Unplace Chris McCann
Like birds through the trees
The blood was everywhere in the little room in Abumombazi. Spatters turned the concrete walls into ragged curtains, and the air hung heavy in the thick afternoon light.
She plunged into the man who would not stop bleeding, trying everything she knew to contain him. November and it was near 100 degrees, air so viscous she had to push it aside with both arms to move across the room.
Later, in the lull before dinnertime, she rubbed the blood and dirt and sweat deeper into her still-pale skin with a damp rag. As the dark fell like birds through the trees, she imagined for a moment the line between the sea and sky as the sun began to rise. On the coastal plains, she walked between the sea wrack and the gorse, squinting out toward the western horizon, waiting for the angle of the sun to illuminate the division between water and air.
Although she did not, would not, admit it to anyone later, she marked down the first day she began to cough, a dry, shaking thing that did not seem appropriate in this climate. Lacking her usual energy that Wednesday, she barred the door and sat inside the closet-sized room that held her bed. Past the wood slats of the window, she heard the first fat drops of rain hit the leaves of a banana tree, clattering around in the branches, and tumbling to the ground. Though her eyes were closed, she saw the puffs of dust rise up from the dirt, like holes in the body of the earth.
Too dark, she thought, and coughed. Soon she would leave. There was a part of her that understood, even though no one at that time could have said what it was, the thing that had begun to unravel her. Later, there would be tests and batteries of medication, flights where she would skim the earth to be examined, the bright lights of home, the engaging sea. In her nurse’s arms, she would then subside, after all this, having not been able in the rush to even clean the walls of blood. Having not, in the end, been able to even save herself.
For now, though, she chewed carefully, tongue probing for the sharp chicken bones that sometimes made it into her moambé. The children no longer ran from her, and that, then—despite what came after—was what remained with her, long after she’d forgotten everything else. Their wide eyes, their silence.
In the north at that moment, the sea shone for a few hours at the end of the vanishing year, while down here in the forest, all the light was red.
Autumn leaves. A swirling cloud of carmine, pumpkin, ocher. The thing was, she thought, because she could not stop thinking. The thing was that the hard edges of the leaves, the brittle leaves, the ones that could not hang on in the latest wind, although it had not been overly strong—how sad, she thought, knowing that sadness really had nothing to do with it, nor did trying, nor did—but the edges, their small serrations. This one, in particular, because what was anything if not a single instance, a peculiarity even in the midst of sameness? She asked herself these questions, although she was not really asking herself anything. Instead, the voice that asked the questions came from somewhere else and did not expect any answers.
At this point, the phone rings and someone—her mother, she thinks—starts banging on the door. Or the window. The birds outside still sing, but she can tell that something is wrong. The ringing and ringing. The doorbell, a shattering of glass. She holds the leaf in her hand, tracing its edges with her own ragged fingernail. Because she is the singularity, or at least that’s what the voice is saying over all the commotion that disturbs her but does not change the way the leaf seems to be singing.
And this tune—no words, of course—gives her the permission she hasn’t asked for to rise and walk toward the back of the house. As she does, she feels arms like vines—or vines, like arms—attempt to hold her back, to slow her progress. It is like walking through seaweed, the slime on her arms and face and legs, the sucking noises. Still, she proceeds.
This is one of those times that she knows she is screaming, but she cannot hear herself. Like at the dentist when you smell the burning, but don’t feel the drill. But she is the drill. She is always the drill.
In front of her, the forest looms, with more trees than she expected. She feels deceived, or the voice tells her she does, by the sheer number of things she has mistaken. The leaf, though, it says. Its edges. How it angles at the same time away toward the forest, toward the kitchen, toward the body. Whose body? Whose indeed.
Separated by a single—no, double—pane of glass from all these trees, she launches herself toward them, only to be pulled back by the vines, by the arms. Now she hears the screaming. As the leaf falls from between her fingers, she watches it drift toward the floor. Restrained, she feels its flight, the late light illuminating the borders between it and the air and her body as they continue, continue, continue to erode.
The effects of the human
The road just ends, like that. In nothing. In a field that is not a field at all. Instead, a landscape of harrowed orange-red mud, oozing toward the town. And it is into this non-field that Guillermo walks, walks away from the last buildings, the house where nobody lives, the house where people go to disappear, the house with the curtains drawn.
