Brothers are supposed to look out for one another.
My dad and his brother? Hate each other’s guts. My grandpa’s named Abraham. When my uncle got born, my grandpa left him and his mother in the middle of the desert without any food or water. And when my dad came of age, my grandpa placed a sharp blade on his neck. And if a goat hadn’t suddenly fallen from the sky he would have taken his head off. And that’s just the beginning of my family’s craziness. You’d think my dad and my uncle would bond over this shared trauma. Let it draw them closer together. But they never talked about it. Just let it fester. And they both had a bunch of kids. Like their pain could only be directed to new generations of pain. Which is weird because when I’m alone with them they can both be really cool. My dad is super spiritual. Always praying and crying and giving me wise advice. Always hoping for goats to fall out of the sky. Which is nice.
Growing up I wasn’t supposed to hang out with my uncle… he was a reckless type. But hella fun. Taught me to hunt and fight. It made me strong. Gave me all the things my father grew to love about me, ironically. My brother Ben and I would sneak out of our beds and ride our donkeys out into the desert moon chasing adventures with my uncle into the night. I loved Ben. He was my full brother. We had the same mom. And she was beautiful. So we were beautiful too. More beautiful than our other brothers. So our dad loved us more. Any parent who says they don’t have favorites is a fucking liar. They always love the prettier kids. My brother Ben and I, we were my dad’s favorites. The apples of his eye. We looked out for one another.
But it cost us. One day I had this dream. The dream was that there were eleven stars, a sun, and a moon. And they all prostrated themselves before me. The eleven stars were my brothers. And the sun and moon were my mom and dad. I told my dad about this dream and it made him happy. Because to him it meant I was going to be like my grandpa. I would be a prophet of god. But I didn’t want to be like my grandpa. Doing all this crazy shit just because god told me to. Still, it felt pretty good to be chosen… you know? Anyway, dad told me not to tell my brothers about this dream. Because he knew that would be the last straw. As jealous of me as they were already they’d get so jealous about this dream that they’d might want to hurt me. People always want to snuff greatness out of the world if they know it’ll never touch them. So I didn’t tell anyone.
Actually that’s a lie. I kind of bragged about it. Mostly to my brother Ben. I tried not to make the others hear but a part of me almost tried to make them hear it. I couldn’t help it you know. Maybe they heard me say it. But maybe they didn’t. Either way my brothers somehow made up their minds that they were going to hurt me. They took me out for a hunt without inviting Ben and were about to kill me when my brother Judah intervened and suggested they toss me in the nearby well instead. Maybe some caravan would come by and put me on the slave market. I mean I am a fine specimen. Perfect for a slave market. And god bless Judah for talking a bit of sense into my brothers… but damn, like, either kill me or condemn me to slavery? My own brothers wanted to do that? I know it’s kind of offensive but I’ll say it anyway: Most slaves in history were forced into it by their own people. I know it’s a nice story we tell ourselves… oh, we are so oppressed and resilient. But it’s our own brothers and sisters that enslave us. Our own families and people. Ourselves. We wouldn't be slaves if our own people didn't allow it. And that's just the truth.
But whatever. They took my shirt from me and stained it with ketchup to show to my father and pretend that I got eaten by a wolf while they weren’t looking. They forgot to tear holes in it though… so I think my dad probably saw through it a bit. Still he got so sad at the idea of me being gone that he went blind.
I was alone in the well for a few days. Or weeks. I couldn’t keep count because there was no light or dark in the well. Just wet and cold. And this skull I started talking to. I even gave this skull a name. I called them Sammy. Sammy and I shared stories and I would suck on some of the mud for nutrients and jerk off. Sammy mostly just listened and watched though. Every once in a while I’d pray, but barely, because I never liked that, I just knew it was important. One day just after I was done praying I decided I’d give myself a quick wank as a reward and while I held my wet dick in my hand a bucket thumped me on the head and I looked up and there was an Egyptian looking down at me waving. A caravan had found me after all. It took ten guys to pull me up. Because I was still pretty damn big and strong. When I finally got out of the well they looked at me like I was some prized peacock. “We hit the jackpot,” one of them said.
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people came to see me being auctioned off. It was like they had never seen a Hebrew before. I mean, they’d seen plenty of Hebrews. But none like me I guess… I mean, I was destined to be a prophet. Not that they would know it. The auction went on for days… people kept buying up. Until finally the Aziz of Egypt, who was like the assistant to the King, topped them off and brought me home to the king’s palace where he introduced me to his wife, the Aziza.
I’ll admit. It was a good life. In some ways I was living better than the Aziz himself. Because I got to eat whatever I wanted and go wherever I wanted and accompany the Aziza on her errands. And everyone just loved to talk to me and hang out. They all said I had this sort of quote un quote “glow” about me. Whatever that means. But you know, it was flattering. The Aziza… I can’t remember her name. I never remember women’s names. I see so many of them they just sort of cross fade in front of me into this giant blur. But she was kind of obsessed with me. She would make me accompany her for no reason. I mean, I didn’t complain because it was no work at all. And she was kinda hot. I mean, really hot actually. But like way too old for me. And I wouldn’t have dared to make a move on her because she was the Aziz’s wife, you know? And she could have any man she wanted. But she was always faithful to him.
