Kundiman is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to nurturing generations of writers and readers of Asian-American literature. Through readings and workshops; Kavad, an intergenerational community-based storytelling program; an annual retreat; and a Youth Intensive program for high school students in The Bronx, Kundiman creates an affirming and rigorous space where Asian-American writers can explore, through art, the unique challenges that face the new and ever-changing diaspora. They see the arts as a tool of empowerment, of education and liberation, of addressing proactively the legacy we will leave for our future and ensuring that Asian-American stories reach broad audiences throughout the country. To learn more, visit www.kundiman.org.
First sight of blood. Pain,
pain. Pain. An elbowed
girl carves an indentation
nightly with her sharp hip.
Illness makes its own song, reverberates—
a bow to bear
a cross to bridge
it was rainmaking on a
there was a man
who made me feel
like a candle
in a bough
of a bursting tree
there were arrows drawn in caves
the woods thinly drawn
like a womb
the perpetual gate
biding her time
and a finger
across the tip
of blue electric fire
there was an opening
no, a parting
no, a silence made
of circles & discs
rings & knots
a web strung
of a million
barring my bones
from going with him.
So be careful.
For you the day at the park was proof that emotions are the play things of men but for him, it was just another Saturday afternoon. You’re allowed to say no. You’re allowed to think of yourself over his ego.
You have been pretending for a long time that you’re like everyone else so stop berating and squeezing and talking to an empty sky. No one is counting, but I’m sure you’ve done your time.
Memory is a gentle blessing— all you will forget when you’re standing at the altar looking at her face, all the bruises belonging to someone else by now, the names you were called flecking off like old paint, your mother’s eyes holding something new and yes there’s that time, and also that one that makes you think that this goodness is a lie
but how else can you remember that you deserve to stand here if only because of all the blood you have left behind trying to be worthy of wanting something just because your tongue insists on wrapping around its name.
What is the answer to injustice?
More action more love More understanding more awareness More consequences more laws
The answer is more more more always more
Justice is a roaring hunger god never appeased
So once again we raid the hornet’s nest Once again they lay their eggs into our soft, larval bodies
Dear Lovely Reader
Today, you’re on the hunt. First step, armor. Strap on those sturdy sneakers, your favorite jeans, and most comfortable t-shirt. Next, weapons: cell phone, credit card, some cool tunes to drown out the battle cries of your enemies.
Now for the plan: you’re going to walk into the unruly wilds of the bookstore, stalk the shiniest literary journal you can find—maybe that green one with all the pretty gold and silver glimmer?—and when that little book is least expecting it, you pounce!
Next, you drag the carcass of your prize over to that nice comfortable chair in the corner—you know the one, by the window so you can keep an eye on your urban jungle. Finally, it’s time to devour your kill.
Okay, okay. I get it. Thinking of our modern day lives as razor-edge trials for survival seems…well, silly. We’re no longer fighting enemy clans for access to the one watering hole in the jungle. We aren’t hunting and scavenging for food. For most of us, it’s a given that we have a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and no predators in sight.
But that doesn’t mean that we don’t struggle to survive. When the old needs are met, our wrestle with survival changes.
For many of us in the 21st century, survival is no longer a physical battle. It’s an emotional, psychological, and political one. We’re facing new beasts—increasing corporatization, our decaying environment and institutions, the pressure to define ourselves when everyone around us has—or is at least pretending to have—it all figured out.
This journal explores all these weird new ways we struggle to survive. From a woman trying to repress her human angst by becoming an animal to a tale about the ultimate fight for humanity’s survival, this issue tells the stories of characters struggling against modern predators. We have cultures struggling to stay alive, illnesses drawing more blood than any beast, grief polluting the world around us. Because this is such an intimate fight, F(r)iction #14 has more creative nonfiction that ever before—exploring the fear of genetic mental illness, of cultural identity within warring nations, and of the simple struggle to find a space where we can feel valued.
Often, in today’s world, the biggest enemy of survival is ourselves. We are both the hunter and hunted, in a game of escalation that is veering dangerously toward mutually-assured destruction.
So, dear reader, we welcome you to settle into that comfortable chair and enjoy the spoils of the hunt. Hopefully, when you’re done devouring these stories and poems, you’ll think differently about your own survival, and how very complicated—and beautiful—it is.
Dani Hedlund Editor-in-Chief
running across the Sonoran desert at twilight, Oscar glimpsed a brilliant, unblinking point of light traversing the sky and couldn’t resist raising a hand upwards in salutation. He slowed his pace to stand, breathing deep on the hard-packed dirt, hands on hips, sweat streaming down his face. The International Space Station skated overhead, as anonymous as any airplane. A larger cluster of lights accompanied it, hinting at a sprawling structure in the rough shape of a dragonfly. The lights drew themselves steadily across the sky and passed beyond the far horizon in a matter of minutes. Caetano Nascimento was up there, he knew, along with a lot of other good people on the Ship. His reserve crew. The men and women of the Gaia.
“Did you spot it, Captain?” Ravik jogged up beside him, huffing for air. Both of them stood shirtless and slick with sweat. The heat of the day baked off the ground even as the breeze edged into coolness. A perfect evening for a run.
“She’s up there,” Oscar said. They both knew that by ‘she’ he meant the Ship.
The western horizon glowed with a spectacular wash of light, all along the spectrum of yellows, oranges, and reds, into the deepest purple before fading into black. It was standard sunset material, but amped up to a degree most humans had never seen before. The fifty-two nukes that had detonated in India and Pakistan three weeks ago were turning the upper atmosphere into a poison shroud, sifting radioactive ash across the surface of the globe like the after-effects of a volcano erupting straight out of hell. They regarded this in silence. When Oscar’s pocket buzzed, he reached for his phone and held it out at arm’s length to view the text. One word: TEL AVIV.
Stoic, he pivoted and held the phone out to show Ravik the message.
“Fuck me,” breathed Ravik.
Oscar stowed the phone and took a deep breath. “This is going to speed up the timeline, Ravvy.”
“Can your team make their selections in forty-eight hours?”
Ravik widened his eyes. “We were supposed to have three more months. We can’t get close to a balanced assessment in two days.”
“Let’s go then.” Oscar took off running, kicking up dust and sand along the path by which they’d come. The low bulbous BioDome lay in the lap of the arroyo as a cluster of lights amid the dark forms of cacti standing all around.
Twenty men and women assembled in the command center, which wasn’t much more than a conference table crammed into a storage room stacked full of supplies: potting soil in canvas bags, bolts of cloth, spools of wire, rolls of duct tape. Each person wore a white canvas jumpsuit, some dirtier than others, bearing a variety of patches depending on their division: Navigation, Medical, Botany, Archives. Ten men and ten women. They took their seats and settled their eyes on Oscar, who leaned against the wall by the white board, idly tossing and catching a dry-erase marker. Ravik, seated at the table, scanned the room, then gave Oscar a nod. “All accounted for, sir.”
“Tel Aviv is hit,” Oscar said. “You probably already know that.”
The room regarded him in silence. A few of them nodded their assent.
“This changes our timeline. We don’t have a contingency for that, but we do have a contingency for non-contingencies.” He allowed a tiny smile to pull at one corner of his mouth, but no one mirrored it, so he resumed his neutral expression. “I want us flight-ready in forty-eight hours. That means you need to select your teams and get them kitted out. If they’re not ready or willing to go on that schedule, then you go with your stand-by. Make that clear—no exceptions.”
The breath seemed to go out of the room as everyone absorbed the information. Heads turned to regard one another and confirm that they were all hearing the same thing. Oscar waved a hand as if to break a spell. “Speak freely.”
“Sir,” said Andriessen, the Chief Surgeon, “people have families. That doesn’t leave enough time—”
“They might not have families forty-eight hours from now,” Oscar said.
Andriessen watched him, her mouth hanging open.
Hwang, of Engineering, spoke up. “There’s already a skeleton crew on the Gaia, and in the ISS. It’s going to be a logistical nightmare to man stations and transfer duties with that many bodies. We may not even be able to accommodate so many people on board at one time. Have we planned for that?”
Oscar nodded, but not as an answer. He was pleased at Hwang’s use of ‘we’ instead of ‘you.’ It was one of the reasons why Hwang was here in the first place. “If we’re overcrowded, the overage bails like it’s a mission scrub. No one extra joins the manifest.” That didn’t exactly answer the question, but Hwang nodded and studied his folded hands.
Oscar let another minute pass in silence in case anyone else wanted to speak up. When it seemed the wait time had been enough, he concluded. “Forty-eight hours might be an extravagance. It’s a random number. Understand that this is the whole reason this mission exists in the first place. We always thought we’d have more time, but it turns out we don’t. That’s why we’re here.”
Ravik let a few moments go by before standing and sweeping his arms at the door. The group stood and made their way out, with low murmurs and freighted glances. Ravik turned back when he reached the door. Oscar was still leaning by the blank white board, still clutching his unused marker.
“Sir? Any special instructions?”
Oscar pointed upwards, beyond the ceiling. “Now’s the time to get right with whatever you think is up there.”
The BioDome was a mostly underground complex with six spokes extending outwards from the central greenhouse chamber. The greenhouse was the only part above ground, a lattice of skylights that soared thirty feet overhead and let in streams of sunlight that fell on the leaves of clustered palms and aspens. With nearly a quarter-acre of arable soil under the skylights, it would have been an ideal space to cultivate crops, but Oscar had elected to leave the soil beds empty. The BioDome was significantly different from the Gaia in fundamental ways, and Oscar wanted to maximize the experience to be as equivalent as possible. On the Gaia, there would be no cultivating of crops under natural sunlight, and so he arranged it that way in the BioDome as well. All the growing went on in custom-fitted modules arranged along two spokes under long banks of artificial light. If they couldn’t survive on the food they grew there, then the mission would be a failure before it ever got off the ground.
He paced the corridors when he should have been sleeping. The low bulkheads and metal grating underfoot gave the place the feel of a submarine. People worked in their quarters, hunched over computers or tinkering with equipment, doors open on the passageway in the unspoken acknowledgement that personal privacy was a feature of a world that none of them would live in again—at least, those who lasted. Schedules were purposely kept light; everyone had already trained for their jobs to the point that their reflexes were honed, and their bodies responded automatically to a whole spectrum of contingencies. This three-month stretch in the BioDome was about the mind. How idle could one be without going mad? Who had the capacity to overcome boredom with some kind of constructive activity? This was probably the most important test: character, not skill. Oscar paced the halls, noting whose hands were busy, and who had surrendered to nap time. Pausing while he paced through the bulkheads, he made careful notes in his tablet.
Without making a conscious decision about it, he was moving in the direction of the one place in the BioDome that offered a view of the outside: the far end of the due-east spur. He passed through the greenhouse pods where wide leaves dripped condensation into the folds of his collar as he ducked past, slipping through the hanging plastic strips that separated the segments. All the way at the end of the corridor, he stopped at the iron disc of the exit portal, with its single, cycloptic window offering a view of blackness.
Forehead pressed to the glass, he blotted out the reflected light behind him and allowed his eyes to accustom themselves to the darkness outside. Crumpled mountains lay across a broad and flat plane where cacti stood like sentinels under the moonless wash of sky. Starlight, as faint as unheard music, lay across the land.
The old fear tickled him, still. The darkness and the emptiness added up to a kind of hum he could feel down in his bones, a familiar hum that took him back to childhood, staring out at this same desert, several hundred miles farther south from here on the Reservation. The evil that throbbed at him out of the night then was the same evil that throbbed even now, unseen and everywhere. He backed away and sniffed bravely. He’d made it this far by overcoming nearly all of his fears.
Wang dabbed at the corners of his mouth with his napkin even though he’d only taken a sip of water from his crystal glass. A smile flickered at the corner of his mouth; it seemed to be a constant feature of his resting face. His eyes glittered as he leaned forward into the circle of soft light that lit the tablecloth, and said, “Oscar Running Bear. You have no idea how much of a fanboy you’re talking to right now.”
Oscar ran a hand over his black bristle of a brush cut and cast his eyes down, even as a smile stole over his face. “Oh, come on, Mr. Wang. You’re the one who’s famous.”
Wang refuted that by ticking a finger back and forth. “Fame among men is meaningless.” He raised the same finger in proclamation mode. “Accomplishment! That’s the real thing. Even if very few know about it.”
Oscar nodded and sipped his own water as a way of not having to reply. What does one say? And should he dab his lips with his own napkin now? Was that an etiquette thing he’d never heard about? He did it, and Wang burst out laughing.
“You quickly adapt to your surroundings, I see, even to the company of a ridiculous old man.” He held up a hand to ward off any protest. “Now regale me, Captain, before the food arrives, with tales of derring-do.” Twinkly eyes, flickering smile.
And Oscar, because he was being treated to dinner in the fanciest restaurant he’d ever set foot in, regaled him. He told stories of space walks and near disasters, micro-meteors that tore through the hull of the International Space Station like bullets through tissue paper, of oxygen fires in the hydroponic chamber, seat-of-the-pants equipment repair to head-off imminent death. Manual orbital insertion. Re-entry and splashdown in the Pacific, sinking in his spacesuit and nearly drowning three minutes after nearly incinerating in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. Later, on the mic at Mission Control, talking a series of crews through their lunar landings and take-offs, never losing a soul or scrubbing a mission.
They were stories he’d told many times before, but never like this. His audience was usually another astronaut or specialist, someone who already knew the lingo and had already participated in their own share of exploits—the not-easily-impressed. With Wang, he was singing for his supper, and he heard his own voice going on and on in an uncharacteristic way. But Wang seemed to pull it out of him. When he used a jargony phrase, Wang would give a tiny nod to show that he understood, so Oscar found himself inserting more and more technical language into his story—which, after all, was the natural way for him to tell it. Wang stayed very still, watching him steadily, breaking his pose only to take the occasional sip of water—with the ritual napkin dab—and the calmness and completeness of his attention drew Oscar deeper and deeper into his own tale until he found he’d been speaking for twenty minutes without pause and Wang hadn’t said a thing. It was probably the longest speech he’d ever made in his life. When the lobster arrived, he trailed off and swept a hand over his buzzcut, shy again. “Sorry, Mr. Wang. I don’t usually talk so much.”
