The Last Lesson in the Fog
Like a colony of whispering bats, harmless but annoying, a pygmy cynicism, medium-sized, slender, black, long legs (relatively), uncommon, found in moist places, the children satisfactory in dung.
To hold yourself back and back then from this next life, from Satoshi, her gaggle of seemingly headless voyeurs, their snow-colored snowsuits, their regularity. Oh, and the streetlights are broken, but the streets go on pointing into the dark. We’re putting out late fires. We’re watering, Satoshi and I. (You must learn how to get along with conversation.)
Once again I was lost. It stayed. Satoshi stayed. I liked it there. (Cowboy cats sleeping in the hat pasture.) The pygmy cynicism tries to cake me then and to glisten my further rope of sighs, I spill. I dampen. I clam. I lily. I low and hover light like Satoshi’s jazz feet. And off to sea, oh verily, where I’m all noughty with this then my serious sea, my nought-tickle and the longer blonde awaiting morning with perfect toothpaste, a lilting fill of patience repeating (repeating and) with his respectables ajar and listing––
Wack-a-Mole winners like Satoshi all spaced and white, their edges turned and turned until folded into bodies, hungry bodies. Oh manimal-land, I found you with hers, exchanging genders. She was lovely-surrendered, that smooth-bitch where another guy was and her streets all broken and leaning, but for the regrettable gravity of it all.
If you were to ask, Who has the most beautiful garbage? then another man who is not merely a fly would appear, lit with slow snow, such damp little murders that they seem islanded by cheap successes, blonde and delicate-haired, a whole peach of an experience, still ripening. (Sometimes it is only my tongue that releases my dreams.)
Gabe the Mystery Plumber then says from out of nowhere, That’s very trenchant of you, and buries the broken pipe wrench. (Who could have broken it? (Something you might do to release a child from its limited attentions?))
The sky is as far as I’ve gone, but then the last lesson in the fog was shortened by sunshine, I lived there with Satoshi. Now I reduce. I burn, and the intensity strengthens me, a fresh new cradle of touch.
Rich Ives has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, Seattle Arts Commission and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines for his work in poetry, fiction, editing, publishing, translation and photography. He is the 2009 winner of the Francis Locke Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander and the 2012 winner of the Thin Air Creative Nonfiction Award. His books include Light from a Small Brown Bird (Bitter Oleander Press--poetry), Sharpen (The Newer York—fiction chapbook), The Balloon Containing the Water Containing the Narrative Begins Leaking (What Books—stories), Old Man Walking Home After Dark (Cyberwit--poetry), Dubious Inquiries into Magnificent Inadequacies (Cyberwit--poetry), A Servant’s Map of the Body (Cyberwit—stories), Incomprehensibly Well-adjusted Missing Persons of Interest (Cyberwit—stories), and Tunneling to the Moon (Silenced Press--stories).
He waves his jade scepter to a hall full of clocks as if he were their emperor. With a wave to the left, all the pendulums of the clocks swing to the end of the sky, and the whole world seems to be in a permanent state of unity. As he blows the clarion to call for a rightward movement, the pendulums, with enough momentum to launch themselves out of orbit, swing to the right, stirring vigorous waves in the whirls of time.
It has been his routine to conduct the orchestra of clocks since the Reform failed. His mother, the Empress Dowager Tzu-Hsi, scolded him for his preposterous attempt to introduce an exotic western system in a nation that has been feudalistic for millennia, so she reclaimed her rule and effortlessly imprisoned the 'unenlightened' emperor. Now he wakes up every morning at four, dresses up in his elegant dragon robe, and ensconces himself in the throne as his mechanical courtiers patiently await for the audience with their emperor, their pendulums swinging in perfect sync with his allegedly consistent sense of time.
‘Your Majesty, the Morning Audience has been dismissed. The Empress Dowager will be here at any minute.’ A eunuch came in.
The emperor’s scepter drops on the floor and shatters into pieces, but the pendulums of the clocks are still swinging rhythmically.
He is suddenly overwhelmed by a deluge of confusion and imbalance. The Empress Dowager. He has not seen her since he was locked up here six years ago.