One day though, things got pretty weird. The Aziza called me into her room. And she’d never done that before. She didn’t ask for wine or nothing. Part of me could smell something was up, but I wasn’t going to say no… it was my job. So I go to her room. And she’s wearing this long silky night gown. That isn’t too revealing but you can see her neck and her calves. Which is like… wow. I mean. This woman is beautiful. She more or less propositions me. And for a minute I’m ready to go for it. Like I’m gonna pounce on her like a rabid dog. I had never had sex before but it was like the whole Kama Sutra just downloaded into my brain in that instant. But something in me just felt wrong. Just enough of me felt that this was wrong. I can’t just stick my dick into anyone. I’ve got to be ready to have a child with this person. And if I was gonna be this great prophet like my grandpa, I had better start acting like one. But damn, I had never seen anyone look so hot as the Aziza did in that moment. And after that split second of seemingly indomitable lust all I could say was “sorry, but no.” And I turned away to head out the door.
But when I turned I heard this loud shriek and I felt her grabbing onto my shirt and she pulled at me hard and she tore the shirt off. She did what my brother’s fake wolf couldn’t do and actually tore off my shirt. This woman was more deadly than a wolf. And there I was all shirtless and sweaty. And my chest was heaving. Cock at the ready. And I swear the look I saw in her eyes was like all the angels and all the devils conjoined to create a rainbow of pure desire in her. And in me too. I wanted it. I’ll admit that. I fucking wanted it. But just before we were going to ravage each other, the Aziz and some other dude walked in all like “we heard a shriek and just wanted to make sure you were ok.” And they saw me with my shirt off. And they saw her in her silky gown. And for a moment everything was just suspended in thin air. All thought and action. It was like time just stopped before the Aziza finally screamed, “help, he’s trying to rape me.”
About three weeks into my prison sentence, the Aziza had me released to be a part of a banquet. See, even though the law took her side, word was going around that she was kind of a slut. Which didn’t make sense because she was always a faithful wife. Except this one time, and even though she was wrong and enough people believed I was trying to rape her to put me in prison, I felt kinda bad. So I didn’t really complain.
She wanted to prove to all the other noble women how apparently irresistible I was. She had such a high position in the palace. It was an absolute embarrassment to be considered a slut, so she wanted to throw their words back into their faces. And it was sort of a rule that no one would talk about me. I was like this taboo subject. Everyone wanted a piece of me but no one wanted to admit it. But the Aziza, she brought me up, to everyone’s shock, and said something like “that Joseph, can you believe how close I was to having him all to myself?”
They had their dinner and their wine. And when the ladies started cutting their fruit for dessert, the Aziza brought me in. I kept my head down because I was embarrassed and my dad had always taught me to lower my gaze with women. This might have been the one time I actually listened to him. But when the Aziza called my name, I looked up and when all the women at the banquet saw my face, they practically cut their wrists open they were so stunned with desire. And finally they were all “we get it Aziza, we get it, a man like this should never be let loose into the world. We noble women would lose all of our power! Just look at him!” And so the Aziza’s reputation was restored, but I still had to go back to prison. Egyptian women. Fucking crazy.
When I went back to prison, there were two other guys there. A cook and a cupbearer. And we got pretty close. Like Sammy the skull and I when I was in the well. Except these guys could talk back. And they weren’t so down to watch me jerk off. They started to trust me so much they were telling me their dreams. And I don’t know what it is, but something made me feel like I knew what those dreams meant. I mean, it was something my dad could do too. He told me what my dreams meant. So I thought I’d pay it forward you know? Shine a bit of light in this cold forgotten corner of the world. The cook said they had a dream that they were standing with bread on their head and two birds were eating the bread. The cupbearer told me they had a dream that they were serving the king wine. For some reason the cook’s dream made me think that they would be crucified, and the cupbearer’s dream made me think they would go back to their old job of being the king’s cupbearer. And both those things turned out to be true, unfortunately for the cook. I hope people remember the cook as having been a good cook. Crucifixion seems like it sucks.
Soon enough the king had his own dream. And it was about seven lean cows eating seven fat cows. And when all the king’s experts couldn’t find an answer, the cupbearer told the king that I was able to find out the meaning of their dream. So the king came to me and asked me what his dream meant. And I told him it meant that Egypt would have seven years of abundance and after that they would have seven years of famine. So in the seven years of abundance they should probably store up enough to hold them through the seven years of famine. And when the dream came true and the king followed my advice, I was released from prison and made finance minister. And life was good again.
But this is when shit gets crazy. Because in all this time I’d never thought I’d see my brothers again. One day a group of ten brothers from Canaan came to the palace hoping to purchase some provisions. As finance minister, it was my duty to deal with them. And the ten men turned out to be my brothers. All were there except Ben. My father didn’t want to lose him like he had lost me. So he didn’t let him go with my brothers. My brothers didn’t recognize me. And they wanted to take home supplies enough for eleven men. But I told them they need all eleven men in order to get the supplies. Because I wanted them to go back and bring Ben. I just wanted to see my brother again.
So they went back and convinced my father to let them bring Ben. And they brought him. And when they came, I insisted they stay for a banquet. All my brothers were so ecstatic to be a part of this royal Egyptian banquet. But my brother Ben was just sad the whole time. I sat next to him and asked him why he was so sad. And he looked at me and looked away. And he said, “My brother Joseph would have loved it here. I miss him. He looked after me.” And I couldn’t help it, I just started crying. And Ben looks at me, not knowing it’s me, all googly eyed, and just says “what’s the matter bro?” And I say, “come with me, I want to show you something.”
And I take Ben to a private room, and I don’t know why but I just say, “If you really need a brother, one who will look after you, I could be your brother. I like you. Don’t you like me?” Ben smiled and said, “I think you’re cool and all, but no one can replace my brother Joseph. No one.” And finally, assured of his love, I told Ben “What if I told you that I am the Joseph that your brothers dumped into a well? That I was found by a caravan and sold into slavery? That all of Egypt fell in love with me? That a powerful woman’s desire for me was so great it got me thrown into prison? And still I rose to a position in this land second only to the king himself? What if I told you this, oh brother of mine? It is the truth. It is the absolute truth.”
