The Burning Book Competition
...called for writers to produce a story in which a book is used for a purpose other than to be read.
VerbSap thanks the many authors who burned, mangled, floated, or flew literary works while participating in this event. No genuine reading material was hurt for the purposes of this contest.
First Place was awarded to Jon Fain's Endpapers, a story that gives new meaning to the words Vanity Press. John W. Sexton's The Book End will change the way you feel about the work of Enid Blyton. And Emma Smith-Stevens tumbles down the rabbit hole in the enigmatically-titled Painting A Face.
By Jon Fain
The Book End
By John W. Sexton
Painting A Face
By Emma Smith-Stevens
By Jon Fain
It was on those days when the wind threw a tumult of rain down the wide windows of his shop that Aubrey Marshall felt most content. Surrounded by his books, with his cat Proust stepping surely around him, the shop owner sat at his backroom desk, puffed on his pipe and marked prices in his recent acquisitions. Smoke from his sweet-smelling blend filled the cave-like space. Proust jumped down to the floor whenever the tinkle of the bell announced someone's arrival.
This time, the customer was a young man perhaps early thirties, of average height, with longish brown hair. He had a vivid, crescent-shaped birthmark on his right cheek. He closed his umbrella and gave it a shake, taking care not to spray the table of merchandise before him. He wore a yellow rain-slicker and worn boots. He held a package, wrapped in dark green plastic.
"Let me know if you need help," Marshall called out from his haven.
The newcomer cleared his throat, brushed a lock of sopped hair from his eyes. He glanced at the walls, the shelves filled to the ceiling with books.
"Yes sir. I have something you may be interested in."
Marshall pushed himself up out of his old leather chair with difficulty. Sitting for too long made his joints ache, particularly on these damp days. Proust ambled over to the visitor and from his spot on the Oriental rug, disdainfully threw up a leg, and began an impromptu washing.
"Let's see what you've brought me, young man."
The bookshop owner moved behind the front desk. Aubrey Marshall was a throwback, had little need for the throwaway society in which he lived. In particular, a paperback book would never find a home across his threshold. He had interest only for the craftsmanship the finest bookmakers, past or present, brought to bear on their work. Books that would last for decades, perhaps centuries, passed down through the generations. Marshall watched the young man fumble with his package. Textbooks likely, was Marshall's thought. "Required reading," which he hoped to discard for a few dollars.
Proust, still sprawled on the rug, suddenly sprung up and bounded to the rear of the shop, as if the young man had made a threatening gesture. But in fact, he unwrapped what he'd brought with the utmost care. Marshall assumed his cat had been startled by an errant splash of rainwater. He watched Proust, who had retreated under the desk in back. The animal's green eyes were wide, locked on the customer's movements. Its tail flicked back and forth, sweeping the wooden floor behind its tensed haunches.
Marshall's attention turned to what was held out for his consideration.
It was not what he had thought; not textbooks, only one book in fact. A beautiful, incredible book that he found himself gently holding, after a moment in which he knew with certainty he'd been handed something special and one of a kind.
The book had a soft leather cover, a rich, faintly pebbled, cream-colored kidskin, or something similar. The spine was firm, perfectly bound, glued with the obvious touch of a master. Marshall lay the book down on the table in front of him. It was exquisite. He opened it carefully and discovered a striking endpaper, a deep, lively wash of red, mauve, and pink, combined in a pattern worthy of Blake himself. Barely able to contain his excitement with this unexpected treasure, Marshall turned gently to the title page, but the author, a woman, was unknown to him. Glancing through the text he felt drawn to the type rather than the words; in some ways, it reminded him of the 19th Century Spanish printer Castelleno. But this book was obviously new.
"I imagine... this is part of a limited edition?" he asked, breaking the silence.
"Yes." The young man brushed the unruly hair from his face. Water dripped from his umbrella spread a puddle on the floor.
"And you are?"
"My name is Kyle Burgess. I work for the...publisher of this book. And others."
Marshall had concluded that he represented the Harrow Bindery, in nearby Boston, a small concern known for quality, handmade work. But he had been unable to find the usual stamping of "HB" on either the title page or spine. There seemed to be no reference to a publisher anywhere.
"And who is your employer?"
The young man coughed. "That's not important."
Marshall straightened up. "No? How so?"
