Thursday, January 26, 2012

Excerpt from "Before the Gates"

The Parable of Alexandria (Apocryphal)

We weren’t sure of anything, anymore.  The flames were daylight.  The smell of smoke as the olahs of our thoughts caught in the dry air and suttee rushed upward into the sky, the dark sky, so black and so moving in shaded patches and wisps that spiraled and spread until our eyes could take in no more and they burned, as well.  The water falling in twin rivers, clearing the ash and the dust, our scorched hands holding what they could on the way out.
Never enough.  We knew that much.
There were so few hands and so many flames stealing through the stacks and the smoke thick as death daring us to try again.   Just one more load.  Another circuit.  You could at least try—
There were those who did and were never seen again like so many leaves and saddles’ scorched edges, leather codices cooling in hands’ blackened flesh.  The tears ran and the desert wind blew dust through our hearts like the olahs that rose to the gods and their pleasure.  Unsure and augured flights of ash we could never tell, the story falling through time is the dirty, forgotten salt of our chins. 
We failed.
Through the desert we walked.  Blinded.  Parched.  Our souls fell in piles of words that caught in the wind with the sand and the dust of what was and wasn’t and never could be again—
Now, in the wind, still circling the sky, vultures patient and silent as the penitent walk on all fours, begging for death or water, whichever comes first…

Friday, January 20, 2012

(excerpt from "Before the Gates")

The Quick Car  

            The sun doesn’t set in Arizona.  It just hangs on the horizon, then fades through the spectrum till there’s black and blue everywhere.  I like to watch it.  Sometimes.  Not because it’s pretty or I like to paint, but because there’s really not much else in Arizona.  Outside my brother’s front door there’s just dirt and shrubs for miles, maybe a plateau here or there.  It’s a fun place.
            Tonight, I’m drinking. Close to what I did yesterday, except that today it’s a different brand of beer.  We were watching Stephen’s little black and white television inside the trailer all afternoon, but when the sun goes down it can’t get reception.  Besides, I think the Grammy’s are on tonight, and I can’t stand that nonsense.  Like a dog show with people. 
He mumbles something and rolls into the bedroom.  The door sort of drifts shut and quality time comes to an end.
            It’s cold outside, and hard to balance on the edge of the porch with one hand on the railing and the other holding the beer bottle you’re pissing into.  You don’t learn that from TV.  I’ve developed many talents since I moved here.  I can take the caps off with my teeth, too.  They clink when added to the pile on the other side of the porch.  Stephen says it’s a dumb thing to do, but he’s one to talk. 
One day I’m going to make something with the bottles.  I think I’ll seal these bottles of piss up, one at a time, and just line them off West from the front door.  The light should look beautiful reflecting off the brown glass in the shifting evening.  Like little people waiting for the exact moment the sun dies.  I can’t wait.
            There’s noise in the dark, quick, a shape on the higher ground like some stupid movie, dark with the moon behind it.  If Stephen had a gun.  I snort.  It looks at me then doesn’t move a hair. 
            It might say, “Brian, why are you pissing in a beer bottle off the front porch of your brother’s trailer in the desert?” 
If it had a voice, it would.
But it doesn’t.  Stephen’s passed out and the TV’s shot.  I sit with a wooden creak on the porch and stare at the shade of the animal pacing the rocky hill beneath the dirty, waning moon. 