And when Ben knew the truth, he broke down weeping. Because he had his brother again. And we hugged like no brothers had ever hugged before. And Ben almost ran out to tell everyone else, but I stopped him. I still couldn’t trust my other brothers. So I wanted to keep it a secret. I had to test their loyalty.
During the banquet, I had slipped the king’s prized gold chalice into Ben’s purse. And before my brothers made it outside the city the palace guards stopped them for a search, suspecting the chalice had been stolen. And they found the chalice in Ben’s purse. And they arrested Ben. And my brother Judah said, “well if you’re taking Ben, you’d better take me too.” And they arrested Judah too.
Of course, I could have had Ben and Judah released any time. But I needed to know if their brothers would look after them. So I told their brothers to come back with a ransom. And you know what? They did. They went back to mom and dad, got the ransom, and came back and Ben and Judah were set free. And at last I revealed myself and my perfect story to my whole family. And my father regained his sight at the sight of me. And we all wept with joy and they all fell prostrate before me, like the eleven stars and the sun and the moon in my dream. A humble cacophony of light.
That’s how I would like for things to turn out for me anyway. Instead of being inside this well for the rest of my life. But I don’t know, Sammy the Skull, maybe this story I just told you now is more truthful than anything I have experienced or could have experienced outside this well. I mean… do you think it’s any good? I think I’m going to call this story Joseph’s Dream. Because it’s my dream. And it’s how I’d like my life to go despite it all. It’s how I’d like to be remembered. What do you think? You’re one of the main characters, you know, Sammy the Skull! I mention you several times! I hope you like the story Sammy the Skull. Because I think there is a whole lot of truth in it. A whole lot of truth. Even though it’s not real. Because the truth is, Sammy, brothers are supposed to look out for one another. But the reality is, not a single one of my brothers ever looked out for me, Sammy. Not a single one.
She had no choice but to draw what she could see, if only to make the terror go away.
But what a strange joy this terror was! No one else could see what she could see, she knew, and she had to make it all known to the world. Create from her sight another world entire. She’ll start with the easy stuff. Renderings of Jupiter more real than the gas that makes up the planet itself; Black Holes so vivid they’ll suck the light right out of the beholders’ eyes…
She’ll draw the oceans too. She got too sea-sick that one time she went scuba diving with her cousins and puked on her auntie’s tampons (what is a tampon? She did not know, but she could read the package label once she wiped away the putrid mush of apple sauce shame). She did not go into the ocean that day or ever after, but she still knew that no one would be able to rip their hearts away from her sketches of apocalyptic maelstroms found only in the most perilous spheres of the ocean.
And when she was done with that she’d draw the real shit. The scary shit. The source of the terror. The pearly fangs that appear like floating daggers in the dusty blackness below her bed. And… well… more on that in bit… for now, terror has no place where adventure reigns—or perhaps they are co-sovereigns of a living kingdom in this girl’s soul. But no time to dwell on one’s soul! There is work to be done… she’s about to show the world entire universes never before conceived by man! She’s no man, after all. She’s a fuckin’ girl, bitch. And yesterday was her birthday, so now she was turned all the way up to age eleven!
Oh, her birthday. What a shit show. A one act play starring her mother. Everything went down-hill after the entrance. Mother bursts in shouting into her cracked flip phone, the girl rushes to her asking if they could go get ice cream and like a bad actor who can never shift their tone of voice Mother responds by saying, “Your grandpa is getting sued, I can’t get you any ice cream! Can you believe this country? Your grandfather has been running that trinket store for fifteen years at least. Some little shit kid tries to steal and like anyone would your grandpa grabs him and takes him to security. They wait for his mother to pick him up, and instead of disciplining the child, she accuses your grandpa of abusing him! Because he was protecting his store! Is that the freedom in America? When the child has power over the grown person? When the thief is more trusted than the honest working man? All these rich American mothers suing over the littlest things! Suing for their dumbass kids who do for thrill what so many do out of desperation. We can’t afford a lawyer as good as theirs! They don’t care that your grandpa could lose the store! Lose his entire living! He came to this country so that he could run a trinket store and lose it all in the end!"
The girl really understood none of this, she never felt like she was from another country or that she could not afford as good a lawyer as other kids. She didn’t even know what a lawyer was. She also didn’t think her grandpa’s trinkets were all that good, let alone worth stealing. So she couldn’t gather why they were the subject of so much fuss. But she had long ago accepted her role as her mother’s unpaid, unwilling shrink.
Enter her brother. Wandering in after taking the long way from school. Every way was the long way from school. But he always took the longest way. He floundered in, music buds blasting his ears into oblivion. Her brother was never one to say, “hello,” or “afternoon,” let alone “happy birthday.” But periodically he’d malaisely pop into her bubble and without any context blurt out something like, “I will find out how to live forever.” Or, “when I get rich I will only eat Japanese beef because the Japanese massage their cows before slaughter.” The girl sometimes found these episodes unbearably tedious. And sometimes she saw a special charm in them, since they were only for her.
Not a few minutes after her brother came home did their mother begin beating screams out of him for yet another complaint from one of his teachers. At that point, the girl gave up on having a birthday. Well, good then. Birthdays were just another distraction. And the idea was to always be drawing! And that day she drew a sketch of an octopus squeezing a chrome rainbow of sound out of a cow’s throat, and she captioned the work-in-progress as “Japanese Beef.” She was never very good at titles.
Her brother and her mother were her strongest inspirations.
