A compilation of pieces previously published online, the issue features cover art by Evan Paul English, an interview with Mary Gaitskill, works by Mac Wellman, Trinidad Escobar, Jessica Laser, and many other talents.
A compilation of pieces previously published online, the issue features cover art by Evan Paul English, an interview with Mary Gaitskill, works by Mac Wellman, Trinidad Escobar, Jessica Laser, and many other talents.
The Hideout, by Egon Hostovský, was first published in the U.S. in 1945, and now has been reissued by Pushkin Press in an English translation by Fern Long. The novel – really more of a novella, at roughly 120 pages – consists of one extended epistolary soliloquy-cum-confession-cum-suicide note.
The writer of the epistles, an unnamed Czech engineer, leaves his family in Prague for Paris shortly before the 1938 Nazi invasion; wanted for arrest by the Germans, he is unable to return home. When Paris is occupied in 1940, he takes shelter in the eponymous hideout: the dank cellar of an acquaintance in the French countryside. He lives there in near-total isolation until 1942, when he is presented with an opportunity to aid the French resistance. Aware that he will almost certainly die in the brave act, he writes a series of letters to his wife, addressed by the affectionate diminutive Hanichka, explaining the circumstances of his exile, the likely circumstances of his approaching demise, and the progressive erosion of his soul in between these two points.
To a reader like me, whose limited experience of Czech literature began with the dark humor of Hašek, traced over the Surrealist magic of Nezval, and ended with a broad survey of the Prague Spring, there is something startling in the plainness and clarity of Hostovský’s prose and the directness of the plot he constructs, which seem to borrow somewhat from the conventions of genre fiction. This is not a text of superior lyrical beauty, except in rare moments. The epistolary format of the book, and the subject matter, lends it a kind of sentimental, moralistic tone that can on occasion bleed into mawkishness.
What the text does offer, however, is a psychologically realist portrait of an otherwise unexceptional person shaped by historical conditions. We know that our unnamed narrator is middle-aged; that he has two daughters, teenagers at the time of his departure for Paris, for whom he is somewhat superfluous; that he left Prague not because he sensed impending danger, but because he foolishly chased a woman, a love he never consummates. We know, too, that the warrant issued for his arrest was for an act of treason against the Germans he never actually committed; when he later actually attempts to commit treason, the French authorities dismiss him as a quack.
The weakness of our hero in both a private and political sphere is sharply rendered throughout; for instance, in one passage he discusses his inability to communicate with or find happiness with Hanichka:
“Whenever you asked me to talk to you I always became completely mute. At that time, too, every sound from the outside took the words from your lips, every noise, every ringing or knocking. What’s happening again? Some kind of demonstration? What did they announce over the radio? That the Germans are cutting off our electricity? Who announced it? That our theaters are going to be closed and meetings forbidden? Martial law? Impossible! Both thoughts and people were going around in circles; everything seemed useless, stupid, futile – but you know very well how it was.”
This vagueness of thought, and our narrator’s impotence, the “…[paralysis] of [his brain] when it has to cope with larger segments of time. All the collective unhappiness and all the collective catastrophes…” put me in mind of Hannah Arendt’s description of “inner emigration” – people who, in “dark times,” no longer feel like citizens, but do not in actuality emigrate, instead drawing into a mute, invisible, interior realm. Our narrator’s withdrawal from reality before his exile – both of his marriage and of the coming war – becomes literalized once he enters the hideout. It is not until his mind begins to disintegrate, and until the invisibility of the hideout is directly threatened, that he is able to face the unendurable reality of Nazism and take action.
Moments such as this in the text – and there are many – feel almost horrifyingly relevant to today’s global political climate, and render this a singularly timely reissue. See the narrator’s impression of the origins of World War II, which reads like how we may all feel when the age of Trump comes to a close:
“I keep having the feeling that a good half of the human race got drunk in a kind of gigantic space where the air is all breathed out…by now, thank God, we have advanced far enough so that we can tell our friends from our enemies, but the drunkenness lasts, the guilt is still debatable, and the harm done is beyond imagination.”
Some of the most memorable passages of the book come in his description of wandering around Paris before the fall, disoriented and adrift. It bears mentioning that while the text is not autobiographical, Hostovský himself lived in exile, and often wrote of the subject. Hostovský was born into an assimilated Jewish family in 1908, and, much like the narrator of The Hideout, left Prague not from political fear but from an accident of fate – already a successful author in Czechoslovakia, he was invited to give a lecture in Brussels shortly before the occupation. He then sought refuge in France until its fall, at which time he escaped across the Pyrenees to Lisbon and onward to the United States.
The Hideout is a singular text, certainly, but an important one, which bears reading for its insights into “dark times” present and past.
Mary Gaitskill is the writer of three story collections, three novels and, most recently, a book of essays called Somebody with a Little Hammer. She was my teacher last summer at the New York State Writers’ Institute, where my classmates and I hiked, ate several kinds of fruit pie right out of the tin, and, most importantly, workshopped each other’s manuscripts. In class, Gaitskill shared her favorite stories by Dickens and Nabokov and listened closely as we discussed each other’s work, occasionally disagreeing, or pointing us in a different direction. We spoke again over Skype last fall, while she was teaching in Pittsburgh and I was back at Brooklyn College.
Monika Zaleska: I’m interested in how you write these minute changes in behavior between people, especially in romantic or sexual relationships. For example, in “The Blanket,” Valerie and a younger man, Michael, are innocently playing out their fantasies with each other, but then there’s this shift. After she tells him she was raped, he stops the car on a dark street, thinking that they’re still joking around or that it’s still part of the fantasy. To her, it’s not. I wonder how you approach writing these shifts in relationship dynamics.
Mary Gaitskill: The relationship in “The Blanket” is a particularly dramatic situation because they’re in a realm that can be treated playfully, or can suddenly become serious, so the small changes matter in a way that they might not, say, in a student-teacher relationship. A student may disagree with something I say, but we’re not in a dark car together talking about rape. What I’m more interested in is the relationship between fear and excitement, how something scary in one context can be exciting or playful or funny in another. In his mind, he’s still in a place where they’re fooling around. To me it’s interesting how dark and light can be interchangeable sometimes. Feelings blend into each other in unpredictable ways, especially feelings like aggression and excitement and love and hostility. It’s very mysterious, and can be scary.
MZ: You delve so deeply into the emotional lives of your characters. How do you balance developing that emotional landscape with the larger action of a story or novel? Which comes first for you when writing?
