photography

Gold Coins

 I hit the station and the bell went off soon as I ran my card. Got right in the train and it was some people playing music on the front car. Very nice people. I gave them two Sacajawea dollars. Wonder if it was more insulting than gratifying to receive those. Probably thought they were quarters and then when he finds different might not be all that much better. 

 

Yeah you see the Rastafarian banana that kid is holding. It is high as fuck. 

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life, poetry, prosetry

Come up for air

 

When the moving vans took away a life

bundling it in storage, turning out fly swabbed light

when the house stood empty and of us, nothing remained

her death seemed to have resisted claim

yet she was no more there than mouse who leaves behind footprint and soft down of hair, gone beyond the floorboards

her family cleared out and dusted her remains, placed away in a china cabinet for someone

many years from now to produce a much touched pawn ticket, and re-varnish

she wondered

would they thrive without her?

in time, will her children recall the best of her?

or those days she stood tired and grumpy, keeping warm by the oven avoiding world’s bidding and invite

it was her shame

to waste so much time

if she had known she would have stepped from waxen kitchen like fire bird,  gathered them in her arms and driven to the coast

to watch the rise and fall of life crashing on wave

and smell the turn of life, brimming with wet salt

she would have seen within her the burgeoning canker and cast it like a bottle of cobalt blue

out into the surrendering molt of waves,  hoping it would lose itself and not return to erase her, premature and cruel

a reminder we are visitors

to this shore

not long in our stay

often missing our purpose, locked away in effort and grind, mowing lawns, picking up, wiping down, staring out into the immaculate disorder

she would have said to her children, take your shoes off, wriggle your toes in, feel the sand, the undone clasp, the undone movement

into life and laughter and sorrow, creating lines of wonder on our cheeks, run and run until your bird chest burns

scream into the sound

cover yourself with sun and never

ever

come up for air

 

(image from: http://www.saidthegramophone.com/archives/2010_06.php)

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fiction

drinking and other acts with Charles Bukowski

Inspired by Mark Renney’s poem, Any Orders Before Time, here’s a story about Bukowski I wrote a while back…

 

He let me hang around after the poetry reading when I promised to pick up his tab. We’re at an outdoor bar, sitting on unsteady stools or I’m drunk. I tried to match him whiskey for whiskey. Patpong Love Bar: and he’s reciting an old poem about prostitutes ‘that make you want to tear up paintings and break albums of Beethoven across the back of the john’.

‘Women of such significance, such beauty,’ he calls out to the emaciated whores on the steps of the bar next door, who are giggling, wondering whether they ought to try their luck, knowing I’ve already laid claim to him, this ugly man, but cash is cash. ‘Society should realise the value of the whore,’ he says ‘those who make it almost an art form…you feel liberated and human again for a mere $3.’ He raises his arm to make a point and knocks my whiskey off the table.

‘How much do they pay you, my beautiful pussies? How much would it cost me to feel like a man again,’ he asks the tallest of the three, the one whose eyes slant upward, eyeliner thick and precise. But she’s not a she, though that no longer matters. Not to Charles, not tonight.

He mumbles about the drudgery of everyday life, its pathos a familiar refrain in his poetry and stories. ‘The problem was you had to keep choosing,’ Charles says, ‘between one evil or another, and no matter what you chose, they sliced a little bit more off you.’ He leans in close, I think he will kiss me; I open my mouth slightly, and he says, ‘The truth is: the free soul is rare.’

As he drinks, the cracks between his monologues widen and I fear that one of us will slip through. And what if gravity disappears? Charles will hang on to the flame tree above us and spy my purple knickers under my black dress as I ascend, swallowed by space. He will move on to the women quick-witted enough to grab hold of something rooted to the earth.

Then he asks if I’d like to fuck and I’m embarrassed even when it’s ridiculous to play coy now. I drop the pretext of drinking and stare at him. I want to trace his face with my tongue.

3am, my phone says, and in three and a half hours, dark will give way. I tell Charles I want to leave now. I hate seeing these streets gutted by light. We walk over to a cab on the corner and shake the driver awake. An extra 100 baht and he’s keen to take us back to my flat.

In my room, Charles is suddenly tentative; while I shed my clothes, he escapes to the kitchen for a bottle of beer. We are both swaying and I wonder how we’ll get through this without hurting each other.