Her brother was so skinny she could see his spine. And in this spine she saw a sharp hook. One she saw their mother put there at birth.
Her brother was born first. But she has a memory of his birth before she was alive. At her brother’s birth the girl was sent up from the swirly wirly soul place to watch the doctors in the hospital room cut her mother in two and wrench her screaming brother out of her. And when they sowed her mother back whole her mother took a hook and shoved it into her brother’s spine and it has been there ever since. And after seeing that, the girl was sent back to the swirly wirly soul place to await her appointed time.
And when her appointed time came, the doctors did not have to split her mother in two. And so her mother saw no reason to shove a hook into her daughter’s spine. But her mother grew eight tentacles just in case. And they have been there ever since.
And this was the source of the terror. Even more than the mysterious fangs, who preoccupied her mind in every moment of life except for when she was drawing. The terror that came from the day-to-day reminder of the pain and falseness of family life. A pain and falseness she would not recognize even existed until decades later.
But enough with these distractions! It is time to draw!
Right now, she only had today. Her birthday is gone, and decades later does not exist. Ok… she’s ready. The blank page stares back at her like an old friend from ages past. Waiting to be filled. Waiting to be penetrated by the sharp point of her pencil. She and the blank page go back to since before time. They are bound by the promise of eternity. They are each other’s destiny. Ah! Wait! She has to have that book read for class by Monday! And she hasn’t even started. Ah, fuck Jack London what does he know? She’s an artist! She doesn’t need school. Or books about snow and dogs. She doesn’t need learning. She can be the dumbest person alive and still create works that would come second only to the majesty of the gods themselves. But she never could know if there were any gods, so she might as well believe she was the best of them all!
Ok, her head’s all cleared up now. Only one more thing to do. She always had to check under the bed before she started to draw to see if the pearly fangs were visible, so that she could work with peace of mind. And when she looked under this time she found no fangs but a stray piece of paper. At the top the paper read, “The Lonely Story Of The letter Z.” And she read a story about the letter Z, and how lonely Z felt, because no letter came after Z. And in that moment, she had felt that no one had ever before captured that feeling of loneliness like this story did. And perhaps she began to cry a little. Because it was her! She was the lonely letter Z after all; who wasn’t? Such a universal story!
Only her brother could have written this. She did not waste time wondering how it ended up under her bed, because her brother’s papers had a habit of flying out to long-range destinations from the origins of his swamp of a backpack. He never took pride in anything he wrote or did, not like his sister. Her drawings were for posterity, and she knew it. But she had to go tell him how much she loved the story! Even though deep in her heart of hearts, she knew this was another way of avoiding her work for the day. Would she ever sit down and draw?
The girl went to her brother. She found him counting almonds meticulously, and their mother had just been beating him for the second day in a row since her birthday, and he looked as though he was longing for whatever-teenage-boys-long-for, that miserable, boring longing that is always at some point forgotten and useless and regretful, and she thought she might cheer him up by saying to him about his story, “I love this, what you wrote. I almost cried. Hey, maybe Z wouldn’t be so sad if instead of looking at all the letters that will never come after Z, Z looked at all the letters that came before. And they got a kind of… you know… strongness, from knowing that all those letters are there for them.”
Her brother flicked out of his deranged vacancy only to say, not meanly, but not quite matter-of-factly, only with an unshowy twirl of causticness, “what do you know, you’re just a dumb girl.” And the girl saw his story wrap itself into a butterfly and flutter onto the edge of the hook in his spine as his head collapsed over his shoulders to finish counting his almonds. These were the kinds of things she saw. The reality of others’ emotional life represented in eccentric imagery. And moments of brief and surprising wonder. And she tried to draw it all. If only she’d just sit down and draw already!
She was sorry to have succumbed to this useless distraction only to have her ungrateful shit of a brother insult her for being born a girl. Ok, lesson learned.
“Don’t let your brother’s weird shit get into your head,” she chanted to herself walking back to her sketchbook. She had learned the word shit from all the tv her mom watched. Along with fuck. And dick. And artist. They were all much easier to understand than lawyer. Especially dick and fuck. She sat back down over the sketchbook. No more interruptions. She’s just going to sit her butt down and draw her little fingers off. Here we go. Oh, wait, no… but… seriously?!? Not now! Another distraction. But this one might be the most unbearable of them all.
Bill Macintosh’s long, lean, blonde body came into her mind’s eye view. She had seen him again yesterday, all tall and wet and smiling. Gorgeous. Ofcourse she had to fall in love with a fucking blondie! But how could it be helped? Bill’s a swimmer with all the body and none of the skill. But what matters besides the body? No one gives a fuck how good he can swim he’s on the team so that everyone can worship him in that speedo! And all the other girls wanted him so she had to want him too. Typically, she gave no shits about what other girls thought or did. But in matters of love, it’s best to humble yourself before the consensus of the tribe. And the consensus around Bill Macintosh was all but unanimous.
But, you know, she knows him better than the rest. Every time she looked at him she knew he was brimming with a desire to divulge his inner most secrets to her, but with a strong patience he withheld his weaknesses so that he wouldn’t burden her. Like a true man! Though, when she looked at him, all she could ever want was to be burdened by his weaknesses. His vulnerabilities. She just knew this was the beautiful tension between them. And only them. Oh the agony! The contradiction in terms! This spark of life that was only hers!
Also, she’s pretty sure Bill’s really good at math. Not for any reason other than, women can sense these things. She had heard on one of the tv talk shows the phrase, “women can sense these things.” And so, she was confident in her ability to sense that Bill Macintosh was good at math, despite a lack of any evidence to the matter. And math is a much better subject for boys than literature or philosophy. Math boys don’t go around pompously pontificating their equations the same way lit boys talk about how they’re only in sixth grade and already reading Rilke and Marx. Fuck off.