His boots squelch in the mud. He trudges. And trudges. And still he is not far enough. The border, if that’s what it is, lies at least another day’s walk away, according to the people who’ve been there, and come back. A very small percentage, he remembers thinking, later, as he sits somewhere without a name, without the papers he never had to begin with.
But he does cross the line and then keeps walking as the mud becomes grass becomes fiery bushes bright with thorns becomes dust becomes stones. When he stops, it is in a small town called Lagarto, though there is no water for miles. The name, some old man chewing his tongue tells him, comes from the mine. Are you here to work?
Despite the endless hours of walking and sleeping in silence, in holes, in the declivities of the land, in the gullies, the ravaged valleys of the south, Guillermo has not yet had the opportunity to consider the answer to that question. Though opportunity might be the wrong word because it was that process of consideration precisely that he was walking away from when he left a small village he’s already forgotten the name of.
The question, then. Yes, he says, believing it to be the most correct of any number of plausible answers. But the man shakes his head, glances darkly at the sky, and spits upon the ground, causing a small plume of dust to erupt from the surface of a stone, rise briefly, dissipate, and then fall, diminished. In moments, all trace of it is gone. The effects of the human on an inhuman landscape, Guillermo thinks, because he has not stopped analyzing that which lies outside his mind simply because he has left his home.
A ferric line of ants bars the ground, separating the two men’s boots, Guillermo, and the man who could never be his father. Best to move along, the man says, but Guillermo’s already walking away down a road that has recently been graded, small mounds of dirt and rocks at fairly regular intervals off to the side like mountain huts for small travelers. A bed, a cook stove with some gas, a small window. What else does the hiker need?
Companionship, perhaps, but he knows better than to expect a replacement for what he has so willfully left behind. Instead, the dun serpent wallowing in the gray dust. The dead lizard, desiccated, brittle. The new road, foundering unsurprisingly just 200 steps from where it began.
Something you can do to save yourself
The problem was that the board needed a hole. You could get a plastic seat and some chains at the hardware store, but if you wanted a wooden seat, you had to make it yourself. Which involved a drill that had a large enough bit and enough torque to do the job. Meaning, today, that this job would not get done.
Again. He feels the summer slipping away from him. Already, slipping. As in that moment when you’re about to fall, but haven’t hit the ground yet. When you believe, mistakenly, that there is something you can do to save yourself. The disparate parts of your body all searching for purchase when there is none to be found.
He stares out the window over the kitchen sink at the tree branch holding the rope. Where is the swing that will entertain us? the voices say. The voices echoing against the brittle chambers of his head. Oh, where is the joy of summer, the elation of swinging free from the branch of the old oak tree?
The coffee pot grumbles, the dishwasher chokes on something. All the windows that have been closed overnight now need to be opened. Again. The scent of the lawn, the birds. Those glorious, flitting birds. He cannot stop the plunge of the day to watch them, but he would if he could. Slow the whole damn thing to a slug’s ooze and just stand and stare at those, he has no idea what they are—swifts? sparrows?—as they zing through the fragrant air like machines, brushing the very tips of the newly shorn grass with their bellies for what appears like the sheer fuck of it all. Those brilliant birds.
Perhaps he can borrow a drill. Perhaps he will need to retrench and admit that a plastic seat and chain will not cause the summer, this summer, to collapse around them all in despair. Indeed, the red plastic seat might seem almost jaunty in the sparkle of the early morning. With the birds—swifts, sparrows—darting among the various waves of light to stitch up the sky.
From its wounds. Because let’s not kid ourselves, there are wounds and they will not just go away with the heady feeling of flight, transient though it may be. No, they will not go away with the kick of a foot off the spongy grass, but they may be lessened, they may be lightened. And at least it will be complete, that sweet arc from ground to sky and back to ground again. And back to sky. He drinks his beer amid the skimming of the birds, as all the humans, too, perform their practiced motions. Until—and here he finally catches the breath he’s been chasing—the whole thing looks not unlike a great, silent machine run entirely on air.
