Harp & Altar
POETRY
Donald Breckenridge

Oisín Curran
from Mopus

Heinrich Heine
translated by Peter Wortsman

Zachary Mason
from The Lost Books of the Odyssey

Derek White
from Marsupial

Leni Zumas

from Mopus
Oisín Curran

William the Silent tugs absently at his eyebrow and says, Well that’s enough about the end. Can’t just keep going over the same ground again and again. Let’s try and move on. Or back. Here I can’t afford words without consequence. What I’d like is an empty verb, a husk of noise to use just once and have it weightless on my tongue. Instead each word’s another priceless item wasted. Another misplaced segment of the key to my release.

He opens his book to a marked page and ponders it. He says, According to the book it’s quite simple.

He reads aloud, By bringing the beginning of the reverie into proximity with its end, a closed circle is formed. Or more accurately, a noose. It is simply a matter of drawing the daydream out through its own slip knot until it’s cinched to the vanishing point. In this way anything can be cancelled out, even a life.

He puts the book down and looks into the distance. He says, But how does one do this, exactly? For instance, I’ve made my own double, and my daydream of the double moves backwards, more or less, while my original goes forward as best he can. My thought is that they will meet–one at his end and other at his beginning—but I can’t quite see how to do this.

He pushes his glasses back up the bridge of his nose and looks at the table full of bread crumbs left by Bluebottle and Asa. He says, Where are those intruders now? Those bubbles of the earth.

Bluebottle: I was no more than a shift in a pattern of light.

   Asa peers into the lightness of trees. Pockets of sun, or mini-spotlights that cross and bob, weave, what one calls, Dappled Light.

   I seem to remember this, whispers Bluebottle and nobody hears him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

___   ___   ___

 

Bluebottle and Asa rest on tree stumps by the side of the road.

Asa: I didn’t like all that back there—the barking, the voice.

Bluebottle: It’s this war. You never know what’s going to happen. They must have been ghosts. A dog and a man.

Asa: But what was the man saying?

Bluebottle: He spoke in a ghost language. I understood nothing.

Asa: (carefully) Do you think that might’ve been your dog? The ghost of yours?

Bluebottle: (quickly) Impossible. Mine’s tracks go on. Look.

He points to the gravel shoulder where the paw prints continue.

Bluebottle: I think they were ghosts from some other world, not ours.

They rise and stretch.

Bluebottle: My dog never barked at me.

They walk into the mountains, not stopping as the sun goes thudding down. Everything falling, even the air. Bluebottle unzips before a tree.

Bluebottle: I’m peeing blood again.

Asa: Do you still have stomach pains?

Bluebottle: As we speak.

He stumbles into the inky forest and throws himself headfirst on the ground, nose digging into pine needles. Asa stands guard and then sags against a tree and in the night drops down by inches to the ground. He might dream of sleeping in his bed at home, and there dream of fishing quietly in a mountain brook.

When he wakes he finds that they’ve slept near a wide stream cutting through the forest. He bathes in it, shivering, then rouses Bluebottle who strips and floats sleepily, naked in the freezing water. He looks down at the stream-bed pebbles considering his size, the water he displaces, how much air he breathes. His skin is hard and dense. He dives, rises in a rush of breathing and climbs up to the grass.

Donning his clothes, he stretches and looks around at the sharp-edged morning.

Behind a birch, the face. Her face. Her eyes drill into him. Then she disappears.

Bluebottle runs after her.

Asa: Bluebottle?

Bluebottle: Give me back my dog!

Asa sprints after him through the trees, through fluorescent leaves that wander down around them.

Suddenly the forest gives way and they fly out onto the road.

Nobody there. The road curves away through trees, empty in either direction.

Bluebottle: #?!@+=?%!!!

Bluebottle paces up and down. Asa wants an explanation.

Bluebottle stops pacing and looks down into the roadside ditch. Paw prints in the mud. He strides off down the road, on the trail again. Asa sighs and follows.

They walk and walk. Down past the Dead Lakes. Down past pylons, pawn shops and fast-food joints. They walk through fifteen traffic lights, then back into the trees. On the other side of the woods they enter the Organized Territories. They walk on, past fields of potato rows. Then trees again. The stars pop out and dragonflies give way to moths. As they pass by, residential developments boot up their defense systems, and in the forests, the skidders and bulldozers and four-wheelers all fall silent for the night.

The next morning they wake up in a potato field, stiff and hungry. They return to the road and pick their way through the fumes, the cigarette butts, the weeds and empty soda cans, until they come to a diner.

