Bodies in Oblivion

Bodies in Oblivion

Lethe

Lethe stands behind a wire fence, staring at me with piercing hazel eyes. He is bald with skin so red and wrinkled his head resembles a healing wound. Still, we creep closer to one another until we crouch on either side of the fence, almost touching.

Hello, I say. Lethe says nothing audible, but presses the side of his body against the wires, all the while keeping his gaze fixed on mine. A whiff of rot puffs into my nostrils. It is a hot day- 90 degrees or more- and we are bathed in one another’s scents- dirt and feathers, shampoo and rubber sneakers, dandruff and coffee, dead mice and sweat.

On the side of his cage, a white sheet in a plastic sleeve tells this story:

Lethe hatched in 2000 and was raised at a wildlife rehabilitation center in California. Despite precautions to keep him from imprinting on humans, he became highly socialized and upon release at a state park, kept coming down to people (particularly women) to play with their shoelaces! Even after a return to captivity and several months in isolation from people in a large flight cage with other vultures, he preferred human companionship.

Lethe: a river in the underworld. To drink its waters brings oblivion, but the kind that erases pain. Why else would the waters of forgetfulness be offered up in the land of the dead, but as a comfort and a means of escape? The subject of Death, given an opening, wells up through my carefully built internal levees. I lost my mother three years ago now: suddenly, preventably. Before my mother died, she always spoke of how she wouldn’t. She insisted, on my fears of oblivion, that she would always find me again. In her journals, I found fragments of her dreams: a constant flow of communications from the dead; an alcoholic aunt who passed away jaundiced and wasted, appears to her young and untroubled, glad to report she has shucked off that broken-down husk; a distant cousin rolls by to flash an enigmatic thumbs up; even total strangers leave messages with my mother to pass on to the living. But so far, for me, only one dream: my mother is drowning and I try to shout a warning that will not penetrate the molasses-like membrane that separates this world from the next.

Lethe grabs the fence wire with his beak and blinks at me. I stare back, seeing not something but someone behind that barrier of wire designed, we are told, to protect us both. The owls and hawks I have approached in surrounding enclosures merely tolerate observation. They angle their bodies carefully, deliberately away from the human gaze, turning their heads on an oblique angle, keeping my curiosity at wing’s length, but carefully surveilled. Lethe, now pressed so hard against the wire that his feathers poke through, welcomes this mutual intrusion.

I don’t want to break the rules, which somehow I know would mean reaching out to touch him. So I look into his eyes and breathe him in. There is a fleck of gristle on his face. He stinks of those molecules released by decomposition. I wonder how many deaths have sustained him these seventeen years: all of the bodies in oblivion, the traces of which now pass through the air and into my nostrils, my lungs, dissolving in my blood.

It takes only about two years for any one breath to have spread itself around the world. The molecules of breath last thousands of years. Given the arithmetic, roughly one particle of the last air that was breathed out by anyone who ever existed will appear in my next breath. I realize, with a jolt, that by now my mother’s breath, circling the world, has made it everywhere. She is likely here, in my breath, in Lethe’s, being passed between us, in a kind of river that flows not through the underworld, but through the living, a river of constant remembering.

Lethe reaches down to his right ankle and tugs on his fetter- a leather strap that he drags in the mud and dust. He eyes me and tugs the strap again, then presses himself back against the fence, getting as close as he can, gripping the bars with his beak. I know, I say, but those are the rules.