A good, solid weight
She had been waiting for weeks and then all at once it was over. A dark, cloudy evening, the smoke in the air. At the tips of her fingers, she could tell that it was almost, but not quite, spring. At that point, which is why she and several others had chosen it, the Tuman was shallow with a sandy bottom, and slow moving. All she had to do was not get caught.
The brightest part of the night was the water, carrying a slick scum of industrial pollutants that gave it an orange sheen she wouldn’t be able to fully shake for another few days. And the smell… something between diesel fuel and bubblegum, sweet and familiar.
On the other side, near a small graveyard town called Yueqingzhen, the others had people waiting for them, and so were quickly whisked away, cloaked in warm synthetic comforters dotted with cherry blossoms or smiling cats. She waited until the night had inhaled them all before rising from her crouch near the bank. Under a different sky, she walked away from town south toward Bailongdao, a town with nothing, she’d heard, to recommend it except a man who would take people to a slightly larger place called Tonghua, where, if you were lucky, you might be able to convince someone to bring you to Shenyang. And from there, well, she thought, she might as well be in Beijing.
She repeated these names to herself as she trudged through the mud and marshes that lined the river. With each step, they lost more and more meaning, becoming not places she would arrive, but talismans she felt clinking in her pockets, along with the modest amount of kuai she’d been able to collect using methods she’d not discuss with anyone.
Just like them all, she’d left a family and she still couldn’t imagine any way to talk about that. She whispered Chanxinping, Xiashijian, Zhongping, Heqitun, Bailongdao to herself as she walked. It was so dark and desolate here, and the river murmured unceasingly, so she almost didn’t see the man with the gun who was standing atop a small hill looking back across the river.
There was no question, however, of him not seeing her, backlit as she was by some great redness in the sky she imagined might be dawn. He turned his gun toward her and approached. Stricken, desperate, she couldn’t move until he was just a few steps away at which point she threw herself down at his boots and began to pray.
He touched the barrel of the gun to her neck and prodded her up. He was Korean, she saw, but that meant nothing until he whispered that he, too, had crossed the river. That there were more of them coming and he was the lookout. She closed her eyes and imagined them lining up across the river, then wading in, what was it called? Baptizing themselves in the sickly waters, then washing up here, nowhere, having been reborn into, what did they say? The spirit.
She returned to her knees, not believing anything, but feeling, now, so tired. And not knowing what to do next, other than keep walking to connect the names of the towns she’d memorized. Which suddenly seemed like a stupid, hopeless thing to do.
Come with us, the man said. Are you alone? We are going to Bailongdao. Her heart leapt such as it never had. The pieces of her former life began to shine with all the reflected light that stayed inside her for fear of illumi-nating everything.
And that’s when she knew he was lying. There were no others in the river waiting to be born again. Bailongdao was just some name on a map; it probably didn’t even exist. She began to question whether the river she’d crossed was even the right one. Perhaps she was only halfway home, stuck in some isthmus of no country, unable to return or go on. She spat in the man’s eye, and turned to run as he struck her with the butt of his rifle, knocking her down into the mud.
When she awoke, she was in a room made of glass. She’d had no choice. Anyone would have done the same. As she smiled for the tiny cameras that dotted the unbreakable windows like splattered bugs, she repeated her own name again and again, louder and louder until she was screaming it, but still nobody came.
Buy them all
The first mistake was the Greenpeace fair. I mean, up till then, we’d kept to ourselves, tight, like that. But then I wanted her to start thinking about the world, its problems, and do something, anything, to help. So I suggested the fundraiser, helped her make the signs and staple them to poles around town. Clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk, I can still hear the staples as they bedded in the wood.
It was one of those things, you think. That your kids should be exposed to. So that they understand. And she took the money she’d made on cookies and lemonade and selling some of her dolls and toy cars, and she counted it out and brought it to me in a box. I wrote the check and kicked in the stamp, and then, as far as I was concerned, it was done. Good, and done.
But for her, it was just the beginning. Over the next few years, she emptied our house with fundraisers, even selling my records for Burma or Myanmar or wherever. Summers, she got internships and externships and handed books to my wife and me, that serious look in her eye, pressing our hands as she made the handoff, as she trusted us to allow this book, and the next and the next, to change our lives.