I sit on the bed naked, there’s no reason to feel awkward in the presence of a man who worships women. When he comes to stand in front of me, he caresses my cheek then gently pushes me down on the bed. We kiss and I smell booze and famine. He pinches my nipples hard with his fingers, cups my breasts, and sucks cries out of a mouth that has long been mute. A gentleman, he kneels on the rug, and covers my cunt with his mouth.

He enters me. I feel him lose control. I cross my legs around his back and grip his thighs, urging him deeper. His cock has gone crazy. I scream but the sound is muffled. It erupts from deep inside my belly. He comes then, shuddering violently on top of me. He raises his fist and I think he will smash my face, but at the last moment he brings it to his mouth to smother a moan or a cry. He has been away too long and still too close to death.

Later, he lights a cigarette and out the side of his mouth, ‘Did you fuck the poet or the man?’

‘Does it matter?’

‘Yes, it matters because if I fall in love with you, I want to know how it started. You might be one of the knives that stick me,’ he says as he rolls over to sleep on his side. ‘There’s an old one stuck into me in 1955, you can take its place.’

Lying next to him, I bite off the chipped end of a nail as a question carousels in my mind. In his last novel, Pulp, written as Charles was dying of leukemia, he wrote about a gigantic, glowing bird that had come to claim him. Death approached and he didn’t blink:

Then, as I watched, the Sparrow
slowly opened its beak.
A huge void appeared. And within the beak
was a vast yellow vortex,
more dynamic than the sun,
unbelievable.

– Pulp

I stare at the back of his head.

He knows what’s on the other side, what happens to the soul when it’s evicted from its body. If there’s such a thing as a soul. I shake him awake and my ferocity disturbs his slumber. ‘I need to know,’ I say, ‘I need to know what happens to you after. Is there something or nothing?’

Bukowski turns over and looks at me with such understanding I have to suppress the urge to punch him in the face.

‘Oh, Babe–’

 

art by Christine Wu

Bukowski quotes taken from his novels Ham on Rye, Women, and Pulp. Also from his poetry collections, The Pleasures of the Damned and Love is a Dog from Hell.

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art, life, screenplay

Notes from the Shrink’s Chair: Jimmy

 

IMG_5946.JPG

artwork by Francesca Strange

 

Notes from the Shrink’s Chair: Jimmy/Antonia

 

Dedicated to C.J., my heroine and a true bastion for bravery

 

OPEN SCENE: Right of frame, gloomy lighting. Dr. Strange sits at his oakwood desk, large and reclining, as he peruses his patients’ files. He furrows his brows, thick, under a mop of greying, greasy hair; he rubs his hands through it, a habit he has curated over the twenty years in his profession. A tell, if anything. He is clearly frustrated, stupefied, as to how he should proceed in his current state. A file, new, sits at the forefront of his desk; after a moment’s hesitation, he leafs through it.

 

[BEAT]

STRANGE – takes out a voice recorder from his suit pocket. Turns it on.

STRANGE:

Seventh of September, 2014. Patient James Connington, otherwise known as Jimmy to his family and friends. Fifteen years old. Heavily depressed, suffering from acute body dysmorphia. Tendencies towards self-inflicted bodily harm. Burns on forearms, bruising found on upper thoracic region and extending limbs. Heavily injured due to unreported reasons.

 

[BEAT]

STRANGE:

Latest diary entry, as follows.

 

CUT TO: A boy, sitting at a desk, on the opposite end of the frame. Scruffy-looking, wearing a football uniform scored with grass-stains and tussle. He kicks his football cleats off, spreading mud and dirt all over an otherwise clean, white carpet. He scribbles into an old exercise book, biting his lips as he struggles with his work. He hears his siblings playing behind him, and as a reflex, covers his notebook with his arm, protectively. Once he is sure that he is alone, he begins writing again.

 

JIMMY:

Momma caught her today, just as she was about to leave the house. She had that beautiful necklace I picked out for her, the one that matches her eyes at it catches the sun. And that soft, suede lipstick, the one she wears with that dress I like. The pink one. She looked so beautiful in it, as she always does. So light and airy, like one of those story-book elves as she danced around my room. Enchanting, how free she can be. As if none of life’s rules applied to her. Like gravity; she didn’t agree with it, so she never let it buckle her down.

