Thou Art, by M. M. Nickolai
You want it not to be awkward, the engine, mechanism,
the servo of story
Whether it’s a crude machine, gun oil and heavy metal
or the elegant articulation of intrigue and invention
you want it
deep, a thing that moves from within
wrapped in muscle, vein, and skin
motive force, you know, entwined and
tangled with a characters’ breath, blood, fever dream
There is a richness in this
And witness by the term, McGuffin, these devices needn’t drain a muse’s juice
—but you want your metal, your cogs and gears, organic
rooted, and grown over with the flesh of story, an alembic that hardens filament to bone,
heats the electrical pulses and chemical signatures of thought and desire to burning liquid
Borges Riding a Camel
At his desk, Borges leafed through his contributor’s copy of Odyssey Review. While reading an English translation of his essay, “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” he suddenly found himself on the back of Prophet Muhammad’s camel, al-Qaswa. With Muhammad sitting nearer to her head, the camel was completing the Hijrah, the Prophet’s flight from Mecca. To curtail jealousy, al-Qaswa had been given free rein to decide where the first mosque would be built.
This did not stop the Prophet’s companions from pulling at al-Qaswa’s reins, to steer her towards their homes. But on she wandered. So busy were they with the camel that they barely noticed the stranger who had appeared on her saddle. They stepped on the broken idols the children had destroyed in anticipation of Muhammad’s arrival, burying them deep in the silky sand.
“What a strange-smelling beast!” said Borges.
One of the companions, native to the city, ran to Borges’ side. He had a palimpsest in hand. Poring over the Argentine’s shaved face, he determined Borges to be a foreigner to the trading city. He greeted him in Persian, Coptic, and Ge’ez before Borges responded to his Latin, which he had learnt as a boy.
“Where am I?” Borges asked the young man. “And who are you?”
“Yathrib, as it becomes Medina. And I am a scribe to God’s Prophet.”
“But that would place me in the early seventh century.”
“Year One, for us. God has sent you from the future, then?”
“I suppose so.”
“Then, perhaps you could help me with a small problem. In your time, is the Quran finished, compiled, and translated?”
“Yes, it is the greatest book written in Arabic.”
“You wouldn’t happen to recall any particular bits about camels, would you?” Unfurling his palimpsest, he said, “I scratched off an ancient poem about a camel but the forgotten poet’s words have already stained my mind. They are mixed with the Prophet’s words, and I’m too ashamed to ask the other scribes for help.”
Borges licked his lips. Al-Qaswa passed by a rich companion’s garden lined with palm trees. Singing children, feet bruised from crushing idols, danced on the fallen dates cooking in the sand.
“But there are no camels in the Quran,” said Borges.
“Excuse me?” the scribe said.
“I have even written that the Quran’s authenticity is proved because Muhammad did not write of camels. So ubiquitous are they to your lives.”
“The Prophet is illiterate. And I can assure you we have written of camels. What of the She-Camel of God? She’s from an early verse, recorded in Mecca.”
After the Thamudi, famed for their homes carved in stone, demanded from the prophet Saleh a miracle from God, The Creator sent down a She-Camel. The right of pasture being one of The Provider’s decrees, The Arbitrator tested the hearts of the sinful Thamudi, to see if they would allow her to graze without harm. The sinners hamstrung her and bled her dry.
For three days, The Patient awaited their repentance. On the third night, The Avenger sent them a powerful earthquake, leaving Saleh to lament his people, buried in their homes.
“Perhaps I have not read the book as carefully as I thought,” said Borges.
“Perhaps. In truth, you wound me. You have erased what we endeavored to copy down. Once you return, will you change what you have written?”
“It has already been published. Translated, even. In my time, try as men might, it is not so easy to erase that which has been written down.”
“Alas. Perhaps the blame lies with us scribes. After all, ours is an impossible task. Our tools are unfit for it. Not just the bones and withering scrolls on which we record the recitation. But the letters themselves. I am third to know God’s words, after Muhammad, after Gabriel. And I am to transcribe them with only twenty-eight letters.”
“It is cruel to ask a man to capture infinity with a finite number of letters,” Borges chuckled.
“Exactly. Not to mention the meaning of the mysteries, unknown even to the Prophet, such as the disjoined letters, Alif, Lam, Meem. Or that it is said that only camels know the final name of God.”