MG: I don’t know. I do spend a lot of time on characters’ internal thoughts. I feel like that’s where my strength is, and it’s hard for me to translate it outward into action. That’s a challenge for me as a writer.
MZ: You also seem interested in characters that have trouble communicating, or that have frustrated or conflicting emotions that are hard to pin down.
MG: The people in my stories, in Veronica or in The Mare, don’t have a strong social grounding. Like in Veronica, for Alison to be friends with another model, that would make sense in the world. But for her to be friends with this older, socially unattractive woman, Veronica, doesn’t make social sense. I think she feels a deep affinity for Veronica because they’ve both been wounded, and they have both occupied worlds where their external appearance is very important. For Alison it’s the fashion world, and for Veronica it’s styling herself in these weird sweaters she wears and her intense make-up and hair. It’s an affinity that isn’t obvious, but it’s there.
In The Mare, people are always telling Ginger that she has nothing in common with Velvet or her mother. Here’s a middle class white woman who has a relationship with an impoverished Dominican girl and she keeps being told you can’t understand her, your life is too different. In a way it is, but in another way, it’s not. Ginger feels out of touch with the world around her. She can’t understand the people around her or be understood by them. She’s looked down upon by them, and that’s similar to the experience that Velvet’s mother is having in her neighborhood. She literally can’t understand. She can’t speak English. It’s a more serious situation because she feels physically threatened, perhaps even more than she really is. Velvet is also having a lot of trouble socially connecting with the people around her. All of them are people that don’t really fit in. They have a deeper connection, but the social, external connection doesn’t make sense to people. I write about that a lot, people who have instincts to connect that aren’t supported by the outside world, and that’s hard. Harder than people realize sometimes.
MZ: In a novel like The Mare, why do you think it’s crucial for the story to be told from many different perspectives? There’s the voices of Ginger and her husband Paul, who take Velvet in from the Fresh Air Fund for inner-city kids, and take her horseback riding for the first time. Just Velvet spends summers with them upstate, yet you also include her mother Silvia’s voice and her little brother Dante’s.
MG: Well, partially because I didn’t feel like I could tell the whole story in the voice of a Dominican girl. I know enough that I could tell part of it, but I didn’t feel like I could tell the whole thing from her point of view. Just of the sake of reality, I felt I had to tell half of it from the middle-aged white person’s point of view. But also, part of the story is about how the different people see each other, and try to understand each other, and do so very imperfectly.
MZ: Did you always know you were going to include the younger brother Dante’s voice in the book, or did you think writing in the voice of an eleven year old girl was challenging enough?
MG: I didn’t initially think of doing anyone but Ginger and Velvet, and then Paul crept in in a natural way, and I thought he was a good counterpoint to Ginger. He could say the things that Ginger wouldn’t say to herself or think about. Much more reluctantly did I include Velvet’s mother and I was really uncertain about that. I didn’t think I could do her. Yet I felt that you were hearing so much about her that if I were the reader I would want to know what she thought. And then Dante came in from the side. I don’t remember how I made that decision but I’m glad I did. He’s one of my favorite voices.
MZ: I think it’s really interesting to see how a child sees the developing drama of the novel in both a simpler and more complicated way.
MG: Yeah, he’s definitely a wise-ass and I like that about him.
MZ: So why the reservations about writing Velvet’s mother?
MG: Because she’s so different from me. She’s close to my age—she’s younger than me, but she’s not significantly younger— and her life is totally different than mine. Velvet’s life is different too, but at least Velvet grew up in this country. She’s Dominican-American, but also she’s American, basically. She listens to pop music and watches the same TV shows I do. She comes from a different cultural place than me, but it’s not radically different. She’s impoverished, but she reads and writes, whereas her mother is someone who has grown up in a different country. She’s in a poor neighborhood and she’s responsible for the care of two young children. I can only imagine the sense of stress and fear you would feel not only for yourself but your kids. You are in a dangerous neighborhood, and because you can’t understand what people are saying, you don’t know the rules of that neighborhood. She doesn’t like black people and so she is possibly more afraid than she has to be. That’s a level of stress that’s hard for me to understand.
MZ: Do you worry about being criticized for trying to portray someone so different from yourself?
MG: Somewhat. I’m afraid it could be seen as insulting, or just simply unaware. I was concerned with it.
MZ: I wonder how you negotiate those feelings as a writer. I often have them myself and wonder what my own limits of understanding are when it comes writing other people’s experiences.
MG: I ultimately decided that if I do a poor job, people can say so. It will be clear. I’m not going to do any terrible harm to anyone, though there might be people who disagree. But it could be seen as just stupid. If it is, I don’t think it’s going to harm anyone except me and my credibility.
MZ: At the New York State Writers’ Institute, you read from your story, “The Agonized Face,” about a woman at a literary conference attending the talk of a feminist author. The feminist author criticizes her bio in the conference program, which focuses on the more salacious aspects of her life, such as her brief time working as a prostitute. Our narrator is confused by this feminist author, by how she is both vulnerable and outspoken, both victim and champion of womankind. I’ll admit that I also wasn’t sure what to take away from the story.
MG: People still have so much trouble with women’s vulnerability and strength. Really the trouble the narrator is having with the feminist writer is that she’s someone who appears to be a know-it-all, but is also very vulnerable. Look what happened to Marilyn Monroe. People adored her, but she died early. She was treated badly and not respected in her time. The feminist writer is no Marilyn Monroe, but she’s a woman who is presenting as vulnerable while trying to be very much in control. And if there’s something that story is about, it’s about even other women’s difficulty in coping with that. The sexuality of women still throws people because it’s so fluid and open.
There’s a story by David Bezmozgis that I teach often called “Natasha.” It’s a really good story, but it always gets my students riled up, the undergrads especially. Some of them hate her and think she’s a psychopath or monster. Other people think she’s really an unfortunate girl, and that the he’s really horrible and takes advantage of her. I don’t think either one is true, though I’m more on the side of her being a very unfortunate girl. I don’t think the narrator is taking advantage of her, though I think he doesn’t know how else to be. Natasha seems to be in control. That’s how she presents. In some ways she is, and in other ways, she’s not.
MZ: That story sparked a heated debate in our craft class at Brooklyn College as well.
MG: It always does. It’s partly because people are still mystified or don’t know how to respond to a woman who is both very powerful, which Natasha is, even at the age of fourteen, and very, very vulnerable and clearly has been badly hurt.
