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.

Exodus

Exodus

Exodus

He was late for work. He made the right-hand turn while looking left and drove directly into the bison. In the fractional moment before his deploying airbag filled his field of vision, he made eye contact with the animal.

The animal slowly wheeled and faced oncoming traffic on Lincoln. With a sound like cinderblocks clattering on asphalt, the other eight members of the herd trotted up the small slope from Chain of Lakes and joined him, aligned themselves in a kind of phalanx pointed east. Together, they began to jog, and then eased into a gentle canter.

At Sunset, they encountered their first traffic. The first sedan did not slow or even stop, but slipped narrowly between two of the massive animals like a silvery fish. The next clump of cars was not so lucky. They swerved and skidded. Two collided and drove off the road into a pole. The third spun in a slow, graceful curve to the shoulder where it teetered on two wheels and then rolled over like a stunned tortoise among the trees on the edge of the park.

It went like this for just over a mile. The animals were eloquent in their movements, sure in their purpose. Their massive bodies rippled with the impact of hooves. Their nostrils stretched and expanded. They snorted as they ran, blowing mucus behind them into the wind.

Around 21st Avenue the first dog appeared. It was a black Laborador retriever. It stood on the sidewalk outside an apartment building with its body in the shape of an arrow. The hair along its spine stood up. It quivered. When the bison passed, the dog stepped into the road, staring after them. A human voice called out a name… the dog recognized it. It looked toward the voice, then back at the retreating animals, and tore off after them.

The light was with them at 19th Avenue, though a packed 71 bus, which had just pulled into the stop, was forced to brake hard, and several people fell into other people’s laps. Most of the rest were looking at cell phones. The bus driver swore under her breath, staring in her side mirror at the retreating animals.

By the time the herd reached Stanyan, it had swelled to nine bison, thirty dogs, and a man on a bike.  #bison was trending, a silent, exhilarated hysteria began its tsunami crash, felling websites and servers. Raccoons, possums, and rats poured from the storm drains along Oak Street, joining the swelling ranks of animals. Traffic quickly snarled. People in the panhandle froze, or ran, or climbed trees. Some, after a few moments of deliberation, ran after the animals, tossing their backpacks and purses down on the grass.

The news helicopter caught up with them at Octavia. The bison swung right at the light and crossed Market onto the 80 East toward the Bay Bridge. The broadcast showed a line of large, brown animals at the front, galloping now. Behind them was a mélange of colors: dogs in sweaters dragging leashes, cats scurrying beneath tires and leaving pawprints across windshields. A massive grey cloud, like the herd’s shadow, trailed just behind: thousands upon thousands of pigeons.

Between molecules of air, the waves that carried the news #coyotes-downtown #Los Angeles, #whitetigers-loose-MGMGrand #Las Vegas, #ostriches-nimitzfwy #SanDiego, grew denser and steeper and slower until they stood motionless, high and invisible.

small, fierce things are here!

small, fierce things are here!

I am so proud and grateful to Achiote Press for making this book something I could hold in my hand. It began in 2013 when I sailed the arctic circle with a group of artists and came back empty… or I thought I was empty. For months I couldn’t write. Then osmall, fierce thingsne day I saw an image in my head. I hadn’t done any drawing for years, but I felt compelled to do something, anything, since the words weren’t coming. And then something happened: once the image was on the page, it began to tell me a story. I wrote the story down. Another image came… and so on until there were twelve drawings and twelve stories. As many of you know, I then created a hand-made book, bound with fishing line I found snarled on the arctic beaches. That version sold out, but the small, fierce things weren’t done with me. In the following months, the images continued to present themselves to me on my long walks, on the bus, in meetings, in my sleep, and I kept getting them onto paper, and each image had its story. Eventually, there were twice as many small, fierce things, and with the help of a wonderful publisher, they are now here in book form for everyone. I hope they burrow, claw, sneak, or steal into your heart and head the way they did into mine. I hope they remind you of what it is to be restless and curious and hopeful.

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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the cat who loved thanksgiving

the cat who loved thanksgiving

silas

the cat who loved thanksgiving

he was a cat of grand reputation: his miaow melted the hearts of even those who in the secret heart of their hearts did not, in theory, like cats. yet each year he proved again, through the naked wonder of his dilated eyes and drooling stare at the plucked and trussed bird nearly twice his own size, the commonality of dreams. slumbering in the sun, curled in the helpless shape of a turkey-filled belly, he traveled between worlds without moving, his eyes half-open, proof also that dreams and reality are sun-streaked shadows falling across the same rug.

the least weasel

the least weasel

Mustela nivalis and skull of Gulo gulo

 

back in 1999 or so my mother called me from her desk at the cornell synchrotron and said, you better come up herei’ve got five baby-somethings in my pockets and they smell pretty bad.

