To Turn with Joy and Hope: A Conversation Between Okla Elliott and Sonya Huber

 sonya

SH: So, Okla, you recently wrote Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide, and are now working on a similar short book for Squint Books on Pope Francis. In the Bernie book, you manage to work in cool departures into sci-fi and the appeal of dystopian literature. Are you planning stuff like that with the Pope book? And is the Pope Francis book more difficult because he’s such a global figure?

OE: I have a chapter that is a theoretical interlude, as I did in the Bernie book, but this one appropriates certain aspects of Hegelian philosophy to describe a version of God that is different than the standard one. One of my main goals as a writer is to make really difficult philosophy accessible to a generally educated reader, and I do my best to take Hegel, who is famously dense and confusing, and make him comprehensible on the subject of the nature of God. I depart a bit from Hegel’s views, but I think I follow them to their logical conclusion despite disagreeing with his own final conclusions on the subject.

There is another connection between the Bernie book and the Pope Francis book—namely,heartre I place both figures into the larger global and historical context out of which they emerged and in which they are active forces. I think this is, broadly speaking, a loosely defined reaction to neoconservative and neoliberal policies that have jeopardized the environment, financial stability, human rights, and world peace. I get into greater detail in the book of course, but that’s the broad stage on which I place Pope Francis.

SH: That sounds awesome. Or, I mean, terribly necessary and therefore awesome. I tried to do the same thing with The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton and also to make something like neoliberalism accessible as a concept. As an aside—do you think that neoliberalism itself is enough of a framework for activists for understanding what is going on with the world and how to oppose those structures? I think the idea of neoliberalism is so pervasive and vague and global (and such a confluence of capital and nation-state) that it’s difficult to turn it around into action targets. One of the immediate goals suggested by the analysis of neoliberalism is greater scrutiny on international trade and debt agreements. (On that note, I highly recommend Sunil Yapa’s new novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, about the Seattle protests against the WTO in 1999). Hillary has played both sides of the fence but is probably at heart in favor of these agreements and the general opening of markets. But ultimately, stopping these agreements is a reactive battle. What do you see as a way for movements to gain momentum against neoliberalism?

OE: I think you’re right to see fighting trade agreements after the fact as a reactionary battle we are destined to lose. We need to somehow preemptively strike in such a way as to prevent further trade agreements like the ones that have decimated the American middle class while ruining the environment and workers’ rights in third-world countries. The only real way to do this is elect politicians who aren’t beholden the corporate class over the majority of Americans and human rights around the world. The question of course is: how do we do that?

Speaking of politicians who support every trade deal that’s ever come across their desks (to use her own words), I would like to hear more about your Clinton book. I know you have both positive and negative thoughts about her as a candidate and public figure. Could you outline the area of greatest ambivalence for you?

hillarySH: Yes, definitely! First, she came of age within the New Democrat mindset and is married to its key architect. So the major question for me is the extent to which she sees compromise with right-wing agendas (both domestic and international) as a kind of unavoidable expediency. In the past she has said that she believes that the market and the American model need to be spread around the world, which is as neocolonial as it gets. As I talk about in the book, international trade deals (often made in secret) are one area I think she is unreliable on. Also, I wish she had a clearly reform-minded agenda on a key domestic point (like Sanders has with education). She has both a good track record for child advocacy AND a history of supporting neo-liberal domestic programs (like stricter work requirements for welfare recipients and standardized testing in schools. Other major concerns include the big unknown of her foreign policy, especially her desire to confront ISIL, with all of the unknown effects that might bring. And I go into a huge list of other reservations in the book.

Despite my reservations, however, I’m not worried about having her as president. In reference to your point about change, I think local politicians and campaigns do important work, but I also see how many social movements throughout history have made gains by pressing from the outside. An electoral campaign is great and can galvanize people who hadn’t previously considered themselves active, which might lead them into a more sustained social movement. I don’t think Hillary Clinton is immune to social pressure. In fact, I think her record is quite the opposite; she’s flexible and social movements have an opportunity with her. If she’s the president, her power would be as limited as Obama’s has been, and as any president’s would be.

My next question for you—with your view of both the domestic fire behind Bernie Sanders and the internal firebrand of Pope Francis—is whether this overlap represents some kind of a new era or new opportunity for change? (Impossible question, but I want to see what you think.)

OE: As I argue in my Bernie book, there is a general planet-wide unrest with neoliberal policies, whether we’re talking about austerity programs in Greece or neocolonial corporate activities in Latin America or domestic policies here in the United States like the berniebookones you mentioned. And for whatever reason, for such general unrest to form into effective movements, humans tend to need leaders to coalesce around. Not always, but as a rule. Right now, figures such as Jeremy Corbyn, Pope Francis, Evo Morales, Justin Trudeau, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren are spearheading what I see as a loosely connected global progressive movement. And, yes, I definitely see this as a huge opportunity for change here and abroad. We just need to keep the momentum going on all fronts all at once and not let up. My fear is that a Bernie Sanders loss in the primaries could make many of his followers crestfallen to the point of just giving up on effecting political change. It’s the job of people like you and me to make sure that doesn’t happen. So, no pressure or anything…

Since you brought up hope and/or potential for progressive change, what do you think a Clinton presidency can offer us in those regards, and what do you think it will offer in the opposite direction?

