<email@example.com>Thu, Sep 23, 2021 at 6:29 PMTo: firstname.lastname@example.orgBalancing Act
Alona backflipped when she received the acceptance email for Dr. Umbapay’s Creative Writing Seminar. She hadn’t pulled off the flip since her high school gymnastics try out, but she nailed the landing in the clutter of her unpadded dorm room floor after reading the happy news. Alona worked hard to gain the attention of Dr. Umbapay. Alona believed the literary establishment underrated Dr. Um. While she ranked his mastery of language, psychological insight, and graphic naturalism equal to D. H. Lawrence, Toni Morrison, or Neil Gaiman, she most venerated how Dr. Um pulled his readers’ puppet strings long after the book was closed. For seven months after reading “Danny Nine-Finger” Alona shoplifted all her groceries.
With coloured markers she had highlighted sentences in Dr. Um’s short stories and novel according to their use of his writing strategies. Using a factor analysis scheme of her invention she calculated each strategy’s frequency, humour, and dramatic import in each part of the story - Exposition, Complication, Rising Action, and Climax. She analyzed correlations between metaphors, irony, and trends in readership. She gleaned her findings down to four Guiding Principles of Writing: Characters should never be symbolic, but relationships should. The reader’s visceral envelopment in suspense is inversely correlated with the frequency of foreshadowing. Victim stories, spiritual references, and slow building sexual encounters boost readers’ level of engagement. Know your target audience. Using her Guiding Principles, she composed a short story and snagged a coveted spot in Dr. Um’s Creative Writing Seminar.
Six weeks later, Alona runs through campus with her latest literary creation rolled up like a relay-race baton. Now having secured her chair in the seminar, Alona raises her expectations. She is confident this new story gripped in her hand will prove her worthiness for a coveted a spot in Dr. Um’s inner sanctum of disciples. She anticipates the expression on Dr. Um’s face when he reads her first sentence. Alona pushes her pace as she cuts through football practice and matches stride for stride with a wide receiver in full sprint. The tight-end lit major on the 20-yard-line is entranced not only by Alona’s speed but also by the poetry of motion inside her four-year-old high school track uniform.
There, around the side of Fine Arts Building is the Creative Writing Building, a remnant from the early last century. At this pivotal moment in her life, she wants Dr. Um’s red ink feedback on her pages more than anything in the world. The red ink would lite her path to literary power. Alona, slowing her pace, notices Dr. Um’s office window vines wilted in their cedar boxes on the third floor. Dr. Um loved those vines, and she suspected their wilting is a warning. She bounds up the stairs and peeks into the half open door. “Um. You’re not Dr. Umbapay.”
“No.” Stacking books on a shelf near the ceiling, balancing one foot on the back of a chair, his other foot searches for the seat below.
Alona in her coy persona, “I’m sorry I didn’t mean for it to sound so creepy, you kinda’ look like a student, but where’s Dr. Umbapay.”
“He was appointed Minister of Information in Gambia. No Gabon. Ghana –
Alona steps into the office’s only open space. “That was sudden. He was a great teacher. Why would he want to be Minister of Information?”
“I’m taking over most of his classes. Not the Graduate Studies or the....” He jumps off the back of the chair and lands awkwardly, much nearer to Alona than he intended. Kevin is embarrassed because Alona is not embarrassed. Comfortable in her own skin, she delights in their non-normative social distance. “I’m Kevin Machelmann. Do you have a sample of your writing there? Did you come here for a fresh eye?” Alona offers her hand, and he takes it. Kevin’s afraid if he steps back too quickly, his unease at their proximity will be obvious.
“Yes. I wrote this. I’m Alona. It’s based on my grandmother’s journals. She passed away four months ago, so I’m totally invested in this. I’m not sure where it’s going.”
Kevin inhales the banana smoothie on her breath. “Sorry about your grandmother, but it’s great you have a meaningful project.”
Alona squeezes his hand tighter for a few seconds, before releasing it, and passes off the rolled-up pages, damp with sweat from her run. Kevin sits on his desk. Unrolling her pages, he looks into her eyes, curious about a student who would submit writing before the first day of class. Kevin opens Alona’s piece randomly and reads out loud.
From what must have been an eagle’s nest I looked down at three drummers sitting on the edge of the wet, red-clay sacred space. Slowly and softly, the drummers coaxed their drums to whisper. As I shifted higher up in the nest, for an instant my sari snagged on a stick. I had not worn a sari before, and I enjoyed the breeze at this height flowing through the sheer fabric. The drums beating stronger and louder called other drummers and dancers from the darkness to the glow of the fire-lit clearing. Dancers spiritually enlightened by a full day of initiation ritual, crystal meditation, Reichian Breathwork, Yoni Healing Circle, Tarot, I-Ching, and Shamanic clown slid on the wet clay into the space between the three bonfires. Several dancers one after another glided across the surface right into a blur of twirls, corkscrewed to the ground, spun on their backs, kipped up to their feet, and melted into the joy of the sacred celebration. The ceremonial space throbbed with sound and movement. In rivers of muscle and bone leaping dancers dove to the ground and rebounded pulsing with ecstasy. The drumbeats now rose to a crescendo. Saris, silk scarves, and batik cotton clung to wet skin or floated among the enraptured dancers like one large communal garment. As the voices of the coven soared above the intertwining arms, legs and torsos, the collective fabric dropped from their
bodies and floated to the earth. The naked mass converged on a central spot between the bonfires, their voices joining the coven. Dancers scooped handfuls of wet red clay from beneath their feet and in rhythm to the beat, spread the clay on each other’s’ sweaty bare skin. Kamika, the Shamaness, towering over the throng, moved between the dancers, and, using her fingers like paintbrushes, created swirling patterns in the clay on the dancers’ bodies. Three loud beats of the drums and then silence. The mass of dancers, now reclining or crouching motionless on the red earth, together looked like a scarred, parched desert. Kamika took a long hollow bamboo tube from one of her helpers kneeling beside her, aimed the tube towards me crouching in the nest above, and blew into the tube. A flash of light shot from the tube through the air directly into my nostrils and struck the inside of the back of my skull. In one giant leap Kamika landed above me straddling the sides of the nest. I took my first breath. I looked up and saw the moisture whence I was reborn. From this moment forward all light and vibration from the universe imprints the bare canvas of my new self. With one hand under my seat, Kamika raised me to her shoulder height and with her other hand unknotted the tie of my Sari. I watched as the dancers below stood and raised their hands toward me. Holding the end of my Sari, she threw me towards the ground, the Sari unrolling from my body as I revolved through the air toward the dancers below. Their fingers like soft blades of grass cushioned my fall. They held me above their heads swaying. A soft rhythm accompanied Mama Gaia’s harmonies. As they carried me, I watched the stars dance above, tracing ancient Inca patterns in the sky. The stars’ swirling light caressed every surface of my body. I wanted it to never end. Standing tall on the nest Kamika sensed the eruption bubbling in my stomach and gestured for the dancers to set me on my knees. Waves thrashed through by body. A serpent with a human face slipped its tongue inside my mouth and down my throat. I purged. An earthquake of my heart and soul.
When I awoke, I was afraid. I had emptied my stomach but not my purge list. I heard the news. Over the Christmas Holiday America bombed Hanoi. My old self was knocking at the door and my new self was trying not to answer it.
Kevin plays with Alona’s phrase, “the purge list. Wow! We need to unpack that one. Purge list. This is brilliant, all of it. The sari thing. This is based on your?”
Alona, who hadn’t exhaled since Kevin began reading, finally exhales. “Grandmother’s journals.”
“Purge list. Interesting motif. Purge list. Addictive almost. By repeating it in a variety of contexts you could slowly reveal its deeper meaning. Leave this with me. If you, like, of course.”
“Thank you so much. I really would appreciate feedback. I have to give most of the credit to my grandmother. When I cleaned out her basement after her funeral, I found journals describing her life in this, I don’t know, cult? Well, several cults. You could say she was an amateur Anthropologist of cults. There are eight journals, but most of the pages have been torn out. Her remaining words are the skeleton. I am filling in the missing pages. At first, I tried to get her story to fit into a traditional narrative structure, you know, building to a climax. Listening to you read it just now, I realize that is futile. The task my grandmother is leaving me is to dive deeper into the human mind.”
In his eight-month teaching career, Alona is the most interesting student Kevin has ever met. He is trying to stay in teacher mode. To conceal the moistness in his eyes, he pretends to remove a speck. He restrains himself from hugging her. Alona is oblivious to Kevin’s esteem because her mind is strategizing. As she backs away, she wills her eyes to flirt which they try, but no one could ever tell.
Christine drags her trunk through Alona’s dorm door, room 407, just as Alona sprints up the hallway. Having just finished meeting Kevin for the first time, Alona’s is already having imaginary conversations with him.
In her student loan, income tax, course registration life, Alona floats above the morass of bureaucratic expectations. She barely even skims emails. Piles of unopened envelopes from the university are buried on the floor among Alona’s clothes and other miscellany. Alona did not know she had been assigned a roommate. Christine hoists her trunk on the least cluttered bed which she guesses is hers. “Hi, I’m Christine Wright, your roommate.” She holds out her hand. Christine is unsure about how to handle the silence.
Alona is finishing the conversation in her head. “I’m Alona Brane. Yes. This is your side. Let me move a few things.” She picks up a carrot-banana smoothy container from the bed and then remembers to shake Christine’s hand. Since listening to Kevin read her piece so many fresh ideas have flooded her head. “The question now is how do I go deep? Should I forego punctuation and capitalization? Do I still resort to symbolism, foreshadowing and irony or to go deep do I need to escape the bonds of literary devices?” Finishing the thought in her head, Alona answers Christine, “I’m sorry. I’m having an existential crisis with my writing.”
Christine, a little sugary in her compassion. “Oh, I feel so bad.” “Oh no. It’s good. It’s really good. It’s a challenge. That’s all.”
Christine says, “I bet you love a challenge. I hope...” But Alona had already gone on to notating on her grandmother’s journal. At the top of a page in her best calligraphy she writes, “The Amateur Anthropologist, a new beginning”. She doesn’t look up until she sees Christine hammer a nail into the wall above her bed and mount a large cross.
For the sake of the other dozen students seated around the table for the first session of Kevin Machelmann’s’ creative writing seminar, Alona underplays her anticipation. From her antique chair she looks out of each of the old wood frame windows of the seminar room. Everyone scrolls on their phones except the boy on a tennis scholarship to her left who looks fifteen and shakes his legs nervously as he introduces himself. She isn’t ready to listen and can’t grasp his name. Alona smiles and tells him her name. Kevin runs into the seminar room wearing jeans and a vintage
Jesus Christ Super Star
tee-shirt with grass stains on the back. Catching his breath, he sees all the seats filled except one at the head of the table. All he carries is Alona’s story rolled up like a relay racing baton.
Although he is exactly on time, he starts apologetically. “Sorry I’m late. Lost my keys and wallet so everything’s a bit crazy. I’ll just have to wing it this morning, which seems to be my default approach to life right now. As you know I’m Kevin Machelmann. I haven’t completed my dissertation so don’t call me doctor. Kevin would be great. While I catch my breath, let’s go around the table and introduce ourselves. It would also be helpful to our work if each of you said something about your writing interests or process. Share something about yourself if you like. Let’s begin with...”
To Alona’s right a totally ripped woman wearing a Heat cap sideways and a Blazers basketball shirt with the armpits cut out to just above the hip, raises her arm revealing a heptathlete chest punctuated by orange armpit hair. “Call me V. My pronouns are they, them.”
Alona realizes if Kevin continues the intros moving around the table in her direction, she would be next and needs to come up quickly with something to say. Alona isn’t ready to talk about the
Talking about her grandmother’s journal might give the impression she only is editing another’s work. She rejects giving away the secret of her Guiding Principles of Writing and even the corollary, which she was tempted to unveil – “Avoid too much irony because readers will expect it and get distracted from the general gist.” As she hears V concluding with “white male toxicity and patriarchal entitlement”, Authenticity flashes into Alona’s mind.
Kevin smiles at Alona. She makes eye contact with each person around the table and finally Kevin for a touch too long before beginning. “Authenticity has always been my guiding light. Oh, I’m Alona, ‘she’ and ‘her’ are fine, and I’m happy to be part of this group and listen to the ideas each of you bring to this table. Authentic characters do not need to always tell the truth, but their untruthfulness must come from a place of truth. Committed to authenticity our generation could solve the problems of the world.” Alona is so proud of her introductory statement; she tunes out the next five speakers. She thinks of other ways she might have phrased her words. She finally realizes she had tuned out and tunes in.
“Hi. I’m Devon. It’s spelled D.E. V. O. N. but pronounced Day... Von.” Alona loves Devon’s movie star beauty. Definitely the eye candy of the class. He also wears a Blazers basketball shirt. Alona notices he has great pecs, but zero armpit hair. He continues, “I like the idea of collective creation. You know, many minds acting as one. Specially for my project in this course I created a website where visitors participate in content development and story creation. In the end the story will be whatever the site visitor consensus dictates. I mean, like, it’s an experiment. I‘ll post the beginning of the story and ask contributors to stay within a few parameters like respecting the integrity of my original characters and setting. See my story is set in the Holy Land, one year before the birth of Jesus. The main characters are a young couple who have escaped toxic family situations. It’s also a coming- of-age story. I want to stay open, and like Alona, I want to listen to everyone’s ideas. To be honest, I’m not sure where I’m headed with this. I could, like, totally flop. I mean, ultimately, the novel is a means for the author to discover their identity. Identity is really the major big deal for me. I hope it’s O.K to share a bit about myself? Spoiler alert. My parents were a mix race couple. Classic hippies too. The old photos are literally a trip. But they died in a car accident when I was two.”
The others at the table make quiet sounds of compassion, except Alona who stares at Devon’s biceps flexing as he puts his hands together in a gesture of namaste thanking the group for their thoughts and wishes.
“My Jewish aunt and uncle adopted me. I am really lucky for that. I love them like real parents. So, who or what is my authentic voice?” When Devon says “authentic” he looks at Alona. “My Black grandfather was a Nigerian Air Force Captain training in the U.S. He met my grandmother, stayed two years then he left. Do my African genes qualify me to write about the Black experience in America? I just want to write about something that helps people understand their deepest impulses and basically makes them feel good. I want them to have a woke reading experience. So, I’m starting the Holy Land story. Sorry, I’m just rambling. O.K. Well, that’s it. Sorry.” Alona adds Devon all up. Totally insecure. Smart. But not too smart. Needs guidance. Definite boyfriend material. Alona had dated secure, decisive boyfriends in the past, and it never worked out. Secure boyfriends know what they want and are impossible to manipulate. Plus, Devon remembers her name. Alona concentrates on how Devon carefully listens to the next few students describe their projects and wishes she could pay attention like that.
Inspired by Devon, Alona decides to listen to the last student. “I’m Mai. Hi. For my B.A. and M.A. I was history major, but I’m here to focus on fiction. I’m third generation Vietnamese American. I became so passionate about history because I was curious about the Viet Nam War. Not just generals and battles, the peoples’ war. I always kept my focus on the history of the common people in war but eventually shifted my area of concentration to the Civil War. My M.A. History thesis was on the Black regiment, the 54th. For my second thesis, this time for an MFA in Creative Writing, I’m fictionalizing the heroic 54th
and their accomplishments during the year 1863, but I’d like to contemporize the relationships in the
story for modern sensibilities. I’m thinking my main characters could be gay Black infantry. Or a mixed-race gay couple of unequal ranks. Or a Black trans soldier who must wrap their breasts and hide their genitalia.”
Kevin smiles at Mai and knowing the importance of establishing commonalities with students he says. “Thank you. I have Vietnamese genes as well. My grandmother. My other three grandparents are Jewish, not religious Jews. It’s more cultural.”
Kevin ties up some administrative issues. By the third week he suggests everyone should post short writing samples on the class Facebook page to help everyone get to know one and other.
With anticipation Alona looks at her rolled up story on the table inches from Kevin’s hand. She raises her gaze up to the musky male scent pulling her attention away from her manuscript. Devon leans over her. She stands and smiles, perhaps too widely she worries because if guys can read you, they gain the upper hand. Devon asks if he could have her contact info. Alona concentrates on Devon’s finger as he traces the pattern on the screen unlocking his phone in case she needs the pattern key in the future. They exchange phones and type in their information.
As most of the class trickles out the door, Kevin approaches Devon and Alona. “Excuse me, Devon. Alona. Alona. Alona, I read your piece several times. I am very impressed. Very mature writing.” Devon is struck by the slow-motion closing of Alona’s hand around her rolled-up manuscript and its reluctant release from Kevin’s hand. Standing between Kevin and Devon, Alona is unsure of the true source of the musk.
Not five minutes after the end of the class Alona’s rolled-up manuscript in hand, she opens her dorm room door and rotates through the air one and a half times in lay-out position across her room, unfurls the pages mid-air, continues another half roll onto her bed, and stops. There it is. In red ink on the top margin. “MULTI-LAYERED. Catchy opening. I get it. Kamika is like a Marvel superhero. She meditates and synthesizes her own designer hallucinogens.” At the bottom of the last page: “Viet Nam references were necessary and added another dimension. My grandmother was one of the Viet Nam boat people.”
Her eyes settle first on, “I get it.” Yes! Then googles on her phone: “Who are the Viet Nam boat people?” Wikipedia: “Vietnamese boat people refers to refugees who left Viet Nam by boat at the end of Viet Nam War.” She edits the Wikipedia boat people passage adding to the Sources List: “Kevin Machelmann’s grandmother,” she types. Googles on her phone “Kevin Machelmann”. Down the list.” Published in the Southeast College Review
The Blue-Green Turns Red
by Kevin Machelmann”. “Colourful title” she would write on Kevin’s margin if she were the prof and Kevin the student. The Google list includes a few on-line blogger reviews of Kevin’s short story. One is entitled “James Joyce with Too Much Punctuation.” Further down the list another review catches her eye, “Vonnegut but with
Longer Sentences”. Alona loves long sentences. The longer the better. From under the bed Alona grabs her Lacrosse stick and pretends it’s Kevin’s penis.
Alona’s roommate, Christine Wright, gingerly steps through the half-open door. Christine stares. Subway wrappers, sweaty bras, open books, socks, half spilled Starbucks mocha, and a Pilates’ strap, creep across their room’s central boundary. While Alona was swimming laps in the morning, Christine left a note on Alona’s desk in her large, looped handwriting: “Please tidy up your side of the room. There’s a weird smell coming from your pile. Thanks. C.” The “C” had a line of twelve small hearts underneath in the shape of a smile, a Gen-Z Last Super. Christine walks to her desk kicking a pair of Alona’s trespassing panties into the air. With her Lacrosse stick Alona snatches the panties out of mid-air and in one motion flips them across the room onto the face of Christine’s stuffed panda bear. Christine eases into her desk chair silently, guides her Bible from the upper right side of her desk, glances sideways at the miscellany of Alona’s pile, and not too gently taps her forehead on the Bible three times.
The Law library is open all night on Tuesday and Thursdays. Alona can escape Christine’s negative vibes. Besides in the stacks Alona can trade the smell of her dorm room pile for the smell of ancient scholars. Alona takes the elevator to the sixth floor of the stacks. She logs in to a library computer with her roommate’s student ID and password. On the second day after Christine moved in Alona discovered this and other passwords including Christine’s Mastercard and Facebook taped to the underside of Christine’s keyboard shelf. Kevin’s story in the Southeast College Review is online. Alona pays $14 to subscribe, because it would be too obvious to use Christine’s Mastercard. Alona downloads Kevin’s story and reads with such intense concentration, she doesn’t notice the night janitor run his mop under the desk and over her feet:
The Blue-Green Turns Red
by Kevin Machelmann
Fate’s a fickle fiend. Eleven months ago, I just finished eleventh grade and I’m surfing South Beach with some friends and this girl asks me to “help her learn to surf”. She gets on her board where it’s 4 – 5 feet deep. I’m holding her board. She rises to one knee. When the wave comes, I give her board a gentle nudge.
Only takes forty-five minutes to bike from my house to her house. From then until summer ends, we see each other every day. Marvin and Margaret. We must’ve carved it on a hundred trees. She was my first and only love. Two years ago in my freshman year, my high school put on one of the best “Bye Bye Birdie” productions ever. Unfortunately, Margaret didn’t see it. Margaret was using our summer together to prepare her audition for
a lead role in her school’s upcoming “Bye Bye Birdie”. Margaret and I sang “Put on a Happy Face” with our own choreography about a thousand times. We showed everybody, friends, strangers at the beach, even my parents. Margaret had the best voice in the world. Every time Margaret sang “One Boy” she looked right through my eyes into my soul.
I won’t go into all the sexual details, but geez, I love her. She sure showed me some important stuff (sexually speaking). I never heard of any steadies talking about it like we did. In the early 50’s about the time her mom became pregnant with Margaret, she had been a secretary in the same building at the University of Indiana as the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex. At lunch all the secretaries including Margaret’s mom got the down and dirty from the Kinsey Institute typist. Margaret’s mom passed the Kinsey secrets down to Margaret, and from Margaret herself this knowledge was passed on to me. Margaret made me happier than I thought possible.
One day on a picnic Margaret tells me she has a boyfriend at the University of Miami who’s coming back down from New York for his Senior year, his last year before he’ll be drafted, and she dumps me. Dumps me.
Next day I take the bus to the Induction Center and volunteer to go to Nam. My fake ID says I was born in 1947, instead of 1953. The truth. I’m 16. Thanks to my ID I become Alphonso Ramirez. I enlist. No one at the Army Induction Center questions my ID. They don’t mind too much that my ID says I’m 22 and I avoided registering for the draft for three years, because now they got me, Private Alphonso Ramirez.
In Viet Nam no one in my Company believes I can’t really speak Spanish. I am trying to learn Vietnamese though. I have a phrase book. I practice every chance I get. I practice with refugees. “What is the best restaurant in town?” “How many sons and daughters do you have?” “Please add that to my tab.”. Our Vietnamese liaison attached to our company, Lieutenant Ng, tells me in Vietnamese that “my machine gun mouth kills boredom”. “Machine gun” mouth is hilarious in Vietnamese -- miệng súng trường tự
động. I learn to be funny even with a limited Vietnamese vocabulary.
I really applied myself to becoming fluent. I spend hours with Lieutenant Ng. He gives me a Vietnamese language textbook, but it had French to Vietnamese translations. Luckily, I got all A’s in high school French which
really wasn’t that long ago. Studying the Vietnamese textbook shows me I miss high school the most. Besides Margaret. At the base, while the guys in my squad enjoy marijuana and beer, I memorize Vietnamese nouns and verbs.
Our company commander Major Gaze sees I’m pals with the Vietnamese liaison officers. He summons my platoon non-com, Sergeant Johnson, and me to company headquarters. The Sergeant, already on his third tour of duty, had worked his way up through the ranks. He knew how to play the game. Poor Sarge got drafted after he lost his football scholarship in his sophomore year in college. Johnson was injured with only four seconds left in the only game he started. Behind 23-21 he had led his team 93 yards down the field to the three-yard line when his knee was shattered by his own teammate stumbling onto him. As second-string quarterback, it was surprising at the end of the season he would be the one to lead his team to a bowl game win and earn a few million for his college. But that wouldn’t happen. On the last play of the game, from a stretcher he watched the kicker miss the easy kick for the win. A year later his leg was A.O.K for the army, but not football.
At headquarters Major Gaze asks me to report back to him about suspicious talk or activities no matter how seemingly inconsequential from our so-called allies he called them meaning Lieutenant Ng and the other South Vietnamese Regular Army Officers. The Viet Cong more times than not knew where we’d be patrolling and would wait in hiding for American infantry on patrol in the countryside. Major Gaze asks Sergeant Johnson to cut me some slack, so I’m free to gather intel. No base chores like latrine duty.
Lieutenant Ng invites me to a party in a district administration center off base with about fifteen other Vietnamese officers. Between shots of counterfeit Kentucky bourbon a few of them ask me questions about America. How big is the average swimming pool? Did I ever meet Marilyn Monroe? Is there still slavery in America? Almost no other American speaks Vietnamese so right off the bat they think I’m hilarious. After a few minutes, all the Vietnamese officers were listening and laughing. Eventually my talks became almost weekly events, at least when there wasn’t an enemy offensive. Probably my odd Vietnamese word choices and naiveite – I was only sixteen - earn me the reputation as a stand-up comic for the Vietnamese officers. A few of them give me gifts. Vietnamese candy and
pastries. Marijuana, which I share with the guys in my platoon, who are thankful because nine pounds goes a long way. The best gift is a seven-foot oil painting of a street in Hanoi. Many American G.I.s thought it was a little odd that a Latin American kid ended up as a Vietnamese stand-up comic.
I report everything to Major Gaze even the oil painting of Hanoi which he confiscated for the intel. Turns out the intel on the painting is valuable so I get promoted to Corporal Ramirez. I forgot to tell the Major about the marijuana though.
My poor parents. All through high school our heated arguments always ended with me threatening to move to San Francisco like our neighbour, Flora, the flower child. I send them a short note:
Dear Mom & Dad, I’m in Viet Nam. Love,
Marvin, a.k.a. Corporal Alphonso Ramirez
They had thought I had gone to Haight Ashbury and wanted to disown me because they hate hippies. After receiving my letter from Nam, they write back and say they are very proud, but 16-year-olds should not be in the army. They have to write to me as Corporal Alphonso Ramirez, otherwise the letters would not reach me, because there is no Marvin Braverman in the Army. They tell me they are hiring a lawyer to have me discharged, but it is difficult because enlistees with fake names are administered by a separate chain of command from underage enlistees.
Out on patrol in enemy territory one afternoon Lt. Ng and I guard the rear of our column. Lt. Ng whispers suggestions for some grammar and word choice in my new routine about the best make-out spots in American high schools -- Drama Department costume room, under the bleachers, staff room during a fire drill. When I finally get Lt. Ng to understand the fire drill concept, he laughs so loud he gives away our position. Sergeant Johnson wants us shot.
And that is ironic because Sergeant Johnson is the first guy I actually see get shot. Now his intestines, which I recognize from my Biology textbook from only last year, are sliding out of him onto broken bamboo stalks.
Meanwhile enemy bullets whizz by inches above our heads. I remember his story about watching the missed field goal from the stretcher. That’s also when the cacophony of smells hit me to the point where I puke. Sergeant Johnson looks at me like he expects me to change the situation. Magically put his guts back. Like me puking shouldn’t be what he sees as he breathes his last breath. I look into his eyes and try my hardest to project straight into his eyes the image of that field goal kick going right between the goal posts. Other than that, I don’t know what to do. They don’t cover disembowelled sergeants in basic training. Besides Johnson and I never liked each other anyway.
Alona can’t read through the tears swelling up her eyes. The teammate stumbling on Johnson’s knees in a stupid football game determines his life. Panting violently, she flops out of her chair and lies on the floor. Holding her intestines in place with one hand, she listens to the sound of an electric floor polisher humming a path from a distant corner of the library to the stair landing just below her computer station.
Literature unhinges Alona’s emotions more than real life. She feels deeply the characters’ joy, bewilderment, disappointment, pain, anger. Fear. She loves when authors delve into the dynamics of the character’s inner workings. Their psychological dynamics, even down to the level of the character’s individual neurons. But she’s never been aware of her own inner states. She never thought about it. If asked, she would not be able to recall a single instance of her own anxiety, jealousy, aggression, distress. She never asked herself, how did that make me ‘feel’. And, if, by some random neuron mishap in her brain more neuron pathways opened between her amygdala, limbic system, and she formulated the question, how do I feel now, and an answer took shape in her cerebral cortex, she would reject its value. Alona’s mother, a committed Stimulus-Response Behaviourist, conditioned her well. Sergeant Johnson’s death was a strong stimulus.
Alona responds. She climbs back into her chair, and logs into Christina’s course schedule. She drops Philosophy 340, Early Christian Mystics, and adds Gender Studies: Your Internal Journey, 499, taught by radical feminist and world renown authority on the Spiritual Journey and Intersectionality, Dr. Gunjan Nomendar. Alona logs into Christine’s Facebook account, goes to Kevin’s page and comments on the post publicizing Kevin’s story,
The Blue-Green Turns Red. She types:
An original and poignant coming of age story. Sergeant Johnson’s death and the tragedy of the missed field goal symbolize the futility of life. Kevin Machelmann speaking through Marvin Braverman’s voice juxtaposes Marvin’s innocence against the barbarity of war. Unfortunately, Mr. Machelmann deviates from Marvin’s voice of innocence when Marvin recalls that “the cacophony of smells hit me to the point where I puked”. How many high school kids say cacophony?
On Kevin’s Facebook site this comment would appear as coming from Christine Wright and not Alona Brane. Alona goes back to reading Kevin’s story:
After Sergeant Johnson’s death, it was impossible for me to be funny. Lieutenant Ng tries to get me going. “Talk about how you unhook an American bra,” he begs. Actually, I should say Captain Ng. He was promoted because of something he did in the battle in which Sergeant Johnson was K.I.A. even though Ng wasn’t there – at least I never saw him.
I miss Sergeant Johnson because the new guy is an asshole. In his third week with our platoon Sergeant Peck supervises our company’s move to a new base. Sergeant Peck loves to take care of details. All the officers including Captain Luckman are afraid of Sergeant Peck. They believe he would kill any officer for interfering in his details. One of the Vietnamese liaison officers tells me Sergeant Peck was transferred to our platoon because he actually shot his lieutenant during a battle in his previous platoon because the lieutenant failed to cover the flank. The army legal department’s hands are tied. Platoons under Sergeant Peck’s command have the best kill ratio (enemy dead divided by G.I.’s lost) in Vietnam. In fact, even with a couple dead lieutenants added to the numerator, Peck’s kill ratio is still the best in U.S. history.