“Sorry? It’s a privilege, Captain, to experience these astonishing tales, even from a remove.”
“Yes sir. But it’s just Oscar. I’m not a Captain anymore.”
“If George Washington were sitting here with us, he’d still be Mr. President, would he not?”
“I don’t think there’s much comparison.”
Wang leaned forward. “I think there could be.”
Oscar tried to keep his face neutral, but he wanted to frown. He wasn’t sure where this conversation was going, but he didn’t like dealing with insinuations and unspoken messages. If he were with a peer, he’d say, “State your business,” but Prosper Wang was no one’s peer. Prosper Wang was one of the top five wealthiest humans alive, master of many puppets, and Oscar Running Bear was his honored guest. Which meant that his own professional authority, hard-won over so many years and missions, was an ornamental thing.
“As astounding as your exploits are,” Wang said as he tucked into the fluffy white meat of his burst lobster tail, “it’s your future that really interests me.”
A white Porsche and a black Lamborghini fought for position on the multicolored spiral of the rag rug under the dining room table, engines throbbing with the vroom-vroom soundtrack provided by little Oscar who guided the cars in their wheel-straining circuit at floor level. One eye squinted shut to tighten focus with the other, he pushed the cars in cinematic slo-mo, fenders bumping as they surged toward the Lego archway of the finish line. The white Porsche, if it won, would restore his father, Oswald Running Bear, to the leadership of the Ruling Council, but the black Lamborghini would empower his usurpers. The engines throbbed and the fenders collided and scraped.
“Oscar, shut the fuck up with the sound effects!” Rolly hollered from the couch as he rattled the last few drops in his beer can. “Rolly,” said his mother in a whisper and (Oscar was sure) a hand on his tattooed forearm.
Oscar dialed back the vroom-vroom sounds but not completely, and the anger that bloomed in him seemed to fuel the white Porsche in its final push around the last turn. It nicked the Lambo in the rear fender as it passed, sending the black wedge into an end-over-end tumble, a cascade of glass and metal and (Oscar could practically see) severed body parts and blood. All to the gravelly churn of saliva within the boy’s ballooned cheek. The Porsche zoomed over the line, victorious, as the crowd on the football game on the TV erupted in cheers over some auspicious play and Rolly blurted, “Fuck yeah!”
“Rolly, please, your language.”
Head lain on his arm as he one-eyed the triumphant Porsche in its slo-mo victory lap, Oscar whispered, “Fuck yeah!” Order and justice, at least in the land of Hot Wheels, was restored.
He insisted, as he did every night, that he didn’t need to go to the bathroom before bed. Some nights he really could hold it, and make it through till morning, but tonight his bowels were churning. He sock-footed down the hall, ducking behind the couch where his mom and Rolly sat sprawled with the television still playing—hard to tell if they were conscious or not—and then glided over the kitchen linoleum until he could peek out the window in the back door. He was ten, and tiny, barely at eye-level with the window. Outside, the desert lay in black-upon-black planes, all the way to the crumpled mountains. No moon. Dishwater starlight shining on the cacti all around. The outhouse was a dark monolith across the barren yard, thirty feet away.
At a run, he could cross the space in a matter of seconds. How fast or how slow he moved didn’t make any difference, because the yeenaldlooshi didn’t need any time at all to take a bite out of you. One moment there was nothing, and the next moment it would be there, in whatever skin it had chosen to walk around in this night: coyote, wolf, human, or something else. It was already there, within the shadows of the scrub grass and cactus, waiting. And it wasn’t even the bite that Oscar was scared of. All it needed was to meet your eyes, and you were done for. Swallowed up in the same curse that had made a shadow of it. His grandmother had filled him with the stories, confirmed in the grim nods and averted eyes of his uncles and aunts and cousins. Never go into the desert in the night, was the moral of the story. But to get to the outhouse? Did that count as going into the desert? There was no fence out there, no line between the wild and the yard, and not a single light shone anywhere beyond the weak bulb on the back porch.
Oscar creaked open the screen door and stepped outside, heart hammering. He stepped off the cinderblock that made for a porch step and set his sock in the red dirt. Nothing grabbed him from beneath the trailer. He walked quickly, elbows pistoning out to the sides, bee-lining for the outhouse door. Shadows stretched lengthwise away from him as he walked along the path of light thrown from the porch. Reaching the outhouse, he tore the door open and stepped into the funky pitch dark, grabbing for the battery lantern that sat on a shelf. It cast a weak light in the wooden space, and Oscar barely had time to get his pajama bottoms down and his bottom aligned with the hole before his bowels erupted in a burning blast. The stench he added to the stench that was already there was nearly chewable. He didn’t touch the magazines or the newspaper that lay folded beside the hole and stood to wipe himself as soon as he was done dribbling. Composed at last, he outed the lantern and peeped out the door at the way back. This was the worst part. Going back towards the light was always somehow worse than going away from it. It was all the darkness behind.
He set a foot in the dirt and slipped outside. The outhouse door thumped closed behind him. At the thump, he sprinted. His feet kicked out tufts of dirt that scattered behind him, as long-fingered hands reached out of the darkness for him. Halfway there, he twisted a foot in a divot and went down to a mouthful of dirt. All the breath whooshed out of him. Scrambling back up, he felt a hand closing around his ankle, pulling him back, but he yanked himself free and shot for the porch. He slammed into the back door, peeled it open, and threw himself onto the kitchen linoleum with a puff of red dust and tattered panting. Safe, and alive, but just barely.
“The fuck!” Rolly’s head rose up from the other side of the couch in the blue TV light. He was bleary-eyed and mush-mouthed, drunk and hungover at the same time. “Who the fuck is that!”
Oscar crept across the kitchen floor in the shadows, imagining that he could evade detection if only Rolly remained on the couch. But then a pot-bellied silhouette staggered into the door frame and Oscar understood that the real danger was not out there in the desert but right here inside the house.
Oscar turned the stem of his water glass between his fingers. He’d initially refused this dinner invitation when Wang had called him directly at his office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, not believing that it was for real. His childhood had trained him in unrelenting skepticism, and he never suffered from the weakness of feeling compelled to please others. On the contrary, he delighted in subverting the Rollys of the world. But the man on the phone who claimed to be Wang had promised to share details of a mission under development and had asked some very technical questions—”Does a rotating disc experience the same centripetal force at all points along a radius?”—to which Oscar had precise and definitive answers.
Now he saw that Wang had been playing on his vanity. Astronauts were famously past-centric: when you’d already been to space by your mid-30’s, what else could you do that would measure up?
Wang, forking food into his mouth without so much as a napkin dab, began a litany. “A generational starship, with a crew of seven hundred of the top experts in their field: astrophysics, orbital mechanics, astrobiology, nuclear fusion. But also, botanists, chemical engineers, geneticists, molecular biologists, linguists, psychologists, neurologists, surgeons, biomedical engineers. And poets, and painters, and writers, and musicians, archivists, librarians. Exponents of every human intellectual endeavor.”
Oscar watched him talking and eating. His own lobster was going cold.
Wang went on. “A library of all human culture and civilization. Banks of cryogenically frozen DNA spanning the spectrum of flora and fauna, all of it triple-redundant in reinforced silos. The whole ship traveling in a bubble of a magnetic field generated by an ‘ion lasso.’” He set his fork down, the lobster tail mostly demolished, his lips shining with oil. “And the propulsion. A moon-based particle cannon, sending a steady pulse into a vast nano-carbon magnetic sail, many hundreds of kilometers across. Not a drop of fuel on the ship, which starts out moving so gently you could walk faster—but accelerating exponentially. Pushed by a steady beam, it reaches a tenth of the speed of light before passing outside the focal range of the particle beam. And then the sail becomes a ramjet, scooping up interstellar hydrogen, collecting and compressing it in empty tanks, accumulating fuel for the deceleration burn. All of it feasible with existing technology. All science, no fiction.” Twinkly eyes.
Oscar waited to see if Wang was done. Then, “So you’ve read my work.”
Water sip, napkin dab. “I’ve done a lot more than read it, Captain. I’ve started building it.”
Oscar blinked. “You what?”
Wang pushed back from the table and enlaced his fingers over his stomach. “Production facilities are already up and running in Lagos, Johannesburg, and Buenos Aires. Technical specifications are factory-ready on the greenhouses and digital archives. People are already at work on selecting resources.”
Wang waited, smiling.
“This is a theoretical thing. I published that stuff as a way to get people thinking about possibilities, not as blueprints for actual construction.”
“Well, Captain, you got people thinking. Thinking very much.”
“It’s full of gaps, sir. It’s pie-in-the-sky.”
Wang raised a finger. “Not yet. So far, all our construction has been on the ground.”
“Well, see, that’s exactly the problem. No offense, sir, and I don’t mean to be negative or critical here, but you must understand—it’s a gigantic spaceship. You can’t build it on the ground, you have to build it in space. The expense of getting the components into orbit would be enormous, unthinkable, especially considering how dangerous launches can be. You could spend a billion dollars on a segment, then launch it and watch the whole thing go up in vapor before it leaves the atmosphere. I don’t care how much money you have, it won’t be enough to build your own interstellar spaceship.”
Wang seemed unperturbed. “Not many people have ever told me that I can’t afford something, so savor that.” He leaned forward. “But the reason I’ve been so successful, Captain, is because I’m very good at getting what I want without having to pay a lot for it.”
Oscar shrugged. He could feel himself getting angry. Was Wang messing with him? Was this a prank? No one had taken his work seriously; the only feedback he’d received on his starship project was from a Hollywood producer who wanted to use the design for a sci-fi movie.
“So, do you want to hear what my solution is?”
Oscar shrugged. “You’re buying NASA?”
Wang raised his eyebrows. “Is that what you’ve heard?” His lower lip protruded as he parsed his words. “It’s actually more like renting. But that’s not the real game-changer.”
Oscar stopped him with a palm held up. “Wait. You’re renting NASA?”
Wang nodded. “In fact, some of your own missions have carried my cargo. The last three moon landings? All part of the plan, and quite affordable, compared to all the ways to waste money here on Earth. But the real key is this.” He tapped the white table cloth with a fingertip. “I have a space elevator.”
“Mm-hmm. Based on an equatorial island called Kullatu, in the middle of the Pacific. A conveyor belt, straight into orbit, reducing the cost and risk of orbital insertion to a glorified train ride.”
Oscar pushed himself back from the table. “That’s science fiction.”
Wang spread his hands, palms out. “Captain, you of all people should be able to appreciate that when the science catches up, the fiction goes away.”
Later, at his computer in his tiny BioDome cabin, Oscar flicked through an album of uploaded photos. His mother leaning on the two-by-four railing of their trailer, half washed-out by the sun, a long tawny horizon visible off to the side where the desert trailed away. Another: himself, toothless and ten, kneeling on the rug with a scattering of Hot Wheels all around. Another: his grandmother, also toothless, stirring some steaming concoction in a stainless-steel pot in her cluttered kitchen. This was the photo he got hung up on. Her robe, a felt wrapping, showed thick threads at the seams—she’d made it herself. The turquoise pendant around her neck was also of her own making, dangling from a leather chord cut from a goat that she’d skinned and dried—probably a relative of the creature that had ended up in that steaming pot of hers in this picture. Oscar pictured her fingers, gnarled slabs, scooping the roasted goat’s eyeball from its socket and holding it out to him. The eye, milky and rheumy, fleshy as a peeled grape, stared at his ten-year-old self.
He’d known this was coming, and he’d prepared himself for the moment, refusing to let any degree of disgust or hesitation show in his demeanor. He took it in his palm, squishy as a mud ball, and popped it into his mouth. It burst and slithered over his tongue then slid down his throat. His grandmother peeled a face-splitting grin that revealed a landscape of bumpy gums stretching across her face. “Aren’t you a big warrior!” she exclaimed in Navajo, grasping his shoulders and shaking him even as the slime oozed down his throat. He swallowed again to get it all down. In fact, it wasn’t so bad. He might even eat the other one, if no one else wanted it.
Now, looking into her face across the years on his screen, he gave her a smile that was little more than the appearance of a dimple in his left cheek. “Every part of the animal,” he muttered. That was what his grandmother had taught him, and that was the operating philosophy of this whole mission. Every skill, every talent, every possible use of every resource. To survive the trip to another solar system, nothing—not a thread, not a scrap, not a thought, not a whisper—could be wasted.
It was only during the dessert course—creme brulé with espresso cortado—that it began to sink in for Oscar that Prosper Wang was being serious. With this realization, panic began to set in. His work on a generational starship over the last decade had been purely speculation. Based on current science and mechanics, yes, but with no intention of actually building anything. It was an intellectual puzzle with attractively concrete variables, a chewy conundrum for an engineer to figure out—how to transport a self-sustaining crew of humans to another planet so that their own descendants would be able to complete the mission. As a decorated astronaut and mission commander, he had access to all the finest minds of NASA, but only in the sense of picking their brains over beers, not actually operating within the parameters of a true mission design. He was spit-balling. The updates that he published on his blog were popular with hobbyists and nerds and sci-fi consumers. That a billionaire investor might find his designs and take his brainstorms literally had never even occurred to him.
Wang was in the midst of speculating about the best way to narrow down the crew selection when Oscar splayed all ten fingertips on the table cloth and spoke up. “Mr. Wang, look. This isn’t a real mission. NASA is developing actual scenarios for this kind of thing, but my stuff is just brainstorming. You can’t invest in someone’s pipe dream. It’s not going to work.”
Wang watched him over the rim of his steaming espresso cup. “Captain, with all the respect in the world—and who on Earth, quite literally, has earned more respect than you?—it’s not for you to say how seriously your own ideas should be taken.”
