio he needed was, practically speaking, a few years off, barring some magic stroke. He tried to reconnect with his wet God. Why had he not told her about the studio, asked for it? She might have complied. But although he felt her presence often, she never spoke to him again. He attempted another underwater orgasm in the pool at Tulah’s hotel where she took him for a midnight dip. She watched him masterbate but nothing worked until she switched her banter from clinical to erotic: heat your balls with your other hand, she advised; then swam up and ground him from behind. Her warmth went through him and left his limp dick waving away a pathetic strand of semen. Who were you thinking of, Evg? He wouldn’t say. C’mon. But he could not admit to her his inflated fetish for the water mammal. So, although he shook and trembled in the presence of God and Her exotic variations, feeling their anger from time to time, Evgeny settled for the drier cruelties allowed a middle-class businessman and supplemented his desire for more grandiose wickedness with the prestigious job of world-liaison officer at church.
Evg’s church met in the heated part of the arena, a service-arcade-spectator area with large Plexiglas windows overlooking the rink. Of all the potentially sacred architecture in town, this massive corrugated steel structure suits us best, Evgeny explained to visitors. Both the electronics installed in it, and the earth and wind outside, produce an ambiance that nurtures religious notions among the parishioners, he told them. Ingira liked the cavernous silence of the rink where she played the organ prelude and watched her daughter Sally skate an interpretation. Ice-danced organ was the only constant feature of this congregation’s rite week after week, but they had come to expect tectonic sound, too, once a month or so. Otherwise the spirit blew where it wished.
Evg wasn’t surprised when, only months after his move to Ulittaq, the church became known around town as Evgeny’s Church. He was conscious of the mistake, understood it (his was the glamour job), and the first few times he’d heard the phrase he carefully explained communal authority: that church power was only ever exercised by one in the context of voluntary submission to communally recognized offices defined by the particular gifts given each member of the body.
The congregation, nine souls if you counted Bird, shared mutually the tasks of observing the world and talking about it at meetings. But Evgeny, doing his best to reflect the groans, nods and votes of his bros’nn’sisses, was better at it, or more articulate, or pushy, and even during the course of his pre-membership trials had found himself managing the church’s outreach; that is, coordinating its fundraising efforts. The role translated into power of course because fundraising is the one activity that always works to draw a congregation together for worship.
No, the object of worship is not necessarily money, Evg had insisted in his testimony before the assembly prior to his induction. True, money is okay to worship, because it measures the success of everything and marks progress, but what’s more likely is that fundraising will point to something other than money, something elusive, maybe God. The person who articulates this transcendent purpose will likely become an actual object of devotion.
You want us to worship you, Carmen interjected.
Sort of, not exactly. I thought that Christians, if anyone, understood this transference, this movement in our guts called longing that we don’t know what to do with until we fling ourselves at people who either help or hinder us and finally fling us on our way to God. If we’re lucky.
More likely we’ll fling our money at you preachers. Once you have it all you might fling us to God. I understand the transfer of money.
Precisely! blurted Evg. He knew Carmen, had known her in Toronto. He sensed camaraderie in her hostility. It’s a messy business, but there’s a reason. God’s been very slow to put His’nn’Her trust in money, but She’nn’He’s not so down on money now. God’s trying to make money into His’nn’Her primary means of revelation, to give it most-favoured-path to Him’nn’Herself status. Once God gets the hang of it, and folks are educated to the concept, our prayers and God’s goodness will flow up and down the cable as quick and easy as the money we exchange.
Then, people who are good with money, like you, Evg, will always get in the middle and steal the show.
That’s because what we worship when we give money to a cause are the feelings of approval we get from mediating personae. I’m not afraid of this; I’m happy to be that persona on occasion, temporarily, because I know how to transfer a believer’s devotion through me to God.
No one this cocky could be denied entrance into the body of Christ. Clearly Evgeny had the fundamental trading skills needed by every successful fundamentalism. So Evgeny’s membership had been accepted unanimously, pending only one protest which was dropped the following Sunday. Within weeks he’d reached his current level of administrative authority among the parishioners.
The special gift Evgeny brought to his task was speed. Anyone who goes to church soon learns to negotiate its markets – money for love, brimstone for fear, fire for bellies – but when calculating the exchange rate of these commodities, few could horse trade with Evgeny. Shaman Peter certainly: he’d get your God for nothing. The Commander? Maybe: he’ll take a puff of smoke and deal you eternal life.
Carl arrived an hour early to turn on the heat, the first act of worship. While the place warmed up, he lit a kerosene heater, set it under his chair, and prayed there among the neatly spaced tables, each studded with the antlers of upturned chairs. The beer, vomit and sweat embedded in the thawing floor scented the drifting air; arena aroma, enhanced this morning by the Municipal Employees Annual Appreciation Night’s parting gestures not five hours before. Who are these people always found on the edges of revelry who clean up adequately after and who can be counted on to jump start the life of a community the next morning? Carl knew he was one of these saints: who else could have made it to church this early he wondered amidst his prayers of gratitude to God for his gift and commission.
When he heard children’s voices and the creak of frozen porch boards under their boots, Carl got up, walked over to the breaker box and threw on a series of switches. The arena’s entire spectator hall and service section lit up, several slow-starting tubes blinked on sequentially along the ceiling, the Coke cooler behind the snack counter clicked on and buzzed its mantra, and the arcade games ranged along the wall between the men’s and women’s began to wink and beckon, demonstrating the intelligence within their chips. The commander’s simulators, the three he’d donated – a Formula-1 car, a motocross bike and an F-18 fighter – formed an entertainment showpiece in the centre of the floor. As more kids arrived they took up positions at the controls. They sang with the dazzling machines, their eyes dry with light, their assault cool and calculating, their shrieks of delight and agony marbling the wall of sound. The commander, asking after his machines, remarked upon the skills accumulating in the eight-year-old population of Ulittaq; that they already matched those of a space station crew. He was proud of them. Weren’t these the kids whose grandfathers had been the first to get their hands on snowmobiles, who’d taken them apart and put them back together again within hours of taking delivery, who could survive on the ice for weeks without spare parts? These kids would soon be way ahead of their electro-mechanistic toys. When enough children had arrived to warrant a Sunday school class, Carl gathered them into the billiard room, so called because it contained a snooker table among its collection of arena debris: boxes of reeking hockey equipment in one corner and barrels overflowing with mitts and scarves in another.
Evgeny arrived early and wondered why Carl had trooped the kids into the billiard room, but, poking his head in he heard the last part of the story of Senator Sill. Mr. Sill had died gloriously in the midst of his struggle to protect youth. The kids bounced a red billiard ball off the cushions trying to hurt each others fingers while Carl taught them from the Sunday school material sent by the president’s Edification and Prayer Taskforce On Children.
Listening at the door, Evg sensed that a connection was about to be made between the late senator’s description of the effects of frivolous games on young minds and a denunciation of billiards. He stepped into the room and asked to speak. Carl called for attention and handed Evgeny a copy of that week’s page of EPTOC materials which he’d distributed to the kids.
It’s not very good material, he said.
While the ball came to a standstill, Evg silently read the text and quickly saw, as he suspected, that its author intended to abolish pool. By a strange twist in logic, the writer thought that its abolition now, a battle that evangelical fundamentalists lost years ago, would kick the foundation out from under electronic gaming in general, thus closing the nation’s child-rearing video arcades (which did happen) and their adult counterpart, casinos.
Yes, said Evg, this is awful material, but I’ll tell you something. Billiards is indeed wrong. The senator is right to abolish it and I’m glad he’s dead, the old fart. Hand me two balls and I’ll show the kids something.
Evg demonstrated action equals reaction: with his first shot the cue ball struck a red ball directly, stopped, and everyone could see that the red ball rolled almost as far as the cue ball would have without the obstruction. For the sake of getting this over with everyone agreed that all the energy had transferred, that none had been lost, that they had observed a clear example of a cause and its effect right in front of their eyes.
This, Evg said, to set up his argument for maximum rhetorical effect, is bullshit. Two balls, one hits the other, nothing’s lost, all is well. Is this what you believe?
No, not that, a child responded.
Well, it works crudely in some situations, Carl countered.
Exactly, it works crudely in almost every situation. But that’s to say it doesn’t work at all, certainly not in our hearts. Where was Newton when God decided to live at the bottom of the sea? Nowhere. That’s obvious. What isn’t obvious is the way mechanistic models of nature kill large parts of our souls and infect them with lust for simple solutions, easy explanations, consistencies, one-to-ones. A game of pool is such an illusion: muscle and eye coordination up against the inscrutable laws of physics. If only I had the skill, we say, if only I could feel the cue in my fingers, across my knuckles, and impart the precise forces and angles, if only, if only . . . . We gamble our bodies against fixed equations. This is very wrong.
Pin-ball is a slight improvement given the solenoids in the bumpers. A ball heads up the chute at the speed we give it with the catapult, our eyes follow it along its parabolic arch, our minds choose a slot for it and record its selection, and in our hearts we recognize its fall into the field of hazards and opportunities as a foregone conclusion. Then, bam bam bam bam bam, quick as rapid-fire, repulsed by its touch, the posts drive the ball from them. The eye cannot follow it for speed, the mind lights up with bonuses and free games, the calculating heart melts. A simple electro-magnetic intrusion into the billiard universe and all hell breaks loose.
Still, Evgeny droned, pin-ball is inexorably tied to a set of Newtonian symbols. What I’m really telling you is that, as long as we have games that persist in misrepresenting the cosmos, high-end technology is our best alternative. I suggest you play machines that look easy, ones that cheat, ones that you always lose to. Watch out for games that try to emulate fuzziness with probability or random formulas, like formulas for chaos. These are no improvement on billiards. Worse, they enlarge the pockets and make you think you’ve improved your shot. Finally, we need games that direct the ducks with fusion energy. Then when we shoot them we’ll know we are children of God for sure, eh kids?
For now, kids, Evgeny pattered, avoid billiards as the good senator says; play Lick Daggers, She’ll Freak and Dilemma Horns instead. Just for now. When the electronics improve we’ll simulate something more interesting. Like a caribou farm, or a cubic millimetre of life on the ocean floor.
Evg finished his speech and Carl thanked him, waving the rushing children out of the room. The arcade was swarmed, the attention-grabbing strategy of each machine falling back into a white blend of light and noise pinked by the voices of children, happy and unperturbed. Evg saw them swept by wave upon wave of microprocessors until they’d be tossed onto the shores of their new world, a boulder field of soapstone, rocks rounded by the jostle of binary opposition. There they’d take logic from the wide data sea and design soft warm cities.
Four more adults dragged in, bleary-eyed and hung over, cross-zippered and lop-buttoned, determined to worship. Tulah, gone without sleep altogether, still remembered to bring the forty-cup thermos of coffee. Municipal Night was no excuse to miss church for Tulah. Church was the morning after, the benediction.
Three round cafe tables were pushed into a row near the windows. Carl set up his laptop at one end, with a monitor facing him at the other, running the video cable across the table tops. He booted up, logged in and loaded the program for church, tapping out answers to a series of prompts for information:
Combined wheat and chaff: yes
New service: yes
Minister in charge: Carl
Number of adults present: 6
Attendance at Sunday school: 8
Age range – youngest: 4
Age range – oldest: 11
Lesson: pray for our leaders
That done, the screen filled with the minutes of last Sunday’s service, several lines under Unfinished Business highlighted. Carl joined the others who’d gathered at the windows to watch the rink. They greeted each other with nods and pinched lips, keeping a sleepy silence in anticipation of the invocation. Arcade games were off limits during the opening prayer and dance, so kids ran around silently. Out in the rink area Ingira was crouched in the penalty box helping her daughter get ready. Two boys had their skates with them, too, and were lacing up beside Sally on the crowded bench. Ingira squeezed her fingers around all the skates, holding the laces tight as Sally and the boys pulled and tied them. Then she helped Sally out of her parka and climbed the steps to the organ loft.
As church-goers watched at the windows, the first strains of the town’s favourite hockey fight song burst the arena’s cavernous silence. Flinging open the door, Sally leapt onto the ice and fell flat on her face. But she was up in a flash, charging with more vigour than usual into her first jump. She landed a toe loop, a double axel, leapt a barrel that the boys dragged onto the ice, slid on her ass with tremendous speed and then, arching her back and digging in her heels, she salmon-flipped onto her feet, a crouching glide, from which, with little room to spare, she thrust her body into the air, turned a backward somersault and landed on her feet up against the boards below the gallery. Parishioners wiped the condensation off the glass with their sleeves and several dabbed their eyes.
The second movement began with an excerpt of Stravinsky’s Adoration of the Earth, exactly suited to Sally’s work: the smooth adult power of her thighs, her upper-body jitters, and her angular, gasp-inducing transitions between phrases. Her black eyes tore at the deranged rhythm.
Carl was moved to tears by this segment. Evg prayed hard and deep. His heart twitched as he watched Sally’s wounded flight over the ice and he too felt free to sob in concert with the wheezing pipes. It was a moment of grace, a twinge in the galactic muscle, contracting force fields between stars, a pulse from the inert core of the earth which confused fish, or made them nervous. Birds couldn’t flap for a second and in their eyes Evgeny saw a desperate hunt for updrafts. Old people’s painful teeth fell from their gums and their mouths felt fresh and clean. They wandered the halls of institutions smiling and rattling teeth in hollow fists. This could never be filmed, Evgeny sighed. The rapture will not be televised.
Sally skated the third movement to a single note held by her mother’s thumb. The note was driven through the turbulent discs and diodes of the machine, modulated by the needs of its ancient motor. The organ had only been donated or ever maintained for a quantity of sound. The power transformer had deteriorated to the point where volume crescendoed and diminished in long ten-second waves. In the troughs the voice of the arena itself often moaned or rattled or whistled to fill the space but there was no wind to play on the building today and Sally had only the wavering note to choreograph. This was her improv part and she flew across the ice, dipping and turning, flinging her arms around and shearing off sprays of frost. After a minute her feet stopped and gliding at top speed she gathered her body for a final leap. Ingira switched thumbs, the organ coughed an eighth note and moaned on. Evgeny whispered amen, amen, amen. Sally’s body collapsed into a ball and drifted up against the boards at the far end of the rink.
Then all whispered amen together and bowed in silence. Ingira feathered the note down to nothing. Not a sound. The boys sat on the ice, swept Sally’s snow together with their mittens, absorbed in space. A thin crackle like wood burning far away began somewhere in the ice and moved to the walls, circled the rink twice; ice and steel adjusted to a new shape in the earth. With that the prayer ended and Sally, duty done, skated over to the boys and made them into a locomotive to push.
Carl threw the arcade switches back on and kids dashed to control panels; picked up their screeching interlocution with the machines.
Georg, who just arrived, took his time joining the adults at the tables, walking about in fits and starts with a perplexed look of spiritual warfare on his face. Whenever Georg made an appearance at church, his presence revived the regret that no way had yet been found to attract teens to church. It was a shame because everyone had long agreed that Georg, who could organize activities and bellow instructions above any din, would make an exceptional youth pastor. Georg pulled a chair up beside the monitor and faced the congregation.
Bros’nn’sisses, he hollered, today I have sumpmm to confess and sumpmm to say. I spend half my life here coachnn, playnn, organiznn an raisnn hell for hockey so that’s why I don’t come here much for church. That’s all for confessinn. Now I’m tellinn you I’ll do it. I’ll organize a teenn tournament of death-defynn activities for next Sunday nn see how it goes. What, am I inn or not he demanded and glared along the video cable towards Evgeny sitting nearest the keyboard.
Carl said, wonnerful. Wonderful. This is wonderful news! It’ll be our first item of new business.
Old business, Evgeny interjected, staring Georg down, preventing him from stomping off. It’s old business; put it at the top of the agenda. OK with everyone?
Carl said fine, and no one objected audibly, so Evg typed Teen Tournament – Georg into the number one spot, pushed the keyboard towards Carl and walked over to the snack counter where he dabbed his phone. Donnie’s phone rang once and despite double call-waiting patched him to voice mail. Evg left a message for Donnie to call him, or better, get to church ASAP.
Carl asked for volume to overwhelm the arcade din and scrolled the congregation through the choral recitation of opening prayers, automatically selected by date from Prayers for the World-Weary DB#3. As the children’s machines surged and fingers flashed and their eyes peered into fierce diode fires, the adults leaned towards their monitor and roared through worries about the war, concerns for each other’s health, requests for more money, and ended with that Sunday’s variation of the final refrain:
God grant me the serenity to refuse the things I cannot accept,
The courage to change the things I can’t resist,
And the wisdom to know difference,
Carl put the meeting agenda on the screen and opened the floor to edits.
Georg asked for Teen Tournament to be changed to TT to signify two T-words that he could think up later. Maybe Tired’nn’True, or Tough’nn’Tender, or sumpmm. Ann we’re gonna have that flinch test of the fucknn Bird for sure.
Those were all the changes.
Evg tried Donnie again. Busy.
The old business went fast: Georg was authorized to host a TT Sunday for ages nine to seventeen the following week; the church’s warrants and shares in Crackling Fires, Inc. were ordered to be sold on Monday . . . .
Evgeny’s phone rang.
Eugene. Larry here. You at church?
Good. Listen. I started a tabloid; weekly news, views, gossip. Calling it The Turning Tale. Would that church of yours like a spot in the entertainment section every week for a year, say?
What’s the deal?
You mean price? Ten bucks a week for you, Eu. Free to cancel within one month, money back.
Will you guarantee results? I might pay ten for every week we get six or more of your people here.
How about fifty percent of the plate? I’ll guarantee troops if you pass the plate accompanied by one of those christ-on-the-cross numbers, a heart thumper or a weeper. You know the biz, Euge. Fifty percent?
I’ll ask the congregation. Hold?
Evgeny muted the phone and described the offer. The church had already banned the posting of notices on the base, had never yet passed a plate during a Sunday service, and were in no mood to enter into a wacky deal with the Commander. Tulah cast a lone yes vote, Evgeny abstained, and the measure failed.
Carmen added: But let’s tell the Commander that military personnel won’t be killed if they show up here.
Evg unmuted his phone but the Commander had hung up. Not unlike him. I’ll call him this afternoon.
Doann bother. He’ll be here soonn enough, menn in battle gear, guns blazinn.
This was today’s first prophesy and everyone felt the buzz. When, Georg? How many? Pretext? The questions flew at him but they bounced off Georg’s bewildered face and the moment fizzled.
The old business raised neither hell nor hackles this Sunday morning; from the Bird, not a flutter.
Ongoing business included the appointment of Carl to the position of pastor for another week; an agreement to look for a second monitor, or a larger one, because this one was difficult to read three tables away; and three reports. Carmen reported the total client donations to the Orphan Fund; Martha, the take at Wednesday Night Bingo; and, on behalf of The Boards Logo Committee Evg reported new responses to the corporate ad campaign.
The boards surrounding the ice were hockey regulation height and painted a glossy white. Evgeny, watching television six weeks before while the church was having budget meetings, decided that Ulittaq should have world-class corporate logos on its boards like every rink on TV. He secured visual rights to the rink board space from the town (traded for repairs and paint) and turned the idea into the church’s tenth concurrent fund raising effort. A committee was struck to watch all the games on TV for a week: NHL playoffs and international tournaments. They caught eleven different arenas, missing only the Finnish junior final in Kokkola due to an error in the satellite guide, and had enough suggestions to put together a truly world-class display. The corporations had been solicited by email and today Evg began his report with a prediction that by the start of next season the rink would be loud and brilliant with images of world trade and the church would have a pot of money. He couldn’t help himself and added, enough to begin construction of the film studio.