Women can sense these things. But, “am I even a woman?” was the last thought to penetrate her cerebral nerve endings all the way through to the hollowest end of her heart chamber before, like a clarion answer to that very question from the gods themselves, her lower stomach began to contort itself and her head started to spin and she felt maybe she peed herself a little. So she went to the bathroom.
And when she slipped her underwear down between her ankles her heart just about dropped down there with it. The bleeding had come for her at last, like all those women on those talk shows said it would. But she had thought they were just making a cruel joke! This was the last thing she needed. This was more distracting than any dream about Bill Macintosh. This violent, harrowing distraction! How would she ever get to drawing today?
She desperately grated her sullied underwear with a wet tissue, weeping her way through the whole mess of it all. She felt so dirty. So scared. She knew she would be punished. All girls were punished for being dirty and scared. “What is mama going to say when she sees this?” But mama was already there, for the girl had a habit of forgetting to lock the bathroom door, and when mama saw what was happening she said, “Oh I’m so sorry honey I will get you a new pair and show you how to use a tampon.” And, as though her tears boiled into a volcanic well-spring of hot steaming fury, the girl could only scream, “what do you know, you’re just a dumb girl!!”
There would be no drawing that day, after all. You can’t become a woman and draw pictures all in the same day.
And when the girl checked under her bed that night. The pearly fangs were brighter and whiter than ever. And for the first time, a pair of searing yellow eyes appeared just above them. Some patient monster was lusting after her. Waiting to devour her. Waiting to drink her precious womanly blood.
The next day, just before school, the girl dumped all her sketches into the trash outside. Evidently there were far too many other things to worry about. Now that she was a woman, she figured, she had to put away childish things. All this woman stuff was too important and distracting for her to have time to draw. Though, really, she couldn’t stand being a woman. She never figured it would come to this. That she would at last be a woman. But women are so annoying! All of them on the tv talking about should I have a baby should I not have a baby my baby’s amazing I hate my fucking baby look at my fat pregnant belly oooohhhh sshhhhuutttttt uuuuuuppppp already! With this goddamn baby business!
Walking to class that morning, she caught Bill’s eye. And though they did not speak, she thought of how much she would love to have their baby inside of her. She loved that she was a woman, and that she and Bill could make a baby together. She didn’t even know that her body could make a baby until she looked at Bill. No one had ever told her! But when she looked at him, it was like biting out of the tree of knowledge. When she looked at him, she knew everything. All the secrets of the heavens and the earth. The whole gorgeous, sordid mess of it all. And all these secrets were hers and hers alone. And she could share them all with him, using nothing more than a quick glance. She was the first woman. And he, the first man. And they were bound to fall together.
But destiny had other plans.
At lunch that day, she saw Bill Macintosh and some other tough boys calling her brother a name she’d never heard. Faggot. She liked the sound of it, and when she said it, it made her mouth feel all tingly like a sweet and sour candy. Faggot faggot faggot faggot she kept muttering. How funny this word! It was her favorite word now. And she saw Bill pick up one of those big Gatorade containers you see at football games all by himself…he’s so strong…Bill. And what a delight that he happened to be friends with her brother! She thought her brother had no friends at all, but now that Bill was his friend she could have no care in the world. Already, the two most important men in her life were standing heel to heel with one another. Amazing.
Bill poured all the liquid in the container onto her brother, and all the boys laughed and ran away. And she laughed, and would have loved nothing more than to run away with them too! But she saw that her brother was not laughing, not running. He was on his knees, hunched over so that the curve of his spine protruded as though wanting to make the hook reach up to the clouds. And he was crying. And she approached her brother like one would approach a cold, wet, hopeless animal. For that was, after all, what he was in that moment. And she reached out to touch him but before she could, little pebbles of words began to cobble out of his quivering lips, saying:
“I’m… I’m sorry.”
He was shivering. She took off her sweater and started to dry him off, saying:
“Sorry? For what?”
“I’m sorry I don’t…”
“I’m sorry I don’t look out for you.”
And with that he rose. And left. And the girl was alone now. And within her a feeling began to rise which she had felt several times before, but today she had a new name for it. And today that feeling was called rage.
She grabbed the handles of the Gatorade container and dragged it over to the lockers where the tough boys where now smoking. And she spun around like a whirlpool seven times before finally releasing it into the immediate nether, screaming, surprising herself and those around with this viscous display.
But the Gatorade container barely went tumble, tumble, tumble, rumble, rumble, rumble, all pathetic like before morphing suddenly into a short wrinkly goblin with no nose and a single eye that shifted suspiciously from left to right before the goblin poofed itself out of existence. She might have been done with drawing, but she could not stop seeing things. And she knew, even then, that nothing, nothing, could stop her from being an artist. Not even having to be a woman. She was all the better for being a woman, too! Or not. Maybe she'd never be able to tell. Did it matter?
Panting with exhilaration but unsatisfied with the current result, she approached Bill Macintosh head on and said, pointedly, “Fuck you, Bill Macintosh. I am an artist who can draw your dick better than you can hold it. You mess with my brother again, and I will get a lawyer to sue the shit out of you. And they will be more expensive than your lawyer. The most expensive lawyer ever!” And poor Bill Macintosh looked to his buddies, cigarette dangling, unsure of what to say. And now at last she could see the inside of his chiseled chest. And in place of his heart was an ugly, croaking frog. Something she had not seen until this moment. She did not love Bill anymore.