"I represent the publisher and I'm here on behalf of the author as well, whose wish it was that this book be offered to you. Your reputation is substantial." The young man made a gesture. "Your store is legendary...one of a kind...unfortunately."
"And is it not my prerogative to inquire," said Marshall, growing suspicious, "as anyone in my legendary position would, the source of this volume? Would I be so wrong in assuming that it is...to use the vernacular...'hot'?"
The young man did not reply; he looked at the book on Marshall's front counter, under the owner's hand. It did in fact feel warm to the touch.
"Someone... some publisher... some press... whom, according to you, their so-called representative, shall and must remain nameless...sends you here to hand-deliver for my consideration...a marvelous, well-made book, albeit by an unknown author? And, if I am interested in purchasing said volume, fine, and if not, so be it? Really Mr. Burgess. Must I assume..."
Burgess made as if to take the book back; Marshall jerked it out of reach.
He couldn't understand it. His attraction to this strange and wonderful looking volume clouded his better judgment, his years of experience. Quite simply, he had to have it. His fingers played over the soft cover of the book and he glanced down as if to make sure it was there.
"My employer trusts both your knowledge and your reputation for driving a hard but reasonable bargain. Whatever you care to offer."
Somewhere in the back of his mind, a storm of questions raged, but Marshall battened down against it.
"Fifty dollars," he said, much too loudly and when Burgess hesitated, he shouted, "A hundred!"
A faint smile rose and faded on the younger man's face. "Whatever you think is appropriate, Mr. Marshall. My instructions were to ask for cash."
The bookshop owner had problems opening his cash drawer, and when he did, nearly emptied it. Marshall did not pick up his new purchase until the young man pulled up the yellow hood of his slicker, and gone back out into the elements. The bell tinkled as the door to the shop eased shut.
Proust, stretching, came out from his hiding place. Marshall considered the book. Well, after all, it was perhaps the most attractive book he had ever seen. Like a gourmet previously forced to diet, but now returning to table for a long-awaited meal, he admired it. He lifted it and held it against his cheek.
During the next month, the young man returned twice more, each time with a book of similarly high quality. Exceptionally crafted, marvelous to the eye and touch, but penned by an unknown. It was on his third visit, on a day the sun was slivering bright light through the slats of the blinds over the shop windows that Marshall tried to draw the stranger out. Young Burgess accepted a glass of iced tea, and, though distracted, appeared willing to accept Marshall's questions.
The bookshop owner turned to the title page of the book Burgess had brought that day. It had a rich, chocolate-colored cover; inside, it tastefully combined an unlikely mix of tan pages with dark brown print. It seemed to be an autobiography: My Life by George Washington Jones.
Marshall managed to refrain from an immediate, closer, scrutiny. Was it really worth another hundred dollars? A moot point, since he had already given that sum to the young man, before he could hold out for more. But, if this work was anything like the first one, and the pair that Burgess had brought in on his previous visit—-Picnic for Sunday Dinner by Elvira Sneed and The Joys of Cosmetics Research by Dr. Benjamin Wiggins—-he now possessed another hefty, unreadable tome. But he knew he would never sell them; he couldn't! This although they were nothing short of unreadable, empty words that seemed to blur when he looked at them, so blinded was he by the beautiful packaging.
"These authors...seem to be a rather..." Marshall considered how to put it. "Mixed lot."
"Not too good either," Burgess said.
Marshall gave a noncommittal shrug. It distressed him that even the young man saw the books' flaws. What had happened to his good sense?
"You've probably guessed the nature of my employer," Burgess said. He had a palpable air of fatigue about him, a sense of resignation. Marshall felt logy himself; it was the blasted heat. His air conditioner installed in the transom above his front door rattled indifferently.
"Yes, well, not that it matters," Marshall said, hoping to find out more. The young man had rarely spoken on his other visits.
Burgess took out a handkerchief to wipe his brow. The reddish scar was distinct on his flushed face.
"I guess you could call it the ultimate vanity press. Do you mind if I smoke?"
Marshall did not, that is, until his visitor took out a package of clove cigarettes and began fouling the air with his first puff.
"Yes," said the bookshop owner, backing off a bit. "But what would seem a rather remarkable...vanity press as you said. Sometimes, when the mainstream, traditional houses are unwilling to take a chance on an unknown...."