That project, the one that most excited Evgeny about church, was a volatile topic. It cut through Carmen’s gloom. Her head lifted off her arms and she cleared her throat.
Can we just put a stop to these imperialist fantasies, she said sadly.
You’re a fucking wet blanket, Evgeny replied.
He sounded ready for her but there was no response, no spontaneity. Bird wasn’t interested? Evg, however, felt a clean anger towards this faction, which it was, which Carmen occasionally organized against him purely to subvert his power.
Yes, no, Evgeny levelled. I want to encourage this and any faction that’s against me. I don’t agree that imperialist is the right word here – I rather resent that one – but I certainly want my ideas tested and critiqued, especially by my dearest bros’nn’sisses, and what we do with the money will definitely be a communal choice if I have anything to do with it. And I’m not saying this to co-opt your position either, but out of respect for the fair distribution of power and decision-making authority among ourselves. He hoped to create a moment of discomfort, a sticky juncture into which the Bird, if in a pissy mood, could fly. Somebody, especially Carmen, should have said bullshit, but no one did.
Evgeny tried to feel shame and wondered whether, unconsciously, he wasn’t getting ready to bring the studio back into his personal sphere of enterprises. But it had languished there for lack of funds ever since he’d arrived in Ulittaq. Nope. Church and cinema, milk and honey. Evgeny could no longer extract one from the other. When a boy, a church basement was the first place he’d watched a film and intuited then that when the end times come, Christ’s body will thrive on film. He really didn’t want to separate the two, nor give up this fight. He went on with his report.
We have new responses from Domino’s Pizza, Piz Buin, Metaxa, Triumph International Sportswear, and Citizen Watches, he chanted. Metaxa sent their graphics and terms for a contract in which they called the enterprise a charity. Evg clicked open the email string to their draft agreement and sang: We want to proudly say that we have an ad on the world’s most northerly rink boards.
Still nothing. Carl hit a few keys lightly and the screen reconfigured before the unblinking parishioners. Two items of new business were listed.
The first was Tulah’s initiative. She wanted the church to provide a community service to counteract the debilitating effects of Carnival, a morning-after opportunity to celebrate shame. She had discovered a way to treat her clients, hurting or confused after a night of debauchery at the CoHo, and more and more of them were asking for this service on a regular basis. She’d converted the supply room next to reception into a quiet meditation-mediation space. Now she wouldn’t mind sharing her knowledge with a few other sensitive people; for instance, her bros’nn’sisses in Christ, who might help her design a collective version of the practice in which the entire community could participate.
Carmen glowered, head on her arms.
Evg was sympathetic; wanted to try some of it right now. Maybe this was the problem, hangovers all around, undealtwith sin.
But interest died and Carl loaded the program to strike a committee.
Carmen woke up. Sure, sure. Strike a goddamn committee. Just put me on it. I don’t want to see this thing turn into just another guilt trip. I want pure porn: orgasms, money, extortion. Guilt with hardware. Public thumb-screwing, stocks, penis-hammering . . . whatever will pay.
Oh but you have it wrong, Carmen, Tulah whispered.
Of course I have it wrong! Isn’t this wickedness we’re talking here?
Yes, I guess. But can’t we show some kindness? We all consent to do the wrong thing knowing we’ll be messed up by it or hurt. Shouldn’t we try to help each other recover as fast as possible?
What kind of sweet orgy of penitence do you have in mind, Carmen shouted. It wasn’t a question.
Well, I expect to be wrong but I’ll try to be right. How about issuing a free kit to everyone so they’ll have good advice and condoms and clean needles during the festivities, and, for when they wake up and discover what happened, so they don’t panic, include the hot-line phone numbers: drug-abuse, unprotected-sex, suicide, rape, frost-bite. Or the church might volunteer a mobile first-responder team. A lot of things can be done to undo the damage. How about a special Carnival insurance fund to rebuild a house when one gets trashed or burned down, for instance?
How about a revenge squad?
Carl interrupted. Things are heating up nicely.
No one spoke for a minute.
Carl! Don’t summarize! Don’t always wrap and decorate everything we say when you’re the pastor. Damn!
Sorry. I know, sorry. You’re right, there was a flutter. I quenched the Bird. Maybe we should postpone the Carnival debilitation debate for now, since Carnival is a ways away anyway, and maybe we’ll all have more ideas to share when we’ve dealt with the private slash collective guilt question a little on our own for awhile first anyway. Sorry.
Again, nothing for a minute. Then Carl plunged into the one item of new business that remained on the screen. I understand the SCAM committee has a pressing decision to make. Evgeny? Can you introduce it?
At that moment a crash was heard against the arena and Evg said, That’ll be Donnie. I should let him describe the situation.
Unzipping his snowmobile suit, Donnie skidded up to the tables and laid out two rifles, a field radio, and unstrapped a belt of grenades from his body.
No time, he said. They’ve targeted the arena. Three units have orders. There’s code chatter on the O bands and choppers are running. Get ready to defend this place!
Donnie, guns in church? Don’t panic, Donnie. The Commander just called. Several parishioners admonished Donnie but couldn’t defuse him. His radio crackled to life: L-fourteen L-fifteen I-eighteen . . . two too many . . . bingo at seven . . .
Holy shit! That’s my source. It’s a fucking air strike. Seven minutes past two! What Time is it! Holy shit, four minutes!
Phones began ringing: What! Donnie barked out orders to his pre-comitatus posse on two phones while Evg spoke to the Commander.
The arena’s under attack, Eu. Longstanding orders but my duty sergeant didn’t show up this morning to remind me. I thought I had the morning to houseclean! Then the radios light up and oh my shit it’s Beautiful Blue day. Notice was duly published in last week’s Turning Tale. You have, let’s see, three and ten, that’s three minutes to clear the area. Eugene, you and everyone in your company are ordered out. You’re lucky I caught up with this on time.
You fucking bastard! Evgeny raged. Then to his congregation: Out. Out. Everyone out! To the Commander: An air strike? Call it off, damn it. We’ve got kids all over the place, out on the ice!
Can’t call it now, Euge. Its an aerial recognition thing, laser-guided poppers from two 35s at two-two thou. Can you imagine? Very expensive to do this up here and I wouldn’t know how to give them another target now. But look, these are dummies – damn smart dummies – so don’t worry too much. Get everyone off the ice. I’m pretty sure they’re going for the rink. Yeah, my boy is nodding. Yeah, he says one of the gunners asked where the hockey rink was situated in the building. He and his buddy have bets on closest-to-the-face-off circle. Can you imagine accuracy like that?
Evgeny screamed more instructions. They’re not leaving! he shouted into the phone. No one’s leaving! You can’t strike innocent people going to church Blakkap. Larry!
Hey, these aren’t really bombs, Eu. There’s a bit of cobalt, phosphor, whatever shit in ’em so we can tell exactly where and when they trigger in different situations. They splash a bit of fuel and burn for a minute. That’s it. I suggest everyone duck under a parka and throw it off em if it catches fire. You’ll be okay if you’re not actually hit. Out.
Sally and the boys were in the service area when the bombs landed. One exploded at the roofline over the rink and started small green fires in the rafters and down one wall. The other hit the centre line, its pink-flaming fuel spreading evenly over the ice. The congregation watched at the windows, light dancing on their clothes, their eyes in flames, toxins choking their lungs.
When the fires were out, Carl was able to exhaust the hall and gather the adults around the tables. Soldiers had entered the rink through holes blowtorched in the arena walls and the kids rushed around among them examining colours in refrozen spots and picking up bits of debris for them. After the soldiers left they kids discovered a sweet taste in the ice and for awhile they licked it.
Time for the closing prayer video, announced Carl.
Martha nudged Tulah and whispered a request. In turn Tulah asked whether Martha could show the congregation her latest trick. Of course she could.
Watch the coin closely, Martha said.
Flipped, the coin rose from her thumb, turned slowly on a wobbling axis, over and over, to the apex of its flight and down. It landed in the palm of her hand and settled: heads. The palm rose, turned over and slapped the back of her other hand, lifted off: again, heads. The coin flew and landed: heads, and heads again, and again. Tails wouldn’t come up. When she turned the coin over and over in her hand, there they were, beaver and queen. But when she flicked it into the air, whether catching and turning it onto the back of her hand or letting it fall to the floor, it always came up heads. Parishioners wanted to know: a weighted nickel? A peek into a universe without flip sides?
The latter, Martha assured everyone. In a universe without flip sides many more things can happen than in one with normal coinage, she explained. Imagine already living in that dimension where money has no faces at all.
Evgeny pulled the keyboard over and loaded the program for benediction.
May we use the flipping coin for our prayer? he asked Martha and she said it was okay. Evgeny then asked the congregation for lines. He entered something for each of them, producing a nine-item database of phrases, slogans, insults and a silence from Bird. He added Georg and Donnie’s names to the list of members present and ran the closing subroutine. The computer attributed the lines to the nine members of the congregation. Carl looked over his character’s line, registering embarrassment with an exaggerated smirk.
Evg placed a video camera low to the floor, pointed at one of the rink observation windows, a narrow depth of field set to clarify some light reflected in the glass, the background a blur of steel trusses against a section of undamaged silver foil on the ceiling above the ice. Each actor could read his or her line off the monitor while passing across the camera’s eye. One after the other the congregation stepped slowly into the frame, stopped to flip a coin which landed on the floor out of view, looked at the monitor and recited whatever they saw there.
Jesus hanging on my neck draw attention.
Baby beluga, swimming in its mother’s blood.
Moose is Loose, Gooseberry Juice, mm mmm good.
Whence What Whither . . .
This is my money, flip this as oft as ye think of me.
I wash my hands, my mouth, my ass, in the new order.
[a silence from Bird]
. . . Thither?
To complete the shoot Evgeny had Martha flip a coin about twenty times, until he thought he’d framed at least nine slow-motion closeups of the coin passing through the top of its parabolic arch, turning on a horizontal axis perpendicular to the lens. Then, standing on the nearest table, he shot nine coins scattered quite widely on the floor, zooming in close enough to focus on individuals or bunched groups. All heads.
on his knees
Evgeny on his knees, head bowed, a hand gripping the arm of his living room sofa, scolding himself under the heat and hammering of helicopters. He refuses to admit his body’s collapse, intrigued instead by the illusion of war that knocked him down. He pushed back onto his feet and screamed Dramabrain! into the thudding air, impressed that the mere sound of the Commander’s gunships could drop him. The terror was quite right, the pounding beat moving across the living room. Could it be the villa’s chopper? But no, too soon for Giardano’s yacht to be off shore. It’s my heart amplified, he finally admitted, it’s always that. These speakers! Damn these entertainment systems anyway.
Evgeny told himself that the errors criss-crossing his brain were good mistakes – this is good stuff, brain goods, rich emotional confusion from which art is made – and he recovered, recognizing the source of violence in his ears. Damn these speakers.
The timer on his new receiver had caught Belinda jockeying a New York City house intro to Thursday edition of Noon Radio. With the volume cranked from last night’s dance with Carmen, the system kicked in with a hundred-and-forty-five-beat-per-minute remix of Justify my Love. Good stuff!
Evgeny repeated the five good things about confusion:
. . . disturbs the status quo
. . . starts new ideas flowing
. . . creates as yet unheard sounds and voices
. . . sends you on holiday to the anarchic
. . . terrorizes
Evgeny walked over to the amp and turned down the volume. That’s good, that terror. Belinda knows how to tickle it. Goes great with this improved sound we’re getting in the home now: hammer-hard beats, driving-wheel rhythms, body-pumping mixes. Turns space into six walls. Train your ears, Evg. Distinguish the finer things in life. C’mon.
The beat of mistake helicopters triggered a memory of wars, wars collapsing into each other, a flip book of wars thumbed too fast and backwards until they blurred into a collage resembling the first war he witnessed live, the one televised from Vietnam. Evgeny could remember the feel of television then, of headlines on front pages, voices from radios in shops, silence from body bags paraded across screens; nothing specific, the incessant pleasure of war on TV, jungle corridors on fire far below, brave statements stated, mass graves landscaped, packaged bodies lifted onto transports, boring stuff. The public – we, he corrects – were not immune. Wanted it every morning. We made love to the burning people in our hearts, our bullets burning in their heads and hearts.
What was left of the arguments and passion of that pacifism now felt sick to Evgeny: everyone’s honour guarded, repeatedly; the horror spoken every hour on the hour. Remember that jeering horror? Who noticed it? Jerry Rubin screaming obscenities on state college campuses. Chanting students. Was Evgeny even there? He’d missed the marches and moratoriums for hockey practice, dropped passes to wingers breathing down his neck instead of circling the Capitol and dropping names into coffins. He’d foregone a piss through ironwork onto the White House lawn in order to export his hard northern slap shots from the point across the border. Evgeny’s righteous peace-loving dodger-harbouring anger at that empire’s stupid dominion in one shining sea or another was a fine example, he could say now, of the co-opted. We consumed those stories with the gaping holes, he told Carmen. Brought to us every night, gaps in the shooting, advertising in the gaps, feeding us through lip-sucked teeth, conspiring with us their consumer-industrial consumers to keep the war on air, to experience it intimately on couches.
Evg flipped forward to the memory of his favourite war, still Francis Ford Coppola’s, and dreamt of filming his with equal power to incite the new war-mongering imagination. But the current occupation was a quantum leap, a new birth for war. If he could make this film, he decided, he’d finally be sticking himself to the storyboard of his world, his community, the beautiful Ulittaq, the place where he feels his heart pound, where he pounded his stake in the cemetery on spec. He felt enormous, his ideas swimming in cranial fluid, unborn.
Donnie slid towards the house, four balloon tires locked, his Honda rotating slowly on dirty ice, counter-clockwise. The front stairs took the hit and Evgeny’s nerves shook with the steel-stilted harmonics of his house. He was listening to a cordless phone from his seat on the toilet when Donnie burst in, excited and silent. He counted rings, nineteen, twenty, got off the pot, and switched off the phone. Donnie stood at the bathroom door, eyes steady on Evgeny’s genitals and thighs while he shuffled about, folding the newspaper, replacing his toothbrush in its holder, spitting, pulling up his pants. The phone fell off the edge of the tub into four inches of clear hot water and Donnie’s face was distorting seriously with the pressure of news.
What? What? You hit the house again Donnie. Scared the shit out of me . . . I wish.
Evg, four Hercs . . .
You look like you’re having a shit yourself. What is it?
Four hercs have landed at the base.
Four? Are you sure? That is so sick. Four! Damn, Donnie, The Commander must have my order tucked into one of em, eh? Fat chance. Where’d I put my other phone?
Donnie swung his school bag off his back and dug around. Here, use mine. He handed Evg his Samsung.
Evgeny dialled, asked for Commander Blakkap and left a message for him to call back. He tried another number, listened for a while, tapped the screen, then dug a dollar out of his pocket and handed it and the phone back to Donnie.
Thanks, he said. I gave him your number. When the Commander calls, tell him to set my order aside in a heated place and that I’ll be coming by to look it over before taking delivery. I’ll call him tonight. Ask him what else he’s got in those planes. God, we could build the entire complex with payload like that.
Evg dug through boxes in the porch for another phone.
Cruise the loop, Donnie, and get back to me if you hear anything. I’m going over to the municipal shop in a minute.
He found a new phone, plugged it into a charger on the kitchen counter and swapped out the SIM card. On the way back to the can, he turned up the volume and refilled the house with Belinda’s Noon Radio.
Following an MC Hammer segue, Belinda introduced the birthday call-in.
May first it is, and we still don’t have a birthday boy or birthday girl other than Ulittaq’s own, the immutable, immovable, irrefutable, Evgeny! How. Are. You. Birthday boy! I have to take all the calls I can get today. I’ll put anyone on whose got anything to say, fit to say on the radio, right after the weather. Soooo here we go to those southern climes, those southern chimes: the charming Robert Winooski at the Churchill weather office. You still there, Bob?
That would be correct, Belinda.
Tell me, Bob, what sort of weather have we got coming? Tell you why I’m asking. What we need is white and horizontal, for the weekend. Can you deliver?
You still looking for a blow for that carnival, eh? I think we might have one for you, Belinda. Temperatures for Ulittaq will stay down through Friday, lows around minus ten, twelve, and daytime highs about minus six tomorrow and minus two on Saturday. Right now you’re reporting four below and light northerly winds at twenty kilometres per hour. The winds are expected to pick up – sixty, eighty kilometres per hour from the south and east on Saturday ahead of a trough of low pressure. If the temperature stays below freezing through the day as expected, there should be plenty of snow moving below fifty metres. Expect a blow, Belinda, fifty percent. Then, as the system warms, rain will be likely on Sunday, or half and half, with highs hovering around zero.
Whoo whee! Is that it for now, Bob?
That would be it, Belinda, bye-bye.
Thank you Bob Winooski in Churchill! Hey folks! How about we play those odds? Gear down for Carnival. Remember, it’s our last chance. It’s now or next year. Are you listening Town Council? That window of opportunity is open! Just shows you we’ve got to get out more in winter, eh? So people! Let’s get our asses in gear and God blind us with a blizzard on Saturday!
The first caller, in gravelly voice, says hello, establishes contact with a long silence, breathes heavily. I just want to pray for Evgeny to go to hell . . .
Hey, kindness, kindness, Brian! I thought this was Happy Radio. Why send Evg to hell straight off, first thing?
I owe him a hundred bucks. I just remembered.
Oh! okay then. Yeah, he probably forgot too, you think?
Carnival’s on, right?
Yes, we’re hoping.
I’m reversing the debt in honour of Carnival. Evgeny can pay me anytime, certainly by the weekend. I need the money now so I pray I run into him today. I’m going over to the bank machine. I hope he’s listening.
Second caller, go ahead.
The calls pour in, voicing over Evgeny’s ideas, strategies and plans:
. . . I have an oh-nine Yamaha I’m not using, five-sixty cc, new track and skis last month, no problems, luggage rack. I need twenty-five hundred. Thank you for the money. I’m moving south.
. . . that he receive the Lord Jesus Christ as his personal saviour, that he call in and say Jesus is Lord three times and say the Bible, old and new testaments, is the very word of God. I bet he can’t do it.
. . . that his Midgets win the Pan Arctic tournament and that the funds for the trip to the Pan Arctic Hockey Championship be raised. The other way around. Reverse the order there, God.
. . . that he not get run out of town, or if he does, that he not feel we all hate him or wouldn’t like to see him again sometime. Maybe he’ll come back as a demidramaturge and let the rest of the world know what really happens up here.
. . . a big hug to my sister and brother-in-law in Allburg.
. . . for my mom in Iqaluit, for my grandmother to not have bad news from the doctor, for my job, help me to work hard and smarten up and not lose it.
