Saturday, March 30, 2013


I decided not to order anything. She might get the wrong idea. Just tell her, say, "I don't have much time, Kotaro, so if you could please tell me why you wanted to see me..." Our texts had already established a time frame, but I knew she'd feel no impact if I told her I had to meet Andrew later at that Italian restaurant. "I have to be going..." But she just wouldn't mind. Probably order another.
            Kotaro Yumi had the ability, however, to force my enjoyment of our time together. Her reactions frequently surprised me, yet most of her expressions rang in my gut with familiarity. So, whenever Kotaro was around, I had little trouble smiling.
            "John, why are you always late? Do you know how pissed I get?" She placed her cup on a table near the window, not far from where I first saw her. The muscles in her arms clenched. I noted the toned shape and was glad of her fitness.
            "Sorry I'm late, really, I don't mean to be." I permitted a weak smile. "Good to see you." The frigid metal chair seared the skin on my legs.
            "It's been a while. You don't even talk to me online." Her eyebrows drew toward the bridge of her nose, and I tried not to feel the sting of her accusation. For the most part, I succeeded. In our past friendship, we had reached the point at which at her emotional manipulation became a topic of our inside jokes. But those jokes don't exist anymore.
I saw traces of a smile flit across her face. "Why didn't you order anything?" She looked down at her mocha. "This is really fattening, you know. It probably has hundreds of calories. You're just going to watch me drink it, right?"
            "I have to leave soon. I've got plans in a bit."
            She waited approximately ten seconds before she asked me what plans I had. During this time, I thought about Yumi Kotaro. For stretches of time she existed only in my dreams, where our relationship flourished. But the encounters varied there. Sometimes we did magic. Other times, she made me feel less than human. You used to make me so angry, and now all my judgments color you negatively.
            "With Andrew," I said. "He says hi. He says to message him."
            "Maybe I will." The thoughtfulness in her voice caught my attention, and she looked at me. "I miss you both." The note of remorse accented her tone, which usually sounded prideful, defensive, or defiant. She exhaled with the kind of habitual purpose that I know drives her to recklessness. "Lately everything feels like a punch in the chest. I'm stumbling a lot." Her hands splayed flat in the air and lent emphasis to the word "stumbling." She had been staring at the table's surface.
            I told her to wait while I ordered cake. Through the glass case I had seen a large slice of chocolate cake, which glistened down an entire edge. There had been a few powdery-looking raspberries on top. I returned to the table with the plate and two forks, said "Go ahead," and took the first bite. Abundant richness exacerbated the taste, but the cake compensated with moisture and mushiness. Yumi eyed the other fork. She had never looked so defeated. "Eat some," I said before I feared she would begin to sob.
            Through chewing mouth and teeth caked in muck, I spoke further: "You should not have told Andy. Shouldn't have told him I'm positive."
            "I know."
            "Wasn't your place."
            "I'm sorry."
            "After I had sex with him, I came to you. I trusted you..." The cake slid down my throat like a shake.
            "I understand now that I should have just comforted you and left it at that." Sunlight shone through Yumi's red hair. Her eyes lingered on my mouth before they shifted to our plate. "And I shouldn't have said those things to you. You're not a bad person. Not a horrible person. I just didn't want to see him go through what you did."
            "...But you didn't trust that I would tell him myself. You were ridiculous." I shoveled another bite into my mouth and thought she looked insignificant. "It's you he has a grudge against. It's you he's angry with."
            She took the other fork and removed a morsel of cake. Her jaws moved imperceptibly while she chewed, but her eyes widened in pleasure. "I know he hates me. I'll leave him alone." The next piece Yumi took fell from her fork onto the table before she went for another. "You know..."
            Again, she caught my attention. I stopped chewing.
            "...I was just going through my phone before you showed up. I deleted a lot of guys."
            "Why?" I was desperate with thirst. There was the water.
            "I didn't want them around anymore. Didn't need to be reminded of them all."
            "'Out of sight, out of mind,'" and I cringed at the cliché, but Yumi was busy removing the paper wrapping from her straw. She hit the tip vertically on the table so that when the casing broke, the paper could be pushed down into a scrunch. She smiled involuntarily when her few drops of water expanded the scrunch into a quenched, strangled cylinder.
            I thought about Yumi's irresponsibility, particularly with regard to her body. I thought the only thing guys wanted to know beforehand was whether or not she was on the pill. Most people have something these days. "You better have been protecting yourself."
            "I'm not great at it." She looked into her lap, back straight against the cold metal.
            "I hope you mean emotionally. Emotionally, you're not good at protecting yourself."
            Goosebumps spread over the length of her arms. When Yumi started to shiver, I thought she looked irradiant. Lusterless. But she never asked for lower worth. It was probably just something she felt somewhere in that towering tangle of ginger.
            "I do protect myself, John." She scooped a large chunk of the chocolate icing, which I had been avoiding. The consistency of frosting, its exaggerated viscosity and sweetness, had always convinced me that it stayed forever in the crowns of my teeth. Her eyes returned to mine. "So how are you and Andy?"
            "Fantastic." I took the penultimate bite and experienced an influx of heat that filled through my face. "I love him. He's the only one it's felt this right with." My fork speared the last piece, and I reflected upon chewing. Only Andy had ever been able to convince me that I was worth something. Only he, health at risk, knew what I was capable of. Yet, frequently, I wondered how I would hurt him again.
            "That's that best thing I've heard..." The mistful quality of her smile flattered me, but I was ready to leave.
We rose to our feet, and Yumi deposited our dish in the dirty bin by the condiments. After her clatter, we parted ways, and I left Café Brazil. Andy was waiting.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Born of Myth: Part Four

