Harrowing Experiences

We think of certain experiences with foreboding and dread. Yet a truly harrowing experience surpasses distress. There can be exhilaration–of momentum, of transformation–and if one is lucky enough to survive, of escape.
~Bram Shay, Editor

 

Pupa by Matthew Vasiliauskas

The Orchard by Kim Farleigh

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Pupa

Matthew Vasiliauskas

I.

In exactly one week I will be someone else.

My head will fall off, or rather I will shed it, or more precisely the warmth from inside a casing of spun silk will liquefy it into running formations of bubbling amber. For a brief time I will look like a melting candle.

I’ve known this since the age of five when my father took me to a safari park and explained that at 40 I would metamorphosize.

“Why does this have to happen?”

“It’s natural. It happens to all of us.”

“I don’t think I want it to.”

“You won’t even remember it happening. We need to get you some new pants.”

I could see myself in the eyes of antelope, gleaming white scars infecting the darkened pupils.

Because of the upcoming transformation, I’ve had to quit my job. I spent decades at a small desk, flickering fluorescence forming the mountains in which the sculpted curvature of female anatomy took refuge. On my last day I got a plaque and a basket of assorted nuts.

As I was walking out, Jim, who had sat next to me, stood by the door. Sweat stained his collar and I could see through his shirt, his bones nothing but swaying shadows.

“You won’t remember this, but, you really did inspire me most of the time.”

“I appreciate that.”

“I’m not going to let them do anything to your desk.”

“I don’t think you have a choice.”

“I’ll fight them.”

He locked pinkies with me, something I had seen him do before.

II.

I’ve started secreting silk.

It’s softer than I imagined, milky webs climbing upwards, frayed fibers occasionally gleaming in passing sunlight.

I’m storing them in Tupperware containers inside my fridge for the chrysalis. They’ve become fizzled apparitions, silhouetted coils eased by the breath of Freon.

I need to coat my apartment in newspaper, or rather, I’m told that newsprint supports the incubation process, keeping the cocoon warm.

I stop by the recycling plant. Steal towers stretch toward the ceiling, tubes and wires running through their diamond torsos, pulsating in the humid hum of anxious electricity.

I step up to Joe, who I believe I spoke to on the phone. The plant exists in his sweat, inverted dripping rafters tumbling in the glistening droplets running down his cheeks.

“This is all I got for now, but come back next week and we should have some more.”

“I’m not going to be here next week.”

“Well hell, twist my arm, why don’t ya. Okay, here’s one more box, but it’s not the good stuff.”

“I’m fine with that.”

We hear a crash. Gears stop, and the fluttering of panicked paper falls downward, cutting past swinging arms and landing on a pair of twitching legs lying underneath one of the machines. Words bleed onto him, seeping into the denim, covering the faded stitching. A crowd gathers, hunched backs bobbing up and down as if feeding on the flesh of wood pulp.

Joe turns back to me.

“We got some grocery ads if you think that’ll help.”

III.

My chrysalis is crooked. Its oval shell leans slightly, the faint projections of surrounding newsprint littering its surface.

Stability is essential to the transformation process, I’m told, and if not constructed properly, I could wind up deformed. Jane has shown me pictures of some of the notable deformations from a library book she borrowed.

There is a greenness, melting swaths of frozen bubbles where limbs and eyes emerge.

I’ve known Jane for five years and have invited her over for one last movie night.

She manipulates time with her aroma, dew-stained blossoms allowing me to exist in simultaneous eras, my face emerging from soil into the crispness of conjured memory.

I’m hoping we can have sex.

“Aren’t you scared?”

“I’m not really sure. Maybe a little.”

“It’s crooked, you know. You need to even it out.”

“I should have enough silk by the morning for it.”

“I forgot to bring back your cape. Do you mind if I sell it?”

“Why don’t you come with me?”

“There’s a birthday party next week I really want to go to.”

“This is better than a birthday party.”

“Do you remember the name of that guy who said we could use his boat?”