Belinda let the calls go on and on. Donnie was on the road. Donnie’s drifting brother, Ray, was away. Evg’s mind rose to Tulah above the voices:
. . . to rescue his soul from perdition
. . . to get him more money and bless all his enterprises
. . . to get him more sex with women
. . . to make him politically correct
. . . to inspire his art
. . . to sustain his kind heart
. . . to face his loses and go into exile without fear
I’ve needed your love. Even when I didn’t know about it, or didn’t want to believe that you loved me, I needed it, Evg said.
I’m glad, said Tulah.
No, I mean, how did this happen for you? What did you like about me?
When you stepped onto the plane in Baker Lake I liked you right away. I liked the way you smiled at everyone trying to make them smile at you. I wanted you to try and make me smile, but you didn’t get as far as me.
I’m sure I saw you smile from the back.
Couldn’t have. I’d already decided that if you got to me I wouldn’t smile.
You’re kidding. I want to shoot that. It’s disgusting the way white men arrive here.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. At least you stayed eight years, you’re a survivor. Occupation can’t be easy. Everyone has to live somewhere.
Tulah. I’ve got it!
Shoot me coming along between the seats looking for one with legroom – I suggest the Hawker. I’m an undecided white man, confused, wondering if there’s some kind of north-south protocol to follow. But instead of shy, he greets the whole plane. Laughs. Blurts out:
Big guy. Cute. Needs one and a half seats!
We could have a girl, say seventeen, lower her head and squeak out a little laugh. There’s an empty seat beside her. He thinks he’s embarrassing and charming her with off-colour ass-pinching good humour, thinking his belly and butt are the powerful white loins of her domination dream. Then . . . . But you must have hated me, eh Tulah? You smiled and thought you could play me for a quick buck?
I didn’t smile, Evg. I liked you. I felt your desire. I didn’t know if it was naive, or how ignorant it might be, but I liked it. I wanted to find out what you wanted. Or, I think I realized you didn’t know why you were here and I wanted to swim in the huge sea of longing I saw when you tried to choose a seat among those passengers, almost all white, a few of us. We didn’t actually meet that day, you know.
. . . that the occupation continue to go well for everyone, and that Evgeny can stick it out a while longer.
. . . collective message from his church, composed by the video selection committee last night: that dogs will jump as they pass his house; that the warm ocean currents he has been predicting will arrive soon; that climactic changes will reduce our dependence on the toxin shamans, though we must add that we appreciate their work; that this be one of the happiest days of his life.
Evgeny hears Tulah’s voice, watches her finger poke him in the gut. This body, for instance, this is your machine – knees brain pumper dick – all yours, she said, and when you heard that sound and fell on the floor it was like you’d given up the distinction between your ass and the exhaust hole in a Hughie. You are losing your mind up here. But Evg knows full well what’s really wrong, has for years, and he’s onto a solution, a clean, simple and simply-stated fix: the studio complex. His model is the old mine in the middle of town. It had glittered for five years, long enough to build a hamlet into a small city and drop it back into diamondless obscurity. All manner of subterranean uses were thought about; it was always 11º in there, a fabulous resource summer or winter. When the studio gets built down there, it’ll be a bloody bunker from the noise of war, or the noise of confusion – no, no, confusion’s good – from the noise of war, its incendiary samples. The studio’s where you get what you want and shut out the rest, he told Tulah. God, he longs for that. The arena had worked occasionally, but that was infatuation with hollow-space distortion and unsolicited sensation. Once, the earth burped and Evgeny nearly fainted with pleasure, falling over the makeshift recording equipment. Sounded like a whale in my head, Tulah! Oh, remember that lightning strike? When lightning hit the dish tower and the descramblers went berserk? The fractal fury that frescoed the big screen? And what a crack of thunder can do inside an acre of sheet metal! Wow, that was a minute of piss-pants spirituality . . . in the middle of church! Okay, that’s okay, he said. I mean, yeah, you want the happy accidents of nature, but I’m going to ruin your day now, because you don’t want to hear how missiles tore up our beautiful bunker.
And this is Evgeny’s problem: he is very pissed off with a few people. He knows there’s shit-freaky technology and shit-for-brains-folks-at-home using it to kill, and media immunity to kill the effects. God knows, even after the bunker, things went very well for the occupation, and every last business Evgeny touched did well by it too. Bloody well, he said. Because, he said, I will not be bearish on life that remains, by any life overlooked by the angels of death. They’ll be back. Pray to God we’ll be ready. Now, strengthen the things that remain, he preached, and he quoted a lot of that King James Bible which he read and believed. He really believed some of it. That a tribulation worse than anything attempted till now was coming, for instance – worse for pregnant or nursing mothers apparently. But, pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, was giving him trouble. Too weather-specific if Jesus meant ice and snow. What the fuck did Gospellers Mark (13:18) or Matthew (24:20) know, sitting there on a Mount of Olives, of arctic blizzards? If Jesus didn’t mean toques, mittens and boots, then what? He’d move to California rather than worry about the weather. Hollywood! You can always shoot yourself there. Then watch yourself die:
crouching on knee-deep snow
EXTERIOR – DAY
scene one | Crouching on knee-deep snow, Methuselah cuts down to sea-ice with several quick slashes of his snow knife and raises a ledge on three sides. He sits, buttocks to ice, bent forward beneath the search party’s vision, his four-year-old daughter tucked along his thigh. Three fingers of his right hand gently stroke her back, the fourth rests on the trigger of his rifle. The patrol, four officers on three snowmobiles, zig-zag their way from one potential hiding place to another. They check every bump and mound that could possibly hide a fugitive, back and forth between drifts. The police approach the wave into which Methuselah has dug, then veer towards a pressure ridge. Methuselah stops stroking his baby and sighs, dejected by the nuisance these swat teams have become all over the hunting grounds. Suddenly the machine with two up turns directly towards him and Methuselah resumes his stroking.
At a hundred metres his gun could put a bullet through them both. He and his daughter would die. He thinks it through. He would die slowly in a penitentiary; she would live without his memory, without his joy. No, better to die quickly in a fire fight and leave her to the agency of these well-wishing forces. They will respect her right to live in shame. She will seek him.
The warmth of her feet penetrates his groin. He feels his blood searching a capillary route through the ice to cool and redden the sea. From the red water he’ll answer his daughter. When she is walking and has discovered where her feet need to go, he’ll find her at the top of the sea and fill her with his memories. The ice is warming from the piss pooling under his ass and trembling from the motorized vehicle bobbing like a buoy towards him. The thumb on the throttle squeezes out rhythmic surges of whining power – they have not yet interpreted the shallow rampart in this drift as his habitation, or spotted the fur-tufted black holes of his rifle and eyes. With the pulse of his breath and a last pass of his half-mittened fingers over the skins wrapping the child, Methuselah squeezes the trigger and watches two men die, almost as quick as the windshield plastic splits, as quick as the machine rolls onto its side, as silently as it can idle.
scene two | Methuselah picks up his wide-awake, too-startled-to-cry kid, reloads, drops the spent shell into and his shoulder bag and runs fifty meters to the cops’ snowmobile. One body gurgles at the chest, the other through the nose. Methuselah bloodies a moccasin on each as he rights the vehicle. A glance over his shoulder reveals the odds of escape to be better than expected. The sound of his killing shot went unnoticed somehow, and the other officers are still skirting the pressure ridge. When they look his way they’ll spot the bodies and come charging after him. A rear-mounted camera speeds away with him, filming the pursuit. Methuselah’s escape is slowly revealed to be futile. It’s a crystal clear day and with a widening eye the lens watches the surviving police officers. In less than a minute there are helicopter dots on the horizon growing larger.
scene three | Closeups show the panicked faces of the officers.
scene four | Methuselah stands his daughter up in front of him and gets her to hold the throttle as tight as she can on the flying snowmobile, then leaps off, rolls and runs to his own machine under a white tarp.
scene five | A longer shot shows the cops after the girl, following the ruse. In the next shot, zooming back and back and back, a tiny chopper dives after Methuselah on his machine and tracer bullets fly into the speck of him. The lens is wide; everything stops.
scene six | Final closeup: two officers gently capture the girl who has flown off the machine and is standing and staring silently at her feet. They respect her like a tomb.
on the land, looking for wolf
EXTERIOR – DAY
On the land, looking for wolf. Qamutiik’s balanced and tracking well. The two-cycle buzz of the old machine feels good on the ass because the pressure’s high and the young hunter is clamped to the wind cruising a forty-klik average all night on less fuel than he thought possible at minus fifty. He decides to go for that patch of sticks Mike said was there three days west and that means thirty-six hours of steady cruising. Count on it, because Mike never shit his worst enemy with data like that. So there’d be foxes too, and this is going to be his year to snare that heap of pelts. A good blow comes along making the work easy and the carcasses start lying around the machine like scattered bodies, and the hunter takes a hit, not from a stupid accident, careless with the weapon, or that the pack catches him napping and tears him up, or something like that, but it’s two F-35s. They know him. One cruising high sniffs his heat and the other, cruising low, gets the word, rolls over and over in glee, and before he can load his weapon, it makes the turn, and the hit, and adds his body to the others.
INTERIOR – EVENING
Hunter-mom and hunter-to-be-kids watch TV snug in the plywood drift-manacled heat-heated dwelling in town just watching TV together waiting for hunter-dad to come home with the dancing wolves and they all blow up because the oldest brought home a mine. It’s early in the occupation and the school has yet to receive the material, Mines and National Health, from the Ministry of Mines and National Health. Snow collapses onto the fire.
EXTERIOR – NIGHT (under the lights of emergency vehicles)
Some hacking and scratching at the ice to get them out.
EXTERIOR – DAY
A time shift to the funerals, sometime in July when holes and bodies will thaw for burials: shallow holes, a five-ton truck brings rocks . . . .
back on the pot
While waiting for war, before the bunker, all worthy things that can be said got said. It didn’t take long. What depressed and disgusted Evgeny now was the endless repetition. The hollow cries of victory had only saddened him until he began to cry them himself and try to feel them. He tried to think about the joy of victory that the defeated were experiencing. Then he felt so good that he didn’t want to ever stop feeling it. This joy found a home in his heart, and went with him wherever he went, crystallizing out of his anger and disappointment. We won, we are winning, we will win for sure, we lost: a random selection of addresses for Evgeny’s emotion of joy. Evgeny looked forward to the day when killing would stop and a simple joy with its pleasure and pain would once again leak from individual hearts and run through the body politic defined quite purely by lives that are left. Please, please, please, he would beg of anyone, do not kill me. Look at me. Look at this life. It’s life. Let it live. It will astonish you, nourish you, love you. And that’s about why he sadly cried the victory slogans of the defeated, even before the occupation had dawned on him, because he knew that he would live through them, the wars. He thought the odds were for survival in a dirty war – maybe not a clean one – and that he’d cry sadly among the ruins of the occupation. Because he was not doing the killing, he thought he would not be killed.
He thought about the death of ‘his’ boys Donnie and Ray. He tried to speak for Donnie: No, Donnie whimpered. Not for anything! Certainly not for land will I blow my body to bits. Or have you forgotten that death is the end of both land and body, of me, here, in this world or in any world that can make sense of this one. OH GOD, NO, DON’T SEND ME TO MY DEATH, DON’T BRING IT HERE LORD! NO! NO, no, no. . . .
Ray? Ray says: The language of rage is not working for you, Evg. You have acquired through the language of love and fear the screws to turn on your friends. What’s this about Donnie? Who is that Donnie? Puppet of some rugged indie-neo-wanker parasite? Remember the bits of justice you brought with you, Evg. Rip the language of awe from your mouth while you die. The water above your bubbling face will asphyxiate your lungs so that you may look wild-eyed but you will not be heard. By now the terror is over. You’ll know that nothing you suffered for love held a candle to this, this fade to black.
Ray? Is that you? That’s guruspeak, Ray. That’s not the terrorists’s fireside chat. At least try shitspeak. bloodspeak. McSpeak. O’Squeak . . . something I can understand. But Ray is dogged, plain speech dogs him. Half the time Evg wants him to blow up half the world and save the other half for pointless existence, but Ray prosecutes fear crimes one at a time.
And another thing, Evg, when you know your side is losing, don’t run away, or you will have a hell of a lot of explaining to do at the place where rocks and beetles exhibit a fascination for the flesh, namely yours.
C’mon Ray. Enough sermonizing. We’re in this together. Deep. Not a time to lose heart, or courage, or face, or control of your bowels – okay, your bowels. But Ray, don’t give away your option to withdraw, to retreat, to back away, to run with your tail between your legs and flee with your friends to a remote location.
Sorry Evg. Too many people will not be able to forgive mass murderers. We’ll contain them in cities where they’ll meditate and die for their sins. Every street with Quick & Easy service depots. Vending machines in public bathrooms and bars will dispense inexpensive exit drugs. Popups will supplement poster campaigns encouraging people to take their own lives. Should someone choose Catch & Release instead, and demonstrate a will to live and repent . . . some sort of remedial integration into open society might be possible. Now, Ray’s gotta ride. Ray’s gotta hide. Ray has to bide his time. Ray is a cool, if not a cold, killer.
He also plays a sweet cornet don’t forget.
. . . collective message texted from the amalgamated voluntary help department co-ordinator: that Evgeny have a wonderful year and no need to dial 911 in it, though we always enjoy a chat, but we don’t want to be tying up the line with chat. Let no one be lost on land or sea – although sea is sexier – especially not Evgeny on his sixty-fifth.
Evgeny was back on the pot with a cup of green tea enjoying his chat with the disappearing Ray when Carmen burst in with news from the Hamlet Council. Apart from her work on council she was local reporter for the regional weekly, Our Disease. Evg got the odd mention in her business development articles, grudgingly positive, he thought, despite the incoherence and general tone of despair. To set her concise account of council meetings alongside her rambling reportage was a study. Evgeny told her once that she’d soon be a thesis in rhetorical feminism. She appeared to him as a scrolling list of hard questions and easy answers, especially when their love-making shifted in favour of her own lust and he could not help but watch her: how else to organize his perception of this woman’s mind except to throw it on screen, as text, and look at it for a long time?
Evg, your ship’s about to leave, she said. You think it has yet to come in, but I have news for you. It’s leaving.
Good thing I’m not on it, then. And I’m busy with a shit, so have a seat on the tub there and say something nice.
You don’t think I’m serious. Look, here’s the minute that concerns you. It smells bad in here.
And if you pay specific attention to the facility which we import especially for indoor shitting, which I occupy, you might surmise that shitting is taking place. But then your observation would be trivial and therefore I don’t advise such a conventional logic, wishing rather to affirm, pleasantly, from near the source of these fumes, that yes, the air reeks of shit.
Of shit, you admit, but I hope you’ll also allow, not of a healthy bowel. When I order pesto at the deli and the saucière holds the pan under my nose to verify its goodness, I might not say, likely would not say, out of some sense of protocol like the one you describe, this fear of speaking trivially, Hey, this smells like pesto! But should the pesto smell like grape jelly or duck sauce, I might allow myself to sputter Grape! or Duck! out of a sense of discontinuity, as an expression of surprise. This was the mode I was operating in when I uttered the phrase, smells bad, just now. When I saw you there on the pot, Evg, I was anticipating your gut, the clean metallic gas of you. You must have balled that up for some time to produce this rot. Some unusual stress?
None that I can think of. Are your shits so consistently clean and on time that you can monitor your stress levels by them?
For white men, Evg, I know this for a cultural fact, fucking makes you regular. It works. Every guy who was bunged up for a day or two, after an intense fuck, had a bowel movement within six hours, often more than one according to a study.
Whose? Yours on a Saturday night with the barbershop quartet?
You wish. Anyway, Evg, bye. I’ve got to fly. Call me when you get to Winnipeg or wherever it is one goes when they flee.
I’m not going. Why would I leave when I’ve just launched a new advocacy service, two new businesses, and now a series of medical fuck treatments critical to my mental health? I should like to start on that enematic therapy tonight if you’re not doing anything. Come by and adjust my passions to the proper level for evacuation.
I’m telling you, you won’t be here. We’re evacuating you. Bye-bye Evgeny.
Just a minute! How? I think you’re full of shit!
Your moral good sense will put you on the next flight, Evg. Bye.
walking by the fountain
Evgeny thought that his buildings, if you highlighted them on the town map, formed a pattern of geometrical power against destruction. None of the properties had sustained a hit from either the Commander’s guns or local sabotage. His friendships with the Commander and many of the saboteurs couldn’t explain this: war had priorities above cordial relations even with business associates. That the hotel wasn’t hit might be explained by the fact that it housed and fed all sides, provided no security services, no locked boxes. But it was a big place, susceptible to bomb and bug plants in any room, a phone booth, at a table in the restaurant or somewhere along the bar, reasonably limiting the damage to enemies one would think. Not one assassination. Nor was Evg’s shop in B Shed hit, suffered nary a scratch although it was next to the town’s A Shed which had been destroyed twice by air strikes. Decorations had fallen in his house, the end of the telecommunications building opposite his own offices had been hit, and bullets from a fire-fight or practise between rebel factions had riddled the windows and walls of his cabin down the shore, but this compared reasonably with normal. Hardest to explain was why the Commander hadn’t hit the arcade/cafe/depanneur, often filled with local youth and ne’er-do-wells, a most visible demographic of hate for the occupation. Evg was especially grateful for this mercy. And, the Commander insisted that his ruins be restored as fast as possible. He always provided demolition and cleanup crews on mornings after.
Evg decided to power dress in a laundered white shirt. He tucked it into red jeans, buttoned and zipped and lifted a new pair of white Reeboks, size twelve, out of their box. These he wrapped around his sweating feet, threading but not tying the fat white laces. He threw on his parka, picked up Carmen’s rolled poster, and stepped out as if it were mid-summer, bounding down the shovelled stairs, flaring his nose and flailing his legs in all directions up the slippery path to the emerging gravel street. Breathe! Breathe! he said to his body. Fill your lungs with the promise of paradise. The air was indeed a solid mass of animal songs and tropical ideas hovering over arctic lands and oceans, generous beyond measure to Evgeny and all who drew breath with him. Astonishing carrier, this air! he thought. And where does it all go! His thoughts about these winds, their centripetal inclination around the pole, their draw on the belching stacks of the industrial south, their toxic drop into the arctic sink . . . the data kindled his anger, and the anger his love for the biomass. His blood warmed to the hit, a row of coke, 10cc of royal jelly, endorphins, spring! war! a moment’s luxury.
Evg picked up his pace as the to-do list for the day grew. The transports offloading cargo at the base this morning were an immediate problem. He circled the item and decided to spend some time with Bill at the municipal shop to verify the fuel situation for Crackling Fires Inc.
Five years ago it was Bill Olfert who’d ordered the steel and welded up an airtight stove with a glass door in order to bring a beautiful fire into his authentic rec room. His was the only house in Ulittaq with a basement, made possible by his patented floating slab technology. However, as town engineer in charge of the lumber supply at the municipal shed, he inherited the task of saving every bit of wood scrap for the Carnival bonfire. But that year, well into April, it looked like Carnival wasn’t going to happen and Bill, trying different things to get a fire to burn to his satisfaction in the prototype, was getting freer with the surplus wood. Even into May the weather had been clear and cold without a single blizzard worthy of Carnival and everyone was much too busy fishing or hunting to be bothered with it anymore. By then Bill thought he probably had a year’s worth of scrap lumber to burn in his stove.