Worn linoleum floor, booths upholstered in hot vinyl. A portly mustachioed waiter seats them. Asa points vaguely at the menu. Bluebottle’s head slumps on the table top. His eye is level with patches of sticky ketchup and salt crystals scattered on formica. He feels that today the world is corked inside a bottle. Sounds have short echoes. Mute light slips from a glass of water.

The waiter lowers two plates before them and exits.

Asa: (quietly) Mary, mother of Martha.

He stares down at a slab of gristle and fat.

Bluebottle says nothing and starts eating. To distract himself he concentrates on the chrome of the napkin holder where he notes the wobbly reflection of a hold-up in progress. Men in balaclavas gesture silently with sub-machine guns.

He turns to observe their technique but the thieves have de-materialized.

Bluebottle: Surgical.

Asa has seen nothing. He’s reading the newspaper. Gagging on a chunk of fat, he turns the page and the table erupts in a flurry of crackling paper.

Asa: (reading) WAR HEATS UP, Operation Yes Yes deployed. Transchronical orbiters positioned to fire indifferent heat waves upon Future O8Q-T115 (FAR3, the Third Future Anarchist Revolution). Megalomaniacal FAR3 commander (the “Anarch”) threatens Armageddon or similar retribution. Meanwhile the crack Anti-Apocalypse Squad infiltrates sects, cells and cabals that fulminate against the cosmos in any and all time fields.

The waiter leaves the bill.

Bluebottle: (whispering) I have no money.

Asa checks his pockets.

Asa: I have a dime.

Bluebottle and Asa leave the diner at a clip, chased vigorously by the waiter until they hurl themselves onto the flat bed of a supplies truck resting at a traffic light. The waiter jumps on too, but they shove him off. The light turns green and they’re away.

The truck drives to a train station’s loading dock. A security guard waves the driver on and the truck moves into the darkness, turns two corners and descends a ramp before Asa and Bluebottle slip discretely off into the shadows.

The brake lights of the truck recede and disappear. Now the shadows increase. What light there is comes down through layers of grating. As they stumble on, even that light peters out and in a short time they’re completely lost.

Bluebottle: I can’t go on.

Asa: (in despair) Stop here.

They sit on a train rail and rest, pondering their position in silence. Far above them they hear the roar of a train leaving the station.

Asa: This sister of yours, this ghost—

Bluebottle: Listen.

Out of the darkness, a small engine. A baggage cart. A man with a beard steers the vehicle and stops when he catches the two travelers, huddled and pale, in his headlights. He waves for them to climb aboard, and gratefully they do.

He drives them into the bowels of the train station, down rain-soaked elevators, through corridors lit by torches, deep into the maze of public transport, until, turning a corner, they see a square of light that grows with their approach. They enter the light and it blinds them. The driver parks in the glare which, little by little, settles into form.

Bluebottle: Hell.

A room made of human bones.

A chandelier of vertebrae and femurs hangs low over the bearded man. A few battered desks piled with papers indicate that the room is an office of some kind. The driver explains to his superintendent what he discovered in the tunnels. Bluebottle and Asa eye the place with fear. Skulls of children have been mortared into mosaics. There’s a couch of patellas. Tibias and taluses on the far wall, arranged in the pattern of a giant sun. Here, underground. Sepulchral echo. Anti-sun.

In a far corner, huddled on baggage carts, they see a tattered band of people. A woman rises from the group, brushes off her coat and strides over to them. She introduces herself and her friends.

Yeoh: We are refugees from the mining cities of the West. Agents from the present struggled there with the ghosts of God’s Future (Future 27B-T116) and the cities disassembled—our grandparents have dematerialized and already our parents are fading into thin air. The same fate will befall the rest of us unless we can exit this era very soon. We seek asylum in the distant past and search for a train to The Port Resonant in Midwinter and a machine thence. These good baggage handlers have given us shelter, though it is illegal.

Bluebottle: I’m looking for my dog. Have you seen him?

He describes you, your height, weight, color, disposition.

Yeoh: Yesterday it boarded the train to Midwinter in the company of a young woman.

The bearded man hands out doughnuts the size of dinner plates, shows them to the baggage carts and bids them sleep.

They doze fitfully among the bones, the coming and going of uniformed workers, the ticking of the time-clock, the rustling of refugees. Bluebottle dreams that he has captured a murderous criminal, only to find that the man’s skin is toxic to the touch, so that he, Bluebottle, is irreversibly dead because he seized his arm.

Bluebottle wakes trembling with fear. He doesn’t dare move. He remembers that maybe even Asa is dangerous, certainly everyone else in the room will kill him. He is pinned to the cart by panic until someone leaps on him, forces his mouth open and pours fire down his throat.

