07 March 2009

Cut Glass

Cut glass
on a windowsill
starch-stained and empty of all but atmosphere

Plate glass
in a window frame
fossilized raindrop dappled

on a floor
spiderweb splintered and shattered

Window glass
across the carpet
tear-washed and bloody

Mirror glass
in a sink
toothpaste spattered and reflecting nothing at all

Broken glass
in her hand
blood smeared and sparkling

Etched class
in a shuttered case
far removed
from every eye

06 March 2009

A One Hundred Watt Woman

A contrast here
of rashly darkened sky
when from some other and oblique angle
there is light

rising and again
reflected down among us
where we sprawl damply in the wetted lawn

though shadowless
unable to stop this glowing
which penetrates and envelopes in one motion.

tells us fear though
reason sees no thing at all or
how we make our own faces into small

precise, acute
reactions to this washing,
an amber recoil and release into
what had been about to happen in that awful flare.

05 March 2009


The last time Max Reddison saw his wife, his late and very deceased wife, Olivia, they went at each other like animals and not in that good, Dear-Penthouse-kind of way. In fact, the fight got so bad that the police would surely have come had the Reddison’s any neighbors who might call the police. Just the fire in the backyard would have summoned some kind of official response if there been any officials to respond. Nearly a mile from the nearest neighbor and almost 8 miles from town, any ruckus at the Reddison place was unlikely to be noticed until one or the other of the Reddisons failed to make it in to work for a few days running. Unless they made the effort, the Reddisons could go days without seeing another living soul near their property.

There were no neighbors to rush over investigating screams and the lunatic glare of gasoline-fed flames. There were no nosey cops sticking their nosey noses into other people’s business. They got their mail at a post office box in town like all the other outlying residents did; milk delivery was something on a TV show from the 50s. There still wasn’t cable, either, but they had a dish. The Reddison’s could watch Turkish soap operas, Chinese children’s shows, and Kenyan farm reports, but they didn’t have a local channel to catch tomorrow’s weather report. Once a week, a newspaper appeared in their PO box whether they paid for it or not and they always paid anyway.

Max would always regret that fight but was grateful for the solitude. Still, considering his wife and considering the fact that she was 13 days dead on the night of their last fight and considering that the fight in question was more like Max’s frantic struggle to stay alive while simultaneously trying to come to emotional terms regarding the undead behavior Olivia displayed nearly two weeks after her funeral and just when he’d started thinking about going back to work.

Max’s regret was more than understandable. As it was, there was no one but startled crows there to witness the recent lunatic Max dancing blood-smeared in that fire’s light or to see what he held in his hands and for that Max would be always grateful. Crows might talk, but they weren’t snitches. As awful as that sounds, it was the only thing his shattered brain could think toward the end of the evening’s commotion: how to hide what happened and never think of it again.


What appears to be the end of a story is often the beginning of another and even as the blood-covered Max danced the bloody sun up from the eastern forest’s horizon, up into the sky for some clean white cleansing light, he knew that this story was never going to end and he’d seen where it was leading, which was Hell, and he wasn’t happy about it at all. It was a bleak future.

The ending of every story is the beginning of another and another and another; a cocktail party is a bad place to start a story. The chatter of voices, the mix of people makes it hard to determine voice, point-of-view, plot, or protagonist. Trying to unwind the thread of a narrative from the ebb and flow of a party’s ice-rattled chatter is confusing; the branches and eddies of overlapping topics and relationships can be overwhelming. Suffice to say that one story was already ending as Olivia and Max stood at the doorway waiting to enter their friends’ home and that another began as they crossed the threshold.

Alcohol did things to them and, even drunk, Max knew Olivia shouldn’t be drinking in her condition. It just wasn’t done.

“Hey, you fat slut,” he reminded her. “You wanna have a retard baby or somthin’?”

“Fuck you, Mr. Einstein,” she replied.

Their friends began to move away, to cough, and to look around a little white-eyed for their coats and keys. It looked like it was going to another of those Reddison kind of nights.

“The fucking whore thinks shots of Ketel One are fucking prenatal care,” Max continued. And continued. “Jose Cuervo’s her pediatrician. Dr. Daniels…paging Dr. Jack Daniels. You’re wanted in the maternity cocktail lounge...Merlot if it’s a boy; Chablis if it’s a girl...I’m not even sure if the kid is mine. She’s been spending a lot of time with Evan Williams and Jim Beam.”

There were many such comments. A response was almost mandatory.

“Unlike your dirty dick, at least liquor is antiseptic, you filthy shit,” she rejoined and, everyone had to admit, she had him there. Max had let himself go.

“Fucking fuck fuck fucker fuck,” Max exclaimed.

“Oh, shut up,” Olivia told him and he did.


The accident was almost inevitable; that Olivia and the surely severely brain-and-body-damaged fetus would die was almost a relief to anyone with an eye to how such stories unfold and knew what to expect as Max and Olivia grew old and a child grew up.

That Max survived unharmed and was awaiting trial on charges of driving while grossly impaired, two counts of vehicular homicide enhanced by his intoxicated state, and a host of smaller, add-on charges to express the district attorney’s and the people’s indignation was almost obligatory. His tortured and preferably both protracted and brutal death in prison was the popular demand that would surely be satisfied. One way or the other, everyone wanted Max dead on just principle alone. Still, he was released on bail because, really, where was the filthy shit going to go?

“Fuck it,” Max found himself saying almost continuously. “Just fuck it and fuck them.”

That Einstein crack Olivia’d made still smarted and he found himself trying out rejoinders he’d no longer ever have the opportunity to use.

“How about instead of E=MC2, I say E=URA fat pig,” he would think.

Or, “It’s all relative, you fucking drunken slut.”

Or he would imagine himself smashing Olivia’s jaw with a heavy tumbler of Stoli neat, saying, “Atoms for peace, bitch.” Something witty like that to really shut her up.

So, it was with mixed feelings that Max attended the funeral. Awaiting the start of his speedy trial, Max stood far in the rear of the crowd gathered while the festival of grief for mother and child unfolded graveside. Listening to their eulogies, he was amazed to learn that Olivia was looking forward to being a mother and had decided to turn her life around, was going back to college, was getting her shit together finally. Incredible. He’d had no idea.

The hostile glances from the mouth-breathing members of Olivia’s family made him decide to skip the reception after the graveside services. No one was going to speak to him anyway and he was likely to be beaten up just on principle alone.