Carnival had often been passed over because of overly good weather. But despite the working weather, and the abundant harvest that year, tensions were high because the war had heated up again. The RCMP had an additional cruiser on the road and had begun searching boats coming and going from the spring hunt on the ice. Along with the increased security the nodding insolence of stressed civilians had tightened and the absence of a carnival passed with barely a blip. When a big blow did arrive mid-May there was no Carnival authority in place, no games committee, no one to say officially, It’s on. Instead, someone said, It’s off, and then there were fires! In a spontaneous raid on the wood supply, the scrap was overlooked for good lumber, and a duplex, the residence of several government agents, caught fire, and then another house, still ablaze with Christmas lights, burned to the ground when a sniper winged the driver of a troop carrier which veered into it and exploded.
Bright and bloody as it was, this episode faded almost as fast from the minds of the people who were neither burned nor displaced as it did from the network news. The signs it produced, however, were strong in the community and certainly not lost on Evgeny. Carnival was never the same. It was replaced by an event, quite different, but still known as Carnival. Now, on the day it’s called, a calling that might originate in any medium from anyone anywhere in town, a pent-up knowledge simultaneously surfaced and warmed the blood of the occupied. A house-on-fire was immediately patched together from packing crates, old roofing, rainbows of paint and tangles of Christmas lights, then set ablaze on a signal from the Carnival Queen, a bigger fire every year, a blaze for everyone’s good luck.
You know, it’s this carnivalesque fascination with fire that’s the fundamental driver of the wood stove market here, eh? Evgeny enthused when he found Bill in his office chair, feet up on the desk.
Bill disagreed. Well, yeah, but traditionally an igloo or tent always had a fire going.
You mean those little stone reservoirs with a bit of moss for a wick? Hardly more than a candle!
Oh, I don’t know. I’ve been in some pretty warm igloos with one of those.
Right, you build the stoves; I’ll sell em. Evgeny had placed a wood-burning stove into nearly every home and barrack lounge in Ulittaq. Mostly they were installed in living rooms, the model with the glass door on the front to fully expose the fire pit to view, the best seller. Evgeny could sense the reckless carnival mood of joy over hostility whenever he witnessed the lighting of one of these beauties.
With Bill’s early design, Crackling Fires’ prolific production of stoves in the steel-works corner of B Shed soon put a squeeze on the scrap lumber supply. To meet the new demand for fuel, Evg imported hydraulic log moulds that pressed and glued anything you threw at them into log shapes. And to feed his machines he set up the town’s first paper recycling bin and discovered several secret ingredients that could make his product crackle and spit like pine; sticks of pine worked, for instance, stuck into the core of these agglomerations.
Natural wood still fetched higher prices, however, and Evg was afraid the hercs had cordwood on them. Larry hadn’t placed his usual order and there’d been several hints and hesitations in the Commander’s voice when Evgeny called him. If true, the market would shift. Who owned what? He’d soon know the entire town’s inventory down to the last stick. He’d wipe the Commander out. Hercs be damned. Every flight altered the economy, fuck. Four! He’d talk to Joan. Joan could stop the Commander with a succinct headline or two: MILITARY BRASS FLY FIREWOOD INTO ARCTIC TOWN; MILITARY CITES LACK OF TIMBER; LOCALS MAKE DO WITH WOOD FLOATED IN BY BARGE. Jack over at Corporate Broadcast could produce a spot and feed the national network:
Somehow there’s always enough wood for everyone, says local councillor, Carmen Kimminaaluk. Yes, it is a beautiful thing, a crackling fire. It’s a pleasant way to deal with the cold way up here. But we’re not about to pay a hundred times the value of wood heat in jet fuel for this bit of ambiance! Those are our taxes, too, don’t forget. You’d think it was a drug trade the way military officers treat their firewood supply.
Before the news breaks, I’ll pay too much for the Commander’s entire supply, Evgeny told himself. Watch him come squealing back for it when he realizes he’s shipped his last Hercful. He’ll remind me that business flourishes in Ulittaq with every infusion of military spending. Shit, there’s probably wood on Giardano’s barge, too. Donnie will know. Damn it, this is my religion. The whole woodlot operation, the wood-stove fetish, mine!
Shifting temperature gradients and heavy snow-clearing equipment had teed up a stone in the road which was now emerging with the thaw, a perfect target for a steel-toed boot. Suddenly sad, Evgeny reduced his stride to a shuffle, spotted the stone and swung a Reebok at it hoping to hit something. The fountain was close enough, a mountain of ice most of the year, lit red at night, now nearly melted down to its summer skeleton of brass and iron. Was it too soon to get the water going? Evg tried to recall the dates previous when they’d turned on the summer system. Why hadn’t the committee met yet?
Gordon, the generic brass hero who stood at the top of the fountain gazing upon the land below his outstretched right arm, had picked up his name, it was commonly believed, by association with the legendary RCMP Lieutenant-Commander who was the first government agent to arrive in the district with authority to establish sovereignty and police protection for the people. His trip, scheduled to be a weeklong August inspection of camps and communities with inauguration of a permanent command post for two constables, turned into a hundred days of disasters and heroic missions. In sum, the Lieutenant-Commander was rescued twice, once by his constables and once by the locals. On one occasion he himself took his scouting party two days out of its way to rescue an injured hunter. After the hundred days, when the land was again passable, the people provided a dog team and guide to take him south.
To Gordon’s left, a pyramid of four rifles point skyward, held where the barrels cross by the man’s smaller hand which nevertheless had overlong fingers. When the pump is running, water spouts into the air from each muzzle, about twenty centimetres high, one stream arching behind, one in front, and two off to the side of Gordon. Seen from a specific angle, in fact while sitting on the one strategically placed bench in the light of a shallow midnight sun, Gordon is having a yellow piss. People had heard him sigh with pleasure. Old men especially got the urge to pee in the area and piss was part of Gordon’s summer ambiance.
Below Gordon’s feet, splashed by the flower of water from the rifles, the four iron-panelled sides of the pedestal were decorated with images of four identical smooth round smiling male faces in bas relief. Three had holes in their mouths and the one facing south had a hole in its right eye. Under summer pressure, water spurted from the holes just about a normal spitting distance from the north, east, west and south, and landed in birdbaths situated a metre away and thirty centimetres below each face. In local lore the north face was the hunter Gordon had rescued, the east face represented the person Gordon brought part way to justice for murdering his brother, the western face was the disabled hunter who’d had a large family, no fresh skins, and might have suffered that winter if Gordon hadn’t ordered him to be supplied on credit from the RCMP stores of winter clothing before he left. It represented the countless acts of kindness, large and small, that police officers accomplished even when their own supplies were low. Their solitude knit them together with the people whose crisis they shared as their own. Tease, the south-facing spit-eye character, was said to be the guide and interpreter that had taken Gordon and his prisoner south, who on the way had discovered that the criminal would likely hang if he answered the questions as he had at Gordon’s inquest in Ulittaq, and who, according to police reports, had solved the dilemma by entering into a treacherous pact of mutual suicide with the prisoner after two court appearances in Montreal.
Gordon’s outstretched right arm, with a stubby-fingered but otherwise oversized hand (thought to be modelled on 3rd century Roman statuary discovered in Iceland) and his steady gaze north, encompassed his love for the people, the necessity for law and order, and his nation’s proud protection of the vastness – all in one gesture. Chatty and speculative interpretations were often part of conversations and greetings around the fountain, a communal game usually, but also an integral part of the hermeneutic that varied in shape as readily as the ice that covered the water-splashed statue on subzero days. The happiest interpretations took pleasure in the harp seals on the floe ice, the dogs in gut harness and the arctic char in the reed and frog-laced pool where, on warm summer nights, children hugged and stabbed the brass animals. Visitors could instantly see the entire structure whole, top to bottom, as naturally ordered as the British sculptor intended it years ago; art and history. The saddest occurrence had been a fit of laughter between two elders, both respected leaders on the Hamlet Council who had argued about the size of Gordon’s penis which wasn’t visible, relative to the size of his hands which were. So the one who had survived reported. The other broke a hip falling against the metal rail surrounding the pool and died of a heart attack the same afternoon. In her memory, the lamps under the pool were fitted with new red bulbs in autumn to illuminate the renaissance of ice mountain.
Evgeny felt damn lucky when the rock broke away from the street and sailed high towards the fountain. It struck Gordon in the nuts, bounced off Tease, and clattered down onto the dogs still crowded among twisted tips of heat-sculpted ice. Despite its cruelties, he thought, the occupation’s a great source of entertainment. The cinematic potential is huge. The air itself is a mask here, the people move like actors. Of course, occupiers must come, conquer, but now, no longer do they go. They turn the sea into salty snacks, the landscape into sets. Evgeny longed to turn army patrols into camera crews. His new studio noon was already into its third hour. Home of the five-hour lunch. He’d written that in funding proposals to governments and studios hoping to entice investment in film facilities for Ulittaq. How could the industry afford to ignore this place? The ships and submarines in the sound; the choppers ferrying back and forth; Hercules transports hauling for the Air Command; troops bivouacked fashionably in white, foraging their high-tech manuals for the sanctioned solution to a toe-specific case of frostbite, out on spring patrol, a twenty-hours-of-fucking-sun watch through snow-blind eyes, the occasional manhunt, the three-day solo: you’re lying like a pheasant under glass, a bump in the crusty melt beside a lick of blue ice where, to beat the fever of war you stretched over a seal breather into which to hang and cool your cock; best bloody sleep you’ve ever had, soldier; we found you with the infra-red, had eight guys chopper in and chip you out like a fossil, and how you couldn’t scream when one hardened rod went through you accidentally, just take it like a man until the cocoon snapped, sorry, we had to air bear you dangling outta the fucking door with that digger through your gut, forty minutes to the field hospital. Hell, we passed around a sheet of paper and wrote out our feelings for you, sent a heartfelt letter to your folks, too, and the nurses got together and cooked up something for your girl but we couldn’t find her address in your stuff, do you remember it? Evgeny is pleased. He kicks another rock and cuts a slice into his left Reebok. I can use this: medical sentiment, initiation of the good boy, sterile white ambiance for the Commander intro; have him caress the boy’s wet hair and say, Great piece of work, soldier. We’ll get most of you home for Christmas, don’t worry. Then he hands the soldier a whalebone kayak with hunter, weapons and seal, and the cheer-up letter from his chums. You just GODDA WANNIT, Evgeny repeated from an old button campaign. He still had GODDA WANNITs in a drawer. He favoured small enterprise, the Italian model; that is, he’d like three or four production companies with studios in Ulittaq. The Italian mogul bothered him because of his undistributed wealth but he was also a case in point for success. Tight independent enterprises gathered into trade cartels led by world-wheeling operators such as Giardano were definitely viable. My desires really must be world-class, Evg thought, and immeasurably tolerant, too, if they can encompass this man and his ostentatious villa.
I make myself sick, Evgeny said aloud. He tasted vomit in his mouth, spit some out and the moment passed. I’m at the end of my ability to love. I’m seriously out of love. Abstract notions like this could sadden him, but he could work with them, too. He fell into one of his antidotal scripts for television, finding himself in love with an abstract woman, a common occurrence but rare in scripts where his anger was unfocused under a cloud of menace. Evg won’t admit it, but Tulah already explained why he can’t stand a complex love. You might manage it for a while but only if you also add enough sitcom labels to direct it towards some over-determined resolve. A date with a stranger in town ending abruptly with a thundering fuck in the hotel might be as good as it gets for you, Evg. But Evgeny was finding even melodramatic postcard loves difficult to sustain in an arctic environment. Arctic anger, frozen for an ice age, melted into a rush of words that destroyed all but animal lust. Love, he consoled himself now, can’t make you happy for more than a minute. Best it can do is make space for two in a steel cocoon that might survive immediate destruction. Love and Anger was a title he’d do something with one day, once the studio took shape. Set and location already selected: Giardano’s barge, its deck crowded with exotic plants. Evg imagined a love boat warming a sea of icebergs, drifting off course, a disaster looming, a foundering on the rising reefs of Atlantis.
The first time Evgeny saw it, the barge had appeared on the horizon and shouts all over town went up into the breeze and across the choppy sea. Four hours later a tug hauled its float of goods along tide channels through bobbing ice and into the bay. They sent us a tropical island? Most of the deck was green, leafy-green, and as the tug spun it around and pushed the barge up against the federal pier, hundreds of terra-cotta and enamel fired pots could be seen beneath an understory of drooping brown foliage. There were lots of empty pots, and pots with nothing more than stems. Bad trip for the jungle. Too much light, not enough; too much sea water; too much plant food, whatever. Captain Green the barge captain, was not known to be green, neither for his thumb nor for the leaky bags of galley slop he strung astern to attract gulls for skeet practice or sharks for a shark shoot. There were three prizes for the crew: most kills, most spectacular bloody kill, most sportsmanlike conduct.
And then it struck him. Love and Anger would not be some foolish Italian misadventure. It could be no less than the hard hot love of ice and lava . . . Etta’s island! What a metaphor!
he went to market
Evg used his insomnia to concentrate on business reform. There must be a way to manage capital without hurting everyone. If it can work in a business venture then, who knows, it might work in life. Say he could get love without tying someone up, say by not inflicting damage or pressing a cultural advantage. Well no, there’s always manipulation, abuse and self abuse, a seductive or financial lie. Whoever it was, was right: love happens when, with another, you get naked and mutually unconscious. Words, genitals, thirty-something yuppie-rubbered and lubed guilt licked from a salt-rimmed glass, whatever. But no nihilism. No l’amour/la mort. Not that. He’s too old and wise for that. For the mechanic on his back sliding out from under his Chevy Evg wants a tight clutch box, new plates and springs, fresh friction – an alcohol-breathing smokeless flame-shot down the yellow line, clutch to chute, pop pop, five seconds. Gut: wrenched. Crotch: piss-warm. Something like that for him. For the mechanics girlfriend leaning over the books in the office late Tuesday night, looking through the door, watching him slide and grunt under his Chevy, watching Letterman on a fuzzy coat-hangered 24-inch, chewing gum: a new set of tires for the Tercel.
He went to market where the buzz of trade always restored him because there he could see and feel – among the vegetables, flies, cages, cakes and cackle, honeys and excrements, greasy coins and spice, voices, the solicitous press of a million eyes and the sea of elbows – that he was in love. Wrong, he said. I’m out, depleted, empty. Face it. Even here in the bazaar. No help for it today. Just walk. Keep walking. The voices. Walk away, Evgeny. Like hell I’ll walk. Walk where? Through the valley of the shadow that knew too much? No, he said, it’s just that today’s sellers aren’t much interested in selling. Today’s market will dip because the buyers aren’t much interested in buying. Only green peppers are doing well, moving better than the chillies.
Suddenly it didn’t matter. Air raid sirens split the quiet midday air and people ran from their homes and offices, screaming encouragement. Fear tightened Evg’s guts into a burning ball with a simultaneous premonition. Not the bunker! he choked out, airless, his voice reaching no one. The shock electrocuted his body, buckled his knees. Many people ran into the bunker before it was sealed, and while they nestled into its levels and rooms, and while Evg prayed on the road beside the melting fountain, two bombs hit the bunker. One, dumber than the other, smashed through the roof, and the other went through the only door, airlocked against toxins and heat. Both exploded inside and within minutes everyone that had gone in was dead. Rescuers shovelled snow and threw blocks of ice into two smoking holes trying to get in. Municipal Engineering set up pumps to send water and fresh air into the cavity. Evg finally got through one of the smoking holes to search cooler areas for survivors. Probably there were none, although the story on the wire, picked up by the networks over two days of solemn sovereign statements, said that several people had emerged, their skin blackened, following an armour-piercing pinpoint-accurate strike against a strategic target. Local people believed the rumour that Evg was one of the escapees. He said no, he’d gone in after and hadn’t himself seen anyone escape. Others emerged who had no recollection of how or when they’d gone in: rescue shock.
Tulah came rushing up and interrupted Evgeny’s conversation with a reporter. You were in there, Evg? What! How? Her face was wet, eyes red, and her blue embroidered silk parka had a gaping tear from which down fluttered out with her every move.
He nodded yes, and the reporter let them go when body parts began piling up around them. Tulah took Evg to her suite in The CoHo to rest, and by the time he was washed and wrapped in a pink robe on Tulah’s black bed, he too believed he’d been in the bunker and had miraculously escaped.
Half blind, Evgeny woke the next day and walked home. Bewildered, he tried eating something, then grabbed his phone, clamped on headphones and headed out. He walked aimlessly. Donnie called and was okay, already four hundred kilometres up or down the coast. Only the kids, teachers and staff who had stayed at the school for lunch had gone into the bunker. Unfortunately this included the chess club, so a few more people were killed than might have been. Donnie said he would have to disappear for several days or weeks this time, and Evg made him promise to at least get off the ice by Saturday. Carmen called during a break in the council’s emergency sessions to say that she could forgive him for now, that as far as she was concerned he could stay until everyone had dealt with their losses, and that she would see him at church on Sunday. Evg dialled the Commander’s number and sat down on the road leading to the base. Blakkap never showed his face in town and Evgeny often thought that if opportunity presented itself he could happily shoot him. More intriguing, however, were the assassinations, one or two a week, that occurred in the shadowy hunter-hunter interface between base and people. Evgeny took a near obsessive hobby interest, never ceasing his efforts to watch the Commander, to guess where he might be, where he was going, where he would die. But Evg could not in fact premeditate shooting the man himself; doing business with this or another Commander was pure necessity in a war economy. The killing, forty-eight people according to Belinda’s last panic-stricken report, required the Commander’s death of course, but the people inhaled the evaporating dead into their living bodies, rabsorbed the cooked flesh for that future reckoning, molecule for molecule, that Christians know as a resurrection with trumpets, that the people left in Ulittaq know as a day of sweet fat flowing from the jaws of jumping dogs.
A quick murderous strike or a high-level assassination was unlikely. Ray, who could do it, would know better. Perhaps the outrageous overkill would confuse the Commander, induce a fatal mistake. Nothing doing. The call was handled politely by a press attaché who informed Evg that supplies had arrived to rebuild the town. They would, of course, be surplus because the accuracy of the initial strike caused the Commander to abort the rest of the mission for humanitarian reasons, but would be made available at the discretion of the town’s elected council. The Commander was pleased with how clean the operation had gone and in his communiqué had mentioned Eugene personally as the person he would prefer to distribute ninety cords of firewood: dried, split, stove-length beech and maple. Also, by way of explanation for the strike, Evg was read the press release in which last week’s raid on the base’s heavy machinery for the runway expansion was cited.
Donnie must have known it would come to this, which is why he left town fast. He was tired of the looks of wrath he got from those who accused him of being Ray’s brother. The loss of machinery, if the Rayders had even managed to damage some of it, had been on the news the night before the strike on the bunker. The coverage included a shot of a grader, its blade twisted, partly tipped into a hole in a field of gravel, a long-familiar sight to anyone who’d landed in Ulittaq with a window seat on the east side of the aircraft. Ray had rebombed a derelict machine? Miscalculation: the Commander, watching his prime time ratings, used it. The people would hate Ray because of the costly consequences, but world news-watchers would love him because he justified their love-rape relationship with telereal people everywhere.