 

[BEAT]

JIMMY (cont’d)

Anyway, we were about to go to church. Momma saw her sneaking out of my window, as she always does when she stays the night. She hates going to church, (it makes her feel like a phoney), so she never goes with the family. Anyway, Momma. Momma screamed hellfire when she saw her. She looked possessed, almost demonic with rage. I never heard her use words like that. Especially not on a Sunday. Next thing, Momma pushes her out the window. Just like that. It didn’t take much of a shove, she’s so light. There’s nothing to her. And from my room, you could see her lying on the grass. Strewn all over it, all of her spread across the lawn. Like a china doll. Pieces everywhere. The necklace crushed by the fall.

 

[BEAT]

JIMMY (cont’d):

I didn’t linger. I had to go back upstairs, brush myself down, get ready for church, and pack my things for football. There’s a big game next weekend, and coach has been riding my ass about it for weeks. Saying things like: ‘Boys, it takes one to dismantle a team. Just one. And it is only men, men who can play this game. Because men know better than to pussy out when it hurts. Men know better than to stop, because men keep on going. When no one expects them to, when all odds are against them, only true men will cross that final line and take home the gold’. Coach never knows when to stop, when enough is enough. Never with her.

 

[BEAT]

JIMMY (cont’d)

They were in the locker rooms, both of them. Coach and her. After football practice. I usually get changed there, on Sundays after practice. There’s this bar on the other side of town that only opens on Sundays. It’s called Antonia’s, by the way. The bar. Poppa drives past it when he goes to work, and sneers at it every day: ‘That fag bar, always full of goddamn fruitcakes. Goddamn scum, what fucking animals’. She doesn’t care about what Poppa says, she loves them all. It’s her favourite bar, because everyone there is just as outrageous as she is. And she’s friends with all the busboys, the kings and queens – And she dances with everyone: complete strangers, both men and women. She doesn’t care who they are, what they’ve done to get them there, at that bar. Because to her, it’s home. Antonia’s.

 

[BEAT]

JIMMY (voice faltering)

She was slipping on her stilettos, as coach brushed himself up behind her. I saw him in the mirror behind me. I was packing up her things, her makeup, her kit. She was roaring to go, fired up as she always is. But I turned cold.

 

[BEAT]

JIMMY (hysterical, sobbing as he recounts the rest)

His hands were wrapped around her throat, I couldn’t breathe. He pushed me to the ground, and pressed my cheek to the tiled floor with his muddy cleats. ‘This is what you were made for’, he hissed, as he stroked my back, ‘men like me take, women like you give. Make your choice, boy. What would you rather do? Would you rather give or, would you rather take?’. I lay there, silently. It wasn’t the first time, I thought, and it wouldn’t be the last. Unless I did something about it.

 

[BEAT]

 

CUT TO: Dr. Strange, sitting emotionless. He pauses the recorder, sighs, and takes a sip out a hip flask. He continues:

 

STRANGE

Seventh of September, 2014. Coroner’s report – patient James Connington. Adolescent Male, Caucasian, mid-teens. Cause of death: asphyxia, constricting force applied to the ligature on the upper occipital region. Compressive narrowing of laryngeal and tracheal lumina observed. Ligature mark on neck is deeply impressed; it’s composition: superficial abrasions across the front and nape of neck, indicates the implementation of a thickly textured material. Most likely a rope. Will compare fibres to those found in the Connington family’s workshop. Severe Internal haemorrhaging in lower torso and abdominal area indicate heavy assault. Lipstick stains across his cheeks, across his face. Prominent bruising on face and forehead under thick cosmetic foundation. Also indicating a struggle. No fingerprints or biological fibres, or any forensic clues found on subject. Perpetrator, still at large.

 

CUT TO: Black.

 

END. Continue reading

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fiction

VANISHING ACT

chris-r-0906 Image by Christine Renney

In the early morning I cannot find myself. Stalled in front of the bathroom mirror I lean in close but I am not there. At first it was for seconds but now it is minutes. How many? I do not know. Twenty? Thirty? More? And when at last I do begin to reappear my reflection is blurred and hazy and, razor at the ready, I am forced to wait until once again I am clearly defined. I could of course dispense with the mirror but I am not yet prepared to do that.