For the rest of the school day she stayed in that unloving mood. Not unloving like the opposite or lack of love. Just not having any love to be directed away from herself. She did not feel happy or sad. And she did not pay attention in class any more than she did (or didn’t) already. She let the day pass, without ever thinking of how her time could better be spent.
At home that evening, sitting idly, the girl heard her brother calling out to her from outside. And she went out to see his face. Smiling. The affects of the day’s events had not lingered on him. He looked strong. She thought maybe her brother was a good man. Maybe the best man. But she knew she’d never really be able to tell.
He called her out because there was a plane passing overhead. This was the one thing they always did together, was wave at the planes that were passing overhead. And whenever she looked deep enough, she could see if the people in the plane waved back. They always did.
And when the plane was gone they stayed to look at the sky. And the stars. Funny how, whenever she was looking at just the sky, she could only see what she knew everyone else could see too. She found herself saying, “I’d like to go up there someday, and see the stars up close.” And after another long moment her brother, still looking up, said, “I finished my story about the Letter Z today… I mean, it doesn’t matter because it’s two weeks late… but I just wanted you to know. You were right. We can look and see inspiration and eternity in all those who came before us, without needing to look at the emptiness that lies ahead. Like these stars here, they are ancient history. They are our ancestors. So thank you." This pleased her more than he could know.
Her brother looked down at the grass, and back up to her, before saying, “you’re still a dumb girl, though.” She picked at the grass with her finger and without looking at him said, “And you’re a weird little faggot,” and they looked at each other for three seconds before their bodies gave way to a sudden explosion of laughter which had their half-grown lungs harness all the wind around them.
And when that was over, her brother rolled over and reached to his swamp of a bag and pulled out from the wreckage a clean and crisp manila folder filled with all the sketches his sister had dumped out early that morning.
“Don’t you ever give up on drawing,” he said. “You want to visit the stars? You can do that every day if you draw. No one can draw like you do. No one.”
And in that moment the only thing she thought she could ever know about the world was love. And the best part? Tomorrow was Saturday. No distractions.
She spent the whole of Saturday drawing. Except for when she went to get milk and taffies from the kitchen. She forgot about Bill Macintosh and his frog for a heart and about blood and tampons, and she forgot about her mother’s tentacles and the hook in her brother’s spine, because she drew them all. And when she drew them, she released their terror from her soul and felt at peace. Each time she checked under the bed, no fangs; no eyes were there. And soon she forgot about those too. And the strange terror became pure joy, if only for today.
And later towards the evening she got rather tired and a little bored. She plopped onto bed thinking, “well I’m just going to go ahead and waste all of tomorrow.” And with that she fell asleep, quite, quite happy.
I am a boy and my heart is torn between two loves. Mrs. D and Mrs. B. Mrs. D is my Math teacher and I really like her short hair and the way her butt is shaped. My friends say I'm gay for liking butts and not boobs but I know they secretly like butts too. But anyway, Mrs. D's butt wouldn't be nearly as good if she didn't have her nice hair--all her pieces fit together and if you take one piece away the sculpture is ruined.
But I like my English teacher Mrs. B too because she has kind eyes and she really pays attention to me. She even plays with my curls sometimes. It's a weird feeling I get when she plays with my curls. Like I'm a little scared but also it's kind of a fun scared. Like being on a rollercoaster except I don't vomit onto myself and the rest of my row when it happens. I like it.
There was this one time in Mrs. B's class where we were studying "personification." And we had to write a story where we gave a non-human thing human qualities. So I wrote about the letter Z. Here's some of it:
"Z is alone on a big white page. No one is next to Z. No letter in the alphabet has ever come this far before! Is this what it feels like to be... alone? Alone. Alone on a big white page. An unbearable sound and fury of silence. That terror of unreality. That terror that comes not from true danger but from the imagined heat of hell itself, that little piece in every consonant in the alphabet that coarsely whispers to their soul that they have no true place in this world. Not like the vowels. The vowels were chosen. For no word can exist without a vowel. You are just a lonely useless consonant--a harsh and half formed hump of a sound--stuck in a big white box of a page."
Mrs. B told me that I was using too many lines that I read from other authors and that I should have taken the assignment a little more seriously and personified an animal or a tree instead. Also she told me I was supposed to give them at least five personifying qualities instead of just one. I told her it is actually two qualities because Z felt alone and inadequate. And I told her loneliness is the most human quality of all so it counts as at least five anyway and how many other kids decided to invest their character with feelings instead of just giving them the ability to play soccer? Mrs. B said that I was being arrogant and that I shouldn't criticize other kids for going at their own pace. I found this insulting so I have cut Mrs. B off for a week and now spend all my extra time with Mrs. D.
I can tell that my absence is getting to Mrs. B. When I come to class late she pretends to not notice that I am late. When usually before she would get really mad if I was late. And I feel a little bad but she has to learn her lesson, you see?
I used to only visit Mrs. D during recess but now I'm going to see her at lunch too. I know it makes her happy because she always smiles big when I'm there. And when we're alone and I ask her to explain something, she demonstrates math problems to me as though she were a trapeze artist. Swinging herself from one side of the board to another, her hair flipping across her eyes. Getting a little messy. A little sweaty. A little out of breath. All for Math. All for me. I love everything about her. Her energy. The wrinkles on her face. The athletic body she built during years as a track star in high school and college. Everything.
I can tell Mrs. D and I are getting closer. One time, her daughter who is in college came to deliver Mrs. D lunch during class. And when her daughter left, Mrs. D--in front of the whole class--turned to me, smiled big, winked, and said "Do I have to hide my daughter away from you?"
I like that Mrs. D thinks I am some sort of player even though most kids made fun of me after that.