He walked outside the hall, looking at the palace due east below the sky. He thinks of how he, who had been the sole decision-maker in the royal hall for ten years, was deprived of an emperor’s power and dignity in the exact same place when the Reform failed. Six years have passed, and now he is almost an entire stranger to the palace. Outside the audience hall, throngs of courtiers are hurriedly trotting down the huge staircases, while eunuchs carrying an extravagant palanquin are rushing upstairs for Tzu-Hsi, but no one is coming to him. He cannot stop but wonder how she addressed the courtiers just now. Did she, like what he has witnessed since three-years-old, sit behind his dragon throne, and discuss politics as if she were the true emperor?
At the end of the horizon, a faint ray of sunlight penetrates the thick clouds and falls on the scarlet walls and jade tiles of the Forbidden City, while shades of decadence lurk under the grotesque roofs.
‘Kwang-Hsu, good morning. I hope everything has been fine these days?’ Tzu-Hsi walked straight into the hall and talked in an indifferently solicitous tone, without casting a glance at the kneeling emperor.
‘Aye, your majesty.’
‘I heard you have been reading a lot recently. I came across this phrase Constitutional Monarchy yesterday, and I can’t figure out what it means. Can you help me?’
Still on his knees, Kwang-Hsu made a slight attempt to lift his head.
So she comes here after all these six years only to ask him what Constitutional Monarchy means? Surely, she means something else – there is an ineffable sense of encouragement in her tone.
He starts to think about how familiar he is with the phrase, how he has stamped the imperial seal on every governmental edict, and how he has spent every afternoon reading his courtiers’ memorials. Tzu-Hsi must have understood that she is too feeble to rule the country, and that six years of imprisonment has made the young emperor competent and resilient. Tomorrow, he will once again, become a true emperor, discussing with his men events that would shape the universe, replacing Tzu-Hsi as naturally as how dawn replaces the night.
So he says, ‘Const–’
But it is at seven o’clock. All the clocks suddenly begin to chime. Some of them sound like birds, while some, bells. Kwang-Hsu has not managed to finish his word – the cacophonous and discordant noise pours incessantly into his and Tzu-Hsi’s ears.
Kwang-Hsu frowns, reproachfully looks around at his clocks, and says, ‘I beg your forgiveness, Your Majesty.’
But Tzu-Hsi does not hear him – she seems to have realized something profoundly incredulous and upsetting. It might be the fact that her son did not immediately reply 'I know not', and that is unbearable for her, or it might be the sound of the clocks that has reminded her of her old age and the ceaseless passage of time.
She bends slightly down in front of the young man, glares at his curious eyes, and says, ‘Kwang-Hsu, my reform is starting. I’m going to transform Manchuria into a Constitutional Monarchy.’
She abruptly turns around and starts walking outside, leaving the emperor perplexed in the vacant room with his still chiming clocks.
Kwang-Hsu is suddenly unable to think.
He feels shame rushing towards his head: while he has been reaching out to the nebula for his share of the universe, what he sees is the mere mirage, a well built especially for him, the frog. So Tzu-Hsi could, after his long planning for the Reform, after his men’s wretched sacrifices, transform the country at the flick of a finger. Now, he no longer aches to think about how he, a miserable emperor, has never had any control over himself and the country. Perhaps time does have the ability to turn the powerful into ashes, the grand into dross – that is why he is so obsessed with clocks – but perhaps there is something that outweighs time, something that would haunt him for eternity and suppress all his attempts to transcend…
He walks out of the hall. It has begun to snow. Thousands of snowflakes fall on Peking, coinciding with the mechanical ticks and tocks. His vision begins to dissolve and dwindle, his impalpable soul being torn apart. The Forbidden City is now totally white and pure. Footprints in the snow are covered in the next second, leaving no vestiges.