IV. Black on White

            The morning sun danced on the lake and glowed in the droplets about Ratatoskr’s ears. Vera had joined him at the edge of the lake; she did not want to see him leave. She had already begun to count time until their next meeting. But squirrels must live alone, she thought. We are solitary creatures. Vera would care for the kits until they reached three months of age, however. The knowledge seemed to swell in her chest.
            Ratatoskr shook the water from his fur, and Vera followed suit. The light reflected on the snow and warmed them both. She tasted the mixed scent of the pine seeds, thimbleberries, and catkins she had buried nearby, a foot into the earth. The songs of the passerines drifted in and out of harmony but floated all the time among predators and prey alike.
            His eyes focused on the copper of her coat and the white brilliance in the bulge of her abdomen. Vera, too, slipped into a trance, the familiarity of which she found exclusive to Ratatoskr’s power over her. Yet, at this moment, she noticed that his eyes had begun to dart in all directions. She flew into the air at the explosion of his squawk, “RUN!”
            After the gunshot, Ratatoskr’s body sank into the snow. Vera did not see the girl crouched behind the berry bush, nor did she smell her. The squirrel’s surroundings blurred during the infinite journey to her den, only ten feet away. She thought time had reversed and imagined the seconds dripping into a kind of negative realm where death became life. In this world, everything was nothing. And nothing was everything.

            Four days after her escape, the intensity of Vera’s grief lightened with the birth of her three pink kits. At the first sign of their fur, she would delight in the complete blackness of the two smaller females. The larger male would also grow a black coat, but the whiteness of his underside would dazzle her. It was then that Vera would name him. He was, after all, born of myth.