It turned out that I was too old for that, although she was successful with my wife, who left when she realized the extent of suffering going on in the world, literally, as she said, literally under our noses. On our watch. She disappeared into the trackless wilds not three years ago, and while I still receive postcards from places I never knew existed, they never say anything that I can understand.
My daughter, although she did not go then, has left recently, for good, I think and she says. For good. I believe her and force myself to be proud of her, although I wake every night gasping. Visions of her coming to me, blood streaming out of her eyes. Or lying on the ground covered in snakes. Or half-buried, clumps of dirt like rotting flowers in her hair.
Of course, these are just dreams. I sit here now, picking out words on a keyboard, waiting for her replies. She tells me about the markets there, how you can buy voodoo charms that will keep you alive forever. Buy three, I type, but she goes on to discuss the distribution of water and how there aren’t enough clinics set up to allow the volunteer nurses and doctors to treat the sick.
Buy three, I type again. Buy them all. But she does not write back. The Internet goes out so often during our conversations that I’m not surprised, but I still sit here, sick, too, with no one coming to take care of me, no fetish dangling from my neck. While I watch the cursor blink, I see her there, in that yellow light, the dust from the east rough on her rough skin.
Sandpaper, she writes, as though she were here with me, listening. A hammer and nails. A gun. And I realize that someone else is with me, someone who is not my daughter, who, perhaps, has never been my daughter. There does not seem to be enough air in this room for me to catch my breath. I open a window, which helps a little, and then I type goodbye to that person who responds with a question mark, and the colon and parenthesis of a smile.
No withering, no death
Two hours outside the capital, there are no roads, only rivers. There is no illusion. There is no cessation of illusion. In the afternoon, the crumbling asphalt between road and no road steams. The encroaching greenery is making it nervous, because once one foot is lost, once one inch is reclaimed, then is it not only a matter of time until the capital itself, great city of dreams, is smothered in vines and given back to the river?
For three days, Gilbert’s teeth have been aching, but he cannot afford to see a dentist, even the one who practices under the trees in the Garden of Palms. After work one day, he borrows a shovel from a friend and takes the bus to the Krikie Nigi camp where he will begin digging. It won’t take much, and the ground is full of gold, or at least that’s what they say, the Brazilians, the ones who stand too close and look too deeply into your eyes. The ones who have arrived in the night and say they will never return.
In moments, Gilbert is covered in sweat and mud. The others, up to their waists in pits of their own digging, seem to be having success, but he does not even know what to look for. He thinks they would tell him, but he’s embarrassed to ask them, the bulging muscles of their arms, their hands full of shining mud.
There is no withering, no death, no end to withering and death. Therefore, he thinks, why am I not free of these aching teeth, this endless futile searching for relief, for rest? He feels something in the pit and thrusts his hands into the mud, scrabbling for a finger hold as though he were a doomed climber. Gold. It must be gold.
Up to his arms in mud, he realizes he is stuck. When he tries to pull his boot from the mud, his upper torso inclines further downward. The body as a simple machine, he thinks. Then, fuck. Now, his face is just inches above the muck, so even if he were to cry out, no one would hear. A new pain rushes into his ears and out his gasping mouth, stuck there with no one to help him, although he knows he has found something that will change his life.
With the sun gone, the red mud turns black. The sounds of the forest switch on, but he also hears the engines of trucks as they rumble back toward the city on that crumbling road. He struggles a bit, then begins to cry, but it is only when he has given up completely that four arms wrestle him out of the mud. He sits there, staring up into their headlamps. The streams of light muscle their way through the particulate darkness, glinting off the crudely shaped nugget of gold he holds in his dripping hands.
One of his saviors says something in a language he doesn’t understand, then snatches the nugget before turning off his headlamp and striding away into the night. The other man hands him a small flashlight and then, too, turns away. As he begins the trudge back to the city, he notices that his tooth has ceased to ache. There is no beginning to suffering, no end to suffering.
In the night, the night birds sing for all the gold that is left in the ground.
The abdication of the subject
Ask anyone about it and they’ll tell you that Rottumeroog is uninhabited. Has been since the vogt died in 1965. What they don’t know is that Wilhelm has been building his bunker there since 2003. Bit of a hiccup when the island split in two back in 2012, but work progressed, after the requisite bit of soul searching.