Wang went on. “NASA is paralyzed with budget restrictions and bureaucracy. The only successful missions they’ve attained in the last decade—including your last three missions—have been the ones I’ve bankrolled. The Indians are better at fresh thinking and initiative, but their budget is even tighter. The ESA is hog-tied with maintenance missions for the ISS. None of them are sufficiently mature to set their sights on a long-term mission. But there are people at each of these agencies who get it. People I’ve contracted, who have scrutinized your work, and the work of some others, and who have arrived at a consensus. We have the beginnings of what it takes to send a ship full of humans to another solar system.”
That last phrase sent a tingle of excitement through Oscar’s body even as he was shaking his head to reject it. “You might have the science for it,” he said, “but the political will isn’t there. A handful of scientists aren’t going to convince the world to invest in the most expensive project ever imagined.”
“They don’t have to convince the world,” Wang said, as his default smile stretched to show another couple of teeth. “They’ve convinced me. And I’ve got a trillion dollars to spend.”
“A trillion dollars? I honestly don’t think you’ve got a trillion dollars—no one is that rich—and it’s going to take a lot more than that, probably.”
Wang put his hands up defensively. “I didn’t say all the money was mine, I just said I have it to spend.” Twinkle, twinkle.
Oscar shook his head. “You’re a madman.” He heard the grudging admiration in his own voice.
Wang dabbed the corners of his mouth, then dropped his napkin on the table. “I’m going to give you some homework. First, social dynamics. Who procreates with whom? You’ve got seven hundred people on the ship, and you want to roughly maintain those numbers throughout the voyage. So, do you use family units? Do you create a pool of procreating females and a lottery system of partners? Do you try to preserve ethnicities, or crossbreed? How do you set it up, so the men aren’t murdering each other to get at the pussy?”
Oscar watched him, not reacting.
Wang went on. “How do you train two successive generations of astrophysicists who haven’t been born yet? How do you make sure your crew at planetfall is competent to complete the mission? What fail-safes can you build into the navigation system? How do you compensate for gravity in the parts of the Ship that aren’t rotating?”
Oscar muttered, “This is a lot of homework.”
Wang beamed. “I knew you’d say yes!”
The alert came in as he was going over a spreadsheet of mass-to-volume ratios. A message popped up on-screen with Wang’s tagline and his avi of a googly-eyed old teddy bear. It was against protocol to message with the outside world during the BioDome trial, but events were overtaking protocol.
>>clear out now
Oscar paused. Updates? he typed. Anything I should know?
>>no delay. evacuate and await helo pickup in 10.
His heart, so well-conditioned for stress and exertion, was now racing. Clarify?
>>could i be any fucking clearer? do it now
With that, the active icon next to Wang’s avi winked out as he went offline.
Oscar rubbed his hands together, focusing on bringing his heart rate back down. Then he reached for the microphone that fed into the public address system. He pressed the talk button. “Attention Gaia crew: all personnel prepare for immediate evacuation. Carry any personal effects you can gather within the next 60 seconds and assemble on the tarmac outside the east exit three minutes from now.”
From out in the passageway he heard a burble of voices even as the echoes of his announcement were fading. Then Ravik was at the door, peering in. “Sir? Is this a drill?”
“You heard me,” Oscar said without looking at him. Ravik hesitated a moment, then moved off. Oscar was clicking through the icons on his desktop, dragging a bundle of documents into a fresh folder. He allowed himself the same sixty seconds he’d given everyone else, and when the time was up, he dragged the folder over the DropBox icon and left it uploading. As long as the ISS and the Gaia were still operational, the crew up there would receive the plans and know what to do with them.
The progress bar that appeared informed him that the upload would take forty-five minutes. The helicopters would be here in ten, but as long as the electrical generators kept working, the upload would continue even after they’d evacuated—right up until whatever was prompting this evacuation happened.
The officers had gathered their teams in clusters, everyone in their jump suits with their bags at their feet. The cold desert wind scoured them, and the stars gleamed down. Oscar paced the stretch of asphalt as the crew murmured amongst themselves. He knew they needed an explanation, but he wasn’t in possession of any useful facts. Ravik came up beside him and spoke low. “Do we know anything?”
“They need to hear something.”
Oscar wheeled on him. “Put it together. Forty-eight hours was too much time, we should have gone right away. Now I don’t know what’s coming, but I can guess.”
From the south, a deep thudding rhythm announced the helicopters’ approach. The desert stretched in darkness all around, and the only light came from the LEDs embedded in the helipads surrounding the tarmac. The stars splayed overhead, a portrait of the universe. Oscar stared up at it, feeling that he was standing on the edge of a precipice and wanting to jump into the void, let himself tumble towards the stars. He yearned for it, and raised up on the balls of his feet, as if to push himself off the Earth. He even allowed himself to reach up, stretching, grasping at all the emptiness between this desert floor and the soup of sky. He sighed. “This is as good a place as any to remain,” he said quietly.
Ravik shot him a look of alarm. “Sir?”
Behind them, a flash bloomed against the horizon. They turned, all of them, to watch the light blaze beyond the sawtooth ridges. Another flash, then another, each as bright as a sun. No sound came yet, but clouds billowed upwards in knots of smoke and flame, pillars of hell. The LED lights at their feet winked out as the electromagnetic pulse killed them. In the nearer distance, metal crumpled and shrieked as the approaching helicopters fell out of the sky, crashing to the desert floor and then exploding.
The crew scattered across the tarmac in shouts and wails. Oscar stood his ground, breathing deep and keeping his eyes aimed at the stars. They remained immobile as they always had, impossibly far and now forever unreachable. A half dozen of those points of light were not stars at all. They described high arcs across the sky, tracing parabolas that carried them from the other side of the world to this side, to end it. Their movements were all but invisible against the backdrop of galaxies. One moment, Oscar Running Bear and his crew stood there on the desert floor, watching the stars, and the next moment they were all gone.
After spending eleven months in Portugal without leaving the country, I find myself with a bit of expendable income and nothing to do until the start of my new job in late February. Resolving to see some close friends I met during my time as a graduate student in Scotland, I travel to the UK and to Palestine. It is a winter of rehashing old jokes and talking about books and sleeping on floors and being happy.
In between these two places, though, I decide to travel through the Balkans. I know little about the region’s history—the communist revolutionary Josip Broz Tito, the statue of Bill Clinton in Kosovo, a war that plagued the region around the time I was born. I tell myself I want to go somewhere cheap and cold, somewhere I can wear the same shirt for a few days in a row without having to worry. But pragmatic reasons aside, I want to visit a place no one I know has ever been. I want, perhaps childishly, to go somewhere “different,” to float for a month or so in a place free from mental associations and expectations.
About a week into my trip through the Balkans, I am on the way out of Belgrade, Serbia, heading toward Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The day, not unlike the city itself, has been grey and muted and beautiful.
I was told by locals that I could pay for a shuttle to Sarajevo for the same price as the bus and that the journey would be a few hours shorter, but what I assumed would be a large van filled with other travelers turns out to be one man in an old, beat-up sedan.
As we gradually distance ourselves from the center of the city and start making our way toward its marsh-filled outskirts, the driver and I begin to talk.
“Where you from?”
“The United States.”
“Yeah? I learn all my English from American movies. Never take one class, never study, nothing.” He grins, blowing his cigarette smoke through a thin slit above the driver-side window.
“What movies do you like?” I ask.
“The Gladiator. Russell Crowe strong. The Last Samurai. I like strong movie, you know?”
“Ah yeah, those are both great ones. Russell Crowe is a great actor.”
We’ve made our way out of Belgrade proper, but I can still see, to my right, the vague outline of the Danube curving eastward as we head toward the border. The driver mumbles something about his headlights and pulls into a gas station. After scrubbing the lights with a window washer, he reappears. The bulbs still seem next to useless, but he appears pleased by the return on his efforts.
After a long silence, I ask him what his schedule is like and how often he makes this trip.
“Three or four times week. Five hours ago I came back, and now I go again. Tomorrow I come back at night, and then do again next day.”
“Damn. Isn’t that tiring?”
“Yes. But I tough. Serbian people tough. I work anywhere, just want to work. Send me Mars, I work there. Serbian people work on Mars if jobs. This why it is dream of me to go to the USA. Work hard, yes, but make money. For who work hard, he live good.”
“Where would you want to go in the States?”
“Pfff. Anywhere. I go anywhere.”
He looks at me as if my question is stupid, as if choice is a luxury unavailable to him. I think about how many states I find Belgrade preferable to but decide not to mention the comparison.
“A lot of Serbs work like crazy on the east coast for a few months and then come back with a bunch of money. I remember going to Massachusetts—all they did was work a ton and drink a ton.”
“Yes, but students. I already forty. Forty-one next month!”
I can feel the air getting colder as we slowly make our way toward the border. As we approach, the driver tells me to give him my passport. While he inspects it, I consider the possibility that he might be memorizing my details. When I travel alone, I can’t help but feel like I am perpetually alternating between an unbridled, irrational belief that strangers are plotting against me and an equally irrational belief that all people are essentially good. I can’t say which is the better default mode, but vacillating between the two is emotionally exhausting.
“Always been my dream to have this passport,” he says. “You want get married, we get married.”
I pause for a second, making sure I’ve heard the joke correctly; gay humor seems incompatible with Balkan machismo.
“If Serbia joins the EU, then we’ll talk. I’d love to get EU citizenship,” I answer.
“Will never happen. Serbia won’t recognize Kosovo.”
“Ah, right. Serbians aren’t the biggest fans of the Clintons because of this, are they?”
“Fuck Bill, and fuck whore wife, too. What’s her name?”
“Yes. Fuck Hillary.”
Our conversation is then interrupted by the checkpoint at the Serbian side of the Serbian-Bosnian border crossing. After our passports are checked, the driver holds onto mine, and it takes me a minute to realize he’s keeping it because once we approach the Bosnian side the authorities there will also need to examine my ID. It’s my first time in a majority-Muslim country, and if there’s something in a person’s eyes that gives away their affiliation with a particular religion, I can’t see it. It seems that the only way to identify which religion a person belongs to is by their last name.
After crossing the border, we make our way up into the mountains. There is still no snow, but even at night, Bosnia’s topography is impossible to ignore. Every hill we ascend seems to switchback onto itself. With the Bosnian checkpoint still faintly in sight behind us, I can make out a mosque poking its head up from one of the small border villages.
We pull into a roadside cafe to use the bathroom and get a coffee. I buy a bag of peanuts, bagel chips, and water. We sit in silence while the driver finishes his cappuccino and stares at his phone. I recall thinking as a child that at drive-in movies you wouldn’t be able to see the film if you left their car, that it only played through a windshield. Our dynamic seems to work in a similar manner—whatever brief rapport we built in the car seems to have evaporated into the thin mountain air.
We are on the road again, and it’s clear that neither of us has anything to say. He turns the music on. After a few minutes, I ask whether the music is Serbian or from somewhere else in the Balkans.
“Serbian! Frank Sinatra of the Balkans. Everyone like his music. He like Bob Marley. Everyone like.”
I know nothing about Balkan music, but I can tell that he is excited, so I continue to ask general questions, letting him play various songs from his phone. Soon, the conversation switches to Serbian players in the NBA, and not long after, the local Serbian football league.
It is not yet snowing, but there is snow on the ground everywhere. It’s been at least an hour since we saw the last village, but every few kilometers a smattering of lights can be seen on hillsides, far removed from the main road.
“What your name?”
He says a name I don’t understand, but then tells me his friends call him Zoran.
The fact that this exchange is taking place so late into our trip together, that I am only now learning his name, surprises me. But if there is a point in nascent friendships when not knowing the other person’s name becomes unbearably awkward, we apparently had not yet reached it.
While alternating between driving, smoking, and searching for football videos on his phone, Zoran excitedly tells me about the Serbian league. There seems to be an inverse relationship between his excitement level and his ability to speak English correctly, but knowing the details of the conversation doesn’t seem as important as showing interest.
“This my team. Good team, strong team. Not long ago, there was a big fight where people watch the game. Croatians came, did shit.”
“Ah right, I actually saw that. Weren’t there, like, only ten of them? They coulda died, man. I saw the video. Weren’t they MMA fighters or something?”
Zoran laughs. “MMA mean nothing if there are ten of you against big crowd. They were paid.”
“It’s kinda like those two teams in Glasgow, isn’t it? One Protestant, one Catholic.”
“Yes! Rangers and Celtics. Never just football. Can’t be just football. Always football plus other things.”
“You ever play?” I ask.
“For national team, but war start, so I stop.”
“Do you still play for fun?”
“Yeeeeees, yes. I still love. But I’m old now, you know?”
We both laugh, and though I am increasingly uneasy about the fact that his car is little more than a tin box and the roads we’re on seem less than safe, I continue to watch the football videos he finds for me. And then he shows me a picture of his ten-year-old son.
“Are you and his mom still together?”
He has difficulty explaining this, but I am able to gather that he and the mother are separated, though not legally divorced.
“Do you guys get along well?”
“Yeeees, yes. We good friends. Must be, for my son, you know?”
“Yeah man, I understand.”
“You see woman that left my car when I pick you up? She is love of my life. Before my son’s mother, we were together. Young twenties, first time in love.”
“Wow, how did you find her again? How long have you been seeing each other?”
“Maybe eight months.” He starts to laugh. “She work in bank. My mother went into her work, saw her, and she ask about me. I get her information from my mother, call next day. She thought I was still married, or else she find me, she say.”
“And did she ever get married?”
“Yes. Her husband work in Germany. It’s complicated.”
I’m not sure whether this means that, like Zoran, his girlfriend and her husband are separated, or if Zoran is simply ashamed to admit that he is the other man. I don’t ask him to clarify.
“Do you think it will last?”
I watch Zoran attempt to work through his own thoughts and then translate them into English. It is unclear whether he delays because he wants to do justice to my question or because he is simply having trouble with the language.
“I don’t know! I still love her, but it’s different now, you know? I love seeing her, but we not twenty anymore. She is not she and I am different. I hope it will last.”
After a few seconds’ pause, he adds, “Balkans women very beautiful, no?”
