Harp & Altar
POETRY
Donald Breckenridge

Oisín Curran

Heinrich Heine
translated by Peter Wortsman

Zachary Mason
from The Lost Books of the Odyssey

Derek White
from Marsupial
Bernard's Inquisition

Leni Zumas

Bernard's Inquisition
Derek White

When I showed up for my job interview, my prospective employer took me straight to his private aquarium that was in the adjoining underwater map room. I wasn’t sure why he was showing me his aquarium as the newspaper posting listed the position I was applying for as “Continuity Chief for Swamp Survey Crew.” The description from the Savannah Mourning News Want Ads said it was “. . . for a half land-based half water-based surveying position. As Continuity Chief, you will be responsible for bridging the gap in land/water data.”

When I asked Bernard if I was in the right place, he told me, “our will that to get.” First he wanted to show me his 55-gallon tank that was empty except for five scallops that were evenly spaced at the bottom. There were three black holes in the back wall where fish supposedly lived. “In reality,” Bernard said, through some sort of voice-scrambling device, “live they in a nether tank ay, within a nether tank ay behind a nether wall, beyond a nether, beyond a nether, beyond a nether . . . ” and he kept skipping until I hit him and he stopped, swallowed, and said, “wall. I sashay.”

The “wall” was really a movie screen. My mind was reeling trying to figure out what he could possibly be testing me for beyond holistic comprehension. I was on my best behavior, sitting upright and acting interested, ready to field questions, and queuing up questions in my own mind to ask him. But I couldn’t open my mouth. To be more accurate, I could open my mouth, but something was blocking my “voice canal,” which at the time was legitimate anatomy. Bernard pulled a lever and five fish darted into the tank and rifled through the scallop shells, stripping them of any meat, or “flossing,” as Bernard called it.

My stomach made a noise and I was sure Bernard noticed, but it didn’t show. Once the frenzy was over, the five fish disappeared back into the three holes. I clapped to be polite, and since I couldn’t speak. Then he let three snakes into the room. They were writhing at my feet, but I remained calm and courteous. I had to keep reminding myself that I was human and to be myself, but I forgot why I was reminding myself of this.

“Purse severance furthers,” he said, pinching the skin on my forearm. “Must they may be able-bodied ay to seize a fold to penetrate, say ye skin. The place of pleasure legitimate ay where they may seize a catch is the strap between ye fingers.” I splayed my fingers and he was right—my hands were webbed. His hands, on the other hand, were not webbed and I was concerned he would judge me for it.

He pinched me again, and then said, “have it known ay that when ye, formally, that I evoke, ay ye do not hatch, in real skin, the contact ay? Our individual skins do not evoke naturally.”

I nodded yes, thankful that although there were questions involved, his body language was leading me to the answers. When I looked down at my arm where he had pinched me, a huge chunk had molted off. He didn’t notice, or if he did, he did a good job of acting like he didn’t.

“Now begins the formulaic segment of the interaction,” he said, pressing the record button of a small device. “Do solemnly swear you to tell nothing but the truth?”

 

JAUNE: [BEAT][I was thinking, “I do” but couldn’t say it]

BERNARD: Have ye a passport?

JAUNE: [BEAT]

BERNARD: Married are to you?

JAUNE: [BEAT]

BERNARD: Have ye ever, at sea, been on a boat with men, only?

JAUNE: [BEAT]

BERNARD: Ever have ye been an armchair geologist?

JAUNE: [BEAT]

BERNARD: If, hypothetically, you were in effect under assignment to survey a parcel of ground, and looking to the bottom of the map, in the legend, it was your brother.

JAUNE: [BEAT]

BERNARD: Would ye make with the task?

JAUNE: [BEAT]

 

Even though I didn’t even have the ability to answer the question, the last one threw me for a loop. I never expected to be asked if I would “survey” my own brother, if this in fact was what Bernard was asking, and if in fact John could fit in the legend of the 2-dimensional map. I moved my head in circles and up and down at the same time, until my head rolled off, waking myself up.