Max spent the next 13 days listening to the telephone’s squawk or the doorbell’s occasional clang and drinking from the vast storehouse of liquor in which Olivia and he had invested. Max planned to take negative steps or “steps,” and he wanted to work through the AA process in reverse until he was completely despised, reviled, and hated by every person on the planet and God in Heaven Himself if not even Christ, His really forgiving Son, more so than he already was, if such a thing was possible and Max wanted to find out. He wanted the outside fury to match the inner self-loathing that kept him going.

Despite the local weekly’s righteous editorial, despite the obscenely violent phone calls stacked up on the answering machine, despite the hate mail forming drifts in the unopened and uncalled-upon post office box, despite the fact that no merchant in town would sell him anything making even the simplest purchase of anything impossible without driving even more miles in the opposite direction of town and therefore not worth the effort, despite all that and more, Max still felt the world wasn’t hating him quite enough. Perhaps if he shat himself in court, appeared hung-over and unrepentant, he could provoke the proper loathing.

He thought about his unborn child a lot and, even when rational thought was beyond his impaired abilities, had taken to calling it the Tadpole in his head. He’s say things aloud, things like, “Poor little fucking Tadpole.” Or, “Wanna go fishing, you fucking little Tadpole?” Or “That’s no way to hold a fucking knife, you fucking little sweet baby Tadpole,” like he was practicing to be a dad or something.

The night of the day after Max opened up the third case of vodka, after drinking at least a solid quart of the former Soviet Union’s finest distilled spirit every single day plus ingesting additional other liquors and fermented beverages for almost two weeks, he was primed for the absolute worst night of his life since the night of the accident, a night which was, in its own special way, worse than the accident itself. He was pickled, stewed, trashed, thrashed; he was a stumbling, shaking, shivering, dry-heaving drunk, and he’d soaked both pants and sofa with urine. He loved every hateful minute of it. And he hated himself even more fiercely for that affection.

There was nothing that was ever going to help him not feel horrible for the rest of his life, so Max decided to get it the fuck over with. He had decided, in his alcoholic stupor, to plead guilty to every charge, to confess to things they didn’t even know about, to declare himself a very bad man. He had no intention of defending himself against any charge; he would just play for time until the public fever for his blood reached its crescendo. Max had no intention of serving another minute in incarceration; the two nights he’d spent in county jail before he’d raised bail had convinced him that state prison was out of the question. He would die first and with meaning rather than as rat-meat at the end of some convict’s shank or cock.

Drinking himself to death was not possible in so short a time, though it was helping. Max knew his own character well enough to know that, after a certain amount of heavy, heavy drinking, he would probably be able to blow his brains out. And tonight, lucky 13, 18 days from the accident, one day less than two weeks from the funeral, and one day short of tomorrow’s hearing, Max was going to chug-a-lug a whole bunch of clear, antiseptic booze and put a pistol in his mouth. Didn’t work out that way, though.

When he first heard the scratching, Max figured it was another one of his former so-called friends coming over to kick his ass. Only his former so-called friends tended to drift away after ten or twenty minutes of knocking, hooting, peeking through windows, and breaking shit outside. The scratching sound, however, did not go away. Ten, twenty, thirty, and finally forty-five minutes of steady scratching finally pulled Max up from the sofa, sticky with piss, and into a duck-walking and stumbling, slit-eyed search for the source of the sound.

His front door and windows were silent and showed no signs of visitor. All the front rooms were silent. Toward the back of the house, the sound grew louder and Max finally located the source of the scratching sound at the kitchen’s back door and, drunk as he was, he just opened up the door and flipped on the light. Let them come, whoever it was.

“Ma’sh,” it said through sewn and waxed lips. “Oh, Ma’sh. Ahm shorry. Ahm sho, sho shorry.”

“Ack,” Max replied, drunkenly backpedaling and flapping his hands to end up falling backwares on his ass. “Ack, ack, ack.”

Olivia or, rather, Olivia’s corpse stepped into the kitchen. In the light, he could see what she was holding, how it squirmed, how it reached for him.

“We can be fam’ly, Ma’sh,” the late wife continued. “We can be fam’ly forever and ever and ever.”

That’s when Max reached for the knives, for the chairs, for the pots, for the pans, for anything he could lay his hands on. Even drunk terrified, vomiting, and pissing himself again, he could still beat up, cut up, and burn up a corpse. The fucking bitch. And the poor fucking little Tadpole, too.


So, Max showered, shaved, brushed his teeth, used a half-bottle each of mouthwash, eye drops, and liquid cold medicine. He stepped out of his home and he waited, the smell of barbeque still hanging in the early morning stillness. Max’s lawyer was coming to pick him up and they would drive silently into town for the first of what was going to be a lot of painful and protracted court procedings. Max had decided to stick it out, to change his plea to “not guilty,” to roll the dice with a jury trial. He could afford it if he sold the house and all the land, cars, furniture, and fixtures. Even if he lost, Max figured prison couldn’t be any worse than the Hell he’d learned was awaiting him. He just didn’t want to die anymore. Not ever. Max would not go gently into that cold grave.


Max lost his case and it turns out he couldn’t have been more wrong about prison. But that is a completely different story.

Originally published in Black Petals, Wichita, Kansas [#35, Spring 2006]: http://www.blackpetals.net/

04 March 2009

The Pros and Cons of Convulsive Dancing

Two young people, American students newly arrived at Shaanxi Normal College, watched one of their Chinese peers navigate a careful path through the looping trajectories of the girl students waltzing together across the floor of what was, on the other 364 nights of the year, the student dining hall. He, the Chinese kid, held a box of candy to his chest until he reached the Americans. Then, safely arrived, he held it out to them.

“It is an angel,” Ruibao said softly and he pointed to the drawing of a beautiful foreign woman with long legs and a cloudy-looking dress.

“What?” Mark looked at the box and where Ruibao’s finger pointed and the picture on the box where he pointed.

The music was loud, a tape of recent Hong Kong pop songs alternating with syrupy, Liberace-style ballroom music and the Chinese kids loved it all and all had been especially screened by the college administration for this first ever, experimental Welcome Back to School Dance. Some electrically minded students had patched an enormous Korean boom box into the school’s ancient, Soviet surplus vacuum-tube amplifier to pump the music through a brace of large, trumpet-shaped speakers.