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Born of Myth: Part Three

III. Ratatoskr

            Hours later, after she emerged at sunset, Vera spotted Drilltooth bathing at the edge of the lake near her home. She thought he was a gift from Providence to quell her fear of death. He fluttered at the periphery of her vision, and his black silhouette stung her eyes. She moved until their shadows touched. “Monsieur.” The chirp hit a low pitch, and Vera’s tail descended to the snow. She tittered.
            They huddled together in her drey, a nest made of twigs, dead leaves, and the remaining fur from her last molt. She loved the smell of the leaves as they decomposed. The odor amplified in their warmth; it mingled with the must of her scent and with the freshness of his. In the hollow of her trunk, they abandoned their defenses. Drilltooth yawned.
            “The little ones will arrive soon,” she clicked. “They scratch and thump like rabbits. They are eager to see the world, mon ange.”
            “You are frightened.”
            He shifted farther into the blanket of her fat. “This new world is not so different, ma chaton. Only, the humans have become prey to those from the stars. Or, perhaps they have been here all along. I do not know. I suspect.”
            “Earth, ma chère.”
            Vera did not fathom his meaning, but neither did she press him. She could not keep her thoughts from the kits who grew inside her. “Will the little ones survive? These days, the danger does not stop. It never stops growing. The babies seem to know.”
            “They know nothing, ma minette. They will all reach six years. You will see them. They will all shine with beauty.” He nuzzled his nose into her ear. “You will see. They will smell like you.”
            “What if they die?”
            Drilltooth’s black, bottlebrush tail curled about her back, and he lowered his head to the leaves. “Everything dies, mon ange.” Vera searched his face when she heard the note of melancholy. His eyes glimmered in the darkness.
            He turned to her and chirped. “But there is rebirth. In the leaves. And in the grass. It all comes round.” He paused. “Death is nothing.”
            “It is everything.”
            “It is a veil. A sheer veil, mon amour. You know that.”
            Vera felt her anxiety evaporate. She breathed deeply and smirked. “What is your real name?”
            His laughter bounced off the walls of her den, a series of squeaks that made her beam. “Why must you know?” He hesitated. “Please do not laugh. My name is Ratatoskr.”
            The name was taken from legend, she knew. Ratatoskr had been a horned squirrel who scaled and descended the Great Tree in the forest across the ocean. He had carried messages between the Eagle above and the Snake below, gnawing away at the Tree all the while.
            “I am fond of it,” she clicked. “The name suits you perfectly, monsieur.”
            Soon thereafter, sleep caught the pair unawares. Night fell among the conifers and their cousins.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Born of Myth: Part Two