And the clocks will not chime again.(1)
1 - This story is set in 1904 at the Forbidden City, the royal palace of Manchuria/China. Kwang-Hsu was the second last emperor of Manchuria, and also a puppet monarch installed at the age of three by the last Empress Dowager, Tzu-Hsi. Kwang-Hsu and his supporters initiated the Wuxu Reform/the Hundred Days’ Reform in 1898 in an attempt to modernize China through enacting institutional and ideological changes to its ancient system. However, as its name suggests, the reform failed in just a hundred days, and Emperor Kwang-Hsu was imprisoned by Empress Dowager Tzu-Hsi until his eventual death in 1908. Empress Dowager Tzu-Hsi is perhaps the most famous dowagers in China’s history, having ruled China for more than 40 years and brought a feudal empire into the modern age. While her legacy has been seen as controversial, she is undoubtedly a woman with a great will. Hence, my story aims to explore the period during the reign of her legal son, Kwang-Hsu, when the reformist and conservative movements were in full swing. In my story, I try to emphasise on how this historical background has shaped the life of Kwang-Hsu, an emperor who was supposed to hold the highest power, and how he finally yielded to his miserable fate.
Sihui Lin is a high school senior from Shanghai, currently studying in Singapore. With her passion for writing, history, and music production, she has initiated an animated historical musical project, and has produced a range of short musicals. She is going to attend this year's Iowa Young Writers' Studio. Using the metaphor of a clock, the short historical fiction depicts Chinese Emperor Kwang-Hsu's failed attempt to assert his independence and regain the imperial throne from the mighty Empress Dowager Tzu-Hsi. Although he believes that he will regain power and restore order to the Qing court by outliving the dowager, he realizes in this episode that even his ability to rebel has been suppressed all along -- he does not have the capability to rebel. The story ends in snow, symbolising futility, purification, and nothingness. (There is also a footnote on the historical context as this period of Chinese history may be less known to western readers.)
They say you are always inside your own head
Katherine hangs suspended, star-shaped and weightless on the surface of the water, gently baking in the benevolent sun. The lapping tide doesn’t seem to hold her as much as buoy her along, aloft. This lake has no interest in possessing her, and even if she tried to push to the bottom and nuzzle her bones into the silt, the antigravity powers of this concentrated saltwater would propel her upwards, forcing her back to gulp at the air. Don’t swallow any, she remembers. Solid advice given in several languages to the tourists as they disembarked, accentuated by the tour guide’s fingers-down-the-throat-retching gesture.
The boat’s engine had rattled like a tired mechanical lung. They’d been given a shot of clear, sharp liquor and a meat filled roll to fortify themselves despite the early hour. This oddly nourishing combo inside her, Katherine sat on the wooden seats and smirked while watching the teenage boys’ eyes pop out on stalks as a group of French girls stripped to their swimsuits and reclined on the deck.
Katherine knows she should’ve gone on a more frugal trip, been more sensible. Not like this was her usual lifestyle. But even as she thinks these thoughts, they seem unreal, rote learned. The word trip, too, rings false - this is her life now, more or less, til she figures out where she lands. Or the money runs out.
She knows some previous version of her made this decision, a lifetime ago. Weeks, was it? Time falls away in the undulating lake. That version of her may as well be a character in a book or on screen. She sees herself snatching handfuls of unfamiliar currency from a sternly bleeping ATM. She can’t even visualise the name on the bank card if she tries, the embossed mechanical letters appearing as disconnected dots and loops.
The water glugs in and out of Katherine’s ears with a bassy slosh. In between, slices of shore sounds leak in, voices risen and giddy, the guddle of wet pebbles under feet. Through these gaps, she hears a thick male voice, out of context, addressing her. It is calling to her alone but speaking a name she doesn’t recognise, with demands she cannot comprehend. The voice is subsumed in the soft whisper of the waves as quickly as it appears, the water drowning it out with confident ease. She almost raises her head to look. But no, don’t be silly, she tells herself. It’s not really for her. Whoever it is, whatever - it’s not calling for her.
It had cropped up a few times over the last few weeks - sometimes a voice, sometimes a figure out the corner of her eye. Every time, she’d freeze - her thinking brain mechanically processing the potential threat, her nervous system already ten steps down the road of panic and distress. The Thing, she called it. That shape or sound always on the periphery. It had another name, but that’s lost now, slipped through a crack in her memory. She’s put some distance between herself and The Thing, and it’s finally fading, its detail diminishing. Each time, The Thing becomes just another tone or trick of the light, its timbre and shape disconnected from anything malicious or human. They say every time you remember something, you’re just remembering the last time you remembered it. The way her brain melts solid, real experience into muddy obscurity comforts Katherine. She wonders what the memory of this moment will be, right now, here in this lake, or if this is it already, her brain and body fated never to be in the moment but always experiencing it at a distance.