“It is an angel,” Ruibao repeated just as softly.

“What?” Mark asked again. “I can’t hear what he’s saying.”

“He said, ‘It is an angel,’” Karen supplied.

Ruibao smiled shyly.

“It looks like a ballerina to me.”

“It looks like a dancer, for sure. A human being dancer. Nothing supernatural about it at all.”

“How do you say ‘ballerina’ in Chinese?”

“Fuck if I know. ‘Dancing’ is tiaowu.”

Ruibao frowned. Couples scuffled around the cafeteria, a lot of girls dancing with a lot of other girls and a very few boys dancing with a very few other boys. Ruibao wanted so much to dance with one of these foreigners. It would be such an amazing story to tell everyone back in the dormitory after lights out. It was something he could embellish all semester and take home with him over New Year holidays and tell again and again to the village families.

“Umm…I think it is an angel,” he repeated. Ruibao couldn’t believe a disagreement had arisen, at least so quickly. “It is an angel.”

“No, no, no. Look at it,” Mark insisted and, grabbing the box out of the startled Ruibao’s hands, pointed to the picture on the box or, rather, thumped his big, fat, foreign finger against the picture. “It’s a ballerina, a dancer, see? Tiaowu. See how she’s standing on her toes, see the skirt here, the fancy skirt, the tutu? She’s a dancer. A ball-er-rina. Tiaowu.”

“Err…I think it is an angel for sure,” Ruibao repeated and his smile was enormous. Maybe the foreigner was asking him to dance. Ruibao had wanted to lead, but he’d take anything at this stage in their relationship.

“Drop it, man,” Karen said. “If he says it’s an angel, it’s an angel.”

“Whatever. It’s pretty much a non-issue. Angel or ballerina? Ballerina or angel? Maybe she’s a Russian hooker. Maybe this is Russian hooker candy. How do you say ‘Russian hooker candy’ in Chinese?” Mark said. “Should we go get one of our tapes? This music kind of sucks a lot.”

“I don’t think so, man,” said Karen. “No convulsive dancing.” And then she said it again in Chinese. “Bu fengkuangde tiaowu.”

“No what?”

“No convulsive dancing. That’s what they call anything other than ballroom. Anything sexy or chaotic is forbidden.”

“Sexy or chaotic?”

“Disco dancing. You know, free-style. Punk. Solid Gold. Soul Train. American Bandstand. Whatever. Anything that isn’t a waltz or a foxtrot is convulsive and they aren’t having it. At least not at school.”

“What are they going to do about it? Do they have some kind of dancing jail?”

“Probably. All these kids could end up doing hard time in some Convulsive Dancing Re-education Camp on the Mongolian border. But who knows what they’d do to us? They already think that we’re hopelessly corrupt.”

“I’m starting to feel hopelessly corrupt and we’ve only been here nine days,” Mark said. He absently held out the box of candy to Ruibao. “Here, take it. Here’s your candy. Here’s your ballerina candy.”

“Well, we are corrupt. And we’re decadent, too.”

“Damn right. And proud of it. I wanna hear me some Ramones.”

Ruibao backed away from the two foreigners who now seemed to be ignoring him, but his hands kept pushing the candy back at the one called Mark.

“No, no, no,” he said. “It is for you.”

“Huh?” Mark asked, adjusting his attention back to Ruibao.

“The candy is for you, man,” Karen snickered.

“For me?”

“This guy looked around a while. He looked at a lot of fellows. And then he saw you across the crowded dining hall. And he knew that you were the one for his candy. Please don’t break his heart.”

“Shut up,” Mark snapped. “What am I supposed to do?”

“Be sensitive to each other’s feelings? Cuddle? There’s no problem that can’t be solved by talking it out, man.”

“Asshole, I’m serious.”

“So is he.”

Ruibao still stood with the foreigners and he could understand every third or fifth word of the English they spoke but none of it held much meaning for him. The candy seemed to hover between them, neither fully received nor fully given, though still fully in the foreigner’s hands. It was an expensive box of candy, too.

“C’mon, man.” Mark reiterated. “Let’s get my Ramones tape. I wanna be sedated.”
In counterpoint, the sound system delivered a scratchy version of the Blue Danube waltz.
“I’m telling you,” Karen answered, “it’s way too early in the school year for us to be doing stuff like that. We need to figure out what’s going on and shit. We don’t even know what the rules are.”

“Are there any rules?”

“For them?” Karen swept his arm to include the entire dance floor. “Hell, yes, there are rules. For us? Who knows? The same rules? Who knows? I don’t wanna be deported.”



“Annoying little fuck.”

And there it stood while Jiao stood by in the dining hall semi-darkness, waiting for a break in the foreigners’ conversation while the scuffle of the dancing students’ shoes. The candy was a lost cause, but the dance was still a possibility. As with so many other things in this world, Jiao knew that perseverance through suffering was most often the only course of action that might result in success. Almost every other strategy led to disaster and more suffering. Jiao had seen it played out many times in his village. The crushing weight of state-imposed quotas that robbed the peasants of everything they’d grown, the Red Guard and their witch-hunting for anti-revolutionaries when only they knew what anti-revolutionary meant, the hopelessness of a life of ignorance and dirt. Jiao wanted to dance.

When the music changed to a Hong Kong pop song, a song about a young boy’s life on the street and his love for his grandfather, the candy box hit the floor and opened, a few paper cups of stale Chinese chocolate tumbling free. Jiao began to move.

“Hey, foreign man,” Jiao called. “Dance with me.”

He began to swing his arms and make them do the things he’d seen on the videotapes of Japanese rock stars. He kicked his legs up and out and back again. Jiao pushed his hips out lewdly. He jumped up and down, spinning in the air and landing with loud thumps.

“Check it out,” Mark said.

“Whoa,” Karen replied. “My man’s got rhythm.”

“My man’s got crazy.”

Jiao spontaneously reinvented the twist. He danced a new dance no one had ever seen before. He did the monkey. He did the fly. He walked the dog. He strutted and he pouted and he wiggled his ass. There was no limit to what he could do with his body and the music and the way they’d become intertwined.

The other students began to stop their dancing to stare at Jiao, some giggling and others just open-mouthed. And just as quickly, two uniformed school security guards came running across the hardwood floor and tackled him. Hard. Once on the floor, they smothered Jiao, punching and kicking him until all the dance moves had fled his body. Rising from the floor, they carried him between them, his toes dragging against the floor and drops of blood falling from his brow and his mouth. The guards kicked the outside door open and they were gone. The music continued though no one danced anymore or in any way.