II. Predator and Prey

            The sun blared directly overhead, and Vera hopped from this shadow to that. The depth of snow varied from one spot to another because the trees caught some of the downfall. Her cheeks bulged with pine seeds, which she had pried from the fallen cones with her claws and incisors. Before working on the pinecones, she had sniffed them for bugs; if they were infested, she ate the seeds and the insects rather than storing the former. She needed to eat more than the typical pound of food per week, for her intense hunger accompanied the movements in her belly. Vera knew no fewer than three kits would arrive inside of a week.
            Early February brought with it less frequent but more focused thoughts of Drilltooth. It had been five weeks since they parted ways high in the pine tree where her present litter had been conceived. Before he left, he had nuzzled his head against her cheek and marked her with his scent. Her faintness had magnified with the clicks of his last words. “Adieu, ma cœur. We shall meet again in this life, to be sure!” He had smiled; his teeth had glistened. “Keep warm. Keep safe!” Then he had bounded through the branches, a black shadow in the moonlight. He was as a creature born of myth, she thought. Drilltooth.
It was a booming chirp, and she twisted around.
“Can it be you?”
The newcomer was a Grey squirrel. Her coat blended shades of heather and mahogany, and she was haphazardly groomed. Similar to Vera, her stomach and the underside of her tail were white. Her black eyes seemed to protrude.
“Amélie!” Vera saw that she, too, was pregnant. “How good it is to see you!”
Amélie sauntered near, and the two embraced; each knew that any meeting could be their last. Yet Vera was assured of her friend’s will to survive, for Amélie had managed to escape the previous year from the closest Green-bombed city. The refugee’s near-death state had frightened Vera no less than the strange words the former had muttered during her fever dreams. In her delirium, Amélie had spoken of the hunters of humans: Scaled Men with teeth that dripped and tails that lashed. After Vera had nursed her new friend back to health, the Grey squirrel chirped of bombs with emerald blasts. She had said they kept poison from the earth and that the Scaled Men told her this. “They told everyone,” Amélie had said, “Not with sounds but with thoughts. Everyone knew.”
Her words still caused Vera to shiver with fear and to wring her paws together. She had been glad to see Amélie leave, but now she exulted at this reunion.
“I see you are almost ready to bear,” Amélie clicked. From her left cheek she produced three mushrooms, each bathed in brilliant amber with a flourish of auburn about the crest. They smelled of the earth, rich with nutrients. “Take these, mon ami. They will nourish your kittens.”
“Ah!” Vera gasped with delight. “C’est incroyable! They are lovely! And so rare now with the cold. Are you positive you do not need them for your own little ones?”
“Take them. I have more.”
Vera threw her forearms around the startled Amélie. “Merci.”
“It is the least I could do.”
A twig snapped fewer than fifteen feet away from the pair. Vera and Amélie bolted in opposite directions toward the nearest tree. From behind a cedar adjacent to the one to which Amélie sprinted, a lynx pounced. It issued a scream that tingled Vera’s spine as she raced up her birch. The pound of its claws against the tree bark exploded in her chest. When Vera turned upon her bough, she saw that Amélie’s tail was caught under the cat’s paw. Specks of black dappled its white and gray fur, and the muscles beneath its skin pulsed as it worked to secure its grip. The lynx’s hind legs shifted position for better support while its left foreleg hugged the trunk to remain upright.
The Grey squirrel squealed and struggled. The din of her scratching forced Vera to recoil. Amélie’s tail was pinned between the middle two claws; it was the predator’s pad that trapped her. In order to pierce through her tail, the cat lifted its paw for a millisecond. The squirrel clawed up the cedar in a frenzy, too quickly for the lynx to follow. The rage in the feline’s scream chased Amélie as she flew away among the trees. The sound seemed to rip the air about Vera’s ears, and she watched, frozen, as the lynx spotted her. It bounded for the base of her birch, and she heard words in the rumble of its growl.
“I shall catch you this time.”
The kits writhed in her womb. She dashed up the tree and did not stop until she reached the location of her closest den, a kilometer away. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Born of Myth: Part One