The movie starts, Chaplin’s illuminated shadows filling our wrinkles, and the thought of us molding into one spiraling being sending me into the crackling ripple of pixelation. My imagination has a scent, heat drenched summer and the flakes of freshly mown grass.

I give Jane my look, a series of blinks letting her know that if she wants, I’m ready for sex.

“I know just where I’m going to sell that cape.”

IV.

I need to burn my things.

A fascination with outdated tradition has led me to the backyard of my childhood home where I toss any remnant of my former self into a small fire. Pictures, clothes, worn and bitten trinkets from a sock drawer mesh into shimmering clouds of jagged vapor.

The neighbors are curious silhouettes, slipping from the mounds of stained bedroom curtains and peering with eyes that reflect the pink horizon.

I move back inside and come across pictures of my father’s former self, the ones he was supposed to burn.

This is where he exists now. I wonder whether he is trapped, a sustained anesthesia crystalizing his cries into the beach behind him.

The phone rings. It hasn’t rung in years.

“Is Henry there?”

It’s a woman.

“He used to be, but he changed.”

“Ohhhhhhh … I see.”

“Did you know him?”

“We had … a little.”

Her voice seems to be made of echoes, cavernous hardened flesh propelling sound into unseen machinations.

“Do you know where he lives now?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t speak to him anymore. I don’t know what he looks like.”

I place my thumb over my father’s face, seeing if his expression bleeds onto my nail.

“You have an interesting voice. Maybe we should talk again.”

“This is the last conversation we will have.”

“Well, if you happen to run into him, tell him I called.”

V.

I’ve become water.

In an effort to anticipate my inevitable liquidation within the chrysalis, I’ve come to Robin Hill Pool.

I float just beneath the surface looking upward, watching limbs and clouds bend into the translucence of moist reality.

I turn and notice something at the bottom. My arms seem detached as I move deeper, swirling blueness becomes my marrow, and the shadows of pumping distant legs fill the bubbly veins.

It’s an earring, and I bring it back to the surface.

A little girl in a one-piece yellow bathing suit stares down at me, her eyes covered in the fizzle and pop of polluted sunlight. She holds a watch in her hand and points to the earring.

“That’s mine.”

“It looks a little big for you.”

“I’m helping my father get rid of it.”

“Is it his?”

“It was hers. The one who left us. My father says we have to forget her.”

I see the faintest glimpse of myself in her eyes, miniature movable drops of a being growing in the film of her pupil.

“Was that hers too?”

“It was his. My father says he was worse than her.”

Everything has a slightly muffled sound now, a sustained droning pressure as if a shell has enveloped us.

She tosses the watch into the pool, its darkened body descending as a confused creature, hiding amongst the shifting formations of stomping ankles.

“Now, bring it back to me.”

VI.

I stand naked in my living room. I rarely look at myself in this state–even in the shower I keep my focus on the surrounding tiles sweating exhausted grime.

I had potential with this body. I should have done more.

The chrysalis is complete.

I’ve measured and confirmed the dimensions and have left a hole into which I will climb. It’s a gaping mouth, the now dry strands of silk matted into the crags and ridges absorbing the surrounding pellets of floating dust.

This is the moment I lose control and instinct takes over. I’m out of my body, watching myself walk across the room and climb into the cocoon.

My small television flickers, projections of drooping mouths tasting the glue and thumb-stained newsprint. The Allen’s are on trial for murder.

“And you’re saying you have no recollection of that evening?”

“It’s a bit fuzzy. I might have been there, but I, I just can’t remember.”

“Are you attracted to your brother?”

“Objection!”

Sound takes form, emerging from the crackling static and moving toward the windows, the dying embers of electric breath moistening the panes.

I linger with one foot out of the hole, catching glimpses of the neighboring complexes, the amber shimmer of life sinking into the darkness of oblivion.

“So you admit there was a knife.”

“Can I have some water?”

“Why were you in bed with him?”

I lower my head and sink into the hole.

VII.

My arm’s fallen off. Strangely I felt no pain, and in fact, I watched it slide out of my socket for several hours.