“Shit,” Karen said.

“Really,” Mark answered. “I guess there are rules about dancing.”

“About convulsive dancing.”

“God, that seems extreme.”

“I wonder what’s going to happen to that kid.”

“Nothing good.”

“Aren’t you glad you didn’t get your Ramones tape?”

“I am now. Think they would have done that to us?”


“Me. You. Whatever.”

“I imagine so. Or something like that.”

“Man. This is going to be a weird year.”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Let’s get out of here. At least we can listen to the Ramones in our room.”

“Think so?”

“Hope so.”

“We can drink beer for sure.”

“Then let’s go do that. I’ve had it with dancing for one night.”

The two foreigners left the darkened dining hall. The Chinese students began to slip away in twos and threes and fours as well. The music continued to wash over the dining hall and the dwindling, shuffling crowd of students. As they left the building, some of the students stepped on scattered chocolates and, eventually, the box with a picture of an angel or a ballerina got kicked to the side.


The music from the dining hall was a dull murmur as it passed through the brick wall at the back of the building.

“What is this crap?” Mark asked in the near perfect darkness. “What are we standing on?”

Karen bent down and sparked her lighter.

“Bones,” she answered. “We’re standing on bones. This must be kitchen.”

“Jesus. How many pigs is this? There’s like 50 skulls here.”

“I guess they don’t have dumpsters in China, the People’s Republic of.”

“If they did, someone would move in.”

“Move in and open up a noodle shop.”

“Move in, open a noodle shop, and sell inflatable Santa Clauses.”

“Move in, open a noodle shop, sell inflatable Santa Clauses, and fix bicycles.”

Karen’s lighter flared again, illuminating her face as she hit the pipe. She passed it to Mark and he drew in a lungful of hashish.

“Do you think the limbo is considered convulsive?” she asked in that funny way people talk without exhaling.

Mark blew out his chest full of pungent smoke.

“If they beat the crap about of Candy Boy for whatever it was he was doing, I’d imagine the limbo is on the list.”

“Well, that’s just stupid.”


“Do you even know how to ballroom dance?”

“I learned to foxtrot and waltz for my cousin’s wedding two years ago. I’m sure I could pull something together.”

“Do you want to try?”

“Sure,” Mark answered. But, instead of walking away, he cocked his head and listened to the muffled music.


“Wait a minute.”


“Listen. I think they’re playing the Ramones.”

Karen snorted her laughter through her nose.

“C’mon. Let’s dance convulsively.”

“It’s not the Ramones.”

“I know, I know. But, I still hear them.”

“I think it’s Phil Collins.”

“Close enough.”

So, the two of them danced convulsively in the pitch-blackness behind the dining hall kitchen with rotten pig bones crunching beneath their shoes.

Excerpted from Artificial Rats & Electric Cats: Communications from Transitional China, 1985 - 1986 (2008) available from www.camberpress.com.

03 March 2009

The Water Road

He’d lived his entire life on the north bank of the river and he'd grown to understand a world that went from right to left, from west to east, from high to low, from small to big, and he'd learned how someday all things went along with the river’s run and how someday everything was swept into the big, awful sameness of an ocean beyond any horizon he'd ever live to see. All things were carried within and carried away by the river. The swell of the river in late winter and spring dragged budding trees behind it; the ebb of river current let winter sneak into the world. As it cut the bank against cottonwood roots, it built a meadow elsewhere. The offal that the river washed away echoed the offal its waves brought to shore; a bloated sheep replaced a pan of night-soil and the river kept its balance.

Beyond the river’s influence, things could go any way at all, things could be back to front, upside down, inside out, or kitty-cornered. It was just dry pine forest every which way on hills and ridges scattered anywhere and everywhere. That was just the way things were outside and away from the pull and the inertia of the water’s constant. Inside the river's boundary, it was always cottonwood and ash and even meadow grasses bent with a downstream aim. With all changes, it was always the same river.

Winter smoke from hearth and oven could fill the broad canyon and, like a fog, that smoke would wander with the river to tear apart in spaces broader still. Summer gunshots would likewise ricochet down canyon walls and grow wider and thinner for the trouble of the trip.
All of this was as it should be.


From high on the ridge, from beneath his hat pulled down and from over his muffler pulled up and from between his horse’s ears, Toby could see almost a mile of river. Released from narrow, rocky banks, the river slowed and wandered here in a valley of its own creation before reentering jagged basalt walls. Ancient, grass flats were bordered with aspen against the mountain's sides with cottonwood near and each tree as bare as every other. The only sounds were a faint, crisp ringing as shelves of riverbank ice vibrated with the water and the precise notes of tack and harness, the squeak of old snow compressed by iron-shod hooves.

Toby shifted back in his saddle, standing upright in the stirrups, as the buckskin mare picked her way down the icy northern slopes to the river. He pulled the reins high to keep her head up, to prevent her from pitching forward into a leg-breaking downhill tumble. As she trottted out onto the flatland, both man and horse adjusted weight and stance; the mare gave her head a shake.

Toward the head of this small valley and above the reach of any reasonable flood was Toby’s place. Part dug-out and part cabin with a lodgepole corral nearby, it contained his few possessions and was the only house or home he had ever known. So slowly that he’d never noticed it, the cabin had shifted itself into its own surroundings and, as each season passed, became more like the earth and the forest from which it had been fashioned. It seemed to fade into the landscape, to blend completely back into the hill.

After both his folks had passed on, Toby kept the place but not in the same fashion. He never seemed to have the time his mother had used to keep a truck garden, though descendants of her corn and cucumber and cabbage still appeared in the patch run wild. Toby preferred to make his money trapping and hunting during the winter, fall, and spring. He only claimed a very few cattle in the open range beyond the canyon rims and sold his fewer calves to a neighbor.

The bundle strapped behind his saddle held staples from the stores downstream, bartered against the future of the skins now curing in Toby’s earthen room. In a few more weeks, he’d meet the broker who came up from the city, be cheated, settle his accounts, lay in new supplies, and ride back upstream to that wide place on the water. He often spent his summer doing little more than fishing and camping out. He had no visitors and had only rarely sheltered some infrequent hiker lost and cold and out past bedtime. He rode down to the pueblo on Christmas Eve and in September he rode the bus to Albuquerque to see the State Fair. He had gone for months at times and certain entire seasons without speaking a single word and was as startled as anyone else to hear the croaking mess which broke such a silence.