Evg got up off the road, amazed that a story could be over so quickly. Out of the blue, an air strike, and all those lives, all that work, gone. He wanted to ask Carmen and Donnie, both dish-directing media observers, whether it was still possible to piss off a television audience. One night, for Donnie, an American League hockey game, a local broadcast from an Acadian city transmitting on a carrier that somehow bounced to Ulittaq, that Donnie was feeling lucky to pick up, was pre-empted by news of another mutilated body, as yet unidentified, discovered by a night nurse and believed to be the work of a single serial killer still at large in the veterans hospital of that town. Donnie was still pissed off about that murder. One in a million, he muttered, but it gets to you sometimes. Evgeny felt completely lost and looked around desperately for borders to mark, his bladder bursting with consciousness.
But, instead of pissing all over, Evgeny was suddenly awash in the still, warm arctic ambiance of a one kilometre town with streets and roads out to the dump, graveyard, airport and water supply pump, which all told comes to forty kilometres of driving uninterrupted by traffic lights or stop signs. One machine, running non-stop, can’t keep it all open when the wind is up. The town has to have two machines, four operators. Belinda introduced her Tropical Talk segment: Today’s tropic is the Dominican Republican time share. Important guests left and arrived on scheds at the civilian end of the airport. Military personnel in barracks packed their gear and climbed into transports for their jubilant flight to home base after enduring a gruelling ten-week tour. Open water in the bay, calm in the sun, gently salt-licked the ice foot. This was the minute, the one midday minute in Ulittaq, when school kids are eating lunch, when the streets are childless, and a few adults walk back to their office jobs, past whimpering pet dogs tied to porches, to administrate the world one last time. Dust rose behind the vans that taxied between the town and the airport. The thump of the generator at the machine shed sang in unison with the distant cry of the rock saw at the quarry, joined by the dark melodic whine of an outboard running in a barrel nearby. Evg lifted the headphones off his ears to be sure.
Wood heat was dead. Stove manufacturing was stupid anymore, the market saturated. Bill could have Crackling Fires, distribute the scrap and the Commander’s imports, make the analogs if he wished. I’m depressed, Evg admitted. What the hell have I learned? Church was still two days away. Evgeny headed to the barbershop for encouragement. He picked up his pace and imitated a bobbing diagonal stride in order to feel the fall of hair into the fur trim of his hood. He wasn’t happy with his hair colour which appeared grey, or dirty, next to the silky white wolf. Nor was it light and soft. He liked it chopped and splayed out as flat and wide as possible from the near-centre lick at the top of his head. While he waited for the haircut, Wendy did his nails and, once again, they discussed her breasts in glowing cinematic terms: lighting, motion, fabric. She expected a part in his next film. Once the studio was up and running his stated goal was to do a fair bit of local casting. He chose to shave his entire neck level with the top of his ears and start the rest of his hair at a uniform two-inch length for the summer. On the way to his secure office in the telecommunications building, an office he traded for subcontracts from Further North Corporation; ie, feasibility studies for Hollywood-Arctic co-productions, location cost studies, etc, Evg walked a few streets out of his way to Park Avenue and had a look at his beach house from the lookout over the bay. He still hadn’t been down to look inside, but apart from rust-dripping bullet holes in the steel siding, the cottage looked fine, picturesque even, perched as it was on boulders several metres above collapsing ice on the high-water line. He followed a flatbed of white blue-lined marble slabs and red roof tiles along Park Avenue, stopping at the rise where he sat on a stone and watched the annual crew of Columbians, up from Montreal, pouring over his neighbour’s property: the Giardano Villa. What a mess it was. The gardens appeared to be burned, and this year slabs of sea ice from a fall storm had taken out a gazebo and part of the veranda. Dirty-white blue-pocked blades of melting ice contoured the debris of pots, palm trunks, trellises and trailing vines on the sea-side terraces. More than the usual number of roof tiles were scattered about, some thrown as far as the sea wall, and large black patches of exposed roofing material suggested water and ice damage to the interior. Evg wondered whether Giardano had a budget against which he measured the cost of restoring his estate every spring. He smiled: council would meet to discuss once again the nothing that was done about this eyesore, this preposterous wreckage on the shore which they put up with every spring until the barge arrived. Evg was prepared to be generous, for his part, with his fiscal friend and six-week neighbour.
dinner at the villa
The barge made it through a deteriorating ice pack and work on the villa began in earnest. The Italian mogul would arrive soon. After the weeks of pampering plants, rebuilding terraces, restoring walls, ceilings and floors, Giardano’s yacht was spotted on the horizon, a helicopter offloaded passengers, and Evgeny was invited to dinner. Basil and mustard fumes rose from the tomato salad, drifted off the lips of the woman on his left and entered his nose when she turned to him. She spoke French to him, and Italian. Her lips were wide and painted maroon, glossy, bruised; Evgeny felt assaulted. He wanted to tell her that she had the most beautiful collection of Inuit facial features he’d ever seen; that he was awestruck by her image among the Italian Vogue models around the table. He said that her Italian was mag, and her French exquisite, choosing latin adjectives that he was sure she’d recognize since every third or fourth word of hers was recognizable to him. Evg decided that her topic was love and that she was mocking him for looking at the woman sitting across from them, who was stuffing huge wads of dripping lettuce, intricately and languorously woven onto her fork, into her mouth. They watched her, mutually aroused by her sensual gestures and appearance. The woman on his left was asking him, Evgeny thought, whether he would like the woman of their mutual desires for a lover in one of the villa’s bedrooms, and he nodded yes to all her suggestions. The salads disappeared and Tulah said her name. She checked to see whether Evgeny was in agreement. He was. She took his hand and led him from the dining room, along a majestic hallway, and out to a garden terrace facing the sea. They crossed it part way and Evg stopped. He was about to turn towards Tulah and offer a kiss but she anticipated him and pushed against his lips and thighs. As his penis rose, he felt her genitals probing his. One hand was on his ass and with the other she lifted her skirt and pressed him against a thick stem in a pot. Spiky fronds, dead and brown, jabbed his head and he lost his balance. He sat with a thunk facing wet thighs. Tulah pulled him up and out of the pot and dusted off his bum, not playfully, he thought, as if to present him respectfully to a banker. She led him through a squat wing of the villa filled with light and broken marble statuary, classical designs, and into a tiny cloister of crystalline white gravel with herb-bed borders. Here she fucked him. Insisting on complete nudity, she laid him down on the stone bench (supported by an inlaid marble pad that was the centre of this sacred space) and stretched out above him. Encouraged to abandonment by her no-nonsense lust, Evgeny bounced up and down beneath her non-stop thrusts and came within a minute, way too soon. To compensate he rolled the two-backed beast over on the narrow slab and bore down on the soft body with all the pressure gravity could provide him. She did not object. She knocked his elbows aside in order to feel his weight. He felt her lungs fight for the ancient air, felt her vagina twinge and her ass lurch against the stone as he continued to move his penis inside her. She made no sound, no protest. Suddenly Evg was flat on his back, crushed into jagged stones and dizzy with a mild concussion. His body felt wonderful and Tulah, lying spread-eagled above him and looking into his eyes, said so too.
The gorgeous woman they’d admired at dinner walked up and said, in English, I’m late.
Oh no, not late, cried Tulah. The two of them fell into the glassy-sharp gravel, biting, fisting, licking, kissing and sweeping away stones to form a bed of white sand. Tulah alternately whispered, shouted and cooed the woman’s name, Trizia, until her body settled into the sand and fell asleep. Evg sat on the stone bench and hummed variations of the jazz riffs he was practising for Sunday’s service. Trizia got up and, with tears in her eyes, took Evg’s head in her hands and tipped him onto his back along the bench. She sat on his face for a minute and fondled his balls with her tongue until he was harder than before, rock hard and inert. Then turning and straddling him she fucked his cock with knee bends. Her sandy cunt fell and rose, fell and rose on his penis while her hands tightened around his throat, cutting off his air. Evgeny was renowned for his underwater distances and held on comfortably for two minutes. Then a cold spike shot through his lungs, another through a specific part of his brain, somewhere specific and critical to the name of God, and another drove through his urethra from base to tip. Pure excruciating sensation exploded everywhere at once in his body and he blacked out. He awoke in intense pain, his body lying on the cool yellow and pink marble below the bench. His scream had wakened Tulah and brought several other guests running with emergency supplies. As soon as Evg could move he coughed up blood. His eyes were bleeding and his glans was huge. Its surface had erupted into a berry of volcanoes and fissures oozing with fluids, clear and bloody. More blood spilled steadily from the mouth of his urethra. Tulah swaddled his dripping orifices with gauze and tape, cleaned his ass and scraped a puddle of shit from one end of the bench into a towel. Then she led him blind to the clinic for treatment.
Two hours he lay in the burn unit haunted by religious devotion. He loved this mode; the guts inside him burned with love and mingled with the pain ebbing and flowing between cortex and cock. Then the presence of God became too strong and he had to cut it with the Cute Guy script; the problem of titles and opening credits.
Or this one
Cute Guy is Dead: Living Testimony that Nothing Ends,
that Life Goes on Because in Our Hearts We Know
that He Lives with Jesus in Heaven
The opening credits should include all the greats, he thought. Pliny, Plato, Plutarch, Paul, Ben, Jerry, Bob, Anita, Chris, Waldo, Wassily, Xerxes, Yves and Zora, with acknowledgment of wonders wrought by each.
his dinner date, Tulah tonight
While waiting for his dinner date, Tulah tonight, Evgeny chatted with journalists milling about the lobby of his hotel. It was day fifteen of The Story. A routine had set in and Evgeny was able to extract himself from the exhausting demands of infrastructure for fifty new residents. The ambiance at The Hotel resembled a boarding school dormitory, and a shambles of tents, chipboard shacks, ice-block walls and tarps was rising behind it to house late-coming journalists who couldn’t beg space in the crowded rooms. The bathrooms, bar, snack shop and restaurant were still providing for everyone. Prices were actually falling with all the cargo these world-weary travellers were shipping in.
Wep, the reclusive one, was a brilliant novice reporter from the Baltics. Because of the respect he was shown, Evg arranged a private table for him at The Beached, always reserved. Wep was breaking the story and other reporters hovered around the bar whenever he was there (which was never for work) and pretended delight with their prime source. He was making everyone nervous with this uncanny discovery and by being the one to break the story in the twenty-first century.
Averse to research, the suckling reporters got their copy from Wep’s published articles linked back to them by frantic employers. They hammered out copy in Bar Ulittaq. To accommodate them, Evg had slapped together a late capital improvement. The Hotel lounge had a long bar, tables for two to ten, and a wifi section with twelve bar-height, three-legged, two-foot-diameter tables, each with a tall cushioned stool, also three-legged; a mistake, but it promoted good posture. It was after watching wifi patrons taking up whole tables and constantly shielding lines of vision to their work that Evg constructed these stand-alone bar desks with light-diffusing side screens which protected his clients’ laptops and tablets from spies.
Evgeny himself was intent on securing film rights to this story, now so widely disseminated, bigger every day. He wanted Wep to collaborate on a script for film. He thought it would be fair compensation for his part: gracious host!
Wep lived in an igloo in front of the hotel, not in the overflow area out back. It was built from blocks of snow and glazed with sea-ice. A photograph of it glistening under its sprinkler and reflecting tarp was on the wire and a line drawing of igloo with a palm tree continued to show up as the story’s logo in newspapers around the world. Wep’s invention was this: a geodesic dome of thermal-transfer tubing sandwiched between two layers of snow blocks. A solar-powered pump circulated coolant through the frame, absorbing heat from the walls. The igloo was lasting even as the sun climbed higher each day; a popular topic of editorial sidebars. Next time he did this, Wep said, and he might patent it, he’d refine the dome with at least double the length of tubing (the current build needed patching on warm days in places where the tubing was spread too thin) and make it last through a hot summer.
I still haven’t opened your letters, Evg, Tulah said during dinner. The line served as endearment to kickstart moments of intimacy between them.
The effect was immediate. Evg lifted his foot out of its shoe and with his toes caressed Tulah’s leg from ankle to knee and back again.
You have better reach than that, eh? she cajoled.
Table clothes at The Beached were long and Evgeny thought he could risk a toe in among the labia, carefully weighing civility against Tulah’s horny idea. The restaurant was filled with journalists covering Arctic Atlantis. They were adventurous, worldly-wise, sensationalist – a toe-fuck wouldn’t interest them. Tulah pulled off Evgeny’s sock, folded and set it down beside her plate.
Oh good! he protested. I’m sure I disagree with everything I put in those letters. If you read them all now, back to back, you’d find a series of refutations. I corrected one letter with the next. Please don’t read them now.
Don’t worry, they’re gone.
What? You threw them out? Good. Now I can tell you what I really think. What was it we were talking about?
How much can you feel with your toe? she asked.
Feels wet, I think. Are you crazy?
He did and was immediately welcome. Tulah began to rock into his toes and smile, lifting her glass to suggest a toast. Evg withdrew his foot and sat up to refill both their glasses from a bottle of white zinf. Tulah slid down in her chair but held her glass higher and reached her middle finger over the rim, dipping it in the wine several times.
Come back, Evg. I want to drink this toe-jam wine. Where’d you go?
Evgeny slid down in his chair again but didn’t raise his foot immediately and Tulah set her glass on the table.
Tell me first, he said, why didn’t you open my first letter? Not that it pisses me off or anything, but you’ve never actually told me why.
She just smiled at him. She had a pouty expression that he hadn’t learned to decipher. But her eyes were wet and Evgeny raised his toe to her once more.
Toe and tell, she whispered through drawn breath. The truth is, I’ve never opened the first two or three letters from any lover, or anyone I thought was writing to ask for love. That’s it. I can’t say why. Not opening letters seems to be a service I can offer.
Evg didn’t really want to know what she meant. He’d never been sorry that Tulah hadn’t opened his stupid letters because the things he’d written, or more likely the way he’d written them, had embarrassed him the moment the envelopes were sealed. I’m surprised I mailed any of them, he said, wiggling his toes deeper, feeling camaraderie again.
Ooooh…ah… she sighed. It’s an act of defiance to drop a letter in the mail: sealing, stamping, addressing, posting. What a disgusting thing. I know the guy who throws up beside the mailbox.
Letters are useful, he said. They’re an efficient way to introduce characters. Anyone reading a letter is immediately serious, intelligent, reflective, literary. And of course letters are an instant romance prop in anything Victorian. If a film’s opening shot has a character reading a letter, say silently at her kitchen table, no voice-over, no one else around, you already have a strong sense of two people and something serious going on between them, probably love, if not death.
Cultural reflex, cliché. There’s this series of teaching shorts called Tropes & Types, standard fare at film school. One called The Letter opens with a sack falling out of a Royal Mail stagecoach and a letter gets smushed into the mud by a spoked wheel. The guards stop the coach, gather up the muddy mail, but miss that one. Then later, when the track is powder dry, a lone rider, a soldier armed with musket and muzzle-loading pistols, spots a corner of the letter. He digs it out of the road, reads it and laughs quite uncontrollably, but by the time he looks up he’s sobbing. He stuffs the letter into his coat pocket and while swinging up onto his horse to ride off to war, the letter falls and the wind carries it into the woods. Next, the driver of a fancy carriage catches sight of it, reigns in his horses and fetches the letter for his passenger, a woman dressed in finery. She reads the letter in the motionless carriage and sobs. Then, as the sun comes out from behind a cloud, she waves to her driver and the carriage rolls towards the sunny fields ahead. She adjusts her body for comfort, laughs sweetly, and flings the letter into the dusty air behind her.
Is there a sound track? Tulah enquired.
Only music, as I remember it.
Then why do you say that her laugh was sweet, for instance, or that the soldier was on his way to war?
Just because he’s a soldier, she’s a lover. That’s precisely the point, Tulah. A film only has time for sketchy information: period costume, a few profession and class markers, simple gestures indicating levity or sorrow, and cultural props like the letter. In this case a letter is the focus of everything.
I think it’s the camera, not the letter, that focuses everything, Evg. I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but the sobs and laughs, are they close-ups?
Yes. Lingering shots on the faces and downward pans to include the letter with its bright red seal.
Were you moved by the facial gestures? Isn’t that what you remember most, feeling the joy and sorrow in the laughing and crying faces?
No, I disagree. That’s not what I felt. I felt the letter. The camera’s focus makes the letter into a spiritual or mental object. It’s intellectual property, working like a magnet on the emotions. But the emotions are mundane, Tulah. All I wanted to know was, What’s in the letter? The fate of two or three people are bound up in it.
Not mine I’m afraid. I mean, forgive me, Evg, I’m just thinking I’d want to know where the guy is going, too, but I might be happy just to look at his laughing tear-wet face. I wouldn’t know where he was going, or where he’d been, without the film telling me. You know what I mean?
Yeah. Sentiment. You’d wallow in clichéd sentiment.
The sincerity left Tulah’s face again, making it impossible for Evgeny to read her. Oh Evg, yes yes yes. That toe is so accurate. Did you learn how to do this from the movies, too?
Everything I know I learned at Saturday matinees before I was ten. Evgeny topped up their wine glasses, this time without sitting up. Film is love, he said. Laughter, tears, horror, war, fear, betrayal, faithfulness, spectacular strength, clothes, hair, nudity, sex, everything is love. Anyone only goes out to see a film in order to love and be loved. So is it surprising that every student but one in my class predicted that the soldier and the lady would soon be lovers and that the letter would define their relationship somehow? I remember thinking that the letter writer, a woman, and the man to whom she’d written should be older lovers, but in every other respect identical to the lady/soldier couple. And while the old couple’s relationship is destroyed by the loss of the letter, the new lady and her soldier are brought together by it. Reincarnation. And all kinds of dramatic things could be done with the coincidental crossing of paths between the four of them, a tragedy of errors. What do you think? Plausible? In a cinematic sense?
Tulah didn’t answer right away; just looked lovingly into Evgeny’s eyes. After a minute she moaned, Mmmmm. Mmm. Meow. You want to know what I learned from the film, Evg? That the letter in the mud is the key to my existence. I’m glad you told me about it.
Your mocking me.
Oh don’t stop. Not now. Not now. Her voice rose and an indecipherable set of sounds squeaked out. She quickly relaxed. I am, she said. I mean I did, but not now, not anymore. Now stop. She laughed hard and tilted her chair way back.
Evgeny’s bare foot fell to the floor with a thump and the rubbernecking of several guests embarrassed him.
That letter, she said, explains everything. I hate it. I’m always reading and rereading that stupid letter. It never stops. I hate it I hate it I hate it! She began to sob, dabbing her eyes with Evgeny’s sock.
What? I don’t understand, Tulah. Was there some disaster in your life because of a letter? I don’t know what your feeling.
Good. I know. No. What it is . . . I’m okay. What it is is the terrorism. Intimacy – intimate manipulation, intimate loneliness, intimate confusion – this is all I can seem to read in a lover’s letter. You associate letters with good feelings, Evg, that’s good. Not me. Thank God for Hallmark.
Tulah was in no hurry to recover her composure and babbled on through her tears.
You know what I think it is, the difference between you and me, Evg? I can send cards because someone else does the writing, designs the card. No one really believes that this communicates love. It’s a gesture that suggests love perhaps, but when I buy it, sign it, mail it, or someone else does and I get it delivered to me, it’s a completely dislocated moment. I don’t think any love is added to the world.