Announcing my new book of illustrated flash fiction: small, fierce things

Announcing my new book of illustrated flash fiction: small, fierce things

Logo
 
Dear Readers,
In February of last year, we brought you news of our friend LJ Moore’s limited handmade chapbook small, fierce things, a project we fell in love with from the beginning for its sheer transportive magic. For the last eighteen months, LJ has been working to expand the collection’s stories and drawings. It’s complete now, and we are thrilled to bring you the re-release of this extraordinary work. Although it’s now printed and bound through conventional technologies (not hand-stitched by the writer herself with fishing net she collected above the Arctic Circle, like the original), we think its magic and grace remain intact. Here’s the copy from the website:
“This collection by LJ Moore exhibits a writer/artist in deep communication – with the natural world, with dreams, with her friends and family, with legends and folklore, with her craft, with her own subconscious. She creates startling and unprecedented connections among these entities, tying them together, conflating them, blurring boundaries and exploring overlaps. The result of this collection – forty-five drawings and some two dozen stories (they’re hard to count, with they way they move around, and sometimes mimic other things) – is an overwhelming feeling of synthesis, of unity, of a primordial oneness in which we all exist together. Here she gives us the freedom to delineate things in any way our imaginations deem necessary, so long as we promise to come back and tell our stories.”
the bird-shaped hole (excerpt)
she had always felt the bird-shaped hole. sometimes, after waking from certain dreams, it felt as if it had been filled. in these dreams she flew inside the bird, looking out its eyes, neither becoming absolutely the bird nor remaining wholly herself, riding as a welcome stowaway in a body whose dimensions were both right and strange. the owner of the wings and claws was aware of her presence, yet made no objection. together, they followed the wind’s suggestions, flexing and extending each remex and rectrix to barrel-roll between buildings, noting the astonished faces behind windows, and the neck-bobbing scatter of startled pigeons.
LJ Moore’s poetry, essays, short fiction, reviews, and photography have appeared in a number of publications, including Fourteen Hills, Limestone, Jacket, Publishers Weekly, Rain Taxi, Kalliope, Transfer, Instant City, Litseen, We Still Like, Artsmith, The Chiron Review, The Bold Italic, Sparkle&Blink, Enizagam, and forthcoming in 100WordStory. Her 2008 book, F-Stein, tells the story of family through pop culture, science, and the paranormal in the form of a replicating strand of DNA.
LJ Moore was a 2010 writer-in-residence at Headlands Center for the Arts, and completed a residency with The Arctic Circle, sailing on a tall ship around the archipelago of Svalbard with a group of artists during twenty-four-hour daylight. With Invisible City Audio Tours, she curated and narrated an audio tour of the gold rush-era ships buried under downtown San Francisco. She lives happily with two trained rats and a photographer.
– The Achiote Press team.
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children of the wind (1)

children of the wind (1)

phoenix

i walk on the beach a lot. i have noticed that dead birds often come to rest on the tide line, lying in the sand in shapes that i can’t help but find beautiful. i am going to be posting a series of drawings based on the birds i find. i am calling it children of the wind. i hope that others can see the beauty in it too.

impressions of svalbard (1)

impressions of svalbard (1)

impressions of svalbard

 

there was a feeling of the vastness of the sky. and of being so close to the top of the earth that there seemed little to hold me in place. the landscape, devoid of trees or of anything to measure myself against other than the ship, the icy crags, and the immense horizontal ribbons of sky and sea, made me tiny- as tiny as a footprint, or a fish. at the same time, i felt the power and utter belonging of being so small: anything could happen in this world where a day could elongate into months, and the shifting of the ice crackled like a storm of unseen creatures about to break the surface.

how it came to this

how it came to this

how it came to this

how it came to this

At this moment, Lucky thinks about lowering his head and rushing the cops. In his mind, he sees it play out: their repeated warnings to stop, his perceptions slowing and lengthening in the surge of crisis, the thump and sting of bullets followed by the beloved quiet and the relief of weightlessness. In his favorite dream, Lucky floats, drifting past farmhouses, hovering outside their warmly-lit windows, looking in at the comfort of full bookshelves and thick rugs and old quilts and scarred kitchen tables.

Before this:

Lucky stands at the highway exit, scanning for oncoming cars. Nearby, stashed in the weed-strewn bushes of the median, lies his backpack stuffed with cash. In the distance, he sees the glint of an approaching vehicle and begins to pace back and forth frantically, hoping to attract the driver’s attention, hoping for the kindness of a stranger who might recognize his distress and give him a ride. When the car begins to slow and pull to the shoulder he sees the red light bar on its roof, and recognizes the insidious shape of a New York State trooper’s blue sedan.