As in, why am I building this bunker here, a place that will surely be washed into the estuary before I die? But, I argued, it was precisely the fact that it would be washed away, elided by the sea, that made it all worth doing.
Wilhelm has renounced his citizenship. German, originally, but now, he is nothing. He likes to say that he is himself, alone, but only under his breath when no one is listening. And I, well, you would say that I am Wilhelm’s prisoner and have been since he abducted me from that Shell station outside of Maarssenbroek some seven years ago.
Although, as with everything in this country, it’s a little more complicated than that. See, I was running away and was, to be completely honest, not averse to being abducted as long it took me far away from my village of K. A place that had grown odious to me. Exponentially with the years, with my deepening understanding. The red faces, the constant striving, the false cheer.
I welcomed the abduction, especially since Wilhelm is not your typical abductor. I should stop myself there. I don’t have the breadth of experience to make that claim, having been abducted only once in my 34 years. Once is enough, Wilhelm always says, though not about that.
I think that if he knew I was as happy as I am, he might return me. There is that side of him that is fueled by unhappiness, his own as well as the misery of others. It’s the reason he embarked upon this doomed experiment, and also why he’s been so successful.
Because it is a success, at least for now. The bunker houses the two of us, protects us from the predatory seals and the occasional official who motors over to the island to reassure himself that it is still evolving. The mainlanders seem obsessed over the constant changes to the shape of the island. And there’s a fair bit of self-congratulatory talk. As in: “The island has been largely left alone.” Note the abdication of the subject. They are so laissez-faire that they’re not even in the sentence.
Not Wilhelm and I. We are pioneers on these shifting sands. Beneath, actually, but let’s not quibble over semantics. We come and go by night, under the power of no engine, no sail. We tread the seas together, captor and captive, both unnamed, unnamable. And what you understand of our lives together would fill a teaspoon, while we gaze over the water at your own doomed enterprises, comprehending the vast scale of your failure.
Still, I take no pleasure in unhappiness, even when it is that of my oppressors. Instead, I keep my eyes on the water. I model my life after the oystercatchers, those obvious and strident birds, as I nest in my own bare scrape, pebbles and sand—amid the constant wash of the sea.
There was a time that he was on the island of Palau in the middle of the South Pacific. He couldn’t remember now what had brought him there, but what he did was build cabinets to be installed in the houses that were being constructed. There were not many houses being constructed at the time he was there, but he built the cabinets for all of them. And he was a very careful carpenter, despite being young, probably too young to be so far from home.
He did not get homesick. He was not that kind. Instead, he focused on his work and he drank Red Rooster amber with the other men who worked for the contractor who built most of the homes on Palau. At the time, this contractor was quite upset that he had not received a recent contract to build a large waterfront home on a piece of property that was owned by a minor Hollywood actor. The carpenter told him not to worry about it, that he already controlled most of the construction and remodeling trade on the island.
Still, the man said. It hurts.
After a year, the carpenter began to feel restless and decided to return home. He met a woman at the grocery store and the two of them bought a small house together where they would grow old and die. The house had a front porch and some room in the back for a vegetable garden, although the carpenter did not particularly enjoy vegetables with the exception of fresh-shucked corn. He would eat as much corn as you would give him.
Despite the improvements that they made to the house, the woman realized that she no longer wanted to live there and so she left. The carpenter fixed a few things that had broken and then sold the house to a young family with a baby and two dogs. Since it was a small town, he met the new owners and told them about his time on Palau. He said he was thinking of going back there, although he knew he never would.
Instead, he drove to Alaska to work on the boats, but he had never enjoyed the sea and would often become sick. After he made enough money to justify the trip, he returned to the small town where he once owned a home. The house was still occupied by the young family and the carpenter saw that they now had another baby, but that one of the dogs had died. There was a small grave marker in the backyard, the place where his former wife had planted a row of cucumbers, several rows of peas and some kale.
