Swallowed (Words by Edmund Zagorin, Art by Trae Isaac)

Traeron “Trae IsAAc” Vawters (c) 2014
Traeron “Trae IsAAc” Vawters (c) 2014
Traeron “Trae IsAAc” Vawters (c) 2014

Seven minutes to Unknown Place. That’s what the GPS says in monotone when you wind up on a part of the map where nothing has been named. The land here a mining graveyard of oxidized copper. I’ve always thought something was pretty how land carry old scars. It sweeps down where we stand from the bald summit past piles of stumps. The cuts by our feet trace the run of old tailings carts. Rust spitting up bright flakes that gather in drifts, fuse into seams that hold for months and years. Metal powdered on sharp edge of ruts that lick up through crust dirt and hoof-tracked mud. Ground still hold stiff this time of year. Sniff and taste bitter wind. Cuts my nose with a sting. Crawls through the little nick in my boots. Signs everywhere telling us DANGER! and STAY OUT! Trella shivers in her lace collar and threadbare trousers. As if the longitude filled her with gaps, missing slats in a bedroom wall where the wind blew through. Mikey doesn’t like it, doesn’t like it one bit. Up the road ahead of us the broken entrance to that mineshaft where a thing called Beozork keeps its home. Hearing it and Mikey says that’s something else. That’s something out of another world, he says. What’s called a Beozork, that’s it, or else a fetal earthquake just woke up and kicking. Rumbles to us, growling the way an empty stomach growls, rubbing up against the layers of rock and earth so we know it can count our heartbeats loud as they get when we feel a hard danger. Three of us standing perfectly still. Feeling it in our fillings, in our bootlaces. The In Name Only crew, never about to take no for an answer. Mikey swallows and I hear him swallow. Swallow that guttery hum from beneath the mud. It stops us cold. Then silence. Wind cuts water from our eyes. And those eyes get wide and quiet.

*

There’s that old Black man falling backwards down the lighthouse stairs. His ribs sharp against his canvas cloak. He’s waving again, as his crutches slip out, and the sky is never so red. On a large rock a seagull pecks the scraps of a fish belly. It’s an island of rocks. The smell of salt thick around the shallows of my breathing. Breathing fast. There’s not enough air left in the world to fill these breaths. The sun up there now swings low beneath a skinny cloud. Cloud shades the afternoon light the way a hand looks shading an asterisk-shaped squint ** pointing off into a deep future. Off towards a knotted place where the churning ocean laps at the skirt of the sky. That knot of places past horizons where secrets live and breed and die and live again. Around the seagull rock the kelp thick and natty, pods full of dark jellied oils, full of salve and something to keep the bite out the chill. Beyond the rock breakers the sea kicks up white threats, but still no one can see. Outside the old man falling. Falling down the lighthouse stairs. His crutches slipping outwards, snapping on the slick metal steps that wrap three times around the chess bishop shape of the lighthouse. Wrapping up to the top where a beacon must be lit to warn off the ship coming in. Past where the seagull throws back his beak and wolfs down the bloody morsel, caws the sound of undying cruelty. The old Black man is falling (who is he to me, an uncle? a grandfather? perhaps the man I one day become in a time I have yet to live? Names peel off every wet shape down here, dripping) and I thank the Creator for the immortal clouds. It’s just that I have never seen the sky so red.

*

 

I will stay on the island of rocks for four and a half days before someone comes and finds me. More than enough time to become feverish and shivering, for my lips to split and start bleeding and stain the plaster chamber of the lighthouse where the beacon fills the windowpane. Against the plaster, clutching at my knees when I hear the distant crack of the hull and the screams of drowning passengers. When the world comes back to stand me up I finally stagger forward and light the beacon with the switches and the keypad. The beacon blinks the way that the old Black man showed me, S.O.S. Please Help. And I stay in that beacon room thinking about the seagull and the old man who I couldn’t move as hard as I tried. The old man who I couldn’t put the blood back into after he’d spilled it out. And thinking again about the seagull and the redness and blueness of things and the way the horizon gives me a dizziness, which to this day I think of as a warning. Maybe if I had feared more of the distance I’d have kept myself safe and far away. Away from that upcountry mine in Ishpeming, from that crowd of leering, clammy faces, from the places where things disappear.