Sergeant Peck is in the lead jeep of the convoy of four trucks and a couple of jeeps. Somehow, they think this road is secure, so Captain Luckman and the three platoon lieutenants ride in the rear jeep instead of dispersing themselves among all the vehicles, which would be the smart way to avoid an officer inferno. Passing through a narrow steep gully Sergeant Peck’s driver takes a sniper’s bullet between the eyes. Peck dives down to the brake, stops the jeep, grabs a grenade launcher from the back seat and blasts the sniper out of a tree. All in less than five seconds. By then a few of us had jumped out of the back of the trucks. Sergeant Peck walks right up to me asks me if I know how to drive. I had nearly one hour driving experience in high school driver’s education, so I say, ‘yes sir’. Sergeant Peck doesn’t react to my clumsiness with the clutch; he’s in such a bad mood because his previous driver’s death hurts his kill ratio. I slow the jeep to a crawl as we come up to a long line of refugees in front of us. Some pull large carts loaded with sacks, chickens, and small children. Some push small carts from behind. Some carry huge baskets on the ends of poles balanced over their shoulders. A five-year-old girl pulls a goat on a leash. One man is even carrying a suitcase. Sergeant Peck reaches over from his passenger seat and honks the horn. They don’t move to the side because
at this point there are steep inclines down to rice paddies on both sides of the road and there is nowhere for the refugees to go. Then he fires a burst of six or seven rounds into the air and steps on my right foot which is on the gas. Refugees are diving off the road right and left. I try hard as I can to fight his foot pressure on my right foot. Our bumper crushes the wheel of a cart. Our rear-view mirror knocks an old lady down. Another cart overturns and rice spills over the road. The panicking goat drags the little girl face down through the muck of the rice paddy. I wonder, could we at least try to pacify the population? Sergeant Peck says two words: “Communist Sympathizers.”
Later in the spring our Company got word we would be taken by helicopter to patrol near the Laotian border. Eight transport helicopters fly us to a staging area previously de-treed by Agent Orange defoliant. As we disembarked on the barren patch another eight gunship helicopters provide cover. They machine gun the few leafless trees left on the perimeter into submission. Then there was silence.
For two days we march single file along a creek curving between steep limestone mountains. When our radioman steps off the path for a number- two, he gets mauled by a tiger. I run towards his screams and just caught a glimpse of him being dragged away. I hear the voice of headquarters from the radio strapped to his back. We track the tiger through thick jungle for the rest of the day and never find him or the radio. Just before dark Captain Ng finds the roll of toilet paper the radioman had been hoarding. In Basic Training they never even mention tigers. Now we have another thing to fear. Well two more things really, tigers and not having radio communication with headquarters.
Around noon of the fifth day on patrol we come across a small village. 1st
Platoon forms a wide perimeter around the village. 2nd
Platoon and my Platoon, the 3rd, file into the village. Most of the village young women and older children are in the distance working in the rice in the paddies. The older people and the small children greet us. Sergeant Peck interrogates the elders about the Viet Cong. Everyone is shouting. One of the elders steps forward to speak. Peck pushes him to the side, and the old man slips over a plough. Peck orders the men from 2nd Platoon to search the huts. Peck keeps firing questions which they don’t understand. “Where are the Viet Cong weapons?” “Dammit, who is in charge around here.” I notice there are no young men anywhere. Peck asks me where we might find
Captain Ng, who has disappeared just as we need him most. Peck never asks me to translate even though I understand what the villagers are saying: “We only want to plant rice.” “We like America.” “Good people live here.” I approach Sergeant Peck to offer my help, but he barks at me, “Ramirez, find Ng.” I start to walk through the village trying to find Captain Ng. Behind me a huge explosion. The blast knocks me over and out of the corner of my eye I catch two G.I.s flying through the air. A single arm with corporal stripes lands near my feet. My ears are ringing. Everyone in the company starts firing. I am dazed and in shock from the blast. Following my order to find Captain Ng, I run to the far end of the village to the huts that have not been searched.
In the farthest hut I see movement in a grain basket. I stop. A girl about my age looks over the rim of the basket. She begs me not to shoot her. In Vietnamese, I promise – “I won’t shoot”. I tell her, “It’s dangerous here. I will find you a safe place. Come with me.” She is shaking. “Please come. Please, with me. We have to go.” I step outside. I see the guys from 2nd
Platoons and the 3rd working their way down the line of huts, two by two firing into entrance ways. Will, who I left in charge of distributing the nine pounds of marijuana, tosses a grenade into a pig pen. The frightened girl whimpers behind me. I lean into the hut and look over my shoulder right into her frightened eyes. She exits and runs in front of me so I can shield her from the line of fire. She starts to slow down and look back to the village. I shout at her. “RUN. RUN.” I run after her. I look back and see Will smiling. He waves. He thinks I’m chasing her because I’m going to rape her, otherwise he would shoot her too. I wave back. The girl and I run to the end of the rice paddies and veer off into the jungle. I hear a very loud explosion from the direction of the village. Much stronger than a grenade.
She wants to hide for a while and later return for her mother and sister. Through the jungle’s edge we watch in the distance two older people struggling to keep up with five children trying to slip away near the edge of the rice paddy. Two bursts of gunfire and all we see are traces of their bodies on the surface of the shallow water. One child crawls out of the water, rushes towards the tree cover, and after a long burst of gunfire hits the ground. 1st
Platoon was waiting. After seeing the children shot, we don’t need words to know neither of us can go back.
The trail splits and she leads us to the west fork heading gradually uphill. The gunfire trails off and we only hear a distant burst of fire every minute or
so. After a few miles we slow to a walk. She tells me her father was killed by a landmine. Two brothers are fighting in the war. I don’t ask which side. As I follow her, she looks back at me every few minutes.
She tells me her name is Bian. I’m pretty sure it means woman with secrets. I tell her I’m Marvin, but she calls me Mai Vihn, which means apricot bay. I prefer it over Alphonso Ramirez. I have seven tins of canned oysters in my pack courtesy of my parents. We each have one for dinner. She sleeps in my G.I. sleeping bag, and I use my jacket for a cover. In the morning we keep heading west where there are fewer people. By late afternoon we come to a napalmed village, not a person in sight. She tells me all farmers have hiding places for rice. After a few hours of careful searching, we find an underground hoard of rice under a false floor in a charred hut. We stuff about 40 pounds into my pack. Some iron and clay utensils survived the napalm. We attach a clay jug and a cast-iron pot to the pack. We sleep in the jungle a second night because just like us Viet Cong might come into the village looking for rice hoards.
By the third day on the run, Bian leads me up a limestone mountain. It’s about 1200 feet to the top. One third of the way up we come to a mountain spring, which empties into a small pool three to four feet deep and ten feet across at its widest. A small creek meanders down near the trail from the pool. Ancient writing is carved into the cliff near the opening where the water pours out of the mountain. I listen for mystical voices whispering through the gush of the mountain spring. At one time this must’ve been a shrine. She tells me her father brought the family here when she was very young. We fill my canteens and the jug with water and head up to the top of the mountain. 100 feet from the top there’s a hollow covered by two boulders forming a small cathedral-like entrance facing the setting sun. Further inside, a narrow cut between two rocks offers a rear entrance escape. We settle here. We clear out the pebbles and branches. We make a cooking area and use a flat rock as a kitchen counter. The smoke from our fire, which we light only at night, rises from our rear escape exit. Off to the side she sets up a small alter to welcome her ancestors’ spirits. She has nothing to place on the alter.
During the day Bian shows me edible greens and tubers to supplement our rice. Every day or two we trek down to the spring for water, thirty minutes downhill and about forty-five back up. We give each other privacy to bathe in the spring. We are becoming friends. I perform “Put on a Happy Face”
from “Bye Bye Birdie” with the choreography Margaret and I created. I still think about Margaret. I just can’t get over her. Bian asks me to perform it a few times a day. I make up Vietnamese words to “Telephone Hour” from
Bye Bye Birdie
and rehearse it in my head for a week until I have it down perfectly. When I sing her my Vietnamese version, at first, she doesn’t get it because she’s never made a telephone call. Once I explain all about teenagers in America and how they spend so much time on the telephone, she laughs all the way through the song every time I sing it. “Telephone Hour” is now her favourite song.
Several times a week we hear distant mortars, F-4 fighter jets launching missiles, or B-52’s dropping 1000 lb. bombs. Despite the war reminders, living on the side of this mountain is better than the army base, maybe even better than high school. Bian is starting to sing too. She has a beautiful voice. She teaches me several Vietnamese songs. If Bian was competing with Margaret for the role of Kim in
Bye Bye Birdie, based on voice alone, Bian would get the part. We sing “Telephone Hour” in Vietnamese together, each of us performing several of the characters. We use different voices and stylized movements for each character. Bian’s characters are graceful in a way American girls never are. From some soft wood I carve pretend telephones with my Swiss Army knife. Now when one of us wants to sing we just pick up our phone and away we go.
To make our hide-away more secure we climb down the trail below the spring and pull ten or twelve fallen trees onto the trail. Even if someone knew the trail location, it would be difficult to follow. We stand on our flat rock by the spring and look down the trail feeling secure. Bian’s knuckles graze my hand. We intertwine our fingers and exhale together. Our eyes meet and we laugh. I feel safe and I hope she feels the same.
Bian tells me stories about her family. Before marriage her mother was a silk weaver. Wealthy people visited her village to buy her silk cloth. She wove folk tales into her cloth. Bian’s favourite is the “Children of the Dragon” about a fairy Princess who has a hundred children with a dragon. The children look like the Princess except for their dragon feet.
When a South Vietnamese government policy ordered farmers into defensible enclaves, Bian’s family was forced away from their ancestral home. They abandoned the mulberry bushes, the home for their silkworms.
Bian misses her mother. Vietnamese people believe ancestors, who have passed away, stay close. The alter is a special way to remember ancestors.
One morning not far from the mountain spring I am pulling roots out of the ground to make twine. Pulling the roots exposes a smooth ceramic shape under the surface. It has five toes and part of a foot. Buddha’s foot. It’s three times the size of my foot. Cleaning off the sand and clay I see its golden glaze. I carry it back to Bian and present it to her. She arranges it on the alter. She says it’s the greatest gift she has ever received. To celebrate Buddha’s arrival to her alter, we eat the last two tins of my parents’ oysters, which I had hoarded away for a special occasion. I bend two oyster tins together to make a lamp for her alter and use the remaining oyster oil for fuel. Late that night I awoke and secretly watched Bian stare at the flame from the oyster tin lamp lighting Buddha’s foot. I know she feels her mother, father, sister, and all her ancestors are close. Often during the day, she looks up from whatever she is doing and stares at Buddha’s foot.
Monsoon season is coming. Bian says we need reeds and grasses to weave waterproof mates for our mountain refuge. She knows they grow near creeks where water has a chance to pool in wider areas. We hike down the mountain with my empty pack. We know the 1200 steps down the mountain so well. We anticipate the longer steps that make you extend your legs, the slippery stepper sections that force you to guard your balance, and the less inclined sections where we run. I’ve nearly forgotten about being a soldier and I don’t lug my rifle around anymore. The creek from our mountain spring flows into a second larger creek. There, I cut reeds with the bayonet and Bian uses my Swiss Army knife. The pack is full, reeds jut out a few feet above the top. Bian is gathering some bundles to tie to the back of my pack. Voices from a trail above us. Americans. We wade to hide in some thick grass on a low island in the creek. I think, this is what it’s like being a Viet Cong hearing Americans trapse through the jungle. One of the G.I.s says his tour is over in a week. As soon as he lands in the USA his mom’s making him ‘a juicy steak - salt, pepper, and enough fat to make it sizzle on the barbecue’. He makes me hungry. His buddy asks, ‘what about some pussy’. Unfortunately, he hasn’t received a letter from Martha in two months. ‘She probably found a college boy with a draft deferment’. The guys laugh. I wonder how many Viet Cong heard me telling my jokes to Captain Ng about unhooking American bras. I bet those jokes saved my life. Not even the Viet Cong would miss a punch line. Bian and I wait silently fifteen minutes and head up the mountain.
She was right. Monsoon is on its way. It rains steadily for almost a week. Bian weaves waterproof mats. I organize and layout the fibers. While we work, I teach her “Bali Hai” from
and “My Favorite Things” from
the Sound of Music. We compose a Vietnamese version of “My Favorite Things” substituting our favorite things in our mountain hideaway. We try to add a line about our woven mats being one of “my favorite things”, but neither of us can think of anything that rhymes with mats in Vietnamese. Bian shapes one mat, so the rain funnels into our clay jug.
The rain lets up and we climb down to our spring to collect some greens and tubers. As I relax in the pool, I watch her collecting shoots. I wash my clothes in the pool, which is roaring loud because of the rain over the past week. Through the leaves and branches I see Bian has made her shirt into a sac to carry the greens. I wring my clothes out and let them dry on the rock. I ring out my underwear. It’s practically a rag now. I regret leaving the new underwear from my parents’ last ‘care package’ at the base. My parents probably worried I’d get wounded and the doctors would see my ragged underwear in the hospital. Destiny wouldn’t let me get shot wearing these rags. I slip back into the pool. As I say to myself, ‘this must be paradise’, the clouds part and reveal the sun. Holy cow, this is a sacred place. I turn around to see if the sun is hitting my wet clothes. In a narrow beam of light Bian has dropped her clothes next to mine. She is naked. She slides into the water and moves close. We interlace our fingers. I’m too shy to do anything but squeeze her fingers. We stay like that for a long time. She pulses her fingers and I pulse mine back making a lovers’ Morse code. I can’t look away from her eyes. Slowly she moves her face close to mine. Our lips touch lightly, and we lean away not even an inch. I look in her eyes and it looks like her two eyes merge into one. Over the roar of the spring, I hear a voice. I don’t want to believe it, so I put it out of mind. I stay fixed on her one eye. Now we both hear several voices over the sound of the spring. Without a word we jump out of our pool, grab our clothes off the flat rock and bash through a bamboo hedge about six feet on the other side of the flat rock. We roll to the ground as we drop our clothes. We land lying on our sides on a patch of sedge, face to face, chest to chest, legs to legs. Neither of us moves a muscle. We can’t see the Viet Cong through the bamboo. We hear them. From the voices I think there are four. One of them talks about visiting this spring as a child with his family. He used to know the meaning of the ancient cliff writing, but he forgot. They talk about what idiot would block the trail with trees. They argue whether it would be peasants, Regular
Vietnamese Army, or Americans. One of them says if Americans wanted to hide the trail, they’d drop bombs. They laugh. Make bomb sounds. Laugh some more. Their bomb impressions are so real sounding they could go into the movie business making sound effects. You can tell, they’ve heard the real thing plenty of times. One of them is hungry for frogs’ legs. He talks about roasting them over the fire wrapped in banana leaves. My stomach grumbles. Bian hears my stomach and scolds me with her eyes. I start to laugh, but I bite my cheek to stop myself. The Viet Cong wash themselves, splash water into each other’s faces, laugh, and wrestle. Out of breath they settle down. I am learning their individual voices. I decide next time we sing “Telephone Hour” I’m going to imitate the squeaky voice guy for one of my characters. The one who seems like a college student tells the others ‘the Americans will lose the war because they don’t know the Vietnamese people. Americans don’t understand we are fighting to be our own nation, Vietnamese. Not American. Not Chinese. Not Russian. Americans think we are communist because China tells us to be communist. Not true. We need land reform. It is for us to decide. Not America.’
After a while their talk stops. One of them is so close I hear him snoring even over the sound of the rushing spring. The Viet Cong don’t move. Bian and I don’t move. I enjoy the sensation of our foreheads touching, my knee between her thighs. Slowly I turn my head. I see one of my socks dangling from a bamboo branch above us. I look back at Bian and we breathe together in harmony for a long time.
I hear a crackle just over Bian’s shoulder. I raise my head slightly and there is my sock dangling from a hand which also holds a rifle. He says, ‘stand up’. We do. We bend down to pick up our clothes. He raises his rifle and says no. He’s the one who knows why America won’t win the war. He tries to act tough and mean, but at the same time his eyes smile. He tells us to walk around the bamboo hedge and stand by the pond. We do. The eyes of the youngest of the bunch are about to pop out of their sockets. He starts screaming at Bian many words I’ve never heard, but the words for ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’ I recognize. She calls him Tong. She knows him. He walks right up to her, spits in her face and slaps her to her knees. I lunge towards Tong, and I’m cracked across my head with a rifle. Tong tells Bian ‘you are no longer my sister’. Squeaky Voice comes back with our clothes. He tries to put Bian’s shirt on her, spilling the tubers and greens the shirt had been holding all over her thighs and shoulders. Tong tries to wrestle the shirt away and continue Bian’s shaming. Squeaky voice tries to force Bian’s arm
through a sleave and Tong pulls her arm out. They continue this fight while Bian stays as still as she can, tears falling down her cheeks. I pull myself up to my knees facing Bian. Looking into her tear-filled eyes, I begin singing our original Vietnamese version of “My Favorite Things” over Tong’s screaming.
Laughs that help our mountain climb Oozing toes through sand and slime Praying with you for peace sometime These are a few of my favorite things
Tong shakes Bian violently; he holds her close. Squeaky Voice gets one of Bian’s arms through the sleeve and tries to pull her other arm through. Tong yells for me to stop singing. I don’t.
Smiling wide for the telephone hour Tickling your neck with a cosmic flower Tasting our fate, the sweet and the sour These are a few of my favorite things
He yells right in Bian’s face, ‘did you set the explosives like I showed you? Did you? You whore, did you? Two charges with trip wires. Did Americans die?’ Tong demands she answer, demands I stop singing. I sing.
Raindrops falling on our paradise Mountain Spring water bloating the rice You wouldn’t set an explosive device You wouldn’t set an explosive device
The rush of the mountain spring slows almost stops for a time. Bian looks her brother in the eye. ‘Yes’. Bian nods. ‘Yes’. She looks from her brother to me. Bian whispers, ‘two charges. Two trip wires’. The mountain spring roars again. I sing.
When the bombs fall
When the bullets fly
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad.
Tong pushes Bian to the ground, walks over, picks up his rifle and puts two rounds into my stomach. I fall to the edge of the pond, remember my favorite things, and watch the blue-green water turn red.
From her perch behind the library desktop computer Alona hears from below, the gushing roar of the mountain spring. She slithers off her chair and extends her head under the railing. On the staircase landing below she sees Bian fight to reach Mai Vihn bleeding into the pond. Tong grabs Bian’s hair and wrenches her head back. Bian screams. The scream shatters the crystalized silence of the library stacks. The scream is Alona’s scream. Flat on her stomach Alona bends her body under the railing reaching both arms down towards Mai Vihn on the stairway landing. Mai Vihn quietly hums a song she doesn’t recognize. Footsteps race between the nearest row of bookshelves. Alona screams, “Mai Vihn!” The scream echoes. A young man holding three lawbooks kneels beside her, a gentle look of concern on his face. Alona jumps up and punches the man squarely on his nose. The man falls back. Alona runs down the stairs. Alona wants revenge. She will never forget Mai Vihn’s murder. The young man, still clinging to his books, leans over the railing, blood dripping from his nose onto the landing below, and catches a glimpse of Alona descending the staircase.
Alona runs to work off her rage. She circles the Agricultural Studies fields. She cuts through the Experimental Forest. The thought of Bian reaching across the metaphysical ether of the universe fractures her logical-analytical construction of reality. On the forest trail a startled coyote freezes in its tracks as Alona speeds by lightly grazing its fur. She exits the forest and runs on the road. This early in the morning the only people she sees are the groundskeepers riding their lawnmowers towards the sports fields. Not far from the student residences, Alona vaults over the fence encircling the Japanese garden. Near the pond Alona smiles at the statue of Buddha. Buddha smiles. She takes off her sweatshirt, stretches it over the Buddha, and hoists it on her shoulder.
She arrives at her dorm hallway and enters her room. Christine watches her place the Buddha still wrapped in her sweatshirt on the bed. Alona runs back down the hall and she punches the combination keypad on the janitor’s closet. She is proud she remembered it having seen Mr. Castro enter the combination only one time. Alona takes four large garbage bags and a five-gallon metal container of floor stripper. Alona leans her head out of the janitors’ closet and sees Christine close their room door and walk away down the hall.
Back in her room Alona stuffs all her trash and unopened mail into the garbage bags. She empties the floor and her drawers of almost everything into the garbage bags. She keeps only two track suits, running shoes, her bathing suit, bras and panties, toiletries, textbooks, and a few towels. Alona places the floor stripper can at the foot of her bed, covers it with a towel, and rests Buddha on the alter. Jesus on Christine’s wall with mournful eyes on his pained face looks down at Buddha. A sublime smile escapes Buddha’s lips.
It’s Friday morning. Alona lies frozen in bed. She skips both her classes that day, Gender Studies and the Ecology of People and Plants. Etched into her brain are Bian’s anguished face and Mai Vihn bleeding into the pond. Alona has the realization that as brother and sister, Bian and Tong, must have had a long history. Bian could have drawn from one pivotal moment in her life with Tong, a time when as children she consoled him, when they visited the mountain spring together, when she sang to him. Reminding him of their childhood together would help Tong see into her soul and prevent the tragedy.
Logging into Christine’s Facebook account Alona posts a message on Kevin’s wall about
The Blue-Green Turns Red:
Machelmann, you fall into a trap like so many privileged male authors. Rather than allowing Bian’s power and potential to unfold, you lock her in patriarchal restraints. Bian is much, much stronger, and lots wiser than you’ll ever know. The reader is left craving to learn more background on Bian. Did you actually intend to make her a flat character? i.e., No depth. Despite these flaws, which are pretty serious, the relationship between Bian and Mai Vihn is heartwarming and even tear wrenching at times. Even I cried and I never cry. Two and a half out of five stars. Christine W.
She stays in bed three days. Even when Christine brings her parents, visiting for the weekend, up to the room to meet her, Alona only rolls away from the wall only long enough to grunt her greeting and see Christina’s parent scowl at Buddha on the alter.
2 AM, Tuesday morning Alona staring into space helps Bian plan revenge scenarios. Christine is sleeping. Alona checks her phone. She has 32 new messages. Thirty-one of them are from Devon. Some attach the link to his Collective Creation website. The last one sent only seven minutes earlier says:
I really need to see you. The meteor shower is starting. The night is clear. Astronomers predict the best meteor shower in a century. If you read this, can we meet?
Alona replies immediately:
I’ll be waiting on the football practice field 50-yard line in 20 minutes.
Rubbing toothpaste on her teeth and gums with her finger Alona runs out the door.
Alona arrives first. The football field is deserted, but the meteor shower has started. She stands under the goal posts and looks up. She walks to the three-yard line, and shudders. Shooting star. Sergeant Johnson is lying there. Six, seven, eight shooting stars right over her head. Four more, nine, ten, eleven twelve. Alona, hunched over under the shooting stars,
backs away from Sergeant Johnson. He bleeds out right onto the three-yard-line. Her heart races.
The stars are silent now. She makes it to the centre of the filed. She lies down on the school logo, an eagle in a circle, right on the 50-yard line. She pictures her grandmother in the eagle’s nest watching the dancers and drummers. How one person could experience such wondrous things.
She remembers she hasn’t showered or changed her cloths in four days since just before Kevin’s first seminar. Devon arrives. After a little namaste bow he whispers his appreciation for her accepting his invitation and spreads out a block print cotton bedspread from Bali. Devon lies on the spread. Alona rolls over twice towards Devon and stops so their shoulders just touch. In whispers, as if a normal voice would frighten the stars, they occasionally comment on the meteorites vectoring across the sky. Devon falls everlastingly in love with Alona’s impromptu poetry, she composes to each meteorite cluster:
Falling stars hurdling our wishes, Lighting all our cosmic kisses.
Go, Catch a falling star, Cook your hand in a flash.
They lie motionless watching for a long time. Although still thinking of Bian and Mai Vihn, Alona is starting to feel excited by the meteorites appearing and disappearing across the infinite sky. Devon goes on about how hard he has worked on his Holy Land project. Two students from the class have visited his website and “like” the opening of his story. Alona shushes Devon, unzips his pants, and take out his penis. It becomes erect in seconds. She rolls to her side and looks into his eyes as she touches him. Devon removes her hand. He inches down kneeling beside her legs and looks into her eyes. Alona smiles, nods consent, runs her fingers through his hair, and tenderly guiding his head communicates her desire. Very gently Devon slides her sweatpants and panties down her legs and places them off to the side. He goes down on her for a long time. She watches the falling stars fizzle in the atmosphere. While Devon’s tongue explores, Alona wonders if Bian and Mai Vihn tried oral sex. Perhaps every night, but Kevin Machelmann’s modesty kept him from including it in the story or perhaps the Southeast Literary Review editors persuaded Kevin to take the oral sex out of the story. Alona is fine with the sensations from Devon’s tongue, but knows she won’t cum, so she fakes an orgasm, perhaps a little over the top. Alona’s moans and screams inspire applause from the couple near the goalposts who also had been also watching the falling stars. With her hand Alona finishes Devon. He’s a little self-conscious now because
Stars streak to earth in poetry
Vanish from view in ecstasy.
Blazing like fires of cum
Excited stars come undone.
he is aware they are not alone on the field. As Alona and Devon stand to leave in the light of the crack of dawn, Alona sees the couple near the goal posts undress. Alona and Devon walk back towards their residence hand in hand. Out of nowhere, Devon says, “I think I’m falling in love with you.”
After one hour’s sleep Alona showers and checks on-line to see what’s happening in Gender Studies with Dr. Gunjan Nomendar. No more skipping class she decides. Sesame, Dr. Nomendar’s Teaching Assistant, posted photos of the first class, a two-hour mediation with Sesame playing hang drums. In a caption below a photo of four meditators, including Christine, Sesame wrote, “not one word was spoken,” so Alona doesn’t guilt-trip herself about skipping.
When Alona arrives at Gender Studies, Christine is surprised to see her roommate. Alona jumps up and down mirroring Christine’s syrupy reaction. Chairs and tables are stacked against the wall and four students are starting a circle on the floor. Iko, the last student to arrive, hidden behind her five-foot acrylic painting of a single flower in a Georgia O’Keefe- Salvador Dali style, lowers the painting and at the sight of Sesame, Dr. Nomendar’s teaching assistant, bubbles over with excitement. Iko leans the painting against the wall. Alona watches Sesame and Iko embrace for a long time. Alona is surprised when both Sesame and Iko hug her and Christine for an equally long time. Still in Iko’s arms Alona watches Sesame lean over the seated students and continue around the semi-circle greeting, high- fiving, pinky clasping, and hugging. Ashley, a modern dance major, and Sesame contact improv their limbs and torsos ending with Ashley balancing across Sesame’s back. Ashley starts to slip; everyone jumps up to catch her except Alona and the whole group in slow motion tumbles to the floor. Everyone laughs and comes together in a huge group hug except Alona who escapes to the wall. She remarks to herself, ‘a cacophony of hugs’.
Standing Alona watches the other students return to the circle on the floor. Sesame clasps Alona’s hand in both hers and says, “I am so happy you are here today, Alona.” Still holding on to Alona’s hand, Sesame skips with joy as she leads Alona to a seat in the circle.
Dr. Nomendar, wearing a black business pantsuit, enters and smiles at each of the seven students seated in the circle as she distributes the course calendar. Dr. Nomendar reaches Iko who stands. Iko’s eyes shed tears of gratitude. Tears of admiration. “Dr. Nomendar, last semester you literally saved my life. I was lost. Totally depressed. You brought me back and opened for me the most creative time of my life. I chose to paint for you a single violet because it shows the love you bring to us. I will always remember how you --” Iko cannot continue speaking. She motions to her painting. She takes two deep breathes. “The ants on the petal remind me of the march of time and the fragility of our mortality. Thank you.”
Dr. Nomendar stands in silence relishing the moment. A single tear rolls down her cheek. In an R.P. English accent with composed authority, she speaks. “Iko, I will always cherish your
gift. Equally, I will cherish the spirit in which it is given.” Looking around the circle, she continues, “after last week’s silent meditation, you now might expect Gender Studies will be a unique subject of study.” She winks at Sesame, as she says ‘unique’. She waits and allows her words to sink in.
The second class is the course orientation. Dr. Nomendar kneels in the circle on the floor and continues. “Welcome. Our reason for being here is... Being... Here...” She pauses.
Alona is entranced by the professor.
Dr. Nomendar holds up the page. “You can see on the course calendar that there are no assignments. No papers. No tests. Graded student term papers and tests do not measure anything. I do not believe in assignments. I believe in. Experiences. I offer the opportunity for all of you to be transformed by the experiences in this course. Our relationships within this group, our journey to the centre of the mind are the course content. I want what we share here to live in your heart as it will in mine so that, five, ten, twenty, even fifty years into the future we will all live self-actualized lives. I am so happy to tell you, and I just found out myself only yesterday, our mid-term session will be a weekend celebration, the Power of Yoni at the Haven, a five-star retreat. You can see the Haven brochure stapled on the back of your course calendar. I recommend you download the link to their menu. The retreat at the Haven, including food, is free for my students in this class. The department has funds that must be spent before the end of the semester and with now only seven students registered in the class, we even have the budget for a limo. I appreciate this is a busy time for many of you so you can be off to do whatever one does early in the semester. Before you go, I want you to know you can ask me anything or share any thought you might have. It doesn’t have to relate to this course. But you know everything does ultimately relate to Gender Studies. Intersectionality. Yes. Intersecting social identities, our research shows, are simultaneously empowering and oppressing. Intersectionality exposes capitalism’s oppression, and the tentacles of this oppression shape the dominant society’s ideology of politics, economics, race, gender, and climate change. Out of the pain of oppression is born the child, empowerment. I believe the lens of intersectionality helps focus light on both the external world and the internal. The amalgamation of mind, body, and soul. This is empowering. Yes. The crux of it. The key question. How do we balance the external struggle with our internal journey? Answer that and we define our own narrative of liberation. Never forget the dialectic of oppression versus empowerment. Take the power. And, dear friends, utilize the Power of the Yoni, our ultimate source of power. Ask Lysistrata, one of my most famous students.” She pauses assessing the students’ reaction. “That was a joke. Knock on my door. Share your doubts, fears, or aspirations. If you feel angry or lonely. The door is open. Know this. I do not judge. I will not judge you. I do not even know how to judge because I am out of practice at judging. That is another little joke. Visit me. Don’t email. I have over 26,000 unopened emails. Visit. Or if you need to leave a message.” Dr. Nomendar stands and walks to a table, takes a pad, draws a smile on a posty note and presses it on her upper lip. “Stick it on my office door. Basement, zero-nine, Feely Building. Come visit me. Well. I’m available now if you would like to chat a bit. Otherwise.” Dr. Nomendar removes the posty note from her upper lip revealing the same smile as the Buddha in Alona and Christine’s room.
