Harp & Altar

Donald Breckenridge is the fiction editor of The Brooklyn Rail and editor of The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology (Hanging Loose Press, 2006). He is also the author of more than a dozen plays, as well as the novella Rockaway Wherein (Red Dust, 1998) and the novel 6/2/95 (Spuyten Duyvil, 2002). His second novel Arabesques for Sauquoit is forthcoming from Autonomedia and his third novel YOU ARE HERE is forthcoming from Starcherone.


Michael Carlson’s first book of poems, Cement Guitar, was awarded the Juniper Prize and published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2003. The manuscript he’s editing now is called Beware of Ideas. He teaches fifth grade in Brooklyn.


Oisín Curran’s Mopus was published in 2008 by Counterpath Press. He grew up in Maine and lives with his wife in Montreal.


Rising, Farrah Field’s first book of poems, won the 2007 Levis Prize and will be published in early 2009 by Four Way Books. Her poems have appeared in many publications and are forthcoming in Pebble Lake Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Fulcrum, and Typo. She is currently working on a novel and lives in Brooklyn.


Andrew Grace is a 2006-8 Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford. Sections of his manuscript Sancta are forthcoming in Washington Square, LIT, Gulf Stream, Mid-American Review, and H_NGM_N, among others. His second book, Shadeland, recently won the Ohio State University/The Journal prize for poetry.


Emily Gropp has received writing fellowships from the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets and the Syria-Lebanon Room at the University of Pittsburgh, where she recently completed an MFA in poetry. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Bloom, The Fourth River, The Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Whiskey & Fox, and others. She lives in Pittsburgh, city of bridges.


Heinrich Heine (1791–1856) was a journalist, an essayist, and one of the most significant German Romantic poets. As a young man Heine converted from Judaism to Protestantism. In 1831, he emigrated from Germany to France. Heine is remembered chiefly for selections of his lyric poetry, many of which were set to music in the form of Lieder by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Strauss.


Stephen Hilger’s photographs from the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles appear in this issue of Harp & Altar. He lives in New York and New Orleans, where he is a visiting assistant professor of art at Tulane University. Additional work can be seen at www.stephenhilger.com.


Dan Hoy lives in Brooklyn and is co-editor of Soft Targets. His chapbook Outtakes was published in 2007 by Lame House Press.


Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey was the winner of the 2007 Starcherone Fiction Prize. His writings have appeared in Pleiades and The Journal of Literary Imagination. A computer scientist specializing in artificial intelligence, Mason is currently working on another novel about the mythology and culture of AIs.


Sara Michas-Martin is a former Stegner Fellow now Jones lecturer at Stanford. Recent poems appear or are forthcoming in Court Green, DIAGRAM, Gulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, Pool, and elsewhere.


Michael Newton’s gallery reviews have appeared in previous issues of Harp & Altar.


Benjamin Paloff is a poetry editor at Boston Review. His poems have recently appeared in Gulf Coast, Jacket, The Literary Review, and elsewhere. He teaches Slavic and comparative literature at the University of Michigan.


Derek White runs Calamari Press, edits Sleepingfish, and blogs at 5cense.com.


Jared White was born in Boston and currently lives in Brooklyn. He attended Columbia University for an MFA, where he was awarded a prize from the Academy of American Poets. His poetry has appeared in many journals, including Harp & Altar, Cannibal, The Modern Review, Barrow Street, Sawbuck, and Word For/Word, and more work is forthcoming with Fulcrum and Horse Less Review. He maintains an occasional blog at jaredswhite.blogspot.com.


Joshua Marie Wilkinson was born and raised in Seattle. He is the author of three books. Next year will see the release of The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth (Tupelo), 12x12: Conversations in Poetry & Poetics (Iowa), and Made a Machine by Describing the Landscape (a film about Califone on tour). He lives in Chicago.