He sets the backpack on the counter in front of the teller’s window and shoves it toward the woman that faces him. On top of the backpack is a note. The note says, I have a gun. Put all the money in the backpack. Do not activate the alarm. Her dark brown eyes lock with Lucky’s for a moment, and then she opens the drawer and calmly fills the backpack with bundles of cash. When her drawer is empty, she hesitates and briefly looks over her shoulder. Lucky snatches the backpack and takes off running out the front door of the casino.

Lucky is up in the blackjack game. He’s nearly doubled the $2000.00 he started with. It looks as if he’s broken the bad streak. A bad streak of days and years. He will pay his brother back, he will look him in the eye and say I’m sorry, but here’s the beginning of what I owe you.  He will have a leg to stand on again. One more hand and I’m out. His top card is an ace. He hits and draws a nine. The dealer’s top card is a seven. Lucky goes all in.

In the middle of a thunderstorm and sixty miles southwest of the poker table, a cab pulls up, its wipers working furiously.  Lucky slides into the back seat, peeling off his backpack and placing it on the floor by his feet.” I’ll pay you a hundred bucks to run me up to the casino.”

The trailer stinks of tobacco smoke. Around the living room, Lucky picks out traces of his mother- an aquamarine pashmina draped over the easy chair, amethyst and quartz crystals lined up along the window sill. On the coffee table is a Polaroid of Lucky and his brother posing beneath a whitewashed piece of wood with Dude Jail written on it in crude block letters: they are so young they are barely tall enough to grasp the fake bars. Lucky moves down the carpeted hall into the back bedroom, which had been his mother’s. The bed is stripped bare, the closet empty, but the room still smells faintly of the blood orange perfume she wore to kill the smell of his brother’s cigarettes. He tried to hide his own habit from her.  Lucky closes his eyes. He and his mother had always had a connection. Sometimes she would call him and tell him what he was thinking, or tell him that she had seen a sign- a dead hawk or deer in the road that meant he should be careful driving. Mostly, he just felt her presence, no matter how far apart they were, watching, knowing. There was a time when he wanted nothing more than to shake that feeling, when it felt like he would never get away from her. Never be alone with his thoughts.  He waits.  He hears the leaves outside the trailer stir, and a low rumble that must be thunder.  Somewhere nearby, a chickadee gives its two-syllable, sinking call. The sounds slide past him like thin, flat sheets of paper. Lucky turns and heads back into the living room. It only takes him five minutes to find his brother’s hiding place. His brother doesn’t trust banks.

Lucky watches his brother move slowly down the steps of his trailer and ease himself into a cab headed for town, on his way to yet another doctor’s appointment. Lucky watches the cab navigate the curve at the end of the road, pass the mailboxes, and disappear south. He smokes a cigarette, and then another. A cicada calls from somewhere overhead in a towering cottonwood tree, and another answers from further into the woods. The air presses down around him, humid and tinged with ozone. Through a break in the trees he sees a portion of the sky darkening from purple to black. A thousand summer afternoons of his childhood flood back over him. He never expected to return to this place. One or two fat raindrops splash the steps around his feet.  He lights another cigarette and steps inside.

His brother purchases the ticket and tells him where to claim it. Lucky boards a bus.  Beyond the window he watches tall palms stutter past blue and white beaches like the bars of a luxurious prison. He watches the traffic give way to open highway and twilight and darkness. He is going home.

Lucky texts his brother that he has been kicked out of his apartment, that he is living on the streets, sleeping on the beach or climbing the fences of resorts and sleeping on chaise-lounges beside swimming pools. He texts his brother every few minutes. He can’t remember if he’s already texted.  He does not know when his phone will die. He texts that he is clean. He texts that he has a job. He texts that he lost his job. He texts that the cops are staking out his apartment and he’s scared and paranoid. He promises that he is telling the truth, will tell the truth, wants to tell the truth.

A $23,000.00 check arrives for Lucky in the mail. A week later, all the money is gone. Lucky texts his brother that he owed all the money to the IRS and they came to his door to collect and he’d had no choice but to give it to them, so can he please wire $70 to pay rent. With a hundred, he can get some food.