MZ: In our class this summer, we started talking about a philosophy of writing. I remember you came in with some notes, but then you became hesitant to present anything to us as a philosophy of sorts, and we ended up talking about how style shapes writing. Do you think having a philosophy of writing is helpful?
MG: As a writer, I don’t think you have to have an articulated philosophy, though I think most writers do, whether they know it or not. I think I was hesitating because I’m not sure how current my philosophy is or if my students need to hear what I have to say. I don’t know that it’s going to help them get published or move forward in their writing. Nonetheless, I have these opinions and feelings that are important to me. But if I wasn’t a teacher I would have never tried to find a way to express them verbally.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Monika Zaleska is the Fiction Editor of The Brooklyn Review. Her work has appeared in Lenny Letter, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and Rookie Magazine. She is currently working on her first novel.
Telling Grandma Stories
At the end of Grandma Esther’s cul-de-sac, summer moon found me coins. Mexican money—round plata imbedded in roots. How do our hands find themselves soiled? Old man bursts through screen door, barking ¿Qué haces? I should have grabbed two handfuls of dirt and run. Instead, Grandma’s pursed lips, unsure if mentiroso is tasted in blood.
Statue for Seamstress
Stand on chair, legs uneven. A mother is stability. Hand needles her voice, quells fidget. No little boy understands fray—quick work of time, rub and soft cloth. Waist, wide as mans. Limbs eager to catch-up. Boy sways. Finger pricked. Punch to thigh teaches patience and still.
Photos 3 & 5, Found In An Album We Don’t Talk About
In a solid red sweat suit and L.A. Gears, little boy enters dawn. Mounds of mulch scattered. Pick up that rake…Now with the hoe. Disposable in my father’s hands, meant to mark: boy holding tools too close to the claw—the majesty of ignorant wealth.
On Paseo del Sol, periphery came to cul-de-sac. Estabamos chicanos at the foot & hump of horseshoe tú nos llamamos mexicanos. Elderly at our sides—Philippinos y queers opposite them. Sprinkled anglo, our street squeezed the american dream. And like asphalt, it was hard, unforgiving, sticky in summer.
The memory is phony, prescribed photographic. Kaleidoscope shifts wonder—sparkle to offset dark. I question an eye that gives credence. What trigger makes it so? My Kodak truth—blank-face snapshots. Tickled grimace to extricate joy, search for a smile to say I’m home.
Ruben Rodriguez is a MFA student at the University of New Mexico where he studies poetry. He is the fiction editor of The Great American Lit Mag and author of the chapbook We Do What We Want (Orange Monkey Publishing, 2015). His poetry has been deemed fit for consumption by Passages North, Beecher’s, Superstition Review, Potomac Review, Bayou Magazine and others. You can find him at www.rubenstuff.com.
When he took me out with his people, you could see he was ashamed of me.
The next youngest guy there was twenty years older than I.
Observe the parent bird strangely urging her babies from the nest.
The poet’s eye is a mother bird, and the tears are jumping off his cheeks!
Come, Corydon, forget your Alexis. Forget Amaryllis’s moods.
For this emphasis on sensual pleasure betrays your will to revenge.
The pursuit of knowledge is always a screen. Likewise, the asking advice.
People are poets. They just like to see certain themes being handled.
But if the artifact does not mean a thing until the maker is safely dead,
What are the audiences experiencing as I stand here and recite?
I have sixteen personalities, if each of my moods counts. And I
Have no personality at all if you’re expecting consistency.
The serpent moves quickly, Palaemon. Its head is a den of thieves.
Look how the sentinels inside are slightly parting the metallic curtains!
How appalling it is, in childhood, seeing that beautiful male brutes
Quite frequently, without any study, are masters of magical speech.
How appalling it is, in childhood, to be so often made to admit
That the lethal force of language is in the keeping of the oversexed.
I have no last words nor any last wish. Vive la différence!
Oh, but Tityrus, before I go, let us share a bowl of wine.
Let us share a bowl, Tityrus. Your Meliboeus must be on his way.
I’m off to the wrong airport: 4th of July, 2048.
Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His first book is called I AM YOUR SLAVE NOW DO WHAT I SAY (Canarium Books, 2012).
Evan Paul English was born in Meridian, Idaho. He received his BFA from University of Arizona, and earned his MFA from Pratt Institute in 2016. He has exhibited work across the United States, recently had a solo exhibition at NAPOLEON Gallery in Philadelphia, showcased work at The Boiler | Pierogi in Brooklyn, and presented his MFA thesis exhibition at Pratt Institute. He is a Stutzman Foundation Vermont Studio Center Graduate Fellowship Winner and current artist-in-residence at Surel’s Place in Boise, Idaho. www.evanpaulenglish.com
come to the edge, the edge
(a poem to dad)
i have followed myself to a hotel balcony
in switzerland and i still can’t decide whether
to take on that new editing project.
and i can’t figure out how to think about memory.
do you think we were the wood and
wrought iron bench outside the tackroom
at the horse show in louisville?
and i didn’t like fig newtons, though
they were sunday trail rides, leather and pizza.
wherever i am, my body follows.
though it’s true, neurons form every day and cells
slough off. the styrofoam planets that fell
from their pipe cleaners were spaces of amnesia.
and i was always grappling for you.
because i could never be sure if i tasted
the honeysuckle from the lawn, and even the windows
of your animal hospital had to be re-caulked.
i can see how my artist boyfriend had arms
that were pale and thin with charcoal.
but i forgot for a while the way
you wanted the hairbrush pressed hard
from your eyebrows to the base
of your neck. the oscillating speed at which
i drove toward you, weighing each second
against the corners with the cops.
and i’d still, would still. i’d give you
each new or sloughing cell
before i’d hold one back.
july 2012: genetic heart condition.
the day after i got the diagnosis, i was tired.
talking wore me out. i knew i was hungry
only when i heard my stomach late-afternoon
growl. my cousins took me to dairy-rite—
where my granddad and uncle and dad used to go.
so i had two strawberry milkshakes.
i wanted to neither shove nor clutch the clouds
of grief: lengthening storm. i wanted them to roll
of their own accord.
hand sanitizer in a hospital room
purell is purell.
it did not love him.
it did not guard
or say from across the room—
it has no memory,
it did not concern itself
with learning how to drain the tube
that threaded from his chest
through his never-sterile skin
to the filled-full air
or only using ninety-nine point nine-nine percent
germ-free fingers (if it had them)
or telling you (if it knew)
it was the nurse
or no one
who once (perhaps) forgot.
it was not surprised to see you
wheel your father back
three days after you took him home
or to find he had an infection
and must have left with an infection.
it stayed in its bottle
in the hallway,
in the doorway of the room,
on his tray table,
in your purse.
you were wrong to think it could save you.