SH: The scenario of a Clinton presidency is interesting as a counterpoint to the Obama years. In 2008, I think many progressives and liberals saw his election as a win and were therefore slightly less motivated to get out and organize. This time around, I think the extremism in Trump’s platform combined with the full-on yardsale of the Democratic primaries means that people are a lot more educated about the ways in which we might ask for—and demand—more from our leaders and why it is particularly urgent to do so now, along with knowing a lot about key domestic and international issues. I hope skillful organizers connected to the Sanders infrastructure will channel the energy into a movement.

The hard thing is that an election has such a clear short-term endpoint, whereas so many social justice causes do not, so these skillful organizers will hopefully be able to frame issues in terms of intermediate steps and winnable goals without diluting the raw and ferocious passion for change (I guess that’s going to be my new band name, RAFP4C). Those organizers will also have to share theories with their supporters about how change happens beyond as well as within electoral politics.

On the issue of a Clinton presidency: I agree that there’s a danger of Bernie supporters falling into cynicism. Folks will also naturally be watching Clinton, ready to say “I told you so,” and this vigilance is necessary for sanity and for holding the administration accountable. On the other hand, that focus doesn’t necessarily build movements. I think it is up to Bernie supporters like us to turn with as much joy and hope toward the next future, to say that another world is possible, that electing a socialist president was a massively wild goal and that in coming close, we have shown ourselves that other massively wild things are possible. Now we need to go get them.

This is kind of weird question, but since you’re both in touch with Bernie supporters and are doing work on Pope Francis, is there an overlap? Do you feel like that voice coming from the Vatican, which has been pretty conservative since Vatican II, will add some oomph to progressive movements from a different direction of our population? Does the Pope have cred?

OE: All I have is anecdotal evidence to support the following answer, but I have tons of anecdotal evidence, so it feels like it is valid on some level. Nearly all of the people I see sharing Sanders memes on social media also share Pope Francis memes on social media. And what’s really interesting is how broad this pope’s appeal is. Many non-Catholics love him, and even atheist social media pages quote him. I think he is in a unique position to bring together different religious and political groups and move them in a more progressive direction. Basically, if we could get the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, and Elizabeth Warren to do a world speaking tour, my life would be complete. (I’m only half-joking there.)

So, my final question for you: How do you see us moving forward, mixing moderate and progressive elements to form a sustainable and equitable future? And where does writing fit into all of this (a question I ask myself constantly without ever quite being able to concoct an answer I’m willing to settle on)?

SH: I am a mix of optimism and dread. Dread is my natural state, but I’m optimistic because the current debates have brought so many former “unquestionables” up for debate, from gender and sexuality to capitalism—even within moderate circles. With my public political writing, I sometimes set out to prove or argue a certain point, but lately I’m finding myself wanting to integrate more of the questioning and multivocal impulse of the essay into political topics, trying to take a stand while undercutting the traditional modes of argumentation. I tried to see Hillary Clinton from multiple angles in the book. I aim to provide some sort of a bridge between what occurs in political movements and outside of them. When I was very active in the labor movement, I felt like my creative writing was a guilty pleasure I couldn’t let go of but couldn’t talk about. These days especially with the range of outlets available, I’m getting more comfortable with allowing my political beliefs to infuse into my creative writing and vice versa. How about you on that same question?

OE: I recently wrote an essay titled “The New Era of Engaged Literature” in which I argue that American writers are finally getting serious about politics in a way we haven’t very often in the past. The majority of this focus is on identity politics here, which is important, but I hope more people will get into the nitty-gritty economics and law of politics as well. I think writers have massive powers of persuasion and education, which is why dictators always kill us first. If we can continue to write aesthetically interesting work that also has philosophical and/or political elements, I am optimistic that we can change the cultural discourse for the better in a lot of ways. And I think we need to take a multi-pronged approach here in terms of issues and literary genres to allow for the widest reach and maximum effect.

It’s been great chatting with you about these topics, by the way. We should do it again sometime.

SH: Definitely. On the interest of engaged literature, I am sure that the coming months are going to provide so many opportunities for it!

***

Okla Elliott is an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, and a certificate in legal studies from Purdue University. His work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, Subtropics, and elsewhere, as well as being included as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2015. His books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide (nonfiction), and Pope Francis: The Essential Guide (nonfiction, forthcoming). More at www.oklaelliott.net.

 

Sonya Huber is the author of three books of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody (2008) and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir (2010), and the essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys: Essays on Pain and Imagination (forthcoming in 2017). Her other books include The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton (2016) and a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers (2011). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, and other journals. She teaches at Fairfield University and directs Fairfield’s Low-Residency MFA Program. More at www.sonyahuber.com.

Gordon Massman: An Interview and Four Poems

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Gordon Massman is the author, mostly recently, of the companion volumes Death and Love, both out from NYQ Books this year. His work has appeared in Antioch Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Georgia Review, Harvard Review, The Literary Review, and RATTLE, among others. He teaches writing and literature at The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. The poems below are reprinted from 0.174: The Complete Numbers Cycle (NYQ Books, 2011) with permission of the author.

***

Okla Elliott: 0.174: The Complete Numbers Cycle represents over twenty years of working on a single project. How did the project present itself to you? How did it mutate and grow over the years? And, with a project like this, I have to wonder how you can know when it’s done. The numbers could literally go on ad infinitum.