Before the heat of the season, before the green and the yellow of the first flowers have pushed up through the old snow, when the trees and the air are still grey and frozen and empty, just a few months back when it still hurts to breathe the air, Lucky’s mother dies.

Lucky texts his mother that he needs $70. Just to pay the rent. A hundred and he could even get some food. Lucky’s mother drives on bald tires to the grocery store, where she agrees to pay the $25 fee to wire him $100. The woman at the counter swipes her card and hands it back, “I’m sorry ma’am but there’s insufficient funds.”

Lucky’s mother sits in the parking lot of the grocery store, enjoying the feel of the heater running. She is watching the crows. They have arrived in flocks of hundreds this winter, settling in the frost-thin branches like glossy black leaves. She has never thought badly of crows like other people do. She thinks they are beautiful and insouciant and self-aware. Like her, they enjoy parking lots. Soon, they depart in a feathery cloud that seems to erupt out of nowhere. She would like to follow them in her car, to see where they go.

Long before any of this, Lucky’s mother wakes in the middle of the night from a dream. She sits up, looking out her bedroom window. A blonde, blue-eyed, baby, seated in a Lotus position, is floating outside. The window is on the second story. She asks the baby what it wants. It says, I’m your baby, let me in.

otter and wolf

otter and wolf

otter and wolf

 

otter and wolf

It was said that otter was not right in the head. She ran toward loud noises. She jumped from steep snowbanks that dumped out onto the highway. She shoved her nose into piles of scat, into cooling campfire embers, into snake holes. She took deep breaths and held them as long as she could, exploring the dim and tangled root-tunnels below the lake’s surface, never knowing if she had enough air to make it back. She acted without fear or worry, because she mostly got what she went after: if it was large and dangerous, she was fierce enough to startle it, and fast enough to get away. Otherwise, she proceeded to roll around in it, eat it, hide it, tear it to shreds, or grow bored with it and move on. All her life, otter had been able to catch anything she tried to catch, with one glaring exception.

It nearly always appeared at dusk, usually in the middle of the lake, but not always at the same time. she had tried swimming out to it, but it kept pace with her, drawing away as she neared until she couldn’t see it anymore, but when she turned to head back to shore, there it was, floating on the water in the direction she’d come from. It also sometimes appeared in puddles, or in the slow parts of the stream that fed the river, but when she pounced, it scattered apart into tiny, distorted pieces, bright and restless. It seemed to be breathing. She wanted to press her snout against it. She wanted to feel what it felt like between her teeth. Instead, she would crawl into her den and hold it in her mind until she slid away into the frictionless dark.

Wolf had been watching otter for many months. He had a reputation as a cynic and a loner. He sat outside the mouth of otter’s burrow and listened to the pattern of her breathing. Even in sleep, her heart rattled insistently. He had watched her chasing the thing in the water. He had never noticed it there. He had never thought to look down like that, to notice what was in front of him.  He was always looking out at the horizon. He was always thinking ahead. He was always worried about what might happen, and always regretting what had already passed. This made him slow to decide. This made him cautious. This is what wolf was thinking about as he sat outside otter’s burrow and carefully licked his paws. Then he looked up and saw it appearing over the ridge, and he howled. Wolf howled not at it but because of it, because it rose a giant and grew brighter as it shrank. Because it grew thin and disappeared, and then it returned, swelling- a new light or the same light- he never knew. But always far away, always out of reach, no matter how he called to it, no matter how far into the distance he looked.

Otter emerged from the burrow, awakened by the howling. She strained to see what wolf was staring at, but she was near-sighted. All she could see was his fur and the nearby grass waving slightly in the breeze. But the sound he made was so horrible and wretched she had to do something, so she bit him, and ran.

Wolf caught up with otter at the edge of the lake, just as her tail and back feet disappeared into the water. After a few moments, she surfaced a few yards from shore, looking back at him, her whiskers limned with bright droplets. The water’s surface stilled, and in it, wolf saw the pale orb appear, huge, glowing, and close enough to touch, with otter floating in its center. Otter, squinting, saw that wolf had caught the bright thing, not once, but twice, with his eyes.