At this, Borges began rubbing al-Qaswa’s hump, cooing to her, attempting to gain the ultimate theonym. She, in return, bounced Borges on her rump.
“My friend,” chortled the scribe, “don’t you think we have tried?”
Al-Qaswa came to a prompt halt. She sat down in the middle of an old burial ground, where the sand was black with ancient stones. A few meters away, dates were hung to dry. The Prophet descended to find the two boys who owned the land, his companions behind him.
“So this is where we shall build his mosque,” said the scribe. “Atop our dead. Look around, Borges, at the graves of my forefathers.”
“I am afraid it would do no good. My sight is failing.”
“Then you must let the Prophet spit in your eye. Though you insulted his favorite camel, I’m sure he’ll be willing to cure you.”
“It’s no bother,” Borges said. “Besides, I already have my eyes set on a cane.”
“As you wish. But, after the Prophet has settled in Yathrib—well, Medina, now—do allow us to return you to your home and time.”
“And how are you to accomplish this?”
“We will use the camels of the sea to get you home,” said the scribe, a grin spreading across his face. “And, then, have Muhammad beg God to put you in a deep sleep, like the People of the Cave.”
“All this, you would do for a stranger?”
“You are no stranger, but an esteemed guest. One that has taught me a valuable lesson, at that.”
“And what lesson is that?”
“We need to write more about camels,” the scribe laughed.
Borges laughed with him. He kept laughing till he found himself back at his desk, with a sore behind.
The day I lost relic, I was sitting in an Arthurian literature class in a UC Berkeley art building.
I wrapped myself in scarves to combat the grey crisp of too early summer.
Relic was there
the day before. It was important to the structure of this class. I reached for it, fixated, and gone.
A gleaming hole stared from my notes—the eye of a needle, beholder, tiger, poultice. I couldn’t relec, with C. The circle
around the wordless word-space for the word I was looking for. Relek
no’kay. I couldn’t think
if R or S. If Rs could be Ss when written—when Old Englished, relish? A relish, a re-leashed. Off leash delusion. I tried phrases
to work around my missing word. A host suddenly untouched missing…
spots of Arthurian lecture. And who gives a shit about the kind of savior that would misplace a…
Not there. Tried defining the space of the word, sans phrase. Something contrite, lost, old. Not correct. Even defining
space steered me wrong.
I thought, the original version, but sometimes, the tangible original, or sometimes, passed down.
No longer important
to the story of what is. It started with an S No, M. No, L. I think it had an L, for sure. I circled again and again—out
spot where it should’ve been
in my notebook. This mislaid lack, voidword felt deeply wrong—crawling malevolent hole in the back of my skull where the migraines started. Where faces skewed ugly sometimes. Where too many beers reared their behaviors. This was the place back there that hid
archeology, no that’s not it.
Not dinosaur things. Not building things. Not bone things. Tangible book things. Or story things. I thought of my grandfathers, both of whom had strokes. I wondered if a stroke started with the sinister, persistent loss of a central word in one’s vocabulary? I wondered if their heads were throbbing catacombs like mine? I wanted to ask, but I had lost my faculties for speech while this word was missing. I walked to my car, silent. Searching. Fumbling for the road
relic came back.
I pulled the car over—immediate, such
Sudden. It had always been sitting on the tip of my brain. Lounging. A lounging relic. A relic of a distant thought. A relic of my past. I cycled through relic clichés as I wrote it into the place where the circles had left
a hard dent.
People Never Notice Anything
Poets are always taking the weather so personally. They’re always sticking their emotions in things that have no emotions.—J.D. Salinger
Green ink all over the fingers and pocket:
there is the smell of dust, breath of a nextdoor neighbor,
wool of a red hunting cap worn backwards.
The winter lagoon is absent of ducks.
I keep picturing all these red covers with yellow letters,
slobs and secret slobs, red hair and gray hair.
Water is spit between lovers’ mouths
as music plays in The Lavender Room.
Scotch and soda run towards a crazy edge
for cigarettes and clavichord surgery.
The best writings always stayed where they were—
glass cases for a roller skater in the park,
the blues sung raunchy, not cute.
Isolated cabins, out of control twirling on ice,
short skirts and ass: it’s poetry, it’s history.
Nobody’s around but I’d really like to be.
Where are the ducks? The kettledrum players?
The sisters with their stories? The children playing
on the cliff? Round and round they go on the carousel.