I. The Chase

The import of the chase took less time to register in her brain than it would have in that of a human. Her claws grasped onto the closest branch of the pine she hurdled toward. She achieved balance with her tail, which stretched straight, bushy and copper-colored. His scent reached her on the breeze, and she chortled in satisfaction; it had been the thing that won her over, the aroma that reminded her of the drey where she had birthed her first litter. The luster of his fur, all black, also drew her attention. The rarity of such a coat among Red squirrels would ensure the kits of her next litter were the envy of any who crossed their paths.
            “Hé, Drilltooth, hurry!” Her squawk echoed among the conifers, but she did not care. “I am going to leave you behind!” Yet she would wait here for him until he nearly reached her, and the chase would continue. They had been at it for almost two days.
            Drilltooth answered her squawk with one of his own. “I shall catch you this time, Vera.” The plume that was his tail lashed when he said her name. Vera entered a trance while she observed the grace of his flight among the branches. Following the rustle of each landing and the scraping of his claws across the bark, he sailed through the air and descended all the time. When he reached the neighboring tree, he scurried up its trunk until he met Vera’s level. He dashed along a bough that connected to the one upon which she sat, and her trance broke. She clawed her way to the base of the arm, and instead of leaping to the next tree she ran from him up, down, and around the diameter of the trunk. The two squirrels created a storm of scratching noises while they raced among a web of outcropping sprigs.
            Vera allowed him to trail only a foot in her wake. She squeaked when she thought that his eight-inch body presently, continuously, occupied the space left by her own. His breathing sounded in her ears, and the white fur on her belly lifted from the bark when he squawked at her without warning. There were no words in the harshness of his sound; there was only yearning. Vera lost control of the situation, and Drilltooth seized it. He clutched her about the chest. The chase was over. The sun was about to set.
            It was late December in Northern Alberta. The birch trees were presently naked, but snowfall would increase in the coming months. Red squirrels, who otherwise lived solitary lives outside of kit rearing, would find partners with whom to huddle for survival. Nestled deep in their dens, they would shiver inside the trunks of trees. One’s warmth would fade into another’s, and, for a night, the two would be united against the elements. In the morning, the guest would take his leave. Their paths would cross again.
            Drilltooth reclined on the base of a bough against the trunk, his feet pointed upward. “Ma chère,” he clicked. “How are you going to be this winter? Will you have gathered enough?”
            “I have been very diligent, monsieur. The little ones will not want for anything.” Vera stood a few paces from him, but his piney scent drew her closer. “Why do you call yourself Drilltooth?”
            “Because, petite amie. I gnaw at the trees, more than anyone else. I am always causing them destruction, yet they continue to grow. You will not find cleaner teeth in this land.”
            Her tail twitched, and she averted her gaze. “Drilltooth… You are beautiful.”
            At that moment, the sound of a gunshot traveled through the forest. The two of them stood upright and motionless except for their eyes, which flitted hither and thither. They scanned both the branches and the ground forty feet below. Their noses nearly missed the scent of gun smoke. The hoot of a Great Grey Owl pervaded the silence. It haunted them with its prowess. A series of footsteps commenced, and then they ceased.
            “These days, humans hunt often.”
            “They have been driven from their Metal Trees, which stand no more.”
            “Since the Green Explosions, some of them live here. They, too, are hunted.”
            “Their world has ended. And now they hunt everyone.”
            Vera and Drilltooth recited this exchange as they had done previously but with different partners throughout their two years of life. Their mothers had taught them of new dangers with these words. The owls, cats, weasels, and wolves, too – Everyone knew.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Offset Aggression

   The Cat is an affectionate whore. He purrs in your lap and marks your knee thoroughly, but then his teeth scrape across your skin because you move. On rare occasions you accept his reprimand; you feel guilty for the things you decide to withhold from him, and now you're convinced he’s been avoiding you since yesterday because you replaced the old litter with new. Not a speck of his odor remains.

   Yet this morning, even though you’ve encroached, Hotspur the Cat purrs in your lap. He pushes his cheek against your fingers, and you indulge him with a massage while you enjoy the silkiness of his calico fur. Then, he explodes with a sneeze and abandons you to sit on John's lap. You take offense, but your amusement at their bliss wins out because of the infectiousness of John’s delight. Before you leave the bed, you decide to wash your hands and then shave. But first, you give the man a thought.

   For the most part, John Kuroda's humbleness offsets antagonism. He is conservative with the information he shares and manages to maintain a relationship with anyone who shows him the least bit of affection. During ruptures in the peace of these relationships, during times when participating parties complain about neglect, John endures because he believes “the good times are worth it.” Even without his tiresome handsomeness, John could get by on charisma alone.

   In months previous, John pelted Hotspur out the patio door. After he caught your furtive feline walking along the counter to sink his fangs into one of your Cornish game hens, out the door the Cat went. But Hotspur, in the midst of other forbidden preoccupations, learned to engineer his escape in John's presence. So John, noting the Cat’s love of outdoor freedom, took to the firing of Nerf projectiles instead. “Not only is it necessary discipline,” he said, “but also wonderful target practice. Win-win.” You snorted and grudgingly acknowledged his point.

   You let John do what he wants, but now you tell him from the bathroom to strip the bed before he goes to Café Brazil. In the middle of the shave, the blade nicks your skin because Hotspur’s hiss-and-spit startles you. The “sorry” beneath John's laughter elicits a growl beneath your breath. The blood reminds you of the mess of cum on the floor – probably long ingested by the Cat at this point.