In the beginning it really was not very elaborate. I would find myself on the edge of a group, nodding along because I wanted to fit in and it was so much easier and I always sided with the majority. Each morning before work I studied the newspaper, particularly the sports section and the previous night’s television reviews in preparation. It really was very subtle and I did not consider myself to be lying at all. Although I did not watch the reality shows and soap operas, I kept abreast of the latest exploits and was able to join in. And despite my disinterest in football I followed the sport vehemently from afar and managed, without watching, to convince. I feigned enthusiasm for a chosen side and impressed with insightful comment and impassioned opinion. But of course, it did not stop there. It was not long before I was unable to deny the lies. In fact, I had started to research in order to add gravitas to my tall tales. Gradually, it became very complicated and all consuming and had I wanted to watch the football and the soap operas I simply would not have had the time.

Determined to control the lies I worked diligently in my spare time. My chief preoccupation was travel; the places people visit, holiday destinations. I professed to have been everywhere or at least wherever my colleagues mentioned. The places where they had already been or intended and planned to go. I offered advice and suggested itineraries, even restaurants, painstakingly unearthing the tiniest detail to ensure that my lies appeared authentic and were infallible. When my colleagues returned, and having acted on my advice, they shared their experiences of a particular excursion, museum, art gallery I had recommended or simply commented on a local dish I had mentioned, it all seemed worthwhile and I would feel warm inside. I relished the elation and it was good. I was sharing, involving myself with others and how could that not be positive?

I am changing, beginning to look older but it is more than that. I first noticed this in the mornings whilst shaving. I struggled for an analogy, a way in which to define it. The best I could manage was watching a film and not recognising the actor but knowing I had seen him countless times before, although I did not fully realise this until midway through. I would lean in close and study my reflection until I became so tense my every muscle locked and I was unable to move. I was concerned that I was stretching the truth too much and too far and that I risked discovery. But I could not resist a new destination and I added constantly to my repertoire of the most frequently visited of places. I began to keep a ledger, a journal of sorts, a record of my bogus travels. I compiled a list of dates for each and every visit and their duration. This included nine months backpacking in Australia with a friend from university, plus four months on trains with a girlfriend, travelling across Europe. I have even allocated time slots and gathered information on places I have not yet had occasion to use. I read the guides and the literature and I scour the internet for photographs and anecdotes that I might use.

My determination and diligence is rewarded and the feedback from my colleagues continues. I have no reason to believe they suspect and yet each morning, in front of the mirror, I am forced to linger for longer and longer.

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prosetry

Moondance

Another spontaneous Saturday night, you and I, rock and roll and warm white wine. We share a moondance, barely clothed, twisting in the violet light and baring our teeth to the omniscient and unforgiving sky.

You replace the cigarette that dangles from my tired lips with an urgent kiss and I can’t quite believe that I’m here again. Every time is always the last time. In spite of how dangerous this situation is, we feel safe. You are bad for me but I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be, although you probably wouldn’t agree.

As we dance, a framed picture on the wall won’t leave me alone. We keep spinning until you suddenly reach out to catch a large silver moth in your hands: its wings beat louder than your heart and I pray that you will never trap me in such a way. The picture in the corner demands my attention so I go to take a closer look.

It’s a blue biro drawing of the crucifixion from an odd perspective. The wooden cross is captured in alarming detail, the sweat and blood on Christ’s skin practically glistens, and I can feel the rust on the nails as if they had been driven through my own palms. I am astounded by the intricacy. Some people don’t care much for detail.

I ask you about the drawing and you tell me too much: your schizophrenic uncle, the troubled artist, the tortured soul, brilliant but ‘not made for this world’, died young, ‘not cut out for this life’, ‘in a better place now.’

I may know you intimately, physically, but I am reminded of the fact that I know nothing about you as a person. I don’t know your birthday or what you do for a living, but I know your name and your address. I don’t even know your phone number. I can see that you are sad and I am sad for you. I realise just how much I want to know you, even though I shouldn’t.

You don’t stop. You let your guard down, more than you planned, more than I expected. In between lines of cocaine and lines of Hendrix, you talk about your late mother, your sisters, your childhood abroad. I just listen, amazed at your openness, pushing back thoughts of the panicked moth and wondering whether my selfish and stupid sins are worth Jesus’ sacrificial suffering.