 

*

Whatever it is: the hum beneath the ground. Say something (Beozork). The wide open of our eyes. Not saying anything. It quivers at the clumps of weeds. It chases the birds away. Land peeling up gray and matted across the hillsides. Cords of my hand shaking around the knobs of the radiocamera what snaps a damn good photograph in the dark. Clicking on and off the viewfinder as the three of us stand in front of the busted entrance weighed down by the heaviness of the moment. Do we dare enter? Still seven minutes to Unknown Place because the GPS can’t tell us we’ve arrived. On the crown of a distant hill the black birds circle silently. They fill the air with omens above the crooked branches of a lone birch tree. The kind of starved-looking tree that clings to the slope with knuckled roots. I swallow hard. Mikey’s eyes looking at me. The birch boughs waving at us in the sharpness of the wind. Trella coughs and I suck in my breath, trying for firmness. Now only sicker, though, contagious with dread. That old sinking feeling. The kind that sits like a block of ice inside you, melting slowly. But damn, we need that money. Heat bills in the winter that might be just as deadly as anything that could kill. Trella said she might be pregnant again. We needed the money now, yesterday, two weeks ago. We needed it for interest payments on other money we also still didn’t have. Need. Needed. Will always need, we know. There was something tired about the feeling, standing here in the cutting wind of the Upper Peninsula. Waiting for ourselves. For that need we knew to make us, force us: stepping forward into the shadow of the mine.

*

The wall of eyes, of ears, even a wall of navels. Spongy and thick. Pungent. The wall of noses ever wrinkled. Faces divided by faces. And the navels really are like the holes of a sponge or thick bread given a close-up look. They wink and gawk against the edge of the walls. I have never seen faces like this. The walls that groan and heave as the Beozork turns and settles. It turns to grow, to give birth to new heads, new mouths, new stomachs. The ears and eyes and navels are ours and make of us a molasses coating. This is our slumber, eternal in its horror. It takes us apart. Now there is a rhapsody of flesh, our past lives crushed to slow bleed, digestion. Seeping through towards infinition, the way our bodies had been conjugated with pain and violence from the singular to the plural, from the plural into the neuter and finally lacking a pronoun altogether, to be, to wait, to die, to wait, to die, (to die to die to die…). The contraction erases the casings of things, the membranes that defined the past and future of objects, of what trembling means. Even numbers lose their meaning down here, since one has stealthily been declared the only integer. The soft tissue that breathes the wall of navels outward and inwards trembles music in the semidark. Hypnagogic. It makes me think of the familiar wetness, dead holes in neighborhood skin. That pitiless certainty of nighttimes. Yelling and screaming and glass breaking.

*

We looked at a lot of .jpegs of cats, composed poetry out of emoji, concocted elaborate reports of paranormal convergences. We sold art on the street, by the river, in galleries, on Twitter and Instagram and even out the back of Mikey’s uncle’s van. We sold art to people we knew and strangers we’d never see again. Our crew had a sense of humor, our name was In Name Only. That’s what we called the gallery, too. There was a yard behind where Mikey served speakeasy spirits and where the dogs played. It was standing out there one afternoon in early spring we got the idea to make dog toys art. Which is to say handmade dolls that are meant to be destroyed by dogs. To artify the concept of the dog toy. Trella wrote up a whole statement of purpose like a manifesto for the newspaper critics and we prepped the whole show in twelve days. Stet and Mikey got busy, up nights like working on the line. Priced to move the TOY*DOG*TOY art show got a lot of attention. Even got these voodoo-themed dog effigies done on the spot, personalized to look like the dog owners’ enemies. $75/piece, signed by the artist. When the dogs tore into them it was supposed to hurt. We even made up some voodoo spells and incanted them for the paying customers. Numbers were good. It got so that finally we had enough for rent that month and more besides. Stacks of cash. Some convivial nights. Some new supplies, paint, fabric, brushes, canvas. Then Trella said why don’t we do the same thing for cats, do like a cat-portrait day where people can bring them in and we’ll do caricature-style portraits? Mikey liked that idea even better than the dog ones so we started making it a monthly thing. It was all very chic and cutting-edge and inside track. There were photographers and interviews. We went on the road to hit a few artfairs and got paid more than we’d ever been paid. It felt good. It felt right.