            It was a quiet New London Wednesday.  The sun had come up.  The birds sang, but not terribly loud.  I was waiting on the steps in front of the apartment complex.  You could smell the ocean on the breeze.
Mark was late.  He usually wasn’t.  I sat smoking cigarettes and listening to the birds.  They were mockingbirds, and earlier in the year I’d taught them the only bird call I knew.  I’m not really sure what kind of bird made it originally, maybe a dove, but it was pretty and warbled.  The little things took it quick.  Just a little off at first, but they got better.  Today I wasn’t in the mood for practice, though.  I just sat and waited.
            Mark’s blue car turned the corner twenty minutes later.  The hood and trunk lid were primer grey.  White smoke coughed from the exhaust as the engine dropped out of gear.  Cheryl, his girlfriend, was driving.  She stopped coasting in front of me, the engine growled, and I climbed inside.
            “Sorry, how long have you been waiting?” she asked.
            “About thirty minutes longer than usual.  I’m only fifteen late by my watch.  No big deal.  Where’s Mark?”
            She bit her lip and stared at the road.  Her lips were really shiny this morning.
            “He had to go to the hospital.”
            “Is he alright?”
            “Depends on how you look at it,” she said.
            I rolled down my window and threw my cigarette butt out.  When she smiled her eyes were as bright as her lips.
            “Come on, it can’t be that bad.”
            “It is, Brian.  You might not even believe it.  There was blood: it was pretty nasty.  Mark caught his fly when he was getting dressed.  I’ve told him, I don’t know how many times, to wear boxers or something.  Does he?  No, not free-swinging, indestructible Mark.”
            “Jesus, that’s rough.”
            “Yeah, plus it blows my sex life for the next couple of months,” she said, putting her hand to her chest.  She sighed.  “I kind of feel responsible for it, too.  I told him it was cute once.  Once, and he’s done it ever since.”
            Cheryl stopped the car at a red light.  I reached over and turned the radio up.  One of Mark’s tapes played a Misfit’s song about killing one’s girlfriend.  It was lovely music.  Really.
            “So, is he at the hospital right now?”
            “Yeah, they fixed him up.  I just figured you were sitting out waiting for him, and thought I’d make sure you got to class on time.”
            She smiled at me kind of funny.
            “It’s just school, not like a job or anything real important.  I could miss a day.  I mean, Mark just tore his unit up.  I’m sure that has to be a good excuse.  I’d use it.”
            My stomach was growling.  I looked at it and half-way expected to see it move like on TV.  No such luck, though.
            “You’re hungry.  Aren’t you, Brian?”
            Cheryl was smiling a lot this morning.
            “Definitely.  I’ve been trying to metabolize nicotine, but I don’t think the old stomach’s satisfied,” I said.
            “Well, you’re already late.  Let’s go get a bite to eat.”
            She turned the car around in a sharp U-turn that made me grab the dash.  The Misfits had turned to singing “Halloween”.  I’d always liked that song, but it seemed out of place this early in the morning.  Cheryl pulled into a Burger King drive-through, and squeaked the tires at the sign with all the pictures.
            “May I take your order?” the box said.
            Cheryl looked over at me weird.
            “Just a second,” she said in a high voice.
            I looked over the menu.
            “I’m going to be a while, Cheryl.  Breakfast food always turns me off.  I don’t really know why.  It just seems like everything that people eat for breakfast is the kind of food I hate.  Like eggs, they’re just disgusting.  Who came up with the idea to fry chicken embryos?  And then, after they came up with that, who decided to put them on a croissant with a slice of pig ass?”
            “Don’t know, Brian.  Promise it wasn’t me.”
            Again with the smile, this time she ran her eyes up from the seat to meet mine.
            “Can I take your order?”
            Cheryl scowled at the speaker.
            “Wait just a minute, ok?  Jesus H. Christ.”
            “Uh,” the speaker coughed at us.  “Ok.  Just order when you’re ready.”
            I shook my head.
            “You shouldn’t talk to them like that, Cheryl.  They’ll spit in my food.”
            “Oh, a little spit won’t kill you.  Will it?”
            “They could have a disease.”
            “They could have the fucking plague, Brian.  That still doesn’t give them the right to be pushy.”
            She tapped me on the leg.  Just two pats, but it was a touch.  I looked at the menu.  Nothing seemed to really grab me.  I went ahead with a slice of pig ass on a croissant.  It seemed like it would at least go down easy.
            “Pushy, right.  Remind me of what we’re doing here?”
            “We’re getting you breakfast, duh…”
            She pushed her hair behind her ear.   It was short and light brown with blond streaks coming down the sides.  Her right eye winked.
            “Or not,” she said as she threw the car into gear and peeled out of the parking lot.
            I shook my head, and tried not to think of Mark at the hospital.  The car took a turn through several sharp residential intersections, and, making the block, hopped the curb back onto the main road.  Mark needed stitches and everything.  We passed by cars in both lanes.  This was his car.  She was weaving, taking hard rights here and there.  She knew all the one-way streets, I guess.
            A half-hour later we pulled out of another parking lot, deep in an industrial section of town that I would never see again.  Cheryl drove the speed limit.  I kept thinking about that croissant with the pig ass on it.  Now I was hungry.  We stopped at the gas station across the street from school for a pack of smokes.  Class wasn’t even on my mind, to tell the truth.  I wondered how Mark was, how he was doing.  She lit my cigarette for me, and handed it off slowly.  It smelled like summer flowers and tasted like strawberry lip-gloss.
            Cheryl told me to call her later, but to be discreet about it.  Mark was going to be down for a good week.  I stole a good stare before I got out of the car.  She had blue, blue-green eyes, and real firm tits.  She smelled good, too, even without the floral perfume.  I bet Mark would be hurting for a while, probably dead drunk the whole time.  She’ll be bored.
            He found out a week later.  It was scary.  There are few things in the world as dangerous as an impotent man. 
I was on my way home from school, about an hour walk without my ride.  His car came around the corner booming that same damn Misfits tape.  I didn’t know that he knew.  I kind of had a feeling when the car screeched up over the curb and into the grass. 
He jumped out with an aluminum baseball bat.  It was too late to run.  That bat was dark blue stars falling out of the sky.  The grass smelled like my neighbor’s dog.  I hated that dog.
            Mark didn’t say a word.  In fact, I’ve never heard him talk since that day, if he ever said anything at all.  I only saw him one more time.  It was outside of the Mall.  He was walking out with some friends of his.  I was limping up to the little blue button that opens the door.  He said something to his friends, and they all laughed.  But not at me, I know. 
Mark wouldn’t tell anyone about it, not even to brag.  He’s a thick-headed ape of a human being, but he’s consistent.  It would mess with his mind, to think too much.  They’re alike like that.  I hope they have kids.