I nod, and we both laugh.
It is snowing now, and Zoran’s smoke breaks are noticeably shorter; neither of us can tolerate 11 p.m. mountain cold for more than a short burst—nor, more importantly, can Zoran’s poor windshield. His flood lights still seem laughably spent and totally unequipped for the mountains.
We are on a main thoroughfare in the mountains, though we’ve been here for at least an hour, which means that we are fairly deep in. As we pass by yet another nondescript European hatchback headed in the opposite direction, it flashes its lights at us. I assume the driver is trying to tell Zoran that his lights are crap, but I quickly discover this is not the case.
“Sisadzijo. That means police somewhere, waiting. Serbian people look out for each other against mother fuckers.”
“Ah shit, trying to catch people for speeding?”
“No, no speeding. Nothing wrong.”
Ten minutes pass in limbo, and then, sure enough, a man in a bright orange jacket and police attire signals us over to the side of the road.
“If they ask, we are friends. No money.”
We stop the car and Zoran starts talking with the police officer. Another stands closer to me, near the passenger door. By the tone of Zoran’s voice, I assume that the exchange isn’t going well for him. He gets out of the car, and they spend another five minutes arguing. I notice Zoran holding his wallet and an ID card between his fingers. He slips money into the officer’s front coat pocket and walks back toward the car.
“I pay them, maybe 600 dinar. He keep talking, all bullshit, until I give him money, make me waste time. Until I pay, he continue.”
For a trip that costs about twenty-five dollars total, six dollars is nothing to scoff at.
“What was the justification?” A few moments pass, and I think of a better way to formulate the question. “What reason did he give?”
Zoran laughs. “No reason! He doesn’t need reason. Until I pay, he bullshits. I fuck all their mothers. Dogs, all dogs. We call them dogs in Serbian.”
“In English, we call them pigs.”
“Idu u picku materinu. Fuckers.”
This, by far, is my favorite insult in Serbian. Go back to your mother’s vagina.
“Is this something that happens in Serbia as well, or only here in Bosnia?”
“Happen everywhere in Balkans. Everywhere.”
When we get back on the road again, Zoran makes a phone call. I am surprised by the gruffness of his tone, how aggressive he seems when speaking in his native tongue.
Maybe he comes across as more affable in English because he’s forced to simplify his ideas. I’ve seen this in others—my grandfather, wittier in English; my cousin, far more likely to crack a joke in English than in Portuguese. My grandfather was born in Portugal, and I spent the last year there learning his language and trying to gain Portuguese citizenship. If I am overly sensitive to how Zoran comes across in English, it is because I saw this same disconnect in others while in Portugal. For non-native speakers of a language, I think, humor feels more accessible than sincerity. Countless times I’ve tried to convey a thought or feeling in Portuguese, only to fret for weeks after that I’d been misunderstood in some small, trifling way, that I was almost understood.
From the phone call, I gather that Zoran works under someone else, that this venture does not belong to him. This means he is likely making far less money than I calculated, although his boss would have to cover the unforeseen expenses.
I ask Zoran how often these incidents occur.
“He do this before, same dog. Last week. I tell him, come on, I give you money last week, you not remember me? Look at me and tell you don’t remember me. This happen in US?”
“Well, no, you probably won’t get shaken down for money. You might get shot, though.” I’m not sure if he understands what I’ve said, so I let my words evaporate as we drive on.
“I don’t hate cops, you know. Just dogs. We all dogs here, in the Balkans. You know I was in the military when I was young.”
“Oh yeah? What branch?”
It takes a joint effort for us to find the right words in English. Special Forces.
“I jumped from planes.”
Very few questions can be asked in the Balkans without implying the war. I can’t ask people when, or where, they were born; I can’t ask the myriad of NBA fans I meet whether they think Michael Jordan or Lebron James is better. To talk about the 90s, or someone’s birthplace, or childhood is to talk about the war in a negative space; the war makes itself the focal point of conversations precisely because of the lengths taken to avoid talking about it.
As such, I’m afraid to ask Zoran about the timeline, but it seems appropriate given the context, and I am even more afraid to let the opportunity slip away.
“95 to 96.”
The tail end of the Bosnian War, one of a number of related ethno-political conflicts brought about by Yugoslavia’s disintegration in the early 90s. For four years, Serbian snipers occupied the lower part of the mountains we are driving through and shot at civilians, killing somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 children during the 1,425-day siege of the city. Zoran was either nineteen or twenty at the time.
“If you could do it again, if you could make different choices, do you think you would have stayed in the Special Forces? You know, made a career out of it?”
“Oh yes. I made stupid choices. Nineteen, you know? Too young. Would have made a lot of money. Big house, stop working young. Maybe by now I’m not even working anymore. But it’s okay, I work. I like to work.”
I have little trouble imagining Zoran in the military, especially after hearing him speak his own language. Though he’s opened up to me about his kid and his anxiety about the future of his relationship with his girlfriend, he is still intimidating. His voice is hollowed out from all the smoking and his default expression is far from inviting.
I wait for Zoran to tell me more about his time in the Special Forces, but he doesn’t. Instead, he dials his boss again and I am struck, once more, by the chasm between his demeanor in English and his mother tongue.
Snow batters against the car’s windshield. Pinus Peuce, better known as Balkan Pine, are visible on either side of the road. Even through the snow, I can smell the trees when Zoran opens his window to blow out smoke.
Forty-five minutes and twenty kilometers later, another car passes, again greeting us with a flashing of headlights. Zoran laughs.
“Can’t happen twice. Let’s see.”
But we are signalled over, again, while cars behind us pass by, unmolested. Zoran starts arguing with one of two police officers. After ten minutes and another six dollars USD, we are allowed to continue on.
Zoran is no longer angry. Instead, I detect some combination of sadness and amusement. I ask him to recount the exchange, and after some vocabulary fishing, he tells me that, technically, he is required to have a fire extinguisher in his car.
“I have! I have . . . look! I show him fire extinguisher, and then he ask for papers. He ask for . . . papers for fire extinguisher. As soon as he ask for the papers, I give him 500 more dinar. Never happen twice in one trip. Never.”
He calls his boss one more time, alternating between what sounds like cynicism and indignation. After the call, he turns to me.
“For me, is no problem, you know? Not my money. Just bad look for our people when I drive foreigners. Bad look. We are a country full of dogs. I am tired of this.”
“We have a saying in English, you either laugh or you cry.”
“Yes. Yes. Laugh today. Cry tomorrow.” He laughs. “You are good passenger. Best I’ve had. Time goes quick.”
“Thanks man, I’m glad we met.”
I’m not sure Zoran and I would be friends in a different context, not sure if he is the type of person I’d feel comfortable having over for dinner or on an evening out for drinks with close friends. I have trouble reconciling his enthusiasm for his child with his apathy about being involved with a married woman—not to mention the unmitigated enthusiasm he has expressed for his combat-heavy role in an army that is widely recognized as the chief perpetrator of human rights violations during the war.
Nevertheless, as our destination draws near and we finally begin our descent from the mountains, I realize that I’ve grown fond of him. Perhaps our exchange says as much about me as it does about him. I’ve always thought that my estimation of someone as essentially good or not was congruent with my fondness for them. But perhaps being an unequivocally good person is not a prerequisite for my admiration.
It is currently 12:30 a.m.; roughly six hours have passed since we left Belgrade. I can now see the scattered lights and smoke of Sarajevo in the distance. I imagine that, as in Belgrade, it will take us at least fifteen or twenty minutes to get to the city center, but the hub appears almost immediately, surrounded by hills. There is an unconventional beauty about it, precisely because of the layout. The city is like a ten-kilometer-long runway; homes drift off into the hills, but you can walk across the city in thirty minutes. The houses feel suburban, unlike the favelas generally associated with settlements on sloping hillsides.
I gather my belongings, surprised at how quickly we’ve reached the hostel. Zoran helps me carry my things inside, and as I’m standing at the check-in counter, I thank him again for the ride. I consider asking for his contact information, but in the moment I find it neither appropriate nor a particularly good idea.
“Hvala, prijateli.” Thank you, friend, he says. And with a smile and a handshake, Zoran is gone.
On my second day in town, I find that I’m rapidly running out of places to walk in Sarajevo. I decide to go to the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide. From my hostel, it’s about three minutes by foot.
The museum, like Sarajevo, is claustrophobic. I make my way through a number of narrow exhibitions, sometimes so physically close to an exhibit that I can’t make anything out; I am habitually taking off my glasses in order to read the text. On other walls, there are large, jarring images of human barbarism; mutilated corpses and horribly disfigured children are accompanied by banal timelines of the war.
Forty-five minutes later, I find myself in the final room of the exhibition. There is a small picture and a description of every single person charged with war crimes between 1992 and 1995—some crimes nondescript, others against civilians, and others still crimes against humanity. Listed, too, is the ethnicity of every perpetrator. I see Bosnian-Serb, Croat, and Bosniak, though the majority are Serbian or Bosnian-Croat.
I spend longer than I intend looking at each perpetrator. As I make my way around the room, I pause at one Serbian face. Though the picture is pixelated, I’m stunned.
It must be Zoran.
He has the same face, the same scowl, the same tense shoulders. I try, in vain, to parse through the details of our conversation, try to recall the unregistered sounds he made when he told me his name.
The photo says that this man was sentenced to twenty years in jail, which means, logistically, he could be out by now.
I begin to feel lightheaded, so I squat to the floor. Nobody else is in the room.
Upon second glance, I notice that written below the picture is a birth date. I quickly do the math and realize it’s not Zoran. It can’t be. This man is older, by just less than a year.
I curse the rapidity with which I’ve jumped to conclusions, with which I’ve tried to form connections that don’t exist. He and Zoran are not the same person, but the fact that it was even a possibility makes me shiver, makes me realize that the connection I tried to make, while hasty, was neither irrational nor unfounded.
As a child bored in class, I used to take blank pages and fill in all of the white space with lead. Then, I’d start erasing and see what I came up with. I must follow this same logic with Zoran; I must work backward.
I have learned much more about the war and his personal life, not from what he said but from what he did not say—from his regret, or in the most startling cases, his lack of regret left lingering in the spaces between our exchanges. Affability cannot be the only criterion in my estimation of him. There must be other things. An admission to being on the wrong side of history. A nod, at least, toward one’s own ethical pliability. After all, I only recognize this pliability in him because, in my evaluation of his character, I also see it in myself.
I get up, thank the museum curator, and leave.
Outside, Sarajevo, too, is grey.
The Vanishing Point
Diana puts on the deer head when she gets home from work. She’s constructed the steel frame to rest comfortably on her shoulders. The felted aluminum plates lend her face the contour of an airplane hangar. At first, the snout tubes were uncomfortable, but her nostrils have toughened. She gives Jehovah’s Witnesses a shock.
She’d toyed with the idea of moving to Canada—but she’d done the moving-for-a-new-life thing before. New places quickly become old, as do clothes, habits, and men. She always returns to herself. Diana needs a change she can’t come back from.
She’s modeled the head on a vision that keeps her up at night, one she pulls tight around herself as she sits in rush-hour traffic. She longs for silence.
The vision burrows into her and spreads as she eats lunch at her desk, as she revises a research paper she’d hoped would help earn her tenure, as she locks her biomechanics lab for the night. She sinks into the deep velvet woods.
The fawn had appeared in the untamed field behind her childhood home. He’d grazed in the shade of the magnolia tree, one hind leg pulled up in pain. As he had tripped after his mother, Diana and her father had mourned his certain death.
Their grief was premature. He returned the following spring, and though his wound had healed, he still hitched up his hind leg. As he grazed with his mother and sure-footed sisters, he bowed his muzzle, revealing the buds of antlers. He’s a survivor, Diana’s father said.
Diana studied the fawn through her father’s binoculars, his flanks rippling as he shivered off flies, the white flash of his tail, the way his legs tucked up as he leapt the stone wall like an ocean wave. She watched him from her bedroom window.
The fawn, now a stag, returned every spring. His sisters started their own families and moved on. His mother stopped accompanying him.
Diana constructs a torso with materials she’d used to design a durable exosuit for soldiers. She builds outward, adapting her S-shaped spine to the deer’s rolling curve. She sets the torso at an incline, repositioning the foramen magnum, the “great hole” through which the spine connects to the skull. The frame relieves the stress four-legged motion exerts on her joints and enhances her muscle propulsion to rival a deer’s. She runs bicycle brake cables down the lengths of her legs, tipped with steel hooves. She fabricates sensors for her eyelids to open and close her deer eyes.
She preps her gut for a deer’s diet by boosting her roughage intake, swapping out Lean Cuisines for salads. After a week, she ditches the salad dressing. Then the croutons and nuts, and finally the bacon bits, until all that’s left are greens. She mixes in some grass from the esplanade and shredded maple leaves with an aftertaste of decay.
Last year, she’d almost completed the kale and cauliflower diet—but this is worse. The leaves stick in her teeth. The grass bunches in her throat.
To enable digestion, she considers fecal transplants that would boost her microbiomes, but a consultation with a biologist yields a more elegant grazing method: She masticates the grass into a pulp, which she spits into a tube connected to an artificial stomach converted from a colonoscopy bag. There, the grass is broken down into a smoothie of volatile fatty acids and cultured microbes, which Diana consumes through a straw.
She still doesn’t enjoy the taste of grass, though she’s tried every local variety from the sweet lawn outside her lab to the nutty scruff along the I-93. She has become accustomed to the bitter hint of insecticide.
Diana studies YouTube videos to practice the deer dialogue of threatening snorts, jovial bleats, amorous wheezes. The stomp and pant of alarm and the white tail of retreat. She rigs her own tail with a pulley connected to her pointer finger so she can raise and lower it at will. To offset the suit’s mechanical nature, she applies synthetic fur to every inch of hide.
She orders a vial of Stag Stink from a hunting catalogue. Bottled from hormones distilled from buck urine, it’s guaranteed to mask human odors, allowing her to infiltrate a herd.