During the days, he would drive by the house once or twice, just to see if the older child seemed to be happy playing in the front yard that he’d fenced. She did. But at night, he would park his car several blocks away and walk through the alleys until he reached the back fence and the gate that he’d fixed. It was fixed so well that he was able to open it without a sound and then walk slowly into the yard, sticking to the shadows made by the trees that had been there long before he’d bought the property.
He reached the grave of the dog where he would sit with his head in his hands, concentrating. The dog’s spirit was still there, he could tell, and that reminded him of something he’d learned from the contractor in Palau. If a thing died and it was remembered too fondly, it could never move on to its rightful place in the other world. And the carpenter cried, then, for the dog and for the children and for his wife and for the contractor.
Outside the fence, the police were waiting, and he shook hands with the two officers before they escorted him to his car and followed him as he drove out of town, into the unincorporated lands of the county where the summer fires had already started to burn.
Entwined like weeds
Under a small tent, not so long ago, a woman waits for a man. She drinks coffee from a small thermos and pages through a collection of poems saved from Mongols during the 13th-century destruction of Baghdad. As a girl, she had been taught that everything in the House of Wisdom had been destroyed by the invaders, but over the past 20 years she’d found perhaps a dozen books that had survived, spirited away by a conscientious scholar, tucked into a hole in an unmarked wall, buried in the sand.
The survivors were often missing parts of themselves, in this case the first few pages, so that it was difficult to identify the authors. But the names were not important, not anymore, not after so many years.
She sat halfway between the world and the rose garden of the poems, the mystical divan she felt she would never truly understand. She drank her coffee black although she gravitated closer to the dervish than the ascetic. And still, the man did not arrive.
He was a soldier and so her first thought was always of death, though there was no war now. And so she would walk herself back from the calamity of her soldier’s death to an irritation with his lack of a sense of time. For he was always late, no matter the engagement, and reading medieval poetry under a small tent on the shores of a lake alive with fierce black flies, she had to admit, was probably not one of his favorite things. Still, he had said she could choose. During this time when he was not fighting, they’d agreed on that.
With a whisper of wild barley grass and a parting, briefly, of the cloud of flies, he arrived. She pushed herself into him, murmuring words we could not hear, not even with the microphones stationed at regular intervals around the small patch of land they occupied. And then began the interminable process of poetry, first one and then the other whispering
the words to each other, pausing, looking out onto the flat, green waters of the lake, embracing, embracing again.
This stuff, while not illegal, should have been, and I kept the cameras rolling in the hopes that some future administration would see this effrontery for what it was—a kick in the teeth of all good people everywhere. It had to be said that the flies were getting worse, though they seemed to be leaving the lovers alone, and at one point I stumbled in trying to remove one from my ear. Stumbled and fell. And looked up into the barrel of a gun, for soldiers here, even when there is no fighting, do not forget to carry their weapons.
I had nothing to say, and so I began talking about the dissolution of the Abbasids and the nightingale and the rose. I showed, even there in that godforsaken place, that I was not unlearned. And the gun barrel slowly descended, leaving in its place the face of a man who watches sparrows.
Sitting together, under the small tent, I pointed out the placement of the microphones and showed them the video. We discussed the predicament of the inconstant beloved when presented with the fervent lover. While they, entwined like weeds, offered me sweet dates and pistachios in exchange for my promise of silence.
Some half-crazy dream
Hands shaking, perspiration dripping from his forehead onto the already slick keyboard, Dr. Bhagooli, senior lecturer at the University of Mauritius, amends the last few footnotes to his soon-to-be-published paper announcing the discovery of a new endemic species of the brown seaweed Sargassum robillardii. He stops to sip his sweating gin and tonic and grimaces as the bitter quinine hits the back of his throat like a needle.
Too late, he thinks, and then downs the rest of the drink. He’s had malaria for 16 years, 11 months and 23 days, which is almost as long as he’s been working with seaweed. The two facts of his life intertwined like an adolescent Hypnea musciformis, its cylindrical branches with their desperate tendril-like hooks. And in all likelihood attached to a hardy sargassum, the two plants and all their meanings coexisting forever in the warm, shallow seas of his imagination. Time, my god, for another drink.
Outside his small house in the sugarcane fields near Piton, Dr. Bhagooli listens to the humming of the mosquitoes as they zing through the heavy air. He’s taken to leaving the windows open and has torn down the screens, which once protected the porch, because at this point, who cares. There’s no saving him now.