Shit. Her stillness is disrupted by the thought of her bag discarded on the shore. Not just her bag, but her money, clothes, shoes, apartment key. A momentary panic turns the water around her cold. But everyone here is just like me, out for the day, she tells herself. No one cares, but in the nicest way possible. Katherine’s thinking brain has always been the slowest part of her. She’s been told that enough to believe it, at least. Her flighty or freezy parts are limber through plenty practice.
She scolds herself. Stupid. Your fault if they get nicked. These habits die hard, these judging words that rise up in her head as naturally as breath. The Thing again. But it’s become duller, a grainy recording of what they once were. Katherine imagines The Thing’s words trickling out her ears, their power dissipating in the ripples of the lake as she hears them for the last time. The sun drapes a blanket of heat across her face and torso, her limbs drooping beneath the surface.
A series of images throb across Katherine’s mind as she lies prone on the surface of the water, unsure of their origin or accuracy. She remembers them like childhood television programmes, usually inaccessible but intrinsically part of her, strange and abstract and out of place. The zip on a stuffed suitcase. Two rings in a bowl. Car keys being dropped through a drain cover, plopping satisfyingly into the sludge below. Her legs crossed on the front seat of a bus, air whipping around them. She realises this last image is surely only from this morning, yesterday at a push. She tries to pinpoint which day it is right now and sees calendars jumble and shuffle, revealing their arbitrary nature.
Katherine flips onto her front and swims further into the lake. It takes no effort at all to get to what she calculates is the centre, the deepest point. Endless azure extends above and below. Most of the other swimmers have stayed at the periphery, splashing, laughing, tossing inflatable balls to each other. If she wasn’t alone, maybe she would have too. The Thing intrudes to tell her she is too far out, but it’s automated and unconvincing, and she has no trouble casting its message aside and treading water here, her circling hands making the only disturbances in the surface. She watches the ripples fan out and collide until they are nothing, energy translated into temporary form, with her as the centre. They say energy can’t be destroyed, only change into a different form. They say a lot of things though. She remembers a promise she made to herself, exactly when she can’t be sure - it’s getting slippery, or was it always so? - that she’d do less thinking and more doing, someday. For thinking, read worrying. Thoughts are energy, though. Worries, too. They must be. Where do they go? What do they get turned into? Did they all get stored up inside her, wound tight, then whip loose and propel her to here, now, her thoughts gradually emptying out of her in a island salt lake? These questions recede in immediate importance to the flat clang of a cowbell from the shore, summoning the tourists back to the boat.
Katherine toys with the idea of just staying here, starshaped again, until the last possible moment. They wouldn’t go without her, they’d do a headcount. Surely. Or maybe it would just be her stupid luck. Sigh. There she goes again. She can’t tell which words are her inner monologue or The Thing’s residue - that perpetually irritated yet cloying sound that wormed its way in through repetition and insistence. She knows the face it used to issue from, or at least she thinks she does. If she saw it again she’d remember. For now, and in what she thinks are memories, it appears as a malformed shadow, a slow clenching orifice at its centre, puffing out inconsequential air.
Katherine gives into the pressure of the tour guide’s bell and swims towards the shore. In between the blur of each stroke she sees families towelling themselves down, mothers urgently hauling children into clothes which bunch around their still-damp limbs. She closes her eyes and pushes on, the water seeming to open up in front of her and help her along, barely any resistance from the low waves. She’ll be the last one to the boat, but she’ll make it. Katherine steps across the pebbles to her bag, all present and intact, deciding to throw her shawl around her shoulders and let herself air dry on the short walk back, looking forward to an hour or so of daydreaming on the boat before she decides what to do next.
Always in your head. In amongst The Thing’s faint mushy grumble, these words stick out plain and clear. They are stripped from context, but she understands the hot faced shame they attempt to stir up. It lingers in her muscle memory, as does the sensation of a face pressed right up against hers, the spray of spittle on her cheek, the crack of bone and the flash of pain. All of these things, she hoped, were receding. Katherine knows that every time they flit across her mind it takes some effort to swat them away, to keep the specifics from burrowing into her waking thoughts. Less and less effort each day, she reminds herself.