She’ll have to stop showering eventually, but for now she’s still a professional. The lab director intends for her to take over the department after he retires and has already outlined a ten-year-plan for the transition. Phil has been at the university for thirty-five years and is the last to leave every night. He steers every conversation to his latest research; currently, the neuromechanics of flamingo balance. It would be so easy to bide her time until Phil retires and slip into his office, and his habits.
Diana cuts back to two showers a week, then one. It becomes harder to invest in empty routines.
Her grad student Lou molds the suit to her specifications. A chemist studying the composition of snail mucus, Lou 3D-prints prosthetics for wounded wildlife in his spare time. An eagle’s beak, a dog’s leg, a bat’s wing. He prints plates of armored bone to fit over Diana’s augmented musculature.
“It’s kind of like Pups,” he says, kneeling to take the measurements of her inseam for Nylon panels to prevent chafing. “You know, those guys who wear dog costumes? They eat off the floor, sleep in crates, play catch. They even have handlers. Sometimes they have sex.”
“It’s nothing like that,” Diana says. “I don’t like dogs—and there won’t be any sex.”
“Not a dog person,” he says, as if cataloging this new fact about her.
In exchange for Lou’s help and discretion, Diana had promised he could document her transformation and publish a paper upon her return.
“What does Kevin think of all this?” he asks, careful not to look at her while he records her measurements, his laptop balanced in the crook of his arm.
“It doesn’t matter,” she says.
Lou turns to her with the full force of his concern.
“I’ll stop pestering you,” he says. “Just promise to bring a phone for emergencies, and give me a call every few days so I’ll know you’re alive, okay?”
“Fine,” she says, to shut him up. She would feel bad deceiving Lou, if he didn’t already have it made. At just thirty, he’d arrived at MIT with a fellowship and a baby on the way, while Diana had to put her life on hold for postdoc after postdoc, sucking up to male researchers just for the chance to pursue her work.
Every time she got close to promotion, some fresh heartbreak had derailed her; she took a leave of absence when her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and another to care for her aging father. Now she’s finally an assistant professor, but she’s got nothing else to show for her sacrifices. Lou doesn’t need to know she’s not coming back.
Diana stands four-legged in the alley between her apartment building and the neighbor’s house, cultivating a deer’s quiet mind. She’d studied meditation at the monastery in the strip mall. The teacher had instructed the class to pick something on which to fix their gaze and focus their chi.
She stares at her license plate, ignoring how silly she must look, the ache blooming in her lower back, the quaking of her arms and thighs. Something is digging into her palm. A shard of glass, maybe. It could slice her hand, injecting bacteria into her bloodstream. She can feel the bacteria pushing up into her wrist, her inner arm. Her veins are bulging. She is going to die of infection before she even leaves home.
She flexes one knee, then the other. Rolls her head, scraping her spine against the great hole.
The neighbor’s shade is lopsided, and her windows are streaked with small handprints. Rain skates down Diana’s neck. Kevin had wanted kids.
He’d described their hypothetical children as if to tempt her with their genetic superiority. Their aptitude for music and math, their curly hair, their predisposition for glasses and braces. She’d insisted again and again that she didn’t want them, that she’d never wanted kids. He began heading to work earlier and coming home later. He brought little gifts and picked big fights, and wore her down until she stopped arguing. He’d taken her silence for consideration. That’s what he said when he left her.
She’d never swayed in her conviction. He’s the one who’d changed his mind—who said, early on, that he would be happy either way, as long as he spent his life with her. But she hadn’t been enough for him. And that was the end of it, because she deserved to be enough for someone.
When he left, months ago, he’d stripped his belongings from their apartment—his grandparents’ furniture and the framed blueprints of condos he’d designed, his flannel sheets, his pots and pans. He’d left the rooms practically bare. In the two years they’d lived together, she’d never realized how few possessions she’d brought into their home; how little they’d bought together.
She takes what’s left to Goodwill—until she’s cast off everything, along with Kevin and the person she’d been—and comes away with herself alone.
Diana leaves her car, with the keys in the ignition, at the end of the road whose name she occasionally writes on government documents by mistake. The crabapple trees guarding the mile-long driveway are overgrown, and the house’s trim is flaking. The porch boards are buckling. The bushes have blinded the kitchen windows.
For two years, she’s been promising to put the house up for sale. Bracing herself to sort through her family’s things, her old treasures still arranged in her bedroom like a memorial to her childhood. She used to come home just to sleep, to feel like herself again. She hasn’t been home since her father died.
He had taught art and painted portraits on commission, and his home was as meticulous as his craft. He didn’t make a mess, only a little dust that she vacuumed twice a week. When he was too frail to play tennis, as he had every Tuesday and Thursday, he followed her around the house straightening the paintings she disturbed with the duster. When he died, she didn’t change a thing.
Diana dons the exosuit under the magnolia tree where as a girl she’d built a fort. Its soft-furred buds are folded tight.
Her hooves are designed to absorb the shock of her tread. Still, the impact hums up her shins, through her knees, up the highway of her back. She lingers at the boundary where field meets woods. The biologist had said deer live at the edges between worlds, along highways and in suburban backyards. As if they can’t decide where they belong.
The air is crisp with pine and the vestiges of winter. Mt. Greylock is still capped with snow; the water it sheds into the creek behind the house is so pure she and her mother had used it to make lemonade.
Her hooves sink into the damp grass like high heels at an outdoor wedding. She pushes into the woods, tamping down her unease, the archaic dread of straying too far from home.
Her mother had forbidden her to pass the creek, where a swath of ground drops off into a trench. She’d dutifully remained in the shallow woods. As a teen, she’d rebelled by exploring along the creek—but had never crossed over.
How foolish, to still feel bound by that decades-old directive. But she feels the eyes of the house on her as she plunges into the creek, savoring the shock of water on her flanks. The creek invades the gaps between her bodies, dousing her human thighs. Her wet skin slaps against the insides of her deer-body’s haunches.
The snout tubes condense the air into purified pine. The dying winter exhales wood smoke and musk. For the first time in years, Diana can fill her lungs. She hadn’t realized how deprived of breath she’d become.
Diana breathes deeply, as she learned in meditation, relishing the silence, the separation of mind from matter. She sidles up to squirrels, a hesitant hedgehog, a clutch of rabbits who startle and flee. A chipmunk skitters to a stop before her, and she extends a foreleg in greeting. It bolts, screeching, Abomination!
She loses sight of the house beyond the tangle of trees. It doesn’t matter if she never finds her way back; the forest, in all its majesty and mystery, is her home now.
At first the woods seem quiet, but she soon finds that the silence is all her own, a symptom of her human shortcomings. The woods resound with the breath of trees. Leaves crashing into each other. The apelike shriek of the barred owl. And the air! She had never thought of it as alive. But it is joyously, calamitously alive. The wind strokes her flanks, buffets her ears, plays across her pelt. She is mesmerized by the catastrophic violence of the forest.
Here are remnants of the logging trail her great-grandfather and his horses had used to drag trees off the mountain and into town. Diana follows its ragged outline until it erases itself. She grazes below a stand of birches whose bark is stripped from branch to root. She scans the woods for her brethren, but there is no one. She savors the sour grit of stiff grass, grinding it between her molars and spitting the juices into the tube that runs into the digestive chamber. Her first meal in earnest. The grass gives her cramping gas, but there’s no one to mind. She relishes her freedom from humiliation.
Diana is dismayed by how quickly she fatigues, despite her preparations. Her human shoulders and wrists ache from bearing her weight, and her hooves are already rubbing her heels raw. She tries to give herself over to deer-body and abolish the inadequate human one.
The night brings relief. She’s survived the first, day. Her joints ache. Her bodies are so heavy she can barely stand. She turns in place, seeking direction. But she’s lost.
She can’t be lost, she tells herself; the forest is her home now. She scours the impersonal trees for a sign that she hasn’t made a terrible mistake, but they pull their shadows close. She turns in a clumsy circle, her legs rattling the joint bolts. She fumbles at her chinstrap, dizzy with mounting panic. A stag emerges from among the trees.
The failing light slides down the curve of his chest and catches in the well between his trunk and thighs, turning his fur from brown to gold. His beard lifts in the breeze. His eyes are dark and calm. His brow is crowned with dagger-like horns from which his rack ascends, curving to embrace the bowl of the sky.
His haunches are tensed. His ears swivel toward Diana, but he does not run. She longs to slide her fingers down the slope of his antlers, to their base where the softest fur grows. To press her cheek against his neck.
His head whips toward the trees, and he flicks his ears in the direction of his gaze. She squints to see what he might be seeing, hear what he might be hearing, but her ears, even amplified, are ineffectual.
His tail quivers in warning and fans like a white flag as he darts away, one back leg pulled up to his belly.
The darkness seems to rise from the ground, obscuring her path as she follows the flash of his tail, the gleam of his antlers among far-off branches. Reeling on her spring-loaded legs, Diana trips over roots and rocks. Branches thrust between the chinks in her armored flanks, the seams that connect her parts, to scrabble at the human meat underneath.
She shakes off the assault, stumbling after the stag who melts through the trees like the stags in the Renaissance painting her father had used to teach perspective to undergraduates. In it, the deep wood teemed with bounding dogs and men and horses arched in urgency, and stags careening toward the painting’s vanishing point.
The creek licks her flanks, and her hooves find purchase on the logging trail. There is the dim regularity of the field behind her house. She emerges from the woods where the cedars stand sentinel along the boundary. Her knees give out under the weight of nostalgia. The feeling of returning for summers and holidays, and in those last damaged months, to the home that had so deeply shaped her.
She could sleep in her old bed tonight, warm under the blankets despite the spring frost. It would be so easy to take up residence in her childhood again.
She curls into the roots of the magnolia tree, breathing in the musty scent of bark that brings back to her the summer afternoons she’d wiled away in these branches. The silence is thick and pungent. In those last months with her father, she’d slept with a white noise app programmed to “Urban Rain,” reminiscent of a downpour on rooftops and T tracks. The April chill digs into the gaps she’d missed when insulating her hide. Her shivering rattles her leg joints, pinching the skin behind her knees. An insect treks up her human spine, but she accepts the intrusion as the natural order of her new life. She fixes her gaze on the house, the center of her chi.
A light turns on inside.
The violation is breathtaking. She should barge inside and confront the trespasser. But she has not lived here in earnest for years.
The light flickers. The television, maybe, but the living room curtains are drawn shut. Her mother had sewn those curtains from a colonial pattern book—the same one her father had used to stencil the flowers on Diana’s bedroom walls. As a child in bed, she had listened to her mother washing dishes and her father locking up the house, the radio on in the background.
Even as she vows to hold vigil over the house that is no longer her home, her eyes close.
In fairy tales, a stag eludes a prince, drawing him deeper and deeper into the forest. There, the prince finds a maiden: a swan princess, a sleeping beauty, a girl dressed as a beast with three dresses folded into nut shells. He finds her in a lake, or a hollow tree. Although he doesn’t threaten her outright, he rides a stallion and carries a bow or a gun. Often, there are dogs. He bears her back to his palace, assuming that she yearns for domestication. She grieves her wildness, even as she bears the prince’s children, maybe even comes to love them.
Scents start low in the morning, ripe and full along the ground. They rise throughout the day until she wades through them, chest-high in mushroom funk, the smoky tang of moldering leaves, oily pine, sweet earthworms, her own wild oat stink. She claims certain trees, rubbing her forehead and lips against their trunks. As she gets to know the world of the woods, so she learns her own body and strives to mold her soul to it.
Three deer graze at the creek. Diana longs to be folded among their warm flanks. She hesitates, stalled by the same humbling panic that had made choosing a seat in the middle school cafeteria so daunting.
She snorts softly in welcome. The smallest doe looks up, her tail quivering in alarm. Diana meets her eyes, willing her to sense the kinship between them. The doe stamps, and the others glance up. They balk, and dart into the trees.
Diana extends her tongue-straw at the creek. The water stings her teeth. Her breath circulates inside the deer’s head, the earthy odor of a refrigerator that’s lost power.
She looks up, her snout dripping, to find a hound glowering at her from the opposite side of the creek. It peels back its lips, baring its teeth at Diana. Her first instinct is to run, but she’s forgotten how to move the deer’s legs. A whistle shrills from the direction of the house. With a snarl, the dog bounds past her, snapping at her hooves.
Though she strays ever farther from the house, Diana always circles back to it by nightfall. She sleeps below the magnolia tree in a nest of its roots. Its buds have half-split to make way for furled petals. The TV flickers in the dark. She falls asleep comforted by the light.
Her old skin swells, shoving against the new. Her feet bleed and blister; bleed again, and scab over. Shit encrusts her hind quarters. Her inner thighs are marbled with blood, her second period in the wild. Fleas ravage her scalp and pubic hair, and the sun shreds her skin where it peeks through the suit. Unceasing hiccups leave her stomachs tender. She dreams of burgers.
She lies in the creek. The current churns debris around her. Bugs tangle in her hair. In rejecting her human body, she has become more miserably aware of it than before. The duality is disorienting, the vertigo slide of being two bodies at once.
Diana shakes dry at the creek side, rolls in moss to get the wet patches on her back. She flips to her side, savoring the length of her limbs. The stag stands a few yards away.
He turns his head sharply toward the trees, pointing his ears. His tail flips up. She follows his gaze to the logging trail, where a hunter tows a doe out of the woods. Her legs are slung over the hunter’s shoulder, her long neck drags in the leaves, her open eyes are caked with dirt. The stag watches them pass by, unblinking in bland alarm. She has read that deer do not recognize death.
She charts the stag’s wreckage. He’s defrocked trees and shrubs, leaving ragged shreds of foliage and other scars: his incisors and antlers score the trees, his urine carves rivulets through the dirt, his hooves raze the grass. She memorizes the musk of his prints. Grinds her hooves into piles of his smooth pellets, dark and fragrant as coffee beans. Diana counts her days by glimpses of him.