   “Will you put the gun down, please, and start the coffee before you go? Have some too.” You reach for toilet paper to sop up the mess, but the blood won’t stop. The creak of the front door travels.

   “Actually, it’s time I leave,” says John. “She’s waiting by now.”

   You move to where you can see him by the door, your face half-white and a little red. John looks back and then glances down at Hotspur who, despite everything, reaches up to knead his thigh.

   “Leave, then.” Through the doorway, past John’s averted guilt, you can see the stairs.

   “I know I told you this, but don’t say anything.” John looks up again. “I’m not ready.”

   “I know. Go to your lunch. Tell her I say hi. And tell her to find me online. We haven’t spoken since graduation.”

   “She misses you, Andrew. She said that. But then she talks a lot.”

   He disappears behind the closed door, and Hotspur protests. You’ll never know whether the Cat’s meows spring from John’s leaving or from the extinguished possibility of escape. Nevertheless, the complaints irritate you, and thoughts of Yumi Kotaro incite anger. Forgotten beneath the gun, the scarf you gave John makes you uncomfortably aware of your own presence.

   Hotspur prances between your feet to the litter box and bitches over the clean substrate. “Mark it up, then!” you snap and forget about the blood until you see it dribble in the mirror. The droplet falls from your chin onto the floor, and the Cat slinks his way over. 


Friday, August 17, 2012

On the Beautiful Blue Danube: Part 3

     When we look on the past we find colors limned in either vibrancy or dullness. Unless pleasant or putrid, scents settle into dormancy until we brush with them again. While dots on the past timeline become rigid objectively, other points gain animation and begin to mash in our heads. They scramble to anticipate the motion of the pinpricks that waver about the future with indiscernible frequency and order. In our heads, we see what we want to see, and we strive to connect everything because of our sense that everything actually is connected. Emotion alters memory as a writer embellishes a story.

     It seems to me that many months have passed since my return from Europe, so Prague and Vienna begin to merge in my memory. Without looking at my notes, the first thing I remember about Prague is its surfeit of cobblestone. Stretching to eternity beneath renovated buildings, these stone walks of two-inch cubes form into designs that sometimes move under clumsy feet and tipsy minds. Groups of men always hammer them into the ground one after the other. These groups repair and replace old stones with new, black, white, and grey.

     They – the men and their stones, the minute and numerous garbage trucks – keep the city pristine. They all ensure that Prague remains worthy of being seen by eyes the world over. Conscientious strollers dress quite fashionably; they put us all to shame. Yet, the shopping is cheap because of reluctance regarding the conversion from crown to euro. Restaurants, etc. near and around Old Town Square make practice of scamming tourists and chase them away to Vienna, I suppose, where music fills the streets.

     On the popular streets of Vienna, quartets count time and hearken back to another age when musical giants gravitated to the city. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Strauss are paid homage by men clad in 18th-century garb. They gesture and prompt ticket sales to upcoming performances at the Vienna State Opera House. They speak German and English while they extend pamphlets to diverse bands of people dispersing and assembling around musicians and cafés.

     Warm with wine, we hop from this café to that. We eat cake and visit Haus der Musik, the museum of sound and music where science and history nestle into its floors. On the big screen of the interactive installation at the peak, the Vienna Philharmonic applauds the successes or jeers at the failures of baton-wielding conductors. We experts follow the rhythm of The Blue Danube and a myriad other classical works.

     I wonder now if we could have taken the Danube River from Budapest to Prague and then to Vienna. Maybe then, along a smoother flow, the memories wouldn’t blend so soon. Moreover, I know that journeys through several time zones tend to damage “internal clocks”; they cast a haze over “reality.” So now, here in Kansas, back here in the center of the most developed part of the New World, I’ll ground myself. I’ll relish the moments and forget about the seconds between now and the time I choose to see the world again. 

Footless on the Charles Bridge but ready for rain in Prague