*

The brine of lobster cages rattle in the back of an outboard skiff. Three yellow-slickered White lobstermen peer around to keep the lighthouse to our back. Heavy bundle of red-stained canvas lies down on the fiberglass deck which has a quarter-inch of seawater sloshing around it. The water sloshes over the toes of their waterproof boots. No one says anything. And my eyes feel cold from the wind made by the boat going so fast that I put my little hands up to hold my eyes but my hands are burning and so is my forehead. I realize that I must be close to bursting open like the old Black man. That I need to forget about the lighthouse and concentrate, concentrate. The squawk of a distant bird pierces the sky and I notice that it is no longer red. That it has been days and the ribbons of kelp in the lobster pots catch the summer light. It’s truth, sitting up in bed right between us. That catches up the light with such brilliance I’d almost believe something could be redeemed just then. Something but then not, I just want to feel that hot whisper once more, just once more please, please, please

*

It goes without saying that we all dream the same dream now. Always mixed-up the same dream between all of us. The dream is always about dreaming. Indistinguishable from waking and cut with dulled edges of what was once desire. There are eight or nine of us. Depending on whether or not you count K who came before us, who flailed and spent himself and is mostly jelly now. The shapes of our dreams stuck through with red-hot spines of the past. Shapes of blood. Shapes of darkness and names forgotten.

*

It felt good. It felt right. It felt like we were making it. That was before part of the In Name Only gallery burnt down and Stet moved down south and Trella had Baby Cey who needed all kinds of doctor attention right away. I’m not saying we were anything special but we were artists and self-made entrepreneurs. At least before the swallowing we were living the realest kind of life around. Sometimes it just felt good to make art, to sit for hours chewing on a piece of bubblegum and forming it into perfect spheres as our hands flew out over the fabric or wood or canvas or welded together two things which had never before crossed paths. Sometimes it felt good to forget everything, light up a blunt and chill on some forties or Henny til the sun came up. Of course, we didn’t mind the scene too much in Detroit as it was. Glamorous. Pull up a pair of sunglasses over those kohl eyes and catch a shine off that sequined shirt in the back bar mirror. Everyone says hello, asks how it’s going. It’s good to hear your name spoke with respect, and we had that. And more. On good days we had much more.

*

The Beozork, us, non-thought; the unfeeling of memory. Where the dim, low hum assumes our grief unto a stillness that rises and becomes unendurable only again to be swallowed. It follows on its own damned tail. If only we had known that rumble on the rusted earth were the voices of the damned… Things that only echo without first being voices. Screwed-up eyes and skin that stares into the curves and hollows of the Beozork’s chambered belly. Stinging juices paint the walls. There is wetness, the glimmer; a sense of thirst but still: nothing. The Beozork’s veins are our veins. Its breath is our breath. Its hearts beat through the remnants of our vascular system. There is no tongue to thirst, only the phantom of a tongue. It is as if the tongue has been amputated and the thirst endures. Shreds of a body that was never truly ours.

*

So the crew of In Name Only gets broke (ass, as in broke-ass in a personal way); Baby Cey needing various attentions and deserving better than what we got happening, the money from the TOY*DOG*TOY supplies spent on sudden but inspector-required gallery spruce-ups. Plus fixing the boiler before winter. Stet got fed up and blitzed one night got a gas can to torch the place for insurance. It was that fire nearly took us for everything. Because then Stet finds out that insurance policy was expired. How dumb does it get? Stet forgot to check if the policy had been renewed before he went and got the arson kit. Turns out coverage had ended the week before. So as you can imagine, Stet took off headed South thereafter. But then like a real-life miracle we catch wind of this call-out for a “documentary photo shoot” and the money’s unreal (over $100k for one *genuine* photograph)! The In Name Only crew has always been risk-all daring when serious cash is involved. The money’s right, is the important thing. *Minimum* one hundred grand. Depending on something it might even be one hundred and fifty. It was this so-called crazy millionaire, the guy who did the call-out. His kids went to Cranbrook. Maybe Baby Cey would go to Cranbrook, once we’d gotten this photo locked down and claimed the prize and rehabbed the sooty mess the gallery was in. It’s not like we were new to the radiocamera either, having used its liney photos as a montage element in a number of group shows. The money, the money was all we talked about, thought about. Dreamed about. What we’d do when we got this taken care of. And we had gotten the gig locked down, exclusive, were getting all ready to pack up Mikey’s Rav4 and put Baby Cey at her grandma’s house and roll the I.N.O. crew up to copper country.