Gordon Massman: I was around forty when I lost faith in formal titles which to me monumentalize a work into a monolith, looping the last line up to the title in a never-ending closed circle, removing the work from relationship with past or future pieces. Freeing the work of the conventional title in favor of numbering it in the order written among cohorts places it in a context and continuum—as a step in an evolutionary process. So, this project presented itself, consciously and philosophically, through an intellectual callisthenic. Suddenly I liberated my pieces from standing alone and allowed them to be part of something larger than themselves. I think of 0.174: The Complete Numbers Cycle as a single—I hesitate to use the word for reasons stated below—poem.

Spiritually my subject—making visible my subconscious longings, urges, fantasies in naked, visceral, glaring terms—came to me in the way a seed is naturally programmed to become a tree of its species. I was a hyper-sensitive child in the hands of monsters who compressed me into a certain kind of seed programmed to blossom into a raging twisted tree. I did not select my lineage; my lineage selected me. During and for ten years following an emotional crisis which occurred at age thirty-five, I pursued Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis which opened a crucial field of examination—the subconscious. I felt then that my writing, heretofore consisting of stale programmable subjects was derivative and lacking. To my mind, all frontiers had been written by past masters to perfection save one: the human interior turned inside-out. In this, there are few, in any, antecedents. (Only Ted Hughes’ magnificent book Crow comes to mind with Anne Sexton, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell, wonderful writers though they were, following tepidly behind.)

All that remained for me–the most difficult part of this project–was to find the courage to strike genuine ore regardless the consequences. The mutation you speak of is the mutation of gazing more and more deeply, bringing up in particularized imagery that which drives me, and presumably, what drives most human males. Oddly, women like my work more than men as I think it confirms what women have always known about men, but which men want to deny.

The four hundred pages of 0.174 represent a handful of the entire project which is over three-thousand pages. It could, indeed, go on ad infinitum as you suggest, and I think that I will take it up again after I finish the third volume in a trilogy of books NYQ is publishing (Love, Death, and God.) I would like this numbers cycle to extend into late middle and old age—I am sixty-five—to record what maturity brings.

OE: I see an affinity between your poems and the fiction of William H. Gass. Both are experimental and postmodern in certain ways, and both seem interested in delving into the uglier and more uncomfortable or untoward aspects of human life and thought. What drew you to the formal aspects and contents of these poems?

GM: This is a core question and forces a hand. The term “formal aspects” implies non-porous walls between genres, a concept I reject for my own writing. The truth is that I do not believe in the concept of poetry distinct from prose as if each contained a separate circulatory system, an exclusive blood flow. I believe that “poetry” and “prose” are the same being named writing, and that some writing is more powerful than other writing. Some writing which we commonly call prose is the highest order of what we commonly call poetry I have ever read—Virginia Woolf, George Konrad, Hermann Broch, William Faulkner, Victor Hugo, come to mind. While some writing which we commonly call poetry is the lowest order of prose I have ever read, sanitized—I won’t name names. I consider myself a writer, not a poet, who formalizes on an instinctual level and who believes more in the power of words than in the power of form. Honesty will design and occupy its own vessel. We have evolved past what once served us well: strict academic boundaries. We are past the notion of fortress identity. The messages in 0.174 made square brick-like formations that cracked off lines jarringly to maintain smooth edges. They just wanted it that way for no rational reason.

I dislike labels such as “experimental” or “postmodern” because they imply the critical world’s lack of imagination. Writing is experimental or postmodern only because the reader/critic before encountering it could not imagine it. The terms essentially arise out of a failure in the public imagination and are irrelevant to the creating artist.

Likewise, what are untoward and ugly but a culture’s failure to include them in what they want to believe beautiful in human existence. Rage is beautiful. Envy is beautiful. Self-hatred is beautiful. Shame is beautiful. These terms “ugly”, “untoward”, “uncomfortable” and the like, (“vulgar”) accept as justifiable a mass lack of imagination, an unwillingness to accept as intrinsically valuable, even beautiful, the many facets within us. I am not speaking, of course, of what causes harm to others, of psychopathologies, but of the commonplace and universal egotisms which rampage through all.

I am, therefore, comfortable making visible and owning publicly that I possess these turbulent virtues which drive me and interest me more than the placid ones. By doing so, I reason, I can baptize and make them legitimate upstanding citizens. To closet and cloak them in shame is to deny fundamental truths about one’s self and to create a flammable pressure in the heart.

OE: Your newly released companion volumes, Love and Death, are also a large project. Could you tell us a bit about them and how they came about?

GM: One of my legs is filled with death, the other love. When I walk they flash and cut like scissors. Death was easy. Since an early age I’ve hated the reality of death and every day I awake with its heaviness on my chest. A few years ago within the span of nine months both my parents died with me standing helplessly bed-side. When death has one’s throat death is implacable. A few months after the second death the poems poured forth, immediate present tense snapshots and long contemplative incantations, the final being a twenty page rock riff. Death required from me this exorcism. During this process my psychotherapist dared me to write a book on love, romantic and otherwise. But being heavily invested in despair I balked for a long time until finally grudgingly writing a love poem, then grudgingly writing another, then grudgingly another until an avalanche happened and I found myself mirroring death with love: immediate present tense snapshots and long rock riff incantations. The two books were published as companions, or perhaps as scissoring legs. On the rare occasion I do a reading I alternate death with love, love with death until the two blur into a single experience, which they are. Each compressed the other into a rich and tragic existence.