            I wound up here in Arizona with Stephen and his beer.  I like to sit back and remember Cheryl bouncing up and down, the taste of her lip-gloss, the warmth of her breath on my chest, the sound of the fast-food speaker.  I don’t have a clue what I did the rest of that day.  It’s fuzzy.  Whether from the beer or what, I don’t know.  The government pays for Stephen’s pills and sends him a check for being special.  Not much, though. 
That’s where it goes.  It goes real far, too, if you stick to the bottom shelf.
Cheryl visited me in the hospital.  She brought me flowers, cried a little, and apologized a whole lot.  Her lips were really shiny.  Her jacket was red leather, and she got it wet.  Two dark lines of cheap mascara left the corners of her eyes like clown make-up.  That was it.  The room smelled like honeysuckle and latex for an hour afterwards. A vague undertone of leather.  I never saw her again.

            I throw the bottle in the dirt towards the damn thing.  It moves a little then, eyes me, stepping sideways with a paw hanging in the air.
            It’s going to move.  I step into the yard and wave my arms like in the movies.  It just stares and sits there, even as I start running toward it and screaming till my voice breaks. 
Like the moon you never see move: it does.  Then it’s somewhere else.  I kick dust and rocks, stomp my feet.  I can taste the dust.  My chest heaves in and out.  Sweat cools on my forehead, teeth cold in the air.
            It moves those paws, then.  It knows it better.

(Before the Gates available on

Monday, January 16, 2012

(Excerpt from "Before the Gates")

The Master
K. Zeth Ozbirn

(From Before the Gates, available on Amazon Kindle,

I know that this ink is vitriol.  Almost tasting of anisette, it numbs the tongue and the throat on the way down.  The bouquet could be confused for fennel. 
There is that burning.  It is inescapable, always there, the coal swallowed from the brazier, smoky and glowing from my abdomen.  I sit here and think, scratching through its bastard light in the darkness. 
Not alone, I can hear the dreaming murmurs and breath from my bed beside this chair.  Wrapped in white marble, facing away from my burning lamp, shadow dancing upon the wall in its unsteady light, there is the contentment in the stillness of night.  An acceptance of the void and the threatening, a submission made of the corners of the mind grown weak from fright. 
It rolls its dice.  It awakes in the morning light, always, but not for this false dawn of my petty scratches and throat clearing.
Which is the greater shame?  By sleeping, that this one misses the sepia of the candle’s flame, I miss the understanding of so many scribbles; or that I watch, unable affect this other passed beyond before me to the service of the Oneiroi?

I am humbled by my weakness.  I think of my humility often, and wish for its return. 