The younger man had moved off to scan the stock arranged on the eight-foot high shelves that surrounded him. Marshall had noticed from the beginning that he was a bibliophile of some type; although he never pulled any volume out for a closer inspection, he looked at them from afar with great reverence. Whenever he appeared with one of his odd treasures, it was as if he entered a church, or shrine. While Marshall had some respect for this attitude he remained at the core a more practical sort. Books were to be read, learned from, and enjoyed.
"And of course," Marshall went on, suddenly glad to find a young person these days with an appreciation for books and what they represented, "self-publishing...when that becomes the only alternative...Whitman being one famous example."
"I'm a writer too," Burgess said.
"Ah. I think I would have guessed.
"Your obvious love of books. The manner in which you enter the shop. Tell me, have you published?"
Burgess waved his hand. His face reddened.
"A few near misses."
"Once I too dreamed of being an author," Marshall told the boy. "But I realized early on I lacked the discipline, the patience...the desire to give my all."
"Yes," Burgess said. "That's it exactly. There can be no compromise."
"I admire you my young friend. I decided that selling the great works would be far easier than writing them. Perhaps I took a coward's way out."
The two men fell silent. The younger man flicked his scented cigarette at the ashtray he'd been given, and looked about to ask something.
Marshall nodded to a customer who came in. He felt himself drawn to the latest book Burgess had sold him, which lay on the desk in front of him.
"All I want," Burgess said, "is to be up there on the shelves. Next to the greats. Tolstoy, Twain...all of them."
"Excuse me," interrupted the customer who had come in, a buxom middle-aged woman wearing pink shorts, with a matching pocketbook thrown over her shoulder. "I don't see your romances?"
The bookshop owner started in on what he meant to be a succinct reply, letting the woman know in the course of which his attitude toward such "works," not to mention paperback books in general. He used the book by Mr. Jones as an example of his preferences. It was only as the woman began to huff and puff her protest, no doubt sniffing out the condescension that charged Marshall's words, did he notice that Burgess had drifted away from the conversation, and gone out with a tinkling bell into the stifling heat. The large woman soon followed, slamming the same door behind her.
The departures left the bookshop owner alone with his newest acquisition. And his cat, who landed on the floor behind him with a loud thud-starling him more than the old man thought was necessary.
"If you squash a bug while stinging / In battle as it were / Does its name go on the Big Chart? / Does it come back / As you?"
The long-haired and filthy man who stood in the center of the shop had a strong, foul body odor. His frilly, embroidered shirt rode up so that his hairy stomach stuck out. He held the slim volume he had recited from in a parody of classic pose.
"Or how about this one...Ahem." He spat a gob of something chicken-colored into his free hand and wiped it onto his pants leg. "Scrutinize / Do it with your eyes / Scrutinize / Find out all their..."
"Please," Marshall said, holding up a weary hand. "That's more than enough."
The stranger flashed a gap-toothed grin. "Sure you don't want to take a closer look at this one?"
Marshall became agitated. It was worse than being accosted on the street by some indigent sot; this was, after all, his own domain. This creature had come into the bookshop apparently to make a sale, pulled one book after another out of his large gunnysack, hanging from his shoulder like a mailman's pouch. He had begun with a Reader's Digest Condensed from the 1960s and it had all rolled downhill from there.
Still, this thin book he held-perhaps Marshall would need to purchase something just to be rid of him. Certainly, from what he'd heard, the poetry inside this book was no bargain.
"If you would bring it over," the bookshop owner sighed.
The man reeked. Chuckling, he put the book down next to the cash register, and then, turning quickly toward the back room, stamped his foot and gave a vicious hiss. Proust, who'd been nosing around the doorway, darted even deeper into his dark sanctuary.
For Marshall, this might have been the final straw, had the slender, modestly elegant book not captured his attention. Touching it, he ran his finger along its narrow spine.
"Where did you get this?" he managed.
"What difference does it make, you old goat?" The man picked something out from deep inside his nose, and examined it.
Marshall opened the book to the title page. He felt a surge of happiness.
"Can't write for shit," said the stinkbomb.
He had not seen young Burgess for many months, and this was undoubtedly the reason. The volume had obviously been printed by the same press—the craftsmanship, tastefulness. Marshall wondered why they had replaced Burgess as their representative with this Cro-Magnon standing before him.