Recipient of the Beard’s Fund Short Story Award, Peter Wortsman is the author of A Modern Way to Die: Small Stories and Microtales and the play The Tattooed Man Tells All. His translations from the German include Travel Pictures by Heinrich Heine (Archipelago), Posthumous Papers of a Living Author by Robert Musil (Archipelago), Telegrams of the Soul: Selected Prose by Peter Altenberg (Archipelago), and The Man Who Sold His Shadow by Adelbert von Chamisso (Fromm International).


Leni Zumas’s story collection Farewell Navigator is forthcoming from Open City Books in June. Her fiction appears in New York Tyrant, Quarterly West, New Orleans Review, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Hunter College and plays drums in the post-punk band S-S-S-Spectres. Her most pined-for travel destination is Iceland.


Zachary Mason

I could have lived among light and ambrosia, bright forever-young things coming and going on each other’s arms and the wine and the night inexhaustible. But that world was flat to me, and for all that my father is great among them I wanted no part of it. Even if she had been true (I am not considered handsome, never have been) I think I would have preferred my island, my farm, and my solitude. I have never had the island altogether to myself but I made my neighbors dislike me from the first—from time to time a farm-wife dropped by as in duty bound but I offered no more than politeness required, or a little less, to ensure my privacy. Sometimes in the distance I heard a girl’s sweet singing and I needed no more company.

I lived in a cave as it was easier than a proper house, cool in summer and warm in winter. I tended my goats, made cheeses, split firewood, and fished. I fancied myself a philosopher although for the most part my philosophizing consisted of staring out to sea, usually with a fishing pole in my hand, thinking of nothing. The sun would bore into my brain over the hours and drive out everything except a ringing brightness, making everything look hollow or flat.

One day I came home and found my cave full of visitors. They had been regaling themselves on my larder and greeted me with swollen-cheeked, stupidly beaming faces, their lips greasy with my mutton, invoking the formulas of guest friendship and waiting for their welcome. I gave them no welcome but curses and, still sun-struck and sea-addled, hit one of them with my staff. I only meant to scare him but I have always been strong and he fell and knocked his head on the wall with the sound of a stone landing at the bottom of a deep well. He fell limply and stopped breathing. They would have taken him and gone (or tried to—my blood was up) but their captain, who had a face full of guile, begged my pardon, apologized for the intrusion, called me Lord and with all humility proffered a skin full of strong wine as a belated host gift. It had been a long time since I had tasted wine and I was a little mollified (not to mention ashamed of myself for overreacting). We sat down to drink, and for the sake of politeness I asked them who they were and where they came from. The captain said his name was Nobody (a strange moniker, I thought at the time, but it would have been unseemly to comment) and that he and his men had sailed from Crete to trade for amber and linen but on their way had found nothing but trouble—pirates of opportunity, perilous storms, comrades washed overboard in the night and their course lost these many months past. Nobody droned on about his adventures and sleep came to me as I sat watching him across the fire. How painful it is that his sly fox face was the last thing I ever saw.

I woke to blood and agony and darkness. Staggering to my feet, I lashed out and felt my fist connect with resilient flesh. I put my hands around the spear with which I had been mutilated. Vitreous humor trickled down my face and I knew with nauseous certainty that I would never see again. I drew out the spear and lay about with it, feeling their bones crack through the shaft. I bellowed and pressed the attack, not caring if I blundered into an outstretched sword. Commotion, hoarse panicked voices, and motion in every direction. With mortal intent I made a mighty thrust toward the closest whisper but struck the wall—the spear broke in two and I was left holding a fragment of the haft, just big enough for a torch. I stopped and listened—it was silent but for my heart and my breathing. They had gone.

I put my hands to my ruined face. I bound the wound as best I could and staggered down the steep path to the sea. I thought I heard them on the water and raged at them, wading out into the surf, flailing at the waves, finding stones by touch and hurling them. I thought I heard Nobody’s voice but with the breakers and my shouting I could not be sure.

They were gone and I got cold. I was not quite brave enough to drown myself. I shouted for my father—I did not love him much but he knew his duty and I thought he would avenge me. If he heard me, he gave no sign. I crept back to my cave and the pain, which had been waiting at a distance, engulfed me.