As of late, however, Toby had been rather social. As the weather had begun to clear, he had visited the trading post and mercantile more than once to charge a few items on account for his furs. Toby would read a newspaper and buy a magazine, listen to whatever conversation he could, and make himself available should anyone care to speak aloud to him. He might inquire after news of the world, of wars foreign and domestic, of local births and deaths. He would hold the video cassettes he’d never watch and carefully sound out the synopses on their covers. He would admire the portable radios there for sale though he would never buy one for no signal penetrated his river domain. He might offer what lonely gossip he’d acquired--cattle found frozen upright in some hidden canyon, midnight moonlit wolves teaching their children to hunt, ruined cliff-dwellings full of pottery and crumbling corn discovered along a mesa’s edge. Toby was forthcoming and he also listened carefully to all he was told or overheard. He always knew the name of the president of the United States though he had never cast a vote in any election. He would stand and watch the television perpetually playing behind the store’s counter whether it played a soap opera or a game show or just people talking about their problems with love, money, and weight. He would indulge his long-starved sweet tooth with some Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

On that particular trip, Toby had lingered for several afternoon hours, had engaged in a fair amount of new year’s discourse with the store owner’s son, so his throat was sufficiently loosened to smoothly utter a soft “whoa” when he caught the glow of lamplight in his own front room’s window.


As many things in his diluvial world were washed downstream in the grasp of dark waters, so too did things beat themselves against the current to work their way upstream. Along their seasonal migration, cattle and elk and deer moved against the run-off as snow began to melt. Flowers opened in narrow waves that slowly rolled to higher altitudes until even distant peaks were covered with blankets of mossy bloom. As yellow leaves and frost lines always dropped from above, the next season always brought a rising tide of sudden green and paintbrush orange.

There is no judgment nor appreciation within the river’s whirlpools, its darkened ponds, or calcified white water; there is only the current and the cycle of its repeated variation.


Toby dismounted and tethered the mare in a knot of willow brush. He stood in silence, watching the cabin for quite some time, until real nightfall had begun to settle in the canyon. A plume of smoke began to rise from his chimney and there was movement thrown as shadow against opaque window glass. He began to step, each one-at-a-time, around the outskirts of the open space around his home. It took him fully one whole half hour to reach his own front porch, to stand in shadow and stretch to see within. He hadn’t thought to bring his rifle on his short trip to town and wondered where it was right then, in whose hands it might be held, and where it might be pointing. He strained to hear whatever noise was made by whoever was inside. Toby was starting to get pretty cold as the river drained away the day’s small warmth.

He finally turned, crept back to the mare, and led her again to the corral. He turned her in but left her saddled and cinched tight. He clomped across the wooden porch, cleared his throat, and knocked politely on his own door.

The woman was dressed in jeans and a couple of wool shirts. She wore boots of the variety called “hiking.” Her shoulder length hair was pulled back into a small tail, strands of hair framed her oval face. She looked to be a youngster, maybe in her twenties and certainly at least half his age.

“Whoa,” he said again and he ducked his head to eyeball the entire room behind her. “Mind if I come in?”

She pulled back from the door and stammered, “I don’t know, really. I mean...it’s just...I’m not...I mean, I don’t really know whose house this is.”

“Anybody else around we could maybe ask?” Toby rumbled. His eyes caught the rifle slung as always near the smoothstone fireplace.

“Well, now,” the woman answered, “I mean, I don’t really...I haven’t seen...”

“That’s all right,” Toby cut her off as he stepped inside and shut the door behind him. “This here’s my place.”

“Your place? I’m sorry. I didn’t realize...I hope you’re not...I haven’t...”

It was almost funny. There hadn’t been another person standing inside that door since the day Toby rode back home alone after his own father’s lonely funeral. Everything around him looked somehow different, as if he, too, was seeing it for the first time. He noticed a nylon shoulder pack like a soldier’s in the corner and a light-weight parka draped across a chair. They looked out of place among his leathers and wools and cottons.

“I mean, I’ve really only been here a little while. I mean, it was like I knew I wasn’t going to make it out of the canyon before dark and I was looking for a place to pitch a tent and I came down there to that meadow and I started looking around for firewood before it got dark,” she said and glanced at a wristwatch she was wearing. Toby followed its sparkle and she moved her hands a lot when she was talking. “Then I saw this place and it was getting really cold and I called out a couple of times and peeked in the window and everything and then just came in and found that lamp and started a fire not more than forty minutes ago. I mean, I hope that’s okay.”

He could tell that she was nervous and he truly sympathized. It must have been pretty hard to be surprised like that inside of someone else’s home. Toby knew he’d feel pretty funny if it happened to him. He wanted to put her at ease but didn’t quite know how.

“Don’t worry about it,” he finally told her. “I mean, it’s okay.”


The river cuts its own path through the hard rock mountains and everything else moves with it. Meat-eating birds, the eagle and the hawk and the vulture, use it as a highway. They ride the currents of air born below in the current of water and they soar beyond the tree-ringed skyline.

There is release in the melting of ice, a relaxation and a letting go of those things frozen, a rush toward the gushing whole. There is a violent bathing, a fierce scouring that cuts and tears and scars.

Even in the winter when it tunnels under ice, the river carries an astringent promise. It seems invigorating and strangely not cold and whatever passes through it can be charmed again by gray.


Toby brought his groceries inside and put them on his shelves while looking back over his shoulder at the woman in the room. He edged his way around her, through the door, and back outside to unbridle and unsaddle, blanket and feed the buckskin mare in the corral.

When he returned, she was next to the fire.

“You know,” she told him, “I should probably go back out to the meadow and set up my tent. I mean, it’s not going to be that cold tonight and I’ve got a sleeping bag.”

“No,” he responded. “You don’t have to do that. I was just stopping by on my way somewhere else. I was going be to gone all night, anyway, and won’t be back ‘til morning. You’re more’n welcome to pass the night here alone.”

“Really? I mean, are you sure? I mean, it’s really okay?”

“Just let me eat a little dinner and boil up a thermos full of coffee, and I’ll be on my way. Help yourself to anything you want to eat. I’ll fetch a pail of water shortly and you can sit here as long as you want.”