"And the price...you were looking..."
Something caught Marshall's attention at the back of the book, centered in the simple white endpaper. A sharp, graphic watermark, pinkish, shaped like a quarter moon.
The man gave a harsh, brittle laugh.
"Tell you what. The so-called writer who squeezed that manure out his ass seemed a sentimental sort. He probably would have wanted you to have a sample of this pus he called poetry."
The change in the stranger's tone chilled the old man. Marshall felt light-headed-and with the clearing of the man's personal effluvium as he moved off toward the door-something else.
After a few days, Marshall packed away the volumes he'd bought from the young man himself; put the box in the far corner of the back room, away from where Proust slept. It had taken that long for him not to tense up, feel the fear flow through him, when the light-hearted bell on his door announced someone's arrival.
And if any of the customers in the days that followed, be they browser or bookworm, noticed the lone divergence for the shop's meticulous alphabetization, not one mentioned it.
So, perhaps the slender book was not misplaced.
There was something proper about the scent of clove around the shelves holding the classics, the works of the writers who had sacrificed so much for their art. Yes, their all, and no, one wouldn't think so, but he did belong.
Tolstoy, Twain, and yes—-Burgess.
Jon Fain's fiction has been published in Small Spiral Notebook, The Fiction Warehouse, and Irregular Quarterly, among other places . A couple of years ago, his story collection Lovers and Other Losers was one of the finalists for the Sandstone Short Fiction Prize.
Jon's story B. and E. is available at VerbSap.
Photo courtesy of Image*After.
The Book End
By John W. Sexton
On Wednesday morning, scooping the solid yolk from his boiled egg, James considered the rejection slip from The Lemon Review. He’d received it in the previous day’s post, but it still lay on the kitchen counter. The story, The Oracle Wasp, had been returned without comment, and James decided to read through it to see if it still worked. It was a story that he had always felt satisfied with and couldn’t work out why it kept getting bounced. The Lemon Review was the seventh literary journal to reject it. James read carefully through the beginning:
“The wasp had been in the jam jar for three days and was still very much alive. It had sunk halfway down the jar, preserved in an air-bubble, and Francis admired it through the thick glass. He had decided to keep it as a pet, but only as long as it could live inside the jam. He reasoned to himself that it was no different than keeping a goldfish.”
James finished the story and decided it was still good enough to send out elsewhere. He told himself that he would think about where to send it during the day while at work.
On the way to the bookshop he decided to cut through the park. A large golden Labrador came running to him from the direction of the children’s playground and dropped a chewed tennis ball at his feet. James looked down at the ball, which was covered in drool. The Labrador waited patiently, blocking the path, and James realized that he was expected to throw the ball for the dog. James sighed deeply and picked up the ball, which was unpleasantly wet with saliva. He pitched the ball as far as he could and the dog ran after it. James watched the tennis ball loop high into the air. The sky was a dull blue, the vapor trail of an airplane widening into a straight cloud far above him. He looked down in time to see the tennis ball drop into the canal that cut through the park. The dog dived straight in to fetch it.
James made his way as fast as he could to the exit gate, but not after having to throw the ball three more times.
James was the first to arrive at the shop, Maggin Second Hand Books, and could hear the phone ringing inside as he searched his pockets for the keys. The phone was still ringing as he entered the shop, but he decided to let it ring because he was two minutes early. Two minutes later the phone was still ringing but by this time James was annoyed with it and decided to ignore it for a while longer. The phone persevered insistently.
Mr. Maggin, the proprietor, arrived four minutes later and the phone was still ringing.
“Answer the phone, James.” called Maggin, taking his coat to the back of the shop.
“Answer the fucking phone, will you!”
James picked up the phone, pissed off that he had to do it. At first he had great difficulty making out the voice at the other end, as there was a lot of crackling on the line, but in the finish he was able to determine that the caller was Mr. Carl Zander. Zander was a regular customer and was usually quite pleasant, so James felt guilty for not picking up the phone earlier. Zander seemed extremely anxious and asked James if he could hand-deliver a book from the children’s section.