But, Evgeny prodded, don’t you feel something from the gesture? The sender’s good wishes, thoughts for you, some contact or energy between you?
True – contact, energy – that’s true, but it’s not between anybody; it happens in my head somewhere. I always know that a greeting card is doing this. I’m sure my lover and I depend on the card to replace our relationship with a simple assertion that it exists. I feel like such a sucker.
May I have my sock back?
Sorry. Pass me your foot and I’ll slip it on. You want the lemon-water rinse?
Evgeny tried to pull away but Tulah had his ankle in a firm grip and things on the table were rocking. She was laughing and he relaxed and accepted the water and a caress from her hand before she pulled on the sock. Thanks, he recited.
You know what it might be, Evg? Letters used to perform the function of greeting cards. A victorian love letter, I imagine, consisted of reams of Hallmark notes. Nobody, probably, expected more than eloquence, more than an appeal to Love, Beauty, Truth, one or other of those capital letters, to create the illusion of a relationship. That’s what you thought of, eh Evg, when you put so much stock in that letter in the mud? Those classic letter-writing feelings? I feel better about it. I might open a letter like that. Not the kind I’ve been getting. The letters I get try to say what they mean, replicate real-time speech, sincerity, credibility. At least the French language still recognizes the difference between its oral and scripted versions. Nothing written in French is believable. A huge advantage for love. I used to get wonderful letters from a guy in Morocco. I wonder if Arabic needs French as much as English does? When’s the last time you saw a love letter in English that didn’t either die the death of the novel or turn into an analytical essay? I need a French-writing lover again, Evg. And oh, now I know how I’d script that training film. The woman’s driver – a beautiful boy, right? – runs into the woods for the letter but doesn’t return. The woman runs after him and finds him in tears, reading, seduces and fucks him beautifully right there in the forest. The end. What do you think?
I think you’re dangerous. I think you ignored the soldier and used the driver as an excuse to fuck. Where’s the story?
Maybe no story. She wrote to the soldier originally, then realized in the woods that she’d also written to this boy. The film proves it. He was a beautiful boy, good with horses, and she fell on him. God bless the weeping soldier. He shouldn’t have laughed.
Not fair. You’ve changed the original script. She laughs at the letter, too, remember.
That’s to be expected if she wrote it; her crying too. Are any of these reporters French or Quebecois, Evg?
Not that I’ve noticed, but I thought Wep was French-speaking. But then again, I thought he was gay. You and your girls are visiting him quite routinely, Tulah. What’s happening?
Actually, Evg, you’re right on both accounts. Wep is French-speaking and gay. Also quite celibate, emotionally disturbed, and brilliant. My girls and I are just doing our job: loving him. He needs a lot of special attention right now. Erieth is doing the most extensive set of readings I think she’s ever done. He’s a fascinating case, Evg.
So what do you do with a celibate gay man? And what’s it like inside that ice house?
There are no lurid details, Evg. We talk a lot. Whatever’s happening, he talks almost non-stop. We’re quite dominant with him, smothering him with tits and vaginas and keeping the emotional intensity very high. He rarely ejaculates while we’re with him but he shivers because we make him watch us – no clothes, no blankets, no closed eyes – but it’s as much from the fears that haunt him than the cold. He believes he killed his mother.
He might have killed his mother. He feels responsible. I shouldn’t say more.
But you don’t believe him?
I believe him, I just don’t believe it matters as much as he’s making out. Women die. What does it mean to the men who kill them? In Wep’s case, everything. His mother’s death is destroying him, so we’re introducing him to dead-women therapy to cure him, or at least help him cope. As a serial killer he’ll be okay again, I think.
Giving him another script to live by?
Or die by. He’ll kill or cure himself. But you’re right about the scripting. I should have consulted you because we made mistakes. Your amazing mind alludes me a lot though, Evg, and I hesitate.
Over coffee Tulah made an unprofessional decision and told Evg more about the dead-women therapy in progress than she should have, to test it against his cinematic expertise. They were calling the job, Mommaweb.
Capturing his mother, cute, said Evg. But you know, spider webs don’t catch spiders, eh?
Yeah, well, maybe spider’s don’t call their webs spider webs. Does the World Wide Web catch wide worlds? Anyway, boys secrete a sticky substance with which to weave webs and catch themselves mothers.
In the first sessions Tulah and her girls concocted a script for Wep in which they had him imagine his own mommaweb. His mother, they suggested, was the first to be caught and wrapped up in his sticky ropes. They instructed him to imagine that she had long since been sucked dry and that he should concentrate on capturing more mothers until he could feed continually on fresh woman and maintain a functional level of mental health.
For several days they tried this but it wasn’t working. Something was missing from their analysis.
One night, after all the regular customers had been taken care of, the women held an emergency meeting to deal with the Wep case. They worked well into the morning, so worried had they become about him, and finally locked onto the obvious: the boy part of Wep was trapped by his live mother, not the dead one. The boy was impaled on a sentiment enforced by a powerful child-mother thing. It was defined by only a few icons, the whole scene archetypal, but because of it the man could never be happy with a dead mother. So Wep’s dead mother remained alive, a monument in his brain all the more debilitating because he felt guilty for her murder. Tulah’s commandos decided to put Wep into a deep story about his mother’s death which he could tell and retell himself. When they presented the plan to Wep he agreed, but he wanted to begin with his recollection of what actually happened because realism, he said, was still very important to him, comforting.
What had actually happened was this. Wep had returned from a trip to Baghdad where the markets were heaped with Soviet and American-made electronic appliances competing for the allegiance of Muslim souls. As a reporter he received many of them as gifts. His mother wasn’t home when he got back, and to console himself he opened the packages and began hooking up the power cords and transformers to the kitchen’s electrical supply. When his mother returned from the village she was drunk from someone’s home brew and quite sick. Wep put her to bed and lay down with her, and after helping her through several scary dreams, left the house to cruise the paths along the river. It had been one of those warm nights when he could climb into the top branches of a young trembling aspen until his weight would bend it and swing him down within reach of his friends. Whether they fucked in the tree or fell out, no harm was done, and the aspens would stand straight and white by morning light.
Before he got home there were shouts for him echoing along the river banks. He ran toward his house and found it destroyed by fire, a smoking ruin, and those gathered asked him if his mother had been home. Through his sobs, Wep confessed to them all, then and there, that he’d caused the fire by wiring appliances to an incompatible system, and that he’d left his mother in order to avoid her, to go out with his friends and not think about her. The crowd had assured him that if he was right, his mother, that God-forsaken drunk, would haunt him the rest of his days. It turned out to be true.
Tulah and her girls decided that Wep must reimagine both his mother’s persona and the circumstances surrounding her death. They roughed out a scene, which Tulah could no longer remember, and adapted it continuously to Wep’s specific needs and situation. By now, telling Evg about it, the story still contained many features of the mother’s actual death because a connection to realism, as Wep continued to insist, was necessary to his recovery.
When I arrived home from my trip, he was saying now, my mother was at a friend’s place getting stinky drunk. Sure, she’d left a note, half expecting me to arrive that day, but it exhibited complete ignorance of the detailed travel plans I’d given her the night before over the phone. I waited to call her, setting up most of the new appliances by the time I did. I told her that I’d expected her home long ago, according to her note; asked her to come home right away, I missed her. She laughed and told me she’d come soon; that she was having a wonderful time. Then we lost the line. The phone rang while I was asleep under a new electric blanket. It was her. She wanted to know what I’d brought her. I told her I needed her, that the appliances were a gift of love which had already become pathetic, an occasion of crisis in my emotional life. I was sick for missing her and confused. I told her this and refused to respond to her avaricious questions, but she laughed at my problem and hung up. Then she felt horribly guilty, of course, and left for home right away. I’d recovered from my anger and was fast asleep when she arrived.
She was too sick to appreciate the gifts. Instead she bawled her eyes out pretending to miss me, threw up on her bed which I cleaned, and finally fell into a delirious babble about her appliances and her beautiful boy. I had to leave the house, and though I was travel-weary, I walked out along the river. It had been one of those warm nights when I could climb into the top branches of a young trembling aspen and my weight would bend it and swing me down within reach of my friends. Whether we fucked in the tree or fell out, no harm was done, and the aspens would stand straight and white in the morning light.
Before I got home there were shouts for me echoing along the river banks. I ran towards my house and found it destroyed by fire, a smoking ruin, and those gathered asked me if my mother had been home. Through my sobs, I confessed to them all, then and there, that I’d caused the fire by wiring appliances to an incompatible system, and that I’d left mother in order to avoid her, to go out with my friends and not think about her. The crowd assured me that if I was right, my mother, that God-forsaken drunk, would haunt me the rest of my days. It turned out to be true, Wep said, and added, I think now it’s more my fear of dying in a fire. If Mom could do it, I should be able to, too.
This second track in Wep’s therapy was a concerted attack against his concept of a dead mother. His mother, once dead, only tightened the grip that she had on his heart. Like an adolescent boy, he was constantly killing his mother, every night, taking the blame and crying himself to sleep. It got so he’d murder her at night and several times over by noon the next day, and cry for her each time. Wep agreed that he had trouble dealing with specific women as if they could actually die. So, on successive visits the girls were forcing him to watch them tell the truth, lie, cry, laugh, dance, abuse and soothe their bodies and his. We’re driving all the singular mother mother-worship out of him and replacing that colossus with several ordinary dead women, namely us, Tulah explained. We’re all fairly familiar with our own deaths so we qualify to do this work, but each of us imagines death in a narrow, specific way. So we rotate our visits in order to present him with a broad spectrum of mother mythologies. One is the pre-oedipal phallic mother, another the oedipal-taboo, another makes herself an available but penis-bound and abusive mother, bringing along gay video porn and berating him as he masturbates; another is egoless, amorphous, and Wep likes her best. The mother-images are forced on Wep with caresses to simulate mother-love and the therapy is finally having the desired effect. Wep is enjoying all his mothers and, more to the point, is able to imagine their deaths with them. The therapists surmised that Wep would be able to watch them die now, without having to kill them. And he was beginning to believe that his birth mother was a real dead woman whom he could take or leave, who could finally occupy appropriate and proportional space among his needs and desires.
Could you set up an interview with him for me, Tulah? Evg asked.
Tulah looked at him bewildered. Finally she said, Well, I’m not his secretary. Ask him yourself. Now she was tired.
I mean, just let him know I want to see him.
Everybody wants to see him, Evg. But sure, I’ll say he should talk to you. What about?
What do you mean, what about? The Story. He’s writing my story. I should have film rights. Don’t you agree?
It’s not his story. It’s mine. My girls and I are feeding Wep The Story. It’s what we’re really doing in that igloo. She looked steadily into Evg’s eyes. The rumours are true, yes. I think you should know.
Evgeny sat in stunned silence, at first amazed that Etta’s tropical Atlantis was Tulah’s story, then embarrassed and outraged that she was telling Wep and not him. This was like the biggest event, enterprise, story, ever to hit Ulittaq – far bigger than the occupation which was in any case a boring inevitability – and he could have had it! He and Tulah were one in Christ, partners in a lot of business. He was furious. He stood up, took a step toward the exit, stiffened and turned back, flopping onto the chair.
It was time.
Why to him?
He also lives in an occupied land.
But it’s over there. They’re free there.
Somewhat, for awhile, yes, but he’s poor. Too poor to produce television news and entertainment. You’re whining, Evg.
But this is my life here, Tulah. Awwwww, he moaned. I could do everything I’ve wanted to do here with this story.
You mean make the movie? I’m sure you will!
How? He’s got the story. He’s selling it willy nilly. It’s getting away if not already gone.
The Story comes and goes, Evg. Just happens to be trending. Check out the literature.
The Rose Manuscript, for instance.
The Rose . . . there’s a manuscript?
The urtext. Of course. How else does a story gain traction?
I thought oral tradition. I thought molecular psycho-ephemeral transmission, a mushroom, a dream, whatever. I never suspected a manuscript. There’s a Rose?
Well, no one usually wants to know, but yeah. The original manuscript was archived at the University of Saskatchewan until 1967. It was stolen by a microfiche technician and it’s here in Ulittaq.
Here? There’s a document here?
Probably lost in the bunker but I have a photocopy and two of the three original issues of EnriEtta, the U of S journal that appeared in 1933-34 alongside a short-lived course in Etta studies.
Tulah pulled a phone out of her bag, shushed Evgeny with a wait-for-it look, swiped and prodded the screen and handed it to him. Here’s a sample from my main guy at ettaonline, she said. Works as a kind of intro.
Too stunned to say anything, Evgeny read: Etta’s clan of mutineers, now known as the Comutii (a name taken from the title of a poem in the Island Archive), developed a poetry of mostly Saxon nouns and Roman verbs, and a prose that somewhat reverses this pattern. Scholars of the extant texts are coalescing around the term plainspeak for the prose style, but there is some unsettling baggage attached this term. An audacious paper submitted to EnriEtta by Rose Mark, a graduate student at the University of Saskatchewan, not only argued that the Island texts are a flawless example of plainspeak, but also surmised that they are the work of a single author, Rose. Since there is no indication anywhere in the surviving texts that Etta’s companions included a Rose, Rose Mark was vilified in the next issue of the journal for shameless projection. Although her one-author thesis still stands, there were no subsequent citations to Ms Mark or her paper in Island literature until, a generation later, she is quoted by another graduate student, Gilbert Enief, in a paper titled, Plainspoken Rose: All She Wrote. Eneif’s essay defines plainspeak as the capacity of a speaker or author to remove discernment from verbal expression, leaving it pure, so-called pure. One of his analogies is the filtering of nutrients from wheat flour to produce pure bread. He argues that plainspeak is a linguistic fantasy and ruse. Whereas simple and common language is presented as zero sum content, it is categorically jazzed with nuance ranging from fine to crude whereby an author manipulates readers in a complex rhetorical strategy. Enief’s case study to illustrate the machinations woven into finely nuanced plainspeak is the compendium of Island texts by the so-called Rose, an attribution he adopts from Rose Mark without scruple, referring to them throughout as the Rose Manuscript.
So there’s this huge body of literature. My God. He can’t quite look at Tulah. Why are we fucking around . . .
why are we fucking around . . .
Yeah, you could go the academic route, but then it’s just a revival of the same old. Now you could give it that lost manuscript spin, I guess. Could that bring some dollars? So, yeah, Tulah shrugged. But not you, Evg. There’s always a grad student looking for a break-out topic. I’m sure a thousand of them are already clicking their way back to Etta or over to her island. No, go for the film, Evg. Work with Wep.
But Wep hasn’t made any reference to the manuscript! How’s that possible?
I told you. He knows what I tell him. He does no research. If he has, he’s decided my story’s better.
But surely someone by now . . .
I know, go figure. Anyway, Wep wants to write a book. The journalism is pretext, sensationalism. He says it creates markets for more sustainable genres: blogs, interviews, speaking tours, comics, games and toys. I’ll suggest that he give you exclusive film rights. Anyway, you should go see him.
Evg decided he’d whined about enough and would get more out of this with some old-fashioned hustle. Ask him to see me, he said.
I will. Evg?
Please. No hard feelings, okay? I am your friend. It’s just that I have to live here too, you know. Leave me something.
Evgeny got up, stood behind Tulah’s chair until she got up, gave her a peck on the cheek when they were out in the hallway, and headed for home too tired to think past what-the-fuck.
invited inside the igloo
Evgeny was one of few to be invited inside the igloo. At the appointed hour, he crawled in and found Wep down, sprawled on the floor, forehead pressed into a keypad. Wep’s entire workspace, all the desktop ornaments, screens and notebooks, were spattered with blood and potato chips.
What happened to you! Evg exclaimed, looking at the mess.
Wep got up, waved off the towel Evgeny offered him from beside the wash bowl, and rummaged for paper towels. He dropped towels on splashes of blood here and there. I took a short break to cover a faraway war – an insurgent attack on an American patrol in Iraq, he said as the blood blots emerged along the paper fibres.
Breathing heavily, Wep explained. I got in the way, caught between two charging horsemen: black horse, white horse. Neither the Iraqi nor the American recognized me as a reporter because I’d put down my pad and pencil and white flag, and was trying to open a bag of Frito Lays just as they arrived. Both of them swung at me with rifles and steered their horses together to crush me between them but the horses didn’t touch me. You know, I don’t remember the riders easing their grip on the horses as they went by. They could’ve kicked the shit out of me. Instead, they swung at me with their rifles, one the stock end – cherried my nose; the other the bayonet end which neatly zipped open my bag of chips and cut some skin off the tip of my finger. The finger bled profusely. I smeared my papers and got a lot of blood on the keys as you can see. Is my face all bloody? It wouldn’t stop coming, nose or finger.
Anyway, soon my Iraqi attacker, an old officer, was engaged in killing the American boy. It was a good fight with bayonets and bullets. The boy took the first major hit in the lung, was stuck as with a fork, lifted off his horse and thrown down on his back. Still, he fought for another minute, knocking his attacker down twice. But, realizing he was dead already, tried to act the part honourably, I suppose, and stopped shooting. When he’d finished fighting altogether and was lying on his back blinking into the oil-black sun, I leaned over with my pad in hand, pencil poised, about to ask how he felt. A last heave filled his lungs with the earth’s good air . . . .
That’s all I could think of. The moment needed a poetic line, and the fallen in battle deserve a good breath of air, but of course the air was quite toxic from the fuel of combat. Nevertheless, he sucked a lung full of air, largely through the rip in his chest, and then a sneeze of blood exploded from the wound and drenched me, my notes, hands, face. So you see what a mess I’ve made. Bleeding seems to have stopped.
He wiped off his desk chair and offered it to Evgeny, then sat on a seal skin thrown over the ice bench along the wall and tipped his head back against the ice. He closed his eyes and waited for Evgeny to speak.
Evg was pleased when Wep refused to waste their interview time cleaning up. The keyboard no longer worked so Evg promised to send Donnie over with a new one. Then he divulged what Tulah had told him. That she was the source of the Island Story. Don’t worry, top secret, he said. She wouldn’t even give me the story. Tulah and me are like this, he added, tugging forefinger-thumb loops.
Evgeny shuffled through some potato chips on the desk and popped a clean one into his mouth. He put his voice recorder on the desk.
Wep got his wind. It’s okay, he said. I know what you know. Tulah knows more but she’s shutting the thing down. I’ll be out of here in a few days. You want the house? I could leave it up, take out a patent with you on the next build. I’m sure you could improve it.
Yeah, okay, but I still want this story, Evg pleaded. Whether or not it turns out to be a hit on film.
He thought the story had true value. As television it’ll certainly work: slapstick daytime melodrama featuring the island enslavement of men for sex, trained to erections by flagellation, thus feeding the angst of those millions enslaved every night by the steady flicker of freedom, and comforting them.
What do you say, Wep?
Wep appeared unconvinced, but, attracted to Evgeny sexually, began to reconstruct the bottom story for him. He shifted his weight, checked his nose for fresh blood. You can turn your machine on, he said.
About five in the morning the sleepless sailors got together amidships. The captain and his son, John, sotted on rationed gin, were still up whipping each other and plotting the death of their wife and mother when the second mate who used to be first mate, together with others of the cantankerous and abused crew, grabbed them and recorded their last requests. The ship’s surgeon castrated the two of them and they were put, still drunk and screaming, into a boat with five other sick and dying men and medical supplies for a fortnight. The sailors then hauled their mutinous asses back to England to face the music. This drama was necessary because Henry Hudson would have kept them floating in that fish-shiny sea until ice blocked the straits and they’d have to winter over again at the cost of the few lives that were left.
