Ellen Smith

Detective novels have lost their savor, but it’s been so long since she’s read anything else that Ellen isn’t sure what to do with herself. She’s wise to their tricks, that’s all; there’s only so many ways you can arrange a limited number of suspects, only so many ways to organize a killing. She’s seen it all: shootings, hangings, drownings, explosions, immolations, defenestrations. Bumped from a high place, buried alive in a low place, fed to ants and dogs and bristle-chinned pigs. For jealousy, for money, for revenge, for mania, for no reason at all.

Some cheat, which makes for a surprise ending but not a fun one. There’s nothing to put together ahead of time, nothing to suddenly fall in place, no moment when the clouds part and the sun shines down, just the stultifying wonder of a magician whisking a cloth aside to reveal your missing card. Yes, that’s the one. Of course.

She nibbles at real crimes, but shudders back. Out here, people die for too many raw reasons, killed in the street for a busted taillight, shot in the office by an abusive husband, hit by accident for no reason at all.

A Cloak of Feathers, A Crown of Thorns

Hell was a place without order, the unlit waters over which she had floated for an infinite span before the sun and the moon and the other spheres had spun up to give an order to the days and a direction to existence: toward this, away from that. Returning is like coming home; everything is smaller now, more squalid.

She moves through it, pulls it into some semblance of order with her passage, the way she always has, imposes definition in sheer reference to herself. Before, all points were the same, and now there is before her and below herabove her and behind her. Hell cries out against her presence, and that too is both new and old: she has brought time with her, and sorrow.

She curls into herself again. A sphere is the softest shape here, with only an inside and an outside. Hell quiets slightly, calms itself; the life she has come in search of drifts down the slope of her presence, still bound by gravity, pinioned by time. She swallows it whole, grows warm with a name.

Near to Real History

The poets are at war with the police, and have been ever since Thomas Miller tore the shirt off the bull Bill Bigarini in the Coexistence Bagel Shop. Miller wasn’t a poet, but a painter of black churches who heard voices and had an eating disorder; you could see the points of his hips jutting through the tattered hems of his sweaters. Bigarini was a cop, though, through and through, a thick-necked son of Italy who’d flush red at the sight of a woman without shoes, which is what kicked off the fight where he lost his shirt. Wendy Murphy’s sandals had broken so she left them in a trash can, which didn’t sit right with the patrolman.

Anyway. Bigarini arrested Murphy, and broke Miller’s head; even shirtless he was a crack hand with a nightstick. The poets plastered the streets with poems, north south east and west: may their paperbag souls rot their nightstick bones.

“I ain’t a robot,” Bill Bigarini complained to the press, as his fellow officers stormed barber shops and gay bars to tear down the poems. “I have feelings, same as they do.”

Bigarini would later lose a bid for sheriff after getting charged for corruption; he’d taken bribes, like many an officer, to let the gay bars stay open. Miller would die of starvation in a 70s hotel, the day after his last church mural was demolished to make way for a tourist hotel in Japantown.

Mustering Out

The Gentlemen are past their time, scattered to the winds, driven into the hills and wild places to fill their mouths and bellies with thistles and sour grass. Spent cartridges, they were never meant to live so long—the peace of the city and the glamour of its streets is sustained through annual, monthly, daily sacrifice, hours and minutes digging little hooked knives into their flesh in search of their hearts.

Nevertheless, they persist. Some are barnacled into the truss of the city, but most are in exile, so many lonely Daedaluses still creating, still inventing codes in empty rooms. Some few live together, but most are strangers to each other, known only and intermittently through an old overheard passphrase, a pair of dusty hats switched in a late night restaurant, a bandaged finger and a memorial carnation marking the ambered cruelty of survival. 

No one will come for them, alas, no poison in the ale, no prick of poinard on a foreign subway station. Whatever secrets they hold are long dead and gone, dust gathered on a featureless plinth raised in a forgotten city park. The Gentleman raise tribute to each other, and count the passing days.

She Holds Up The River

Slow work, this.

Pythia has need of her, so has stirred her from sleep and set her loose. She leaves the colony behind, leaves the still-sleeping forms of her sister brothers, moves beyond the anserine gate with nothing on her back but the water-resistant coat the sunken ship wove for her and her own rust-red teeth, but it will be enough.

She smells water, so bears south. Comes to a hill overlooking a creek painfully fast, thunderingly straight, cracks arms fingers knees and jaw. She has no tools, but her ship-forged teeth will do. She splits a trunk and hauls it to the creek. Old woman creek, she bucks against it, shoves hard at the ends, but she’s well-learned in this and it holds. She spits mud to pin it in place, and cycles back again.

Hours, days, weeks, months, years. She follows the creek to the river to the sea, digging and gnawing and recoursing. She gives birth once a year, to daughters who carry her grandchildren within them, leaves them behind to settle in, dig deeper, spread wider. Fish and birds trail in their wake.

It has been decades since ship spoke to her. She has forgotten the trick, but when that voice comes tolling in her ear, she knows it, leaves her work half-finished and unmourned. Turns north, past family, toward home.