Letters on a left-handed fielder’s mitt—
something to read when no one is up to bat.
Life is just a game in which the equipment
is left on the subway.
‘Fuck you’ is carved on tombstones
and we can’t go home again.
Writing on Swans
The cob, George and Zelda his bride
written on swan-white paper
copies of the bonded couple
made on a green-blue
carbon powder sheet.
Both wait for my fingers
to grow their family—
letters keyed onto the machine
bring the pair’s clutch
of cygnets into existence.
The click of my typewriter’s keys
taps the adult swans’ warnings
to any threat to their young—
a single slap of their wing
can break an arm.
With the movement of the carriage
one last time—
these last typed words
write them into the world.
Their feathers flourish and stretch
as I pull the paper
from out of the typewriter’s feed—
the family take wing
the lake’s grey, winter skies….
The Empty Cairn
Hans didn’t write while they were camped on the glacier. He had neither notes nor materials, and in due pride he couldn’t neglect his work. While the British officers risked their necks tumbling into crevasses and trying to scale the fjord walls, Hans took his gun to the ice-foot to look for seals.
Hans had been hiring onto explorers’ ships since he was a teenager, so many that he needed a system to keep the details straight. First the Advance, then the United States, eleven years later the Polaris and the Discovery. Hans Hendrich was the man you wanted; from Portsmouth to Boston and back to Godthaab, men said that he had no equal in sledge-driving, track-finding and seal-hunting. The German astronomer Dr. August Sonntag had even told him, the second time they met aboard the United States, “You’re the only Esquimaux I can trust.”
But though Hans kept to his contract, hunting diligently, the writing never left his mind. In their sleeping bags on the glacier, when the pipe-smoke and conversation faded, he closed his eyes to plot scenes and paragraphs, though he knew without a writing utensil they would vanish with the morning. Like a housewife chewing caribou skins for sewing, he spent weeks re-working the story of his first voyage, the hot-tempered captain of the Advance and how he’d threatened to shoot Hans. How, though Dr. Sonntag had promised to protect him, Hans began to think of ways to avoid sailing back with the Americans and finally asked permission to visit a settlement nearby. It was my intention to return, Hans would write, the next time he had paper, But I began to envy the natives with whom I stayed, who supplied themselves with all their wants and lived happily.
He’d also fallen in love, a northern girl whose laughter made Hans’s heart tremble like a lemming in its grass nest. But since he intended this account for the newspaper in Godthaab he would leave out these private details.
Once the officers finished surveying the glacier, the lieutenant wanted to move their camp to an island in the flat white floe. “Hans found some huts here four years ago,” he said.
Hans nodded, realizing that he’d never recorded the incident. At the time, he hadn’t understood the significance of these low stone walls with their turf roofs crumbled away, for by then he and his wife Mersek had been living for several years in a southern whaling village, far from the rhythms of northern life. It was only on a visit to her kin that he heard of a group of people crossing the strait from the Muskox Country to Greenland, who stayed a few years before returning homesick to the western shore. In Hans’s memory, the shadows pooled within the huts started to feel less empty. But before they could find them, the British stumbled on a cone-shaped rock pile that had to be of European or American construction. They wiggled one rock after another in the decaying cairn, looking for a message cylinder.
All exploring vessels carried copper tubes large enough to hold a few sheets of paper on which they wrote how far they’d come, where they’d been, and their hopes, if despair had left them any, for reaching the Pole. They wrote who had died; the captain of the Polaris had sometimes written whom he suspected of poisoning him, for no one reached these latitudes without being a little crazed. Cairns for these cylinders were raised on every headland and spur of rock, and when bad weather prevented them building cairns they dropped the cylinders over the side until the very waves grew verbose. But this stony outcrop of memory had nothing to say to them.
“Perhaps it’s buried nearby,” an officer suggested, scanning the rocky soil.
Hans reminded them hopefully that he needed to take his seal to the mainland and cache it.
“Go, then. We’ll keep looking for your stone huts,” the lieutenant promised. He opened his sledging journal, pinning the pages to keep them from fluttering.
I could ask him for paper, Hans thought as he steered the dog-sledge through the curving melt-ponds scribed across the floe. There were no huts visible on the side of the island facing him.
Stone decays, he remembered Dr. Sonntag saying. Writing, never.