Fever came. I lay by the fire, chilled to the bone. I was too weak even to go to the well for water. At first the fever was low and I was transcendently calm and thought I had at last found true philosophy. As the fever rose and rose I started to shake uncontrollably. A young man with golden hair appeared, standing patiently in the shadows, watching me, leaning on a staff around which snakes twined (of course, if there was such a man, I would not have seen him). In the dream, as the pain deepened he came more and more into the light and I thought he would speak to me but just then my father arrived and sent him away. He laid his vast hand on my forehead, as cool as the deeps of the sea, and I told him that it was Nobody who did this to me and must die.

The fever broke soon after that and I lay awake and alone in my cave, facing a future of darkness. I groped in the dust and found cheeses, my staff, a bucket, the empty wineskin, the cold ashes of the fire, a pile of furs, and the sharp end of the spear that had blinded me, still sticky with dried blood and matter. I sat down and I think I would not have got up again if not for my goats, who butted me affectionately and clamored to be milked. This I managed to do, and then shooed them to their pasture and laid out their salt, taking comfort from their quarrels and bleating.

The days were long and there was no sun to dazzle me. I wondered incessantly about the man who had brought me a sack of wine, a tale and blindness. In my mind I replayed everything he had said, trying to reconstruct each tone and nuance. He had not uttered a single true word, of course, but we are revealed in our lies. His and his men’s clothes had been thrice-patched stuff but their helmets and arms were keen edged and mirror polished. They had carried their arms with a total casualness, their weapons extensions of themselves, like veterans old in war. They had accents, the like of which I had never heard before, so I reckoned Nobody and his men must be from far away, out toward the edge of the world.

My hatred of Nobody was impotent and all-encompassing. I wanted to be free of it, but always my mind went back to him. I told myself and the goats stories about him—one day he and his men were pirates out of Corsica, vicious raiders out to prey on anyone they could overwhelm or surprise. The next they were a party of pilgrims bound for Delphi who had stopped on my island for water and found me only through misfortune. But their ragged clothes and gleaming weapons, their hardness and loneliness and hunger made me decide in the end that they were coming back from a long, bloody war, fought far from home, a war that left them with eyes as blank and hostile as birds of prey, raiding and killing as the opportunity arose, knowing no life but arms and no law but violence.

I invented perils for his trip home—horrors rising up from the deep sea, the endless asphodel fields of the dead, sweetly singing witches to gull and bind him—but I could never quite bring myself to finally close the sea over his head or the jaws on his throat. Always I pulled him back, unwilling to let him escape into death. As his trials mounted (all of which scarred him, took some vital piece of him—I needed him alive, not whole), I saw that he must have some good reason to go on living, for, as I have often reflected, it is a simple thing to give oneself up to the sea. So I gave him an island like mine, not good for much but raising goats and men, and a wife of perfect steadfastness (the mirror image of the woman I knew so long ago).

In retrospect, it is obvious that “Nobody” was a nom de guerre, the alias of an anonymous raider. The choice of sobriquet suggests a man infatuated with his own cleverness. He carried himself like a warrior, but preferred getting me drunk to attacking me openly. His mind, I thought, must be like a city of a thousand twists and turns, founded on deceit, with never an open line of sight or a straight passage. Fluent in lies, he must have been the death of many men greater than himself. And he was loyal to his men, or so I liked to think, as it increased my pleasure in making monsters pluck them from his ships while he stood by helplessly, and in making their ghosts weep for burial.

The island farmers are less timid now that I am blind. They bring me fruit and salted meat and listen with more than polite interest while I tell my stories. Some parts of the tale have gelled over the years, though others I improvise or vary as suits the audience’s mood or mine—even now it gives me pleasure to invent new sufferings for him. For all that, my bloodthirstiness has lessened—I no longer groan in my sleep or dream of catching him and wrenching out his bones. The ruin where my eye was is not painful anymore, and my days are calm, even joyful. Sometimes I think I am grateful, that sight would be a distraction.