The dome of the chrysalis projects scattered veins onto my body, the grip of light turning melting flesh into vibrant colors stretching into the elongated appendages of anxious blur.

Quickly, even more quickly than the books suggested, I’m becoming something new. I’m looking at my face as it lowers into my hand, one eye at the center of my palm, staring back at the eye now dripping down my cheek. My mind fights over sight, grasping for a point of focus in the mirrored realm.

Someone’s entered my room. Two, maybe three people. I see their shadows through the cocoon, a brief thought that perhaps they possess no body, detached from their hosts long ago and now scavenging for the warm anchor of imitation flesh.

They speak in a muted language where only single fleeting words of excitement are decipherable.

“Food.”

“Archimedes.”

“Brother.”

A sensation has come over me, somewhere between fatigue and irritation. My eyes stabilize, and the two lines of sight watch my body corrode and crumble to the floor of the chrysalis, shimmering plumes of amber gas causing the flaking lashes to sway.

“Cheap.”

“Jim.”

“Heavy.”

I bubble, the pool of myself giving off steam, my lone hanging eye tumbling and splashing so that I coat the walls of the cocoon, an awareness beyond sight that soon fades to darkness.

I see in echoes, reverberation outlining spaces that tunnel above and below me.

I think my television smashes.

“Bread.”

VIII.

I’m told this is coffee.

I sit at a booth in a diner, a word and location I have only been educated about in the last twenty minutes.

The place is nearly full, and the waving limbs of customers disappear into the shimmer of heat coming from an area called a kitchen.

Marie has been assigned to me. She comes from an agency uptown and helps people during the transformation process. Her dark hair sticks to the sides of her cheeks, and my tiny reflections seem to leave the center of her pupils, mixing and disappearing into the splotches of color emanating from my blinks.

“We have to choose a name for you.”

“What do you suggest?”

“Well let me see … the agency would prefer something with a J. It’s a letter in the alphabet that we’ll talk about later.”

“What about cup?”

“That doesn’t start with a J.”

“Is there anything you’re partial to?”

“I can’t let myself get emotionally invested in the process.”

I reach into my pocket and feel something. There’s a small bent picture of a woman, her hair blowing across her face and the word Jane scribbled on the back.

“What about Jane?”

“Hmmmm … why don’t we say James?”

My thumb caresses the picture, and I find myself momentarily in two places, the booth and the sizzle of bacon fat enclosed in a room littered with yellowing strips of torn paper.

I move slowly, the air taking on the consistency of water, my fingers causing the walls to ripple.

I notice Marie staring at me.

“Tomorrow you’ll walk a dog.”

Matthew Vasiliauskas is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago. In 2009, he was awarded the Silver Dome Prize by the Illinois Broadcast Association for best public affairs program as producer of the Dean Richards Show at WGN Radio. His work has appeared in publications such as Stumble MagazineThe Adirondack Review and The Pennsylvania Review. Matthew currently lives and works in Los Angeles.


The Orchard

Kim Farleigh

A metallic spine fled from traffic lights at the bottom of a hill where we were waiting to catch the bus to Agra–sudden decelerations, drivers braking, cars swerving. The vertebra accumulated again and again, only to charge and twist and break apart.

Something sufficiently distant from the lights, lying on the road, was inducing speed while being close enough to ensure last-second, high-speed maneuvers–vehicles changing directions, horns bleating, Tim beside me grinning.

“The Taj Mahal can’t match this,” I said.

The object resembled soft plastic; proximity to it altered perceptions. The traffic filed around it slowly, as if passing parked police.

“It’s like a constant accident,” Tim said, “on the first curve of a Formula One race.”

The chaos that object’s location caused suggested that an omniscient wag had put it there for fun.

“I’m going down to have a look,” I said.

Two women in saris–effervescent yellows, fertile greens, pulsating reds–stood beside Tim, the three of them amused by my laughter on my return, white teeth fluorescent in brown surrounds.

“It’s …” I tried.

“What?” Tim asked.