*

Trella flipping the radio channels from the Rav4 driver’s seat. Carsick. Few besides us on the late evening road. That bleak Novocain ache of the sky above our heads. Above the moon roof, the bitty smokestacks in the distance snaking cotton threads off the sky to where the radio towers live. Rubber burns on asphalt. They stagger, metal skeletons drunken across a farmer’s field. They stagger above the waving wheat, the stooped orchards. Spruce tips and splinted saplings rowed in up and down the Christmas tree farms. Driving into the very mouth of the North itself, barbed wire walls forty feet high hanging sharp fronted threats so the poachers don’t think about it. Praise White Jesus, White Santa Clause. Sell antique fire arms, waterfowl decoys, bulk tobacco and vacant land. General stores where buttonholes are sprigged, candles of pine tar and shelves of astringent soap. Nod, nodding. The blades here are blunt and tough, used for clearing land. One tiny shed of an exit ramp shop is called Pitchforks and appears to sell only that. Stirring up in my head fearsome scenes of White crowds in ghost frocking. Crowds who raise their pitchforked arms and cheer. They go wild as the nightriders thunder through the clapboard town on horses or motorcycles. They’ve caught couple of young Black men and a pregnant Black woman now bound and gagged, Black bodies from downstate thrown out into a masked circle of squawking, jeering terror.

*

Some food you can eat over and over again. Fried baloney and peanut butter on Wonderbread, 3x/week, 2x/week; what the construction crews carry in their lunch pails. We try and make turkey sandwiches for health. Make a mean tilapia fry. Baked oats and spoonfuls of sweet berry jam. Anything to stay off the tempt of Hot-N-Ready because we eat it so often, cheap and flavorful and tough as blisters to chew on again the next day. Baby Cey needed an operation, we heard. Her grandmother said, who would know. Something, a feeling of hurt worse than a damn hernia. What most people only know by way of those confused moments after waking from an intense nightmare. Only for us the U-turn feeling, wishing we could head back into that nightmare because the nightmare is less desperate than life right now. Others have it in their family, their old and new siblings. Blood or love makes strongest bonds. Trella and Mikey lie sleeping (on their backs, imagine me in the corner on a canvas cot, snores of other bodies coming from the couch in the next room behind the drafting table. That table still all crammed with empty beer bottles and airbrush cans and even a dollar store cocktail tray-turned-paint-pallet). I have almost forgotten that I am lying here with you on my back in this canvas cot or maybe at your apartment or at your mom’s house and the woolly terror engulfs me, that “which way is up?” feeling yielding to the even more primal fear of “does ‘up’ even still exist or mean something” or instead perhaps every direction has been rewritten as “up” or, more likely, “down” like what happens to compasses near the magnetic North Pole.

*

Nodding, nodding out in a heavy doze. Sky spitting out the valleys of broken televisions and ruined mattress springs. Skew-eyed Quonset huts covered with black rubber inner tubes for insulation. The poorly disguised footpaths to rural marijuana patches. And everywhere that blessed smell of fresh water. Where the ground keeps its purity and the city finally sheds its crust of coal ash. Of freedom poison lines painted down upon the Earth, that is what today is speaking to me. Come to recall I did paint a portrait with poison once. It was a local Blues singer who played the steel guitar. Could sing the Blues without his lips barely moving. He liked the poison-paint portrait. Liked it even though it was so ochre that certain details were barely visible. He liked that it was painted with poison; arsenic and lead and I used a trick to get the cyanide out of some almond skins and dyed it midnight blue to use that, too. That face on the horizon, humming at us as we headed. Driving upwards, out from reality, Detroit towards Ishpeming.

*

The darkness after the mine entrance smells of burnt hair and Band-Aids and dark liquor and piss. From somewhere water drips and plinks and drips again. I’m holding my fingernails between my teeth. Bite down and beneath them can feel my heart knocking up against the padded walls of my chest. And from the corner comes a rustling sound or maybe the shifting of rocks. I turn and start clicking the radiocamera and the flash makes its own sharp impressions and star-spangled afterglows. Mikey croaks out something like he thinks we’re close. Feeling the prick of those eyes red and smoky. The prick of fear. Red and sudden. Flying out into the dark where we quake and don’t dare breath. And I nudge Trella and don’t think to run. And there it is, the Beozork’s ropey tongue coming at us. Sticks fast with goo and yanks us down. Down and down and down. And falling still further, into an unceasing abyss. Headfirst into the clammy mud of its lizardy gut. And from there…