“ I saw it the other day,” said Zander. “It’s a yellow hardback, a first edition. It doesn’t have its original slipcase but I need to have this particular book. There’s a child’s name on the inside cover, in neat handwriting, Josephine Van Dorn. The book’s an Enid Blyton. It’s called Once Upon A Time Stories and I need you to bring it to the house straight away.”
“I can’t do it right now, Mr. Zander, we’ve only just opened up the shop.”
“Tell Maggin I’ll pay him fifty pounds cash for the delivery, as well as the price of the book. I’ll give you a tip as well. I need the book now.”
The phone went suddenly dead and the lights in the shop dimmed.
“What’s with the lights?” said Maggin, “It’s like there’s a fucking fog in here.”
“The phone went dead as well. The electricity station must be on half-power.”
“So, who was on the phone?”
“It was Zander, the guy who bought two copies of Mein Kampf.”
“That nut-job! What’s he want now? Another Aleister Crowley?”
“No, he wants an Enid Blyton.”
“No, seriously, he wants an Enid Blyton. He needs it delivered in a hurry, says he’ll pay you fifty quid for the delivery in cash plus the price of the book. And let me take it to him because he’s promised me a tip.”
“What’s he want Enid Blyton for?”
“Dunno, maybe it’s a surprise present for someone. But he was very specific about the book.”
“Okay, take it to him then, but don’t be arsing around all morning. I want you back here as soon as possible. Don’t go dossing somewhere.”
On the way to Zander’s place James cut through the park and sat on a bench reading the book. The edition was from 1969 and was a collection of short stories. The opening tale was called The Laughing Duck and was about an old woman called Dame Crotch who lived in a cottage set on a hill. James was on the eighth page when his mobile rang. It was Maggin.
“Where the fuck are you? Zander’s rang twice looking for you. What the fuck are you doing?”
“I’m nearly there, Mr. Maggin.”
“Yeah, well hurry the fuck up and deliver that book. Oh, and you must be right about it being a birthday surprise, because Zander says you’ll have to read out loud from the book when you get there. Must be some kind of birthday party, though fuck knows what kind of nut throws a child’s birthday party at nine-thirty in the morning. Anyway, I couldn’t hear him very well because the line was awful.”
After Maggin hung up James realized that the golden Labrador was standing in front of him and that it had dropped the tennis ball at his feet. James threw the ball over the park fence, watched it hit off the bonnet of a passing car and bounce along the road. The dog ran as fast as it could towards the nearest gate.
James switched off his mobile and remained on the bench until he’d finished the story. Then he flicked through the book until he came to a title he liked, Jimmy’s Wishing Bean, and began to read again. Jimmy’s Wishing Bean wasn’t as good as The Laughing Duck and so James eventually gave up on it and made his way out of the park. Along the way he came across the golden Labrador, dead in the gutter of the road.
After the main junction James took a narrow road that led back towards the canal. Along the banks three squad cars were pulled up and police officers were cordoning off the area. A fire-engine and two white vans were also parked by, and James noticed several people in white waterproof suits with breathing apparatus. There was a small metal sign that said:
Suspected Chemical Spillage
Dark polythene tarpaulins were covering something that lay low on the grassy banks beside the water, but James was turned away gruffly by two police officers so he didn’t have a chance to get a proper look.
James made his way along the canal footpath, heading for the footbridge. On the far side of the canal he could see the Zander Estate. The large house was set in several acres of high ground and was enclosed on all sides by dark pines, but today the entire area was covered in a thick fog. As James crossed over the footbridge he could see a strange luminescence, like lightning, playing deep within the fog. He guessed it must be caused by some kind of garden fireworks, obviously set up for the birthday party.
When he arrived at the main gates they opened automatically. As soon as he was beyond the threshold they closed behind him. The fog was thick and cloying and within a few steps he was totally disorientated. He tried to retrace his way back to the gates, so that he could gain his bearings again, but he had no sense of direction.