“It’s …”

Flying traffic braking again increased my stomach muscles’ gorgeous pain. The women’s faces flashed with amused anticipation.

“It’s …” My chest heaved out guffaws.

“What?”

“It’s …” I gasped and chortled. “… a lump of traf-fic-fic island … probably heaved out by a truck.”

The women’s eyes gleamed like polished mica.

Whimsical fate may have deposited that suitcase-sized rock there, but its exquisite placement in the middle of the road at just the right distance from the traffic lights had the aura of witty, supernatural planning.

“It’s like decomposing uranium,” I said. “For twenty-five thousand years it’s going to cause mayhem because God laughs at humanity.”

Another metal spine lengthened in dawn light, pastel hues evoking innocence. That vertebra didn’t know it was going to be halted in its frenetic charge.

Black smoke steamed off the charging cavalcade, the first vehicles breaking, veering, my howling unrestrained, traffic now winding around the rock, order after near misses.

One of the women was chuckling so happily that her eyes disappeared in rippled surrounds, the traffic accumulating again, the rock like an exposed reef in a black sea but with the distant texture of seaweed. How harmless it looked. From the traffic lights, it would have only appeared to be plastic wrapping. Soon perceptions were going to be shattered, like seeing dreaminess collapse. Fate had given us a gem of mankind suddenly facing the excesses of its glamorous perceptions.

Fumes wavered like black tentacles above the next racing chain of metal, gas devoid of vapour’s grace; the leading drivers skidded, the amused woman releasing high-pitched merriment, my torso quivering with enraptured gratification, Tim’s face shining, the other woman’s grin hidden behind a delicate hand of shame.

The skidding traffic undertook slapstick manoeuvres. A truck drove a motorcyclist off the road, the bike bouncing over a curb. A rasping shrill left my throat as I breathed in, my hilarity released with 24-carat-gold purity. Restraint wasn’t that hilarity’s middle name. The women shuddered mirthfully, Tim’s baritone cackles increasing my amusement.

The angry motorcyclist contemplated confronting the titillated temerity that was coming down from the top of the hill above him. But he re-mounted and left. Then something terrible happened. The bus to Agra arrived. My disappointment had mine-shaft emptiness. That traffic-lights drama, forever fresh, exalted, like love; leaving felt like a regrettable sacrifice.

Disappointment got crushed quickly, however. Aboard the bus, scaling another hill and coming down the other side, I mentally gasped: below a two-thousand-metre-high, fifty-kilometre-wide umbrella of black smog above Delhi’s sprawl fields, men in rags were waking, morning’s purple eye watching through grey-black pollutants.

“Out of this world,” Tim said.

Hundreds of men in dirty, ripped fabrics, like a uniform given by thin altruism to the dispossessed, began shifting like awakening corpses under heavens of packed fumes. This enthralled like the traffic, but there was nothing funny here, no pleasure from people’s misperceptions, just eye-snaring reality on an immense scale. What delusions could those men have had? Maybe some hoped God would rescue them–impossible to mock their only possible illusion. It was all they had apart from their rags.

We entered a two-lane highway linking Delhi to Agra. Traffic fled down this asphalt ray, like protons leaving stars. Our ignorance of the future matched the innocence we’d seen at the lights. The driver charged behind another bus on the wrong side of the road. A six-armed, football-breasted Goddess hung from the rear-view mirror. A Hindu sun symbol faced the passengers, dreamy references to security, wrecked cars’ undersides, lining the road, resembling the bottoms of rotting, metallic crustaceans.

The other bus, by obscuring our vision, magnified my vulnerability, the present only existing again, but in a different form. Tim read. Cars were moving beside the bus on the correct side of the road. Dust rose as a car left the road, the bus having shot left as the bus ahead had changed lanes to avoid an oncoming truck that flashed by us on our right.

“Incredible,” I hissed.

Tim refused to observe.

I clutched a bar protruding from the seat before me. Indians often drive carelessly because God decides when you die, independently of driving skills. Being adversely affected by someone else’s delusions evaporates humour. Maybe someone on one of those crustaceans was chortling as I had done watching traffic leave those lights?