“Well, actually, I’ve got my own food, too,” she said while rummaging through her duffel. “How about it?” and she held up a vacuum-packed pouch of dehydrated chili and beans.

“Well,” Toby said. “I was going to fry up some bacon and make a sandwich and you’re sure welcome to any of that, too.”

“Oh, no,” she answered. “I never eat meat.”

He thought that sounded kind of funny as he tossed the thick slices into a hot frying pan. When there was grease, Toby started frying his bread and when everything was good and crispy, he put it together and wrapped it in a sheet of newspaper. He left a few curled strips of fried pork on a plate for her, just in case. By that time, the coffee was boiling and she had put her own little aluminum pot on the stove to boil up water for her supper.

“Now, help yourself to anything you need,” Toby told her as he put his greatcoat back on. He put the sandwich in one pocket, the thermos in another, He got his muffler and his gloves and his hat and he grabbed a blanket from a pile of blankets. As an afterthought, he took the rifle.

“Thanks a lot, mister,” the girl said. “I mean, really. Thanks a lot. I mean, you’re being really nice.”

“That’s okay. I’ll be back at first light,” Toby said and he closed the door behind him. He waited for a few moments on the porch before he stepped down to start climbing the ridge back into the forest and away from the river’s chill.

He found a little pocket surrounded by lichen-covered granite and he built a little fire and wrapped himself in the blanket. He ate his sandwich and he drank his coffee and Toby never really got to sleep that night. He dozed a little with the rifle cold across his thighs, but mostly he sat shivering to feed twigs into the flames until the sunrise began to lighten a cold winter sky to blue.

Toby stood up slowly, popping and creaking as his knees and his back and his hips unbound themselves. He climbed higher up the ridge to get to the place where the sun directly lit the canyon’s rim and then he slowly walked within that place of stretched out first light all the way back down to the cabin and the stove was already going and he could already smell coffee starting to boil.

He stopped at the door and, as the night before, knocked.

“Come on in,” she called and he followed her voice inside.

“Hi!” she greeted him. “Good morning! Would you like some coffee?”

“Thanks,” he mumbled and shrugged out of his coat, replaced the rifle on its pegs, and tossed the blanket back onto the pile. He moved to the table and she brought a mug to him. Toby thought that was kind of funny, too.

He noticed her backpack all tidied back up and ready to go and he wondered if she had slept either. Maybe not.

“It’s good,” he told the contents of the mug.

“Thanks,” she answered anyway. “I think I’ll be leaving pretty soon. I really have to be back by tonight.”

“I’ll be going that way myself,” he said to his own astonishment. “Would you mind company?”

“Well, no,” she answered thought he could see she was still thinking about it. “I mean, I guess not. Why not?”

Toby saddled up the bucksin mare while his visitor sat on the cabin’s porch step drinking a last cup of coffee. She watched as small birds flew whistling across the crusts of dirty snow and yellow meadow grass around a ruined dam of aspen logs, abandoned by beaver long before Toby’s father had ever seen this valley. She watched the sunlight warm the canyon bottom and watched as everything was changed by the movement of sunlight and of shadow.

All that morning, he rode alongside the woman and sometimes he led the horse and walked beside beside her while she walked along the river and sometimes she would talk about something she was seeing or something she’d been reminded of and sometimes he’d answer her, but mostly they were both quiet and didn’t say much at all in their walking together. He stayed with her until the black rock of the canyon changed to the red bluffs of the badlands and he didn’t turn completely back until the river had spread and widened and meandered itself into an empty bed, dry and barren in such winter months.

02 March 2009

Autoposy in Korosten

Nine years ago I witnessed the autopsy of a infant in Korosten, a small town in the Zhytomer province, about 150 kilometers southwest of Chernobyl. Today, her story and the story of the many children who are still dying from the consequences of the nuclear tragedy in the former USSR, comes back to haunt me. I just can't believe that, twenty years after Chernobyl, hundreds of Americans are being exposed to the same threat that is killing generations in Eastern Europe. This is what I learned.


It is October 2000 and I am in a cab going to the regional children’s clinic in Korosten, a northern town in Zhytomyr Province, Ukraine. The guy who is driving my translator, Olena and I seems both baffled and intrigued by my destination. He just isn’t able to find a reasonable motivation for somebody wanting to go there. Bu I do have my reasons.

In April 1986, about 150 kilometers away, technicians at the Chernobyl nuclear power-plant began an experiment that would spiral out of control into an explosion releasing a cloud of radioactivity into the atmosphere. It is, according to the United Nations, “the greatest environmental catastrophe in the history of humanity.” Now I am there, about to spend nearly a month traveling with representatives of various Ukrainian and international health organizations, recording my impressions for New Mass Media’s chain of weekly alternative papers in New York and Connecticut. Much of my work will be published in 2000 as a three-part series called “Culture of Cancer” and it will win the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists’ first prize for feature writing that year.

A quick look at any population table shows what it almost too incredible to believe: In an era of explosive growth when the number of humans on this planet doubles with increasing speed, Ukraine and Belarus, the two countries surrounding Chernobyl station, are experiencing negative population growth. What I knew by then are even more heartbreaking statistics: A scant 5 per cent of the children born in this area are considered healthy, over 9 million people had been affected directly or indirectly by the accident at Chernobyl and the full effects of this exposure would not be measurable for another 50 years . Still, a recent study published in the Swiss Medical Weekly showed Belarus experiencing a 40 percent increase in cancer between 1990 and 2004 with a 125 percent increase eventually expected. Compared to the year prior to the accident, 1999 saw an increase of 50 percent in breast cancer mortality, 30 percent in prostate cancer in Ukraine proper and by 50-120 percent in all the radioactively polluted areas. Infant mortality rates run from 13 to 20 deaths per thousand. A citizen’s life expectancy decreased by 4.9 years for men and by 2 years for women between 1990-1999.

Indeed, children of these countries are showing long-term damage associated with radioactivity. They have elevated rates of soft-tissue cancers (leukemia, thyroid cancer and tumors) and birth defects (limb deformities, spinabifida and cleft palettes) up to 100 times what is considered the norm. Later this day, I will witness an autopsy that will dramatically exemplify these facts.