What were the mutineers thinking? That seven hating, hurting men could thrive in the new world? That they’d discover enough men, women and children to satisfy their lust on these sparse shores? Or what?
Rowing with all his might to keep up with the sluggish ship, the sobering captain finally shouted up his last request, addressed to the boy’s mother, his wife, pleading with the new captain and the new cabin boy to give her his love and all his pay. Mrs. Katherine Hudson got the message via the mate’s confession at the mutiny trial, but couldn’t get a death certificate on Henry Hudson, so none of his money was released to her. That was a mistake!
Mrs. Katherine Hudson became such a raging pain in the side of the East India Company which had sponsored Henry Hudson’s quest for the northwest passage that she was able to restore her fortune and hang out at court once again. She did not however manage to get a statue of Henry Hudson erected in London. In the process of restoring her fortune she ran across Henrietta, or Etta as she’s known, hanging out with Anabaptists in London.
A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1612)
Mennonites? Evgeny exclaimed.
Yeah, well, the London variation. They dropped the Menno thing. You know about them?
They keep popping up. This Thomas Helwys is a trip. If this is boring . . . .
No, no. How does this Elvis figure in?
He was one of Etta’s lovers in London. I’ll get to that. Mrs. Katherine Hudson wasted no time. When she realized she was getting the cold shoulder from the East India boys, she decided to work a contact in the French court. She already knew from her teenage son John that Henry Hudson had been fucking a skank named Henrietta. John Hudson was likely prowling the back alley bars for his own gratification when his friends dragged him to the window of a posh club where, within, Henry Hudson was all over Henrietta: hands, moustache, hips. A good mother’s boy, John Hudson told Mrs. Katherine Hudson about it, and it didn’t take her long to ferret out some court gossip on this Henrietta: French with Huguenot connections. Then, in order to learn even more about her mysterious iniquitous husband, Mrs. Katherine Hudson convinced him to take their son on as cabin boy for his next voyage, a super thrill for John Hudson, seventeen, loving and hating his dad, poor kid.
Three years later Mrs. Katherine Hudson and Henrietta were friends, or at least collaborators in their several designs. Henrietta, for instance, had told Mrs Katherine Hudson why she had wangled her way into the posh club and allowed herself to be seduced by Henry Hudson, a sensitive and ponderous lover: it was rebound from the loss of Thomas Helwys, the exiled anabaptist. And, reciprocally, Mrs. Katherine Hudson had told Henrietta that during Henrietta’s sojourn with Thomas Helwys, Henry Hudson had given a tankard-lofting speech at court, a spontaneous display of abstract religious frivolity that tickled another round of anabaptist drownings. Now Henrietta knew that these were the drownings that Thomas Helwys barely escaped on a smuggler’s boat to Holland, leaving town under cover of night, leaving his Henrietta forlorn. It’s doubtful however that Henry Hudson ever heard of Thomas Helwys or thought twice about the consequences of his drunken outburst.
But we jumped a gun.
Soon after Henry Hudson sailed to his fate with his son John, Thomas Helwys returned to England. He did not like the Mennonites in Amsterdam, insisting as they did on holding services in Dutch and disagreeing in Dutch with nearly everything he said in English. So, again on the rebound, Henrietta took delight in Thomas Helwys’ return to London with his manuscript, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (which was published in 1612), and his libido, which came with foreshortened declarations of iniquity, a repression she found magnificent to watch. It would explode again and again in the night. And I imagine he was up all night, those nights, praying fervently to some fucked up God. I say fucked up, Evgeny. I know you are a church man, but I don’t understand this shit.
Anyway, dealing with her own loss of Henry, the money and the status, it immediately occurred to Mrs. Katherine Hudson that she could use Henrietta since she was French and could speak the language like a sailor. She found Henrietta via a royal police officer whose assignment was to keep an eye on this whacky cult that Henry Hudson had once gone on about, home drunk and late one night, howling with laughter, trying to recall a funny poem that the water poet had recited to the hall following Henry Hudson’s suggestion that they drown a few of these baptizers and watch their bubbles swear allegiance to the King. A great cheer had gone up, Henry Hudson was toasted with a fresh round, and it’s likely that he cemented the court’s confidence in his loyalty at that moment. Up until then he’d been sailing for the Dutch and was under scrutiny as a possible enemy agent. Thomas Helwys was one of those religious weirdos marked for trial and death but he escaped the dragnet and found himself among the smug Mennonites of Amsterdam who felt quite safe enough to split hairs over the nature of vaginal fluids in the birth canal of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
I’m off track.
You’ve lost me, too. So Henrietta was fucking whom when?
Sorry. I distract easily. My editors can’t stand it. Cut all this shit, they say, because it’s not journalism. I tell them it’s news. Whatever.
It was Thomas Helwys first, who knows how they met. Who knows why she was in England. She may have come to an anabaptist meeting because she had this Huguenot affiliation in France. Then, when Thomas Helwys fled to Amsterdam she picked up with Henry Hudson and when he left to discover his Bay it was about the same time that Thomas Helwys came back to London. I’m repeating myself. He probably felt that he’d abandoned his flock, but I suspect he couldn’t get the evangelical pussy out of his mind and had to see Henrietta no matter how risky. He also needed to show his English publisher the manuscript in which he clears up the mystery of iniquity; that is, proves that the first and second beasts of the apocalypse are the Roman and Anglican churches respectively, and that the King is a good guy who could secure his tax base indefinitely if he would immediately suspend cash flow to the second beast, let people of conscience believe whatever they like, and channel all that money to himself. A fine theologian and economist!
I assume Henrietta was still among his company when the cop found her, took her aside, and passed on Mrs. Katherine Hudson’s message: that she wanted to see her; would she come willingly? Well, she would. Apocalyptic theologies rather quickly suffer from the law of diminishing returns and I suspect Henrietta was looking for a way out by then. She told Thomas Helwys that she had urgent family business in France.
Wep suddenly thrust a query into Evg’s stupor. This is good, no?
This is a lot of detail, I know, but I think it’ll be good to establish some historical credibility. Do you agree?
Oh, yes, yes. I just wish it wasn’t Mennonites.
Well, it’s not about them. They’re incidental really, but good colour, don’t you think?
Evgeny nodded; Wep dabbed at his nose and plodded on.
They went to Paris together and wangled their way into court, Mrs. Katherine Hudson with her account of British betrayal, and Henrietta with ribald stories of English sailers. But as Henrietta’s performances grew in popularity, and when invitations drew her closer to Marie de Medici’s inner circle, the stories began to touch nerves close to bone. Her jokes were deemed banal, her Huguenot associations came to light, and she was thrown into the street. Mrs. Katherine Hudson put her up in an apartment not far from her own and discreetly introduced her to a friend at court who claimed knowledge of every tavern in Paris.
The next thing we know, she’d hooked up with an old acquaintance, uncle I think, and his circle of disgruntled Huguenots who had secretly decided to explore or revive the initial separatist ideas that John Calvin had entertained, then dismissed, while making a bid for power in Basel.
Why, oh why, was he, like everyone, besotted with the beast?
It was recorded that Henrietta shouted this into the heated debate around a table she was serving. The outburst, and something about the way she tied the knots in her bodice, dropped René Bobin, just then appointed secretary to a delegation setting out for England where these Huguenot renegades would join a meeting organized by the anabaptist, Thomas Helwys, no doubt a plan recommended by Henrietta . . . dropped him into an erotic abyss that saw him and Henrietta fucking in every stage coach, berth and roadhouse all the way to London. The theology that normally arises from these hors-d’oeuvres; namely, unworthy sinner speaks for a terrible God, was softened by the post-coital gaze of Henrietta and the words, Not to worry, René, I’m a perpetual virgin. By now René had the theological skills to work that out. Eventually Henrietta becomes everyones virgin.
Henrietta’s experiences were adding up to a kind of wisdom. She’d agreed to go on this clandestine sortie to London primarily to make things right with Thomas Helwys, tell him straight out how it was for her, his love, what she thinks and feels about it all. But there’s no knowing whether she got to see him or not. In London, everything went wrong for the Huguenot delegation and René Bobin ended up hating her. There never was a meeting between the Huguenot delegation and the Anabaptists, at least no evidence of one.
Too bad, Evg interjected.
Wep opened one eye: a puzzled look.
Better recipes, I mean.
Mennonites could have done with some French cooking tips. Sorry to interrupt.
So you know Mennonites? Holy shit!
My mom was one. Food might have been better, that’s all; maybe God.
Fuck off. I can see how you might need this story more than I do.
So, anyway, Wep continued, Mrs. Katherine Hudson was putting together a deal with the captain of the Mercredi, one of a fleet of cargo ships sailing regularly to the French settlements in Quebec. Her investment, modelled on those of the East India Company, was to secure a shipment of tobacco for distribution to Parisian cafes and beyond. What with the smoking bans springing up all over Europe she was going to make a killing. So, on the return trip, this captain agreed to sail home via Jamestown where the British were warehousing tobacco for high bidders, no matter who, as long as they came with a British letter and seal of one sort or another, a matter which Mrs. Katherine Hudson easily arranged. She was also thinking of her husband and son, of course, and needed someone trustworthy to go on this voyage and look for him. When she learned that the Mercredi would also be carrying brides to the new world and that Henrietta was back in Paris, she concocted an additional plan. That’s how Henrietta got to be on that ship, persuaded that if she could find Henry Hudson, not only would she please her friend, but she could reconcile her life, maybe even start a new one in Henry Hudson’s horrible bay and make everything good again.
The following spring Henrietta boarded the bride boat loaded with settlement supplies and females bound for New France to make homes and babies. Fortunately these were healthy, tough and adventurous women fit for hard work and reproduction. It made Etta’s job easier. It didn’t take her half way across to get most of them to delete the husband from their dreams of life in the new world. The mutiny, if such it could be called, was even easier to arrange. It was a simple swap, negotiated in a minute. The mutinees got sex at regular hours from their new bosses, and absolution with assurance of life everlasting from the priest who was promised the tutelage of the Hudson boy when he’d be found in the new land. The women got to chose where they’d be dropped off, and the captain could continue to fulfill the balance of his contracts.
By the time Etta learned navigation and had steered the ship into Arctic waters, not all the women were feeling great about this wild bid for freedom, but when they anchored within a nautical mile of a tropical island, most of their doubts dissolved. The first scouts reported that getting over the shore ice was difficult in heels, but why didn’t they just wear their ugly boots, and otherwise the place was paradise. There was no sign, however, of Henry Hudson or the boy or anyone else. The place was theirs!
Those of the all-male crew who wanted to exchange labour and sex for life in paradise, possibly forever, could stay, Etta said. One of them did, but the rest of the sailors, along with the priest and several women, left to carry out their original mission. They had parting orders from Etta to look for Henry Hudson and son and tell them where she could be found.
The bride-boat did not reach the French settlements or ever return to its owners. It and everyone were presumed lost, but not before Etta`s message got through to Henry Hudson who, with his boy, was able to reach the island in September of that same summer.
By the time Henry Hudson arrived, the islanders had designed several types of shelters and had cut trails through the bonsai rainforest to the plateau. What the first winter would be like was a matter of pure speculation: they assumed that high winds would penetrate the bubble of hot air, pile snow onto the island and ice up the shoreline. There was evidence of frost damage everywhere but in general the jungle vegetation flourished between the beaches and up the shallow slopes to the central plain. The plateau, less than fifteen meters altitude, was a semi-arid grassland inhabited by a herd of gazelle and a pride of lions. After a feed, the adult female lions slept in the wandering branches of the one enormous banyan tree that grew low to the ground in the midst of a dozen steaming hot springs up there.
Etta’s islanders speculated wildly as to how the jungle-like flora and fauna got there. They were finding and cataloguing more of it every day, specimens they deduced were from equatorial coasts in Africa and South America, even Asia. Then they saw it happen with their own eyes: a humpback drove onto one of their beaches and threw up the contents of its stomach, an enormous heap of tropical rubbage including plants, birds, insects and animals, alive and dead, and two middle-aged men: Mennonites! they shrieked.
Enough for now, Evgeny interrupted, I’ll be back with fresh batteries.
too good a deal to entertain doubts
Recently Peter had revised his part of The Story. He’d heard there were many pieces of coral jewellery with a consistent bluish hue dangling from gold chains around Etta’s wrists and ankles. The island had been a tropical atoll a million years before the ice age. It explained at once the curvaceous sweep in the rise to the plateau, the central depression shaping a large freshwater pond, and the jewellery-grade coral that Etta’s clan was finding when high tides pulled ice off the beaches.
Evgeny: You were here at Easter?
Peter: Just before.
You should always look me up. Stay at The Hotel. On me.
I thought you went to see your mom at Easter.
Not likely. She died two years ago.
Oh, sorry. So you don’t see her.
Tulah says you’re still interested in Etta. That you want to make a movie?
Probably the biggest story out there. But Tulah gave it to Wep!
Sorry to hear that, too. She didn’t understand how it could be your story. She only knows one side of Etta; the kickass female with no mother in the picture. She likes to assume that every one of Etta’s men is infertile. Doubtful, but she may be right, there’s no evidence of human reproduction on The Island, and I haven’t gone to Etta myself to prove her wrong.
I might be putting something together with Wep. We’ll see, but yeah, Etta could be big.
You should meet her.
Let’s go back to the tits and look for her.
We have. I’ll borrow a boat.
Although afraid of drifting pack ice, Evgeny said he’d go.
Downtown will be east of here tomorrow, Peter said. Evg thought this forecast had an odd, flat tone to it. Something’s up, he speculated, but an audience with Peter for spiritual purposes was too good a deal to entertain doubts.
Next day the ice belt had indeed drifted east and Peter prepared the boat with extra gas. It took them two hours to reach the near edge and another thirty minutes to bring the winter camps into view. While he held the bow steady against the ice with the outboard, Peter instructed Evgeny to reach as far as he could over the bow and hammer in a piton. That done, they lashed the boat, killed the motor, and headed for the igloos. Those that had collapsed into a jumble of snow-block shards had been meat caches torn up by bears, said Peter. There were the tits still holding their shape, and each with its nipple adornment in tact. But their vagina had disappeared.
Peter led Evg to the left tit where he hacked open a door through the crusty shell with his long knife and crawled in.
Inside they found the five-meter tunnel open to the right breast and Peter suddenly remembered something. He crawled through the tunnel and began to speak. Testing. Testing. The sound of his voice was clear as a bell in Evg’s ears. Say something back.
Evgeny said, Testing. Two. Three.
No, move to the far side, opposite the tunnel.
When Evg spoke from there, Peter was happy. It’s a baby monitor, he said. Also useful for games and jokes. What did one knocker say to the other? Who’s there!
Also good for those conversations where you have to say something to someone but can’t look them in the eye: restorative justice, couples therapy . . .
Telecommunication wasn’t getting through to Evgeny so Peter crawled back and lay down next to him. Evg was already flat out, eyes closed.
Evg broke the spell. I think I’m on my way to see Sedna, he said.
Nah. She won’t be home. Some space cadet tagged Her on a rock orbiting beyond Pluto so She goes on these ego trips. She’ll come to her senses. Walrus especially are feeling neglected, more ornery than ever. I think you should try Etta. Want to? Say yes or no clearly.
Okay. Stay where you are. Are you comfortable? I’ll be in the control room. Keep your eyes and ears open.
By the time Peter had settled into his Buddha pose in the right tit Evgeny was asleep, REM within seconds; somatic, visual and aural centres busy accessing core memories. Wow, exclaimed Peter. he suddenly had no idea where to look for Etta in this morass. Can you hear me?
There’s too much going on. Can you focus on that finished image of Etta?
Never mind. Who do you see? What are you doing?
His eyes darting about under translucent lids, Evg searches for an organizing principle. Cute Guy, he messages to Peter. We must have a title! How about:
Or this one
of Poststructural Theorists
Who Proclaim the Aberrations and Limitations of Language
Peter shouts: You’re losing me.
Evgeny’s body temperature rises. I’ll explain, he says.
He shows Peter a shot of Cute falling onto the dirt floor of his cabin and dying from a brain haemorrhage, almost instantly, two to three seconds, in the middle of a belly laugh over a joke with his young friend who stands there with a wire-cage live trap in his hands. Cute built it with five variations of an electronic lure he invented. Five mice look for a way out. This boy has more courage than most, Evgeny explains; brings his mail most days, does some cleaning, and now watches him die with a bemused look of concern, that of an inquiring mind. Evg produces a closeup that lingers on the boy’s gaze and does a Cute Guy voiceover in preacher-tones of hell fire: Satan is the manufacturer of imitations. Now the fact that there are imitations proves that real things exist. He adds a soundtrack of country music muffled in the background: I drink and I drink and I hit the floor . . . .
The camera pans Cute’s cabin. Interior. Floor space taken up with three stacks: newspaper, glossy junk mail, plastic wrapping material. A paper-burning stove: red hot. A plastic-burning stove: LEDs blinking on the control panel. Five video monitors display signals from assorted broadcast, cable and satellite receiving equipment. Dirt floor. Steel bunk-bed: top bunk unmade, bottom bunk a lab table for bacterial cultures.
Voiceover (in poststructural-tones of hell fire): Ethics, de Man’s ethicity, is a category – not a value in a field of comparisons – that in J. Hillis Miller’s reading of de Man is an implacable necessity, a categorical demand required by any reading; that is, any reader of any text is always responsible for the social consequences of the reading, and all human activity involves reading; nothing happens apart from reading, from reading what’s on the wall, for instance. However, a great deal happens apart from reading. Shit happens when I sleep, for instance, or watch TV. At any time another might be reading me and writing out a warrant for my arrest; that is, a specific discourse with consequences for my life of crime. Fortunately, I don’t have to participate unless I wake up and try to refer to it. This is like saying: the theory is wrong, as is any ethical theory because ethics insists on error. But also on truth, no? Yes, apparently. Recently again. We now know we now know we now know that error is the only reliable factor. Technically speaking, the entire world of lit windows in the distance, in the night – office scraper, condo scraper, casino scraper – is busy correcting mistakes, adjusting out-of-kilters, diagnosing clogs in drains. It’s a wonder there is so much happiness in the world: delirium, mirth on earth, goodwill to men. Systems that include either an incomprehensibility (knowledge) as one of its limits, or a failure to perform (ethics) as another – and is there a system that does not, universe shrinking or expanding, either way it is too big – are, in all probability, either stupid or bad. Now there remain three or four states of grace:
Texts fill the screen as roll blinds are drawn down over windows in the cabin.
- praise of God
- authenticating behaviour (ie, killing something)
- uttered discourse (ie, saying something)
Can we get back to Cute?
Yes. Right. I might have lost him. Oh, there; he may still be alive!
The camera focuses on Cute Guy’s bed, a steel structure.
Voiceover: Walls and ceilings, or the need for a door no longer exist. Cute does not allow it. He lives on a wide, wide plane. He says it’s wide, the widest possible. It’s a black dirt floor above which light hovers, either as blue panels in two dimensions or as blocks of blue powder in three. He can choose.