In the five years between expeditions, while Hans’s new in-laws had been teaching him bear-hunting, Sonntag’s explorations had taken him in the opposite direction, to the top of the highest volcanoes of Mexico. Scurrilous publishers had issued a book titled Professor Sonntag’s Thrilling Narrative of the Arctic Ocean, an impudent tissue of errors that exposed him to the ridicule of his former comrades. He’d repudiated it at scientific convocations and in letters to the press, but as he complained to Hans, the written word, once released into the world, is impossible to kill.
“Your tribe has more truth in a single granny-tale than in volumes of encyclopedias by learned men,” he said, forgetting that Hans was literate and educated at the catechist school in Fiskernaes.
But Dr. Sonntag had spoken the truth about writing, for that winter he fell into the water, soaking himself to the skin, and no one could explain why he refused to change into dry clothes, or what else had happened during the three days he spent dying of hypothermia; not until Captain Hayes wrote down his theory in black and white. It was Hans, the captain argued, who’d been with the astronomer at the end. And whispers again crossed the voluble waves, saying everywhere that Hans Hendrich was a murderer.
That was when Hans began to write, not in Danish or English or even the northern dialect he spoke with his wife and children, but in the southern Greenlandic of his boyhood, the language of the catechist and the newspaper. Though it had hardly passed his lips in twenty years, this was the language that came most naturally once he had a pencil in his hand. In the pitch-black of winter, he took paper and an oil lantern to the berth that he’d hitherto only used for storing hunting equipment, and wrote, At length I was able to draw my friend out of the water and put him on my sledge, but I was unable to kindle a fire, his own version, clear and impeccably spelled.
The returning sun courted him with its most compelling texts. The tracks of ptarmigan and hare printed in the low-angled light were succeeded by the zigzag tidal cracks spelling out, as he returned from caching the first seal, how to find a second one basking upon the ice, how to kill it before it could roll back into the water-slot. But soon the focus of the hunt dissipated and started to schematize, turning back into words for Hans to select and arrange in order. They travelled along the coastline, his brother-in-law had told him about the immigrants from the Muskox Country, But there were no animals. The travellers had run into trouble. Rumours came back of famine, of murders with a monstrous motive, but so far this news hadn’t reached the south. As Hans lashed his seal atop the sledge, he began to consider exactly how he might tell this story.
Writing, begun as an activity to make him feel powerful, had acquired a power of its own, dragging him into its current by the accumulation of words and sentences.
When Hans returned to the island he found the British officers squinting painfully despite the weak midnight sun.
“No huts,” Lieutenant Fulford said, “No messages. What did they build this cairn for?” He turned on Hans, still waiting to tell them about the seal. “Weren’t you there?”
His voice had the tone Hans had learned to fear, the night-whisper tone, the poison-theory tone, against which the most carefully penned newspaper article was powerless to protect him. What defense could his words raise here, beside this empty cairn which the sailors of the Polaris had built after their captain, perhaps less crazed than most, died in the very agonies he’d predicted for himself?
The lieutenant’s frustration gusted away; at the best of times Hans’s obscure yarns could barely register his interest. “We can’t leave it like this,” he said with a gesture. Mute, the cairn was a sore on the landscape, an unsocketed tooth. The lieutenant tore a page from the sledging journal—Hans’s fingertips itched—and for want of another idea began to copy a list of meridian altitudes.
Above the island, the sky offered scrawling lines of snow geese travelling to their nesting ground. Hans remembered the sole woman to come back from the catastrophe in the Muskox Country. She had the facial tattoos of her homeland, but behind the ink lines her eyes had been messageless, an empty cairn that would not be filled.
He would chew this over a little longer. He would wait to reach his notebooks on the ship.
For My Writing Life—Open-Label Placebo & Directions
So I asked—can I try? And he said to me . . . you’re not sick. And I said well, I may not be sick, but I got problems. You know, I have always wanted to write better. And he was—he thought, oh, I think we could design a [placebo] pill for that.— Interview with Robert Siegal on NPR, April 22, 2017
Not golden but deep green with flecks.
And let’s create tablets because capsules scare me,
and since the whole point is NOT to be scared,
give me coated pills that look wet and earthy.
The directions should say this: Take one tablet before bedtime
and another upon waking. For best results, swallow with ice water
at night and with strong coffee in the morning.
Start writing immediately.
Give me a description of results strange
and meandering: Brings on immediate synesthesia.