Linda Harris Dolan is a poet and editor. She holds an M.A. in English & American Literature from NYU, and an M.F.A in Poetry from NYU, where she was a Starworks Creative Writing Fellow. She’s taught writing at The King’s College and NYU. Linda’s work appears in The Grief Diaries, Roanoke Review, and Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine, and she’s a 2016 Best of the Net nominee. Her work combines poetry with photography, interview, and received speech as she seeks to portray histories of medicine and the sick body amongst daily life.
The Psychedelic Tragedy of the Donner Party
The Five of Coins
(Gale-force winds blow, swallowing sound and blasting snow across rock. Everything is an endless field of white.)
(From the whiteness emerge a few dark shapes. They yell at each other.)
Stanton: I CAN’T SEE!
Stanton: I CAN’T SEE ANYTHING!
Eddy: I CAN’T HEAR YOU!
Luisa: We should find shelter.
Eddy: WE NEED TO FIND SHELTER!
Luisa: THE TREES!
(The gaggle of shapes ducks behind a thick grove of trees and bushes.)
Eddy: Stanton, where is the path?
Stanton: I can’t . . . I don’t . . .
Eddy: Charles, we’re relying on you! Look, man! Look!
Stanton: I CAN’T SEE!
Margret: Oh dear.
Stanton: I think I’ve gone blind!
Luisa: Snowblindness. It comes of staring into the snow.
Stanton: Am I blind? Tell me I’m not blind.
Luisa: It will pass.
Stanton: Thank the Lord above.
Eddy: Luisa, where are we?
(Luisa stares into the white for a moment. She shakes her head.)
Eddy: You don’t know?
Luisa: Can you see the path?
(Eddy looks around the trees. He cannot see the path.)
Eddy: Well I’ve never come this way.
Sarah: Perhaps we should camp here.
Eddy: No, we press on. The storm will blow over.
Sarah: Did it send you a letter detailing its plans?
Eddy: It should be obvious to anyone with eyes!
Sarah: Which at the moment excludes our guide.
Stanton: Luisa knows the way.
Stanton: I can walk.
Luisa: The storm will not soon pass. It is not wise.
Eddy: Is it wiser to freeze to death in this shrub?
Margret: Mr. Eddy, please. We cannot continue. I cannot continue!
Eddy: Fine. Fine! Let’s all freeze.
(They shiver for a moment. Then Luisa reaches out and holds Stanton to her. The others see this, and one by one, join the pile. Eddy stays on the sidelines until Margret reaches out and brings him in. They huddle together, shivering as one while the wind picks up.)
(The gusting wind blows Landrum through the entrance of the Graves-Reed cabin, where a cozy fire flickers gently.)
Virginia: Landrum! What are you doing here?
Landrum: Oh, whew, I just, uh, I just – had some found some jerky at the bottom of my bag, I thought you might be hungry or…
Landrum: Oh, well, uh, here you go.
Virginia: Thank you. (She eats.) Share with me?
Landrum: I really should make my way back, Mother gets a / little sharp when it rains
Virginia: In this? You can’t walk home in this.
(The wind blows like it means something serious.)
Landrum: Well. . .
Virginia: Sit. Eat with me.
Landrum: For a minute. Maybe.
(They sit and eat.)
Virginia: You’re so nice.
Landrum: It’s just . . . It’s not really . . . I said I’d look out for you.
Virginia: People say things all the time.
Landrum: I don’t.
Virginia: How’d you get so nice?
Landrum: I’m not . . . I don’t think I’m . . .
Virginia: You are.
Virginia: You’re going to find the prettiest wife in all California.
Virginia: When we get there. The girls will swoon!
Landrum: Oh. Right. Yes. (Pause.) Swooning is good, right?
Virginia: Yes, silly.
Landrum: Oh. Yes. They’ll swoon.
(Virginia sighs and lays back.)
Landrum: . . . What are you going to do when we get to California?
Virginia: Well, first I’m going to become a Catholic.
Landrum: . . . .Really?
Virginia: Because! I’ve been praying, like you taught me, and I like it. It’s fun.
Virginia: You don’t believe me?
Landrum: No, I believe you.
Virginia: I’ll swear to you, right now. I’ll swear on my life.
Landrum: You don’t need to do that.
Virginia: I want to. Okay – If God sees us out of this place alive, I swear I will become a Catholic and be one until the day I die.
Landrum: Wow. Okay.
Virginia: So first, I’ll become a Catholic. And then I’ll probably get married.
Landrum: . . . Right away?
Virginia: I don’t know. Maybe.
Landrum: That’s . . . who are you going to marry?
Virginia: Someone strong. And handsome.
Landrum: But . . . right now?
Virginia: Well, not now, dummy, but soon.
Landrum: Do you know what happens when you get married?
Virginia: I know what happens.
(From beneath a massive pile of snow, Margret Reed awakens with a gasp.)
Margret: . . . Is it Christmas!?
(The pile stirs, slowly.)
Margret: Sarah! Sarah, is it Christmas yet?
(One by one, the snowshoers pop their heads out of the pile.)
Margret: I’ve been saving something special for the children. For Christmas. Is it Christmas?
(The snowshoers look at each other. No one knows if it’s Christmas.)
Sarah: I don’t know.
Margret: Oh please, I have to know – someone must know!
Stanton: . . . Christmas is tomorrow, Mrs. Reed.
Margret: Oh thank you, Mr. Stanton. We’ll finally have a proper meal.
Sarah: Margret . . . we ran out of food three days ago.
Margret: No no, I’ve been saving some for Christmas.
Sarah: What? Where?
Margret: It’s right here. I’ve got rice, beans, some dried apples, a bit of tripe, oh, and bacon . . .
(Margret digs in her pack. She finds no food.)
Margret: Or . . . it was . . .
Sarah: Do you know where you are?
Margret: . . . No.
Eddy: You and the rest of us alike .
Sarah: We’re in the mountains. We’re on our way to Sutter’s Fort.
Margret: No no. This is all wrong. I’m not supposed to be here. I’m so sorry, Sarah. I lied to you. I didn’t mean to lie.
Sarah: What are you talking about?
Margret: I must be with my family on Christmas. I’m going back.
Eddy: That’s preposterous.
Sarah: You’ll never make it. The cabins are days – weeks – away, and how will you find the path?
Margret: I’ll follow my children’s voices.