You talk about carrying your mum’s coffin and, for a moment, I think you may be about to cry but words fall from your eyes instead, and I let you talk. You are too old for me. You are twice my age and I start to believe that you have suffered twice the pain. I tell you that it’s okay, it’s okay, I’m here, I’ve got you. I have a horrible feeling that you don’t remember my name. It’s okay, it’s okay. Your hot breath on my neck makes me believe my own words. We are safe.

Do you believe that you’ll meet them again someday, somewhere? Your mum, your uncle?

Yeah, I do. We have to believe it, don’t we, otherwise what’s the point?

I kiss your shoulder twice and I say nothing because there is no point. In that instant, all of your sweet vulnerabilities dissolve on my tongue and you revert to type, back to swigging Stella and pulling my hair. You bite me til I bleed and call me filthy names. You always treat me badly in the best way. And every time I leave, I tell myself that this is definitely the last time, that I deserve better, that I never want to see you again…

Barefoot, I walk home in the pouring rain, drenched to the bone, bad to the bone. The moon accompanies me through the silence of the abandoned allotments and over deserted wastelands of burnt-out cars and fly-tipped furniture, and as I feel the crunch of broken glass under the soles of my feet I notice that, tonight, these streets don’t scare me like they usually do.

I walk slow, I take my time: no one is waiting for me anywhere, I have no place to be. I get lost in thoughts of moths and masochism and when I finally get home I realise that all I have to confirm that any of this has happened are my scrunched-up knickers in my pocket, the bruises between my thighs and the everlasting vision of a man whose eyes have seen more pain than mine.

Earlier version originally published on The Magic Black Book – January 2016.
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fiction

The Witch and the Pirate

Just trying something new. Tell me what you think.

Thomas was a man made for the sea. He had black hair that was turning gray in some places and white in others and a strong chin covered by a new beard which itself was covering old scars on either side of his face.

He clambered up a pile of rocks. The forest stretched in either direction. The sun would set in a couple of hours and the clouds were already beginning to take on a purple tinge.

Just as he was about to jump down, he saw, against the dark green, a traveller’s fire.

Within the hour, Thomas walked into a clearing at the entrance of the forest, where a barefoot woman with close cut hair sat staring into the fire and mumbling. She was pretty in the face, although her eyes were unsettling. Thomas stood looking at her for a while before he sat down across from her. He pulled out a hand carved pipe and began to fill it with tobacco from a small aluminum tube he kept on a string of leather around his neck. He held a twig to the fire and used it to light his pipe.

As he smoked he looked closely at the woman. She wore billowy cotton pants and a shirt made crudely of animal skins. She could have been very young, or in her thirties, or even forties with the lines around her eyes. She had freckles on her face and arms. Her arms were strong and her fingernails were worn down to nubs. Thomas tried to listen to what she was saying, but it seemed to be another language.

The sun was behind the trees by the time she roused from her trance.

Thomas, staring into the fire and smoking his pipe, had fallen into a reverie of his own and was startled when she broke into a cheerful soliloquy.

“Ah! So it’s you! The pirate! Well, I must say, I’ve never heard of a male guide before. It’s most peculiar, isn’t it? But then the other girls always say I’m an odd one. Do you think so? By the way, I hope we’re not going in at night! Surely the morning is better, isn’t it? I was born in the morning, you know. Well, of course you do!”

Thomas shook his head and grunted.

“Yes, I know!” she continued. “I’m afraid I’ve always been a voluble woman, or what some call a chatterbox, but I think it’s a vile thing to call a human, don’t you? Do you? I do. Now, certainly the morning is better, we’re agreed? I don’t know why Our Mother would send a man to guide me through the woods, but surely she wouldn’t ask us to go in at night?”

“I’ve no intention of going into that forest tonight,” said Thomas.

“Splendid!” said the woman. “We’ll go in the morning. That’s settled. So, why have you come early?”

“You’re a pagan, are you?” asked Thomas. “Off on a vision quest of some kind, is it?”

She looked confused.

“I’m no guide,” said Thomas. “I’m Thomas Bradley. I’m not a hallucination. Here.” He reached around the fire and pinched her leg. “See? Flesh and blood.”