Colors of more than one syllable likely to give way to sound
or touch. (Malachite offers a useful example.) Sight
will be heightened; then words will breathe.
In place of dire warnings, maybe this:
Though there’s a thirsty taproot in every cemetery,
playgrounds still need the chalk of hopscotch days.
Finally, let the fine print at the bottom prove irresistible:
Remember, this placebo has been designed especially
for you. Where there’s a long trample of grasses, listen
for a speckled clutch of thrush eggs. You may startle
the waiting snake before it strikes, or not.
The Book of Signs
“I’m sorry about your brother,” she says as he hands her a bundle of letters addressed to The Mountain Maid By the River. He doesn’t need divining powers to know what is written inside—When will I find love? How soon will I get the job? Where is my missing pocketbook? The letter carrier fancies that he himself has a bit of sixth sense. The Mountain Maid tells him that clairvoyance is a feeling like a memory—the future coming real soft like, a spring bubbling up through the mountain’s skin. She described it for him the first time they were together. It is like you are standing in a river. You can read the rocks and tiny fishes just in front of you, but the still water nearer the far bank is silty and dark. That’s what the future looks like—sun-speckled water full of silvered fish, your toes sinking into the fine sandy mud at its bottom, the far future dim and shadowed at the edges.
“What’s happened to my brother?” the letter carrier now asks. He is surprised to see the Maid here at the mailbox, skin damp with summer. In her cabin, shadows erase the twenty years between them, but in today’s sun, fine wrinkles web the spaces around her eyes. Her fingers lightly squeeze his own as she takes the mail he proffers.
“I learned it early this morning. I’m very sorry.” From his spot atop his horse the letter carrier can see the carefully lettered sign that points the way to her place. She can read your mind, people say, a hint of fear in their voices. But try as he might, he cannot read hers and wishes to ask her more, except she is now lost to him, gone up the rocky trail worn smooth by years of farmers seeking missing cows and businessmen after good investments.
What is wrong with Brother? The Mountain Maid always knows, despite what Brother thinks.
“Don’t you listen to that old witch,” Brother would say when friends came back from mountain picnics full of ham sandwiches and future fortunes. Brother believes only in oil, in the money that oil can make, in writing his own destiny. “You need to get yourself out, too, Johnny,” Brother said the day he left. But the letter carrier prefers to wait for his future to be delivered here.
Once, long before he delivered letters, he stood in the center square at the Sacred Harp singing. Surrounded on all sides by voices, he’d felt the notes wash over him, and there, swimming in all that music, he’d seen a flash of light, quick as a fingerling darting round river rocks. It was the future he’d seen, What Will Be curled into that quicksilver flicker. And he’s been chasing it ever since. Even Brother thought about the future. Dear Momma and Daddy, Brother’s letters said. I believe the future is in California oil and am making my way along the path that leads West. I am well. I will write again soon.
The future is why the letter carrier is here on this horse with a sack of mail, why he steams letters open of an evening, why he peels back the paper flap to see if he is right. He likes knowing his neighbors’ doings before they do. Cousin Edith had a boy child, he says to himself when he is alone in the darkness, his mind searching for dreams. Chas Jr. has lost his job in the canning factory, he says to the walls that crowd round his small bed. For a whole night, he knows What Will Come to Pass, and he sleeps soundly in it.
In his bag today he has the legs to Elmer Turner’s stove. It is a thrill to carry it piece by piece through the hills and know the rest of the parts are back at the post office, a future stove waiting for him when he returns. The Mountain Maid waits for him too, sometimes, and that is also a thrill. After, he falls asleep inside her arms. What Will Be waits in the wells of her collar bone. Her fingertips read his chest and thighs and other places.
But what’s wrong with Brother? His horse has carried him to the Albertson’s place. He knows the route by heart, and likes that this is a kind a future-knowing too. Mrs. Albertson waves from her garden. “Morning, John,” she calls from her flowers, and the letter carrier waves back. Last spring, Bill Albertson had letters from a town just across the state line. When steam hit the envelopes’ closed mouths, the paper gave off the scent of lilac. There were love poems waiting inside, and the letter carrier liked those verses, each a little well of clear water, the future curled inside the end of one line until he read forward into the next. He didn’t want them to stop, those poems, and was sad when the mail ceased coming, though also happy that he didn’t have to avoid the eyes of Mrs. Alberston whenever he rode past her box. The Mountain Maid is not married. “Who would want to marry a woman who knew what her husband was going to do, was thinking of doing, had done?” she laughs. When he is with her, the letter carrier believes he wouldn’t mind his mind spilling over into the bedsheets. He could drink the future at breakfast, lunch and supper. But now he is not so certain. What’s wrong with Brother? He wants to ask her just now. What is it you see?