When they lead me, grey with wisdom, through their tall courts, I can feel the blood, ankle deep, my sodden shoes pumping with each step.  The echo of my heartbeat reverberates through hallways gilded by burning lamps hanging from the walls. 
Here in the widening chambre sits the Duke.  The room reeks of copper. 
The Table is laid.  The utensils are silver, but the cups are all gold, filled with a wine that never empties, but is ladled from the floor and blessed through the acts of a tight-eyed old priest by the doorway, his robes match both the wine and the blood through which we all wade.  The wine tastes like battle and youth.  It has an undertone of fear and vainglory.
I listen to their plans, drink, and wonder when the money will come.  They have plans, plots, greater conquests.  Smiles are wolves in the grass winking at me over their own cleverness.  They wait for my glass to be filled. 
We are on stage for the servants.  The timing must be perfect.  Possibly this display is even for me, but I doubt it.  I am simply another ornament.  The spheres and heavens spin around us.
First, there will be a horse.  There must always be a horse.  I’ve modeled so many damnable horses that I feel more like a common husband fresh from the stables with dung on his boots.  I can remember still, in Milan, that paradise of days when I held command over the planets in their spheres; the stars coming to light, the scent of the court bathed in color among lira and song.  It was and it is a time which has gone. 
While this Duke may be in charge of events, the program and pace, I am still the one who makes the stage.  In this we have our game of scacchi, always.  I set the board and the pieces.  The first move is his.
Their dreams and their damned horses; they used Sforza’s for target practice in the smoke, after he was in chains and the fires cooled.  I agree to make a fabulous horse for this one, out of many tons of bronze. 
“It is true that I make everything.”
He smiles.  We move on.  The pedone advances.  This borghese smiles now, but will join me in the same box in the end. 
We must take the machines out of the garage, of course.  Plans are unraveled and spread across the table by the servants.  They are impressed.  There will be flames and men screaming.  Wood will burn and the trebuchets will set the hills to flight.  Walls will buckle to crush the populace beneath heavy stones they once thought permanent and divine.  There will be plenty of wine for us all.
Il suo vizier has come into play early.  He is eager.
It is always the same.  They are simply the new face with the same story, always the same words.  Their money was the same money, and has been the same money, melted time and again like the ice in the Alps.
I will be part of the killing.  My hands will not see blood, but there is enough on the floor for all of us.  It soaks into your skin.  It stains your clothes.  I will make the thoughts for the killing.  I will bring men barrels of misery, enough to choke and drown them.  My vintage is an older evil, true enough, but any evil will do, it seems. 
I bring forth il mio cavallo.  I do not fear i suoi alfieri
“Hannibal ad portas,” I say and smile.
We drink more wine.  Valentino is more proud of his cleverness.  The conversation becomes unimportant. 
When the line breaks, I am pleasant in my defeat.  He has taken to my left flank, an open space, di pedoniIl Re Blanco hides in the farthest corner.  Un pedone falls da suo cavallo, and his eyes broaden as my hand slides il vizier across and into his lines.  La Torre follows, Via del Corso, and there are no more moves to be made. 
I feign humility and pantomime acquiescence.  My performance is flawless.  I’d have been an actor, if only there was money in it. 
He sits back in his chair, his sleeves hanging upon the rests.  This Duke discusses the details of our finance.  He is princely; I will not starve once again. 
Ite, missa est.

I write in the brass light from the lamp.  The body on the bed has rolled over, and I can see the flesh in the gentle shade glow like the sun at dusk.  My hand searches for words, the stylus spearing them as they swim in the ink. 
Here is the bag, res deposito.  It sits heavy, a trickle trailing from the seam and off the table.  My eyes hold on the bag and the thin dark weeping that spreads from my drawing board to the floor. 
Lifting the bag with one hand, I watch the drops leave as it chimes and settles with a swing.  The floor will be covered by morning. 
There is nothing that can be done, now.  Solely a game, it is never a game.  The pieces move.  The hands which touch them need not be kind.  There is only one acceptable end.  The rest is simply revista.
“’Tutto รจ permesso’.  Nitimur in vetitum semper cupimusque negata—”
It is late.  I feel Him in the silence as the bag settles.  The loneliness, the watching, the knowing.  I lick the tip of my stylus and scratch more, listening to the noise of the paper and the mice in the hall.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Water is Wide

April 17th, 1790.  Off the Coast of Dublin

    John felt the salt fill his nose, chill his ears under his excuse for a cap.  He kept his upper lip long, feeling the numbness spread as the waves parted under the bow, each rise pitching the keel up and through the next wave.  The sails were full and the ship was making good time.  He could see the land fading to the West. The busy town had fallen silent and grew smaller as the moments passed. 
   They had signed their names in town as best they could, quick crosses beneath a paper that meant nothing to them.  A man had stamped and scratched his own name next to theirs in large, looping swirls.

April 14th, 1790.  Village on the Outskirts of Naas, Kildare County

   The family had seen them off down the road to the port town. 
   You always wave till they’re out of sight, Hyram had said. 
   Don’t worry about it, John, his brother had said.  Just you do it and keep a look at them waving, too.
   John had waved until his arm hurt, then waved some more, a mass of arms large and small swaying back, fading until finally the jostling cart had taken them over the far side of the rocky, green hills at the edge of the village proper. 