Alona and Christine walk back to their room together laughing and high fiving at the class perk, a free weekend retreat. And the biggest bonus for Christine is that Dr. Nomendar bases her marks on participation in course activities. No tests or papers. But Alona senses there is more to Dr. Nomendar than an easy class. Christine tells Alona the university just somehow switched her into Gender Studies, but it looks like a much more fun class than Early Christian Mystics. Christine asks what a yoni is. Alona tells her it’s like a chakra, but you only have one instead of seven.
As Alona and Christine near their residence, for a brief instant Alona feels she is beginning to love Christine’s pouty lips, bunny rabbit cheeks, her two floppy-blond-streaked ponytails secured with pink scrunchies, and specially her kitten eyes. Perhaps they will be BFF after all, but that thought is interrupted by the sight of Tong yanking back Bian’s hair next to the dormitory courtyard pond. Alona hears a background narration drowning Christine’s chatter, as she sees Bian staring at the blue-green water turn red in the pond, and the narration is the voice of Dr. Nomendar talking about the dialectic of oppression versus empowerment. A sudden insecurity, a compulsion to talk to Dr. Nomendar reverses Alona’s steps. Baffled Christine waves at Alona’s back sprinting away.
Alona arrives at Dr. Nomendar’s empty seminar room. She remembers Dr. Nomendar’s office number is room 09 in the basement of the Feeley Building, Alona’s next stop. She knocks. No answer. The edge of a page juts out from underneath Dr. Nomendar’s office door. A reading list, “Power Women in History”. Alona picks up the page and scans the titles, not noticing the yellow pasty note stuck to the back. Most of the articles in the bibliography are available on-line. Louisa May Alcott is the only name Alona recognizes. She commits mind, body, and soul to study the lives of these woman on the list. Until that moment Alona did not expect she would find an ally to help her go deeper into her mind. Dr. Nomendar is that ally.
Alona arrives back in their room, and Christine shares her takeout order of General Kong’s spicy chicken. Alona devours the chicken hungry for the fiery morsels of white meat, but hungrier for the empowerment of knowledge. She begins the first article on the list, an account of Mary Wollstonecraft’s harrowing journey in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Mary, with a newborn on her breast, is dispatched by her gun smuggling American husband to travel on a secret mission. She sails from France avoiding the British blockade to Norway to retrieve missing gold paid to her husband for guns used in Paris to terrorize dissenters of the Republican government. Oppression versus empowerment. Alona reads about Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley, writing “Frankenstein”, the first science fiction novel, and then denied credit by publishers and critics claiming her husband, Percy Shelley must have written it, because no woman possessed such imagination. Oppression versus empowerment. Alona reads about Harriet Beecher Stowe sneaking back and forth across the Mason Dixon line to lead enslaved people to freedom. Oppression versus empowerment. Alona reads about the fourth century Alexandrian female mathematician and beloved teacher, Hypatia, stripped naked and skinned alive with oyster shells by a Christian mob. Oppression versus empowerment.
Alona was a child of oppression. A child of a self-absorbed mother, sometimes surrogate fathers, and a tyrannical household. But until now had not connected her own struggle with that of all women. Alona’s vision is now crystalized. Women must empower themselves to shape a narrative of liberation. Armed with the examples of Hypatia, Harriet, and the other great women, Alona is ready to argue the necessity of empowerment. But it is not a rational understanding of power that motivates Alona to visit Devon’s Collective Creation website for the first time. It is the moth to the fire. It is the reptilian brain; it is below consciousness. Alona’s neuron circuitry, her genius, executes a complex plan beyond the capacity of a billion reptile brains; but her reptilian brain ignites the plan and keeps her neurons firing.
Devon’s Collective Creation website allows visitors to login through their Facebook accounts. Alona’s fingers striking the keys with machine-like efficiency open thirty-seven Facebook accounts under different names. She copies photos of parties from fraternity and sorority websites to post on her surrogate Facebook pages. She calls her phoney Facebook surrogates, her ‘Facebook Hypatians’, after the martyred mathematician from Alexandria. Every Facebook account has at least three hot tub photos. They all friend Devon as well as each other. Devon is happy having 37 new gorgeous looking Facebook friends constantly praising his work. The two other visitors to his Collective Creation website are in the Creative Writing Seminar, but they rarely even comment, much less contribute. Alona’s Facebook Hypatians can contribute short narratives often with his characters, but they also can invent characters and situations, which immediately will be liked by her other Facebook Hypatians.
control the story. Through this process Alona can drive Devon’s narrative. Gradually Alona will convince herself that her control of Devon’s story is her small contribution to offsetting the patriarchal narrative, as well as her initiation of Devon in his own spiritual rebirth.
Of course, Devon wants to hang out with Alona every second of the day, but between her work on the
Amateur Anthropologist, maintaining the fake Facebook Hypatian accounts, and Dr. Nomendar’s bi-weekly meditations with guest hang drum or sitar players, she has very little spare time. Devon shows his kindness often and creatively. He sees Alona is so dedicated to her writing she rarely takes time to even eat. Through Door Dash Devon sends Alona a sushi platter with ahi sashimi, tempura oysters, and four South Beach rolls filled with mango, lox, and cream cheese. A few days later she receives a dozen gluten-free pink cupcakes, each topped with an edible pink ballerina striking a different ballet pose. Randy Kale, her so called partner from her freshman year, never sent her pink ballerina cupcakes.
Alona sits at her laptop with her grandmother’s journals spread out on the bed. Licking pink icing from her fingers Alona remembers that in a few hours she has a ten-minute oral presentation for Ecology of People and Plants summarizing her major project for the semester and hasn’t given it one second’s thought, but the
sets the agenda and Alona can’t stop it.
She thinks about her target audience for the
Amateur Anthropologist. Alona realizes
is an illusion because readers are attracted to authors by what they know about the author. But writers write what readers don’t know. Neither authors nor readers don’t know what they don’t know about the other, but also don’t know they don’t know. Alona deduces this paradox proves the
target audience fallacy.
Instead of a target audience, Alona will speak only to her grandmother. And hopes her grandmother will speak to her. Alona randomly chooses a journal, thumbs through, and finds two pages stuck together. Even after many readings Alona had never noticed the stuck pages. She separates the pages careful not to remove the layer of writing and reads not only the words, but also what she intuits her grandmother is saying between the lines.
A Question for the Ayahuasca Spirit
Hallowed Banisteriopsis Caapi, how do you prolong Aya’s embrace? Who was the ancient Quechuan Goddess to first cut the Caapi vines? Oh, Goddess what power whispered in your ear
And was the power always here?
A remnant of a reptilian migraine. A power verbiage could never explain.
For ancient truth lost in abstract brain, Where must she search in Mind’s domain?
In memories assigned to secret wards? In relationships like falling stars?
On forest trails that were never ours?
On faces by nature’s hand, painted? In recipes not that complicated??
In language lost on the tip of the tongue? On paths not taken; songs unsung?
Through fears of my own mortality? Through guilt, carnality, sexuality.
Lifting the veil of self that blinds Caapi secret, the patient Goddess finds
In Blood, and Bone
In Nerves and Muscles,
In Ova and Sperm
In the Black Hole of the Gaia Yoni
Chacruna, Groom of the Caapi Temptress, Psychotria Viridis, Mind Truth. You, Chacruna, are the Yang to the Caapi Yin.
Magical Caapi, in your cosmic embrace,
Elongate Chacruna’s desire beyond time beyond space.
Inciting Serpent’s Exorcism
Prolonging Panther’s Paroxysm,
Mingling fluids, Caapi and Chacruna delight At the quench of their sacred appetite:
Purging reveals, purging heals. Purging, Purging, Purging
Reveals and heals.
Recipe -- Remove caapi bark and cut into small pieces. Pound into a pulp between two stones. Add caapi pulp and dried chacruna leaves to cast iron pot. Cover with water. Simmer and stir by moonlight. Be patient. Be loving. Plant spirit makes the brew through me for you.
Alona repeats the lines, “plant spirit makes the brew through me for you.” It is her grandmother’s voice speaking directly to her. It is an invitation to a quest for sacred knowledge. Alona attempts to decipher the date at the bottom of the page, partially obliterated by the red-brown gummy residue that had been the glue of the now unstuck pages. 1971 or 1977. She places a nostril on the residue. Shudders out of control. Shivers. A voice. From above the ceiling? The walls? Or through the window? A message from a deep recess of the mind? Or an ancient voice? Alona hears the Caapi Temptress call. A call, not like a normal voice like when someone calls your name; when their mouth closes, the sound stops. The Temptress Call is always there. The choice is whether to listen.
Lying there, integrating the experience as Dr. Nomendar guides, Alona is certain her grandmother is showing her the path to go deeper. Her grandmother’s poem and recipe can be her seminar presentation for the Ecology of People and Plants later in the afternoon. She googles caapi and psychotria viridis, the ingredients in ayahuasca and
Ayahuasca: Psychological and Physiologic Effects, Pharmacology and Potential Uses in Addiction and Mental Illness
comes up. From the article Alona copy-pastes a few catchy bits and enough scientific jargon to make it look like a legit research project. Further down the list of google hits, Alona finds Ayahuasca Icaros, actual recorded songs of Peruvian Shaman and women. Alona downloads fifteen minutes of Icaros on to her phone, drops Christine’s wireless Bose in her backpack, and runs down the hall.
Near the exit to her building Alona sees the Thespians’ club leaving the multi-purpose room and go into the courtyard to take a rehearsal break. When she sees they’re all outside, she walks in from the hallway door, slides by their make-up table and palms two flat containers of clown face make-up, royal-blue, and orange.
The Ecology of People and Plants class has been given access to a remote section of the Experimental Forest for environmental art projects. Only living plants or natural forest resources are permitted for use in the environmental art projects. The class gathers in a remote clearing under a framework of a tree house, constructed from forest materials by a group from the class. They call themselves the ‘Papa Gaiains’. No nails. No glue. No twine.
“The stark simplicity of their design projects a spiritual grandeur,” Professor Anita Riversong comments directly into the camera. Alona recognizes the documentary film maker, Ian Wilde. He’s the top student in the Film Department which shares the wood frame building with the Creative Writing department. Alona is impressed Dr. Riversong was able to convince Ian to do a piece on the Ecology of People and Plants class. Ian had already received a Best Short Dance Documentary Film Award at the Vancouver Dance Film Festival.
While Ian moves his tripod to record the next group, he nods his head and smiles at Alona as if to say, “I’ve heard about ‘you’.” Ian films the students’ brief talk about
quinine, as a component of
the bark of the cinchona, used by Indigenous people of the Amazon for malaria and passed on to Jesuits in the 1600’s. Dr. Riversong was happy the students were giving Indigenous medicine recognition.
For Alona’s presentation Ian sets a second wide-shot camera in the treehouse which he can control with his phone. He handholds the main camera.
Alona sets her phone, Bose wireless speaker, and open make-up containers at the side of the clearing on a fallen tree. She takes off her shoes, rolls her sweatpants above her knees, ties the two sides of her running shirt into a knot on her solar plexus, the third Chakra, the source of her inner power.
Dr. Riversong introduces Alona.
Alona takes in her classmates around the clearing seated on backpacks and logs. She speaks directly into Ian’s camera as he crouches below her. “For three thousand years healers of the Amazon have combined the bark of the caapi with chacruna. They call it ayahuasca which translates to ‘corpse vine. The experience takes you beyond language and beyond ego. Even beyond the sensed boundaries of the body.
“The chacruna offers the DMT. In concentrations it gives you the high. In higher concentrations hallucinations. It plays in the synapses of your brain. Slow down the reabsorption of the DMT across the neuron cell membrane and the experience lasts. The banisteriopsis caapi slows the re-absorption of serotonin a lot. Long ago my grandmother journeyed with the Ayahuasca Spirit. She left me this poem about her journey.” From her phone Alona plays the Icaro quietly through the speaker on the log, background to her reading
A Question for the Ayahuasca Spirit.
As Alona reads her grandmother’s poem, Ian holding the camera slowly revolves around her, and several times without the slightest jitter in the main camera, zooms the remote camera in and out. Towards the end of her reading when she starts the recipe, Ian smoothly moves the camera closer and closer to her face. When Alona reads the last line, “the plant spirit makes the brew through me for you”, the camera has zoomed in onto her right eye.
The camera follows as Alona walks towards the fallen tree, raises the volume on the Bose, dips her four left fingers deep into the orange make-up and four right fingers into the blue. Her palms turned towards her face, she runs her fingers down in straight lines from the top of her forehead to the base of her neck applying orange to one side and blue to the other side of her face. Caught in Ian’s close-up her fingers trace the indentations around her abdominal muscles merging the colours at times. With the remaining grease paint on her fingers, she streaks her shins.
To the sound of the Icaro her eyes locked in an ecstatic gaze towards the sky, Alona chants a line from the poem, building the passion and volume with each repetition:
Elongate Chacruna’s desire beyond time beyond space. Elongate Chacruna’s desire beyond time beyond space...
The chanting complete and feeling the spirit of the serpent flow through each of her vertebrae, Alona writhes on a pile of damp leaves which stick to her clothes and back. She hisses and extends her tongue. With abstract movements she portrays the aggressive spirit of the panther driving out the serpent spirit. The victorious panther baring its teeth and growling stalks around the circumference of the clearing. Ian on his knees follows her, then moves along side, and rolls on his back the camera aimed up at Alona’s performance of the panther spirit crawling over him. The serpent spirit returns, but the panther spirit refuses to leave. Building
Can words capture the awareness altered,
negative memories re-experienced, emotional pathways re-circuited, and creativity enhanced
from multiplying the interconnectedness of neural circuits?”
intensity Alona performs the fight between the serpent and the panther for control of her body, one gaining strength and power and then weakening and restrengthening again all in time with the accelerating Icaro rhythm, while Ian manipulates the camera in a dance around her. Totally becoming the serpent swallowing the panther Alona spins and rolls around the clearing until the Icaro comes to a sudden ending. Alona panting lies there on a pile of leaves looking up at the tree house. The class bursts into applause, whoops, and whistles.
Dr. Riversong thanks Alona for her “compelling performance... you captured my attention.” Noting Alona did go over time, Dr. Riversong dismisses the class. “Besides, that’s a hard act to follow.”
Alona looks up from the leaf pile. Eight male classmates look down at her all talking at the same time. Some want her to dance in their project. Some want guidance for their project. Some ask her to share her Icaro playlist. Some want to send her their playlist. All of them want to date her.
Still covered in the blue and orange make-up Alona lies on the floor of her room integrating the experience of the Ecology of People and Plants class. The main take-away: Visuals make a seminar presentation more interesting. Using Christine’s credit card number Alona orders 1000 grams of each of the ayahuasca ingredients from Avalon Magical Plants. The total cost is $394.62. Avalon’s website offers a tracker for their packages, so Alona feels confident she’ll be able to access the package before Christine sees it. Making the ayahuasca will be her course project. In less than thirty minutes of preparation and performance time, except for the making the ayahuasca, Alona has finished her semester’s requirements for Ecology of People and Plants.
Biting off the pointe shoe of her last ballerina from the cupcake surprise, Alona decides to squeeze Devon into her schedule. She messages him to come to her room at 5:45 AM wearing his bathing suit.
The next morning right on time he taps lightly on the door. Peeking out Alona shushes him and invites him into the dim of the nightlight in her room. Christine’s sleeping. As he steps in, he immediately likes her Feng Shui room and Buddha smiling at Christine’s butt peeking through an opening between her disheveled covers and her rolled up Raggedy Ann night gown. Nonchalantly Alona undresses, carefully folds her clothes, tucks them neatly in a drawer and puts on running shoes and her bathing suit in that order. Devon is totally sprung.
Listening to Alona and Devon jog down the hall Christine steps out of bed and reaches for her water bottle, when she notices something stuck on the bottom of her foot. It’s a yellow sticky note. She flicks on her desk lamp.
Here is the reading list I promised. The Hypatia article blew my mind.
I’ll hang drum at the meditation this week. Love, Sesame
Christine wonders, why would this note be in their room? Would Dr. Nomendar judge Alona for having it? She googles ‘Hypatia’ and is shaken by her gruesome end. Christine mantras, “Judge not lest ye be judged. Judge not lest ye be judged.”
Running towards the pool Devon can’t keep up. Alona drops back and in stride she accelerates Devon’s pace by pressing on his sacrum as they run. It’s still not her usual pace, but it’ll do.
In the pool, alternating laps of backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle, and butterfly, she composes scenarios involving Bian, Mai Vihn and Tong. She invents new characters, but often has them killed off quickly, if either as protagonists or antagonists, they fail to make the point about the heroism of Bian and other Vietnamese women. For now, Alona gives Devon free rein on his Holy Land story; her Facebook Hypatians “like” everything he writes. She finishes 3000 meters, 60 laps, in 34 minutes and 12 seconds. In the same time Devon flails through 150 meters.
When Alona completes her laps, she swims towards Devon. He’s hanging on to the ladder in the springboard diving area of the pool. His back to the ladder, only his head juts out of the water. No one is diving. Behind Devon, on a raised chair the lifeguard, a 17-year-old synchronized swimmer, watches half a dozen early risers swim laps. 10 meters away from Devon, Alona takes a deep breath, dives under the surface, swims underwater, pulls Devon’s trunks to his knees, goes down on him, and easily gets him off. Rising to the surface, Alona smiles at Devon and spits into the water before taking a breath. The lifeguard climbs down from her chair and points to the sign on the wall, “NO SPITTING IN THE POOL”.
Alona does not like to be told what to do. As they walk on the pool deck toward the locker room entrances, Alona rants about the bimbo lifeguard, swears she would never spit mucous in the pool, and says next time she’ll spit it right at the lifeguard’s pussy. Kevin is already looking forward to the next time, when Alona, still ranting, follows Devon right into the men’s shower room, where Devon’s naked Roman history professor, Dr. Lingham, tries to recognize through the soapy shampoo on his face the female sloshing through the men’s shower. Alona is not even aware she is passing through taboo territory.
Still in their wet bathing suits walking back to Alona’s dorm Devon says, “I don’t want to be weird or anything, but I’m totally in love with you.”
Alona pretends to be shy and says, “me too.”
Nearing Alona’s dorm building Devon veers off to head to his room to shower and change for class. Instead of going up to her room to change out of her wet bathing suit, Alona decides to go for a fast run around part of campus. She ends up near the Creative Writing building, sees Kevin’s head in his office window, and impulsively decides to drop in on him. Climbing the stairs, she tries to make up a reason to visit, but first, she runs into him on the third-floor landing not far from his office. She’s not sure what to say.
“Oh, Alona. This is great. I wanted to ask your opinion.”
“Ask me anything. I love your class and you’re my favorite professor, so ask away.”
“By any chance are you familiar with my story,
The Blue-Green Turns Red?
“Aahh. No, I don’t think so. What’s it about? I’d love to read it. Can I buy it in the bookstore?”
“No, no. I ‘ll send you the link right now on my phone. I’d really be interested in hearing your take on it. Listen, to be honest I received a comment on my story that hurt my feelings. Some really negative stuff that I think is unwarranted.”
“You don’t deserve that. I’m sure your story is great. You are very sensitive to your students, and I totally love how you respect the diversity of thought in class.”
“Thank you. I appreciate that.”
“Let me give you a hug.” Alona squeezes him in a tight and embrace.
Kevin is afraid someone might see him hugging a female student in a bathing suit, particularly after the accusations connecting him to the patriarchy posted on his page. To escape the hug, which has gone on unusually long, Kevin wiggles away and says, “I’m meeting some faculty colleagues for breakfast, so you’ll have to excuse me.” He almost invites Alona to tag along, but her bathing suit disqualifies her from the faculty restaurant. “D.M. me your thoughts on my story. Don’t pull any punches.”
Alona is already bounding down the stairs. “I never pull punches. Enjoy breakfast”, reverberates through the stairwell.
Kevin notes to himself that wearing a bathing suit to visit a professor is an unusual choice and ponders her strange sense of decorum. He did walk in on her in the Creative Writing- faculty-only-lounge guzzling Professor Lawrence’s almond milk straight out of the half- gallon container. He also remembers the second week of the semester seeing her on the peak
of the steep roof of the Creative Writing building balancing on one foot in a yoga pose, one arm saluting the sun, the other arm reaching back and holding her raised foot snug against the back of her head.
When Kevin asked Alona about it, she stifled laughter and explained as if Kevin was clueless about something basic to the human condition, “I had a great reason while I was doing it. And that reason was to be in the moment. And being in dancer’s pose on the pinnacle of the roof was at that instant the black hole of all moments in the universe. Being in the moment is homework for the soul.”
Kevin saw genius in Alona, and nothing from a creative mind should be surprising. ***** *
A few weeks later Christine’s parents are visiting. When Alona returns from her morning run, she finds her Buddha covered by a bed sheet. A note on her desk says, “I hope you don’t mind but I covered your statue just for the weekend. My parents find it offensive. You’re so easy going, I knew you wouldn’t mind. Love ya’ lots. C”. Only three hearts under the “C” this time. Alona is livid. She empties her backpack, grabs her credit card, and slips her arms through the straps as she runs downstairs. She hops on an unlocked bike leaning against the courtyard pond wall, rides to Main Street, and visits several thrift stores buying nine wall crosses made from a variety of materials, wood, papier-mâché, plastic, bronze, aluminum, pewter, and whale bone. She stops off at the artists’ supply store and buys a roll of two-sided tape. Creative Writing is a Fine Art, so she gets the art student’s discount.
Returning to her room, no Christine. She removes Christine’s wall cross and takes it down the hall with the newly purchased crosses to the custodian’s closet. She punches in the combination code into the lock. Inside, she removes all the supplies from a cart, lays out the crosses, Jesus’ face down on the cart shelves, and sticks ample strips of the two-sided tape on the backs of the crosses. She removes the strip of cellophane on the up-side of the tape, so all the crosses are ready to stick to a flat surface. Alona returns to her room and through her Hypatian Facebook accounts, she floods Devon with contributions and “likes” for his story.
Late in the afternoon Christine returns to change clothes and sees the blank spot above her bed. No cross. Alona sitting cross-legged on her bed at her laptop acts completely bewildered. Extra bewildered. Christine searches the closets, in the drawers, under both beds, behind the covered Buddha, and in Alona’s backpack. Christine storms out of the room threatening to tell her parents who are waiting in the car.
Alona sprints to the custodian’s closet and swivels the cart out of the room. As she races down the hall, the cart’s one wonky wheel jiggles the face down Jesuses on the cart. Back in her room Alona re-hangs Christine’s cross and sticks the other nine recently purchased crosses on the wall in a wide halo pattern around Christine’s Jesus. Alona pushes the cart back to the custodian’s closet. From the hall Alona sees Christine looking impatiently back
down the stairs at her out-of-breath parents, “Don’t stop running. I can’t believe she stole my cross. Come see.” Alona can’t make it back to their room in time to catch their surprised faces when they see all the crosses for the first time, so she ducks into the bathroom next to the custodian’s closet, strips off her clothes and jumps into the shower. Even over the sound of the water cascading over her head, Alona hears Christine screaming and pounding on the wall.
Alona’s believes her Facebook Hypatians have written an
for Devon, who believes the contributors are thirty-seven separate people. Because Alona, under the guise of her Facebook Hypatians, churned out the messages extolling Devon’s Holy Land project, she gained his trust for her surrogate contributors. Devon is not only happy that he is able to easily congeal the contributors’ input into a story, but his hypothesis proposing the viability of the Collective Mind as a creative process is verified. Alona is now confident she can shape the overall direction of Devon’s story, character development, style, and language through the input of her Hypatian surrogates. Devon believes Alona is his greatest cheerleader for his rising star in the campus literary scene.
Alona and Christine need a break from each other after Christine’s freak out about the crosses on the wall, which have stayed on the wall. They’ll have to patch things up because they will be roommates at Dr. Nomendar’s retreat next weekend, but for now Alona figures it’s best to let Christine simmer down with the company of her Lords. So, it works out perfectly that Devon’s roommate, Josh, is away for the weekend on a surfing trip with his buddy, Jason, and the Lavoisier twins, so Devon is free to invite Alona to stay. She is thrilled because she’ll have two weekends in a row of other people feeding her luxury food, this weekend with Devon and next weekend on the Power of Yoni retreat with Dr. Nomendar.
When she arrives at Devon’s she hears his printer through the door churning out two double- spaced hard copies of his story. Sequestered in Devon’s dorm, they plan to spend the weekend revising. Dr. Ombapay believes and Kevin has also mentioned revising from hard copies can give you a new angle on your writing.
Devon opens the door revealing ten-foot ceilings and starts his namaste bow, but instead switches mid-gesture, closes his eyes, and aims his lips to plant a kiss on Alona’s cheek. She swivels her head ninety degrees and Devon suddenly realizes he’s kissing her half-open mouth. As their tongues sword fight, Devon regrets not having bought her the more expensive wine.
He gives her the tour. Devon’s dorm is not a room. It is one of the luxury apartments, originally built for visiting professors in the 1950’s, but now available for students to rent. It features crown moulding, wainscotting, a small kitchen and its own bathroom with an
oversized tub. The kitchen has been updated, all stainless steel and marble, but the bathroom has its original blue-green fixtures and matching large ceramic tiles.
While Alona’s mind is racing through the possibilities such an apartment offers like a place to simmer her ayahuasca ingredients for her Ecology project, Devon pulls his specialty from the oven, scallops au gratin on gluten-free faux melba toast. He sets the hot appetizer on the marble bar next to a tray of two dozen chilled raw oysters garnished by a lonely sprig of parsley. Alona is famished and quickly sticks a series of scallops into her mouth, not entirely swallowing one before starting another. He pops the cork of a chilled bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and pours Alona a dab for her to try. She goes extra on her loving the wine, rocking her bar stool back so it balances on two legs for several seconds before settling back on four legs. Devon had wanted to reach out and stabilize her on the tilted stool, but he couldn’t put the wine and glasses down quickly enough.
After filling their glasses, Devon presents Alona with a package wrapped in red crepe. The card says, “Accept this as a small token of my infinite gratitude and love. D.” Alona rips away the crepe revealing a Vietnamese woven silk artifact. Alona recognizes the Vietnamese style in the depiction. Pressing the handwoven silk fabric to her breast, she succumbs to waves of joy and sadness. Alona is certain the silk is a message from Bian. She feels the room is revolving around her. Devon has never seen her so moved. Devon’s eyes tear up, believing Alona has been touched by his thoughtfulness. He shares the store curator’s description of the silk weaving. “The design tells the story of the Children of the Dragon about a fairy Princess who has a hundred children with a dragon. There are actually one hundred babies with dragon feet woven into the design.” But Alona knew all of this already from Bian. Alona notices the three unhatched dragon eggs, one slightly cracked, in the corner of the woven silk. “When I saw it in the store, I pictured it in your room next to the Buddha.”
The smell of the scallops-au-gratin twists her stomach and aggravates her dizziness. Dry heaves fold her in half. Alona staggers off her stool and whispers, “I need a few centering breaths.” In the middle of the room Alona lies down on Devon’s Afghan carpet and imagines Dr. Nomendar telling her to listen to her breath. She concentrates on Dr. Nomendar’s voice counting one hundred breaths, but as her count nears one hundred, Dr. Nomendar’s voice becomes Bian’s voice. And for a second from the breakfast nook counter where Bian sits in Suk-asana, cross-legged, Alona feels Bian’s smile, restoring her inner peace. When Devon first noticed Alona’s distress, he started to panic. But watching Alona self-sooth, not only put him at ease, but also amplified his reverence for her. He wished he could self-sooth.
Devon loses track of time as he watches Alona calmly melt into his Afghan carpet. “Alona, are you feeling better? Would you like to read through this,” brings her back to Devon, his apartment, the earth, and the oysters on the counter now displacing Bian. Alona mounts her stool at the counter and wills herself back to party mode. The breathing exercises having restored the equilibrium to her stomach, Alona slowly and methodically sucks down three oysters in a row. They decide to take turns reading for each other out loud. Kevin sees
Alona’s eager red pen next to the oysters. For the sake of his identity crisis, Alona had ensured her Facebook Hypatians barely tinkered with Devon’s story opening.
Old Tales for a New Beginning
by Devon Rose
Dahleet, Eliahu’s mother, suffered piercing back pain with every step, as she and her tiny daughter, Moriah, carried the clay jugs full of water up the hill from the small settlement well to her family tents clinging to a remote treeless hill hidden from the road to Jerusalem. Although she never complained about the pain, Eliahu could see his mother suffered. He pleaded with his father, Gershon, to allow him to fetch the water from the well before leading the sheep to pasture, but his father refused.
“You should be ashamed. Going to the well is woman’s work.”
Eliahu almost always heard his father’s words ringing in his head as he watched the grazing sheep. “Put the bowl down, women serve the men. Don’t talk to your sister when she is unclean. You will marry when we find a girl with a suitable dowry. Stay out of sight of the road. Danger there.” Louder than God, Gershon’s voice echoing in Eliahu’s head controlled his every movement in the pasture where daily he grazed his family’s sheep herd.
Eliahu’s only escape from Gershon’s tyranny was his juggling. A few years earlier a traveling juggler dazzled Eliahu and the people of his settlement with his feats. The juggler showed Eliahu his basic juggling patterns. From that day on as he guarded the sheep Eliahu secretly practiced juggling with stones, tightly wound pieces of cloth, or even small balls of sheep dung. After a few years he began to illustrate stories with his juggled objects, but always alone with the sheep as his only audience. He practiced the story of three fisherman tossed about in the waves after their boat was overturned in a storm. He threw the three cloth balls in erratic patterns representing fishermen in the storm. As he told of the whale swallowing one of the fishermen, he threw a ball high in the air and caught it in his mouth when it came down. After frantically manipulating the other searching ‘fishermen’, he popped the ‘lost fisherman’ out of the ‘whale’s mouth’ into the air.
One-night Eliahu watched a black cloud pour rain on the other side of the highest hill to the west of the settlement. He knew the sheep would love the lush grass swelling with water from the fresh rain. The sheep had over- grazed much of the pasture close to their settlement between the two hills where Eliahu had spent his entire life. Today he decided to make his father proud and fatten the sheep on the freshly watered pasture over the hill towards the main road. From the very top of the hill, he could see a distant speck, which he had been told was Jerusalem.