His feet seemed suddenly to drag, as if he was walking through heavy mud, but he couldn’t even see down to his feet the fog was so thick. Then a strange sensation surrounded him, as if he was being covered in a cold jelly. For a moment he panicked. He could feel an unpleasant slime covering his entire face and head. It wasn’t too unlike the slime on the tennis ball after the dog’s slobbery mouth. Totally confused he pushed himself forwards with a rush and there was a sudden plopping sound and he was thrust forwards with immense force until he was thrown to the ground. Behind him it was as if the air was being sealed tightly shut. He got to his feet and found he was soaked through to the skin by some kind of transparent goo. It was all over him, his clothes and hair were thick with it. Strangely, however, whatever it was, it seemed unable to gain any purchase on the yellow copy of Enid Blyton. James opened the book but the pages were bone dry and pristine, even though his hands were sticky with the strange, slimy substance. In a moment he could feel himself gagging, for the awful gunk was seeping through his lips and into his mouth. He dropped the book and began to vomit freely onto the ground.
After a while he began to feel relief and managed to steady himself. He could see barely a foot in either direction, but a small, yellow glow was emanating on the ground to his left. He bent down and picked up the book, which seemed to throb with a light of its own. He started to walk forwards, slowly and with a feeling of great unease. Somewhere ahead of him the strange lights were flashing intensely, throwing out pulses of blue and green.
Immediately before him he could see a tall figure coming through the fog.
“Is that you, Mr. Zander? What the fuck’s going on?”
“Yes, the fuck’s going on,” came a gravelly voice.
“What? Jesus, what’s this stuff all over me?”
“Please moderate your language, young man. We don’t like that kind of talk here, if you don’t mind.”
As the figure came nearer the fog began to clear a bit. Standing before James was a tall, grotesque creature with green, scaly skin. He was naked but appeared to be missing any form of visible sexual organ. As he spoke, and it was only his deep, rasping voice that made James assume that the thing was male, his mouth revealed a set of glistening white teeth, as long and sharp as needles, like the teeth of a pike.
James took a step backwards and fell over.
“What the fuck are you dressed like that for? Jesus, you nearly frightened the life out of me.”
“I won’t warn you again about using inappropriate language. If you wish to survive the rest of this morning you must read out loud from the book. The book will tell you its mind. Lord Zander is in the house and needs your assistance. Go to him immediately.”
The creature turned and departed into the fog and James remained on the ground, his head reeling. Suddenly, though the fog came something else, moving at great speed. Before he could get his thoughts together he was pinned to the ground by a large animal, green mucus pouring from its jaw. It held James tight in its forepaws and ten talons sliced into James’s flesh. He screamed in agony and hit out with the book. The animal immediately let go and retreated. James’s entire body was in excruciating pain, but he managed to get up. He had five bloody talon-holes on either side of his ribs, but as he looked the gushing blood abated suddenly and the pain subsided. He brandished the book, feeling absurd about it, but it was all he had. The creature stepped back, afraid. A notion came into James’s head and he opened up the book’s cover. The white pages shimmered and he could see the print clearly. On the right-hand page, page one hundred and one, was an illustration of a harassed kitchen maid standing by a table, surrounded on all sides by cats of every hue. There were cats on top of the table, beneath the table and coming in through the window. An upturned bottle of milk was spilling its contents all over the place, and the cats were pouncing on it. Driven by an unknown impulse, James began to read out loud:
“‘Lawkamussy me!’ cried the cook in a fury, as she drove first a dozen cats from the table, and then a score from the chairs. ‘Look at the creatures! Shoo, shoo, get away, shoo, shoo.’”
The animal that had attacked him bolted for its life. James could hear other things running through the fog, some inexplicable fear driving them on.
James had no idea what was happening but he looked at the copy of Enid Blyton in wonder. Up until now he had always considered her a rather useless writer, but this changed his opinion considerably. He turned backwards through the pages, came to page forty-four, and feeling no will to resist began to read loudly:
“The shoe took him up the hill to the top, and then down the other side.”
No sooner had James finished reading than he noticed that his right shoe was beginning to glow. Suddenly his right foot shot up into the air, carrying him with it. As he was flung upside down he could feel the tendons in his back tearing mercilessly. He screamed in agony once again but clutched for dear life to the book. His right shoe, transporting him upside down through the air, carried him with great velocity through the dense fog. And then there was an absence of motion.
James found himself suspended upside down in mid-air, about thirty feet above the glass-roofed conservatory of Zander’s house. Hanging there in the air, James began to piss himself, and the warm urine ran down his body towards his head. Below him strange lightning was playing inside the conservatory, sending out waves of green and blue light that could even penetrate the walls of the house.