Oh Mrs. D, why would I have any interest in your daughter--this secondary product of you--when I could have the original! You are all I want, Mrs. D. And I wish I could tell you but I've watched enough YouTube videos about Game to know that I shouldn't play my hand too early. If at all.
I also know that women prefer high value men even if they are taken. In fact, being around other women, mainly beautiful women, makes a man have more value to other women. This works on ugly or beautiful women. Fat or thin. Old or young. They are all different but they all want the same thing. And it is usually opposite for a man. When a man wants a woman, he wants her for himself. Women like men better when they can share him. Even if they get jealous and fight over him--they do that because they think it's fun. Don't get mad at me I don't make the rules.
So it's ok, preferable in fact, for a man to have multiple women at once. So I don't have to choose between Mrs. D and Mrs. B. Even though I love the feeling of having to choose between two loves and not being able to. Sort of like a girl likes it. It's why mom spends all her time watching soap operas instead of helping me with my homework.
I am already missing Mrs. B... she makes me feel like I am important. Like I am a vowel and not just some ordinary and boring consonant. How terrifying to be aware of your own replaceability! The other day, I saw Mrs. B bending down and touching Bill Macintosh on the shoulder. I was so aggravated and betrayed! But I saw her steal a glance over to me as I stared at them so I know she was just doing it to make me jealous.
Maybe I don't want her right now but that doesn't mean someone else can have her. Maybe I will go visit Mrs. B during lunch tomorrow just to let her know everything is ok. I don't want her to be hurt.
But I don't know. I'd be ok with just Mrs. D. She doesn't expect anything of me. Mrs. B is always all, "You're so smart and talented but you need to work harder and turn your assignments in on time." Fuck you Mrs. B. No woman is going to tell me what to do.
In Math class, I am not the smart one. I am not the talented one. I am just the one with a ready heart and a ready cock for Mrs. D.
Mrs. D, go save the world with Math. Spread your glory all over the planet. And come home to me. I will make you cereal and hot cheese sandwiches and kiss you as much as you want. Even on the mouth. And we can bounce around the bed we sleep in together. And when you're mad at me I can go share a beer at the bar with my buddies about it once I'm old enough to go to bars. And I won't look at any girls there because they won't be as pretty as you.
It is just so hard walking home alone after school every day listening to the same dumb music knowing that this could be life for us, but the world does not want us to be happy.
Dear Court Janitor,
I was the court's most recent poet. Though I've heard that I've been replaced already. So I don't know if 'most recent' is the accurate term. Maybe 'previous' is better. I've always detested dictionaries. There can be no art found in words unless someone has the courage to toss them about recklessly. A properly placed word transcends any meaning that human pretext may molest it with. But only if it finds its proper place as a result of a reckless tossing about.
Those eyelids heard an eruption of wooden feces masquerading as bloated whale pudding.
I'm sorry... I don't want to waste your time with what can only now be considered a purely intellectual exercise. Actually that is wrong. I know now death is simply the place where all intellect is lost. And so anything I say now must come from somewhere deep and true.
You will either find this letter terribly banal or cosmically terrifying. Nothing else in between.
I must make a request of you that can only be carried out with fullest conviction that it is the just thing to do. I can assure you that everything laid forth here is the truth. To speak from beyond the grave is to defect from the lying pretensions of the living.
When I still had my job, I would recite my poems to the king and my recitations would always make the king weep, which meant I got to eat good. And when I was done I would go sleep with the court jester and we would lick each other until we fell asleep. It was a good life.
One day I was coming home from the market, thinking about the king's weeping and the court jester's licking--the greatest of my life's many privileges; it started to rain hard and I looked up, and the last line I ever wrote for the king popped into my head.
The line was this:
I have spent my life traveling the worlds of my mind just to please a king and yet I could not find anything so beautiful as the sky when it melts into rain.
At this line the king choked on his own breath in silence until giving way to a singular shout so shrill it chased away all the devils squeezing through the crevices of the palace.
And through clenched teeth the king said,
I have never seen the sky or the rain.
I do not like this poem.
For dinner, I had fried chicken--which I really love. But it was leftovers, so it was supposed to be taken as a subtle demerit for that day's poetry.
And when I went to bed with the court jester that night, the court jester said I'm not really in the mood. And I smiled, because I wasn't really in the mood either. It stopped raining and the moon became clear. And we just lay there together, fading beneath the moonlight.
I was an artist that day. The only day in my entire life that I was an artist. Except one other day from before.
And the day after I was an artist for the second time in my life I knew I couldn't do my job any more. I quit my job as court poet. Because that job is not about poetry, it is about pleasing the king.
And the morning after that, all that was left of me was my head. The King did not like that I had quit. But you see, I had to quit. I could no longer do my job.
My head was dumped into a pile of heads from bodies that had been beheaded by the king. And you, reliably as ever, have come to clear up the pits and have come upon my head and now hold it in your hands.
Court Janitor, I know our acquaintance was slight. Not reaching beyond mere passing glances from the corners of our eyes. But something about that lets me know that I can trust you.
I don't know if you liked me. Maybe you didn't like me because my life was good. But your life might be good too. I hope it is. I don't know if court janitors have a good life. I did once make a living scraping barnacles off boats. That was hard but also there was someone who sang soothingly while we worked and the beer was good so it was pretty nice. I maybe should have stayed on that boat. I wasn't writing much poetry at the time but my letters home were extraordinary. They were the best letters. I wish I kept extra copies.
Maybe you didn't like me because I didn't talk to you. I assure you I did not dislike you! Or look down on you! Not at all! I was merely shy. I am not so intense as you may have perceived me to be. I am not saying you perceived me to be that way but that is what people in my experience tend to think so I only wanted to clarify. When I'm alone or with just someone I am comfortable with I can be a lot of fun. Really.