On some days when one of the sheep would birth a lamb, he had to divide his attention between the birth and the main herd. The herd would not wait for a birth and would leave the mother behind. He hoped today would not be a birthing day in the pasture. Moving down the far side of the unfamiliar hill, a low-pitched bleating, like a lamentation, let him know a sheep was nearly ready to birth a lamb. He was afraid not only because this was happening on a hill out of view of his family settlement, but also this side of the hill was very steep, making it more difficult to run back and forth between the new mother and the herd. Soon another sheep began labour and then another and then another. Five sheep spread out across the hill were struggling to birth. He ran between them and tied bright red pieces of cloth around the necks of each of the bleating sheep so when they returned to his family’s pens, he could easily find the new mothers, guide them into a separate pen, and unite them with their lambs.
Below him the main herd rushed down the hill toward the lush grass, and away from the five-labouring sheep. He ran from bleating sheep to bleating sheep looking for the yet unborn lambs’ front legs and tiny heads peeking out from the sheep’s pink bottoms. One of the labouring sheep settled in a large sage bush. Eliahu had to crouch in the middle of the sage to see the new lamb caught in the birth passage. In rhythm with the sheep’s quaking flanks Eliahu gently pulled the lamb’s front legs and the lamb was born. The mother licked the sheep for only a few moments before the call of the herd overpowered her mothering nature and she ran down the hill to join the herd. Eliahu placed the lamb in a sack he carried for this purpose and ran back and forth between the other birthing lambs, glancing at the main herd when he could.
Nearing dark, he had tucked away three of the lambs into the sack and two more were held tight above his belt against his chest inside his robe. Eliahu loved to meditate on nature’s ways. Birth, motherhood, mothers suckling
offspring, so much common between sheep and people. A lamb who does not latch to her mother must be fed milk from a sheep skin pouch held to the lamb’s mouth by the shepherd. In the lamb’s eyes the shepherd is her mother and always will be. When these hand fed sheep mature, in the pasture they follow humans rather than other sheep. All the other sheep follow the human fed sheep. This way one shepherd can lead a large flock.
Eliahu knew the sheep, now bloated with the lush grass, were ready to be led back to their pens near the settlement. He raced down the hill to the front of the flock now nearing the road.
He heard the drums before he saw them. A Roman legion rounded the corner of the road. A group of a dozen from the mounted corps, their lances held high, raced up the hill towards Eliahu and the herd. They galloped through the herd lancing sheep as they rode. Eliahu pleaded for the Romans to stop the slaughter. Waving his arms and screaming Eliahu ran toward the nearest legionnaire. The legionnaire speared Eliahu in the side of his chest and he fell where he stood.
The mounted Romans threw a dozen sheep over their saddles and returned to the legion marching along the road. Eliahu removed his robe and saw his wound was shallow, but one of the lambs he carried in his robe had been killed. As God allowed Abraham to sacrifice the lamb and spare Isaac, God ordained the sacrifice of the lamb in Eliahu’s robe, so that Eliahu might live.
In the dark, the remaining sheep followed Eliahu over the hill. Eliahu’s brothers had been searching the nearby pastures and of course had seen no sign of Eliahu and the herd. Late at night he returned to the settlement with the herd. Gershon knew his son had visited the forbidden pasture and was red with anger about the lost sheep. Gerson was not moved by Eliahu’s bloody robe or the wound. From that day forward Gershon commanded that Eliahu would never go near the sheep. He would do woman’s work, fetch water from the well, card wool for his sister Moira’s spinning, and collect grass seeds for pounding into flour. Eliahu’s younger brother who had occasionally accompanied him to the pasture would now take his place.
Early each morning Eliahu carried the earthenware jugs to the well. By rising before sunrise, he could avoid the embarrassment of the women
from the other families seeing him, when they visited the well. No matter how early he visited the well, Ora arrived as he finished filling his jugs. When they were children, he secretly enjoyed her teasing, but in recent years he had only watched her from a distance. Since Eliahu began his daily trips to the well he saw Ora wept, sometimes silently, often audibly. Her sadness always added to Eliahu’s own sadness. One morning before dawn, even though it was forbidden, Ora spoke to Eliahu.
“Please meet me by the Joshua rock”, Ora whispered. Behind the Joshua rock, a large, jagged boulder that offered cover from the rest of the settlement Ora spoke the few words that changed Eliahu’s life. “My father has promised to wed me to a wealthy old man from Kfar. In two days, the old man and his caravan are coming for me. I cannot marry such an old man. I see you are also unhappy as I am. Let us leave this place tonight, together.” Ora did not know how they would survive in this dangerous land, but she felt the risk of death was worth the alternative fate of an unhappy life married to an old man.
Eliahu saw God’s light in Ora’s eyes, and he knew God was commanding him to help her and to tie his fate to hers. Eliahu whispered, “Once my family sleeps, I will wait for you here.”
That night they met as promised, each carrying a little food wrapped in a blanket. They followed the sheep trails all night through the pastures, sleeping only a few hours. The next day they walked North and away from the deserts of the South. Hearing drums from the Roman legions marching far below, they avoided the roads, following only narrow trails high up in the hills.
At night under the stars, they pledged a bond of loyalty to each other. Eliahu loved Ora but did not feel called by God to know her the way a man can know a woman. Ora loved Eliahu more than her own life, and though she took Eliahu into her heart, she did not feel the desire in her heart to take Eliahu or any person into her body.
After a few days they had eaten all their food and hunger led Eliahu to a desperate plan. He remembered the juggler who had entertained their families years ago. Eliahu and Ora wrapped four small stones in scraps of cloth torn from their own robes and made four small puppets. One represented a high-ranking centurion, one a middle-ranked Principal, and
one a Tirone or a new recruit. The fourth puppet he molded into a woman. Starving as they worked, Eliahu juggled the puppets for a full day getting accustomed to their feel and balance. Ora helped Eliahu accent important movements and facial expressions to unfold the story. Eliahu knew that even though he did not himself desire a woman’s body, most Roman soldiers did and could be charmed and excited by puppets who ignited their lust.
Late that night they approached the Roman encampment. Ora hid high up on a hill in the bushes. Juggling and laughing he walked right up to a group of Roman soldiers. Soon a larger group of several ranks swelled the audience, many of them holding torches lighting Eliahu’s performance. As he juggled, he alternated throwing one puppet and then another high into the air and with his facial expression and with subtle body movement endowed each of the three soldier puppets with their own Roman rank and military demeanors. The woman puppet he bestowed with grace and beauty. The rumbling of his empty stomach enthused his performance. He knew Ora, who watched from the bushes, felt the same hunger. He balanced the woman puppet on his head. As he juggled, he created the illusion that each of the Roman soldier puppets frantically fought to reach the woman. At first none could reach her. He removed a layer of cloth from the Principal and the Tirone and having shed the weight of their pretend armour they ‘jumped’ higher. Still neither could reach the beautiful woman. Finally, Eliahu removed all the weighty clothes from the Tirone revealing a small cloth penis. The swelling audience of Roman soldiers laughed and applauded at the naked soldier. Eliahu juggled the three puppet soldiers ending with the naked Tirone, the young recruit, flying higher and higher, and then finally landing on top of the beautiful woman puppet waiting on Eliahu’s head. The Romans laughed and cheered delighted that the lowest of rank won what they believed was the woman’s love. The Centurion gave Eliahu coins. Others gave him salt. The cooks handed him a large sack of crusty bread and smoked lamb.
Alona swallows her seventeenth raw oyster, high-fives Devon, and empties the few remaining drops of Chardonnay into their wine glasses. “You know what Devon, no cap, you nailed this. Let’s toast to an amazing, more than amazing. It’s literally iconic. Trust me, I’m not going all extra on you either. Can I make a suggestion?” Devon stiffens a little, defensive about cuts or changes Alona might want. Raising her glass she toasts, “to continue reading in your gargantuan bathtub in your sparkling turquoise bathroom. Tell the truth, did you clean the bathroom just for me.”
“Confession. I had a girl from a cleaning service. You deserve the special treatment.” “You are the steez.”
“Alona, thank you for your emotional support.” Devon bows his signature Namaste. “My writing. I could not do it without you. Period. Oh, oh, Alona, I almost forgot. I have margaritas all mixed in the fridge. Would you please, salt those glasses on the counter. A little lime from the fridge on the rim will get the salt to stick. I’ll fill the tub.” Alona had already started shedding her clothes and as she walks away from him and towards the fridge, Devon sees a tampon string dangling between her legs.
Devon starts filling the tub as he transforms the atmosphere of the bathroom by placing a translucent blue silk scarf over the light above the mirror and lights the beeswax candle on the soap dish. He sets his manuscripts on the back of the toilet behind a vase of black bamboo stalks, reaches for a cannabis bath bomb, and reclines in the bathtub leaning his head to the side of the faucet, gushing from an unexpected increase in water pressure.
Alone in the kitchen Alona removes her tampon and looks for a place to dispose of it. The garbage is not under the sink, where any normal person would put it, so for lack of a better option she places it in an empty oyster shell on the tray and covers it with another empty shell. She salts the glasses, sets the margarita pitcher on a clean tray, and moves the only uneaten oyster next to the glasses on the margarita tray. Alona sees Devon’s phone on the counter and remembering the key pattern she had watched Devon trace during their first meeting in the Creative Writing seminar, Alona opens his messages and scrolls. She finds a stream with Kevin.
Kevin: I booked a tennis court for 6 PM and my tennis partner bailed. I saw in class you had a racket. Any chance you can make it?
Devon: Love to. See you at courts at 6.
She scrolls further up looking for a more recent message, skimming another dozen messages about tennis dates, Alona wonders why Devon never mentioned he and Kevin were tennis partners. Looking for something about their seminar business or Devon’s writing, the word “revision” grabs her attention.
Devon: Have you had a chance to read my revision of the section when Ora and Eliahu first run away?
Kevin: Voila! Your allusions to their asexuality are clear enough without hitting the reader over the head. You are on the right track.
Devon: Thanks for your help. Please don’t take this wrong. Have you noticed anything weird about Alona lately? I’m a little worried!
Kevin: Alona is a prodigy. Idiosyncrasies would be expected. Look at Virginia Wolf. Don’t worry.
Devon: Thanks. See you tomorrow at the court.
Alona cannot fathom why Devon would accuse her of doing anything weird. She went deep into her recent past and then further and further back to two years ago when she remembered the last weird thing she did, the very day she dumped Randy Kale, her first real love and the only guy she consented to sexual intercourse before or since. Not five minutes after finding him humping her best friend in Randy’s dorm room closet, Alona crying in the Juice Buzz washroom found a receipt on the floor for a pick-up order for two large smoothies. She rushed right up to the juice counter and when the server called the number on the receipt, slapped down the ticket, grabbed the smoothies and in two leaps was out the door and skipping down the street. Since that day she has avoided best friends and sexual penetration. But none of that was weird. Tons of people five-finger-discounted smoothies from Juice Buzz. The weird part came as she sat on a bench rhythmically alternating slurps between the ginger-ginseng smoothy and the pina colada with added beet smoothy. She knew this was weird because four separate groups of passersby commented on the robotic movements of her head and neck as she shifted her lips from straw to straw.
Although it deserves a small act of revenge, Devon thinking she was weird was insignificant next to her discovery that her Creative Writing prof, Kevin, likened her to Virginia Wolfe. Alona anticipated this weekend might be the time to take her relationship with Devon to the next level and end her copulation hiatus. A few text messages should not ruin the party. Alona would extract a small revenge by arranging for one of her Facebook Hypatians to post some text killing off one of Devon’s minor characters like Eliahu’s infant niece, and if he laid off texting about her, she would forget the whole thing. Later that night, after they finished the reading and made love, Devon would see she was basically the girl next door.
As Alona enters the bathroom carrying the tray, Devon is juggling the cannabis bath bomb between his hands. He tosses the bath bomb almost to the ceiling and catches it one final time. He takes in the blue green glow permeating the room and reflecting off the bath water and off Alona’s skin. Alona sets the tray on the floor, raises the last uneaten oyster from the tray, and holds it to Devon’s lips for him to suck. Crouching next to the tub she pours the margaritas from the pitcher into their salted glasses. Devon feels to the depth of his heart this is the best moment of his life. His story will be a success. He chalks off his freak-out about Alona’s “idiosyncrasies” to his own paranoia. As Alona hands him a glass, he knows the wonder of the most amazing woman in the world loving him. He savours his bliss even as he notices Alona’s tampon string is gone and is replaced by a swinging gelatinous strand of blood. Alona lowers herself into the tub and the bloody strand breaks away followed by another clot oozing into the water. They both watch between Alona’s legs as the blue-green water turns red. Without thinking, Devon drops the bath bomb on the red water. And like a fuse the bath bomb fizzes.
Gazing through the steam Devon luxuriates in Alona’s beauty. He sips his drink and forgets for the time the plight of Eliahu and Ora stuck in Holy Land limbo on the pages hiding
behind the black bamboo on the back of the toilet. Devon thinks only of Alona, while she falls asleep to dream of Bian.
Alona awakes to the sound of a desert breeze fluttering the tent flap. From the dim light seeping in through a narrow strip of the tent opening, she sees the reclining Bian propped up on one elbow smiling down on her. Alona has never been this happy. Ora opens the tent flap fully and enters, holding three red robes.
“Today for our journey we will be dressed to match.”
Ora, Bian, and Alona put on the red robes, leave the tent behind, and walk towards a distant high steep ridge of red and orange mountains glowing in the light of the dawning sun. Ora carries a goat skin water vessel. A juggler on a nearby hill, juggles three balls with one hand, while with the other hand he waves down to the three red three shapes gliding to the West along the pink sand. After some time, Alona, not accustomed to the desert heat, wonders when they might find some restful shade.
Eventually Ora leads them to a trickle of a stream meandering through the desert clay scarred in curved swirling patterns like some ancient pagan god had clawed the hard dry earth. They reach a narrow grove of short, twisted trees desperately clinging to the stream at the base of the steep red cliffs. A large oval shaped boulder wedged open, smoothed by millenniums of floods, and veiled by the gnarled trees, conceals the source of the stream. Small channels of rapid water trickle around the cracked oval monolith. Ora tells them this is the entrance to the hidden falls. They climb the oval rock’s central slit; a gaping-rock chimney offering narrow footholds. They reach the crevice’s widest passage, and even then, they must turn sideways, and push or pull each other to squeeze through the oval rock. On the other side of the crevice, the canyon opens again to a narrow sky. They ascend to follow the stream now quickening through steeper terrain.
No one had drunk all morning. Alona lies down and moves her mouth to the stream.
Ora touches Alona’s shoulder. “Wait. Drink this.” Ora hands Alona the goat skin. “This is a sacrament from my friend, Moriah. Her infant died last night, and this is Moriah’s milk from her breast that her poor infant would have drunk. Share this milk with me in this sacred place. And so, we will bless Moriah and the child.” Ora, Bian, and Alona share the blessing of the milk.
They hear the song of the waterfall long before they reach it. And when they arrive, the tallest woman Alona has ever seen emerges from the waterfall, each well-defined sinew rippling under her wet skin. With a single motion of her arm, she invites them to step through the waterfall. Ora, Bian, and Alona remove their robes and follow the towering woman. Alona feels the cold falling water rinse a sadness from a deep crevice in her soul, a depth she had never dared to visit. Behind the waterfall in the dim light of a small fire, the woman motions them to sit. She crouches opposite them behind the fire. The moisture of a thousand births permeates the air. One by one she removes three small eggs from her yoni
and places them in an earthenware bowl. Alona, Bian, and Ora, their eyes fixed on the eggs, together they sing for a long time to the rhythm of the woman’s rattle. She speaks:
“These are dragon eggs. They hold the souls of future prophetesses. I have chosen you to carry them in your body and when the time comes, they will grow, and you will give birth. As long as they remain in your body, I will protect you and the offspring. If you wish, you may place an egg inside of you, but you must swear an oath to keep our secret. And you must never allow a man to plant his seed while you carry the egg. Let’s hold each other’s’ hands and swear.”
They stand and clasp hands around the fire.
“We swear,” they pledge in unison, punctuated with a squeeze of hands. Alona speaks, “when will we give birth.”
“When it is time.”
She offers Alona, Bian and Ora their eggs from the bowl. As they chant, the women hold the eggs between their thighs and together press the eggs inside themselves. Alona feels a second faint heart beating, but it is like the beat travels around inside of her between her navel and pubic bone.
The three of them follow the tall woman through the waterfall to the canyon outside, but when they emerge from the waters the tall woman is gone. Alona hears thunder above and sees the woman rising to the clouds.
Alona, Bian and Ora jog back through the canyon. Alona cannot keep up. She runs and still they get farther and farther ahead. She runs faster, and though she puts distance between her and the waterfall, the sound behind her gets louder. Alona looks back and sees a raging wave tumbling towards her through the narrow canyon. The wave is close. The roaring sound of the wave becomes Devon peeing in the blue-green toilet.
Alona awakes in the cold waters of the bathtub.
“I am so sorry,” Devon apologizes with a final shake. “I tried to wake you and bring you to bed. I even tried to lift you out of the tub, but you swatted me in the face. Look at the bruise. That must have been some dream.”
“Shush. I’m trying to remember what happened. It wasn’t a dream. I was there.” She shoves him. “Move! I have to write everything down.” Alona rushes out of the bathroom. Water, oily from last night’s cannabis bath bomb, drips off her skin as she calls back to Devon. “I saw Kamika. My grandmother’s spiritual guide.” She tries to hold onto the image of Kamika, Ora and Bian, as she frantically searches for her phone, some paper, any way to record the dream. She finds her red pen where she left it. She finds the garbage can in a narrow broom closet. Who needs brooms when you have a cleaning service? From deep in
the trash just under the oyster shells she rescues a printed lit paper Devon wrote, entitled “Coleridge’s Mind”, and pivoting to her stool at the counter in red ink on the back of Devon’s fishy lit paper she records rapidly fading fragments of her dream recollections: “Squeezing through the slit in the oval rock. The waterfall cleansed my body.” Kamika, Ora and Bian are vaporizing in her short-term memory. “The thunder and” – there is a knock on the door. Alona freezes.
Devon yells from the bathroom, “I’m about to step into the shower. Please get that for me.”
Still naked and wet Alona opens the door just wide enough to crook her head and a hand through to Door Dash delivering a dozen of the flakiest croissants she has ever seen.
Alona returns to the stool and taps her red pen on the back of “Coleridge’s Mind”, as the memory of her day with Bian, Ora, and Kamika, like mist in the wind, disperses to a deep recess of her unconsciousness.
Later that morning Alona swallows the last morsel of her fourth croissant and with her hand sweeps buttery flakes from the counter to the floor to make room for her copy of
Old Tales for a New Beginning. For the first part of Devon’s story, read the previous evening, Alona’s Facebook Hypatians had posted two pivotal contributions to Devon’s website: Eliahu juggling and storytelling for an audience of sheep. And the nature of the Eliahu-Ora relationship. In Devon’s original, he wrote the couple “marry under the stars and the eyes of God... and in their nakedness knew each other, man to woman and woman to man. And this pleased them both greatly.” For Part II Alona’s Facebook Hypatians controlled the narrative by driving away the other occasional site visitors. Non-Hypatian site contributions received negative comments such as:
Are you a real person or a bott? Cringe. Zero out of 5 Stars.
Not woke. CANCELLED!!!!
Too basic, another L, Boomer
When a dissed contributor responded explaining a post, they were ghosted, and another Facebook Hypatian would again insult that contributor until they gave up on the Collective Creation website. Eventually, the Facebook Hypatians were Devon’s only contributors.
Alona nods her readiness for Devon to begin reading her thoughts and her words for a story Devon imagines was spawned in his mind.
Old Tales for a New Beginning, Part II
The food Eliahu and Ora received from the Romans gave sustenance for several weeks, while they crafted new comic bits, juggling feats, and stories. Free from the oppressive patriarchy of their families, their imaginations bred a vision for their survival. On their blankets gazing at the stars at midnight, they melted into the ground proud of their day’s work, but a hint and a whisper of a new scene soon escalated to howls and shouts describing new imagined characters and silly pratfalls as they talked over each other.
They created stories for the common people exposing the hypocrisy of the of the wealthy and the Pharisees. They traveled from Ber Sheva to Tiberius to Acre entertaining Israelites, Judaeans, Canaanites, Amorites, Philistines, as well as the Roman occupiers in large audiences from the villages and towns and in small groups on farms or pastures. They earned enough coins to buy a donkey and cart to carry them from place to place.
Imagining and practising new characters from daybreak to midnight they became skilled mimics. From their precise movements a particular biblical hero, carpenter, or prophet would materialize. When an audience member called out the name of a recognized personality, the laughter infected the whole gathering. But while alone together, they also targeted each other with their mimicry. Eliahu mimicked Ora gracefully tucking her hair under her scarf and Ora imitated Eliahu feeling on his chin for a third or fourth reluctant whisker. Their revenge mimicry led to a competition ending with them both rolling on the ground giggling and shrieking. Their work, their life, and their love were one.
One of their most popular shows, “Noah and the Forgotten Beasts”, told a story of Noah rejecting imaginary animals from the arc and accepting the cattle, sheep, goats, camels, horses, all the animals that survived the flood. The descendants of the imaginary animals would still live amongst the people if only Noah had accepted them on the arc. Ora and Eliahu made masks from wet sheep and goat skins that they stretched out over dried clay. An old fisherman’s net represented the flooding waters, a wooden plank balancing on a stone, the arc.
In the Ashkelon market a coppersmith, who stopped work every day to watch their show, invited them to visit his workshop and little yard in the
back where he kept a few sheep. Having lost his wife and infant years earlier in a fire at sea when a Roman galleon mistook the passenger vessel they traveled on for an insurgents’, the lonely coppersmith wanted company and joked about adopting Ora and Eliahu. He offered them a place in his yard to pitch their tent and store their wagon and donkey between shows saving them the nightly toil of camping in the desert. He loved teasing Ora and Eliahu, asking how such a handsome couple had no children to add to their cast. Nearly every day, he reminded Ora, that if his infant daughter hadn’t died, she would be Ora’s age.
When one of his sheep went into distress from a breech birth, Eliahu helped the coppersmith’s sheep deliver the lamb and was rewarded with green-rusted copper filings which Eliahu mixed with acacia gum and made a sparkling blue green paint for the net. Noah’s flood sparkled in both sunlight and moonlight. The workshop also gave them a place to experiment with boiled roots and flowers for mask coloring. The coppersmith’s kindness helped Ora and Eliahu perfect the beautiful memories they gave their viewers. Soon after leaving Ashkelon, they were gaining the reputation of having the best costumes and masks among all the street performers between the Jordan River and the sea.
Eliahu played all the condemned animals. Wearing a character mask, Eliahu jutted his head through a tare in the net and while struggling to stay afloat in the waves, pleaded to be admitted to the arc. Volunteers from the audience yanked, tossed, and waved the net into a raging storm while Ora beat a drum to make thunder. The effect was so real when Eliahu was swallowed by waves, small children would scream and cry. Ora, playing Noah, condemned the imaginary animals to drowning. Eliahu, in the character of an unlucky animal would play out lengthy deaths testing the audience’s patience while keeping them engrossed. And when the audience believed the animal had finally died, Eliahu would spring back to life through a hole in the net. Eliahu dropped thinly veiled hints understood by some of their viewers that the ill-fated animals were revolutionaries that spoke out against Roman oppression.
One such group of revolutionaries was the Sicarii. They fought against the Romans alone or in small groups. Like the Romans, the Sicarii trained in the craft of murder, but being small in number they practiced different tactics. Sliding out hidden daggers from beneath their cloaks on crowded streets or markets even in broad daylight, they’d slit a Roman throat and
immediately blend into the crowd. In dark alleys outside a tavern a copper wire around the neck, was the Sicarii’s most efficient killer.
Often the Romans would sweep through a town arresting and executing suspected Sicarii. Most of the victims of Roman retributive justice were common people, the merchants, craftsmen, or even street performers. Eliahu and Ora knew almost nothing about the Sicarii, but the ideas Ora and Eliahu’s characters presented would interest the Sicarii.
Roman soldiers, hungry for a diversion like anyone else, would enjoy Ora and Eliahu performing “Noah and the Forgotten Beasts”. After a show, as Ora moved through the audience collecting donations, Roman soldiers still laughing praised Eliahu and Ora for the wonders they created from a few movements, wood, skins, and clay. But others posed danger. If a Roman wronged a tradesman or street performer there was no justice.
After a show in the Jericho market a Roman soldier backed up to the basket where they stored the animal masks. Ora at first doubted her sight as she watched him bend over and sneak a goat mask under his tunic. Ora followed him for a short distance but knew the danger of a confrontation. The next day the same Roman returned and again he backed up to the basket and slipped Ora’s favourite lamb mask under his cloak. Audiences loved this character, even Romans. Wearing the lamb mask Ora would angle her head and move her arms to emphasize the lamb’s innocence and vulnerability, and once she held the audience in her hand, she would milk them for the last drop of laughter. Ora told Eliahu about the stolen mask and they decided on the next day they would move to a new location, because if this kept up, they would not have a show. But a moment later, a handsome young man in a merchant’s cloak walked up to them and handed them the stolen lamb mask.
Holding her beloved mask to her breast, Ora bowed her head to the young man, and said, “you have rescued my lamb back from the wolf. Come. Join us for a meal. Bless us with your presence. We have chickpeas and olives and even fish reputed to be sturgeon. Friend, what is your name?”
“Call me Hercule. It would please me if you take this,” Hercule said offering Ora a small pouch.
Her attention on her lamb mask she accepted the pouch. “How did you find her? I am so happy,” she said scrapping her fingernails on blood she noticed on the lamb mask. But when she looked up, Hercule had merged into the crowd and Ora held a pouch holding nearly three ounces of gold.
With the gold Ora and Eliahu were able to buy a second donkey and a larger wagon. They built a fortress background on one side of the new wagon and a temple convertible to almost any religion with the addition of a few banners on the other side. The fortress inspired them to add two clownish characters to their repertoire, the archers too lazy to aim. With fast changes of the banners on the temple, they shifted the religious scene from Roman, to Greek, to Hebrew and back again parodying annoying features common to every religion. The inside of the wagon became their home.
In the evenings on the route from Jericho to Tiberias they practiced “the Archers too Lazy to Aim”. In the summers Tiberias was a popular destination for performers and prophets and the competition for audiences was fierce. Only two or three performing groups or prophets drew large crowds, while most found themselves performing to a nearly empty field. “The Archers too Lazy to Aim” drew huge crowds. Ora and Eliahu made bows and arrows. By attaching a narrow strip of stretchy sheep intestine from the bow to the arrow, they were able to fire their padded-tipped-arrows to travel six cubits and return. They practiced so they could fire the arrows to return and hit themselves or each other on a precise spot on their padded costume. To accumulate on-lookers Eliahu would identify a detail on someone passing by, “hey, broken sandal”, and as a man with a broken sandal looked, Ora and Eliahu on the fortress would slowly aim and fire their arrows, which would fly out and back. Going faster and faster they’d end with a barrage of rebounding arrows, each shot followed by an exaggerated quirky death.
After their archers gathered the audience, they’d perform “Noah and the Forgotten Beasts”. One afternoon in the scene in which Noah throws a rejected animal overboard, Hercule, the young man who had given them the gold in Jericho, shoved through the audience towards Eliahu, slipped under the flood net, put a mask on, and joined Eliahu struggling in the flood. Everyone in the crowd assumed this was part of the show as audiences always do if something unplanned happens. As soon as the audience interest shifted to the new cast member, their attention was suddenly stolen by a dozen Roman calvary ridding close to the rear of the
crowd, bunching everyone forward. Another two dozen foot soldiers searching for weapons pressed through the frenzy, shoving men aside and sending frightened children into their mothers’ arms. Ora and Eliahu stopped performing to help several audience members take shelter under the wagon. Hercule, their uninvited cast member, kept swimming in his hole in the net over the screams of terrorized fans. The Roman soldiers searched under cloaks and tunics for weapons. In front of the crowd not far from Hercule, two Roman soldiers stripped a fragile young student, obviously too thin and sickly to ever take up arms. They studied the faces of everyone in the crowd, but not locating their suspect, they formed ranks and marched away. Most of the audience dissipated, some to care for bruises and wounds, and some fearing a return of the Romans.
Ora and Eliahu brought Hercule into their wagon, which was the home Hercule’s gold had made possible. In the back of the wagon, Hercule devoured the sheep cheese and flat bread Eliahu shared. Mouth full of food, Hercule said, “after dark I’ll leave. There are Romans who would recognize me.”
As Ora handed Hercule a second portion of bread, Ora unfolded her plan: “You can be safe with us. We will disguise you. As a woman.” Expecting anger or indignation from Hercule, a man she suspected would be too proud too dress as a woman, Ora was surprised when Hercule agreed to her plan. Hercule dropped his cloak, which spread open on the wagon floor revealing a curved dagger and six knifes of various shapes tucked into pockets. Hercule untied his sash and lifted his robe over his head. A long scarf of finely woven cotton wound tightly around Hercule’s chest concealed breasts.
“So, you see, I am a good actor too. I can play a woman almost as well as I can play a man.” Hercule turned away and unwound the cotton binding.
Ora and Eliahu bashfully averted their eyes as they conferred about disguises. Eliahu, his hands on two costumes hanging from two pegs asked Hercule, “What shall it be today? Old woman or concubine.”
“Concubine. Romans have no use for an old woman,” Hercule answered and then considered which knifes could be best concealed in sheer harem pants.
Ora and Eliahu decided to cancel their evening torchlight performance. After eating and enjoying some wine, Ora dressed in her wealthy merchant costume and Eliahu put on the second concubine costume with the seven matching veils. Ora and Hercule lined their eyes with charcoal from a burnt stick and reddened their lips with rosehip paste.
Accompanied by her two veiled concubines, Ora mingled among the crowds watching the other performers. They could not contain their laughter at the jealous looks Ora received from men ogling her beautiful concubines. One ogler, an old Roman district tax administrator, offered a large purse of coins for a single night with the pair of seductresses. In a secluded tent Hercule could have in an instant slit the Roman ogler’s throat and kept the money, but this was a night off to enjoy the other performers.