Sarah: Margret. I fear you have taken leave of your senses.
Margret: Godspeed Sarah, all of you. I hope to see you again one day.
(Margret turns and walks into the snow.)
Guide: Christmas came, and the last morsels of preserved food left at the cabins – a handful of beans, two dried apples, a half-cup of rice, a bit of tripe, and three strips of bacon – were boiled into a stew for the children to enjoy. Those who partook later described it as an extraordinary feast, an unforgettable oasis amidst the endless freezing desert of that winter.
(In the Graves-Reed cabin, Tamzene Donner huddles over a pot, stirring and humming a little Christmas tune. Virginia and Landrum sit next to it, barely able to contain their anticipation.)
Virginia: You’re drooling.
(He sucks some drool back into his mouth.)
Tamzene: It’s almost ready.
Landrum: Mrs. Donner, how can I ever thank you?
Tamzene: Oh, don’t thank me, thank Virginia’s mother.
Virginia: If you ever get the chance.
Tamzene: Come now. You’ll see her again.
Landrum: Didn’t you tell me those prayers were working?
Tamzene: That’s the spirit. Trust in the Lord’s grace. He works in mysterious ways.
Keseberg: I must disagree, Mrs. Donner.
(They all start. Virginia squeaks a little. In the entrance stands Lewis Keseberg, a tall, severe, expressionless man with hollow eyes. He speaks with a German accent.)
Tamzene: Mr. Keseberg. What a pleasant surprise to see you up and ambulatory. How fares your foot?
Keseberg: Poorly. I think I am going to cut it off.
Keseberg: It will make a fine stew.
(Silence. Keseberg enters the cabin, limping. With difficulty, he begins to sit.)
Tamzene: . . . Yes, please join us. What brings you around, Mr. Keseberg?
Keseberg: Merely the hope of some good Christmas company.
Tamzene: Well, who could deny such a hope? Merry Christmas to you.
Keseberg: And a Merry Christmas to you, Mrs. Donner, Virginia, um. . .
Landrum: Landrum. Murphy.
Keseberg: Merry Christmas, Landrum Murphy.
(They sit in silence for a moment. The pot bubbles. Landrum coughs.)
Virginia: Back in Illinois, we sang songs on Christmas.
Tamzene: That’s lovely, Virginia. Would you like to sing one for us now?
Virginia: I don’t . . . I don’t remember the words. Papa always knew them best.
Landrum: Well see, he’s not so bad, is he?
Tamzene: What about you, Landrum?
Landrum: Oh, um, I don’t know any songs.
Virginia: Did you never sing on Christmas?
Landrum: We sang at mass. My father never liked us singing at home. He used to say it upset his ears.
Virginia: What was wrong with his ears?
Landrum: Nothing, Ginny. Nothing was wrong with his ears.
Tamzene: What of you, Mr. Keseberg? Do you know any Christmas songs?
Tamzene: Would you share it with us?
(He begins to sing “Silent Night” in German. His voice is surprisingly clear.)
Keseberg: Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Halleluja,
Tönt es laut von fern und nah:
Christ, der Retter ist da!
Christ, der Retter ist da!
(As the others realize what he’s singing, some join in, either with the English words in bits and pieces, or else humming. Together, they sound pretty decent.)
(The wind picks up in the mountains. The snowshoers huddle together, trudging over the deepening snow. Sarah and Eddy hold Margret between them.)
Margret: Can’t you hear that? James is leading the children in Christmas carols. Oh, he so loves to sing. Sarah! Let me go to them! Please, I must be with my family!
Eddy: How long is she going to keep this up?
Sarah: Your guess is as good as mine.
Margret: Oh, and now James is lighting the fire. The glazed duck is nearly finished. And the gifts! Virginia doesn’t know that James got her a pony of her very own. It’s waiting out in –
(Stanton collapses in the snow. The others rush to him.)
Luisa: Stanton. Stanton.
Eddy: Let me through. Get up, man! Come on, get up.
Stanton: . . . I can’t . . . I can’t stand . . .
Eddy: We can’t stop here.
Stanton: I just . . . I can’t . . . I’m worried . . . I
(They try to lift him. He balances between Eddy and Luisa. They take a few steps with him, grunting with exertion.)
Stanton: . . . Why is there so much water? My house is going to flood.
(Margret books it in the other direction. Sarah notices and goes after her.)
Sarah: Margret! Margret!
Margret: No no. No no.
Sarah: Margret, you cannot leave!
Margret: Must. I Must. God forgive me.
Stanton: Get my tools out of the basement. Quickly! The whole house is coming down.
Margret: God forgive me.
Sarah: Margret! MARGRET!!
Eddy: EVERYONE SIT DOWN.
(Eddy digs in his pack.)
Eddy: Eat. Now.
Sarah: Where – what is this?
Eddy: The last of the bear I shot.
Sarah: . . . You’ve had this all along?
Eddy: What business is it of yours?
Sarah: When were you going to tell us?
(He passes out the jerky.)
Eddy: Now. Mrs. Reed, please. You’ll need your strength.
Margret: Yes . . . You’re right. You’re right.
(Margret walks back, sits, and eats. Relief washes over them all.)
Margret: I . . . I don’t know how to thank you, Mr. Eddy. I was somewhere else.
Stanton: You weren’t the only one.
(The snowshoers look at each other.)
Margret: Well isn’t this a Merry Christmas after all.
Virginia: Did you sing that song back in Germany?
Keseberg: Not often.
Virginia: Why not? It’s so pretty.
Keseberg: Christmas was not a time for celebration.
Landrum: Why wouldn’t you celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior?
Keseberg: Reflection is often more prudent than celebration, young Master Murphy. Have you ever truly considered the story of Jesus Christ?
Landrum: Of course.
Keseberg: I doubt it. Think with me: it begins with God making a son. A son in his own image, perfect and divine. He could have given Jesus the wings of an angel, but instead He gave His Son the flesh of a man. Why?
Landrum: Well . . . so that he could give us the Holy Communion of His body and His blood and save our souls.
Keseberg: Incorrect, Master Murphy. He gave His son the flesh of a man because His son was created for one purpose and for one purpose alone: to suffer.
Virginia: That’s not true.
Tamzene: Mr. Keseberg, please. This is hardly suitable conversation for Christmas morning.