James’s shoe lost its glow. James dropped down, head first, towards the conservatory roof. The glass broke his fall and the floor of the conservatory broke his back. James lay there, groaning. Inside the conservatory it appeared to be raining, and James was quickly drenched to the skin.
“What kept you? Maggin said you’d left the shop ages ago?”
With great difficulty James turned his head. He could see Zander standing by one of the walls of the conservatory. Zander was naked, his body covered in interlocking circular tattoos. Pasted to the wall were the torn pages of a book, running consecutively in order. Behind the pages there seemed to be a great force trying to get out. James knew immediately that he was looking at the accumulated torn pages of two copies of Mein Kampf. In the centre of the room was a small ball of lightning, suspended four feet from the ground.
James could feel his arms moving involuntarily. Still on his back, he lifted the book in front of his own face and turned the pages. The book prevented the rain from hitting his face. He began to read from page sixty-four:
‘“Ho, two-headed giant, come out and find me. I will kill you if you dare come out of your gate!”’
Immediately a gigantic two-headed creature, half-man and half hippopotamus, burst through the wall. It was the size of an articulated lorry and it stood upright, smashing its heads up through the ruined conservatory roof.
“HO! MANNIKIN!” shouted the creature. “SO I DIDN’T DREAM YOU AFTER ALL. I WILL HAVE YOU FOR MY DINNER!”
James realized, with some alarm, that the giant was quoting from the copy of Enid Blyton. An enormous tongue shot out from one of the giant’s heads and snapped James up into its mouth.
James, his back irretrievably broken, was sucked whole down the giant’s gullet. In the giant’s stomach he was immersed in acid. In an instant he was siphoned into half a mile of intestine and eventually pushed out through the giant’s arse. In considerable pain he found himself lying on an open hillside, the copy of Enid Blyton beside him. A naked woman, her body covered in running sores, bent down and picked up the book.
“This is mine,” she said. “I’m Josephine Van Dorn. I prepared this book for you when I was six years of age. Isn’t it such a jolly little read?”
Then she rose and turned her back on him, and as she walked away he could see her defecating down the backs of her own legs.
A sudden chill went through him as a shadow was thrown over the place where he lay. An enormous, winged lizard was hovering above him. On the lizard’s back sat Zander, his entire body now covered in warts, his long hair clusters of writhing worms. Three twisting horns grew out from his head. He looked down at James and smiled.
And that was the first day of the last days of men.
John W. Sexton (Republic of Ireland) is )a poet, short story writer, dramatist, children’s novelist, radio scriptwriter and broadcaster. He is the author of three collections of poetry, The Prince’s Brief Career, Foreword by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, (Cairn Mountain Press, 1995), Shadows Bloom / Scáthanna Faoi Bhláth, a book of haiku with translations into Irish by Gabriel Rosenstock, and mostrecently Vortex (Doghouse, 2005). He also created and wrote The Ivory Tower for RTE radio, which ran to over one hundred half-hour episodes. His novels based on this series, The Johnny Coffin Diaries and Johnny Coffin School-Dazed are both published by The O’Brien Press, and have been translated into Italian and Serbian. Under the ironic pseudonym of Sex W. Johnston he has recorded an album with legendary Stranglers frontman, Hugh Cornwell, entitled Sons Of Shiva, which has been released on Track Records.
His work can also be found online at Simply Haiku, nthposition, Poetry Chaikhana and Contemporary Haibun Online.
Photo courtesy of Image*After.
Painting A Face
By Emma Smith-Stevens
I held the mint-green hospital gown in front of my body with one hand, and in one quick motion peeled my shirt from my body. I placed my left arm and then my right through the armholes, turning my back to the nurse as I tied it on.
"Yes," the nurse said impatiently. She glanced at her digital watch.
I pulled my arms back through the armholes and took off my bra without removing the gown. I leaned over, still with my back to the nurse, and slid down my pants. The room was cold and the dirty, wire-crossed windows let in light the color of lemonade and cigarette ashes.
"Underwear too?" I whispered.
"Yes," sighed the nurse.
I slid down my underwear, feeling my face grow hot. I turned around and saw that the nurse was wearing latex gloves. I wondered if she had been wearing them the whole time or if they were new. The nurse stepped up to me. She was holding a clipboard with a diagram of a human body, bald and faceless.
"Open the gown," ordered the nurse.