I am now finishing the third book making this project not twins but triplets, this last one titled God. Now I have three legs, or perhaps, more accurately, two legs with that smaller one in the middle!

***

43
Am I more like steel or fruit inside? If you drilled deep
through me would I fi nally break your bit or ooze pear-meat
and weep like a godless Jesus of Nazareth? I want to know.
Drill me to the core. Screw out big chunks of me in your deep
steel grooves and spit me free, you with your blindness and
vulnerability. Make me spasm and curl with your all-nighters
and narcomania my teenage son. Find my vanadium or peachpear-
plum blood. You have drilled through my fl esh, it fl ew
apart like a burn, and several inches into the beams in my
bones, but I’m still steadily beating. Push hard on your tool.
Drill through my collar past my lungs into my heart pushing
with all your weight, feet off the ground, grinding out meat;
fi nd what’s there. Get to my mettle. Drop out. Coke up.
Fuck the syringe. Find your own gore in vehicular winter. Am
I cold? Am I mechanical? Can I walk through closed windows?
If you peel back my surfaces do I glisten? This is your mission.
Let me see from a distance the crack pusher’s wing fold
over your shoulder and usher you forward, your two backs
fusing. Let me witness dissolution. It is the father’s privilege. To
strip off my sirloin like meat off a prey to fi nd what’s lying
inside my cage. Let me see graphically what your brain isn’t
getting: high school teacher’s spittle, orange lunch room chile,
that geeky conventional gangly camaraderie, auditorium pep
rallies, an appropriate foreign language, stupidity, time, time, time.

***

56
And this little piggy squealed “no,no,no,no,” all the way home.
And then all the toes were accounted for: the big, the middle, the
nondescript, nondescript’s neighbor to the East, the itty-bitty
which made baby laugh like a nautilus. And then the toes blinked
out like a disappearing photograph, and baby went on a miniature
vacation to Puerto Vallarta where a lion almost devoured
him like a fortune cookie, but he escaped and wind rattled the
blinds like dangling bones, and he whimpered and whispered a
prayer-precursor to the Divine Death Overture, something about
soft protrusions and blue rain. And baby Carroll decided he
was having none of it and shattered two panes in the living
room belonging to Daddy and his entourage one of whom played
the Ace of Spades and raked in the kitty while on the artery a
fl ying mechanical scream engulfed horizontal human moans
in a white steel cube smudged with a red intersection and far,
far away two events happened simultaneously: an imaginary
Holstein jumped over an idiot moon keeping constant vigil on
the continuous catastrophe, and in the silo accompanied by
secret platoons of yellow arthropods Jack fi nally found Jill’s
gooey ooze representing nucleic acid’s undeniable invincibility.

***

134
Testimony of the best pig in the sty. I’m king mounter. I
shove it in. Gertrude craves me. Matilda moans for me.
I grunt and eat slops pushing away others. I get mash.
Dark splotchy pink, stout nose, neckless, number 77
tagged to left ear, luckiest number around. Rump like
a cement mixer nobody kicks, squiggly fi rm tail, blood
to tip. Super Pig, pig literati, nineteen hundred twenty
six pounds, hog literally, the Indiana hogs, borne of
Chester and Duchess, Chester Iowa State Fair Champion
Derby Hog, Duchess six hundred pound 4-H Purebred
Champion, daddy shot me into her like a roman
candle. I burst forth like Ben Hur. Sunburnt from so
much fucking, out from mud, into mud, ear tag jangling
like revolutionary, Illini nights reclining under
stars, contemplatively smoking, pink eyelids, lavish
lashes, back legs crossed, I love everything, fences,
twigs, friendship, water trough, soft breezes drawing
across skin, the smell of piss, I, Davy Crockett pig,
adventuresome, undaunted, courageous, proud, out
to farthest post, to gate, scratching along wire, sniffi
ng earth-untrodden, snorting intoxication-liberation,
left-and-right pig, pig of The Nation and The New
Republic, chest-out puffed-up herd-guardian wise
warrior pig, pugnacious purple irremovable squealer.

***

247
The whole thing goes kablooy, hypochondria torments sister;
dementia creams Daddy; mortality frightens but cruelty
out Mother’s skin; forty years of tolerance collapse under
Larry; BDD splinters me in circus mirrors; preemie lungs
asphyxiate Kevin; Depakote sloshes Bradley’s brain; Hep
C like a rabbit nibbles cabbage of Allan’s liver; genocides
cook and serve severed leg; have another chilled eclair,
sweaty chocolate, chewy shell; oh baby; testicles strike
like factory workers, tongues fall mute; rocks clog urethra,
plaque arteries; well, smasheroo; brisket, lamb, claw, stew
slide off table into Magical Mystery Tour performed by
nutcases at Unity Church; refugees land in black fog of
dereliction and fl ies bite beautiful faces near McFadden’s;
Witcomb crawls into death’s bomb shelter everything rips
through: guilt, shame, dejection, despair, paralysis, rage.