Keseberg: It is true, Miss Reed. And if a discussion of our Lord is unsuitable for Christmas, Mrs. Donner, then when might it be suitable? Think back to the God of the Hebrews. What did He require above all else? Sacrifice. The sacrifice of a lamb, the sacrifice of the Garden, the sacrifice of all the wicked things on Earth. You say that God loves you and works for you in mysterious ways. But I say there is nothing mysterious in God’s ways. Why else would he have bound us here, in these mountains, at this lake, with our bodies, our minds, our very souls seeping into the ice? Because here, we have no choice but to give Him exactly what he requires: a sacrifice.
(Tamzene stands, walks to the door.)
Tamzene: . . . Well Mr. Keseberg, thank you for joining us for this Christmas morning. I hope the rest of your day is as pleasant.
(Keseberg stands, with difficulty.)
Keseberg: I do not suppose the stew is ready?
Tamzene: No. It is not.
Keseberg: As I expected. Merry Christmas.
(Keseberg limps out the door.)
Tamzene: Well. Eat up!
Guide: Of all the members of the Donner-Reed party, perhaps the most notorious was German immigrant Lewis Keseberg. On the trail, he was reviled for cursing and beating his wife. After the ordeal, he became a sort of side-show fascination: decades later, articles about his exploits were still appearing in local papers. Take this one from The San Francisco Bulletin, dated February 6, 1862, titled “A SEQUEL TO THE THRILLING DONNER STORY!”
(Reality tears straight down the middle, cords fraying as Keseberg is sucked downward through the snow, suffocating and disorienting him until finally depositing him inside a variety-show version of his cabin. As the Guide recounts the story, the scenes advance like slides in a ViewMaster.)
Keysburg alone was found alive by the final relief party… Mrs. Donner was nowhere to be found, and horrible suspicions were entertained as to her fate, from the circumstances in which Keysburg was discovered. Mr. Fallon, who conducted the relief party, found him reclining upon the floor of his cabin, smoking his pipe. Near his head a fire was blazing, upon which sat a camp kettle filled with human flesh. His feet were resting upon skulls and dislocated limbs, denuded of their flesh. A bucket partly filled with blood was standing near, and pieces of human flesh, fresh and bloody, were strewn around. He was ragged, filthy and ferocious in his aspect. He was charged with the murder of Tamzene Donner, for her flesh and money. He denied it, but when under the tree with a rope about his neck, as he supposed about to be summarily hung, he discovered a portion of the money.
(The cabin becomes a sparsely-stocked, poorly maintained bar. The Guide sits on a stool.)
Guide: Though heavily sensationalized, at least part of this article is true: Tamzene and Keseberg were undoubtedly the final two survivors left at the cabins. Unfortunately, history’s fog has forever obscured their final exchange. All we know is that Tamzene never left Donner Lake while Lewis Keseberg did. And in case you doubted that history has a sense of irony, you should know that Keseberg made his way to Sacramento, where he opened – you guessed it – a restaurant.
(Keseberg picks himself up.)
Keseberg: Last call! Pony up, cowboys.
(No one purchases a drink from Keseberg. The single drunk in the bar picks his face up off of a table and stumbles out the door. Keseberg half-glances at The Guide.)
Keseberg: You drinking?
The Guide: What?
Keseberg: What. Do. You. Want?
The Guide: Oh uh. . . Whiskey? I guess?
(Keseberg fills up the glass.)
The Guide: Thanks.
(The Guide slides Keseberg a ten-dollar note. Keseberg takes it, gives it a sidelong glance, and stashes it beneath the bar.)
(The Guide drinks in silence for a moment. Keseberg looks at him and stops. He turns away, uncorks a bottle, and takes a deep swig. The man joins him.)
The Guide: It’s a nice place you have.
Keseberg: . . . A pile of excrement is more pleasant than this place.
The Guide: The whiskey’s good enough.
Keseberg: Some small comfort.
The Guide: Do your past associations give you much trouble?
Keseberg: The past is dead.
The Guide: It must dampen your business, no?
Keseberg: I do not know what you mean.
The Guide: I read the article in the Bulletin.
Keseberg: You and everyone else, it would seem. Let us dispense with the pretense: is there a purpose to your visit, or have you merely come to gawk, James?
The Guide: . . . What?
Keseberg: Fifteen years is a long time, but it will be fifteen lifetimes before I forget your face, James Reed.
(A heavy-metal hole opens beneath The Guide/James Reed, and he falls into it, tumbling through clear blue sky before slamming into the hard, dusty desert ground.)
(James Reed is back on the trail, arguing with a faceless man. The argument quickly grows heated and the man swings at Reed. Reed ducks, pulls a knife, and stabs the man in the side. He dies, rots, decomposes.)
(All of the emigrants appear. A silent trial is held. Keseberg raises his wagon tongue, offering up a gallows for a hanging. He is voted down. Reed is expelled from the group, his wife and daughter weeping as he rides off alone.)
(In fast-forward, he emaciates, becoming weaker and hungrier by the second. He crawls across the ground until a structure emerges in the distance. A fort. A faceless man gives him bread and he regains his strength.)
(A cannonball soars through the air and explodes into bits beside Reed. He is thrown off his feet. The faceless man helps him up and thrusts a rifle into his hands.)
(James Reed charges into the fray, cannons blasting, hooves pounding the dirt. He fights valiantly, shooting faceless Mexicans with aplomb. As the cannons and the rifle shots die down, his comrades raise him up in celebration.)
(From a long way away, his wife and child stare at him, ghostlike. He notices them, and begins to make his way to them, slowly. But his comrades hold him back, dressing him in a fine suit, coming his hair, his beard, wiping the dirt off his face. All the while, his wife and child recede into nothingness.)
(Then all but one of his compatriots melt like warming snowmen. The one reveals himself as Keseberg, who sets Reed on a bar stool.)
Keseberg: Another whiskey?
(Keseberg pours him a tall glass. Reed drinks it down in silence.)
(Reed attempts to give Keseberg another ten-dollar note. Keseberg waves it away.)
Reed: Take it.
(Keseberg takes it.)
Reed: Do you ever think about it?
Keseberg: Money? All the time.
Reed: I mean, do you ever think about that winter?
Keseberg: . . . Never.
Keseberg: Truly. Buried things do not trouble me.
Reed: Funny. I’d argue that buried things trouble us most of all.
Keseberg: Well, James, you were not exactly there, so I would appreciate you keeping the details of those troubles to yourself.
Reed: I was there.
Keseberg: Why are you here, James?
Reed: . . . Margret died a few months ago.
Keseberg: I am sorry.
Reed: She went in bed, surrounded by family.
Keseberg: Good for her.