I opened my gown and closed my eyes, feeling sweat begin to chill my armpits and behind my knees. I tried to think of something else. I wondered if the nurse was a robot. I imagined her tearing off her face with her French manicured nails to reveal a tidy mess of circuit boards and rainbow-colored wires. I longed to hold in my hands the most important thing I had brought with me: My book.
"You're good to go, June." The nurse's tone seemed warmer now, as if I had passed some kind of test. The diagram now included a tidy red line along each wrist. Seeing myself that way, without a face and without the long brown hair that reached my lower back, turned my shame to rage.
"You don't think I could reach my back?"
"What's that?" asked the nurse from the door.
"If I wanted to, you don't think I could cut my back?"
Nurse was angry now. "Let's see it then."
I threw my gown onto the ground. "You don't think I could burn the bottoms of my feet on hot coals?" One at a time I lifted up my feet to reveal their pink, flawless soles.
Nurse jotted something on the clipboard, huffing and puffing as if the aggravation was enough to knock the wind out of her.
"Had enough little lady?"
For the first time she looked at my eyes and I saw that she was sad. We stood still for a moment and a cloud passed over the sun. I realized that Nurse's eyes were sad for me, and my shame came back. I hastily put back on my clothes, minus my shoelaces and belt, and shuffled out the door.
I am obligated to tell you now that I do not have cancer. That I claimed to has been categorized by some as a big lie, but I'd prefer that we refer to it as a little one. The cancer that I said I had—-leukemia—-cannot be seen by the naked eye, and so I feel that one can hardly call it big. My cancer was microscopic, and I did not tell many people. It was the people I told who made it big, by calling more people, spreading news of my illness until what was once just a tiny buzz between my eyes, a quietly congealing idea, had metastasized and taken over everything .
"Why did you do it?" asked Dr. Becker at our first meeting, right after the diagramming of my wounds had been complete. I knew he was talking about the suicide, because he sounded bored. Had he been asking about the lie, he would have sounded different. I don't want to say enthusiastic, but definitely different.
I barely heard the question. I was thinking about my things, some of which I would be allowed to keep, others of which would be taken away when the nurse who had checked my body finished going through them.
"Where are you right now, June?"
There was one thing in particular that I needed. "My book. I brought a copy of Alice in Wonderland. They have it now but I need it back."
"Do you feel that you have gone down something of a rabbit hole, June?"
"Very keen observation, Dr. Obvious. I have lived in the fantasy world of lies and deception and I am now on the path to healing, coming up and out of the damn hole. Is that what you want me to say?"
"Is it true?" He didn't sound bored anymore. He leaned in toward me.
I did what I had to do. The lie had been heaven; I missed it like I missed my dead dog from grade school, and that's a lot. It was something that warmed me, a mural of a storm that sheltered me from real storms. I had never been loved so well. Now I was naked and exposed. I had been stripped and diagramed, and I needed escape.
"Yes. It is true. I identify with Alice."
The doctor looked doubtful and paused before saying, "Well then, I don't see why you can't have your book. I'll make sure that it gets to you before I leave."
I sat with the book open in my lap. My room contained two twin beds made up with gray felt blankets and plastic bed covers beneath the sheets. I didn't have a roommate, and had chosen the bed by the window. The sun was setting and the sludgy film that covered the glass couldn’t keep out a strained semblance of a rosy glow.
My copy of Alice in Wonderland was illustrated, which was how I remembered what to do. I flipped to the page with the Cheshire Cat hanging upside down in a tree and, glancing quickly at the window on the door, ripped off his ear. I placed it on my tongue and closed my eyes. I imagined a cancer the size of a grapefruit growing in my belly. I imagined the nurse’s sad eyes looking at me, and me bleeding for her, screaming "See! Cancer in my blood; there it is, and all for you."
She would cry and hold me in a warm bundle, and the doctor and all the other nurses would be there too. Their air of disdain would evaporate as they all embraced me at once, repeating a chorus: "You are sick. You are sick after all."
Then they vanished, replaced by colors and shapes that swished and swirled over the faceless diagram, painting me sad and more beautiful than love.
Emma Smith-Stevens is 23 and a student of sociology and philosophy. She lives in the Hudson Valley. She does not have a faux-hawk and enjoys puddings of all varieties.