Still, he’s been intrigued lately by the research pointing to the ability of some varieties of the sargassum species to inhibit the in vitro growth of the malaria parasite. And although he has told no one, Dr. Bhagooli has established a small seaweed farm of his own just off the coast. The robillardii, of course, his now-adolescent child, the hope of his old age.
And when he drives down to the sea, it is in the dark of the night, when no one can see the tremors that rack his body, his constant stunned amazement in the face of an illness that cannot be cured. Except, he thinks, through the studied application of years of research and an unhealthy willingness to toss it all away in the hope of some half-crazy dream. He drives to the sea each night, because the plant must be fresh, with the tang of salt still sharp in its tendrils.
He drives to the sea each night, because the fever has caused his body to separate itself from his mind, as a defense mechanism perhaps. The result, however, is that his conception of the world he inhabits has veered so far away from the experience of his body in that world, that he has achieved a sort of ecstatic optimism, which is in no way grounded in what most of his colleagues insist on calling reality. He is buoyant with hope, on his drive to the sea.
And when he arrives, he strips off his sweat-soaked clothing and steps into the still-warm waters, thrilling to the brush and sway of the plants against his naked skin. Sometimes there is a moon above, and other times, all he sees are stars. Whatever the source of the light, he lays himself open to it, photosynthesizing as best as he is able at this late point in his life. The energy produced—frisson, spark, charge—is his alone, and he hoards it against the endless lassitude of coming days.
Their portion of things
While the Paradise Hotel is in Manila, it is not in the Philippines. It has no address and it is quite difficult to find, except for the people who are already on their way there. Who have been invited. For them, it is impossible not to find the Paradise Hotel.
The men who stay at the Paradise Hotel, and they are always men, are like the ants in a field of long grass. They climb the blade nearest to them, look around, and realize that the blade they are climbing is not the blade they are meant to be on. And while the blades have not been artificially sharpened, they retain the ability to slice through skin all the way to the bone.
So the men in the Paradise Hotel must be careful. And careful they are. Because the men in the Paradise Hotel are not here to die. Not yet. They have not come this far—because some of them come from half the world away, just for this, for these moments of climbing, of surveying, of epiphany and despair—to lose their footing and bleed out here, on the multicolored carpet of an unnumbered room at the Paradise Hotel.
The Paradise Hotel employs a tattoo artist, although most of the men who come here do not get tattoos. Would not consider it. For the ones who do, however, consider it, there is quite a gauntlet to be run. The tattoo artist—he has long black hair and a wispy beard, dark eyes and a steady hand—says that he knows within five minutes of a client’s appearance whether he will do the work.
Because the client must deserve the work just as the work must benefit the client. And for those worried about pain, about permanence, about regret, the tattoo artist sends them on their way. For there are other tattoo artists in the world who are all too happy to spill their ink on any paying customer. The tattoo artist at the Paradise Hotel will counsel restraint and forbearance, will advocate for hesitation and second thoughts. And then he will take the client by the hand and he will walk him to the door that leads out of the studio. It is not the same door that leads in. That was one of the conditions the tattoo artist placed upon the Paradise Hotel before he accepted the contract.
When the disappointed and confused client is shown the door by the tattoo artist, he re-enters the public spaces of the Paradise Hotel. There are many things to do here, but very few of the guests have any interest in doing them. Instead of visiting the gym or the indoor swimming pool or even the hair salon, the men who stay at the Paradise Hotel shuttle from room to room, discussing matters in low tones. Each of them has the undying belief that what they are doing at this very minute could affect the course of the world to come.
As do we all. Although not all of us stay at the Paradise Hotel, which exists only insofar as it is imagined by those of us not invited as guests. Just as our skin is marked only by the absence of tattoos from the tattoo artist who occupies the penthouse of the Paradise Hotel. Just as we are unmarked, so, too, we begin to exist in our imagining of the men who come and sometimes go, always disappointed with the lack of finality that they had imagined would be their portion of things in this world. Of course, none of us receive that, not even when we are worthy. If there is one thing we will always lack, it is a satisfactory ending.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Two.