Eliahu was tempted to steal one joke from a fiery prophet who to his credit drew crowds comparable in size to Ora and Eliahu. The prophet bellowed to the throngs, “it is easier for a rich man in a white silk robe to enter the butt of a camel and exit the camel’s mouth unsoiled, then to climb the stairway to heaven.” Eliahu, depended on the goodwill of the nearby food vendors and realized the joke would kill his faithful viewers’ appetites. He tried to re- imagine the line in away that would not be so disgusting.
Ora and her concubines meandered from the rear of one audience to the next watching a few prophets, a joggler, and a fire swallowing clown. Wherever they stopped Hercule, who’d spent years working in cognito on the streets, pointed out Roman spies scurrying around looking to betray a countryman for a few coins. Looking over heads as the fire swallower pumped the crowd for his finale, Hercule recognized Balthasar, a spy, who often posed as a knife seller. Several years had passed since Balthasar sat down at Hercule’s table in a tavern and offered a dagger at an excellent price, but when Hercule let slip a coin, bent over to pick it up from the floor and saw Balthasar’s Roman sandals, Hercule was in the street before Balthasar could stand. Not thinking to warn other Sicarios about Balthasar, Hercule was shattered that Sicarios lost their lives for Balthasar’s excellent knife prices. Hercule suspected Balthasar of identifying a member of the Tiberias Sicarii cell, who, just the previous Sabbath, was arrested and crucified in the same day. Before Ora and Eliahu could react, Hercule approached Balthasar, lowered one veil two fingers’ width, and with an upper-lip smile and a nod, led him towards to a water trough a short distance behind the crowd. Eliahu and Ora turned away from the fire
swallower’s climactic trick, and watched a flick of Hercule’s wrist, and Balthasar slumped and tumbled into the water trough between two drinking camels. To avoid suspicion in case the Romans found their dead spy bloating in the trough, Ora, Eliahu and Hercule, played drunk, to blend in with the swarming revelers, with Ora playing her role of the pickled king from “The Shrinking Pants of Peloponnesia” extra lustily. Stumbling the whole way back Ora chased her two giggling concubines, each waving one of their seven veils tucked into the back of their harem pants, all the way back to the security of their wagon.
Hercule stopped. Ora and Eliahu started up the four steps to the wagon’s back door. Even above a drunken song from a nearby tent, they heard voices inside their wagon home. Hercule motioned for them to step back, dropped all but one veil and ascended the four steps in one stride. Seconds later Hercule exited holding a bloody dagger and a bloody Roman sword.
Hercule showed the decisiveness of a Sicarii commander. “Eliahu, hitch the donkeys. Ora, help me take care of the Romans inside.”
Ora saw one of the Roman’s bent backwards over a stool, his head hanging on by a few bloody fibers. The other folded forward sitting on the floorboards in a pool of blood still flowing out of the bottom of his tunic. Ora tried not to give in to the impulse to cry, to shriek, to run back to the well of her childhood, but stirred by Hercule’s methodical actions, Ora helped Hercule remove the Romans’ armour and clothes, careful not spread the blood. “Ora, you may want to keep the armour and this one’s tunic. Not much blood on it. Great for costumes.”
After hitching the donkeys Eliahu walked around to the back of the wagon and looked up the steps through the doorway. The Roman blood streaked the floor as Hercule and Ora dragged the corpses one by one towards the door.
Hercule whispered, “Ora, go to the top of the wagon and follow the road to the South. Stop by the trough. The one where I left Balthasar. We’ll dump these two on top of Balthasar. Three dead Romans together makes more of a statement. After that, keep going South. Eliahu, stay back here. I’ll need your help when we stop by the trough.”
Later as the wagon wobbled up the hill away from Tiberias, under the light of a candle Hercule and Eliahu scrubbed the floor of the wagon. Eliahu hid the Romans’ armour and tunic in a hidden compartment where they also kept their earnings from their shows. At dawn, the donkeys needed a rest and Ora found an olive grove set on a hill overlooking a village. While Ora and Hercule slept in the wagon, Eliahu fed and watered the donkeys. Five children ran into the grove and marveled at their wagon, a fortress on one side and temple on the other. Eliahu juggled for the children and then he gave them permission to climb on the wagon, which woke Hercule and Ora. When Hercule stepped out of the wagon, still dressed in the previous night’s harem pants and one veil, the children giggled and put their hands over their eyes, but some peeked in between two fingers. Eliahu and Ora performed for the children in the grove all day laughing until their cheeks ached. Just before the sun set all the children waved and watched Eliahu drive with Hercule sitting next him out of the olive grove and down the hill, Ora already drifting off to sleep inside the wagon.
Devon, who had been reading the last part out loud, stopped reading. This was as far as the story had gone, all that had been written. He was proud of the story, so was taken aback at Alona’s reaction.
“What have I done? What have I done?” Alona in a daze steps down from her stool and half walks half falls toward Devon’s bedroom and bed all the while moaning, “What have I done?” Alona knew what remorse was. Macbeth, Othello, and Hamlet feel remorse and Alona could trace the emotional path from these tragic heroes’ actions to their minds ‘full of scorpions’. She could recite their trails of regret by heart, but to his moment Alona never felt it in her own heart.
Up to this point Alona took for granted her relationship with Devon was transactional. Alona heard him say how he ‘cherished her presence’. And her contribution was ‘being present’. She accepted that. Now she feels an unsettling ache in her heart. A part of Devon’s brain had imprinted itself on her brain and a part of her brain, a much, much bigger part had imprinted itself on his brain, and that part was a lie.
Her heart aches because she knows Devon’s heart is invested in
Old Tales for a New Beginning
and the happiness Devon feels grew out of the Facebook Hypatians praise and their fruitful collaboration with Devon, which is as much a myth as patriarchal gaslighting ideology, as guilt fueled religion, as capitalist apologetics. And still, curled up in a ball on Devon’s bed, she repeats in her head, “What have I done?” Devon lies down on his side next to Alona, and envelopes her. He hopes with all his heart to find a way to comfort her, but soon falls asleep.
Alona hears banging and shouting down the hall. Devon’s roommate, Josh, his buddy, Jason, and the Lavoisier twins, all half-drunk, crash into the apartment with four surfboards, which they drop on the living room and kitchen floors. Their four clammy wetsuits they hang over the breakfast nook counter, the living room lamp, the shower curtain rod, and the bamboo on the back of the toilet. One of the Lavoisier twins had been hit in the head by her own surfboard on the last wave of the day and the others argue whether she has a concussion or is just really drunk. The concussed Lavoisier twin stumbles into the bedroom and plops herself down on the next bed, repeating “I’m dizzy. So dizzy.” Jason comes into the room lies right on top the Lavoisier girl, reaches under bikini top, squeezes her breast, and says, “you’ll be OK, sweet nips.”
“Get off me, you asshole, I’m Kitty.”
Alona gets up, walks into the living room, pushes one of the surfboards off her Vietnamese silk weaving, which she then carefully folds. Alona leaves the apartment, the chaos and Devon.
Alona runs through campus towards the Experimental Forest, cutting across the football field, nodding to Sergeant Johnson who was taking a knee on the three-yard-line. Through the dimming light of dusk Alona searches for the remote section of the Experimental Forest where several weeks earlier Alona had introduced the Ecology of People and Plants class to her ayahuasca project.
The Papa Gaiains had trained morning glory vines to weave in and out and around the tree hut framework, to brace the hut structure. They had fertilized the morning glory roots with Miracle Grow, which put their progress vastly ahead of other student groups, but is against class rules and if found out, they would receive a severe mark reduction. Woven and braided morning glory vines reinforced with cedar roots form a ladder up to the hut.
In the light of a full moon Alona climbs up to the morning glory tree hut, where she finds refuge for the night. Not even Bian, who could always find Alona, finds the tree hut. In the morning glory womb Alona sleeps. Her physical body succumbs. She dreams she is a little girl and her mother surprises her with a hug, which is curious because it isn’t children’s hugging day in the commune. The little Alona wishes the hug would last forever, but then the behaviour bell rings. Someone caught the illicit hug and rang the bell. The behaviour bell becomes her mother’s phone ringing. With one hand her mother opens the flip phone and talks. And the phone rings again, her mother flips the phone open, and talks, flips it open and talks, flips it open and talks. But little Alona hugs her mother harder and harder to make her stop talking on the phone because the ‘time out’ isolation box opens and bears its jagged teeth. Her mother becomes Devon trying to lift her out of the bathtub. He drops the phone in the water. Underwater the phone lights up. On the phone’s screen Alona sees Bian wildly waving her hands like she is warning her. Alona moves her gaze from Bian to her own reflection in the water crying. She looks up and sees Devon staring at her in the tub. He turns his back. So many scratches. At that point between dreaming and wakefulness she moans, “what have I done? What have I done?”
At first Devon is too distracted by the chaos to notice Alona had left. But when it becomes clear to him Alona is not in his apartment, he phones her. He knows she rarely answers. He panics. He texts her a dozen times. And phones again.
Devon arrives at Alona’s dorm room and knocks quietly. Sobbing, Christine answers the door. Devon notices the halo of crosses on the wall. Christine can barely get the words out about how Alona hates her so much that she used Christine’s own Lord Jesus to torment her.
“What’s the point of living? I just want to die.” Christine folds up in a ball on her bed. “Oh, please Lord Jesus, let me die. Devon, I need someone to hug me. Please, Devon, hold me.”
Devon sits next to Christine on the bed. She leans over and collapses on his lap, and he holds her in his arms. Christine winds her arm around his thigh and squeezes. “Oh, please Devon, don’t ever let me go.”
Up to this moment Devon and Christine had only touched twice: in a high-five celebration of her new Sunday school teaching job when he came to the room to meet Alona for an early swim, and at the Gender Studies picnic when playing Duck, Duck, Goose, Christine was stuck being the goose and Devon let her catch him. With Christine still on his lap Devon lies back and surrenders to his distress. Too consumed by his concern for Alona and too exhausted to give Christine the comfort she deserves, Devon falls asleep.
When he awakes, Christine is lying on top of him, naked. Her back arched, Christine looks into his eyes, runs her hands under his shirt and massages his pectorals memorizing every ridge of muscle above his heart. And then she explores his deltoids, their geometric definition. Every touch and squeeze amplify the tingling passing between their bare abdomens. The hardness against her pubic bone puzzles her for only a second. She lowers her face towards his. She kisses his forehead. His cheeks. His eyes. She bites his cheek. Not a hard bite. But firm. Enough to feel the power in her teeth. She reaches around him and clutches his lats. Moving her elbows wide, she leverages his shirt over his head. Christine sits up and pulls Devon’s shorts off over his feet. Her knees straddling him, Christine holds Devon’s excitement in both her hands beneath her, barely lowering her hips onto him and then raising her hips half as much, slowly lowering again and raising again and again until the waves of her desire banish the initial pain to a memory of a past self. She releases all her weight. Christine has him deeply inside, and she appreciates this is making love. Christine remembers she has wanted this for so long but told herself she wasn’t sure. She wants it. And she is sure. So sure. Long after Devon finishes Christine keeps moving her hips. They fall asleep. For both Christine and Devon, it was their first time. Every few hours they wake up and make love until Devon’s release and fall back asleep. The fourth time, Christine not yet out of the dream world, a new devotee of sensation, she arcs her hips in a pulsing circular motion of pure bliss, presses firmly onto Devon rooted inside of her, and after a long time in that rhythm, in a perfect storm of lovemaking, a wave crests in her body from her
clenched toes to her fingers gripping the muscle of Devon’s back. “Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus.”
Once her breath slows, Christine whispers, “I love you, Devon.” Devon answers, “me too.”
It is still dark in the morning glory hut. Alona hears an echo of Dr. Nomendar’s voice singing, “Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu.” (May all being, everywhere, be happy and free.) She meditates on the meaning of the words. For her life. For Devon’s life. Alona knows what she must do. She will tell Devon the truth about her Facebook Hypatians. But how and when? Alona decides to stay with her routine and go for her morning swim; while swimming laps she will think of a way to tell Devon without hurting him too much. Alona climbs down the morning glory ladder and runs towards her room to change into her bathing suit.
Alona quietly opens the door to her room, so as to not wake Christine. In the dark Alona thinks she sees a boy in Christine’s bed. This goes against all of Alona’s assumptions about her roommate. Moonlight through the window reflects off the boy’s muscular back and lean butt. Nice snack for Christine.
With reverence to the Vietnamese silk weavers and the tranquility of the Buddha, Alona attaches her Vietnamese silk with double sided tape to the of front of her alter. Alona, careful not to wake Christine and cause her embarrassment, changes into her bathing suit in the dark. As Alona opens the door to leave, the boy groggily turns towards her. For the briefest instant possible, Alona flips the light switch on and off.
As Alona swims, she does not count laps, because the ache in her heart has grown beyond caring. She realizes she has swum longer than ever when she hears chattering pre-schoolers in swimming lessons. Alona climbs the ladder out of pool and watches the lifeguard on her raised chair eat a pink cupcake with a ballerina in fifth position on top. Stepping down from her chair having seen Alona’s interest in her cupcake the lifeguard says through a mouth full of cake, “My synchro team made me a surprise birthday party yesterday for my eighteenth and they brought these cupcakes. Gluten free even. Would you like a bite of my ballerina?”
Alona answers, “would you like a happy birthday hug?” Alona hugs the lifeguard for a long time and tries not to cry, but her restraint swells the first gush of tears.
The lifeguard gently pulls away. “I have to teach a swimming lesson now. But we should, like, definitely hangout sometime.”
The next day, at the Creative Writing Seminar Alona and Devon sit at the table as far away as possible from each other. Unbeknownst to Devon Alona’s Facebook Hypatians have finished the story. Alona plans to post it in the middle of the class. She knows Devon is addicted to his phone and wouldn’t be able to resist reading the latest posts for his story,
Old Tales for a New Beginning.
The seminar attention turns to Maneesh, from the university tennis team, who leads a discussion about creating fictional stories with real people. He argues his thesis that the writer’s allegiance should be to the character’s inner dynamics rather than to historical accuracy. In his story Maria Sharapova had started a tennis camp for Russian teen and preteen female tennis prodigies. On the way to a tournament their plane crashed over the Pacific. Maria Sharapova and her team swam to a nearby island and survived, but the crew perished. The only cargo they could retrieve from the crash were their rackets and tennis balls. The girls built a clay court on the uninhabited island. The plot is a combination of
Lord of the Flies
and Tom Hanks’
with tennis balls instead of a soccer ball. Fortunately, they are rescued because passing sailboat crew members from far out at sea recognize Sharapova’s screams as she strikes the ball.
The class is passionately debating the scene describing a splinter group of tennis players beating an overweight girl to death with their tennis rackets. Most of the class sided with V arguing fat shaming the victim would also fat shame many readers.
Under the camouflage of the debate from her phone through a Facebook Hypatian Alona posts the end of Devon’s story to his website. Seconds later Alona watches Devon open his website on his phone and read the new post. As tempers rise during the fat shaming debate, Alona’s Facebook Hypatians periodically ‘like’ the latest post for Devon’s story. Alona devours the feast of Devon’s discomposure as he reads.
Old Stories for a New Beginning
Still within sight of the children waving ‘shalom’ at the edge of the olive grove, twelve Roman calvary rounded the base of the hill, galloped up towards the wagon and surrounded the performers. Hercule gripped a small knife inside their harem pants, assessing the possibility of killing three of them before they would be able to mount a counterattack. A burly Roman, named Gaius, spoke to Eliahu. “Two of our men, brave Roman soldiers, stationed in Tiberias were seen going into this wagon and then found dead. They had been stripped and mutilated. Not a death a soldier looks forward to. You. Fool. Get down. One of your victims was my cousin.
Get down before I climb up there and rip out that whore’s heart with my bare hands and shove it down your throat.”
Eliahu did not believe the mutilation accusation. Hercule had quickly slaughtered the Romans. Unless Hercule mutilated the Romans after piling the corpses on top of Balthasar.
Gaius lanced Eliahu in his ribs. “Climb down!”
Watching from the olive grove the children scream. The oldest starts to run to rescue Eliahu, but the others hold her back.
Eliahu, in pain and afraid for his own life, feared more what Hercule might do and the harm that would bring upon Ora. Eliahu whispered to Hercule, “stay calm. Please. I’ll go with them.” Holding his bloody side Eliahu climbed down. The Romans stripped him down to his loin cloth. Several of them kicked him to the ground. Gaius kicked him in the face and head a half dozen times. Other Romans laughed and passed around a wine skin. Cletus the youngest of the Romans bound Eliahu’s hands in front of him and tied the other end of the rope to a pack horse. A Roman, gnawing on a whole roasted goose likely just stolen off a village farmer’s table, wiped his greasy hands on his beard, kicked the pack horse, and ordered four men into formation around Eliahu. Hercule stared at the blood streaming down Eliahu’s body as he disappeared around the hill.
Two of the remaining Romans dismounted opened the back of the wagon and found Ora. They threw her down the steps and searched the wagon but stopped when they heard their comrades arguing about who would rape the women first and who would get which woman. Gaius shouted above them all, “that tall bitch can pop young Cletus’ cherry.” Gaius grabbed the front of Ora’s dress and raised her off the ground. “The little one is mine.”
Hercule stood on top of the wagon, bared their breasts and said, “I’ll take all of you one by one up in olive grove. You wouldn’t like what you’ll catch from her. Your little worms will shrivel and fall off. Are you afraid of me? Cowards!” Gaius tosses Ora to the side.
The Romans looked up at Hercule and for a moment each one pictured himself sucking those tits and mounting the mouthy whore under an olive tree. Someone shouted, “Me first”, and the arguing began again.
One by one their voices faded as they saw another dozen calvary ride up with a Centurion at the lead, who, taking control commanded, “do your job. The prisoner is a dangerous Sicarii assassin. Guard the prisoner. Let’s get him back to Jerusalem for the crucifixion and I’ll buy you twenty women.” The Romans galloped away.
Hercule drove the donkeys towards a hidden falls where they might seek refuge. They travelled all day and night only stopping every four hours to rest, water and feed the donkeys. Ora brought the weapons they had hidden in the secret compartment to the top of the wagon and concealed several knives in a sash under the harem pants. They followed a parched stream curving through the desert. At sunrise Hercule seated beside Ora, who now held the reins, pointed to a split oval rock in the distance guarding the source of the stream, their destination. Ora prayed the donkeys had enough life to continue.
Out of the rising sun five Roman calvary, lances held high, raced towards them. Ora’s little donkeys straining with fatigue tried to respond to Ora’s pleas to run. Soon the Roman calvary caught up and rode along beside the wagon taunting Ora and Hercule, who recognized them as yesterday’s predators.
A Roman grinning through a mouth of rotting teeth teased, “your little Sicarii assassin didn’t even make it to his own crucifixion. The sheep turd bled to death.”
Showing off for the others, the grinning Roman stood on his saddle as he rode alongside the wagon, leapt from his saddle to the top of the wagon behind Hercule. He reached under his tunic and fondled himself. In a swift motion Hercule swung around, severed his achilleas and as the Roman fell, slit his throat mid-air. The remaining four Romans pulled back. Still Ora’s donkeys struggled towards the cliffs now near enough Ora and Hercule could just hear the bubbling stream hidden in the canyon ahead.
Again, the Romans caught them and this time Gaius carrying a flaming torch jumped from his horse onto the back steps of the wagon and threw the torch inside. Cletus and Greasy Beard lanced Ora’s donkeys’ flanks. The donkeys continued another dozen steps, fell to their knees and died.
The Romans circled their horses around the flaming wagon. Ora slapping flames on her costume leapt from the wagon, rolled in the stream, and ran ahead towards the canyon. Hercule stayed behind and launched a barrage of knives to back up the attacking Romans lodging one knife in Greasy Beards thigh. After regrouping, in a swift galloping charge on his undersized stallion Greasy Beard pointed his lance at Hercule planted defensively in the Roman’s path. A fingers width before Greasy Beard could strike with his lance, Hercule rolled to the side out of the path of the galloping horse, pivoted, and severed the horse’s hind knee tendon. Greasy beard’s lance flew into the air. Hercule sprung from the ground, snatched the lance out of the air, spun, and pierced the side of a second horse, but as the horse stumbled the second falling Roman’s lance pierced Hercule’s side. Kneeling on the ground the Roman still hung onto the lance in Hercule’s side. Hercule and the Roman for an instant locked eyes as Hercule reached inside the harem pants retrieved a dagger and spun it through the air to rest deep in the Roman’s eye socket, his remaining eye locked in a look of astonishment. Hercule dislodged the lance and swung it between the legs of Cletus’ horse in full gallop. The horse’s knees buckled. The horse rolled over on Cletus, giving Ora time to squeeze through the split boulder into the hidden canyon.
Hercule bleeding from the side, lance in one hand and sword in the other, held back the last three Romans alive, Greasy Beard and Gaius, and joining after crawling out from under his horse, Cletus. Just before reaching the canyon entrance Hercule lanced Greasy Beard in the groin and with a surge of energy plunged the lance deeper into him as Hercule took a slash on the shoulder from Gaius’ sword. Hercule bleeding from numerous wounds escaped through the slit in the tall rock. A single Roman sword in hand Hercule dropped bleeding at Ora’s feet near the edge of the stream. The young Cletus removed his armour and was able to squeeze through the crevice. Hercule rose to balance on one knee in a pool of blood and faced Cletus. Without brothers in arms at his flanks, Cletus felt his vulnerability for the first time. He lamented his tragedy of never knowing a woman. The Roman lunged slipping on the blood slick rock and Hercule dug in the sword at a measured angle so that Cletus’ own weight and motion flipped and opened him up from sternum to groin. The strain of Cletus’ weight on Hercules sword tore open the lance wound. Gaius, the last Roman, struggled in the narrow crevice, one arm pinned behind him, the other trapped on his side. Ora picked up Cletus’ sword, stepped up onto a rock opposite Gaius and holding the Roman steel in two hands high above her
head, plunged the sword down his throat silencing his pleas to spare his life.
Hercule collapsed bleeding into the narrow spring. Ora burned, covered in Roman blood and Hercule’s blood, raised her friend’s head and shoulders to her lap.
“Ora, you and Eli are only. Only love.” Then other incomprehensible words gurgled through the blood in Hercule’s mouth, and in the whisper of a final exhale, “I gave you back your lamb mask. My love.”
Devon had never suffered an anxiety attack before and worries his shortness of breath and erratic heartbeat are anxiety symptoms. All the usual visitors and contributors to his Collective Creation website “like” the Roman attack scenes. They “like” the sudden eradication of Eliahu from the story. They “like” the burning of the wagon. They “like” Hercule’s bloody death. At the beginning of the semester Devon believed his characters, Eliahu and Ora, reacting against their oppressive childhoods would invent parables and funny anecdotes to help common people -- shepherds and farmers -- solve their own relationship problems. Devon still loves the authenticity and simplicity of his original concept. He never anticipated the story would descend into bloodshed and mutilation. Devon reaches an epiphany. The crowd choice of violence represents a breakdown of the Collective Mind. Devon rejects his original thesis and concludes: Collective Creation is not viable after all. And Devon experiences a void in his chest worse than anxiety.
Devon trying to turn the last page on
Old Stories for a New Beginning
listens to other people’s problems for a while and tunes into the seminar discussion. Mai steers debate towards pronoun usage in her Civil War novel. She believes the modern reader would not accept using “they” and “their” pronouns for a Civil War trans character. “Anachronisms undermine the believability of a story,” Mai maintains. Devon stands and leaves the seminar.
Mai worries Devon left out of frustration over what he believes are petty arguments. Alona believes Devon left because he was disturbed by the ending of
Old Tales for a New Beginning. Devon never planned to leave. In fact, he needed to discuss his epiphany about Collection Creation with Kevin. Devon leaves because of a text from Christine:
Devon, I need YOUR HELP NOW! Come to my room.
I have to move out. Alona is literally INSANE!!!!!!
The CAMPUS POLICE keep coming back looking for her and they asked more questions about Alona’s STOLEN BUDDHA and found floor stripper too.
All MY LOVE, Christine
In 20 w/ J’s VW. Ily, D
Mai’s discussion breaks down into smaller groups and once that happens others leave the seminar room as if Devon’s departure means that nothing else important would happen.
Alona stays in her chair not acknowledging students smiling or nodding as they pass her on their way out. Alona mourns the loss of Eliahu, Ora, and Hercule. She is surprised at the depth of her pain. She tries to convince herself that their tragedy is part of the course of history. Unfortunate victims. Roman soldiers murdered civilians. But she knows she must accept she was the maker of Eliahu’s history. Ora’s history. She chose the course of events. She feels isolated. Unattached. Empty.
Only Kevin and Alona remain in the seminar room.
“Alona, I am so glad you waited. Did you have a chance to read
The Blue-Green Turns Red? But that’s not what I need to talk to you about. I have to ask you a huge favour. Normally, I wouldn’t ask a student, but I just moved here, and I don’t know who I’d ask. Dr. Umbapay was a featured speaker at a conference on “Civilian Casualties of War” and didn’t notify them about his unavailability. They tried to reach him through our department and realizing they might need a replacement I sent the conference organizers a link to
The Blue-Green Turns Red. I just found out they want me. This is a big career opportunity for me. Here is the favor. My grandmother is flying in tomorrow, and I wonder if you could entertain her Friday and Saturday. You could stay over at my place with her while I’m at the conference. Thursday evening would be helpful too so I can prepare for my talk. She’s a great cook. Vietnamese Pho. Fridge’s full. I’ll be back here early Sunday. I’ll pay you. $150 a day. No, $200.”
“Kevin, I’d love too, but Dr. Nomendar is taking a group of us to a woman’s conference at the Haven on Friday. I think we’ll be back Sunday.”
“Perfect. Perfect! Take my grandmother to the conference! She’s been a feminist practically since she immigrated here in the seventies.”
“I’ll have to go to Dr. Nomendar’s office and find out if there’s room at the retreat.” “Fabulous. I’ll ride you over there on my Vespa.”
On the way around the campus perimeter to Dr. Nomendar’s office, Alona, on the back of the Vespa, is happy to hold her arms around Kevin. It is a chance to hug without really hugging. Near the bookstore they pass V from the Creative Writing Seminar. Alona twists around to look back at V mime a basketball 3-point-shot swish into the zero space between
Kevin and her on the Vespa. V celebrates with a double fist pump. Because of the Devon situation, Alona now considers V her best friend in the class.
In the basement of the Feely Building, Dr. Nomendar’s office door is open, and the scent of patchouli incense is the appetizer for an entrée of political wisdom: “We must be poets in the commodification of the language of identity because only as poets can we shift to a dialogue of liberation.”
Alona enters first with Kevin just behind her and there she is hanging out with two students on the floor of her candle-lit large basement office. Iko from the Gender Studies class is painting a mural of Green Tara, the female Buddha, on Dr. Nomendar’s side wall. A forest of wind chimes hangs from the plumbing crisscrossing the ceiling. From the cushioned alcove at the rear of the office. Dr. Nomendar’s face lights up with joy, “Alona, join us and your friend too.”
While Alona slips between the wind chimes, Kevin brushes against several chimes which randomly play the first eight notes of an old Lady Gaga tune. Everyone simultaneously recognizes the tune and laughs. Dr. Nomendar, seeing through Alona’s veneer of cheer, jokes, “well, Alona, you bring your own party with you.”
Alona introduces her two professors to each other and explains the request to bring Kevin’s grandmother to the retreat. Dr. Nomendar believes cross generational representation of women would be much more enlightening for all participants and can easily open a spot for Kevin’s grandmother at the Haven by moving a cot into Christine and Alona’s room. Kevin, moved by how Dr. Nomendar’s charisma invites immediate deep connection, takes both of Dr. Nomendar’s hands in his, thanks her, and leaves with Alona just behind. An overhead pipe shakes because someone upstairs flushes a toilet, and a wind chime chimes.
Dr. Nomendar calls Alona back and holds her in her arms. Dr. Nomendar wants to warn Alona without alarming her. “Dear friend, breathe with me. The campus police visited here. They wanted to know if you are Buddhist. I told them, this far into the semester, I would hope my students have all religions in their hearts.”
Alona is accustomed to Dr. Nomendar’s parables but can’t decipher the meaning of campus police investigating Buddhists. Someone flushes another toilet and Alona looks over Dr. Nomendar’s shoulder and stares at another chime chiming.
Breathing together they meditate on the chime’s slow steady fade to a background of a mountain stream, its flow extended by a faulty toilet gasket. Dr. Nomendar says, “we’ll spend time together at the retreat. For both our souls.” Dr. Nomendar could see Alona had been suffering and could not tell her the police reported that an electrician installing new LED lights in Alona’s room recognized the Japanese garden’s missing Buddha. The Buddha’s travels were not the professor’s to judge.
Kevin drops Alona off near her dorm. As Alona walks through the courtyard, she feels that immersing herself in the
Amateur Anthropologist, the retreat at the Haven, looking after Kevin’s grandmother, and spending time with Dr. Nomendar will be empowering. She must leave the past and find a new self. Christine can have Devon.
Passing by the mailboxes on the main floor she notices a package on the floor addressed to Christine Wright from Avalon Magical Plants. All the necessary ingredients for her self-care are falling into place. From her mailbox Alona removes an envelope from the Campus Police marked “IMPORTANT” but distracted by the Devon-Christine dagger suddenly twisting in her chest, she drops the envelope in the recycling bin.
An overpowering blast of perfume first strikes Alona as she opens her dorm room door. Christine had dropped a bottle of Channel #5. Her silk weaving neatly spread on her bed. Buddha gone. The alter gone. Christine’s wall Jesus gone. Christine’s side of the room’s empty except for the nine thrift store Jesuses remain on the wall in halo formation. Alona wonders why Christine would steal her Buddha when she always despised him.
On Thursday morning, Kevin brings his grandmother to the seminar. At first, she is too shy
to sit at the table, but Mai walks over, takes grandmother’s hand, and says something in Vietnamese. They both laugh and grandmother sits at the head of the table next to Kevin. Alona can see she is so proud of Kevin.
Kevin begins the class. “Because of all the exciting debate on Tuesday, I forgot to give you a heads up about our guest today. Everyone, this is Beatrice Anne Machelmann, my grandmother. You can call her Grandmother B, or just Bea, or like her friends you can call her Bea Anne. I mentioned her, I think during the first class. Grandmother’s visiting me for a few weeks, and she’ll audit the class today.”