The taxi driver says there is nothing to do or see in Korosten. The city isn’t even important enough to warrant a description in my Lonely Planet guidebook of Ukraine and Belarus where it is merely a dot on a map and listed as officially outside the “affected zone” surrounding Chernobyl. But when we explain him that we are touring the country looking for evidence of the effects Chernobyl’s contamination has had on Ukraine over the past fifteen years, he says, emphatically, “Then this is the perfect place to visit.”

Even though we are miles away from the Exclusion Zone around the nuclear power plant, the effects of long-term exposure to are evident throughout the province. The dosimeter we carry reads hot, sometimes ten times what is considered normal background radiation, and especially so in a graveyard we visit, the numbers climbing as we approach the bodies under the earth and their accumulations of radiation.

When we arrive at the clinic in Korosten, the Chief Doctor is apologetic. He is bone-tired from the long hours he’s been working lately and he has just lost a patient, an infant girl, the day before. It shows in his eyes, the exhaustion and the loss and he is sorry that his time with us will be limited, but he has to help perform the autopsy on that dead child to determine what killed her.

“Infection is a big problem,” whispers Olena.

The hospital needs everything, the doctor tells us, starting with decent food for the patients and enough fuel to keep the wards warm. Weary yet soft-spoken, he tells us how frustrating it is for him to be so handicapped. He often shrugs and rolls his eyes.

“This Zhytomyr,” he says.

I’d heard that phrase spoken in that way before and I’d seen that gesture used as an explanation, apology or epithet, as if the name of the province itself is somehow ill-fated; cursed by God and man and nature and the radioactive poison from the world’s worst nuclear disaster. Here, famine and war and now radioactive poison roll easily across the landscape. For Ukrainians, just the name conjures an image of suffering. This Zhytomyr, indeed.


Children are dying from the lack of even the simplest antibiotics. The only thing the hospital’s staff is able to do is wash everything with great lashings of chlorine bleach until the place smells like a swimming pool.

Using triage techniques as they do in disaster-swamped emergency rooms or combat surgery units, the hospital staff evaluates each child that arrived. There just aren’t any resources available to provide much more than simple first aid. The easiest cases, the broken bones and the dehydration, are treated and released back into their parents’ care armed with state-issued brochures describing cleanliness and food pyramids. The cases for which there is some hope might be sent to the regional hospital in Zhytomyr. The hopeless cases are placed in the wards, surrounded by icons and Orthodox crosses and the odor of bleach. Anxious mothers in the waiting room peer at us as we pass, as though they think we may have brought a miracle.

The doctor is apologetic because his time is limited, but especially because he seem to feel guilty of the devastation around him. He acts as if he are responsible for the 100 percent increase in leukemia and cancer, the 250 percent increase in congenital birth defects, the 2400 percent increase in thyroid cancer, the 1000 percent increase in suicide within the affected are a and the condition called “Chernobyl AIDS,” a severe comprising of the body’s immune system that allows a host of opportunistic diseases access to the infected .

The girl, dead since the day before, had been prepare d for an autopsy and he is due to attend and assist. The parents of the baby, a young couple from a small village and the pathologist are there too. I look at Olena and she knew what I would next ask.

“May we be allowed to attend this autopsy?” I ask and Olena translates.

“Of course,” replies the doctor.


We wait for the pathologist and ponder what we are doing. Neither of us planned to witness the dissection of a human that day, but for disparate reasons, we both feel compelled to explore this opportunity.

There I am, in Zhytomyr, to look closely into the dark places where genetic damage, disease and disinterest strangle the potential of a six-week old child.

Her parents wait together near an ancient blue automobile of Soviet manufacture. They do not speak; the mother stare s at the ground between her feet and the father smokes. They are young, surely not more than 25 and probably around ten years old when the reactor at Chernobyl threw its invisible poison over their homes. Perhaps they had prepared for May Day in their schools, made banners and practiced songs to celebrate the legacy of Communism and Lenin and the grand Soviet Union. They probably never imagined they would be waiting, almost fifteen years later, outside a cowshed to learn what killed their baby.


We are invited to enter the morgue and immediately the smell of formalin, a sweet, cloying and distinctly chemical perfume, surrounds us. It permeates our clothing. (Later that evening, back in the city of Zhytomyr, our dinner companions would remark upon the odor.) In that dim entryway, I could see through a tall door into the examination room. On one table, an adult body waits under a stiff canvas shroud. On the far table, touched by a beam of autumn sunlight, is the infant’s body, waxen and waiting. A thin cord nearly lost in the folds of her throat carries a crucifix that rests beside her body on the steel table.

The attending nurse, the doctor and the pathologist discusses the case in murmurs. Olena and I circle the cold metal table as we try to hide our nervousness. We are reluctant to betray how difficult it would be to watch these medical men skin and gut this doll-like creature.
I wonder if this is the smartest thing I could have chosen to do that morning. It is, however, far too late to ask that question. The procedure is beginning and, just as there is no crying in baseball, there is no passing out or vomiting allowed in Ukrainian cowshed morgues.
But first, the pathologist stood to face me, a foot-long knife in his hand. He spoke in Latin.
I try to smile and rack my already disheveled mind for a memory of the Latin classes I took when I is 17-years old. All I could remember is “sic semper tyrannus” and the declination for “amo.” I continue to smile.

“What kind of doctor is this?” the pathologist asks the room, switching to Ukrainian.

Immediately, I am demoted.

“He is a journalist,” answers Olena. “A medical journalist.”

The pathologist ponders this for a moment. He seems unconvinced but did not carry the question further. He began to cut.

“This is the place,” he says, “where the dead may speak to the living.” I wonder whether he heard that at a seminar, read it in a book or heard it on a television show. I know I had. But it is a dramatic thing to say at that particular moment and it certainly stuck in our minds.


The skin across the child’s chest is thin, paper thin and covering an only slightly thicker layer of fat that rustles as the pathologist peels it away. We could see that the ribs are not even bones yet, just slips of cartilage that yields easily to the shears he uses to cut a deep triangle from clavicle to diaphragm, a wedge of meat and gristle that opens to expose the lungs.

“Atrophy,” he says. “Atrophy and anemia,” he added. “These [lungs] should be bright red everywhere and, see here, at the bottom, they are dark and gray.” And, indeed, the spongy mass of tissue is dull gray below the esophagus. This child struggled for the few breaths she had been able to take.

Beneath her lungs, now removed and spread upon the table, her heart seems enlarged, choked within the sac surrounding it and stuffed into the tiny chest.