Reed: There’s just something . . . so strange about it. Everything we endured, everyone we lost, and she dies in bed.
Keseberg: I believe it is called “a happy ending.”
Reed: I suppose. I just wonder. . .
Keseberg: What do you wonder, James?
Reed: Do you truly never think about it? The lake?
Keseberg: No, James, I think about it all the fucking time.
Reed: What do you think about?
Keseberg: I think about cutting out their livers, and their kidneys, and their loins, and spitting them over the fire. That perfect sizzling. I think about the taste, like the finest young veal. I think about them inside of me, their little thoughts bubbling to the surface. I think about their flesh entwined with mine – guts in guts in guts. (Keseberg finishes the bottle.) Is that what you wanted to hear, James?
Reed: . . . No, Lewis.
Keseberg: Then what do you want? Spit it out.
Reed: . . . I want to give you a loan.
Reed: I would like to give you a loan. Terms negotiable. You could fix this place up.
Keseberg: Why would you do that?
Reed: I’m a damn good investor, Lewis. There’s a lot of potential here.
Keseberg: And people claim that I am mad.
Reed: No, really. What would you say?
Keseberg: I would say no thank you. I want nothing to do with this place. I would sooner return to Germany. Maybe there, I could live a quiet life.
Reed: So why haven’t you?
Keseberg: You wouldn’t understand.
Reed: Try me.
Keseberg: It’s all money, James. Money and I have never been on good terms.
Reed: (Pause.) What if I bought it?
Keseberg: I do not follow.
Reed: What if I bought this place outright? I’d give you a fair price. Hell, I’d give you a better than fair price.
Keseberg: A joke.
Reed: Have you known me to be a frivolous man?
(Keseberg opens a new bottle, drinks.)
Reed: What would you say, Lewis?
Keseberg: I would say that you should take your guilty conscience elsewhere.
Reed: Come on. An offer like this doesn’t come around often.
Keseberg: No thank you, James.
Reed: Lewis. Take some time. Think about it.
Keseberg: I would sooner burn this place down.
(Reed collects his things.)
Reed: Well. This was pleasant.
Reed: . . . I’ll send the papers over, Lewis.
Keseberg: I will burn it down, James.
Reed: Suit yourself.
(The channel changes.)
(In the woods, something roars.)
(Three hip twenty-somethings run through the snow. Behind them, far in the distance, a shape. They duck for shelter in the remains of a dilapidated old shack.)
Backwards Cap Dude: What the hell is that thing?
Shaved Sides Of Her Head Chick: I don’t know! I don’t know!!
Lanky Nerd: What if . . . what if it’s Carly?
SSOHHC: WHAT?! NO!
BCD: That’s totally whack, dude!
LN: Think about it . . . that old Indian scroll we found. It said that anyone who consumes the flesh of another person upsets the balance of nature and becomes a monster . . . becomes . . . the Wendigo.
BCD: But . . . how could Carly have eaten people?
SSOHHC: The burgers . . .
BCD: But that would mean . . .
LN: We ate them too.
SSOHHC: ARE WE BECOMING WENDIGOS?!
(At that moment, something monstrous comes crashing through the trees and into the wall of the cabin. The three twenty-somethings scream.)
BCD: RUNNNN!!!! RUNNN!!!!!
(The sun shines dimly in the clear winter sky. A not-quite-full moon sits just atop the trees. The snowshoers huddle around Charles Stanton, who kneels in the snow, bracing himself with one hand against a stump.)
Stanton: I just . . . I just need a moment.
Eddy: These moments seem to stretch ever longer.
Stanton: Go on ahead.
Sarah: Without our guide?
Stanton: I’ll catch up. I just need a minute to collect myself. You needn’t worry.
Margret: I am worried, Mr. Stanton.
Stanton: No no, please, I’ll join you presently. I promise. There’s no sense in losing good time over me.
Eddy: He’s right. We can’t afford to wait any longer. Weather like this, we might even come by something edible.
Sarah: So we leave our own man to die alone in the snow?
Eddy: There’s no time for this. I take Mr. Stanton at his word.
Sarah: All well and good, but unfortunately I am not a fool.
Eddy: Then stay behind! Stay all day if you’d like! I have mountains to cross.
Luisa: I will stay with him.
(The others look at her.)
Eddy: . . . Good, then it’s decided. We’ll see you shortly, Mr. Stanton.
Stanton: Of course.
(Eddy walks away. Sarah and Margret follow, grudgingly. Margret looks back, but keeps going.)
(Stanton and Luisa look at each other for a long time.)
(Then Stanton goes to give her his pack, struggles.)
Stanton: I want . . . I want you to have this. There’s some money in it. It’s not a lot, but it’s something.
Luisa: You will need it.
Stanton: I think you’ll find more use for it than I will.
Luisa: It’s for you. For California.
Stanton: Take it. Please. Just take it. For me.
Luisa: No. Come on. Let’s go.
Stanton: I never even got to milk a cow. Isn’t that funny? I was going to have a farm. I was going to have a whole herd. Would I have been a good farmer? I think I would have been a good farmer. Maybe chickens, too. For eggs. Every morning, I’d get up. Collect the eggs. A real farmer. I could have sent something back to my brother. He could use it, he’s got children, you know. I could’ve sent him eggs. No, that’s ridiculous, they’d never make it that far, but I could’ve sent him – I could’ve sent him some money at least or or or some steaks or
Stanton: . . . Wait.
Stanton: Will you . . . do something for me? When I’m gone?
Luisa: . . . Anything.
Stanton: Bring them back here.
Luisa: I do not . . .
Stanton: There’s no virtue in waste. Bring them back here and make use of me.
Luisa: . . . I cannot.
Stanton: They’re going to starve. You’re going to starve. You have to live.
Luisa: Not that way. Not you.
Luisa: I will not.
Luisa: Charles, stop. It is enough. You have done enough.
(Stanton gasps for breath. Luisa holds him to her. Stanton weeps.)
(Eventually, Stanton pulls himself together. He looks at Luisa.)
Stanton: Go on. Don’t let Eddy lead ’em in circles.
(Luisa nods. She picks up Stanton’s pack and walks away. She glances back only once.)
(Stanton looks around. His mouth does something halfway between a smile and a grimace. He leans back against a stump.)
(With great difficulty, he pulls out his pipe and packs it with a little bit of tobacco. He strikes a match, but it dies. He tries again. Again, it dies. The third time is the charm, and the match flares to life.)