The bus changed lanes again “blind.” Fear rising from my feet concentrated in my ankles before flashing to the back of my neck where it concentrated again before erupting in my temples, another truck flashing down the other side of the road.

“Unbelievable,” I said.

Tim refused to look. If death was coming, I wanted to see it first. He reflected the opposite philosophy.

People started screaming–all the irate passengers on the bus’s right-hand side. When the bus jerked left they could see on-coming traffic heading directly for them, cars forced into the dirt on the left, Tim silent, helpless before insanity.

Idiocy is laughable when harmlessly observed, a rational person’s privilege, the fruit picked by gladdened cynics. The peaks of the driver’s delusions now separated me from the orchards of smugness. Finding other people’s delusions amusing had been eliminated by the same random malignity that had placed that concrete on that road, malignity masquerading as ambivalent entropy.

The woman who had laughed at the motorcyclist was screaming, the onrushing mayhem coming straight at her. Were two buses coming? My anger had been subdued by knowledge of my hypocrisy. Her anger peaked because of non-existent self-analysis. She waved her hands and howled, the driver ignoring “childish reactions,” my bar-gripping knuckles whitening, Tim engrossed in literature, the coils I imagined in my temples overheating; had those coils had throats I would have heard high C’s; a man smacked his legs in frustration at the driver’s indifference to the passengers’ feelings.

Imagine, I thought, this on every bus ride. People would say: I had a day like a bus ride. He’s as mad as a bus driver. There’s more chance of me getting on bus 58 than there is in me doing that. If they find out, they’ll shove me onto the Calcutta bus.

Only people on the right-hand side of the bus were agitated, all alert, their view of the oncoming metal exquisite. On the other side, listless people’s heads were upon cushions, absolute stillness, drowsy without concern. Hope, naivety, and belief separate you from reality–other people’s fears and frustrations just hysteria.

A truck about to hit the bus made the screaming woman who had laughed at the motorcyclist dump her hands on her head, those hands becoming stiff-fingered structures resembling leaf veins as the truck flashed by on our right after the driver had thrust the bus to the left, forcing a car to create dust clouds off the road.

My high-voltage temple coils zinged as the driver avoided another disaster, sharp increases from a base of buzzing tension. Screaming, with gesturing outrage, didn’t affect the driver who was driving blind at one hundred kilometres per hour on the wrong side of the road, his eyes on the crazy driver ahead, both drivers creating dust clouds. The driver remained perfectly still, the passengers seemingly furious with a statue. Damage inflicted upon us by others inflates our dormant principles. The woman wasn’t finding this funny; she had been thrilled by the motorcyclist being driven off the road, in damage potentially being done to others, but she shook her raised hands when the driver narrowly avoided another head-on collision, the malignant grill from an oncoming truck almost annihilating the bus’s windscreen.

God concerned the driver, not people’s silly feelings. The rotting crustaceans had death’s eerie mystery, like monuments to sombre inevitability.

I felt light when leaving the bus in Agra. Had my relief been a perfume, its fragrance would have earned millions. A stench rose from white mounds of grease frying on black hotplates–food for the poor.

Screaming, desperate-eyed men, clutching trays of fried corn, besieged the passengers whose indifference to these men’s plights matched the indifference with which they had been treated by the driver, the furious woman’s wafting wrist of disdain dismissing the men.

Tim fled to the toilet. He hadn’t looked up until the bus had entered the station. I admired his stoicism; on returning, he said: “I had to do what I just did for a lot more reasons than the usual.”

I laughed at the way he had hidden his fear and at his honesty for admitting it.

Later a waiter asked us how we got to Agra.

“Bus,” I said.

Kim Farleigh has worked for aid agencies in three conflicts: Kosovo, Iraq and Palestine. He takes risks to get the experience required for writing. He likes art, cinema and bullfighting, which explains why this Australian lives in Madrid. 108 of his stories have been accepted by 73 different magazines.



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