She said, “Well that’s highly irregular! It’s downright indecent, as a matter of fact, and I daresay you’ve done me no kindness by sitting there like a sad stone all this time! Is this a joke of some kind, or prank or a test, perhaps? If you’re not my guide, then what are you doing here?”

“Just travelling,” said Thomas.

“Don’t you pirates do your travelling aboard ships?” she asked.

“You may not know this,” said Thomas, “but there are some places ships won’t go.”

“What are you doing in this country? No one travels here.”

“Shipwreck,” said Thomas. “A grand story really, a hell of a tale, and I’d love to tell it to you, but I’m hungry. Have you got anything to eat? What’s your name?”

“Mary Ann,” said Mary Ann. “I haven’t eaten in two days.”

“Part of the hallucinating thing,” said Thomas.

Mary Ann asked, “Have you been in this forest before?”

“No,” said Thomas.

“But certainly you’ve heard the stories?” asked Mary Ann.

“Oh, certainly,” said Thomas.

Mary Ann said, “Well but don’t you think you ought to go around? It’s only three days walk.”

“I figure it’s only a day’s walk through,” said Thomas.

“A pirate with no respect for the sacred, I understand that,” said Mary Ann, “but I’ve never heard of a pirate who wasn’t superstitious.”

Thomas said, “Aye, most sailors are superstitious.”

“And you? You’re not superstitious?”

Thomas laughed. “No, I don’t see the benefit in being superstitious. When God gets it in his head to toy with you he doesn’t send a black cat to warn you about it.”

“Well, that’s a bleak view, indeed,” said Mary Ann. “You are powerfully sad for a swashbuckler, I must say! I had always thought you lot were rather more gay. What are you travelling so far inland for?”

Thomas said, “I’m looking for a man. Edgar Hoffman. Do you know him?”

Mary Ann said she didn’t.

Thomas said, “He’s supposed to be in Shropshire. I’ll start looking for him there.”

“So,” said Mary Ann, “you’re a notorious pirate with no superstitions who happened to wash ashore on the wrong side of Night’s Forest and who also happened to stumble upon the sacred entrance? I don’t believe in coincidences at the best of times, Mr. Bradford.”

“Call me Thomas.” Thomas rubbed his stomach. “Well, what’s a guide supposed to do anyway?”

“Many things! Many things, yes, but the foremost is taking the pilgrim safely through the forest and into the realm beyond.”

Thomas nodded. “I don’t know about the realm beyond, but if there’s anything on the other side of this forest, I believe I can get you there, even if do lack the pleasure of being a figment of your imagination.” He stood up. “Do you eat animals? I see you wear them.”

“I won’t eat anything, as I am fasting before our divine quest,” said Mary Ann, “but, if you don’t mind, I could do with a nip of fresh blood.”

Thomas nodded and went out into the darkness beyond the fire.

He returned later with a headless possum and a handful of mushrooms. He sat down next to the fire and began working the animal onto a stick.

He asked Mary Ann, “These mushrooms poisonous?”

She inspected them. “No.”

“Are they good for eating?”

Mary Ann looked at Thomas for a second and then answered, “They’re okay.”

“Oh,” said Thomas. He tossed her a small flask.

“What’s this?” asked Mary Ann.

“Oh, it’s some of the blood,” said Thomas. “From our friend here.”

“Eesh! How perfectly horrid of you!” said Mary Ann, tossing it back.

Thomas caught it and looked at her.“What do you mean? You said you wanted blood.”

Mary Ann laughed. “Well, I was only joking! I’m not a vampire!”

“God damn it do you know how difficult it was to get that thing’s blood into this tiny opening?”

Mary Ann laughed.

“What the hell kind of joke is that?”

“Well, you’ll have to excuse me, Thomas,” said Mary Ann, “but when I tell someone I’d like a refreshing glass of blood, I expect them to disbelieve me.”

“Well, what do I know about witches?” asked Thomas. “For all I know you go about in the forests gnawing on whatever you can catch.”

“Heavens no!” said Mary Ann. “Is that what they say about us in town?”

“I’m sure I wouldn’t know what they say about you in town,” said Thomas.

Mary Ann said, “There are many different kinds of witches, you know. I don’t think it’s fair to assume we’re all the same. I mean, with you being a pirate, you must sympathize. I mean how can I believe you really are a pirate when you’ve no wooden leg, you’ve two good eyes, you’ve no parrot and you’ve failed to rape me on sight?”