Devon is ready to create the beginning of another story on his Collective Creation Website. His amended hypothesis states: The devolution of the group mind to the lowest common denominator is directly correlated to the rate of acceleration of contributing posts on the site. For the first time in the semester Devon does not pay attention to the other students’ discussing their writing journeys.
The state of Kevin’s studio townhouse reminds Alona of her own room before she went
Feng Shui. Immediately Bea Anne begins putting away dishes from the dish rack to make room for the dirty dishes in the sink, on the counter and on the floor.
“Alona, thank you so much for everything. Tonight, I’ll be pulling an all-nighter in my office for my presentation. I’ll sleep on the plane in the morning. I probably won’t see you until Sunday. You’re doing me a huge favour so thank you.” Kevin walks to the sink. Bea Anne talks about how much she liked his class and how smart all the students are.
So much has happened in the past few days Alona drastically needs to ground herself. Dr. Nomendar often informs her students that “the serendipity of life’s pivotal moments invites introspection.” Being here in her professor’s, Kevin’s, space. An author, who is speaking with his most important inspiration, his grandmother. For Alona, this is serendipity of epic proportion. Alona reminds herself, ‘my reason for being here is. Being. Here.’ She recalls her first meeting with Kevin. She wonders if the few seconds of her inauthenticity were unconsciously manipulative. Standing very close to him. Shaking his hand like that was verging on sensuality. Flirting, perhaps. Her Facebook comment on his story implied he was a privileged male author binding his female characters in patriarchal restraints. Was that unconsciously manipulative, she asks herself? Or was her comment a misfired bullet against the patriarchy? She reflects on the reality of her situation. Now, she is in his apartment making $200 a day and she has nothing to gain by conscious or unconscious manipulation. She sees clearly now. She has perhaps evolved beyond the need to manipulate. Alona takes a deep breath and exhales satisfied with her personal growth from the moment of introspection.
Kevin kisses his grandmother goodbye and shakes Alona’s hand. Bea Anne and Alona watch Kevin pause at the door and take one last look back at them, but the conference on the Civilian Casualties of War is already absorbing all of Kevin.
While Bea Anne starts the second sink full of dirty dishes, Alona empties several boxes of books onto the nearly empty bookshelves, examining each book before storing it on one of the shelves built into the wall below the loft. Bea Ann, having finally shelved the last of the backlogged dishes, folds the laundry, and puts everything in the drawers. While Alona, down on her knees, wipes the entire wood floor with cleaner from under the sink, Bea Anne cleans the bathroom. Bea Anne moves back into the kitchen and shines the cupboards with Cabinet Magic. Alona vacuums the window blinds.
Alona climbs three-quarters up the ladder to the loft furnished only with another low Bali woven mattress and a half empty Costco size carton of condoms. Resting on the edge of the loft is a trapeze attached to two long twisted silk sheets fastened to the peak of the ceiling rafters. A little creeped out, Alona decides it best if Bea Anne and she sleep on the mattresses downstairs.
The cleaning complete and the clutter eliminated the only furniture is a low table, the chest of drawers, and two narrow low oriental style mattresses with horizontal-patterned woven covers against adjacent walls. Alona observes that the high cathedral ceilings, the large skylight, and the relative emptiness of the echoey open space lend a spiritual aspect to the home, perfect to launch her healing journey.
So far Bea Anne is a woman of few words. “I’ll make Vietnamese Pho now.” Alona has so many questions she doesn’t know how or where to begin.
Bea Anne gathers all her Pho ingredients and begins chopping the fish, lemon grass, ginger, and green onions for the broth. Alona places one of the cutting boards and a knife from the counter on the floor in the centre of the room under the cathedral ceiling, arranges the
banisteriopsis caapi roots for her ayahuasca on the cutting board, meditates on Mama Gaia shrouded in an intruding grey cloud of conversation fragments and past relationship implosions, and at that moment Bea Anne begins singing. A voice so heavenly Mama Gaia chases all the clouds cluttering Alona’s mind through the rafters. Alona releases her reservoir of unshed tears for Devon and more unshed tears for Randy Kale. She begins slicing the banisteriopsis caapi vines flavouring the pieces with salty tears. Alona cherishes Bea Anne’s vocal spirit echoing off the ceiling and blessing the healing roots.
Bea Anne knows her song not through a tune overheard long ago or a thought transformed into syllables and vibration, but through a spark deep in her womb, a spark gifted for Alona’s healing journey. From this spark Bea Anne sings and Alona chops and then pounds with a tenderizing mallet. Stirring the Pho with one hand Bea Anne begins rattling a bundle of lemon grass complimenting Alona’s rhythmical pounding of the roots, and both voices harmonize in a song for Alona to call the Spirit of Ayahuasca.
Bea Anne is unfamiliar with ayahuasca, a healing modality and a life force harmonizer practiced for centuries by people of the Amazon. Alona knows from her grandmother’s journals the Ayahuasca Spirit must call you to the healing journey. As she merges Bea Anne’s song with her own, Alona again experiences the voice of the Ayahuasca Spirit calling her to an internal journey. She slides her banisteriopsis caapi pulp into a cast iron pot, in which Bea Anne remembers cooking her child, Marvin’s first Pho. Alona adds the psychotria viridis, and barely covers the mixture in water. Alona takes over shaking the lemon grass, and Bea Anne complements the rhythm, lightly striking a metal bowl with her serving spoon. Their blended voices infuse her stirring motion with healing power. Their soundscape tempo builds to a crescendo. An unexpected glance from the moon through the skylight prompts their silence. They enjoy a moment of stillness.
Bea Anne serves herself a small bowl of Pho and offers Alona a bowl which she declines, having been called by the Aya Spirit she is committed to fasting. Alona leaves the ayahuasca mixture simmering and tidies up the kitchen.
Alona places the mats side by side under the skylight. They lie down and stare at the moon hovering above. Their breathing synchronized, they turn reclined on their sides and gaze into each other’s eyes. Alona wonders how Bea Anne’s tranquillity could be born from the events of an arduous life – a victim of a US invasion, a refugee in an overcrowded boat, and the sole survivor from her family in Viet Nam. How could Alona weigh her own pain against Bea Anne’s past? Alona loves Bea Anne more than anyone she has ever known. She craves Bea Anne’s inner peace, and thus, Alona sets the purpose for her healing journey and returns to the cast iron pot to stir the Ayahuasca Spirit’s Holy Sacrament.
In the limo to start the three hour drive up to the Haven Alona sits between Bea Anne and Dr. Nomendar on the very back seat. Other class members sit on the side couches of the limo facing the long central space. The limo stops in front of Devon’s building and Christine gets in and sits in the only available seat near the driver partition between the small fridge
and the portable wine rack facing the rear directly opposite Alona, who had already been catnapping. Everyone in the Gender Studies class knew Christine and Alona were roommates, so picking them up at different locations on top of the tense vibes clues a few in the group that all is not well. However, most of the class members are oblivious to the tension because they are jittery about how they’ll cope with the challenges of the Power of Yoni retreat.
Construction slowed their drive through a neglected part of downtown. A group of people sitting and lying on the sidewalk between shopping carts and broken cardboard boxes watch the limo stop and Christine jump out and throw up on the sidewalk right in front of them. A woman leaning against a shopping cart full of empty pop cans and beer bottles bends down and holds up Christine’s ponytails away from her mouth as she continues to hurl. As Christine stands, using two fingers the woman gently dabs away a long strand of mucous hanging from Christine’s nose and offers a Kleenex from her pocket for Christine to clean her face. Christine wipes her nose and mouth on her sleeve and hops back in the limo.
Christine can’t keep it down. Just outside of the city they stop at a service centre where Dr. Nomendar buys ginger ale for Christine and Kombucha for everyone else, mainly for the plastic bags in case Christine should need them again which she does.
They check in to the Haven. The healing space sprawls across an idyllic lakeside forty-five acre setting of manicured forest and winding paths connecting groups of log residences and large yurts where sages enlighten, souls connect, and spirits transform. Christine walks ahead while Alona helps Bea Anne up the path with her backpack. Several villas hanging off the cliffs shelter the billionaire class. Their cabin is a triplex with two other amenity equipped fir log units on either side. When Alona and Bea Anne enter the cabin, Christine has already claimed a bed and lies facing the wall looking over her Power of Yoni agenda.
Bea Anne empties her pack and neatly places her few items in the drawers by her bed, while Alona unfolds the cot, lies down and stares at Christine’s feet. ”Yo! Christine.” Alona kicks Christine’s mattress. “Look at me.” Christine rolls over and looks. “It’s okay Christine. You can have him. He’s all yours.” Bea Anne, waving her hands, urges Alona not to fight. Laughing to herself Alona gets right to the point. “Yeah, you can have him. He cums in like two seconds.” Christine belches and runs to the bathroom throwing up on her Power of Yoni agenda on the way.
Bea Anne takes Alona’s hand and pulls. Alona moves just enough up off the cot to let Bea Anne think she’s doing the heavy lifting. Alona slips on her best track suit, which she hasn’t worn since her Ecology of People and Plants performance, so she has to remove a few leaves from the inside of the shirt. Bea Anne puts on a tartan-patterned dress that was in the closet when she moved into her apartment at the Riverside Seniors Village and a huge straw hat with a peacock feather. Giggling at the outlandish hat, they look up as they pass under
the cross-eyed taxidermized moose head above the doorframe, and Alona says “Yo! Moose. Who you looking at?”
Out the door they are greeted by an incredible rush of late afternoon sun freshened air. They giggle on the way up the hill to the orientation and mixer in a large yurt. Applying a gentle pressure to Bea Anne’s back to ease her way up a steep section triggers a memory and Alona’s mood suddenly darkens as she recalls nudging Devon forward on their runs to the pool.
In the yurt under dimmable mood lighting forty women sipping champagne mingle in ten or twelve groups. Bea Anne takes a designer goblet of champagne from the bow-tied server, but Alona committed to her fast and ayahuasca dieta instead ducks under a table and rips away the plastic from a case of water bottles and takes one. Crouching under the table Alona scans the designer footwear arrayed around the yurt. Bea Anne enjoys the mini quiches, crudités, and shrimp bowing down to red sauce gurus in the centre of plastic trays.
Together Alona and Bea Anne wander attempting to mingle. Alona avoids her Gender Studies classmates in the thick of debating a rumour that Dr. Nomendar recently walked out on a throuple relationship with two self-identified males. An older woman with a shaved head and paste on eyebrows asks, “how did you find a studio apartment in Soho for under two million?” They pass by a tipsy woman in a silk blue Belle Epoque casual dress and blue Nikes who demands to know, “who do you have to fuck to get your kid into Yale.” Beaded Medusa braids nod in agreement to, “VA hospitals are dumpsters for America’s imperialist garbage. So, I went into private practice. Thanks to daddy’s money.” Local blond TV talk show host and reporter, Helena Boddle -- only there for the networking – is interrupted by the Haven Board’s V.P.: “Wait! You pay taxes? I’ll send you my accountant’s info. You’re claiming this weekend, I hope.” In a younger group Alona overhears a woman in a black Givenchy halter top, “if you don’t get her on the waiting lists before she’s three months old, you totally loose on the best preschools.” Opposite her a very pregnant woman in an identical Givenchy rests two Bettina Goldstein designer fingernails on Christine’s shoulder, who had just arrived, and confides, “don’t you know, we’re not doing the preschool thing. My nanny has a master’s in philosophy, so we’re home-schooling.” Bea Anne notices Christine stare at the pregnant woman’s tummy.
Alona makes a mental note to remember these conversations in case in the future she decides to write about bougee women. She will facilitate her collection of bougee conversations by staying very low-key and totally fade into the scenery for her stay at the Haven.
Wearing her usual black business pantsuit, Dr. Nomendar walks up to the podium near the rear of the yurt and rolls it out of way. As the conversations fade, the Belle Epoqued, tipsy woman, looking at Dr. Nomendar bellows, “oh my God, Kamala Harris.”
Alona aims her “Shush” right through her Belle Epoque into the woman’s heart. The room is silent.
Dr. Nomendar puts her hands together in prayer position and bows. “Welcome. If you are finished eating, please place your plates and glasses on the tables and find a comfortable seat in a circle on the floor. We have a few chairs for those who don’t do floors.”
Alona sits on the floor next to Bea Anne and the rest of the Gender Studies class sits near them in the circle spanning the entire yurt. Christine hurries to join her class on the floor but doesn’t notice until she is in place that she is squeezing in next to Alona.
The late afternoon sun shines in through the yurt entrance and beams over the circle to light Dr. Nomendar kneeling, calm, perfectly at ease with her place in the universe. Her smile commands the space. The yurt contracts in a in a quiet exhale. She addresses the group. “Thank you. Let’s close our eyes and begin with three called Oms.”
With her swimmer’s lungs Alona intones each Om thirty seconds longer than all the others, who peek to see who is Omming for so long.
“I am Gunjan Nomendar. I am honoured to share your healing journey for the next few days. As your guide, as your counsellor, as your personal angel, I am here to address your individual needs. Our activities may trigger different people in different ways. That is very natural. For those of you new to our work here please be patient with yourself. Some of you may experience the pain of the past. That pain is not you. It is a message. I want to help you translate that message. Your only job is to breathe. If you feel unsafe or threatened, please come to see me. Or if you just want to chat for no reason. I will either be here or near the picnic tables by the dock all weekend. If you want information about our activities, I would love to go into more depth with you. And know this. I do not judge. I will not judge you. I do not even know how to judge because I am out of practice at judging.”
Aura Blue stands at the entrance to the yurt, her blond wavy hair drapes over a long rainbow, hand woven cloak open a little more than the width of her sternum down the middle. Tied around her waist, a silk red loincloth hangs between her thighs. Dr. Nomendar continues, “On this exciting journey I am so honored to assist our spiritual leader, Aura Blue, the writer of ‘The Power of Yoni’. Our paths have crossed many times, first in Brighton Beach, England at summer camp where as teens we were camp counselors together. I taught crafts and Aura, who was across the pond visiting relatives for the summer, taught archery. After that we were roommates for two years as undergraduates at Yale, where I continued on to my Ph D, while Aura dropped out and became an internationally best-selling author and sought-after spiritual guide. Aa a novelist and writer of self-exploration books, Aura has been on the New York Times best seller list four times. I have assisted Aura at nine, is it nine already, no, no, ten Power of Yoni retreats. Namaste Aura. I’ll always love you.”
Acknowledging their reverent applause Aura walks through the seated group, smiling, waving, and pointing at several participants who appear to follow her workshop tours.
“Thank you Gunjan for organizing this event and bringing together these incredible people. Thank you so much. Welcome everyone. I am so happy we are here and happy about the
opportunity we have ahead of us. Wow. Isn’t this a stellar location? Even the weather is cooperating. Pretty warm for late October. Everyone, you must walk up the thousand steps to the hot springs. I’m offering a 10 AM workshop up there tomorrow, so many of you will be able to enjoy the hot springs in the morning. Have you all tried the lake? You will soon enough. Let me share a secret. I owe all this to Gunjan because I dropped out of Yale when she broke my heart. And my healing journey through a long and winding path led me here. To be with you. All of you. I’m starting to cry already. Thank you again, Gunjan. Let’s get started. First, I want you all to hug the people seated around you. We all need hugs.”
Alona hugs Bea Anne on her right and turns to her left where Christine latches on to her and won’t let go even as Aura continues. “The many familiar faces in the group know I am less about words and more about experience. Gunjan and I have structured our journey for the next few days around your experience of the four elements: Water, Air, Earth, and Fire. I am thrilled for us to get started on a fire and water experience. Let’s meet down in front of the straw arch by the lake in thirty minutes. As you read in your programme agendas, clothing is optional. We are here to love our bodies. Okay. So, you all give your body the biggest hug ever. Thank you.”
Thirty minutes later Alona, Bea Anne, and Christine walk down the hill to the lake in their one-piece bathing suits and the white Haven robes. Most of the participants wear bathing suits or shorts and tee-shirts, a few wear bikini bottoms only. Two sixty-year-old lean yogis, the millennial-lesbian-alternative-music duo from Portland, Sesame sheathed by her garden of floral tattoos, and Aura Blue who is lighting the massive straw arch with a torch, completely shed their clothes. Seeing them Alona runs back to the cabin and leaves her bathing suit.
As Alona runs towards the lake and the flaming straw arch, the sun, dipping below the hills across the lake, shines its final rays through the arch. Calling on the Divine Mother Power everyone is singing “Kundalini Mata Shakti, Mata Shakti, Namo Namo”, as one by one participants pass underneath the arch, a massive fiery vulva, and into the rebirth of the chilly lake. Bea Anne’s voice reverberates above the other voices, harmonizing an octave higher for a phrase and then dropping her pitch to blend with the multitude.
The flaming arch frames Alona’s athletic body. The sun, taking its last peek over distant hills, silhouettes her in a golden glow. Bea Anne’s voice soars. Alona sprints through the flames and dives towards the lake, all eyes watching every contour of Alona’s length undulate through the air and water. The entire gathering inhales collectively waiting for Alona to emerge for her first breath as their Shakti chant has transformed into a fading reverberation across the lake. The pregnant Givenchy woman, inspired by Alona, steps out of her Dolce & Gabbana one piece. Alona surfaces between orange and pink waves. The collective exhales a Shakti breeze.
While most can only endure the cold water for a minute before running for the stacks of towels and robes on the shore between the circle of propane heaters, Alona swims the kilometre across the lake. Bea Anne puts her arm around Christine who watches the sunset.
The goose-pimpled pregnant Givenchy woman takes a step closer and also puts her arm around Christine, “I’m Jessica by the way.”
Refreshed and less woozy in the aftermath of her rebirth, Christine prays silently. “Lord Jesus don’t let her drown.” Jessica points to Alona, now a small speck on a nearly dark lake.
As she swims, Alona is initially plagued by the spat she had with Christine in the cabin. Alona realizes she hates that part of herself. When she snaps. Now in the lake, naked, her swim stroke and kick totally in control of her speed and direction, she finds courage to remember in the past that she snapped. All the time. But never noticed. The rhythmical breathing of her swim calms her mind and helps her remember how other people reacted. To her snapping. How all the snapping started. It was the ‘time-outs’ in the isolation box. Alona barely remembered her mother first joining the Behaviourists’ commune. Structured optimal learning environments for children. Stimulus. Response. Positive. Reward. Negative. ‘Time- out’. Guinea pig children. Genius white rats in a maze. Alona snapped the first time they forced her into isolation. Alona’s tantrums resulted in longer ‘time-outs’. Her all-day tantrums went on for a year. Maybe years. Led to their expulsion from the commune. They lost their home. Her mother lost her lover. Or lovers. Alona was blamed. Alona swims faster, blame nipping at her feet.
Alona’s arms reach, pulling water harder and harder with each stroke. Memories flash by as if her arms through water open a deeper wedge of her past. Public school imaginary friend. Children shunning her. Against a wall, alone. High school boys. Showing their things. Chased every day. Run fast, faster. Poked down there with a stick. He was disgusting. Never knew what he did even existed. She snapped. Expelled. A year out of school. Then she really snapped. Alona was the one who was chased. Shrink said she had an exceptional imagination for cruelty. A mind baked in the isolation box. There he was. Not watching ahead. She saw the opportunity. In lacrosse you take the shot when it’s there. She just had to stick her umbrella in his path for the instant he ran by and over the railing he went.
Alona switches to backstroke. The first stars are out, and the moon is rising. Her arm reaching back in the stroke glances off a rock. She has reached the far shore and turns around, still swimming the backstroke, but slowing her pace so her muscles produce less heat for long enough for the bite of the cold water to intensify.
Alona swims a two-minute freestyle sprint. Regrets of her life are boiling up. Christine, the crosses. Devon, the Facebook Hypatians. Kevin, her inauthenticity. The Aya Spirit is calling. She pictures her grandmother’s writing, “Exciting Serpent’s Exorcism”. Alona believes in her analytical brain if the serpent allows her to exorcize that part of her that snaps, she will find tranquility. Like Dr. Nomendar. Like Aura. Her analytical brain supposes her ayahuasca brain and analytical brain live in different realities. That is what frightens her the most.
Alona, her muscles jacked, steps out of the lake. The music stops. Everyone and everything’s on pause. The women massaging feet, the women swinging in their hammocks, the women integrating their flaming arch rebirth, the women in the early stages of hooking
up, the yogis on the dock, all watch Alona tilt her head to the side and tap to remove water from her ears and then walk along the shore looking around like she came back to the wrong party. The Portland duo restart singing their only top one hundred hit, “the Inter- Dimensional Realms of Consciousness”. They rejoice in their perfect love, while Sesame and Aura Blue twirl each other on the sand with complete abandonment, absorbed by the cosmos.
Christine and Bea Anne hurry to enfold Alona in towels and a robe. They had worried since she disappeared from view. And as they hold Alona the three of them cry, tears of relief first, and then of joy. Christine had prayed with all her might for Alona’s safe return and now in their embrace on the shore Christine succumbs to the magic of the celebration, the Power of the Yoni, and her own rebirth. Jessica joins their group hug behind Christine.
Walking up the hill they plan the rest of their evening. Bea Anne and Christine want to check out the midnight seafood sandwich and pastry spread scheduled in the agenda. Alona is thinking the hot springs might be the best place for her Ayahuasca Ceremony later that night but doesn’t share her plans. Jessica is staying alone in one of the four-bedroom villas and invites them to stay with her so everyone can have their own bedroom. “We can relax in the private hot tub, and I can have the sandwiches and desert sent right to my patio.” Christine is eager to stay there, so they stop at their cabin, where Christine picks up a few things and heads up the hill with Jessica for the night.
Later that night, Alona and Bea Anne hike towards the trail head to the hot springs. In her backpack Alona carries two sleeping bags, water bottles, and four left-over lobster and arugula sandwiches on croissants wrapped in napkins and secured in covered paper coffee cups for Bea Anne. A separate pouch in the backpack holds the bottled ayahuasca.
Along the way on the trail, they hear two women arguing in the dark. “I can’t keep holding you together so you can put on your show for anyone with two thousand bucks, ‘Experience oneness. Go beyond the ego.’ This whole damn enterprise is just to feed your ego. There is ‘no beyond your ego’ because it’s too big to getbeyond . And you depend on me to convince you it’s all so authentic.? OK. I love you. But we’re not fucking seventeen anymore. Give me some God damn emotional space.”
The blond walks up the hill towards one of the villas, and yells back to the other woman, “you find somewhere else to sleep cause it ain’t gonna’ be with me.” The other woman is Dr. Nomendar, who turns and sees Bea Anne and Alona standing next to her on the path. Distressed Dr. Nomendar turns and asks, “did you hear that? I shouldn’t have said those things. After all these years Aura is still too dependent. She’s always been since we were teens at the summer camp. I just don’t want that kind of relationship. She’s getting impossible to work with.” Dr. Nomendar tries to calm herself. “So sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. I am so unprofessional to say these things.”
Alona never imagined Dr. Nomendar would have a relationship problem. Alona places her hands on Dr. Nomendar’s shoulders. “Dr. Nomendar, it is OK to feel frustrated. Walk with us for a while. Please. We’re headed up to the hot springs. I feel it’s really important for us to connect right now.” They start the one thousand steps. Alona and Bea Anne turn on the headlamps from their Haven hospitality pack to light the trail. “Dr. Nomendar, I must tell you two things. First, you have helped me so much. I am better at recognizing pivotal moments.” Alona pauses.
“I appreciate you telling me. And the second thing?” “Let me tell you at the hot springs.”
Bea Anne manages the trek up the hill, but they take it very slowly. Alona observes Dr. Nomendar’s uncharacteristic silence, and she chalks it up to a deep introspective state, or her rehashing her argument with Aura or both. Alona is suddenly aware her own observation of Dr. Nomendar’s introspection is itself introspective, and she feels a warmth flow through her veins. In the past Alona read other people’s minds only when she benefited. Now she is sad for Dr. Nomendar, but simultaneously happy at her own good fortune, leading these two prophetesses up the mountain. She lengthens her strides. The future awaits. The Aya Spirit calls. But so does Bea Anne. “Alona, who decided it was a race to the top?”
When Dr. Nomendar guesses they are near the hot springs, Alona runs ahead to check the remaining distance for Bea Anne’s peace of mind and to give her a chance to catch her breath. When she reaches the hot springs, a padlocked gate blocks the trail. A chain link fence winds through the forest in both directions from the gate. Alona chooses a rock about the size of a loaf of bread, and using both hands, raises the rock above her head smashes it against the lock as hard as she can five times, each smash echoing sharply off the cliff above the hot springs. She pauses to catch her breath, tries several more times, and repeats this until about the fortieth smash the lock breaks open. She hides the broken lock under a clump of moss in an old tree stump and opens the gate. Alona runs back down the hill to the spot on the trail where she last left Bea Anne and Dr. Nomendar. The trail is empty. No sign of Bea Anne or her headlamp. Alona calls them.
Crouching in a blackberry bramble Bea Anne shields her eyes from Alona’s headlamp and gasps for air. “Afraid you’d been shot. Gunjan. Went back to Aura. You haven’t been shot? Turn off headlamp. Who was shooting?”
Helping Bea Anne from the brambles Alona says, “I’m safe.” Alona doesn’t reveal the ‘shooting sound’ was the rock smashing the lock.
“Who was shooting? They. Coming back? Please. Please, turn off your headlamp. I am so scared.”
Alona turns off her headlamp and holds Bea Anne in her arms and feels her sobbing against her chest. Bea Anne’s fingers clutch her under the backpack. Alona whispers, “I’ll protect you.”
Once they pass through the gate, Bea Anne insists they quietly skirt the edge of the hot springs clearing to make sure they are alone. Small, landscaped patches and a lawn near the pools interject between nature’s own design. There are three pools carved by nature, a large one the size of a backyard swimming pool, a medium sized one good for a half dozen bathers, and a cozy hole for two tucked away between two boulders.
Alona soaks in the smallest pool, while Bea empties the backpack and arranges the sleeping bags, her sandwiches, the ice bucket from their cabin, and Alona’s Ayahuasca. Stepping out of the hot springs Alona notices how the two boulders contain the heat from the hot springs in their little spot. From a landscaped patch Bea Anne gathers a clump of long narrow crocosmia leaves dried by the fall weather. She shakes them. They make a soft rattling sound. Alona breaks off several cedar branches to conceal the entrance between the boulders. While Alona dresses and pours the Ayahuasca in a small tea mug, Bea Anne forms the branches in a loose weave, so the cedar stands like a door and hides their little nook between the two boulders.
Bea Anne eats one of her lobster sandwiches. Alona studies the Ayahuasca in her mug. Bea Anne says, “I watched you make the medicine yesterday. What will happen now?”
Alona smiles and shrugs her shoulders. “Nirvana? Bea Anne, thank you for. Being. Here.” She bows her head and places her lips near the rim of the mug. The odour is not strong, but it makes her shudder. A current surges up her spine. A single tiny bubble slowly rises from her stomach and out her mouth. She drinks the Ayahuasca. At first it doesn’t taste as bad as she’s read, but it’s still hard to get the half mug down. Her stomach knows what’s coming so the last small amount takes a strong act of will to drink. Alona shudders again as the Aya Spirit goes down.
Alona lies on her sleeping bag. She waits.
Bea Anne shakes the crocosmia leaf rattle and sings softly.
No altered consciousness. Ocean in her stomach. Calm. Low waves slowly slosh back and forth. Under her ocean an underwater volcano. Soft vibrations. Low pitched rumbles, almost below the threshold of human hearing. Volcano shakes. Rock cracks. Lava steams and gurgles through her stomach and part way up her esophagus. The pressure of the lava flow increases. Flares of lava shoot through her abdomen and message the stars above to send out streamers connecting all the stars to each other. The streamers between stars become brighter than the stars themselves and recompose themselves to form hundreds of small Quechuan dancers locked in continuously changing three dimensional geometric patterns. Their fingers and toes interlaced the dancers twist and tumble in the space above the clearing keeping rhythm to Bea Anne’s singing and rattling. Alona floats among the dancers. One of the dancers is her grandmother. Heavenly. It is Nirvana. The feeling is beautiful, and Alona wishes time would stop, but the beat of the rattle is time pushing on. Bea Anne’s song soars through the clearing and plays tag with the echo off the cliff and all the surrounding mountains. The sound waves from Bea Anne’s voice are visible above the clearing. A fourth
dimensional ocean, they lift the Quechuan dancers up and down the waves’ peaks and troughs. Alona rides a wave, gliding in an ocean of bliss snug between a caressing mass of Quechuan dancers.
The wave curves and twists back on itself forming a water funnel which spins faster and faster sucking the dancers toward an infinite depth. Alona is caught in the funnel which is outside of her body and inside her stomach at once. Two stars above her, spinning in the opposite direction, engorge themselves on other stars. All movement slows. Slower. Stops. Frozen in time. Alona sees the two stars are the yellow eyes of Panther clinging to the cliff just above her head. Panther’s eyes piercing. Heart pounds. Fear. Motionless. Muscles inert mud. Her mind pulses, “why did I do this to myself, why did I do this to myself.” She loses control even in the inescapable stillness. Panther growls. Alona panics. Petrified arteries flow backwards. Nowhere to run except inside. Can’t move. “Why did I do this to myself?” Quicksand in time. Quicksanded to the bones. Between her legs a serpent slithers out. A horror of cold slime on her thighs. Serpent rises vertically into the air, looks down at her, and opens its mouth exposing its fangs. From its fiery mouth between its fangs a second serpent slithers out and bends closer to Alona. Then from that serpent’s mouth a flame transforms into a smaller unfurling serpent. A tower of quivering serpents above her. Their eyes scan her body. Serpent Eyes. Serpent seers. Their eyes send out curly red-light probes into the fissures of her brain. Alona tries to scream. Paralyzed. The smallest serpent winds down the other serpents below and slides through Alona’s open mouth. Down her throat. Down her esophagus. Passes through her stomach. And cleaves to her intestines. Serpent becoming intestines. Intestines becoming the Serpent. She can feel the serpent slide its tail back and forth across her face. Panther leaps from the cliff and snatches the serpent’s tail in its mouth, clutches the sides of Alona’s head in its paws and pulls Serpent’s tail. Fangs pierce something deep inside of her. Serpent thrashes. Biting. Ripping the flesh of the distant past. A clear insight flashes for a second, a minute or an hour: This is going deep. Like Grandmother says. Go deep. Bea Anne’s beautiful voice. Wants to hear it forever. Very deep. Please, not this deep. Grandmother, why me? The panther tightens its grip on Alona’s head and arches its back pulling harder on the serpent’s tail. Alona feels Panther’s muscles tremble with strain. Each low vibration of its ancient voice unlocks a part of Alona’s self until self ceases to be. Total being, becoming the volcano under her stomach ocean. The volcano pulses, splits in half and spews a stream of lava blasting Serpent from her body and knocking Panther to the ground. Tidal waves of bubbling lava swell up from her stomach. Panther straddles Alona. She sees the wisdom in Panthers’s eyes. Panther whispers, ‘this is your Death, Alona.’