It’s the man with the beard. His name is Jerzy. Jerzy jumps back and the room bursts out laughing. Asa is next. He wakes sputtering, head in flames. The room is full of refugees and workers swigging lava at the end of their days. And when they die, Bluebottle thinks, their bones will further ornament the walls.

Now the refugees, fifteen in number, men, women and children, ages seven to forty-two, lead Bluebottle and Asa from this place with the intention of boarding a train.

Bluebottle: We have no tickets.

Asa: No money.

Yeoh: No problem.

Tito, a dignified young man with a long scarf, flashes a wrench, which is whipped out again once they’re all on the train and jammed inside a toilet. A trapdoor in the ceiling is unlocked and everyone shoehorned into the airspace above. Bluebottle tries to say, Help, but he can’t speak because he can hardly breathe. For the next thirty-five hours he’s stretched out like a flying superhero, his face in the heel of somebody’s boot, the stench of the toilet pickling his nose. Through a tiny vent-hole he sees that they are chugging out into a dimly lit landscape of dusty fields. He hears singing on the train, a dirge drifting through the cars below them. The refugees tremble at the step of the conductor.

Bluebottle’s body is out of fuel early on. He starves, he sweats, he freezes in his sweat. Not all of us will live through this, he thinks. He has a vision of the end of the world: burning plains, skeletons, a hot sky. Years go by, the train stops; the train starts again. This repeats. I’ve already lost my mind, he thinks. I’ve already died.

Then, through the vent-hole, Bluebottle has a brief glimpse of a city before they enter the darkness of another train station. As the train scrapes to a halt, somebody grabs Bluebottle’s heels, drags him down through the trap door and shoves him out a window.

We must scatter, says Yeoh.

Bluebottle stumbles alone through tunnels. Somebody runs into him in the dark, whispering, A candy bar, a carrot, I’m dying.

Bluebottle: Asa, it’s me.

Asa: Are you edible?

Bluebottle props up his friend, but then falls down.

Bluebottle: We’re in terrible shape.

Asa: I’m not even a shape. I’m a cramp.

They follow train tracks and a speck of light and come, at last, to an arched opening on the day. They cross snarled tracks and weave between arriving and departing trains. With their last strength, they climb a wall and drop down onto a sidewalk on the other side.

Bluebottle collapses. He lies back on the pavement and looks at the buildings rising from his forehead. Steel sky. Grainy pavement at the back of his head, and through it he can hear the planet sizzling at its core.

Asa leans feebly against the side of a building. He watches the pedestrians watch Bluebottle as they pass him by. Rummaging in his coat, Asa finds a hat, which he places upside down next to his friend, then retreats to the wall again. Coins rattle into the hat.

In another pocket, Asa finds a stub of a pencil and the newspaper from the diner. He reads, circles something. Reads. Circles. A drop of rain on the newspaper. He looks at the sky, watches a cyclist wobble down the street, looks down, reads more, circles.

Asa: We need money.

He gathers up the coins that were dropped in the hat, drapes his friend’s arm over his shoulder, hauls him up and they stumble through the rain. The coins are pushed into the turnstile of a city bus where the passengers sit very still, their flesh waxy in the steel light of Midwinter’s afternoon.

Bluebottle: (whispering) Are they ill?

Asa: No, comatose, I think. Workday’s over.

Four job interviews later, Asa and Bluebottle enter a door under a shabby sign: The Artmobile.

It’s nearly empty inside. A gray carpet, white walls, a few windows facing the street. Behind the desk a young face with lizard eyes. The eyes belong to Walton, president and CEO of The Artmobile. He explains his company: it’s a job for art lovers he says, art lovers who have no conscience. Who are willing to sell paintings door to door.

Bluebottle: A job for hucksters. Scammers.

Walton: (calmly) If you like.

Asa: (sighing) We’re desperate.

Walton: You’re hired. Come back tomorrow afternoon.

Asa: Could we stay here? We have no place and no money yet to rent one.

Walton: As it happens, I have company apartments. As it happens there’s a vacancy. It will cost you eighty percent of your income.

(He searches in a drawer and comes up with a key. Bluebottle and Asa look at it, at each other.)

Walton: Your hesitation is rhetorical. I don’t have time for rhetoric in real life—only in sales pitches.

Twenty minutes later Bluebottle and Asa find the building and puff up six flights of creaking spiral stairs to one room with two beds, a sink, a coin operated stove, bathroom in the hallway.