Thomas nodded. “I’ve always been a bit of a procrastinator.”

Thomas held the stick over the fire and the meat cracked and popped and sizzled. The mushrooms slowly shrivelled and dripped with the fat from the animal.

“You ever eat one of these things?” asked Thomas.

“No,” said Mary Ann. “I don’t like them. They look odd, don’t they?”

“They are the devil’s rodents. But they aren’t rats, that much we can say.”

“Did you eat rats on the boat?”

“No,” said Thomas, “not me. But some of my men did. My mates. Yes they were a rat-eating bunch. Me I stick to hard tac and lime juice. Say, I never told you about that shipwreck.”

“I’m sure I don’t want to hear about that,” said Mary Ann.

“How do you know? Maybe there’s something in there that will tell you something important about yourself; something that will unlock the key to your existence, and consequently the existence of all things on the earth?” Thomas turned the animal over on the stick and cooked the other side. “You know, sometimes I get so hungry I eat animals half raw myself.”

“Say,” said Thomas, “are you one of those in touch with your body type witches? You know, having sex brings us closer to the earth, orgies and all of that? Say, can I even trust you about this mushroom? I bet it’s going to kill me and you’re going to have sex with my corpse.”

“First of all, there is to be no sex on a vision quest. And second, the last thing I would kill you for is to have sex with you.”

“Sounds good,” said Thomas. “Well, you don’t sound much different than most of the women I’ve ever met.”

“I suppose I’m not. I certainly don’t try to be.”

“Really?” said Thomas. “It seems like you take great pains to be. What are you going into this forest for, anyway? And you know I’m not going to guide you! Ha! I’ll probably end up trying to rape you, like every other man who goes into this forest would do if they happened upon a weaker female. Well, of course! When they could just chalk it up to the devil, who wouldn’t!”

“So, you’re saying that the evil in this forest is perpetrated by men?”

“Yes, of course! By normal people. You think spirits from the underworld are here, looking for innocent young women to go on vision quests? Ha! Do you think you’d be even attractive to a spirit from the underworld? If all you fear is losing your flower to a spirit of the underworld, well, you haven’t seen much of life, I’ll tell you that! And all the better for you! Definitely! Yes, all the better!”

“Your possum is burning, sir.”

“Ho ho!” laughed Thomas. “You are quite right.” He withdrew the stick from the fire and set the cooked meat on the grass. He pulled the stick from it. “Are you sure you won’t eat?”

“No,” said Mary Ann. “If I eat now, the whole quest is ruined.”

“To me it bears thinking about, the idea of starving yourself before going into a mystical forest. Any forest will seem mystical after not eating for three days.”

“Perhaps,” said Mary Ann, “but perhaps all forests really are mystical.”

“So then why do you have to go into this forest?”

“It’s the most mystical.”

“You are a strange witch, and a strange lady at that! But I already guessed you were strange, sitting out here mumbling to yourself in front of that fire.”

Thomas bit into the possum. “But what I didn’t realize, is that you were strange, even for a witch! Ha, most of you witches are all about the purity of the vision and connecting with the great mother and so on.” He chomped another bite of the possum, the grease running down his face. He tore at the carcass like a wild animal. He ate one of the mushrooms.

“My god!” he yelled.“These are magic mushrooms, aren’t they? You really are something.”

Mary Ann laughed. “Eat them! They will give you insight into navigating the forest.”

“Yes,” said Thomas. “Thank you, but I’ve had them before, and they weren’t to my taste.” He started to pull them off the stick and toss them aside.

“No, don’t waste them!” said Mary Ann, standing up. “Here, here, I’ll keep them for later.”

“Ugh.” Thomas groaned and held his stomach. “Either that possum was bad or that half a mushroom is already getting to me.”

“Probably the mushroom,” said Mary Ann. “It only takes a bite.”

“Damn you, you dusty old con artist,” said Thomas. “How old are you? Old as the hills I’d guess! At what age did you start growing those gray locks at such a prodigious pace. God’s wounds, I think that possum might’ve been off. What kind of diseases can you catch from possums anyway?”

“Oh, you’re just hallucinating now,” said Mary Ann.

“Is that a fact?” asked Thomas, and as he finished his question he slumped to the ground.

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