Bea Anne helps Alona sit up and holds the ice bucket under Alona’s chin. Alona purges a flow of black lava of her past. A gusher of sorrow. A palette of pulsing colour swirls around Panther whose face merges with Bea Anne’s, as the black lava in waves flows from Alona’s mouth. Release. Release. Release. Calm. And the beautiful voice goes on forever.
Over the next few hours Alona purges many times, not as violently as the first, but with each purge she let’s go. The Aya Spirit does not yet free her to speak, but Alona wants to tell Bea Anne about her incredible feeling of contentment. She tilts her head back from its position on Bea Anne’s lap and reaches for Bea Anne’s hands. Alona interlaces her fingers of both
hands with Bea Anne’s and sends pulsing messages to Bea Anne. Tears stream down Bea Anne’s face. Alona feels, she has finally let go. Of what she has let go, she cannot say. She has let go.
Alona listens to Bea Anne’s gentle snoring. She senses her journey is over. Content. But a little sad. There’ll be other journeys. She listens to a hoot owl. A few pebbles slip from the cliff above and splash in the pool. Alona slowly rolls her head to watch the ripples from the splash bounce off the sides of the little pond. Alona looks up and sees someone is climbing down the cliff. A few more pebbles roll down the cliff and into the pool. Alona wants to stand to shield Bea Anne in case other pebbles fall, but she can’t stand or even sit. Still in the Aya Spirit’s embrace. Moonlight shines on the climber’s legs, a gargantuan stretch in each step of her descent. Is it Aura? No. It’s Kamika. She releases her hold on the cliff, floats down, and catches a small cedar jutting out from the cliff. Swinging above Alona, she smiles. Kamika swings back and forth gaining height with each swing, releases her grip, and flips countless times before laying out mid-air flat above Alona. Kamika floats. Downward. Alona watches Kamika drift towards her. So slow. The air below Kamika compresses on to Alona. The weight of dense air flattens Alona out on the rock. Faces, feet, thighs, and breasts for an instant, touch. Kamika floats into her, through her. Their beings merge. She feels Kamika’s heart fusing with her own. From the inside Kamika using her fingers like paintbrushes creates swirling patterns on Alona’s mind.
Morning light. Bea Anne finishes her last croissant sandwich. Voices. Participants are arriving for the Labia Massage session. Over the chorus of chatter Alona hears Christine and Jessica laughing as they decide where to place their mats. Jessica says, “I was sure there was a third little pond here.”
Alona and Bea Anne peek between the cedar bows. The participants are fitting their yoga mats onto the small lawn around the largest pond. A strip of the lawn comes quite close to their nook. The Portland singing duo and the journalist, Helena Biddle, set up there. Across the lawn between the hot spring ponds Aura begins. “Let’s sit cross-legged in Suk Asana. Thank you and welcome to our session. We’ll begin connecting to ourselves, then I’ll guide you through the exploration, and finally we’ll have integration time in the hot springs. The hike up here took a little longer than I planned so let’s jump right into it. Our element for our exploration this morning is Earth. Mama Gaia. Mother Earth. The Power of Birth, the Gaia Yoni. Shakti. First, let us connect with our all Chakras before we return to focus on the Sacral Chakra, the spring of passion and intimacy. Close your eyes and let’s breathe into the root Chakra. We will chant ‘Lam’ seven times as we meditate on the color ‘red’. Let’s take a clearing breath. Inhale.”
Bea Anne whispers to Alona, “my grandson paid a fortune so I could come here. I’m going to take this class.”
Her eyes closed, Aura leads the group in the chant of the sixth ‘Lam’. Bea Anne crawls through a small space in their cedar bow screen and continues crawling around the perimeter until she reaches Christine part way around and lies down next to her. They’re meditating on the colour yellow for the Solar Plexus, the third Chakra, and chanting ‘Ram’ when Christine sees Bea Anne and her face lights up.
Alona wakes up to watch through the cedar screen the Labia Massage participants starting the hike down the trail. Bea Anne walks with Christine, who is wearing Jessica’s designer ETRO ikat jacquard safari jacket. Today Jessica is wearing a turquoise kimono with mauve and rose accents over a first-time worn sage green and chartreuse Dolce & Gabbana one piece bathing suit.
In the limo smoothly coasting down the freeway on the return trip to the university everyone is sitting in the same seat as on the trip to the Haven. Alona has a clear mind. She realizes she is not carrying on imaginary conversations, plotting revenge scenarios for fictional characters, or devising plots to manipulate patriarchal males. She is content to breathe, watch the mountains, and listen to the rhythm of the windshield wipers. Alona looks at each of her Gender Studies classmates. A few are dozing, most are journaling to help process Aura’s final challenge to them: “Use this weekend’s lessons to harness the Power of the Yoni. Begin your journey today.”
Alona watches Iko thumb through her sketchbook of nudes from the weekend: Two women doing head stands on the dock. A dancing blond in the throes of ecstatic revelation. A woman flying through a flaming arch towards the sun setting behind a mountain. A woman, ikat jacket over her face, suspends her hands above her yoni radiating zig zag energy lines towards a smiling feminine moon. In the corner of the drawing a cloud shaped like a panther reaches towards the cliff below.
Dr. Nomendar breaks the silence. “After brunch this morning I had a little tete-a-tete with a workshop participant who praised one of my students. She couldn’t say enough. Intelligent. Creative. Funny. Kind. It made me so proud. She is offering this student a summer job. I should know this woman’s name. This wasn’t her first retreat with us. She was staying in one of the villas. She’s pregnant. Her name is, oh bother --”
“Jessica?” Christine, wearing Jessica’s designer ikat safari jacket, guesses. “Christine, you really impressed her. Great person to know.”
Christine bubbles. “Honestly, without Jessica this weekend would have been totally stressful. You know she had her own hot tub. Late Friday night we’re like chilling in the hot tub, and she asks me what workshops I’m taking. I mention Labial Massage and ask her if
we each get our own plastic model or do we share. She starts howling and just can’t stop. I explain in high school Family Studies class three students had to share one plastic model. She tells me I should be a professional comedian like Sarah Silverman. I keep asking, ‘well, do we share? do we share?’ and she keeps laughing; she even laughed so hard she threw up a little in her mouth. Finally, she catches her breath, gets out of the hot tub, and says ‘let me show you.’ And she shows me exactly what we do on herself with no plastic model. She was very thorough. She even reviewed the important procedures. Several times. Then she says, ‘your turn’. I get out of the hot tub and lie there. I wait for a while. She’s just watching me. I think to myself, ‘am I supposed to do it to myself?’ So, I ask her, ‘Am I supposed to um?’ And Jessica says, ‘let me.’ And I say, ‘you’re probably better at it.’ And right way I can feel she is better, and she is following the same procedures she practiced on herself. Her procedure reviews were thorough and detailed and I will remember them forever. Well, the next day in the Labial Massage workshop I peeked over at Jessica next to me and said to myself, ‘Wow, my friend, Jessica, the hand of experience!’ Alona, I am so happy you and I have ironed out our difficulties, even though we do have some work to explore, but I have to say, meeting Jessica was the highlight of the weekend.”
Dr. Nomendar says, “thank you for sharing.”
Most of the group returns to journaling. Christine rips a page from her journal, writes a message, folds the page, writes ‘Alona’ on the folded paper, and passes the sheet down the row.
May I, please, move back into our dorm room? Put a check mark in the blank which best describes your decision and pass this note back to me.
No All my love,
P.S. I sent Devon a text.
I am not seeing him anymore.
Alona borrows Iko’s pencil and checks the ‘yes’ box, refolds the note, and passes back it up the row of her friends.
Iko checks her phone and sees in her in-box a link to Ian Wilde’s Ecology of People and Plants video featuring Alona’s project proposal. Ian also had edited her dance and poem.
His video had been accepted into the San Francisco International Dance Film Festival. The tea about Alona’s dance spilled all over campus and everyone in the limo is dying to see it. The driver remotely lowers the multi-media video screen behind Christine, who moves to sit on the floor at the rear of the limo leaning against Alona’s knees. Iko can’t connect her phone to the screen, so they ask the driver who instead of connecting to Ian Wilde’s video, mistakenly broadcasts on the screen the top YouTube hit of the Ecology class featuring Ian’s clips of Alona’s dance, incorporated into a news item from the TV journalist, Helena Boddle:
“This is Helena Boddle reporting from the Experimental Forest, the scene where controversial Ecology professor, Dr. Skye Riversong, sanctioned a provocative drug-induced presentation by student, Alona Brane.” Cut away scenes, taken from Ian Wilde’s video, showing Alona writhing on the ground, dancing wildly, and contorting her orange and blue streaked face play out over Alona explaining, “the chacruna offers the DMT. In concentrations it gives you the high. In higher concentrations hallucinations. It plays in the synapses of your brain.” Helena Boddle continues, “this is Dr. Riversong’s third violation of university policy in as many years.” Boddle asks Dr. Riversong, who appears in a close-up, “what grade did you give Ms. Brane for her, well, project?” Dr. Riversong answers, “considering Alona’s originality, her use of visuals, quality of presentation, and theoretical imagination, I gave her a 39 out of 40.” Boddle concludes the report, “39 out of 40. This is Helena Boddle reporting from the Experimental Forest. Back to you Chris.”
Alona wonders why she lost the one point out of the possible forty. Ito blurts out, “that bitch was at the yoni thingy.”
Devon truly felt his union with Christine was the real deal. Forever and off into the sunset. Then bam! Her text! Christine couldn’t just dump him to his face. She had to text him. He was devasted. What he had with Alona, now with the perspective of hindsight, was, at best friendship with benefits. Occasional benefits. He and Alona also shared a passion for writing, but a shared literary interest cannot compare with the bond of physical chemistry he shares with Christine. Besides, Devon truly loves Christine and she said she loved him every time they made love, which was twenty-nine times in the week since they first hooked-up.
Devon had worried when he heard Alona and Christine would be spending the weekend together at the woman’s conference. What was even more worrisome was something Alona
said about Hercule in his story,
Old Tales for a New Beginning: “Hercule’s capacity for forgiveness was totally fucked; Hercule’s capacity for revenge was fucking infinite.” It was clear to Devon now, by some weird coincidence, Hercule was Alona’s alter-ego which explains most of if not all of Alona’s weirdness. When he reviewed the history of his relationship with Alona, the realization struck him that Alona could convince anyone of anything, and Alona’s obsession for revenge drove her to convince Christina to dump him.
Devon can’t control his rage. He wants to destroy the last vestiges of Alona from his apartment, but there are no vestiges. He stomps around, going from room to room looking for the one nick knack, one sentimental token she might have given him. There are none. Zilch. She never gave him anything. With this state of mind, Devon opens his Collective Creation website and types the beginning of a new story:
Anola Gay, the Atomic Hook-up
by Devon Rose
On the first day of the semester when Anola Gay walked into Physical Chem ten minutes late, three dudes literally dropped their beakers. The only open lab station was next to me. How random? I had to catch her up on the first few lab procedures and as she mouthed, ‘thank you’, her ankle orbited the inside of my leg.
A few weeks later, after the prof returned our first lab quiz, she observed I was struggling with my calculations of titration and viscosity. I high-key wanted to ask her on a study date, but what would a radical specimen like her want with an absolute zero mole like me. I took a chance and she even seemed eager to exchange numbers, but her number just crystallized in my phone.
Astronomers predicted that the Saturday night meteor shower would be the greatest of the century, but I didn’t care because I had no one to share it with. At 1 AM I awoke and checked my phone. A dozen texts from Anola! The last one sent only seven minutes earlier:
Hey Linus. Watching meteor shower? Find me, 50 yd line, practise football field, 1:30 AMJ
I arrived under the goal posts and her magnetic field from her position on the 50-yard line hyper-attracted and supercharged every election in my body. She vacuum-pressured me across the field and into her arms where molecule by molecule we lowered ourselves to a resting state.
On the ground, side-by-side, as we watched the meteor shower, I could feel the surface tension in our shoulders pressing, bonding, dissolving, and re- bonding into a final isotope. Just then she orbited her ankle around my calf like she did when we first met. I felt my chemistry rising. Each syllable of her poetry precipitated in my ear heating my blood to the boiling point:
Falling stars fizzle,
Fragments forever forgotten In the infinite firmament.
But below, firm, hard earth Spurts the magma of creation.
Anola’s verse quickened the meteor shower. Her magnetic resonance sucked me through time and space back to the Big Bang. My tastebuds accelerating electrons to an excited state in her deepest orbital I activated her aqueous solutions. My tungsten, shifting to a wider orbital, faster than a quantum particle, traced and retraced the symbols from the Periodic Chart of the Elements and the third time through reaching Uranium, her back arched, her nails dug into my skull, and her moans and screams radiated across the field towards the Meditation Club, also watching the meteor shower, who stood and applauded.
She was on me in a flash. Taking me to the brink Anola quickly jumped to her feet, and we watched shooting stars shadowing my cataclysm into the sky.
Devon posts the beginning of his story. Parameters for his website visitors: two speaking characters only -- Anola Gay and Linus Polidori. Non-speaking background extras are permitted with Devon’s approval. Suddenly all the new activity around Devon’s latest Collective Creation post is causing the Facebook and other social media algorithms to accelerate the traffic towards his site. He soon has 821 collaborators and is spending all his time maintaining his Collective Creation website and amalgamating all the contributing posts into a viable novel. After one week, the characters in his story, Linus and Anola, had engaged in approximately 1500 different sex acts on seven planets, floating through the rings of Saturn, clinging onto a comet, and on the Magic School Bus in a Black Hole. Devon decides to wait another week before accepting this as proof of his hypothesis that the devolution of the group mind to the lowest common denominator is directly correlated to the rate of acceleration of contributing posts on the site. Devon wishes someone could snap a photo of Alona when “Anola Gay, the Atomic Hook-up” bomb drops in her lap.
Except Alona and V, all the members of the Creative Writing Seminar participate in his story creation. They suspect the Anola in his story is Alona from the class.
On Tuesday, only two days after the retreat, Alona arrives early to the Creative Writing seminar. In one corner of the room Devon and Kevin in a heated argument lower their tone to whispers when they see Alona enter. In the opposite corner Bea Anne and Mai hold hands as they chat. Mai sees Alona and says, “OMG, Bea just can’t stop raving about you. Your bravery. Your wisdom. She loves your swimming too. You made her so happy, Anola, because you never treated her like an old lady.”
Bea Anne says, “Alona. Her name is Alona.” Even Bea Anne has seen parts of “Anola Gay, the Atomic Hook-up” and is angry about it.
Mai singsongs, “I know your name, A-lo-na.”
Once the rest of the class arrives, Kevin begins. “We have several items on the agenda today. V wants to read a new section of her piece and get specific feedback on a style choice: Using series of short sentence fragments for dramatic effect. And a few of you want to revisit Maneesh’s tale of the stranded tennis players. Was it the issue of cannibalism? Mai wants to address the trans character in Devon’s piece. Perhaps the idea was ‘borrowed’ from a classmate. But first, I’d like to address the elephant in the room. Everyone here is familiar with Devon’s Collective Creation website.” Devon slouches and stares at the ceiling.
Kevin continues, “Alona, I gather you are familiar with the story like the rest of us.”
Alona hears ‘Devon’s website’, ‘story’, and ‘elephant in the room’ and wonders how Kevin figured out she ghost-wrote half of Devon’s story about Eliahu and Ora. Alona could be expelled for breach of the Academic Code of Conduct. Even knowing this, Alona still decides to tell the truth. “I am very familiar with the story. In fact, I want to admit right now.”
Kevin interrupts. “Before you say anything else, and before things get ugly, I want us to agree to keep whatever happens in this discussion in this room.” Several students nod agreement.
One by one Bea Anne stares down the few students who did not nod agreement with Kevin’s request to keep the discussion private. This little staring down trick, with a slight Buddha smile and an imperceptible nod, she picked up as First Secretary of her local Young Cadres group in Viet Nam. Kevin is surprised Bea Anne helps the class reach consensus so amicably.
Kevin walks over to switch on the multi-media projector already connected to
Anola Gay, the Atomic Hook-up. He turns off the seminar room lights. Everyone looks at the wall displaying Devon’s original post. As Alona reads it for the first time, Kevin continues, “last week my colleague, Dr. Riversong landed in a bit of hot water because sensitive class material was misinterpreted by the media. I have upmost respect and admiration for Dr.
Riversong. She did nothing wrong. She allowed her students freedom of expression. The students in her class shared their research and inspired each other. What happened in this class with this story is a different matter. I want our discussion about the post projected on the wall to be a learning experience. For me as well. Let’s not blame or shame anyone. OK. Let’s try to maintain our academic objectivity. I want to invite your comments about the balance between total artistic freedom and a writer’s responsibility for others’ emotional well-being.”
Alona reads Devon’s post for the first time. She had not looked at her phone or social media since the day before the retreat, so had no way of coming across Devon’s new story. Alona chuckles at the clever use of Chemistry and Physics terminology. Perhaps the story is mildly titillating. For some.
Anola Gay, the Atomic Hook-up
exists in cyberspace. It’s immortal. It’s futile for Kevin to try to contain it. But Alona understands one thing far more profound. The internet will be the Bible of the future. Physics and Chemistry will be the Genesis and Exodus of the twenty-second century in a watered-down version easily digestible for the masses looking for an easy answer. Science is already a new religion and the more views ‘Anola Gay, the Atomic Hook-up’ gets the greater the probability the story will become part of the twenty-second century religious canon. Alona is intrigued by even the remote possibility of being the Bat Sheva of the New Religion of Science. Not Salome though. The John the Baptist head on the platter. Too gruesome. Not even Hercule beheaded anyone. And just like the Bible is very loosely connected to actual events, Alona admits to herself, so is
Anola Gay, the Atomic Hook-up. Although Alona sympathizes with Kevin’s point, she feels basically he should relax. Besides, she accepts that deep down for what her Facebook Hypatians inflicted on Devon and his
Old Tales for a New Beginning,
she deserves a literary spanking. She relishes in her moment of introspection, proud of her new glow.
The door flies open and bangs against the wall. Two County Sheriff’s Deputies and two Campus Police crash through the door. Their guns are drawn. All the students raise both hands high. They are stunned. One of the deputy’s holsters his gun, steps into the multimedia projector beam, and holds up a warrant. The deputy has a photo of Alona.
In the shadow Alona stands. Across the room Devon stands. “Alona Brane, that’s you?”
“Alona Brane, you are under arrest for vandalism, public mischief and felony possession of stolen property. Face down on the floor, your hands behind your back.” Alona kneels and starts to lie face down but stops when Devon kicks a chair over. V grabs Devon’s shoulders, but he shrugs her off.
Devon walks into the light beam and right into the Sheriff’s grill. “You dudes might want to slow your roll.”
“Right now, your obstructing justice, son. Step back.” Both deputies wave handcuffs.
Alona, says, “Devon, stop. Don’t be Hercule. Stand next to Bea Anne. Devon, listen. My Facebook Hypatians. They controlled your story.
Old Tales for a New Beginning.”
Devon backs away from the deputy. Bea Anne meets him. Alona, still kneeling, “There were no other contributors. Just me.” “Did she just confess?” The deputy asks the hypothetical jury.
“Sarge, she’s just looney.”
Kevin reacts, “you know nothing about this student. She isn’t a criminal. She has a brilliant mind.”
“Bud, you can’t be the professor.”
The other deputy snickers as he grabs Alona’s shoulders and presses her to the ground, face down. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law You have a right to an attorney. If you can’t afford one, an attorney will be appointed for you.” He handcuffs Alona, yanks her to her feet, and shoves her out the door.
Everyone follows and watches the deputy’s hand guide Alona’s head into the police cruiser. They are speechless. How can they return to their literary trivialities after one of their classmates has been dragged away?
Bea Anne breaks the silence. “Kevin?”
“Can anyone follow them to the police station?” Kevin asks.
V volunteers. “Anyone have a car I can borrow? I’ll follow.”
Kevin tosses his keys over the heads of a group of dazed classmates to V who snatches them out of the air. “Take my Vespa!”
“I’ll go too.” Bea Anne follows V through the flower beds. **** *
Handcuffed in the backseat of the police cruiser. Toddler’s isolation box trauma escapes a secret ward of her mind. She listens to Kamika’s heart beating with hers. They are in synch. This is the Hot Springs Aya Experience. Not the backseat of a police cruiser. This is Bea Anne singing under the skylight. This is her grandmother watching the dancers from the Eagle’s Nest. This is her grandmother’s spirit in the Quechan Dancer. Her eyes, her face smiling at the Quechan Goddess.
At the police station, after being formally charged, finger-printed, photographed, strip- searched, and rubber-glove probed, they put Alona in a cramped cell with a dozen other women. Paint is peeling off the cell walls, floor, and ceiling. Between the paint peels the walls are stained with the ancient residue of fifty-thousand bodily secretions. The whole cell was constructed from cement poured into a mould, even the benches. Alona sits on the only available cement seat, rests her elbows on her knees, and her chin in her hands.
A woman with a missing front tooth and a nose that had been broken a few times gets off the lone toilet at the centre of the back wall of the cell and flushes. She is not shy about the stench she’s released into the overall putrefaction of the cell. She walks up to Alona, bends down, firmly squeezes Alona’s thigh and threatens. “Move! Sweet puss, you’re sitting in my seat.”
Alona looks up. Pivotal moment. Ready to snap. Alive in the Aya second between fight or flight. Amygdala, don’t. Not here. Not now.
The woman squeezes harder. “Look college girl, I just rubbed bleach on my boyfriend’s dick, so I don’t give a fuck what I do to you.” She starts to grab Alona’s crotch, but Alona catches her wrist. Kamika’s strength.
Alona stands, releases the woman’s wrist, walks to the empty space at the centre of the cell, places her hands on the floor and kicks up into a handstand. She does two handstand push- ups, slowly lowers herself into a plank position, and whips off twenty-five push-ups clapping her hands mid-air after every five. Her few cellmates not suffering heroin withdrawal, pick-up on her hand clapping pattern and clap with her the last two times. Alona rises to stand on one foot, reaches back grabbing her raised foot, and connects the foot to the back of her head. Alona balances in this position on one foot for a long time. Even a few junkies start watching.
A couple of women sitting on one of the benches slide apart and one of them patting the small space on the bench invites Alona over. “Honey. Don’t you worry. Mama Lulu won’t let nothing happen to you. You sit over here between me and Tayvona. Come on. We don’t bite.”
Alona gracefully moves out of her dancer’s pose and squeezes in between the two women.
Tayvona says, “Baby, keep us company for a while. We could make you soooo happy. You might be here for no telling how long. No. Wait. You, Baby. Na uhn. You getting out sooner than any of us. College girl, right. Aw, look at her, all smiley. You going right back to the clean sheeted dormitory and all that bougee cafeteria vegan mantra salad bullshit. Oh yeah! You are. Boyfriend? A girl like you. Look at ya’. You got a mother fuckin’ hot boyfriend! You be outa’ here riding him like a stallion before any of us even gets lunch. Baby Girl, you can have any guy you want. You know that, don’t ya’. Wait. I’m getting’ a message. Ground
control to gaydar. Ground control to gaydar. No. Baby Girl. Not a boyfriend. You ain’t got no boyfriend. A girlfriend! Right? Ladies? A girlfriend! Am I right? She better make you really happy, because if she don’t, Tayvona is first in line. What do you study? Don’t tell me. Let me guess. I know it ain’t fashion design. Sport Science. Sociology. Physiotherapy? Massage Therapy! You smiled. Massage Therapy. Sweety. Just rub my back right there for a minute.”
Alona massages Tayvona’s back. “Oh, Baby Girl, I was right. You are a Massage Therapy major. Oh. Oh. I got the valedictorian masseuse doing me right. I had career aspirations. Once. Got good grades and all. Oh, Baby Girl, that’s the spot. I had nine months training as an Xray technician. Life got in the way. Now I’m on the street. The mother fuckin’ street. Shoulda’ took the road not taken. You got magic fingers. Baby! What other magic do you do with them fingers? Baby Girl, you got my imagination runnin’ wild. Slower and lower. Lower.” Tayvona has sweated right through the back of her shirt and her 1980’s Adidas jacket. “Hey girl, what they got you in here for anyway?”
“They say I stole Buddha. But he was just visiting. I’m innocent.”
“Baby Girl, in here we’re all. Innocent. As. Fuck. Baby Girl! Baby Girl! Oh Jesus! Oh Jesus! Oh Jeez.”
For two hours Bea Anne and V have been waiting outside Courtroom 3 for Alona’s court assigned public defender, Bill Tortman. His paralegal, after meeting with V and Bea Anne, had forwarded the evidence and prosecution’s charges against Alona to Mr. Tortman. From the Public Defenders website V recognizes Mr. Tortman coming out of Courtroom 3. As he rushes down the wide courthouse corridor, they approach him and tag along. “Excuse me. Mr. Tortman. I’m V. This is Bea. We’re friends of Alona Brane.”
Mr. Tortman checks Alona’s file on his phone. “Oh, yeah. The Buddha thief. Walk with me to Courtroom 1. I’m running late.”
“What’s happening with Alona’s case?”
Mr. Tortman refers to his phone as he explains Alona’s case. “She’s charged with felony theft, public mischief, and vandalism. The evidence. They found the Buddha in her room, and they have an affidavit from Christine Wright saying Alona brought the Buddha into their room. Walk faster, please. Plus, they have another investigation pending. Ms. Brane endorsing hallucinogens. Their evidence. A news video of Ms. Brane in her Ecology class published on YouTube. 485,000 views. Aya, ayahuasca promotion. I don’t even know what that is, so it’s probably not a crime if I haven’t heard of it. But still, it does tip the scale against her. I think I can talk the prosecution down to three months in county if she’s lucky. 485,000 views. Not bad.”
“When will you talk to Alona?”
“I’ll talk to her in court a couple minutes before her trial. Here’s Courtroom 1. See you at her trial.”
“What about bail?”
Inside Courtroom 1 Mr. Tortman is already getting mobbed by several of his other clients.
Bea Anne is disturbed by the revelation of Christine’s affidavit against Alona. She thought they had all become close friends at the retreat. Bea Anne can’t get Christine’s betrayal out of her head. V asks for directions to the Bailiff’s office.
V and Bea Anne pull up on the Vespa to Kevin’s condo complex. The Bailiff had looked up her case on the database and told them Alona had been released. When they walk into Kevin’s townhouse, Alona’s organizing a huge delivery order from Osaka Sushi picnic style on the floor. Kevin is uncorking a bottle of cabernet.
V snags a piece of ahi sashimi and asks, “how’d you get out?”
“An officer just comes to the cell and tells me I’m being released. When I walk out of the jail building, there’s an Uber waiting for me. Thanks to Jessica, Christine’s new friend from the Haven Retreat. This is where it gets totally weird. Helena Boddle, you know the TV reporter. She was at the retreat too. She’s doing an in-depth story on me and Dr. Riversong, my Ecology prof. Someone at her TV station tells her I’d been arrested for Ayahuasca, which is totally bogus, but Helena Boddle emails Jessica and that’s how Jessica finds out I was arrested. That reporter thought Jessica might know me and wants to throw background shade on me. Jessica and I talked at the retreat. She asked if I was on a swimming scholarship. Bea Anne, you got pretty tight with Jessica too. After the Power, Politics and Your Yoni roundtable Jessica and Christine ate dinner with us. That was Saturday night. We had the salmon stuffed with asparagus tips and crab meat. Bea Anne, you ate all my okra with pine nuts after I had eaten all the pine nuts. Anyway, Jessica looks into my arrest. I guess probably because she knows I’m Christine’s roommate. Just an hour or two ago Jessica calls the State Attorney General who arranges for my release. My punishment. Two Saturdays’ community service. Raking leaves at the Japanese Garden. When I get here, I check Facebook on Kevin’s laptop and Jessica has messaged me about the Attorney General and all. Jessica was my Get-out-of Jail-Free card.”
Alona sees V eyeing the last piece of the South Beach roll and chop sticks it to her mouth, already half full of dynamite roll, and continues her saga. “Anyway, just before you arrive, I get this second message from Jessica saying she doesn’t think I should rake leaves. She says, I should work on my on-line profile. She says my community service at the Japanese Garden is a perfect opportunity. She’ll send her personal gardening crew to rake the leaves so I can concentrate on talking to the media who she’ll also send there to film me raking a few leaves just for social media and the news broadcasts. Jessica wants me to become an influencer.
Christine too. She ordered my new look for my community service. Check it out. She sent me this link from ETRO.”
V checks out the ETRO site on Alona’s phone. “Aaaw, the innocent look. Baby girl’s getting a major glow-up.” Alona freezes.
Alona is still in the dark about Christine’s affidavit testimony about the Buddha because no one mentions it. Kevin has been curious about the ‘Facebook Hypatians’ Alona mentioned during the arrest. Who or what are they? His imagination has gone wild with the literary possibilities. Besides his grandmother, Alona is the most interesting person he has ever met. For a second, he wishes she wasn’t his student.
Everyone fills up on the sushi as they make fun of the expression on Kevin’s face when the police barged into the Creative Writing class earlier in the morning which seems like days ago. They laugh about little Bea Anne desperately hanging on to the six-foot four V on the back of the Vespa as they scurried after the police cruiser. They laugh about Bea Anne eating her California rolls with a knife and fork. They laugh about ‘Anola Gay and the Atomic Hook-up’ and Devon squirming in his chair when he thought he would have to listen to everyone talking about freedom of expression versus emotional well-being. Everyone did a mime re-enactment of Devon’s line, ‘shooting stars shadowing my cataclysm into the sky’. Even Bea Anne, who also had to explain that ‘Enola Gay’ was the name of the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. Not even Professor Kevin recognized that allusion in Devon’s writing. With her chopstick V chalks up extra credit for Bea Anne on an imaginary blackboard.