There is a letter for the Robinson’s from an aunt who has come into money. Ada Thomas’ niece is sick with fever. But today the letter carrier barely cares for the futures he places in each box. What’s wrong with Brother? The thought of Brother is dim and shadowed. He tries to imagine a spring bubbling up from deep inside his bones. His bare arm is wet with sweat but otherwise looks the same as it always has, no future welling just beneath his skin.
The Peterson place. Burt Aldridge’s box. Millie Connelly’s collie dog come to greet him. His mare plods slowly along. Clairvoyance is a feeling like a memory, the Maid says. He tries to recall Brother as he was at home—always moving, never in one place, only still when he slept, and then he slept fitfully, kicking and bucking in the bed they both shared. The letter carrier’s own house is not far away, the place he still shares with his parents because he is only nineteen and saving for what is coming round the river’s bend, waiting for his life to open and unfold itself in a burst of flowered perfume.
What’s wrong with Brother? Tell me, please! Sometimes, after supper, Mother gets down the box of Brother’s letters with postmarks from far away. She reads them aloud, laughing a bit, crying, some. When will my oldest return to me? her tears ask. How will I live with only half my heart? Wherever can my lost child be?
Now the letter carrier and his horse have come to the river. He dismounts and wades into the ankle-deep water. Small fishes scuttle round his shoe tops. His soles sink into the muddy bottom. He scans the water for the future that must be waiting there.
What’s wrong with Brother? Please!
Water soaks the cuffs of his trousers before disappearing downstream, and now the letter carrier wades in further. He squints at the fish and furred rocks. Is that the future making its way toward him? The thing coming in the water is not a quick dart of light but dark shadow spreading itself across the surface. He holds tightly to the mailbag. It is moving fast, that darkness. And then there is a bump and he is nearly bowled over into the river, the dark thing upon him. It is neither soft trickle nor the gentle rise and fall of the Maid’s breasts, her words a warm mist against his check. The future is in the shock of cold knocking the breath from him. He loses his footing and plunges under before resurfacing with a splutter and a scream. The dark thing drips from the hair plastered against his forehead, from his eyelashes and nose, before returning to the cold current.
What’s wrong with Brother? He no longer needs to ask this of the Mountain Maid. He has the answer. He can see the future well enough. It is a package too large and heavy for his bag, something he must carry, bit by bit, to his mother up the mountain. It is something he does not want to open, a feeling that brother is now only a memory, a body bobbing in the deep shadow by the far bank. Letters—so many letters!—float away from him before they take on water and are lost.
Updike at the P.O.
All of Beverly Farms, Massachusetts,
bears the stamp of exclusivity
except for the post office, democratic
in its service, uniform in uniforms,
faces of the haunting Wanted on the walls.
When John Updike mailed a manuscript
in front of me on an icy day in the 1980s,
behind the narrow counter stood the clerk,
a surly fellow, burly, sourly affixing
a colorful collage of stamps to his manila
as he would to mine. Our manuscripts
were even bound for the same place,
The New Yorker. But my submission
was stuffed with a SASE, that humble
two-way traveler puffed with hope going,
still fat yet somehow deflated coming back.
Updike’s left no room for rejection.
His ochre envelope, addressed with an
authoritative hand in inky copperplate,
had already been licked shut elsewhere
and taped with cellophane across the flap.
The Book of Life
“And then you might ask about all the great books that have ever been written. You may ask about all the wise philosophers who have ever walked the earth. You might even be tempted by the physician’s handbook, or the numbers scrawled in your bank account. But I am here to tell you that there is only one book that matters.”
The pastor placed both hands on either side of the pulpit and glowered menacingly at his congregation. He held his tongue for many heartbeats, looking each of them in the eyes one at a time. When his gaze fell upon the little girl it lingered. Then he raised himself to his full height and proclaimed, “But if your name is not found in the Book of Life, you are nothing but dust! You are food for the worms! You are fodder for the vermin! You are nothing! You will be cast into the devil’s hell and the maggot that never sleeps will chew through your soul! And you will scream to the heavens! But they will turn a deaf ear as you turned a deaf ear to the one true God!”