*

On the other static a rabid pastor. Snarling words against Lilith, against Satanism. Superhygienic nightmares of Africa, America. Mikey wants us to hear. He laughs. Wants to show us that he’s taking his sarcasm seriously. That he and he alone controls the car radio. Come on, says Trella, change it. Or I’ll change you. Mikey laughs. The pastor growls: Africa as humanity’s cradle, sinned to cancel our innocence much too quickly. Fell prey to temptation. The sin that set into motion the “go forth and multiply”, a betrayal deserving now of a planetary flagellation. Thanks, Africa! The cleansing fires and KKKesque Pale Horsemen charging out from the gravitational field of the African singularity (the Pentecostalist repeatedly suggested, as if referring to some personal theory of social Darwinism, gravity and eschatology all mashed together into The Book of Revelations As Written By Grand Dragon Stephen Hawking). And thus! He yelled: Would Africa collapse into the Great Black Hole, opening onto the Lake of Fire and visions of Hell into which the rest of White and Yellow and Red humanity would slowly be pulled, crossing the event horizon, into Blackening nothingness. Black would the damned become. It would, he said, be the inevitable elastic reversal of the original migratory patterns of humanity out from its Eden-cradle in Olduvai. Snapping us back towards Judgment as the 144,000 Chosen homo sapiens (no doubt inclusive of the foamy-mouthed pastor himself) ascended towards the Whiteness of the clouds. Change it, said Trella, slapping the radio dial. And we all sat in silence.

*

Once at a friend’s gallery opening we sipped white Gallo from the plastic hemispheres of Pokéballs, white and red between our fingers and saw ourselves so debonair that Trella drew monocles of sparkly green paint around each of our left eyes. It was funny, we Instagrammed it. It got a lot of attention. It felt like a moment of grace. Like maybe someday people would look at that picture and see history before its making. Until suddenly we’re back in copper country, with the bottoms falling out of our stomach. Until suddenly we have never seen a darkness like this. Down here it’s a place without places.

*

The Rav4 traces the proverbial lifeline of the Michigan mitten’s palmistry. Up until the fingertips meet by Mackinac (rhymes with claw). And then our convoy juts up to the Other Peninsula. The sparkling of the lake in the sun a vision better than most sex. In Name Only heading deep into White people country. Towards a hundred grand bounty. Towards places off the map. Towards a country where the wind cuts and the air breaths thin as gossamer. Hillsides where the colors turn runny and slip between our fingers. Towards the crocheted fields of winter wheat and even fairer grains. Fruit tree orchards that lie as quiet as nightgowns over the sleeping thickness of the land. Sloping woods off towards the low, flat boxes of the supermarkets. Corner stores without corners to stand upon. Miles and hundreds spread out on the buttery distance. Ticklish fern fronds of the Peninsula all the way to Ishpeming.

*

Our skin merges with the walls. With the mucus membranes of the Beozork that keeps us aware of our being through slow digestion. Living only in the barest sense of the word. The way time passes down here. Falling in the shroud of seasons as the outside world retreats and expands. Billowing then withering. Gradually we receive more new bodies from above. They tumble down into the squishy darkness and sometimes for days cannot stop screaming. Until they too lose their names. They are us, they are like us; the unlucky or screwed-over, other broke artists or desperate fathers, mothers, brothers, people with sick kids looking to score the big money or die trying. They come with smartphones. Digicams. They come with ancient disposable cameras. Polaroids. The Beozork’s mouth opens and the tongue shoots out and pulls them in. Down channels of soft tissue and the mist of rot and methane, things breaking down and one by one.

*

I see that old Black man from the lighthouse, lying sleepily on a slab of gray marble. He’s surrounded by the sound of lips moving. Sadness. I look down at my hands like his and wonder who he is to me. And all I have now is this memory. There’s a crack and you can hear the way the passengers call for help from their life rafts. Time passes barely, stretched out and split open in the middle. It’s glowing in the distance, a harp string jerking on the heartbeat monitor. I shiver in that beacon room and wait. The ocean sucks and crashes on the rocky shore. Fog horns and the wooden pilings by the boat landing. The wink of the lighthouse fills me, even in daylight. S.O.S. And the sky is still so red.

 

Edmund1Edmund Zagorin is that guy in front of you in line who hasn’t yet noticed that the person ahead of him has started moving forward, thus creating an ever-widening gap into which any passing opportunist could easily cut. He coaches debate at the University of Iowa and his stories have previously appeared in Joyland, Voiceworks, Cafe Irreal and the anthology Writing That Risks (Redbridge Press, 2013). Edmund sporadically mails perfect strangers a broadsheet called @storiesbymail, sign up for free.

 

TraeTraeron “Trae IsAAc” Vawters was born in Detroit. He is an artist that looks to explore the deep underbelly of human consciousness.