Rain lashes the trees, flinging their leaves across the forest floor. Diana huddles against the magnolia tree, wincing as a gutter pipe clangs against the side of the house. The least her squatter could do is to fix the damn pipe. A growl brings her skittering to her hooves.
The hound crouches just a yard away, his ears pulled back, his tongue hanging red and wet. She looks for fear in his eyes, but there is only hunger. He scrapes his belly along the ground, whining with greed, and lunges. Diana closes her eyes.
He spins in midair and lands on all fours. The hunter ducks under the tree’s rain-heavy branches and grips the dog’s collar, yanking him down. He turns to Diana.
She blinks back tears. The sensors taped to her eyelids open and close her deer eyes; their long fringe lashes float shut, like moths.
“What the hell are you supposed to be?” the hunter says, striking a note of wonderment. It’s a woman’s voice.
She wears a leather duster like the one Diana’s father had worn. It had smelled like him, like shaving cream and turpentine. The huntress smells like wet dog and peanut butter. Her damp hair is gathered into a knot at the nape of her neck, and her eyes are outlined with sweeps of kohl that lends her otherwise rustic face a hint of glamor. As she takes a step toward Diana, the hound breaks free of her grip.
Diana hurtles across the stretch of yard to thicker cover. With the dog yipping behind her, she vaults over the creek in a single bound, pushing off with her hind legs and drawing her forelegs to her chest. Her breath catches, her stomach lifts in exhilaration. She imagines herself as the deer in her father’s painting, plunging into the woods, pursued by snapping dogs. She revels in the reason to run.
The hound howls. As she rears to leap again, she looks back. Her body twists, and she lands on her side, tumbling into the trench. She instinctively reaches out with her hands to catch herself, but there are no hands, and she plummets, smashing her knees, her elbows, her jaw.
Diana opens her eyes to the night. Her human head feels too big, bulging against the deer’s skull. Her left leg is nauseatingly hot. She moans, curling into herself to avoid witnessing the extent of the damage.
A shift in the darkness. Her eyes adjust, aching, to pick out the stag among the trees. He bows his antlers to the ground. She dreams of riding him.
Daylight filters through the branches. Her head echoes with pain. A sharper hurt digs into her hoof-seam. Her snout scrapes dirt. The stag rests beside her, the rise and fall of his breath pressing his ribs against hers. He turns his lonely eyes to her.
It occurs to her that she has never seen him with another deer. He lowers his head, gently maneuvering his antlers to the side, and nips at her hoof. He licks her ankle with his rough, warm tongue. The gentle pressure dulls the pain, calming her nausea, like the coarse washcloth her mother had used to cool her face when she was sick. The water had collected at the corners of the cloth and slid down her neck like tears.
The stag bounds ahead of Diana as she staggers out of the trench. The pain in her ankle sears up her side, making her stumble as she wades into the creek to numb her battered bodies. The water runs away with her blood.
While she rests beside the creek, the stag brings apples and flowers in his mouth and leaves them at her hooves. A dead bird. Shining candy wrappers scavenged from the huntress’s trash. Diana likes the way his expressions alter his face, wariness flickering into interest, hunger pulling up the corners of his lips. She is awed by his capacity for stillness.
From the forbidden side of the creek, Diana watches the huntress watching her, kneeling on the porch with raised binoculars. The human gaze is heavy with appraisal, colored by too many shades of want. But she lets the huntress look. Being observed makes her feel closer to the stag.
Diana tries to imagine herself as the huntress sees her, up close from far away, between the fissures in her suit to the woman underneath—if there’s anything left of her.
The stag’s bellow rings through the trees. He mounts Diana from behind and thrusts into the suit’s vaginal crevice. The impact rocks her forward; her front hooves drive into the dirt like spades, straining her wrists, vibrating up her forearms. She is docile at first, for fear of impalement, but his antlers never get in the way. She gives in to him, to her own animal desire.
Diana watches through the cover of the trees as the huntress collects her scat. The stag returns to her again and again, his tail flashing white in surrender.
The huntress places a basket of apples at the forest’s edge. The dog snuffles them and growls. As the huntress watches from the porch, Diana gathers an apple between her steel-trap jaws and, tripping a spring with her tongue, crushes it in a spray of pulp. The huntress whoops, as if Diana were putting on a show. Maybe she is.
The overgrown field sparks with fireflies that illuminate the tall grass. Diana and her mother would sit in the field at night, watching. No, we can’t catch them, her mother said, because they should not die in captivity.
The stag rests his head against Diana’s side. His eye rolls up to meet hers, and she calms in the contours of his gaze. She’d never imagined intimacy with another being could draw her closer to herself.
“I love you,” she says.
He startles at the sound of her voice, rusty with disuse. She nuzzles him calm again. But she’s cracked open the gap between their species, and she’s not ready to close it just yet. She wants the stag to understand her fully. She tells him about the paper she’d been working on, and as she explains how to perform three-dimensional gait analysis, the stag maintains eye contact, his head tipped in interest. That’s more than she could say for Kevin, who changed the subject whenever she tried to talk about work. Now, there’s no one left to find her uninteresting. She’d thought that would be more freeing.
The stag’s hot flank twitches, a romantic gesture to keep off the flies. She tells him about her parents and the summer nights they’d picnicked outside, and about her father’s failed garden—the stag’s fault, Diana reprimands him, because he’d eaten everything her father tried to grow.
But her father had waited for the stag year after year, cheering when he returned after the hard frost. She tells him how her father had said he’s a survivor. And how he’d watched the stag from the Adirondack chair in his last days. How the stag had helped her father have a peaceful death.
She tells him about Kevin and the life she’d left behind. How she’d started to project into the future of their life together, their house in the suburbs, their dog. She’d started to want these things—to be disappointed that she didn’t have them—even at the expense of everything she’d wanted before she met him. Her career. Her independence. And Kevin was right, she admitted to the stag, to herself, she had started to want children.
And then he’d dared to say she wouldn’t compromise, although she had already compromised every part of herself. She’d already compromised just by being with him.
The stag’s stiff lips shift against her tarsal gland. She welcomes his urgent warmth, and she loves him. Oh, how she loves him, although he is—and ever will remain—a mystery. While Diana has laid herself bare and found so much less mystery than she would have hoped. It’s taken so little time to plumb the deepest parts of herself.
The stag comes and goes, but never far. He brings her earthworms. She can see him through the trees. Hear him in the creek. He always comes back to her.
The stag’s breath is warm along her neck. She is too hot, too cold. The stag is gone, but just there, grazing in the field. It hurts to turn her head. Heavy in bloom, the magnolia drops its petals over her. The huntress stands on the logging trail, restraining the hound at her side. She’s too tall for the leather duster that slaps at her knees in the wind. Her knuckles, popping against the dog’s collar, are cracked. The stag surges to his hooves.
“Get up,” she orders Diana.
The stag turns his ears to her, flips his tail. The hound squirms in the huntress’s grip, but she holds him fast, her boots planted on either side of his belly. Diana pushes up onto her hooves, every muscle quaking. The ache has spread up her leg, her side, and into her neck. The ground tilts. The dog begins to pant.
Diana leans against the tree. For the first time, she recognizes the clumsiness of her construction, the looseness of three leg joints, the stiffness of the fourth. The stag lowers his rack at the dog and stamps his hind leg once, twice. The huntress jerks her chin at the woods.
“Run!” she commands.
The stag startles at her voice and sweeps toward the creek. Diana throbs with the need to follow, but her limbs threaten to fold.
“I can’t,” she says, ashamed of the despair that cracks her voice.
The huntress clicks her tongue in displeasure and releases the hound. He bolts after the stag, yowling. Diana cannot move, cannot fall. Just leans against the tree. Her nostrils hurt, her stomach is sour. Her hide is threadbare. Her hair has fallen out in clumps.
The hound heads off the stag at the creek, crouching before him with his lips and ears back. The stag swings his antlers. They leap for each other, clash and break. The hound skitters around him, baiting him, as the stag thrusts his antlers again and again, kicking at his chest. The hound dodges his blows. Diana shouts, an involuntary, wordless exclamation that does nothing.
The hound tackles the stag’s good hind leg, shaking his head, tearing at the bone. The stag stumbles, dragging the hound on his belly along the creek bed, but the stag’s front legs give out and he collapses, screaming. To Diana’s relief and humiliation, her senses seem altogether to fail. There is no sound, just an absence of air. She turns away, her final betrayal.
As if to comfort her, the huntress runs her palm along the planes of Diana’s snout, the felted armor of her breast, the machinery of her flanks. The huntress leans in to look through the eyeholes, deep into Diana’s eyes. The huntress’s eyes are brown, flecked with green and pity. She hooks one finger under Diana’s jaw seam.
In the fairy tales, the princess or the wild woman or the swan does not resist. She obeys because she knows she doesn’t stand a chance.
The huntress cleans Diana’s wounds by the living room fire. Diana lies on the Persian rug, where she’d watched TV as a child while her mother made dinner in the next room. She’d traced the patterns in its weave, the angular goats and zigzag streams, the red hills.
The huntress washes Diana’s bodies and towels them dry. She administers something strong-smelling from a jar that makes her wounds burn. The huntress wraps her leg in gauze and places a pill on her tongue. Diana swallows without question.
The huntress awakens her only for more pills. She sits by Diana’s head, stroking her between the ears. Details come into focus through the fog. The dog eats out of her father’s cereal bowl. The huntress hangs her coat and cap on the hook by the door where Diana’s father would hang his coat. It is his coat, she realizes.
The huntress has mounted the stag’s head above the fireplace. His glass eyes look nothing like his own. The dog growls at him. At Diana.
Although nothing has changed—even her father’s paintings remain on the walls—the house is made strange by the presence of the huntress. By her scent, warm and scalpy with an undertone of baking bread, a bodily, deep-down smell that emanates from between her legs, which she plants on either side of Diana as they sit by the fire, blazing despite the feverish summer heat.
The huntress wears Diana’s mother’s nightgown, her father’s sheepskin slippers, drinks from her father’s whiskey glass. She sits in Diana’s father’s chair in front of the TV, watching Jeopardy, I Love Lucy, and Diana’s family home movies. Her middle school chorus concerts and high school gymnastics routines.
The huntress kicks back with a shot of Johnnie Walker, watching Diana’s fourth birthday party. There is the unicorn cake her mother made from scratch, the crowd of kids she doesn’t remember, and Diana in a white dress, ruffles brushing her bark-scraped knees.
The huntress strokes Diana’s head while she dozes beside the snoring dog. There is peace in confinement.
When Diana has healed enough to stand, the huntress puts her bowl—her grandmother’s wedding china—in the kitchen next to the dog’s. The dog snaps at Diana when the huntress isn’t looking.
The huntress oils her joints with AstroGlide. She brushes Diana’s flanks and polishes her hooves. Purees lawn in the blender and adds a little something to make it more palatable: smoky mushrooms, sour berries, truffles. The huntress washes Diana’s ass and thighs and applies diaper ointment to the trouble spots where suit meets skin. When Diana’s eye sensors stop working, the huntress secures her eyelids open with duct tape.
As Diana becomes stronger, the huntress begins going out during the day, taking the dog with her. He wags his tongue at Diana, as if laughing.
Diana stands at the kitchen window where she’d stood as a child. She can barely remember that Diana. Or the Diana who had brunched with Kevin on Sundays. The Diana who’d stayed late at the lab to finish up grant proposals and enjoyed it. The Diana who had watched bad TV for two weeks after calling things off with Kevin. None of those Dianas matter; none had followed her home.
The huntress begins to makes demands of Diana, entreating her to return to the wild, to find another stag for them to hunt. Diana doesn’t argue; she doesn’t speak. She pretends not to understand the huntress, who grips Diana’s deer head between her chapped hands and bellows.
The huntress’s heavy tread paces the upstairs rooms. The dog is snoring by the dying fire. Diana levels a kick at his ribs, and he skitters upstairs with a yowl.
The huntress seethes with restlessness; kicks off Diana’s old pink rain boots and bangs pots around the kitchen. She drinks more. She starts out earlier and comes home later.
Every night when the huntress and her dog are asleep, Diana roams the house, noticing the parts of it she’d stopped seeing when she lived here: The closet under the stairs where her mother had stored her own mother’s clothing. The living room window frames gnawed by a trapped squirrel. The floorboards that creak in the middle of the night, and their constellation of knotholes. Her father’s first portraits, his own family members executed in gentle strokes, tucked into corners and behind doors.
Diana relearns the house room by room, fitting it over her childhood memories whose corners still show underneath. The stag’s eyes follow her mournfully, as if to say, “Is this my fate for loving you?”
The huntress brings back fireflies in mason jars and lines them on the mantle below the stag’s head. She gazes at them from Diana’s father’s chair until they perish, one after another, like flames extinguishing.
Riding Dinosaurs with Boys
When I made my avatar in Ark: Survival Evolved, I gave myself large breasts, full hips, and generous muscle mass, blessing myself with the physique of a voluptuous Olympic weightlifter. My hair was black and my eyes purple. My boyfriend, Monty, created an orange-haired goblin man. We awoke on the beach wearing rags. Dodo birds and Parasaurolophus grazed on shrubs near the edge of the forest. We gathered stone, thatch, and wood, crafted spears, then stabbed a Dodo to sate our flashing hunger meters. The meat—unseasoned and cooked on a fire in the sand—must’ve been as flavorful as a charred shoe sole, but it made us full, and we leveled up.
I tamed a Dodo, my first companion. The taming process involved punching it until it was unconscious, then feeding it berries until it was full enough to be my friend. I named her Froppy, after a character from mine and Monty’s favorite anime, My Hero Academia. She waddled by our sides as we walked the shore, gathering thatch for a home, admiring the soaring Pteranodons, the orange sunset saturating my computer screen. I looked at the map, a vast island with an array of biomes: forest, desert, tundra. I’d read online that every type of prehistoric creature inhabited the land. I filled my waterskin, excited to begin exploring—I loved a good adventure story, and in Ark, there’s no written plot. It’s a sandbox game, an open world where you create your own narrative.