Kevin checks his phone and rushes off to teach his six o’clock first year lit class. On his Vespa thinking about the Facebook Hypatians, Kevin runs through a red light and is stopped by one of the Campus cops at Alona’s arrest. The cop asks about Alona like she was a lost best friend.
Alona wants to show Bea Anne her Ecology class’s projects in the Experimental Forest. Alona leaves Kevin a note telling him not to wait up. They pack a backpack with a few blankets, a Tupperware of the leftover sushi, and two headlamps Bea Anne had taken from the Haven. The Uber drops V off at her place and lets Alona and Bea Anne off at the Experimental Forest entrance. Night is settling in, so they need the headlamps to navigate to the remote area where the Ecology class makes its base.
Several projects have made impressive progress, an underground two room shelter with a completely camouflaged entrance, a fashion display of skirts made with ferns. The fern skirt group have choreographed a dance to a percussion score played on hollow logs and rain sticks. Having two dancers on the gymnastic team guarantees them a half million Insta views. The Papa Gaians still have the most imposing project.
With Alona right behind her step-by-step Bea Anne makes it up the morning glory ladder to the tree house. The Papa Gaians have updated the interior, two hammocks suspended towards the rear of the large main room, a cedar bark rug handwoven by another Ecology class group, and a decorative 3-D hanging of amanita muscaria mushrooms hung from braided morning glory roots in the centre of the room.
Out of breath from her climb up the ladder Bea Anne rests on the cedar bark carpet. They take their headlamps off, and Alona balances hers on the floor and shines it towards the corner of the Papa Gaians nest to create shadowy mood lighting. She settles in besides Bea Anne. They both stare up at the mushroom hanging. “Bea Anne, I want to ask you a question. Have you read Kevin’s story?
The Blue-Green Turns Red?”
“He published it six months ago. I read it every day except the days we were at The Power of the Yoni retreat. I think I could repeat it, word for word.”
“Is it about you? Even the names are similar. ‘Bian’, B. I. A. N. and ‘Bea Anne’, B. E. A. A. N. N. E.”
“Yes, it’s about me. ‘Bian’ and ‘Bea Anne’ to me are the same. That’s who I am. Kevin was writing a story. But it’s not all true. Tong never killed Mai Vihn. He never saw Mai Vihn. Tong wasn’t even my brother’s name. It was Lam.”
Alona feels a strange sense of loss. And shame. She had invested so much hatred against Tong.
“No one ever surprised Mai Vihn and I at our secret spring or our hideout. But some things are almost like Kevin’s story. Mai Vihn saved me from the massacre in my village. His company murdered everyone. My mother. My sister. Everyone.”
Alona takes Bea Anne’s hand and says, “I am so sad for you. So, so sad.” Alona is aware of the tightness swelling in her chest and tries to imagine what it must feel like to be Bea Anne.
“I brought Mai Vihn to the mountain hideaway which I visited with my family as a child. Mai Vihn and I started to make a nice life for ourselves there. He was a kind man, but he was a child too. I was a child and we liked to play. We taught each other those songs like Kevin tells in the story. At first Mai Vihn was shy. He would hide his eyes when I undressed. Like in Kevin’s story Mai Vihn found a piece of a Buddha statue and I placed it on the alter. He made me happy. I had never been with a man. I was only sixteen, same as him. I approached him. Late at night. After I prayed to my ancestors. He was gentle. I love him. He was my first. I love him so much.” Bea Anne starts to weep. Alona holds her for a long time. Outside the wind whispers through the trees of the Experimental Forest. A gentle rain falls.
“Alona, I want to tell you the rest. Some things I told Kevin to help him write his story, some I’ve never told anyone. He wanted to take my truth and let it speak for all victims of all wars. But he also wanted it to be like
Romeo and Juliet. His high school put on
Kevin played Benvolio. He was very good. I don’t know how he remembered all those lines. Since then, everything he writes is like
Romeo and Juliet.”
“Kevin wrote a good story. His story respects my memories. I’ve read it so many times. Sometimes his story almost replaces my memories of what really happened. It was true that Mai Vihn and I needed to make reed mats because the monsoon was coming. We followed the stream down the hill where it connected to a river. We followed the river until we came to several excellent beds of reeds. We collected some from several locations so we wouldn’t leave any suspicious signs. That’s all true. We heard a patrol of American soldiers on the trail above us. I always told my family and friends, ‘we lost each other when a battle started around us’. That’s all I’d say. This is what happened. Mai Vihn wanted us to join them. The American soldiers. He wanted us to be rescued. He wanted me to come along. I was pregnant with his child, but I hadn’t told him. I was too afraid to join the Americans. He ran up the riverbank and called to them. He called the Americans. I saw a few soldiers help him up a muddy section to the trail. He called back to me, but I hid. I couldn’t understand English then. I think he told them I was in the river. I think he wanted to run back and get me. I heard them argue. I don’t know what was said. Then the shooting started. I hid in the reeds for a long time until after the shooting stopped. When I climbed up to the trail no one was there. I followed the trail for a while until I ran across four Viet Cong boys or young men on the trail. They were boys. One of them had a bullet wound in his shoulder. All of them were burned and cut. They had been separated from their comrades. They were lost and hungry. They wanted a safe place to sleep and recover.”
“Kevin had asked me what the Viet Cong were like. I told Kevin a little about the lost boys. That’s why he put them in his story. But I never told Kevin how I helped them. I never told anyone. Political attitudes were different then. Even liberals were against the Viet Cong.”
“I brought the Viet Cong boys to our spring and then up the hill to our hideaway. We stayed up there together while we took care of – his name was Tong, the wounded boy – we took care of his wound. I had rice and other food. They were very thankful they found me. They saw Mai Vihn’s rifle, his helmet, his socks drying on a twig, even a raggedy pair of his underwear we used to scrub our rice pot. I told them I found the things by the river, in the reeds. But I could still smell Mai Vihn in our hideaway. On his sleeping bag. In the air. They believed me that I found these American things. They wanted to trust me because we felt safe up there. The Monsoon came. We stayed dry.” Bea Anne is silent for a while.
“What happened to Mai Vihn? Did you find him again?” Alona asks.
“Many years later I found out. Maybe the same day we were separated at the river. Maybe a day or two later. The company he joined was in battle with Viet Cong. American lieutenant called in the wrong numbers on the map to the Air Force. Jets dropped napalm on four men and one of them was Mai Vihn.”
Alona holds Bea Anne in her arms and cries, at first for Bea Anne, and then for all the people who suffered in the war. She wonders to herself, how do we let wars like this
happen? Who decides? Alona cries about the cruelties she has inflicted. She cries about how she acquired her capacity for cruelty. They rest.
Raindrops are slipping through the roof of the Morning Glory Treehouse. The Papa Gaians need to update the roof. They sit up and Bea Anne tightens the weave in the cedar carpet. Alona lifts the carpet and suspends it between two of the hammocks. Bea Anne and Alona wrap-up in their blankets under the raised cedar carpet in the treehouse. They share the sushi digging into the Tupperware with the plastic forks Bea Anne had packed.
Alona holds Bea Anne’s hand and asks. “How did you get here, to America? Please tell me everything.”
“I stayed with Tong and the other three boys. I still remember their names. Duc, Long, and Phung, who did have a squeaky voice like in Kevin’s story. That was my idea. Tong’s wound wasn’t getting better. I thought I knew where we could get medical help in a village. And Duc, Long, and Phung wanted to meet up with our liberators, our Viet Cong soldiers, and help free Viet Nam. They were dedicated. That is what America didn’t understand. Our dedication. We were fighting for our land and families. Americans fought for hatred of communism.”
“We finished our last rice, the rice Mai Vihn and I found, left our hideaway, and I went with Tong a day’s walk North to a village. Some women with knowledge of the old medicine applied poultices to Tong’s wound. Acupuncture too. Everyone in the village knew we were there. People were friendly and kind. They were glad to see Tong recovering.”
“I stayed with Kim Li, an old woman in the village. She was grateful I could take care of her because she now had no one. Her daughters had been killed. Helicopter attack. Landmine. Bomb. Crossfire. Agent Orange cancer.”
“One thing I have to tell you about. You don’t have this in America. From the day I was eleven years old I joined the Youth Cadre. We were a political group. We wanted land reform. Fair redistribution of big, big land sections owned by one greedy person. When I was fourteen years old, I was First Secretary of my group. I traveled to a few other villages and gave speeches to interest other young people in our cause. Some political people had heard of me. I was approached by a group of special Viet Cong. They had been university students like you. I’m not sure if this is the right word. They were saboteurs. Quan was the leader. His wife Chi was there too. They wanted me for a mission. Alona, please, you must never tell anyone this secret. Promise.”
“I agreed to work with them. They didn’t have to convince me. I just said yes. I wanted to liberate our country. The district administration was run by General Nguyen of the South Vietnamese Regular Army. He was a brutal enemy of the Viet Cong. He was forcing peasants to leave their land. Land held by their families for centuries. Bullied into places General Nguyen and the South Vietnamese Regular Army could defend against people
fighting for our freedom. He was corrupt too. He used money for the peasants’ resettlement to live like the rich capitalists.”
“Quan wanted me to steal codes from manuals in the General’s office. The key to the cabinet where the manuals was kept hung around the General’s neck. The General’s office was in a military compound, like a fort. You had to go through a guarded gate to get into the compound.”
“The General and his friends had prostitutes visit them in the compound every day. The plan was to have me pretend to be a prostitute to get into General Nguyen’s office. Put poison in his drink. Then find the key. Steal the documents. And leave.”
“I was sixteen. Over three months pregnant with Mai Vihn’s baby.”
“A famous pimp brought girls to General Nguyen. The pimp had a family. A wife. Three children. Quan and four other men from our group went to the pimp’s house in the middle of the night. I waited outside with Quan’s wife, Chi. They told him I was the next girl for General Nguyen. I didn’t know but they held the pimp’s family hostage. This part I found out after the mission. I feel bad about this still. Quan arranged with the pimp for me to meet the General. Chi, took me to a hotel room where she dressed me in a short red dress, did my make-up, hair, and gave me the poison. It was wrapped in a little piece of paper which I put in a hidden pouch in my bra.”
“Chi walked me almost to the entrance to the compound. She waited a short distance away in a vegetable stall worked by our people. She had two bicycles and a change of clothes for me stored in the vegetable stand.”
“The pimp came with Quan to a café near the compound entrance. I met him there and he took me to the compound gate, gave the guards a bribe, and left. The guard looked in my purse and the bloody rag Chi had placed there caught his attention. Quickly he sent me on, and a soldier escorted me right up to General Nguyen’s office. I heard voices on the other side of the General’s door. A Colonel opened the door. He and General Nguyen had been drinking whiskey. I smelled it on their breath. I was afraid they would force me to kiss their whiskey breath. The Colonel said I would entertain first the General and then him. This was not what Quan planned. I only had enough poison for one. If you use too much there’s a chance the poison would be tasted and make them suspicious. I told them I have something very special, a song. I sang ‘Bali High’ from ‘South Pacific’. They loved it. The General had the record right in his office, and he said I sang it almost as well the record. The General offered me a singing job for one night the following week to entertain high up officials. He offered me a lot of money to sing at the party. He didn’t want me to tell the pimp.”
“I saw on his desk the one-quarter full whiskey bottle. The whiskey glasses in their hands were nearly empty, and the Colonel went for the bottle. I put my hand over the top of the bottle and made a suggestive gesture with my hand. I told them. ‘My next song. It will make you both very happy, but first to get ready for you, both of you, I need to be in the office alone. Make a toast when you see me in a minute.’ I was desperate. I didn’t know what to
do. They left the office and took their glasses. I closed the window shades and curtains. I took the poison out of my bra and poured it in the whiskey bottle and shook it. I took off my dress and hung it over a corner lamp. The office glowed red. I thought of my unborn child, Kevin’s father. Somehow, I found courage. I opened the door, and they came in. I rubbed up against them as I refilled their glasses. It was painful and sad to do, but I tried to smile. I sang ‘Telephone Hour’ from
Bye Bye Birdie
in Vietnamese with the words Mai Vihn and I had written. They were sipping their whiskey as I sang. They laughed. They commented on my talent for showing different characters. They loved the song. But more, they liked the newness of a Vietnamese girl singing an American song. They wondered how all this was possible. The General praised me throughout the song, my first time through it. He asked. Why I hadn’t been brought to him before? Both of them unbuttoned their shirts. The General wanted to have me as soon as the song ended. He took off all his clothes and finished his drink. Without stopping in between, I sang ‘Telephone Hour’ a second time, a third, and started a fourth. They didn’t notice the repetition. They thought it was a long song. I saw the General was having difficulty standing. He collapsed on the couch behind where the Colonel was sitting on the edge of the desk. I couldn’t let the Colonel turn to see the General who was having trouble breathing. I stepped up on the desk and danced very close to the Colonel. I sang louder and made my dancing more appealing to distract the Colonel. I looked down into his eyes pretending to like him. He finished his drink in one gulp. He turned to go to the door maybe to ask the lieutenant for more whiskey, but he stumbled and landed against the door. He saw the naked General gasping on the couch and then he knew they had been poisoned. I stopped singing. He took out his pistol from his holster and tried to aim it at me. I jumped down and ducked behind the desk. The Colonel stumbled across the room towards me and fell on the desk. He tried to raise his gun towards me. The poison paralyzed him. I grabbed the whiskey bottle and I hit him on the head with it four times. He watched me hit him, but he couldn’t move. I went to the General to look for the key. His eyes were open. He started grunting. Very loud. Maybe the Lieutenant outside the door would think it was the General having pleasure. But I had to quiet the General. I thought about my mission and the danger of being caught. I thought about the peasants he had executed because they wanted land reform. I thought about the baby in my womb. I stabbed the General through the eye with a bamboo chopstick. I found the key. Opened a few cabinets. I found the code manual. I used the General’s shirt to wipe their blood off my hands, face, arms, and chest.”
“Outside, on the other side of town there was a big explosion. Quan had organized a diversion. Quan planned for me to rip out the most recent code pages, roll them up, and put them in my underwear in case the guards searched me on the way out. Chi had taken me aside and said I should put them in my vagina. She gave me bloody cloths to put in my underwear. The guards wouldn’t touch a woman who was bleeding and wouldn’t check her with their fingers. I couldn’t tell which were the important pages. The most recent codes. I was afraid to take the wrong pages. I put the whole manual in my purse. I put my dress back on. I was so terrified I wound be caught at the gate. I tried to act calm. Most of the soldiers from the compound had left to see about the explosion. The only guard left climbed a tower to look at the smoke from the explosion and motioned me through with his hand. Hiding under some blankets in the vegetable stall Chi helped me remove the makeup. I dressed in peasant clothes, and we rode the bicycles out of town back to the village.”
“Quan and Chi visited me where I lived with Kim Li. Quan told me the code book was valuable and helped Viet Cong patrols. He told me it was better I was able to steal the whole code book because the South Vietnamese army reused old codes. He made me feel I had helped the cause. On another visit he asked me to get ready for the next mission. People respected Quan and Chi. They saw Quan’s gratitude towards me and esteemed me too.”
“General Nguyen’s Lieutenant had heard me sing through the door and the South Vietnamese Regular Army was looking for the singer who had murdered the General. Quan told me I should not sing. In the local region a legend grew. The legend of General Nguyen and the singing assassin. I overheard neighbours telling the tale. Her enchanted singing stunned the General, and when she leaned over him, a poisonous snake hidden in her hair bit his penis. In a nearby village, they told of a scorpions nest washed down his throat with American whiskey.”
“Everywhere there were many young widows. Once my pregnancy showed, very few people asked about my husband. If someone asked, I cried because I had lost my love. I cried because I was trapped. Kim Li never asked. She knew suffering.”
“But my greatest fear was a white baby. I called my baby ‘Mai Vihn’ after his father. ‘Mai’ is a girl’s name, but ‘Vihn’ is a boy’s name. And when I gave Marvin the name, he didn’t know this. I never thought about the future and how people would judge the name. But the future came and my baby, Mai Vihn was born and had light skin and a nose longer than wide. Everything changed. I was no longer esteemed.”
“I left the village with my baby and moved to a shanty town outside Saigon. Many girls my age had mixed race babies. The Catholic Church helped orphans and girls like me. I was an orphan with a baby. The nuns and priests hoped we would convert, but they didn’t want rice converts, people who pretend to change beliefs. I remained a Buddhist. In the shanty town I helped the nuns with the choir. When Saigon fell to the Communists it was better for us to leave the country. I was one of the boat people. Our boat nearly tipped in a storm, and we were rescued by a U.S. Navy ship. From a camp in Macau, I wrote to one of the nuns who I helped with choir. She formed a group and after many years of writing letters they brought Mai Vihn and I to Eglin Airforce base in Florida, one of the larger Vietnamese refugee camps in America. From there I tried to contact the family of my baby’s father. I looked up addresses in the phone book. After some embarrassments with the wrong Machelmanns, I found Marvin’s family. I wrote them letters. I told them I spent a few months with Marvin in Vietnam. I told them their grandson was with me. They told me how Marvin died.”
“They weren’t sure if they could trust me. They had grown mistrustful of the military. At first, the army did not reveal that Marvin had died from napalm. They mistrusted life. Mr. and Mrs. Machelmann visited Eglin Air Force base. They took Mai Vihn, then ten years old, and me to a Chinese restaurant outside the base. They thought I would like it. They were surprised I ate Chinese food with a fork, while they used chopsticks. My English was pretty good. I told them my story from first meeting Marvin. Of course, I didn’t mention General Nguyen.”
“Mr. Machelmann told me how proud they had been of Marvin when he wrote them from Vietnam. He told me he bragged to his buddies. He told them, ‘See what my son’s made of.’ He said they voted for Nixon, both times. They thought Nixon stood up to hippies and peaceniks who undermined America’s strength. After what happened to Marvin, he said he and Mrs. Machelmann changed. They learned. They were destroyed by how the army treated them. They had hired a lawyer to get Marvin out of the army. Marvin was sixteen. The Machelmanns regretted driving their son away. Because they never listened. Mr. Machelmann broke down. Mrs. Machelmann helped him. She never thought their only son would die. He was such a talented boy. She asked me if I really heard him sing?”
“We went back to their hotel room in Pensacola. They told me, they wanted to believe me. They feared disappointment. They had been disappointed so many times. I wondered how I could prove I brought their grandson to them. I sang Marvin’s songs. ‘Bali Hai’. ‘My Favourite Things’ -- our Vietnamese version. The song lyrics, the choreography, were all coming back to me. Like it was only yesterday that Marvin and I had so much fun together. I sang ‘Telephone Hour’ – also the Vietnamese version. I sang ‘Put on a Happy Face’ in English with the choreography that Marvin taught me, the choreography he and his old girlfriend Margaret made up. When I finished they sat in stunned silence. They remembered Marvin and Margaret showing off the dance. They remembered. It was one of their last memories of Marvin alive. They cried. I cried. My son, Mai Vihn cried. They welcomed me and little Mai Vihn to the family.”
“My baby Mai Vihn became Marvin, after his father. My baby is Kevin’s father.” **** *
I read your poem and made your recipe. I write this poem back to you.
During the past several weeks since her arrest, Alona and Christine saw each other mostly as one ran out the door and the other ran in. Alona and Bea Anne had been spending every possible minute together. Bea Anne attended most of Alona’s classes with her. They ate together. Several mornings while Alona swam laps, Bea Anne did the Dancercise class in the shallow end.
Jessica would pop into town and bring Christine over to her Hyatt suite or her Airbnb for a night or two. But Alona and Christine did schedule a little time to redecorate their room together. They hung two of Iko’s drawings inspired by the Haven experience. Alona flying through the flaming arch into the sunset. The moon smiling down on Christine, the ikat jacket covering her head. Jessica sent them matching sheets, designer quilts, throw pillows
and a traditional Tajikistan carpet, handwoven by the tiny fingers of seven-year-olds. They bought a potted bamboo. They framed Alona’s ‘One Hundred Baby Dragons’ Vietnamese silk weaving. It did hang over them a reminder of Devon. No crosses. No Buddha.
It was only hours since Alona went in the uber with Kevin and Bea Anne to the airport to see Bea Anne off. Christine and Alona are lying in their beds in the dark. Christine asks, “Alona, are you awake?”
“Not really.” Alona fibs.
“Alona, I don’t mean this as a criticism, but you never like share anything about yourself. Like, what’s going on in your head. In your life.”
“OK, Christine”, Alona says, “I want to share something with you. Walking back today from my new job on Dr. Riversong’s research project I thought of you.”
“Me? That makes me feel happy. How’s the job going?”
“I help Dr. Riversong with an experiment on pregnant women’s pheromone communication. The subjects, you know the women we observe in the experiment, don’t know we’re studying pheromones. We tell them we’re examining attitudes toward tourism. The subjects privately watch a fifteen-minute video debating the question: Does tourism exploit poor countries or does tourism help the poor by bringing in dollars? We observe six women at a time. They wear cardboard boxes covering them from the neck to their knees, so no one can see that two of the women in each group of six are pregnant. Each box has 484 uniformly cut holes to allow the passage of pheromones. We give the women twenty-five minutes together in a very small empty room to discuss the tourism question. They must stick to the topic and not reveal personal information. At the end of the discussion the women secretly record the number on the woman’s cardboard box whose attitudes on the tourism question most agrees with their own. We’ve tried this with seven groups of women. Every time the pregnant women select each other regardless of the attitudes they expressed in the discussion. So far, we’re corroborating Dr. Riversong’s hypotheses that pregnant women detect each other through pheromones and readily establish emotional bonds. Applying Dr. Riversong’s hypotheses to a real-world case, I realized you and Jessica mutually selected each other the first night of the Power of the Yoni retreat. Jessica’s pregnancy-attuned pheromones subconsciously hooked up with yours. And also considering. You puked in the limo. Do you see what I’m getting at?”
“You’re guessing I’m going to have a baby? Jessica had me take a pregnancy test. I’m pregnant. I’m fine. I guess. Not looking forward to telling the parents. I still don’t know what I’m going to do. Thanks for thinking of me. It really means a lot. I’ll need friends now more than ever. Alona, I never had a friend like you. My age. I can say anything to Jessica, too. She laughs at me most of the time. But, Alona, you and me, that’s special. Hey, by any chance do you think Dr. Riversong would let me be one of the pregnant women in her experiment.”
“Since we’re sharing. Alona, I’ve been feeling really bad about something for a while. Like totally terrible. Did you notice our new light fixture? The LED. Remember the old fluorescents. They twinkled and buzzed for a long time before they finally came on. Well, the electrician who installed our new LED remembered the missing Buddha from the Japanese garden, because he installed the lighting for it, and he thought it resembled your Buddha and because it was a gift from the University of Osaka and your Buddha has a tiny plaque that says University of Osaka. And when his lighting came on at night in the Japanese Garden, it was lighting an empty space where the Buddha used to be. The electrician asked me about your Buddha, and I said you brought it in here in the middle of the night. The timing here is important. The electrician installed our LED’s just after you left here to spend that weekend at Devon’s. I was in the lowest of lows. I was so hurt because I felt you were tormenting me with the crosses, then the campus police knocked on the door and they questioned me about the Buddha, and I told them all the details about you bringing Buddha in here. They recorded my statement and came back with an affidavit which I signed. They took the Buddha and found the floor stripper under the towel, which they let slide because they didn’t want to do another affidavit. Since then, but especially the weekend at the retreat, because of all the meditation and stuff, well not the whole time at the retreat, but some of the time, especially when we were eating, because it reminded me of the Last Supper when Judas betrays Jesus, I felt guilty about that affidavit and about the Devon thingy, because I definitely don’t want to be Judas. I don’t know which is worse. The Devon thingy or the affidavit. So, I think if I clear my soul, there’s no way I’m Judas.”
“Christine, to answer your first question, did I notice the new LED light, right up there? Yes, I noticed it for the first time when I came back here early one morning to change into my bathing suit in the dark and just before I walked out the door, I flipped the light switch on and off. For a fraction of a second. And normally the old fluorescents would dimly flicker and buzz for a while. But this time I got a bright flash of you and my ex-boyfriend naked in the bed. It would be shocking enough to see you and my ex-boyfriend naked with the old sputtering dim lights. But never having experienced the new bright lights, and not expecting them in the least, when they flashed on in a nanosecond, I was fucking traumatized. What was your next question?”
“Do you think I’m Judas?”
“Judas had a beard. You don’t.”
“Alona, I’m serious. Will you, please, pretty please, pretty, pretty please forgive me?”
“I probably did worse. Much worse. But I never fucked anybody’s boyfriend. I never even fucked Devon. In a way I did. But it wasn’t sex. What I did was a nasty way to fuck him though. I guess you and Devon fucked a lot.”
“Alona, just to set the record straight, we made ‘love’.”
“You were with him five, six nights before you switched to Jessica.”
“Six. Devon or Jessica. Jessica or Devon. Eeny, Meeny, Miny Moe. When I think of doing it with Devon, I feel us squeezed into a go-cart on a superhighway racing to a destination. A twenty-foot mound of cotton candy. And we crash into the middle of the cotton candy. Really sweet while it lasts. But twenty minutes later all you’re left with is a sweet stuff crust. Jessica, what can I say? Jessica is a Sunday drive. You buy an ice cream cone in the country. You pet baby goats. You watch the sunset on a lake. That’s her. Well, not totally her. Because even with Jessica there’s still plenty of superhighway go-cart racing. Jessica’s taking me to Paris for Thanksgiving. Flying Air France first class. We’re going to see Bejart. I don’t know what it is, but it would be more fun if I didn’t feel so bad about you and me.”
“You know the day you showed your parents all the crosses on the wall. It upset you. When I saw you had put the sheet over the Buddha, I went totally physiological, one hundred percent fight or flight. Racing heart. Clenched jaw. Wanted to punch the wall. I concocted the ‘tormenting’ cross revenge plan within a second. And I went into action within another second. Emptying my backpack. Grabbing my credit card. Out the door. But, in those two seconds where was the true Alona Brane? Could she open the door to free will? To self- reflection. To be truly in the moment. I learned a lot from Dr. Nomendar about that. I don’t think we’re stimulus-response automatons. Do you?”
“No? I’m not sure I have an opinion on that. But does that mean you can’t forgive me?”
“Don’t worry about the affidavit. I was in jail two hours. It was an experience I wouldn’t want to miss. About the Devon ‘thingy’. Now that I think about it. And hey, thanks for making me think about it. I cried. Lots. I guess it did hurt. I remember the feeling now. Now I can almost feel it. Then, the person I thought was me wasn’t really feeling it, but the me I didn’t know existed felt it. Do you know what I mean?”
“You have a split personality.”
“That too. Devon and I. We were a huge bubble about to burst. You just busted it sooner. That’s all. Seriously, you have a good time in Paris.”
Christine jumps out of her bed and onto Alona’s and hugs her. “Thank you so, so, so much!”
Christine lies with her head on Alona’s shoulder. Alona relaxes and after a comfortable moment says, “I was thinking about the pheromone experiment. Christine. I cut 484 small holes times six boxes this week for Dr. Riversong. That’s 2896 holes I cut. I was wondering. Could you rub my back?”
Christine reaches under Alona’s tee-shirt and massages her back. They breathe together just like in Dr. Nomendar’s breathing exercises. Alona melts into the massage. She remembers the twenty-foot pile of cotton candy the instant Christine remembers, “Bea Anne! Oh my god! Bea Anne. I almost forgot, you and Professor Machelmann took her to the airport today.”
“A little harder, yes under my scapula.”
“Alona, you spent like three weeks with her. I’m impressed. No one our age would normally hang out with an old woman like that.” Alona grabs Christine’s hand. The massage stops. Alona rolls over, faces Christine, and squeezes both of Christine’s hands in hers. They look into each other’s eyes. They breathe together, but this time the breath comes from a sacred place. They share tears. Alona feels her tears fall, fall, and fall. She feels warmth, strength, beauty, love in her heart. Attachment. She knows her tears are not sad tears. She is happy.
Christine asks, “Bea Anne. Did you get to know her?”
“Yes.” Alona’s smile widens. “Yes, I did get to know her. Bea Anne. Bian.”
To save time inventing names she randomly selects names on torn up pieces of paper from her running shoe, two names for each bogus Facebook account. Alona opens Facebook accounts for Portia Falstaff, Olivia Macbeth, Antonio Puck, Miranda Richard, Henry Hamlet the Fourth, Rosalind Petruchio, and many others.
Unlock the heart, release its sentry.
My heart is full in a chest once empty. Look what’s trapped in mind’s secret room, Neurons’ synapses starting to bloom.
Aya’s gift, we’ll never part.
Kamika dear, you beat in my heart.
A Question for the Ayahuasca Spirit
Hallowed Banisteriopsis Caapi, how do you prolong Aya’s embrace? Who was the ancient Quechuan Goddess to first cut the Caapi vines? Oh, Goddess what power whispered in your ear
And was the power always here?
A remnant of a reptilian migraine. A power verbiage could never
For ancient truth lost in abstract brain, Where
In memories assigned to secret
In relationships like falling
On forest trails that were never ours?
On faces by nature’s hand, painted? In recipes not that complicated??
In language lost on the tip of the
On paths not taken; songs unsung?
Through fears of my own mortality?
Through guilt, carnality, sexuality.
Lifting the veil of self that blinds Caapi
In Blood, and Bone
In Nerves and Muscles, In Ova and Sperm
In the Black Hole of the Gaia Yoni
Chacruna, Groom of the Caapi Temptress, Psychotria Viridis, Mind Truth. You, Chacruna, are the Yang to the Caapi
Magical Caapi, in your cosmic embrace,
Elongate Chacruna’s desire beyond time beyond space.
Inciting Serpent’s Exorcism Prolonging Panther’s Paroxysm,
delight At the quench of their sacred
Purging reveals, purging heals. Purging, Purging,
Reveals and heals.
Recipe -- Remove caapi bark and cut into small pieces. Pound into a pulp between two stones. Add caapi pulp and dried chacruna leaves to cast iron pot. Cover with water. Simmer and stir by moonlight. Be patient. Be loving. Plant spirit makes the brew through me for
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