   The cart followed the wind of the River Liffey, a quick mirror of the grey sky overhead.
    I never knew the water ran so fast here, Hyram, John said.
   What’s that?
   The river, it goes so fast in parts.
   Oh, right. ‘An Ruirthech’.  The old tongue, that’s what they called it.  Runs fast, it does.  Goes by swift all the way to the sea.
   What does it do when it gets to the sea?
   Hyram laughed, lying against the edge of the cart with his eyes shut and his cap low above his grin.  The sky was a melee of clouds that hung with no sign of the sun behind them.
   Well, John, I guess it leaves its banks behind.
   But the sea?  It’s full of salt.  The river’s not salt.
   No, just muddy.
   So it feeds the sea?
   Something like that, surely.  It runs along till it’s not a river anymore.  That’s about all I know about it, John.
   Hyram shifted his cap to cover his eyes a little lower.
   Oh, John said and fell quiet.
   Shortly they were passing Leixlip proper and on down the road that lead east to Dublin, leaving the banks of the river to the west.  The driver lit his pipe leaving the town as the road broadened and the flat, green fields spread out to the horizon.  Harrow marks lined off like stiches in cloth. 
   The horse trotted along the dirt path marred by the depressions of wheels in the dark, damp earth.  Smoke trailed behind the cart in a haze that thickened each time the driver breathed from the edge of his lips round the stem of his pipe.  The air smelt of tobacco and horse.
   They were gone, he and Hyram. Then he realized, and it was too late.

April 18th, 1790.  Somewhere in the Irish Sea

   It was alright to think about it on the ship.  The ship was at sea, and the salt spray came over the side near the bow, cold and hard.  He let the damp happen over him.  He let it cover his face until it was ice in the wind and he couldn’t feel it anymore.
   Come now, you, Hyram said, his big legs making a dull thudding on the wooden deck.  You’ll have time for that, later.
   We’re never going back, are we?
   Well, you never know.  Good Lord’s willing.
   They knew we weren’t ever coming back.  That’s why they stood there for so long.  They waved and watched and they knew we’re never coming home again.  His voice cracked, but only a little.  He wondered if Hyram noticed and felt ashamed.
   It’s a bit early for that, John, but you get it out of you, if you the need.
   No.  I’m fine as I can be.
   There, then.
   John stared at the dark grey mass breaking under only slightly lighter clouds.  The spray touched his lips and he could taste the salt.
   Do you think we’ll like it there?
   Hyram looked out at the water with his brother.
   A man can like anything he pleases.  It’s his choice, and the Lord gives you that choice.  It’s up to you to take it.
   John decided that he would be pleased.  He imagined what it would look like.  His mind failed him, but he tried all the same.  Hyram put his hand on his brother’s shoulder.  John turned to him.  Hyram’s eye winked quick with a grin.  They walked to their work below decks.

July 26th, 1790.  Charleston, South Carolina

   When it came time, John readied himself for his step.  He knew that he would feel something.  The heat was unbelievable.  He worked moving the lines as the Quartermaster bellowed and the Bosun screamed, too.  The entire ship seemed one mass of shouting and curses. 
   His hands tried to shake.  He bit his lip to keep them from shaking.  The sweat poured from his skin and wet everything he touched.  He wanted Hyram with him, but he knew that he needed to stand this time, if nothing else. 
   When they had ported and the stevedores were massing on the pier, John was ready to step onto the loose rope and wood that steeply lead off the ship.  He picked his soggy cap up and off his head, running his forearm across his brow and putting the cap back, feeling the momentary cool disappear instantly.
   He knew he was ready, and Hyram wasn’t there, but he knew that things would be fine.  There was more work on both sides of the gangway.
   This would be his first footfall.  It was special and that was something.  John didn’t know what, but he knew.  He was ready.
   There was more yelling and his feet moved faster for it.  The gangway bounced and swung; his stomach rose in his chest. 
   The wood on the pier was firm.  He shuffled quickly to satisfy the screaming. 
   The smell of the tide filled him.  The damp was steam from a kettle on his face.  His eyes darted to the green mass of hills on the horizon and the small brown buildings lining the shore at the end of the long line of planks. 
   He was here; Hyram was here with him and they would never be going home again.  Seven years were an eternity, but they would pass. 
   He was sixteen years old.