I don't know if we might have been very good friends.
I just know that right now I need you more than anyone I have ever needed.
I know that now, you are simply doing your job. Cleaning out the pits to please the king, so that the king can have more room for heads. I was simply doing my job too. Pretending to be a poet to please the king, so that the king can have reason to weep. When I knew at last that my actual job was to just be a poet, I knew I could no longer please the king. And I made a decision.
Yours is a noble profession, as was mine.
But sometimes our professions call upon a certain courage within us which is not like the courage we thought was the courage that emboldened us to set upon the path in the first place. It is not an attractive sort of courage.
It is the courage of surrender. The courage to know all along you've confused your obstinacy for idealism and that you made all the errors you set out not to make as you pursued your purpose.
The courage to know that in your efforts to 'pursue fulfillment of the soul' you've sold away your soul after the first glance through a shiny wormhole which promises to eliminate a true path before a false destination.
Court Janitor, if you had any mercy in your bones you would take me to the woods and place me on a rock overlooking the meeting point of sky and lake.
Call it presumptuous but I'll say it anyway: your job is not to clean out the pits for the sake of a king.
Your job is to make sure things are in their proper place. To separate function from waste. To make order out of chaos. You, Court Janitor, if you do your job, will be more the artist over the course of a single day than I was in my entire life.
You and I who've been raised in obligations of the court have been taught all our lives that whatever course we take does not matter. That our hearts are merely pumps for blood in bodies led by a brain that must administer a particular effect.
That our dreams our idiosyncracies our moments of transcendent unity are mere concoctions of temperature. And not the meeting point of distant echoes reverberating from the laughing center of each unique soul.
That love of what we cannot master is futile. That mastery over anything can allow one to retain one's love for it.
I can tell you now that from where I stand...or rather, where I lay, where my body lays, stiff and fragile and folded over--like a Chinese fortune cookie--that this is not true.
I had no mastery over poetry and no mastery over the court jester. And I loved them both tremendously. And I betrayed them both hideously. One in life; the other in death.
I was a master at pleasing. And so did not love it. And when I could not do it anymore, I got myself killed.
That's just the way it goes sometimes.
Please put my head in its proper place.
If nothing else, I hope you enjoyed this letter. For I know now only too late that, like my letters home, any work of mine addressed to you rather than the king would certainly have been my best.
Headless Court Poet
She seized her little brother by the nape of his neck and pulled him close.
--Learn some social skills. You're embarrassing us. I need to prove to daddy and to everyone else I can do this very important job some day. How am I supposed to do that if my future second in command acts so vacant and deranged around very important people.
She let him go and went off to do all this very important work of showing people how well she can potentially do very important work some day; her little brother sat and continued to act vacant and deranged; he tried obeying his sister but that just made matters worse; he had wanted to say something to her the moment she seized him though, which he never did. So he folded his roots securely into the ground, opened his book and began to read.
Moments later, his sister came floating back.
--Well at least you don't look crazy. What are you reading?
He looked up, a bit brightened by her approval.
--More about the humans! You know they are mostly water, like us? But they look nothing like us. Why is that?
She always liked him best when his face was lit up by this kind of curiosity; she was at that point of intoxication which made her see the whole world with caring eyes, and she was anxious for another drink.
--That's a good boy, learn all you can. You will be a very good right hand minister someday.
A smile besieged his face. She could be so kind, sometimes, his sister.
--I can't wait to meet them. Even make a friend or two!
At this his sister sobered a bit.
--Father says its important not to form intimate relationships with the humans.
Her little brother felt brave now.
--Why? I read they need affection as much as we do.
Now he was just being combative, so she had to show him who was boss.
--They can get affection with their own kind. As we do. All we need from them is their carbon dioxide, and all they need from us is our oxygen. Treaties are about business, not intimacy. Best not to become emotionally involved with those who are here and gone in an instant. Our ancestors learned that the hard way so that we don't have to.
He wanted to test his limits; so he continued,
--But they live on in each other! As we do! Just because one of them dies doesn't mean that they are gone.
She had to make her word final now.
--Little brother, these things are beyond you. They are not things you can learn from a book. Now stay quiet and occupied so I don't have to come back here and keep checking on you.
She held his gaze, to see if she had indeed made her word final.
She did; he dipped his thin branches back into his book.
She floated away exhibiting the usual mercurialness.
He looked up again;
He was happy knowing there was someone so wise to look after him.
The warner tree is running through the forest; the air is choking the warner tree’s roots with breath-fullness amidst the bright cold of morning. The matter is urgent. Of great historic import. The warner tree is not ready for this. All her days were spent in the expected leisure; dancing joyously with a laughing lack of rhythm. Oxygen never impeded her during those long drunken nights, as it does now.
Her title was supposed to be ceremonial. Why her? Of all these long years; generations of Warners and her kind in general; why her?
When the warner tree reaches the mountains of man, she sees mans’ chief, or rather, the chief’s son—her dear old friend—now too much resembling his father, her older and dearer friend—his eyes flooded with tears—his body racked with arms—and she knows all that she must know.
Their pact—that of trees and humanity—is broken.
He shook her out of sleep, as if they were in one of those old Disneyland commercials about the kids and the dad who can't sleep because they're going to Disneyland.
--Sorry I couldn't sleep and I'm afraid to drive can you take me to the dentist?
She loved him enough to at least respond;
--Were you checking the lock on the front door every two minutes again?
No! He wasn't after all! At long last! In fact,
--No I was writing all night can you believe it?