The Doors You Mark Are Your Own

surreal-south-09

[The following is an excerpt from the novel-in-progess by the same title. It originally appeared in Surreal South 2009.]

***

The Doors You Mark Are Your Own

by Aleksandr Tuvim

(translated by Okla Elliott and Raul Clement)

April 12

Katya is still angry with me. But what if I told her I saw my brother’s troops today, marking the doors of the infected? And that I’d seen common Joshuan citizens doing the same, without provocation or reward from the soldiers? Katya and I had fought over means and ends again, and I left to make the rounds with our conflict unresolved. I hadn’t been in the streets an hour when I saw something so low it nearly turned my stomach.

In the door of a once fine Joshua City home, three men stood over something ragged and huddled, clapping each other on the back. A black boot swept forward and there was a whimper from the pile of clothes. Then the flash of a knife blade, the snicker-snack of someone bent to dirty cutting work.

“I’ll cut his idiot tongue out,” said a skinny man on the right.

“No, wait,” said another man, large, checking his friend’s arm. “I’ve got something better.”

It was the Day of Joshua, and men like these were celebrating what should be a marker of human freedom with thuggish simple-mindedness. The large man unfastened his pants and squatted over the creature’s mouth. Across the street, a wagon waited, loaded with tied-up lepers. Their faces had gone blank from terror. They did not know their destination—only that it would not be pleasant. The soldiers meant to be guarding them were marking doors, or were distracted by the Day of Joshua festivities. I might have cut away the lepers’ ropes while their captors were occupied. But I couldn’t leave these other men to kick the creature to death. I scolded myself even as I was doing it. What right had I condemning a dozen people to save one?

I felt a familiar coldness, and knew there was only one way to be rid of it. “Stop now.”

They looked at me, their fists hanging at their sides. “Who are you?” the large man asked, taking a delighted step toward me.

“I am an angel of reckoning,” I said. “The doors you mark are your own.”

They considered this before surrounding me. I looked at the large man, who seemed to be in charge. “Before you do that, you might think about the freedom you still enjoy to walk away from all of this.”

“Sure.” He smiled. Behind him the undersized man or ancient child they had been tormenting rose to his feet. Go, damn you, I thought.

“And then I’ll have a nice chat with God,” the large man added. His friends laughed.

“You don’t know who I am, do you?”

“And we don’t care.” The first blow cracked my temple, and my ears rang, but I kicked back. I heard a cry from the smallest of them as I connected with yielding bone. My finger found an eye, worked at popping it. Another blow and I was forced to the ground. A tooth had come free, pink and glistening in the mud. Beside the tooth lay a flyer, one corner caught beneath a chunk of concrete and steel mesh. I read its garish font: Day of Joshua Parade! Come one, come all, and celebrate this great city’s anniversary! I raised my head a few centimeters. The creature was gone—no parting look, no sign of gratitude. Their leader lifted a brick, wrathful now.

I rushed him, and on the ground my hand found the brick. I raised it and slammed it down against his face; I raised it, slammed it down; raised it, slammed it down—with each blow his face was less human, more meat and dark fluid. Behind me, I heard his friends making their way down the alley, no doubt to home where they would contrive stories to explain their injuries. The man’s chest was still moving beneath me, and I wondered if that was a good thing. I heard the soldiers returning to their leper captives. I did not want to risk another run-in with General Schmidt.

The last time had not been under pleasant circumstances. I was snatched up by his men and dragged off to an interrogation room where high-watt bulbs were trained at my eyes and I was asked a series of questions. I kept demanding to see my brother.

“Schmidt,” I said as they hooted at me and struck me with stones wrapped in wet cloth.

They must have figured out who I was, because two hours later Schmidt came striding in with his imperial air. He took in my battered face.

“Nikolas,” he said. “I can’t go on protecting you forever.”

I grinned. “How’s mother?”

He turned away, showing me the side of his face. “Kristina is sick,” he said, persisting in his habit of calling Mother by her Orthodox name. “She wishes you’d come visit her. I won’t tell her what you’ve become.”

“Nor will I tell her about you, Marcik.”

“That’s not my name.” He stood and paced the room, turning sharply on his heels each time he reached a wall. “You’re a brilliant man, Nikolas, the real genius of the family. We could use you on our side.”

“I prefer my soul intact, thank you.”

He grabbed me by the shoulder, pinching the tendon there. I might have whimpered. “You continue like this,” he said, “and there will be nothing of you left intact.”

Now, seeing soldiers in the distance, I ran down the alley, leaving my victim to live, though with the scars of his misdeeds tattooed on his face forever. As I ran, I damned myself for leaving those lepers at the mercies of the soldiers, though the joy of violence was still in me.

I turned the corner and was nearly to the Saint Leocadia Avenue entrance to the Underground, when I saw a quivering mass on the sidewalk. It was the deformed man-child I’d saved. He looked horrible, forehead split like ripe fruit and the skin of one eyelid ripped and ragged.

“What happened?” I asked, as if I needed an explanation. Those men were riding the wave of patriotic idiocy. And if it had not been them, the bone fiends looking for an easy score might have done the job, or the insane turned out of the asylums when Marcik and I were children. Remembering those days, I had the beginnings of an idea.

“Where are you from?” I asked. He grinned, revealing shockingly pink gums. His cheeks were rose-colored; his eyes shone with childlike brightness beneath the blood. “Do you speak? Can’t you tell me where you live?”