In the refrigerator Bluebottle finds four carrots, two rotten. He cleans the other two and they sit on the beds, cracking off big hunks and slowly chewing. They gaze through the window at the wet light of the city. Asa finishes his carrot and falls back on a lumpy pillow and whining springs and is quickly asleep.

Bluebottle looks over at Asa, rises and goes to the window. Old brick in the watery dusk, briars and thorns. Great circular roof of a concert hall shimmering in the distance. The city spreads out, out.

Something moves in the tangled gardens below. A thief? Maybe a dog. White? Humble. Its body a radiant heater. Bluebottle backs away from the window and sits on the bed. A horn sounds in another street, across the city a mournful siren. He crumples to the sheetless bed.

The next morning Asa consults the darkest corners of the cupboard, finds onion skins stuck to honey spots, two sprouting potatoes and three turnips. He carves out the rotten bits, sticks a coin in the stove and boils away.

Bluebottle comes drifting out of sleep as Asa drains the turnips and sets them on the table next to a salt-shaker. Bluebottle wanders to the window on the other side of which it rains. A dark morning. He sniffs at the turnips, massages his empty stomach and sits down to eat.

One after the other they make the pilgrimage through the hallway to the bathroom and back. Then they go to work.

In a back room of the Artmobile, they sit on plastic chairs and endure a Sales Workshop.

Walton: They’ve let you in their house, you’re following them down the hallway, they’re letting you inside. Their house is their mind. You own the house and everything in it. You kneel before them, but you own them. You unzip the portfolio, you unzip, and you’re stripping, but you own them, it’s a game, you’re stripping them, and painting by painting you show them how to strip themselves. Of their money. You, Bluebottle, show us what you can do.

Bluebottle: Hello I am a bohemian exhibiting the work of my friends door to door offering this unique opportunity to view Art on delivery here for instance is the perennial favorite Mediterranean Fishing Boat executed in warm reds and as I speak I elide imperceptibly from the shabby interior of the Artmobile to the glamorous streets of Midwinter where I stand on your step as you peer at me over your door chain and if you would only just let me in I am absolutely confident that I will be capable of pressuring you with my hard-sell soft-sell variation so that in a matter of minutes you’ll find yourself buying not one not two but quite possibly three of these pieces of shit plus the frames for a minor surcharge of twelve dollars all of which is roughly three hundred thousand times the amount the starving ghosts get for painting these by the dozen in our POW sweatshops a sad fact upon which I choose not to dwell so if you would just let me inside the door behind which you skulk with good cause as if behind a shield because if you do let me in all this will come to pass and I can pay my rent and eat and I know because I’ve seen it happen many times before. Surrender.

Pelletier of Pelletier’s Antiques: No thanks. (closing the door) Good night.

Bluebottle: How about a pretense of culture? I see evidence of it. The Van Gogh repro in your hallway? Come on. These paintings actually have paint on them.

Pelletier of Pelletier’s Antiques: Not at the moment. But thanks for dropping by. Good night.

(The door closes and locks)

Bluebottle: (to the door) Why would I drop by? To chat? I knocked on fifty-three doors in two hours tonight with no strikes no sales no money no rent do you have any idea how demoralizing how demanding how demeaning I mean I’m not coming for the firstborn I’m just a simple grifter purveying low-quality knockoffs but every door tonight has the X marked in chalk while the cold swamp of your sidewalks crawls into my shoes into my toe knuckles into my plantar wart my shin-splints my pointless resentment but one thing’s for certain: I Did Not Drop By.

Every night the sellers of the Artmobile march out into the dark to the car and drive for miles through the city lights. The bridge is illuminated by ships that pass beneath, cables floodlit. Stars are invisible. Bluebottle’s brow rolls and thumps against the window. There’s little talk. Metropolitan fire, lanes and lanes of traffic snakes. Insert car body, remove it, move on. Honks, bumps, headlights flash, language of metal and light. Bodies here inserted, here removed, onto lesser streets of lesser flames.

#65 Boomerang Ave: (sipping a highball) I can do better than that, take a look at my oeuvre. (gesturing at paintings on the walls) Hobby. Retired. Horses. Alone. On mountaintops. At the races. Groomed. Surprised myself I have to say. Rather talented. Don’t go in for that dauby stuff. A nice clean line that’s what I like. Now these you have here, quite third-rate. You should be ashamed.

Bluebottle: Give me your work. There’s a market for static chevals and self-portraits of the bilious hunters who pose astride them.

Down! says William the Silent, Down you rebel dog! He pounds on his wheelchair. He looks at you and says, Not you, this blasted machine. He fiddles with a brake lever and pounds on it again before giving up. He says, My situation is desperate and yet I’m in a good mood.