(Shivering, he shakily lights the pip, and begins to smoke. Around him, silence reigns, but he doesn’t hear it: he’s back at Thanksgiving, dinner party raging.)
(After a few drags, he struggles to bring the pipe to his mouth, his hands weakening by the second. Eventually he can’t help but give in. He rests his head against the stump, alone in a crowd. Himself.)
(His head lolls. The pipe falls. No one notices.)
(A train whistle echoes through the mountains.)
(Twilight settles in, and the sky darkens. Somewhere, Virginia Reed wanders through the woods, alone and lost. She follows the sounds of something – she’s not sure what – deeper and deeper.)
(She looks up at the branches, scanning. Only the moon, not-quite-full, greets her, its soft white light catching the snow on the branches.)
(In the silence, the train whistle sounds again, closer this time. Virginia hears it, and looks around. Nothing presents itself.)
Virginia: Is anyone there?
(The train whistle sounds again, louder. Virginia frantically scans the horizon.)
(A crow lands on a branch. It looks down at her.)
(She notices it. They lock eyes.)
(Then, the roar of a highway crashes through the stillness. Cars go honking, blazing past. The crow flies away. Virginia covers her ears and huddles down in the snow.)
(And as quickly as it started, it stops. Hesitantly, Virginia uncovers one ear, then the other. She looks up. She’s alone again. She looks around.)
(Yards away, she sees something. A figure. She walks toward it.)
(The figure comes into focus. Tamzene Donner stands over an ironing board, her eyes closed, mechanically ironing a button-down shirt with an electric iron.)
Virginia: Oh. Mrs. Donner. (Pause.) Mrs. Donner? What are you doing out here?
Virginia: Aren’t you cold?
(Tamzene opens her eyes. Her pupils are all white.)
Tamzene: Hello Virginia.
Virginia: Um. Are you okay?
Tamzene: You shouldn’t be here.
Virginia: Oh. I’m sorry.
Tamzene: How did you get here?
Virginia: I don’t know. I think I’m lost.
Tamzene: Did you see them?
Virginia: Um . . . who?
Tamzene: This is the place they come to.
Virginia: Who comes to?
Tamzene: They’re just passing through.
Virginia: I don’t think I saw them.
(Tamzene looks up. The shadows in the folds of her dress fill up with stars.)
Tamzene: It’s time for you to go.
(Hands burst out of the snow, grabbing at Virginia from all directions.)
(They grasp her dress, her hair and arms. She struggles at first, but is soon overcome as the hands find purchase on her body. Arms extend out of snowdrifts, becoming humanoid shapes: white and earthen, corpulent, faceless but for gaping mouths.)
(Virginia can do nothing as the snow golems march her over to Tamzene. Tamzene silences the golems with a wave of her hand. She examines Virginia as one would a horse or pig. She nods.)
(Tamzene steps aside and reveals a figure in the distance, walking forward. It’s Keseberg. His limp is gone, his expression purposeful.)
(The golems thrust her into his arms, and he leads her in a waltz. The golems make way for them as they kick up snow in their path.)
(At the end, he dips her, and goes in for the kiss. He drops her into the waiting arms of the snow, which lifts her up. The golems carry her above them to an altar, where they lay her down.)
(Their hands and heads explore the contours of her body. Virginia allows it, her eyes closed. A half-moan escapes her lips.)
(Keseberg reaches the table and conjures a massive knife. Virginia sees it, becomes terrified. Keseberg places one hand on Virginia’s cheek, gently caressing her. She stops struggling. She smiles.)
(She offers him her hand. He kisses it. He turns it over.)
(Lovingly, he cuts into her palm. A rivulet of blood runs down her arm. He presses it to his lips, drinking deeply. Virginia arches her back.)
(The golems grab her from all sides. Keseberg rips open her dress. Virginia struggles as he lifts the knife high above her.)
(The knife comes down into her chest. Virginia screams and blood explodes out of her mouth. Everything is static.)
Landrum: Ginny? Ginny. Ginny. Wake up.
(Virginia’s eyes open. She sees Landrum. She sits up and throws her arms around him.)
(She clings to him. Landrum holds her. Eventually, he lets himself relax into it. His hands move across her body.)
Virginia: You’re warm.
Landrum: Come on. Let’s get you inside.
(Landrum helps Virginia stand. This begins a coughing fit, and he doubles over. Virginia grabs him, helping him to stand.)
Virginia: That sounds bad.
Landrum: It’s nothing. I’ve just (cough) I’ve been out here (cough) with the wood (cough). Let’s get you by a fire, okay? C’mon.
(Landrum picks up the bundle of sticks he’d collected, almost keeling over in the process. Virginia steadies him. She puts her arms around him, keeping him upright. He breathes deeply.)
Virginia: I’m very lucky you found me.
(Landrum smiles. They head for the cabins.)
Adam Scott Mazer is an Alabama-born, Brooklyn-based theater artist, illustrator, and bon vivant. In 2011, he co-founded AntiMatter Collective, which has produced three of his original plays: Death Valley, Motherboard, and The Tower. He also illustrated the “graphic poetry” collection The Bones of Us, published by YesYes Books in 2014, and wrote and illustrated a comic book adaptation of The Tower, available on Amazon/ComiXology. He’s currently working on a new play set in 45,000 BC. In his free time, he enjoys long walks on the beach, pizza, and nightmares.
James Scales lives and works in New York City’s oldest house. His visual art has appeared in The Birds We Piled Loosely and Sinker Cypress Review. His poetry has appeared in Sinker Cypress Review, Go Places, and Cadenza Magazine, and is forthcoming in Yes Poetry. He graduated with an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis.
Skeleton Coast (Flood Editions) opens with an epigraph from George Herbert’s 17th century poem, “The Temper (I).” Herbert’s poem recounts his soul’s ecstasy and anguish, begging of God, “rack me not to such a vast extent,” but, in the stanza Elizabeth Arnold quotes, Herbert submits to God’s torture: “Stretch or contract me thy poor debtor:/This is but tuning of my breast,/To make the music better.” The epigraph accurately represents Skeleton Coast’s ethos: poems are the offspring of suffering and the wisdom it offers. Extended rumination and imagistic narrative often culminate in terse insights about loss, disillusion, and pain, which, through references to history, acquire a mythical quality: “I scratched his name and number out/with the intensity of the early Copts//chiseling at the heads of former gods.” With a clear, vernacular diction, hard line breaks, strong imagery, and frequent short lines, Arnold is, at her best, a writer who achieves immediacy while asserting a consciousness—though private and personal—of history and tradition.