He kneeled in the dirt and with a piece of wire began to draw an elaborate system of boxes and lines. Soon I understood it was a map, charting the streets of the district in beautiful, unnecessary detail. When he began in on the trelliswork of the house where I’d found him and his antagonists, I asked him if that was where he had lived.

He pointed backward, over his shoulder, a gesture I determined to mean the past. “Your family used to live there? How many of you?”

He pointed to himself, held up his palm, fingers splayed. Five including himself. “Where are they?”

Hands behind his back, cuffed, an arm grabbing his neck, tossing him into the back of a wagon. Lepers? Himself uninfected?

“Don’t you speak at all? What’s your name?”

He stuck out a tongue scored with razor cuts, and let out a saliva-choked grunt. He looked around, saw a storm drain, and reaching down into the urine and the scum, fished out something slick and wriggling. He popped it in his mouth. He grinned, proud as an infant who’s just wet himself.

“Slug?” I asked. “Your name is Slug?”

Before I knew what was happening, he had me in a ferocious embrace. He spun me around and set me back on my feet, and when I’d recovered I asked him if he would like to come see my underground home—if he would like a new name, one to inspire fear instead of scorn. He jerked his head up and down, letting out little happy squeals.

What would Katya make of this?

***

April 13

A continuation of last night’s events: when we arrived back at the Underground, Katyana was waiting for us—or for me, at least, though if she was surprised by my new friend she did not show it. I hid the bloodier side of my face.

“This is Slug,” I said. “Our newest member.”

With a shy turtle-like twisting of his head, Slug avoided meeting her eye. I wondered if he was frightened by her porcelain mask. I myself scarcely noticed it, but I suppose the uninitiated must find its smooth, expressionless surface frightening.

“I’m very pleased to meet you,” Katyana said, all faux ladylike decorum. Slug scampered back and hid behind me. He peeked out, ducked back, peeked out again.

“Is this another one of your little projects?” she asked me.

By now the other four had come out, and were standing expectantly at the tunnel’s entrance. Their bodies, emaciated from leprosy, must have shifted the path of the light. Katya gave a small cry and hurried to my side.

“Nikolas. Your face.”

“I’m fine.”

I pushed her off, but gently, so that she could see I wasn’t really angry. Without the others present, I would have enjoyed her doting, but I had my role to keep up.

“Take care that he gets set up properly,” I said.

She turned to the others and, in a tone both distracted and authoritative, instructed them to set Slug up in the pump room. When they were gone, she took my hand.

“Come with me,” she said.

She led me to our bedroom, such as it is, and set me down on our bed. She opened my medical bags, found a swab and disinfectant, and began dabbing at the mess of my cheek. I winced.

“Does that hurt?”

“Not so much,” I said. “They weren’t soldiers.”

“Still, anything could have happened. You must promise—if not for my sake, then for our cause.”

“I promise.”

But later, long after Katya had gone to sleep, I lay in bed staring up at the exposed pipes of the ceiling. They looked like the arms of a giant sea-creature, prepared to strangle us all. In the dark, I put a hand to my face and touched the new stitches, then the older scar beneath.

I was eight, Marcik ten. Father had died in the Barbarian War, and it was just the three of us now—Mother, Marcik, and I. Marcik and I shared a pallet smaller than the one Katyana and I sleep on now. We breathed each other’s air, guessed at each other’s thoughts, and stepped gingerly over each other’s boots and moods. At times it was comforting, but mostly it was stifling. I was the younger brother—and I knew even then that I was the braver, the stronger, the smarter; Marcik’s being two years older afforded him the official title “man of the house”. When Mother needed something from the market, I had to accompany Marcik, because she trusted me to get it right, but it was Marcik who carried the money and did the purchasing. “It makes him feel older,” Mother said.

And it was I who had to hold Marcik when thunder rumbled on the horizon, or when the insane roamed the streets at night, piercing our walls with their tinny laughter—but next morning he was all orders-given and orders-obeyed, a natural soldier before he ever became one.

One evening, as Mother was serving up the pickled cabbage heads whose smell I’d grown to loathe, Marcik came bursting in, nearly stripping the door from its rotting hinges. He had a paper and was waving it like a captured flag. For a minute, I thought it might be an exam from primary. I felt a twinge of annoyance: there were already ten or twelve such exams plastering the walls—Satisfactories mostly. My Outstandings were received with a pat on the head and shoved in a drawer to mold. I was set to be a doctor, while he was still engaged in boyish games. I watched Mother to see if she would scold him for being late.

“Carnival’s coming,” Marcik said. “May we go, Kristina? May we?”

“Let me see.” I grabbed for the leaflet, but he ducked behind the sewing table. I struck a spool of thread and it went unraveling across the floor. Mother bent and gathered it up. She laid her hand on Marcik’s shoulder. He grinned at me.

“I’m afraid that’s impossible.”

He pouted. “But it’s only five pence.”

“Unless . . .” She turned to me. “I know you were saving for that watch, Nikolas.”

“Compass.”

“It would mean so much to him.” She gave me her adult look, the one that said Humor him. For me. Marcik studied a crack in the ceiling. He wanted to say something, but knew it would not be to his advantage. I swallowed and nodded yes.

“What do you say to your brother, Marcik?”