“Froppy Has Died,” appeared on my screen. It was dark, and I couldn’t tell where our house, or even the beach, was located. I crafted a torch, which only gave me a few feet of in-game light. My screen was flashing red. Something, or someone, was killing me.
“Help me. I’m dying,” I said to Monty, sitting at his desk across from me.
“I’m coming,” he said, running toward my character, but he was too late. I’d been shot in the back and fell face down in the sand, the torch flickering in my unresponsive hand. Monty arrived in time to be killed too. We watched as another player looted our inventories, taking our crafting supplies and rare flowers. He hacked our bodies with a metal hatchet, harvesting the meat from our bones.
We respawned and went through it again—gathering supplies, building a house, taming dinosaurs—only to end up eaten by a wild raptor. It was frustrating, but the game gave me and Monty—whom I’d been with for three years—something to do together besides lying on the couch watching anime, which had been the extent of our romance for the last year. I was about to suggest that we try one more time, but he stood up and took off his headset. “I hate this game,” he said, shutting off his computer. “I’m done.”
I looked at my phone. It was 3 a.m. Four hours had passed since we started. I wondered if I should quit too and join Monty on the couch. It was early morning in the game. The sky was lavender, and golden rays shone through the clouds. It looked like a real sunrise I’d seen on a beach in San Diego, except wyverns were soaring over the ocean, mounted by the highest-level players.
My life was good. I had a job as a group fitness instructor. I had friends. I was twenty-three and fit and healthy. But Ark gave me the ability to leave my apartment and become an enhanced version of myself: someone who was more athletic and unrestricted by physical limits of the real world. I dove into the ocean and swam along the reef with Ichthyosaurs and Manta rays. And Ark gave me the ability to forget about my day at work, where my class did a bike sprint contest and I placed in the middle when, as the trainer, I should’ve won.
Over the next few days, I played by myself for a couple hours each night until I finally had enough resources to build a better house in the woods. I hunted with my newly-tamed dinosaur, a raptor named Gran Torino. A herd of Gallimimus sprinted by and I trapped one with a bola, then killed and skinned it for hide. Ark appealed to my inner-nerd because, other than a few fantasy creatures (griffins, phoenix, wyverns), the island was inhabited by real prehistoric animals. Their scientific names appeared when you got close enough. I could win a dinosaur-identifying contest thanks to my time spent in Ark.
Another player swooped down on his Argentavis, a giant bird. He jumped off and walked toward me. He was tall and lean, with muscular shoulders and a chiseled jawline. He was level 80 and wearing metal armor. I was level 30 and had just upgraded from rags to beaver hide. I jumped on Gran Torino and turned to flee.
“Cool raptor name,” he typed. “I love My Hero Academia.”
“Thanks!” I typed, hoping I could become friends with this guy and he could help me out.
“Is this all you have?” He walked around my small wooden shack.
“Ha, no point in raiding you.” He climbed back on his Argentavis.
“Wait,” I typed. “Let me join you.” It felt needy and pathetic, but I’d never accomplish anything if I kept playing alone. I needed someone to share a base with. I needed protection.
He took a minute to respond, probably considering whether I would be an assistance or a burden.
“Sure,” he typed.
I smiled at my computer screen.
“But I live far. You’ll have to leave Gran Torino behind.”
I took the saddle from my raptor, then shot it and harvested the meat from its body.
There wasn’t enough room on the Argentavis’ saddle for me, so he scooped me up in the bird’s talons. I was immobilized in its feet—all I could do was swivel my camera around, looking down at the forest, watching the monkeys (Mesopithecus) leap from tree to tree. A T-Rex fought a Brontosaurus, and a pack of Hyaenodons stood near, waiting to feed on the remains of the loser. We flew over a volcano, and I worried that this stranger would just drop me into the lava, leaving me to start all over again. But he held me safely in the bird’s talons until we arrived at his base, a modest two-story stone house in a clearing in the woods. He had a few tamed creatures sitting in a pen: a Baryonyx, a Triceratops, and a griffin. A sign was posted in front of his house: “New base. If you want me to move, just ask. Please don’t take what little I have.” Smart, I thought. Maybe I should’ve tried that.
He called me on Discord, a text and voice-chat app for gaming.
“Hey,” he said. “We need to gather metal.”
His voice was mellow but masculine, a little scratchy, comforting.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll get all the metal I can.”
He gave me a pick—one he crafted himself—and it was higher quality than all the picks I’d made before. I climbed the ladder onto the roof where his Argentavis sat and named it Dark Shadow, a reference to another character from My Hero Academia who looks like a bird. I hoped he would find it funny.
I ran toward the mountain, crouching behind trees to hide from Carnotaurus and eating berries for stamina. We were still on a Discord call but neither of us spoke. I wanted us to talk, but I didn’t know what to say. I knew he was an experienced player and I didn’t want to say something that made me seem like a noob.
“I like the Argy’s name,” he said, laughing.
It was a handsome laugh, not obnoxious or nerdy. I wanted to hear it again.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Shade,” he said.
“Shade?” I repeated, thinking maybe he’d said Shane.
I heard the clink of a soda can on his desk, the crunch of chips in his mouth. I walked back to his base, wondering if his real name was Milton or Herbert, and Shade was just what he called himself.
“Look in the cabinet,” he said.
Inside was a shotgun, a high-level weapon that I couldn’t build yet.
“That’s for you.”
“Thanks,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant even though it was the best gift I’d received in a game.
“I want to move someplace better,” he said.
“I’ll show you. Get on the griffin.”
I was relieved that Monty was working late. I didn’t want him to see me riding a griffin with another guy. I felt fuzzy inside, watching my character sitting up against him as we flew over a Redwood forest and through a valley of mammoths. We were like Harry and Hermione riding Buckbeak.
“How often do you play?” I asked him.
“Few hours a night. All day on my days off.”
“Oh,” I said, hoping I didn’t sound judgmental. I couldn’t imagine spending an entire day playing this game. “Where do you work?”
“A factory,” he said. I waited for him to elaborate, or to ask me where I worked, but he didn’t say anything. He steered the griffin down toward a cliffside waterfall.
“This is it,” he said, climbing up the rocks. “Come check it out.”
I stood beside him and we looked at our new land: rolling hills, weaving streams, mossy logs, a setting inspired by Middle Earth. My character pooped. He laughed and did it too.
“We’ll always have a fresh water supply. There’s plenty of metal, wood, and animals to farm. Some predators, but we’ll build a metal base. We can even have plumbing.”
“Sounds wonderful,” I said, admiring how meticulous he was. I figured that together we would become the strongest players on the server, but that didn’t seem important anymore. I just wanted to keep playing with him, whether we had a metal castle or nothing at all.
“Want to fly us back?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, sitting up straighter at my desk.
“Let’s pick up some obsidian before we go home.”
I blushed at the word “home.” I wondered what Shade looked like in real life. Some gamers, like Monty, created avatars with humor: wide-necked, stumpy-legged, stringy-armed monstrosities. Some gamers created avatars they wished they could be. But I—and I hoped Shade too—exaggerated my real physical attributes and applied them to my avatar. (I was athletic, but not Olympic-level, and I was a C-cup, not double-D.) I hoped real-life Shade was also lean and tall with a strong jaw and button nose, though I supposed it didn’t really matter—I could imagine him being as attractive as I wanted.
We made it back home, our inventories full of meat and obsidian.
“How do I land?” I asked him, awkwardly hovering the griffin next to the house.
“Press spacebar,” he said, laughing. “Anyway, I’m going to bed.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, feeling disappointed, even though it was 4am and I needed to sleep too. I’d been at my computer for five hours but my needs for hunger, thirst, and rest had all vanished. Monty unlocked the front door and walked into the living room, smelling like sugar and dough from his overnight job at the bakery.
I left my desk and showered, smiling as I conditioned my hair, thinking about the adventures Shade and I might have the next night. Monty walked into the bathroom. He lifted the toilet seat and started peeing. For the first time, I jerked the shower curtain open and said, “Couldn’t you have waited?”
All day, I thought about Shade. I imagined him, the version I’d created for myself: cute, mid-twenties, lean physique, freckly skin, bowl-cut brunette hair. An image of a portly fifty-year-old man momentarily appeared in my mind, but I shooed it away. I envisioned this cute Shade at the factory, pushing buttons on a machine that made dildos or condoms or crayons, blushing because he was thinking of me: the beautiful girl he’d found in the woods, another fan of My Hero Academia, clever and funny with the names she gave dinosaurs, a new light in his life.
I’d always had the benefit of being both attractive and nerdy—boys easily fell for me, looking down at my long curly hair, my fit physique, and back up to my light brown eyes, all the while talking about Yu-Gi-Oh!, D&D, The Elder Scrolls. Monty and I had met at the gym and played Magic: The Gathering on our first date. I’d wooed him by beating him with my Liliana, the Necromancer deck. But Shade was different because he couldn’t see me in real life. I shuddered, thinking that maybe he had envisioned me as a monstrous nerd girl. But I hoped that when he had heard my voice, he thought it was sultry, and that he was picturing me as a real-life version of my avatar, working at a bar or a hospital or wherever he imagined I worked.
When I got home from the gym, Monty was sitting on the couch, watching TV and clipping his toenails, dropping the slivers onto our coffee table.
“Hey,” he said. “Want to watch Full Metal Alchemist?”
The thought of spending time with Monty, whose appearance I knew and voice I heard every day, seemed unbearably boring. Normally, I thought our relationship was nice, secure. But playing Ark with Shade thrilled me—a feeling I’d forgotten and didn’t know I missed. Monty had made me feel that way when we first met, when we’d go out for sushi and talk about our families—how his had immigrated from Sudan and mine from Japan. Afterward, we’d lie in his bed, staring at each other, kissing each other’s skin and eyelids and earlobes. But I’d moved in three months after our first date, and now we just ordered in, often going days without talking or touching.
“I’m tired,” I said, picking up my laptop.
“Are you still playing that game?”
“Yeah—maybe,” I said, walking to the bedroom, quickly shutting the door behind me.
I logged on, but Shade was still offline. I went outside, walked around the pond, watching pastel-colored Dimorphodons circling in the air. I waited until two of them hovered near me, then shot them with tranquilizer darts. I thought Shade would be impressed, seeing I’d caught two dinosaurs known for their evasive flight pattern. I fed them raw meat, watching their taming meters increase. I heard Monty chopping vegetables in the kitchen. Part of me felt that I was wasting my time, that I should’ve been spending time with Monty, making an effort to enliven our relationship. But I wanted to woo Shade, to see if I could, to feel the pleasure of hearing him say that he couldn’t stop thinking about me. It’d been a long time since I felt desired, and I thought if I could get Shade to like me, it would make me feel good, even powerful.
Shade logged in. “Hey,” he typed. “Can I call you?
My heart fluttered, like we were on our first date at the movies and our hands had just touched.
I answered his call. “We have new pets,” I said, and called the Dimorphodons over.
“Oh, sweet!” he said. He sounded like he was smiling. I waited for him to say something else, hoping he’d say he had looked forward to playing with me all day.
Instead, he said, “We need silica pearls.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, googling where to get those.
I walked down the hill toward the beaver dams, listening to the sound of Shade chopping down trees. I thought of conversation-starters that he would like: What anime character would you be? or What’s your Harry Potter house? or What’s your favorite game in the Fallout series? But I felt like asking those questions might weaken the immersion of the game, that while we were gathering and crafting, we should only talk about our lives in Ark.
“Where did you live before you had this base in the woods?” I asked, shooting arrows at a giant beaver.
“I had a nice setup in the mountains, but it was always freezing. Then I got raided.”
I could hear his mouse rapidly clicking.
“Fuck! I’m dying,” he said.
Monty walked into the room. I tilted my laptop screen closer to me.
“Where are you?” I asked Shade, trying not to sound too concerned. Monty opened the dresser.
“Near the cave.”
I dropped all my rocks so I could run faster, trying to ignore Monty as he changed into his pajamas. Shade was being mauled by a Therizinosaur, a dinosaur that looked like a giant demonic duck with knives for hands, the Freddy Krueger of Ark. I shot it with an arrow to turn its attention toward me. It charged at me and I waited until it was close enough to shoot it with the shotgun, killing it.
Shade limped over to me, his chest bleeding. I gave him some of my Dodo jerky.
“Thank you. Nearly died back there. It got the Pteranodon I wanted,” he said, pronouncing it like “Pet-ra-don,” which made me laugh, but then insecurity crept over me as I realized that I didn’t know how to say it correctly either. We walked back to our base, carrying the Therizinosaur loot.
Monty ambled over and stood beside me, peering over my shoulder. I was outside feeding Dark Shadow. Shade was inside, crafting ammo. I hoped he wouldn’t come outside. I muted my mic, so Shade wouldn’t hear Monty talking and find out I had a boyfriend. Monty leaned closer to the screen. He had to know I was playing with someone, and I worried he was going to ask who it was, or even ask me to stop. Instead, he said, “Your base looks really cool. Maybe I’ll start playing again.”
“I don’t know,” I said, staring down at my keyboard. “I’m level 50 now, and you only got to level four.” I looked up at him. His eyes were big and dark brown, nearly black, one of his many features I’d always found attractive—and they looked even more beautiful when he was sad. “It’s not that fun anyway.”
Every day that week, I exercised vigorously to earn eight hours of sitting in front of my computer. My friends and I usually went to the casino on Thursdays. I cancelled. Monty slept on the couch, so I could have the bedroom to myself.
“I need my space to work on grad school applications,” I said, gesturing at my laptop and the books I’d taken into the room. He stood in the doorway, arms crossed, before slamming the door. I stared at the Ark menu, my cursor hovering over the play option, thinking about going after Monty. But I told myself that he would get over it, that he didn’t really know I wasn’t working on applications. And anyway, Shade needed me. I was probably his only friend, his only human connection. I hoped that his curiosity about me would lead him to Instagram, where he’d see that the real-life me was beautiful and fit and popular, and then he’d be even more enamored with me.