our relationship had been rocky for the past year or so, and we were not speaking much: i took this call as a kind of peace offering in the form of five helpless beings whose problem had a clear-cut solution, unlike ours.

i arrived to find my mother typing at her computer, the breast pockets of her button-down shirt bulging, and a faint skunky smell obscuring her rose perfume. they were so cold, she said. i thought if i kept them near my body, it would keep them warm.

one by one, she handed them over: they were hairless, eyes still sealed closed, skin translucent. their organs and bones were visible, and fine blood-red capillaries, like leaf veins, spread in webs across their bodies. they could have been anything: raccoons, skunks, woodchucks. the only clue was their musky smell.

one of the crew found them on the floor of the new tunnel this morning, my mother said. he thinks they fell out of a nest and the mother couldn’t get to them. construction on a new stretch of tunnel for the particle accelerator had been going on for months. my mother liked to call it the atom smasher in front of the physicists, because it bugged them.

i left the lab with the creatures folded up in a sweatshirt. nothing had been settled, nothing resolved, but there was something immediate i could do.

for three weeks i carried the creatures around in a fanny pack, feeding them every three hours with canine milk replacer and an eyedropper, and stroking their bellies with a q-tip to make them urinate. normally their mother would lick them to stimulate their bodily functions. i was dedicated, but not crazy.

my best friend and i talked in the evenings about what they could be. because of the smell, we had settled on skunks or weasels. when their bellies began to show a fine down of white, and their backs a russet stubble, we had our answer. it also came time to make a decision: did we want to keep them as pets? once they opened their eyes, they would probably imprint on us and could not be returned to the wild. even now we might have done permanent damage in saving them and handling them. so i’ve already done the wrong thing by interfering with nature, I said.  but aren’t we  part of nature? my best friend countered. how is it natural to just sit back and watch things die? these were the kinds of things we talked about. we still do.

the decision, for both of us, was clear: do our best to discover what it is to be a wild weasel, and try to keep our weasels, these weasels, wild. by this time, we’d identified our five creatures as least weasels, the smallest member of the family that includes skunks, otters, and the wolverine. we set up a box in the kitchen sun room where the weasels lived. once their eyes opened, we tried to be sure they never saw our faces, and we never touched them. with sight, they moved from milk to solid food in the form of pinky mice- as vulnerable and hairless and blind as the weasels had been when they were discovered. so one life was sacrificed for another in a necessary, mixed morality.

puck, our cat, would watch from the safe perch of my shoulder, his eyes dilated to black discs, as the weasels tore the pinky mice apart. at least they did it quickly. by this point, there were only three weasels left: two had died from an upper respiratory infection only a week after i’d taken them in, their noses filling with mucus faster than i could suction it out, and their breathing growing more and more faint until it stopped. the three survivors were voracious and fierce, especially the lone female. she was half the size of the males but always killed her food first and then tried to take theirs. at two months old she was fearless, insatiable, and so aggressive she drove puck off when he once became curious enough to stick his nose in the box. she was enormous in personality. in stature, she could curl her body nose to tail and fit perfectly around the outside of a penny.

when the weasels could no longer be contained by the box, it was time to transition them to the outside. we had read up on their habitat, the things they ate, their reproductive lives, everything we could find in a world before all the details were on the internet. i chose an eroded area underneath the barn to set them up: there was a water source and shelter nearby, and an empty field full of bugs and small animals right behind the barn. if they were going to learn to hunt, this was the perfect place.

each day, in the afternoon, I brought a can of wet cat food out to the barn and left it for the weasels. i couldn’t know if they were learning to hunt- all of their meals had come, if indirectly, from my hands. within a couple of days of doing this, they knew to expect me, and would form a greeting party, consisting of a mad weasel dance punctuated by vicious lunging at my ankles from all sides. i learned to distract them with a long stick, dragging the tip behind me through the grass. they chased it, striking and dodging and circling it at high speed. puck and i would watch from a safe distance as they took turns eating and chasing each other around the can.

after a week, one of the males was gone. only two weasels came to meet me for the daily can of food. about a week later, only the female appeared: as fearless and insistent as ever, but so small i only knew she was coming by the swift-moving line of parting grass headed in my direction from the barn. not long after that, i emerged with the can and only puck showed up. together, we searched the ground near the barn, but the weasels were gone.

many years later, my best friend confessed that she was afraid puck had eaten the weasels. tearfully, she told me she thought it might be her fault they had disappeared. it’s possible that this is what happened, but it’s also possible that one or more of them survived. it’s also possible that it was wrong to take them in, to try to change the outcome of their story. it is possible that they died in the jaws of a larger animal or a bird of prey, or when the winter came.

it is also possible that they could have been left to die on the cold floor of that tunnel, before they had ever opened their eyes, their bodies left to decay to bones, over which invisible particles would fly near the speed of light, being accelerated in order to answer other questions: not more important questions, just other questions.

Mustela nivalis and penny

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.