“Thank you,” he mumbled.

She drew him around to face her. “Look him in the eye.”

“Thank you, Nikolas.” His glance slid off me with an oily quickness, and he went to the bedroom looking for all the world as if he had been punished. Mother squeezed my hand and smiled at me.

The next morning, we were off in our Sunday best. The carnival was ten blocks away in an overgrown cricket field. The ticket-taker seemed unsurprised to see boys our age, though I did detect a strange, carnivorous glint in his one good eye when I asked directions to the Puppet Palace. The other eye was made of glass, a milky thing that wandered in a dark socket. Marcik stared dry-mouthed and refused to give him the ticket until I pinched his arm. He hit me and I elbowed him off.

Marcik wanted to test out the firing range, so we did that, taking aim at targets no bigger than teaspoons. He could barely shoulder the rifle. We were out another five pence, and for our troubles were awarded a second-rate inkstand. Then he wanted to see the Mermaid Lady, who turned out to be an ordinary, not even pretty, woman in a sequin dress with papier-mâché fins. Wearying of these gaudy amusements, as well as the pretence that Marcik was in charge, I told him we were going to the Puppet Palace.

But at the door to the Puppet Palace, he hesitated. The grinning maw of the Puppeteer hung over an archway draped with strings, so that it seemed we might become actors in the grisly drama.

I grabbed him by the ear. “Don’t be a baby.”

I was determined to enjoy myself. We’d spent over half the money I’d saved that summer, and the puppet show had been the chief attraction for me when I saw the leaflet. I silenced Mother’s voice in my head. I pushed him down a shadowy corridor into a crowded, musty room. Rows of rickety chairs were set up before a box-frame stage. The light was dim but not menacing, and the Puppet-Box was unimposing. I prepared to be bored. The lights dropped off and a cavernous voice filled the stands.

“Ladies and Gentlemen!” the announcer began. “Creatures big and small! What you are about to witness will shock and amaze, horrify and thrill! It is not for the faint of heart. Those without courage are advised to leave.”

Marcik was gripping the arm of his chair. A red glow emanated from the cracks between the floorboards of the stage. Despite myself, a cool track of nerves ran along my arms and back. The sensation was pleasant, this mild fear I knew to be unattended by actual danger. The question of why people would pay for this sort of entertainment struck me briefly. It didn’t come to me in those terms, of course, but now I marvel at the price people are willing to pay in order to be scared, to be reminded of their imminent and perhaps horrific deaths.

The Puppet Master appeared, a stooped figure in a robe and pointed black hood like an executioner’s mask. He addressed the audience in a hiss, his mantis-like head swiveling in its hood. Marcik was halfway out of his seat, looking around toward the exit.

“Sit down,” I whispered. “I’m not leaving.”

Marcik hunkered back in his seat.

“It is said by races older than ours,” the Puppet Master was saying, “races who possess a knowledge beyond the reach of our feeble science, that the Puppet Master may control more than what lies at the end of his strings . . . that he may, in his tugging manipulations, get at something in the very soul of man—a Puppet soul within us all—and in doing so wield absolute control.”

I enjoyed Marcik’s palpable terror. It served him right, acting like my better. Some man of the house he was. Couldn’t even watch a puppet show without pissing his britches.

The Puppet Master ripped off the hood. It was the ticket-taker from earlier. The eye had been removed and all that was left was the socket. He stared directly at us, and there was a dizzy moment when I felt I would be sucked down into that hole. His head swiveled on to other audience members, but the image of that meaty absence was seared in my imagination.

“Does he tug at you?” the announcer asked. I had nearly forgotten he was in the room. Marcik made a sad little spasm at the sound of his voice. I put my hand on his arm to reassure him, though I ought to have let him suffer alone. He recoiled and made for the exit. He stumbled out, trying to retain some composure.

I considered following him, already envisioning the real dangers outside. At the same time, I was pleased in a way I almost didn’t want to admit to myself. It was the pleasure of seeing everything go according to plan—as if I had known Marcik would bolt and I would have the slow joy of being alone with the Puppet show, as if I’d known he might be kidnapped or lost in the carnival forever when I didn’t go out after him. I forced the image of Mother from my head and watched the Puppet master manipulate his puppets into a wonderful play.

I found Marcik sitting on a discarded plank of wood just outside the entrance to the Puppet Palace. He was no longer crying, but his face was streaked and his eyes puffy. When he saw me, he came lunging in a fury of snivels and balled fists. We fell back against a tent post, and something metal scraped down the side of my face. I curled up on the ground and eventually he tired of hitting me. He stood and wiped his nose. He looked at the gash down my face and at the blood I could feel warmly pouring forth. But I looked back in perfect calm. His tears proved who was who between us.

“I’ll hate you,” he said. “I’ll always hate you.”

He kicked me one last time and then ran off, into that city of bells and whistles, drunk bodies, and light. I stood and brushed myself off, wondering how I would to explain all of this to Mother.

***

April 15

After my behavior, I worry that Katya is still angry with me, but I know she will forgive me even this. I held a meeting with the others to properly introduce them to our newest member, the seventh head to make the body complete. It seems fitting that his name is Slug. We are all less and more than human here: the Seven-Headed Lions, Slug slithering in his gutter, and now most dreaded creature of all, the Puppet Master. A shadow to keep the children awake at night, a special message to my brother. We will not lie down, and neither will anyone else—not while soldiers walk the streets, not while the lepers are herded into the backs of wagons. I knew nothing of Slug, but that did not stop me from telling his life story, which if not strictly true, ought to have been. Katyana stood in the back, her expression inscrutable beneath her mask.