Her sunglasses clasped on her face, Katherine zones out to the secret rhythms of the water as the boat hits its stride. She’s doing better, she knows that. Losing the point of reference, the baseline, the murk of some obscure hurt - she chalks these up as successes, necessary processes of cleansing and forgetting on the way to...something else, some future destination that is already evolving and aligning.
And being in her head, so what? What’s that meant to mean anyway? Who is ever outside their head? She shifts in her seat, the sea air whipping her hair around her. She’s barely spoken to a soul these last few weeks, and she’s never been less - what would you call it? - absent, dreamy, whatever. But all these things, she realises, were imposed on her. Had she avoided the world around her for however many years? Had it been kept from her? She laughs a little out loud, the absurdity of getting worked up in a conversation with herself, justifying herself. At the end of things as they were, a dark cloak seemed to envelop her, heavier than ever, closing down thought and dreams and choices. But even these details are muddy now, uncertain, like they have melted into the range of infinite possibilities that could have transpired, these settled occurrences now disordered and in flux. All that she is left with are the sensations deeply burned into her body, a type of psychic scarring, she thinks, as the dancing light on the Adriatic Sea works some wonders on the rest of her.
She thumbs through her purse, counting out the remaining notes. It looks like plenty, at least for now. After that - who knows? An acid twinge rises from her stomach to her throat. Always the same. A bloody daydreamer. She burps, sour alcohol taste filling her mouth, and as she exhales these insults drift off like vapour, dispersed among the air, already forgotten. The last few remaining, she thinks. Her head feels light and ready to be filled with different sounds, and she dreams of a chorus of rapturous whooping to take the place of all the niggling words that were held there for so long.
As she clasps the purse shut, Katherine notices a trickle of blood running down her forearm. A small nick, without pain, on the back of her wrist has spouted a glossy trail which is still fresh. Instinctively, she licks the wound, drawing her tongue along her arm, following the red line. Her teeth press down on the flesh and she closes her eyes against the shimmering light. Her arm tastes salty, the flesh tender and unknowable yet totally her own, and as these familiar impressions take root within her, they merge and multiply into new forms of touch and taste, flaring up and out in every direction at once, endless and new.
Euan Currie is based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He has published work with Goodnight Press and Bandit Fiction as well as performing work at the intersection of sound and text for many years.
Trigger warning: Theme of sexual assault
“What…happened to you?” Tarahna asked again, my own nightmare reflected in her eyes, but hers were also spotted with confusion.
“A werewolf attacked,” I repeated, my mind churning like my memories, both a tempest-tossed sea of madness and agony.
“A man,” Shakisha said grimly, the third in our triangle. I, on my knees; the other two standing. My feet had brought me to them, and dropped me there. “She means a man.”
My skin prickled and flamed, as if trying to rid itself of the feeling of unwanted touch, but it didn’t succeed. I fractured within myself. One part cried. Another laughed. A third ran.
“I’m so sorry,” Tarahna said gently. “Maybe…we can do something.” She looked at Shakisha for that, her skin as dark as the night that engulfed me, but I saw the doubt in their eyes.
A warrior should be used to battle. A general should be used to death. A woman should be used to betrayal.
“Kiah,” Shakisha said to me, reaching out a tentative hand for mine as she dropped to one knee, but my hands pulled back of their own accord. My vision swam.
Werewolves. A child’s story, but…one that suddenly fit so perfectly amidst the howling void of my mind. Werewolves were humans that could transform into monsters, and you couldn’t recognize them until the moment they did. You could befriend a werewolf, I thought, love it, trust it as I had, but there was always the chance that it might transform. That it might forget.
“I did,” I murmured, my whole body shaking as if in the passing of a winter’s gale.
“You did what?” Tarahna asked.
“I did something about it,” I said. There were tears in my eyes. Because maybe you only befriended a werewolf when the danger to yourself was worth it. Maybe you only let them close when you loved them too much to keep them away.
Heartbreak was the tear, cold and stark, on my cheek. Helplessness was the horror, gaping and raw, in my eyes. Lust had been the corruption, cold and hungry, in his.