The little girl wore a blue dress and matching bonnet. She was an island amid the transfixed congregates. There was no sound to be heard but the preacher’s words. No one laughed, sighed or coughed. The people in the pews did not even seem to breathe. Only the little girl gave the faintest sign of life. As the preacher spoke her tiny hand reached for the holy book laying at her side. She studied the cover’s texture with her sensitive fingertips, for she was the only one in the room who could feel.
“Have you written your name in the Book of Life?!” exhorted the man in the pulpit, his cheeks flushing. “Have your carved your name; etched your name; Yay! Have you burned your name into the Book of Life?!”
The little girl placed the book in her lap and opened it. She studied the words. A man and woman sat to either side, their faces grim. They counted prominently among the statuary that thronged the sacred chamber. Reaching beneath her bonnet she retrieved one of the pins holding her hair in place. With careful precision she lay the sharpened point to the delicate page. Then her brow furrowed and jaw tensed as she pressed with all her strength. The pin sank deep, and there was a perceptible ripple through the congregation. She began moving the pin up and down and from side to side. The preacher’s voice faltered. Soon the only sound in the sanctuary was the growl of shredding parchment. All eyes found their way to her.
But nothing could deter the little girl from her course. She worked with persistent abandon. It was as if all of the energy dormant at the center of the world had taken root in her small hands. When she finished injuring the text, she sat back and studied what her mania had wrought. The shredded edges of the paper reached to the rafters as if in supplication.
“What have you done?” asked the preacher, his voice quavering.
The little girl held the book aloft with the pages open for all to see the word she had written.
And thus she carved her name in the Book of Life.
The man and woman sitting on either side were the first to reach for her. But even as their grasping claws extended toward this blasphemous scribe, they evaporated into the words contained in the book. Their bodies disintegrated into tiny black letters that spilled to the floor like ants. The letters made faint clattering sounds as they bounced off the pews. She sat frozen as the rest of them surged toward her, only to share the same fate. When the letters dropped to the tiles they melted into the libelous ink that had spawned them. The last to go was the preacher, his hands frozen in prayer as the substance of his body fell to earth like a gentle black mist.
Then the sanctuary was silent. The little girl returned the book to her lap. All around the pews and floor were smeared with dark streaks and puddles. She looked at the name she had written in the book.
Placing her hand over the pages, she held it there for the briefest of moments. Then she moved it to one side, as if wiping away tears. When she had done this, the paper was restored. It was as if she had healed the book. The paper was no longer torn, but the words were gone. Now she was confronted by a blank page.
Inserting the needle in the tip of her finger, she winced. The drop of blood rose to the surface like the sun at dawn. It beaded there, the redness contrasting with the ashen hues that surrounded her. The color seemed to signal a new covenant of possibility. As the blooded finger hovered over the blank page, the vaulted ceiling shuddered with the vaguest tremor.
And then she wondered at the first sentence, this daughter of a stillborn universe.
I came down the mountain
with the tablets still smoldering:
God’s finger painting on rock
to guide a stiff-necked people.
Some of the commandments
were scratched deep; some
were barely etched, as if
the Lord was weary of stating
the obvious, but felt he had to.
The letters of the “don’ts”—
don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t
fuck with that which isn’t
yours—were hammered into
the slates with such force
that shards of each letter
floated up into the air as
I went down; a bitter and
acrid smell assaulted my nose.
I had felt the words falling on
my tongue as he spoke, some
honey, some gall, but reading
them as they cooled on the long
descent, I noticed that the first—
“I am the Lord your God, who
brought you out of the land
of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”—
were written by a woman’s hand,
a mother writing a love note
to her children; and that all
the “no’s” we were called to
forsake were all the things
done to us in our bondage:
rape, murder, lying with
the lips. Oh God, should I
have not hurled your words
onto the ground in dismay
when I found my people
drunk on fear turned to spite?
The words broke like sparrow’s
eggs when I hurled them to
the ground. Where will I find
such tenderness, such wrath again?
The Power of Three
Magic lies in three properties:
herbal, mineral, verbal.
So say Medieval philosophies.
Imagine the power of those three—
paper, ink, words—ingredients
of the writing recipe.
Nothing exotic: no eye
of newt, no blood of unicorn.
Books have their own lives.