“My brothers,” I began, “carriers of the torch of New Jerusalem, tonight we welcome a new member. What you see before you, this sad sack of fear and downtroddeness, was not always this way. Once he stood proud, walked the streets with bright and clever eyes, son of two, brother of six, comrade of all. But his house was ravaged, his family snatched up and taken to the leproseries – General Schmidt’s so-called treatment centers. Well, what is a good citizen? One who looks away or one who stares suffering straight in the eye? After today, they will not be able to look away any longer. I present to you, the Puppet Master.”

Slug, who had learned his cue well, slipped on his holocaust cloak. Black from head to toe, his face buried in the hood, he presented an awesome spectacle. Even I forgot for a moment his pathetic flesh. He ducked behind the curtain of the puppet box, began manipulating two dolls—a dapper devil and a beautiful, pale angel.

The devil beckoned to the angel, but she had already turned her back. She sat in a corner of the puppet box, her shoulders slumped in sad reproof. Katyana stepped forward and grabbed Slug’s wrist. He shrank from an imagined blow.

“Nikolas,” Katya said to me.

I followed her into the antechamber and grabbed her roughly. “You are always free to leave,” I said. “You know that, don’t you?”

She pushed me away. “I wasn’t hurting him. I can’t say the same for you.”

“You like me like this.” I pulled her against me. I kissed her on the lips of her mask, then lifted the mask and ran my finger over her perfect chin. “You can’t get me out of your blood.”

She grabbed her studded whip. I bent over the table, raised the shirt on my back. “Whip me.” The sharp heat spread from my ribs to my spine. “Whip me,” I said. “Make me warm.”

In a dark corner of the room, I thought I saw a pair of watching eyes.

***

April 16

I might have written more yesterday, but from Katya’s shifting and sighing, I sensed that the candle was keeping her awake. We’d established a delicate truce, and I was loath to disturb it. I set down my notepad and stood over the cot, watching her sleep. She’d removed her mask and her eye glowed in the moonlight. Her cheeks were a jungle of scars. I liked her best like this—uncovered and unprotected. I went into hall, threading around the slumbering bodies on the floor. As I passed the pump room where I had installed Slug, I noticed light angling out. I eased back the door.

Slug hunched over the puppet box, talking in a low voice. Yes, talking, though I couldn’t make out the words. His back was to me, but there was a warped mirror leaning against the wall. I could see the angel and devil. Slug’s whisper grew distinct.

“‘Ladies and gentlemen.’ Not ‘ladies and men.’” On the table was a rusty straight razor; I often used the room to shave. He picked up the Puppets and rubbed them against each other, in a wild, copulating dance.

“‘Yes, pretty Katya. Whip me. Make me warm.’” He looked around nervously. “Nikolas will be mad. ‘Dumb Slug,’ he’ll say. ‘Can’t learn his lines.’ ‘Ladies and men.’ No, ‘Ladies and gentlemen.’ Puppet men. Dumb Slug.”

He picked up the razor and before I could stop him, drew it slowly, almost lovingly across his tongue. I stepped inside and grabbed him by the shirt collar.

“So you talk, do you?” He shook his head fiercely, and he shrank from expected blows. “Come outside.”

He followed me up the ladder, whining like a sick dog, and I felt a rush of sympathy for him nearly sufficient to stop me. I raised the manhole cover and when I was satisfied no one was watching, I pushed him out. It was not dark. In recent years, the night sky of Joshua City has gone a washed-out, chemical green—a sickly, unearthly color set to hem us in, to smother us in the quietest way. Slug shivered in the glow. “Nikolas,” he said.

“Go home,” I said. He didn’t move. A cold wind blew over me, and I wondered if this was right after all. “You heard me. Leave.”

He stood and took two steps forward, his arms outstretched, palms first. In his hands was the razor. He offered it to me. “Nikolas,” he said, “Slug love.”

On the ground was a length of metal, something from the old railroad bridge, and I picked it up and swung it at him. He turned and walked away, stopped, looked back at me. He moved on, bare feet dragging in the dust. I dropped the railroad tie and ran after him. But he was scampering through the foundation of an old building, over a mound of bricks and used vials, on all fours, into the shadows. After a while, I made my slow way home, to what I call home, not looking up from the ground.

I recognized Slug’s shuffling gait behind me and smiled. I slowed to allow him to keep up with me. I left the manhole cover half-open after I entered the Underground. Hiding in the shadows, I was pleased to watch Slug make his way down the ladder and back to his small quarters where Katya had ordered his bedroll to be made. I wondered how I would explain myself to her.

***

Aleksandr Tuvim is widely recognized as the foremost author of Joshua City, indeed of all the Seven Cities and Outer Provinces. Formerly the Municipal Poet Laureate and the head of the Academy of Arts, Tuvim is the author of numerous books, including The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, We Are Messenger, and From the Dread Gospel. Imprisoned for crimes of opinion, Tuvim spent time doing forced labor. He was later pardoned by General Schmidt and returned to prominent status.