Evgeny shoots both and the voice continues: First he selects panel-light. Not bad, but panel-light is lighter than real air, floats him and bed one metre above the floor. In the powder he tests well, blue-hued, but disappears after only a few seconds.
Cute Guy is so certain of the few things he believes that he makes no demands. That there are no walls, therefore no doors and no ceilings heavier than normal air, is almost the only thing he insists on. This feature of his world corresponds to his ability to show up on either side of walls, on any floor, whenever he wants.
Cute Guy says, You too, if you could only see it; he who has nose, throat, ears, etc, quoting Jesus.
Cute falls off his bed, through the dirt floor and onto a bed in the apartment below. Occupy the bed with three pigs if necessary.
Cute Guy says that Jesus himself developed this condition post resurrection; appeared and disappeared wherever and whenever.
Run the pigs into the bathtub to drown.
What kind of world is it when the walls are missing? Cute Guy says that’s the question, exactly what he’s trying to say: a world of nonexistent walls is one with no wood or stone, therefore no trees and no mountains. There’s only dirt the consistency of dust and, of course, steel. The dirt drifts up or flattens out at the whim of four prairie winds and he lives between it and the blue panels. If he vertical-jumps he cracks his head. Saying this reminds him: steel is allowed for structures like my bed because it’s made of the same permanent material as the sky. It’s always existed, even before the world was made he thinks, he’s not sure. He says you can always find a lot of steel stuff emerging from dust. After a good wind there’ll be more. Just remember not to make wall panels or ceiling tiles out of it. That rule might hold true for any stupid world, not just this one. He doesn’t know because he’s made of dust.
Peter checks in. Looks like that Cute Guy needs God, he says.
Oh yes. Real bad. Oh, he’s back!
Evgeny shoots Cute Guy falling on the floor. Floor holds up. He’s naked, prostrate, bleeding from hands and feet. The blood in his body takes ten seconds to drain into the floor. The body turns from pink to blue to white. A slow fade.
Fade in: Jesus sponging up blood in the apartment below.
Cute Guy in prayer: I just want to thank you, Lord. Thank you Lord for steel. We just praise your name in the name of steel, Lord. Wash me brighter than steel. Wash me stainless! Lord Jesus, wash us, Lord, wash over us, the acid wash, Lord Jesus, please. Please you Jesus, steel wool us Lord, please, please you Lord.
Insurrection from the Dead. Damn right I’m dead. Paul says clearly, We are dead in Christ! Cute is comfortable encoding Jesus . . . although he be dead, shall live! And I’m proud to have died in Hollywood, California. No Better Spot. Entitles One. Beach Running. The Ever-Expanding. Agricultural. A Flight from Non-Existence. Wild Gallup Horse Farming. Bait Breeding. Rule Britannia; Redecorate and Rule! The Ever-Coming Messiah. Fear of Death. Infestation. Cancer. Alien Invasion. Hair. Growths. Decay. Bodily Sin. Standard Sin. Picked Up Socks. Of the Writing of Scripts Not Only Is there No End, There Was a Beginning. Linear Inevitability. C+++. Accounting for Money. Space Exploration. Breathing In. Rising from the Dead. Looking at Tomato Cans. Cliff Edges. Canyon Trails. Packaging. Deepest Desire. Burning Man. Wild Woman! Wild Partier! Wild Protester! Wild Consumer! Wild Advocate for a Better Life Inside a Really Great Consumer Society! Consume! Oh, you know. I sell something, too, I guess. I’m a happy married woman so of course I can’t tell you what it is. I have to sell them for what I can get. My babies! Anyway, the money. Every day I take money to the mall shopping. I only face one tiny bit of opposition in the form of a moral concern: I’m spending every loon and destroying the face of the earth and all that lurks therein! My face is my best feature. Every condom cuts a tree in Southeast Asia. Rubber Glove! One hamburger steak equals one tree cut down. But You Can’t Get Better Cuts. Now this: send a condomful of freshly ground beef to: Minister of Equity, NY, NY 200396. Send $50.00 to me, Donna Ploot, c/o this station, TO, TO, 200396.
Run the credits? Evg suggests.
Credits: In Earle Fish Starter’s 1928 classic, We Don’t Care, the line is, “We’re gonna ploot anyhow,” in Benny Didd, ed., Lonesome Old Winds of Disgust: the Collected Songs of Earle Fish Starter (New York: Seagrave & Plott, 1940); cf. lyric, “Ain’t gonna ploot no more, no more,” in Benny Didd, Jr. ed., Songs of the Sixties (New York: Seagrave, 1983) . . .
Peter interrupts. Can you take it back to the top, Evg?
Titles, yes! How about . . .
How I Discovered that I Was Special
Peter: Nice, but no. I mean Cute Guy. Where did you find him?
Go there, Peter directed. He crawled back to Evgeny’s side and kissed his eyes. Then he pushed out the door, got himself through it and replaced the slab. Sleep well, my friend, he said.
Cameras do not lie, said Cute. They do not select. They obey. They point. In Hollywood he had toyed with the 360 degree frame. He coopered serial shots at fifteen degree increments into a single point of view. He thought then that he was recording the motion of life. Now it was the emotion of the Lord. He’d arrayed the cameras among the monitors and speakers and focused them all on the table and chair where he sat in the middle of the cabin. Although he streamed this data on his blog, often with the sound of his sermons and often for days at a time, he could not explain what he was doing apart from raw research into the mind of God.
One thing he was sure of, staring into his lantern on the table, was that a lamp without smoke, a lamp with clean light, was not to be trusted. He nervously moved his chair around the smoking flame in these public sessions. The flame watches me, he said, and I must perform for it. The light sees. The smoke makes suggestions.
Peter punches a hole and looks in. You done, Evg?
Wake up then.
You can. Now!
Evgeny’s body twitches. It’s cool but breathing; no tremors. His lips are crusty, his eyes stuck shut.
Peter breaks in without regard to repairs and pulls the body out. Up on your feet, Evgeny. Evgeny!
Evg stands with a little help, his arms wave for balance. He’s still blind.
Peter places a piece of ice in his mouth and asks him to open his eyes.
I can’t. Oh, there, yes, hello.
I’m not sure I’m ready for the boat yet, Evg whispered. Did we bring chips or anything?
Yeah, here. I picked these up over by those poles. You see them? Peter indicated a row of posts protruding from the ice, listing but still standing near the ruined meat caches. He handed Evg a length of sealskin trace, one of several he’d rolled up in his pocket. Chew on this, he said. Take your time.
Gradually Evg felt better, really good. The tits are floating east, he said. The trace was slimy in his mouth. He thought salty, or he was sucking blood, something stimulating his saliva. I can’t move, he said.
We should go, said Peter.
They walked back to the boat. It was Evgeny’s turn to talk. Where did we go?
Peter looked straight ahead. No Sedna, of course. No Etta either.
Where was she?
Where she always is. On her island I imagine. Are there any women in your life, Evgeny?
It was strange, Evg recalled. There were these numbers: ones and zeros, all happy, jostling each other about, crowded. Then twos were detected at the periphery and a huge stillness came over the place, just for a second. Alarms went off. Business continued as usual but an awareness of the enemy dampened the mood. Should we fire? No. No need to waste energy on twos. They’re unstable. They’ll break up. Ignore them. But then there were rumours of larger numbers lurking among the twos. Were we inside a computer chip? Somewhere on the circuit board a sensor was picking up bigger numbers. I caught a glimpse; in my imagination I thought I saw a three which scared me out of my wits.
That’s right-tit stuff, Evg. They must have picked you up on the baby monitor. Goes way back. Back beyond the numbers there’s a nominad.
The Nominadii, to personify. You were winged by a tactical node.
A what? Is this the Matrix?
Worse. Or better. We’re not sure there’s intent there. May only be numbers, neither alive nor lethal.
Oh, shamans, chiropractors, you know, boneheads.
Evgeny wants to know more, but Peter went silent for a second; then said, Why would I tell an occupier what I can’t even explain to my own people?
There’s a boundary to cross here, Evgeny. You are not a boundary crosser.
What do you mean? I live here, don’t I?
Peter’s glance was nonplussed. Not sure, he said. This boundary is barely physical, geographic not at all, although it originates somewhere in the Levant where I understand a nominadic pirate was detected recently on a social network. Anyway, Houston, we have a problem.
Where the boat should be, a small floe had broken from the belt, boat attached. They could see it about a kilometre south. Peter’s first guess was Sedna.
Sedna? She liked me, Evgeny bellowed. You said she went flying.
Peter answered with a muffled laugh; more a cough. This time of year she’s herding narwhal and walrus. They lift the ice, crack her glass ceiling. The point, he said, is that the whole of Downtown could break up tonight.
The swell was imperceptible to Evgeny until Peter had him concentrate on two objects, the shadow of a crumpled igloo in the near distance and an abandoned something, a speck of black, far away; the slow vertical undulation between them.
Evg’s cell reception was marginal so Peter texted Gillian on his sat phone. Reading the reply, he said, Rescue in four hours. She and Ruth’ll go for the boat first. I think I’ll shoot us something to eat. Good? I’m loaded big for bear, but I may be able to get a goose with a slug if I can belly up on one. Give me a couple of hours. I’ll look for you in the right tit. He gave Evgeny another length of mouldy leather. Go there and try to sleep. I’m curious to see whether the Nominadii will contact you. If they do, give them my regards.
What Peter couldn’t tell Evgeny, whether he knew the Nominadii or not, was this, in a nutshell. The radical subversion of two into bifurcated ones and zeros had so polarized the world that by now two as a relationship of ones was barely recognizable and 2 + 1 all but extinct. The species of twos and threes could no longer be imagined although, as Peter divulged, a trace of unimagined activity might be out there. Peter thinks this is the hum of numerical precursors to Jesus, based on what he’s thought about Jesus since he first heard about him.
Carmen called. She was crying. Evg, can you meet me at the stones?
Of course, said Evg. You there now?
Carmen sat on the arms, a ten-foot long stone bench, the last remnant of an inukshuk predating the town. It was partially buried in the middle of a collection of small stones with no border. As people added stones to the strew, the zen-like garden spread further into the poppies and moss circling the hallowed space, a place for private reflection or, by invitation, where minds could meet. Carmen had a handful of pebbles and a jug of water beside her. Her sandals lay where she’d kicked them off and her feet rested in a shallow depression of white stones that she’d lightly shuffled into a cool bowl. The heat of the midsummer sun was getting to her.
Tulah left, she said, as Evgeny came near.
I know. At least I suspected she would one day.
She came to see me last night. I haven’t stopped crying.
Evgeny sat beside her and stirred a few stones with the side of his runner. She leaned away. You mustn’t stir, she said, unless you tell me what you know.
I will try. I’m trying to find the words, Carmen. I know the rules.
He was right. That was the rule for two or three. The stones took in each word and drew it into oblivion. The stir released the absolved words; often the same words came back with different spin, or someone else’s wicked words might creep out, or shiny new ones would send the conversation into unknown territory. The stones were not reliable at all if the speaker was alone. They rattled around in hollow space spitting words off the walls. But when two people tried the stones, a quantum leap in performance could be noticed although still not really trusted. If, god-help-us, three were there together, the third, whom locals called a ringer, was charged with responsibility to hammer the words back into the stones, again and again if necessary, until they obediently stayed away or came back with a good argument, hopefully an agreement. In every case, only one could stir, one stirrer per issue. If multiple issues were brought to the garden, stirring could be handed back and forth. Courtesy required the invitee to stir first unless it was an invitation to hear a confession; that is, if the one who initiated the intercourse said both: Meet me at the stones, and, I have something to tell you. Children were encouraged to pick up smooth white stones and bring them to the garden. Not only did this assure the supply, because children love to imagine the terrible beauty and brutality of stones and often carried them here with reverence, but it diffused the awful heaviness of adult prayers, the prayers of adults who keened and wailed upon a particular stone, who would add it to the pile and decree that they had gifted a most holy grey, or even black stone. Their stone made the garden holy, holier than thine.
So Evg had been invited, he would stir.
Tulah isn’t my problem, he said.
Not your fucking problem?
No. She’s more of a problem solver.
A service technician? What? Does she come with troubleshooting charts?
Ummm, yeah, sometimes; like she would know how to test the thing.
You know, feelings you can’t describe. Or ideas, but more sensation than thought. The confusing shit.
Carmen waited for the stones. They gave her nothing.
I’m surprised she approached you last night, Evgeny prompted. What did you guys talk about?
You. For one thing. Mostly. This is what’s disturbing. She asked me to forgive her for taking so much of you. What she said was sort of sweet and weird at the same time. She said she needed you in order to understand her work. She had no idea what she was doing until she met you, she said. Then she thought she did for awhile, and now she didn’t.
Did she say where she was going?
Peter has a mission for her. That fucking island.
You’ve got to be kidding. Wow. Did they both go?
Peter was already in Resolute, she said. She took the sched this morning. She’ll be training on his sea bike and then they plan to camp on the island and research The Story.
Etta, holy fuck!
They sat in silence, Evgeny stirring.
Did she say how long she’d be gone?
That’s what I said. What about your business, Tulah? Your church? Your six weeks with Giardano? Evg? All done, she said. Ulittaq has disappeared. Business goes to Meg. Giardano can go to hell. Church is everywhere. Peter probably convinced her of that. And, she said that you had been good to her, useful. So be good to him, she said. Let him stay. I said, No, but she said you’d leave soon anyway. That’s when I noticed a couple of tears trickling down the side of her beautiful mouth. It would be too hard to see you one last time I think, for her. So strange. She looks evil straight in the eye, but one tiny bit of goodness melts her.
I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to know what to do.
Can I stir?
No. Change the topic? What?
Are you nuts? It’s all about you, Evg.
No it’s not. I was just inserting my little roadblock there to nudge some honesty out of you. Why the tears over Tulah?
Carmen picked up a white stone, stood up and threw it as far as she could, a surprising toss. It flew over the high-water ridge of gravel and struck the side of an eighteen-foot outboard on the beach. The aluminum thud depressed them both. There was piss in the stone garden, piss in the boat’s owner, piss in Carmen, in Evgeny; everyone in the whole town with with a bag of piss. Who could speak now?
Evgeny could. He could piss as easily as talk. Pissing never slowed his mouth. Pressure enough at every orifice. Open a valve.
After a minute he said, I’m sorry. Bad question. Gone. Ding in the boat.
Nothing from Carmen, but she sat down and pushed a black stone toward Evgeny’s foot, a centimetre in his direction, and then pulled it back with her toe.
I guess you stirred.
What do you want to tell me?
What do you want to know?
Take off your shoes. I want to wash you.
God, I was afraid you’d pull some ritual shit with that jug.
It’s your ritual, Evg.
My mother’s you mean.
Your kind mother. You know she knew I was fucking you for money.
You were fucking me for all kinds of reasons as I recall. And me, you, for that matter. But she didn’t know about the money, I’m sure of that.
We had one long conversation about it the morning after I first showed up in your scummy basement bed. Shut up. You were asleep and I went upstairs to look in the fridge. I still see all the unpasteurized milk. She caught me with chocolate cake and a jar of pickles. Just shut up. Evelyn asked about my work and, surprising myself, I described the sex work. Anyway, she had guessed and wanted to know why, so she got what we’d laugh at now, the shocking prostitution 101 primer. Way back there in your murky Mennonite past.
Evgeny couldn’t help it: She was Mennonite, not me, I’ve told you a hundred times. There’s no matriarchal succession. It’s a believers’ church. Adults only. Neither me nor dad had any interest apart from the recipes. We ate well. Carbs and cholesterol. God rest her sweet Mennonite buns. So she suspected every girl she saw me with after that, eh?.
Suspected every one to be a woman, you mean. Evg, you won’t go back but you take every opportunity to deny you ever were there. She washed my feet.
She put my feet on a cookie tray and poured water over them from a jug just like this one. I found it on eBay. Dried them with her apron. I was sobbing. After that we spoke about my mom and she sobbed; promised to pray for her every day, and me. I wanted to tell you then, but I needed every penny.
I should follow Tulah.
Evgeny toed the heels of his Adidas and kicked them off. Carmen got down on one knee and poured the water, and then kissed each foot while she dried it with her hair. His face was disfigured with pain.
What you see is a believers’ church, Evg, but I see a guy with feet-down-below-his-knees.
The soundtrack released him. Through tears he blurted: I want to throw myself on you.
I can’t imagine you throwing yourself on anyone anymore, Evg. Your money does that.
I’m that sick?
You’re not alone. Just listen.
Carmen told the story of her mother’s illness, the trip to accompany her to Toronto for treatments, how she stayed throughout the palliative care, the hospice. The only good times she’d had in the city: going to shoots and parties with Evgeny. Now everything feels like good-bye, she said.
You’re not leaving, too, are you?
Not me, no. I love you.
I love you, Evg.
When the sun reached the low point in its northern sweep across the world, two thumbs above the horizon by his estimation, Evgeny took a few steps into the foamless waves. He got down and lay face up, his back scraping over gravel in the lap of water. Shivering woke him violently every hour and for a minute or two his eyes would open and flicker with the light of whitecaps breaking and spitting in a steady wind. For twenty-four hours Evgeny’s mind raced along the coma edges of his many borders, puzzled, lost in its tracks. His spirit dipped and splashed, streamed and sank into his stony bed. Oil from ruptured tanks washed him. When the sun completed its midsummer arc and bottomed out once again to mark the solstice, the tide had turned Evgeny’s head north as precisely as a clock, his body dangerously cool, close to that degree where everything is silly and warm.
Much is lost on the editing floor. He makes the first shot a close-up of skin: water splashes onto it, dances, beads, runs off; light flashes prismatic stars within teardrops that burn in fisheye skies of blue. The lens backs to reveal a nostril, identifying a cheek as the original focus. As a complete face comes into view, water flies off the lips, the head unmoved by the waves that wash it.
The penultimate shot is a pan of the sea in a wide lens; a top-of-the-world effect, the sun casting a black shadow across the water from the northern horizon to the hub of a clock, the point on shore where Evgeny lies. The camera takes in his body on dry gravel, pant legs fluttering, only his head touched by the warm sea which has politely beached and abandoned him. Then it moves across a ramshackle dwelling, Bill’s house down the shore. Flames sparkle from the chimney and smoke billows through windows and doors and gaps in the logs and tumbles up the mountain; a muskox shedding brown-grey qiviut up the slope. The camera zooms out and a sandhill crane on slow wings, silhouette against a yellow-green bank of fog far out to sea, crosses the dial from frame left into the shrouded sun. When the bird arrives it’s midnight and the image fades out and in to a downy wrist.
In the last shot Donnie’s watch blinks from 23:59 to 00:00, voices from a crowd growing near. The community gathers on the shore as an opaque sun shines through mist onto the wet shores of Ulittaq. Ray’s brass horn sounds a dirge on the horizon. His notes level the day’s last noise of flies, machinery and dogs, and the sky splits into tall panels of light that sweep in from the sea and curtain the town in bent red shadows.
The sky stills. The brazen sheets lie down and without a pause begin to layer themselves into morning’s horizon. Ray’s last note might have faded to silence, a quarter rest, no more, and then a new one, not new but different, crescendoes without urgency or panic. Dozens of people run and throw themselves into the sea, into the task of retrieving their treasure with oyster rakes, shovels and pails.