“Here,” I said, my voice shattering as I pulled the knife from my sheath, still coated in blood.
Frances Koziar is primarily a fiction writer of the contemporary fiction, high fantasy, and young adult genres, though she also publishes poetry and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in 45+ literary magazines, and she is seeking an agent for a diverse NA high fantasy novel. She is a young (disabled) retiree and a social justice advocate, and she lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
When you wake in the early morning, you immediately notice that the mild warmth of autumn has sharpened into frost overnight. The fields have shifted into checkerboards, alternating plots of glossy ice and powdery snow like a destructive crop rotation; the warm fleece of the earth failed to protect the pebble-sized potatoes and barely-sprouted green beans. Now you watch from your bedroom window as the farmers poke at the ice-crusted dirt and sigh visible defeat into the air, realizing that the shriveled vein-stems of vegetables cannot be salvaged now. Cannot be useful now.
Usefulness is fundamental in the winter. You may be safer, in fact, in the absence of the harvest.
Typically, you are seen as too weak to help—your hands too gnarled to pull weeds or sprouts from the ground, your arms too unsteady to carry the heavy baskets from the garden to the house, your body simply too fragile to help. Like the frost itself, you are more lacework than substance, they say.
Typically, you are seen as a topic for debate, too; you are used to extensive discussions of whether you deserve the hearth without the hard work, the food without the function. But the early rawness of the air is your redemption.
Your father and brother are in the shivering crowd, shovels and hoes propped on their shoulders. They speak to each other with brows furrowed by worry as they slowly file back into town with the other workers, led by Reed, the mayor’s son.
Snippets of their low, concerned conversation soon waft up to your second-floor perch. The early frost was a surprise. Reed has no plan. I do not know what we will do.
Of course Reed does not have a plan. Reed is very kind and optimistic, qualities only outstripped by his total lack of foresight.
Of course, you all lack foresight. You used to be vain enough to believe that you could predict not only the weather, but all aspects of the future.
But that was many years ago. No one has any use for predictions any more, least of all you. You had heard the stories of the past with an almost unaffected countenance, but once your own body unexpectedly faltered like those legendary civilizations, you understood. Even if specific events could be divined from the vague expanse of time unrolling before you like a meadow, you still have no power to stop them.
You slip downstairs quietly. You want to hear every word, interpret the nuances in tone. Your father serves on the town council. Your brother, while too young to hold any official position, is well-regarded by the community. Their opinions will hold weight in the public debate as well as in determining your future.
Her father believes that a portion of the crops could be salvaged. Though the vegetables would be small, they could perhaps still be edible if canned.
Her brother agrees that would be useful, but he does not want to risk the safety of the other workers by attempting to dig into the frozen ground or the safety of the community, as they are not sure that the food would be safe.
They agree that you should be consulted. You are the expert in the arena of cooking, after all.
A smile breaks across your face. Your father and brother have decided that you are trustworthy and knowledgeable. Only in homemaking, but regardless, you know the importance of your interactions.
You enter the kitchen then, acting as though this is a coincidence. Your relatives have no reason to believe otherwise, and express their excitement that you are there. They have a crucial question for you. You are, of course, willing to provide whatever guidance you can.
You are not surprised when they provide very little detail, simply asking you if there is any way to safely consume prematurely harvested vegetables.
You consider thoughtfully for a second. You do not actually know the correct answer to their questions, but you know a great deal about the harvest, both botanically and culturally.
"No," you respond, smoothing a concerned but self-assured look across your face. "If you eat vegetables that were harvested too early, you will become seriously ill."
Her father and brother exchange worried looks. You can see the conflict in their eyes settle: there is more danger in allowing the harvest to continue than there is in stopping it now.
They thank you and leave for the town hall. You retreat back to your upstairs window and watch their retreating backs.
There will be no mention of usefulness, no harvest, no reason to question you, and while the village panics, you can breathe for the first time in months.
MP Armstrong is a disabled queer writer from Ohio, studying English and history at Kent State University. Their work appears or is forthcoming in Perhappened, Prismatica Magazine, and Hominum Journal, among others, and their debut chapbook, who lives like this for such a cheap price?, is forthcoming from Flower Press. Find them online @mpawrites and at mpawrites.wixsite.com/website.