“This heart is swollen, enlarged,” says the pathologist.

By that time, our shock at seeing this child so displayed has lessened and we begin to lean in toward the table to follow the pathologist’s knife as he points to features of the organs. I take photographs. He snips small bits of tissue from the liver, the kidneys, for later testing and analysis.

“What causes these symptoms?” I ask the doctor. “Are these common problems?”

“The cause?” he answers. “Poor diet, poor hygiene. Maybe the mother had an infection during the fetus’ development. Maybe something happened when the child is in the womb."

I ask if these findings are common.

“Too common” is the answer I get.

I learn later, thanks to the extensive research done by UN Health Authorities, that heart and circulatory disorders among the population of the zone we are visiting increased 25 percent from 1986 to 2000; digestive system disorders increased by 28 percent; genito-urniary system disorders by 39 percent; nervous and sensory organ disorders by 43 percent; blood and circulatory illnesses by 43 percent; bone, muscle and connective tissue diseases by 62 percent; malignant tumors by 38 percent. Even more important, the relationship between mother and child while in uterus has been severely compromised by the Chernobyl accident. Changes in hormonal status lead to longer gestation and complications with birth. Problems in after-birth development of children are still being found. And I asked if these problems are “common.”

The pathologist rummages through the child’s abdomen, eventually lifting all the organs out to spread them across the table. Kidneys, intestines, bowels, stomach, liver and pancreas--they all show the same signs. Her organs seem glassy and fragile, crumbling under the pathologist’s most delicate touch; unused yet useless.

The doctor stared at the empty cavity into what is once a living child. Her spine is visible, though from a new angle, a straight line of corrugation down the interior of her body. The nurse began to cut and care fully peel the child’s scalp; bringing it down to expose the skull and to cover her eyes, her nose, her mouth. It is a blinding mask created from her own skin.

“The background radiation decreases the effectiveness of all the immune systems,” the Doctor explained. “Combined with poor nutrition, both the mother and the child are open to all sorts of infection, to virus and bacteria that normally would not be any trouble. The constant exposures to these low levels of radiation, levels of radiation that are called safe levels, leave the fetus and the infant and the child vulnerable to damage. So, even if this child’s cause of death is another infection, the causes of the infection are the economic conditions of the country. And, needless to say, the radiation.”

“How many children are affected this way?” I ask and Olena explains, delicately, about families evicted by the government and relocated far away from their former homes in the area now fenced off and forbidden, whole cities, towns and villages scattered throughout the larger Soviet population, perhaps 50 to a 100 thousand salted across the country. This not only removed them from continued exposure to radiation, it also diluted their impact on health statistics throughout the Soviet Union. Olena describes the official system of double-entry record keeping. She explains how infections and birth defects and congenital cardiovascular problems and spinabifida could be symptoms of any number of environmental and industrial influences, of poor diet and harsh climate. Ukraine’s lack of technology used to determine such things, she explained, is coupled with an ethnic Ukrainian fatalism, a gloomy artistic soul that shrugs to accept dwindling birthrates, increased miscarriages and stillbirths and increased infant mortality.

[I had seen the note-card files myself in the capital city’s main hospital and I had heard the official statistician answer my same question. “Who knows?” he’d answered while gesturing at a wall lined with long drawers all filled with handwritten 3x5 cards documenting each case, each child admitted for treatment. “How can anyone ever know?”]

The pathologist prepares to open the girl's skull and finds it difficult. What would normally be a soft cranium is hard; what would normally be large ribbons of cartilage are only thin lines of white connecting the plates of hardened bone.

"Most unusual," says the pathologist as he tries first one knife and then another and then another in his attempt to pierce her tiny head. It is awkward for a moment as he attempts to hold the body still and apply the force necessary to open her skull. The nurse holds the infant's legs to keep them from disturbing and undignified flopping.

Finally, the pathologist makes a hole large enough to insert his shears, the same shears he used to open her chest, and snips along the thin, soft lines between the plates of skull bone. As he opens the four quarters of her skull, a grim flower blossoming, the delicate crunch causes us all to fight against our instinct to flinch. We are , after all, professionals.

The nurse spreads a faded yellow towel with a print of small blue teddy bears across the table and the pathologist pulls the mass of the child's brain out.

"It is swollen," he says as he begins to probe and separate the jellied mass across the towel.

"Nothing wrong here except it is too large."

We all peer closely as he divides and re-divides her brain, takes a tissue sample, spreads the beige forms and convolutions wider and deeper. As he reaches its base, close to the brain stem, he finds what he is seeking. A strip of leathery, hard material in what should be soft, gelatinous tissue tells the story, provides an end to this examination.

"Toxic plasmosis," the pathologist declare s. "An infection from an animal, from another species, most likely a cat."

He cuts more samples and transfers them to the specimen bottles.

"Plus, the mother had herpes," adds the doctor.

I am stunned. Herpes is an affliction I associate with disco-dancing and porn stars, certainly not the pale, drained waif outside, that simple country-girl from the Ukrainian wheat fields into whose daughter’s guts I am looking.

"Herpes?" I ask.

"Oh, yes," he says. "It's a big problem here."

The pathologist removes his gloves and puts down the tools he has used to ferret out this mystery.

"Herpes?" I ask again.

"She also had chlamydia," he tells me.

"Chlamydia? Also?"

Olena moves to my side.

“These diseases come from the doctor,” she tells me. “They cannot sterilize their instruments properly or they reuse instruments meant to be for one-time use. Many women bring their own specula to their examinations. That way they know it’s clean.”

I take a few last photographs of the child’s empty shell, while the nurse begins to gather organs and what is left of the brain into a tidy bundle. We remove ourselves from the building. But the odor of formalin clung to our clothing for the rest of the day.

The pathologist and the doctor step down the walkway to speak with the parents, to tell them the preliminary results from their daughter's autopsy before they began their work on the tissue samples they'd taken from her. They explained about the infections, about the atrophy and anemia, about the toxic plasmosis, about the swollen brain and the enlarged heart. They all stood close together, the young parents and the young owner of the ancient car and the weary doctors; a tight circle of dull pain next to the rusting Muscovitch automobile.

"This Zhytomyr," I hear the doctor tell them as he rolls his eyes and shrugs.

Variations of this piece have appeared in The Fairfield County Weekly, Bridgeport, Connecticut, and online at Orato.com.