Shade and I successfully built a new house by the waterfall. It was a two-story metal home, with greater interior space than the stone one. We flew our griffin, Argentavis, and Dimorphodons to the new home, abandoning our other dinosaurs that were too slow to make the trek. We worked on building turrets around our territory. We finally had peace and comfort, which made me worry that we were running out of things to do and soon our interest would diminish. I secretly wished some other players would come and raid us. Then we would need to rebuild.
“Are you happy you let me join you?” I asked him, mixing berries and water to paint our house red.
“Yeah,” he said, yawning. “Probably would’ve quit if I was trying to do all this by myself.”
“Me too,” I said, smitten that I was his reason for playing the game.
“I have a surprise for you,” he said, leading me to a pen around the corner. There were two wyvern eggs sitting on the ground, protected by a fence, warmed by torches.
“One’s for you. Our babies,” he said, laughing. “When they hatch, we’ll have to feed them every three hours in real time for two days. Are you free this weekend?”
“Yes,” I said, beaming. “I can’t wait.” I knew Shade cared for me; he wouldn’t have wanted to raise babies with just anyone. I figured that this weekend while tending the eggs, he’d ask to go on a walk by the waterfall, and he’d stand his avatar close to mine and ask if he could tell me something. I’d say yes and listen to him confess his adoration for me.
I logged in at 11 a.m. Saturday morning, expecting Shade to already be online. He wasn’t. I sat in front of my computer, reading a book, refreshing the game, refreshing Discord every few minutes for an hour. I felt awkward, like I was sitting alone at a restaurant, waiting for my date to show up. As the hours passed and he didn’t login, I figured something must’ve happened in his real life: someone called in sick and he had to go in to the factory; his grandmother died; his apartment burned down. But I was still hurt—if some tragedy had befallen me, I would’ve sent him a message letting him know I couldn’t play.
I checked the online players log Sunday morning. He wasn’t listed. I refreshed it on my phone all day. He never logged on. When I got home from the gym, I signed into Ark, hoping he’d see me online and would join. He didn’t. I sent him a message on Discord.
“Hey, what’s going on? Are we going to hatch those eggs?”
“It’ll take too much time,” he typed.
“Okay, well when are we going to play again?”
“I don’t know. I think I’m done. I’m bored.”
My chest tightened. I reread the message. I chewed my bottom lip, thinking he must have a girlfriend who’d found out about us and was making him quit. Or in just a moment, he would send another message saying that he was joking, that he could never be bored of me, of the life we’d created together within the game. But as the minutes passed and he said nothing, my skin began to prickle from the grim realization that he had never liked me. I gripped my laptop, unsure of what to do with it anymore. I felt nauseous, thinking of the possibility I wasn’t the seductress I’d thought I was, thinking of the seventy hours I’d lost over these last two weeks for a relationship I’d fantasized.
My character stood in the living room of our metal house, which now seemed hollow and inhospitable. I ran outside and flew the griffin to the beach. A new player was on the shore, gathering sticks and building a thatch house. I considered asking him to join me, so I could take him back to my base in the hills, give him a rifle, so he would think I was powerful and generous and beautiful, in-game and in real life, so he would think of me all day and look forward to playing with me every night—but it seemed as exciting as it did sickening. I clicked my mouse, killing him and his dodo. I shut my laptop and walked to the living room.
Monty was lying on the couch. I sat beside him, and he placed his hand on my leg. I rested my head against his chest. He put his arm around mine and I wrapped my leg around his. We laid there for hours, glowing in the light of the TV.
The Río Grande River between Paso Lajitas and Lajitas, 2015
Saraí rushes the water like it’s the Jordan, amid the thronging surge of weeping, laughing souls.
Doña Chata squints rheumy eyes, skirts gathered to her knee. She glimpses Saraí, notes braids rimed with unexpected age, the older plunges headlong heedless of muddy spray.
Madre e hija collide, euphoric embrace between here and allá, more than a decade of separation dissolving into tears.
Repeating up and down this stretch of the Río Grande— two communities, two countries, once weft and warp of love and tradition, a vibrant fabric, razor wires now partition: hate and fear and politics.
For an hour, watched through glinting scopes from rumbling jeeps, this divided family is whole
like a lost soul dipped beneath redeeming waters while a dove croons idyllic peace upon a broken sunbeam.
Near Brownsville, 1915
On my knees I beg for the love of God:
Mister Lawman, let me bury my son.
They say he’s a traitor, bandit, thief:
My boy was only working at his uncle’s side.
We said nothing when your people took our land,
Bought up our ranches, pushed us south of town.
We cast our eyes aside, picked up spade and hoe
To work the soil where once our cattle grazed.
Don’t strip this final dignity away, good sir:
Mister Lawman, let me bury my son.
All of you afraid of that plan
Hatched by rebels to cut you down as one
This isn’t Mexico. We’re Tejanos, faithful To our state. We seek no revolution.
Federal troops and Rangers far outnumber
These brown-skinned, Spanish-tongued neighbors.
A train has been derailed, I know. Bandits
Bolted back across the Río Grande.
In rage the troops returned to find my son at work
With his uncle and others on one of your farms.
Those calloused hands, would they ever
Lift a rifle, ever curl around your neck?
My son’s hands, even free of dirt, are not
White. Evidence enough for you. Each hanged—
A mother’s grief at the loss of her son—
Bereft, I traveled to that tall, bleak mesquite
Wept to see my brother dead, howled to see my son.
Rangers laughed. They would not let me cut him down.
His limbs swelled tight against his clothes.
They would not let me cut him down.
The sun beat down and blacked his flesh.
They would not let me cut him down.
The flies like smoke then wreathed him dark.
They would not let me cut him down.
The vultures swarmed and pecked and tore.
They would not let me cut him down.
Still he sways from that noose, creaking in the wind.
There are rites we must perform—our God commands.
Think of all these spirits, curdling in shame,
Think of vengeance brewing slow in the sandy soil.
Show me that you’re human. Even now there’s time.
By everything that’s holy: let me bury my son.
endless, blue so hot it edges
toward white, pitiless,
indifferent to the flat coastal
plain, dots of grey-bottomed
and alluring wet harried by
the gulf’s gusting breath—
meager, fleeting shadows
on the brown brush, the
turgid, wild river below.
or black, a sable cape slowly
bangled with glinting silver,
flung over the eyes of the
wide world to calm its
snorting rage, but ominous
and hinting at bleak endings,
raked at breath-taking
moments by the death
of blazing stars, tumbling.
behold its denizens, legends in flight—the cruel lechuzas, witches feathered by blackest night snatching naughty children from homey bosoms; the Big Bird, its prehistoric and craggy features snarling like a crazed ape as it dips its leathery wings our way;
la Llorona, drifting over water, moaning for her children, dragging stragglers into the depths— all the harpies, lost souls, thunderbirds and legless vampires of lore, criss- crossing that vastness, looking down at us.
The Lunatics’ Ball
I remember the name “Greystone” from my childhood in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, spoken in a thrilling whisper. It was the local “loony bin” for “nutcases,” “fruitcakes,” “whackos,” “crackpots,” “maniacs.” At slumber parties, our variants of the “man with the hook” urban legend ended with an escaped lunatic from Greystone, his hook dangling from the car door. And in fact, Greystone did house sex offenders and violent criminals under treatment for mental illness, and there were escapes, though I don’t remember any reports of crimes like the ones you see on all the TV shows.
Greystone housed well over seven thousand patients when the singer Woody Guthrie was a patient there in the nineteen-fifties. By the nineteen-nineties, it was largely abandoned, after reports of rampant patient neglect, sexual abuse of patients by staff, patient escapes, and suicides. The buildings were later demolished. “Gravestone,” Woody called it. He died—in another psychiatric institution—of Huntington’s, a neurodegenerative disease initially misdiagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia.
If she’d survived, would my aunt Maddy have been treated at Greystone Psychiatric Hospital or someplace like it? She could have stayed on the lithium, instead of detoxing on the advice of a quack chiropractor. Or had second thoughts as the carbon monoxide fumes filled the garage. Or been discovered in time to save her life, instead of three days later. She was only forty-seven.
My mother told a story about a lunatics’ ball that her mother attended in northern New Jersey in the nineteen-forties—or maybe the thirties. Lunatics’ balls for inmates, staff, and visitors were common in late nineteenth-century insane asylums, less common later. It must have been at Greystone Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, not far from Mountain Lakes, where my mother’s family lived. Did her mother have a relative there? If so, my mother either didn’t know or pretended not to. Maybe attendance was considered entertainment by small-town middle-class housewives. Or a kind of civic duty.
My grandmother danced with a charming, good-looking man who she assumed was a doctor. The punch line to the story was inevitable: he turned out to be a patient. A big laugh from my mother, as if no one in her own family could end up on a mental ward one day. When her younger sister Maddy was diagnosed as bipolar, my mother’s main concern was that no one in town learn of it. Maddy’s later hospitalization was a secret too. As was mine.
My aunt was only nine years older than me, and I followed her everywhere as a child, besotted. Maddy was the sister I didn’t have, the mother I wanted when I was a teenager, generous with her time and gifts. How to describe her? Gorgeous, charismatic, wealthy, fashionable, outgoing, extravagant. High strung. Sleek as a greyhound. My mother was jealous of all the time I spent with her, of her good looks and fancy house and wardrobe.
“She brought it on herself,” my mother said after Maddy’s suicide, lips pursed, uninterested in statistics about bipolars and suicide. My mother didn’t believe in mental illness or “witch doctor” psychiatrists. She believed in moral judgment, particularly of those she saw as unfairly favored by good fortune.
“We’re the two crazy ladies in the family,” Maddy said to me once. We were drinking red wine at an Italian restaurant, laughing about something. I was in my late twenties then, working on my Ph.D. It was before I got sober, before my own hospitalization and bipolar diagnosis. Only my closest friends, my parents, and my brother knew about my week in the mental ward—by then, Maddy was already gone.
When I look at the sketchy family tree my father started for my mother’s family, there are so many names I don’t recognize, so much potential for secret afflictions. Who was my mother’s Aunt Blossom? Her Aunt Florence? I never met my mother’s Uncle Tommy, an alcoholic who died in a hotel fire, probably a Bowery flophouse for drunks, but she mentioned him sometimes. The family said it was the First World War that made him drink. “It’s a good man’s failing,” the Irish say, always ready to find a reason or excuse. When I got sober, my father told me about the funeral of a relative, a great aunt I think, where her daughter took him aside and said, “She was an alcoholic, you know.” He didn’t know and was surprised to learn it. Shortly before Maddy died, she did a stint in rehab, probably for the painkillers she was taking for her back, though no one knew for sure.
Bipolar family trees invariably include more than two crazies—many relatives suffering from substance abuse disorders, others suffering from depression and anxiety disorders, and from schizophrenia. Scientists don’t know why. My mother never acknowledged that sleeping for ten years was a symptom of depression. “I had a lot of colds,” she insisted. For a while Maddy stopped speaking to her, after my mother claimed to be the “only normal one” in the family. “Does she think ten years in bed was normal?”
Much later, my mother didn’t believe that Lewy body dementia might be the source of her hallucinations. “Thank God we don’t have any of that in our family,” she said. When she was moved from assisted living to the dementia ward, she believed she was one of the nurses. “We had our hands full today,” she’d say when I called her on the phone. “Unbelievable.”
Are there other delusional relatives buried in our family past? Alcoholics and addicts who self-medicated for depression and other mental illnesses? Relatives excused as eccentric? Madwomen sequestered in attics? Who might my grandmother have known at the Greystone Lunatics’ Ball? There must have been more of us, hidden from sight, or slipping off the family tree like leaves in autumn, unnoticed.
In my dream, they’re playing Woody Guthrie’s “Cowboy Waltz,” two patients sawing away on fiddles, as I dance with Maddy at the Lunatics’ Ball. The tables have been cleared away, the Greystone hospital cafeteria festooned with red and green crepe paper. The Hawaiian punch mixed with ginger ale in the large glass punch bowls is strictly non-alcoholic.
“Did you know that Bob Dylan used to visit Woody Guthrie here at Greystone?” I ask Maddy. “Woody said folk songs should comfort disturbed people and disturb comfortable people.” Maddy laughs when someone shouts “hee haw!” and the sedate suburban matrons scatter, clutching their Visitor nametags.
Maddy’s still forty-seven in the dream, beautiful, but I’m sixty-seven now, showing my age. “You should get a facial, try Botox, honey,” Maddy says. “Maybe a brighter hair color. Why not go blonde?” She’s always full of outlandish advice. “I love that red dress on you,” she adds. “You look like a ripe tomato.”
She holds my hand aloft and we execute a perfect turn before whirling across the dance floor. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. The other dancers are a blur.
“This is fun,” I say. “I should take a dance class. Now that I’m retiring from teaching.”
Is that my mother joking with the nurses by the door? Maddy pretends not to see her, but I give her a friendly wave from across the room. I think I see my red-faced great uncles by the punch bowl, Uncle Tommy slipping a flask from the inside pocket of his jacket. And my grandmother! Her companions have their backs to me and I can’t see who they are. At home with the lunatics, I feel like I recognize everyone.
“I should have come sooner,” I tell Maddy.
How many years has it taken me to join Maddy at the Lunatics’ Ball? Fear of our dark kinship held me back. If Maddy and I were the two crazy ladies, and she took her own life, what would my fate be? Could I risk joining her in public? What would happen if my colleagues and students and acquaintances knew I was bipolar too?
“Get a letter from your GP instead,” the department secretary whispered to me at my first job. “You don’t want a note from a psychiatrist in your permanent file.” A department chair in my second job counseled me not to tell. “When people know you’re bipolar, that will be your label. They’ll think of you as just one thing.” I worried too much. Let them think what they want.
Now that I’m finally here, I’m so glad to see Maddy again! The lights blaze, the Christmas decorations glitter, the musicians strike up a new tune on their fiddles. We twirl and spin, dancing, laughing. I’m not sure I ever mastered the box step, but it’s all coming back to me. I let Maddy lead.