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Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Anthology Series, Book Six
Exile Editions LtdCopyright © 2016 Exile Editions
All rights reserved.
THE GOLD LEAF EXECUTIONS
There was a way of executing people you told me about. You found it in a book, an old one: gilded edges and a cracked spine, boards that had warped like the hull of a ship. The book, you were telling me, claimed they did it with gold leaf.
"Who?" I asked.
"The Romans," you said. Or maybe I'm misremembering here, thinking of the Romans because the Romans are the kind of people I think about when I think about things like this.
We were washing dishes in the kitchen. "That's ridiculous," I told you. "Impossible."
You put a matching set of luncheon plates in the rack, paused. Autumn light sliced across your knuckles. "But beautiful too, isn't it?"
I wanted to know how it would've worked, but you laughed and said you couldn't remember. Didn't want the details, just the thought of it. "It's better, I think, without knowing," you said.
I met you on a bus to Siena, which is why I always think about the Romans when I think about that story.
I was supposed to be at conference, so were you. Post-graduation, the same hustle. You had just finished at Birmingham while I was taking my first post in Newfoundland where it snowed until May. We were supposed to be staying at the Università per Stranieri di Siena. It translated literally as the University for Strangers, which made me laugh. I'd been expecting the typical thing: dormitories and plastic sheets, the kind that made your hair stand up with static. I pictured us in the heat, frazzled and bored, electrocuting each other when we tried to shake hands.
So then this happens a week before the conference: the roof collapses. A stroke of luck?
Maybe. They organizers divided us into two groups. Half were sent out to the Tuscan countryside while the others were put up in a nunnery. It was Shakespearean, you joked. You were lucky. You'd never have made a good Ophelia.
That reminds me of another story. There was a man named Simonides of Ceos, and he was a poet.
One day he gets invited to a party – a fancy one, very important – so Simonides of Ceos puts on his best toga, cleans himself up proper. But he doesn't trust these people. He wants them to love him, but he knows deep down that he'll never be one of them. They ask him for a poem, but they're laughing. He suspects they hate poetry.
But Simonides of Ceos lacks a sense of self-preservation. He gives them a poem, a good one, too. There are rhythms in it that Homer would've been proud of. And the smiles get sharper, so he does what he always does. He turns to the twins: Castor and Pollux. Everyone has their muse, and his were glorious. The golden boys. But his host is unimpressed. He'd hoped for a little amusement, a little flattery. "You can collect half your fee from them," he grunts, "if you want to be so pious."
Now Simonides of Ceos feels too drunk, angry. "Gold comes as an evil guest," he thinks, and the words come out like a curse.
So what happens? There's a knock at the door. Two gentlemen are asking for him but its dark out there, and cold. Simonides of Ceos can't see anyone. He suspects they've done all this to hurt him. He's used to childish pranks. "Hey!" he yells. "What gives?"
Behind him the roof collapses. He is caught by the sight of the dust rising into the air like a mushroom cloud. An act of God, he thinks.
That's not the end of it though.
Now they have to bury the bodies. That's how it was in those days: they have to bury the bodies, but the bodies have been flattened. Unrecognizable. Insects crushed against the skin of the earth.
"Simonides of Ceos," they say, "who was there? You must know."
And the funny thing is that he does know. He remembers perfectly. In his mind he can see them stretched out on their couches, he remembers their names. He walks through the ruins and he points at the stains: "Yes, there, Scopas was resting his head. I remember. He was lolling backwards, he was laughing at me."
Simonides of Ceos scratches his neck. He's a poet and so he knows words, but this is different. And he knows it's different because of something to do with death.
And the people smile. And they bury the bodies, just as he said.
You had long hair down to your hips. I'd never felt anything like it before, soft and somehow clinging. When it blew in the wind and it touched me it, was like someone had walked over my grave. It made me shiver. There was so much of it. It was like you were walking in a cloud.
And there we were, in the Tuscan countryside. Trapped amidst the cypresses and the hazy countryside an hour or more from the city. You were drinking from a bottle of Prosecco. Not expensive stuff. "The cheaper the better," you laughed. One euro was as much as you'd pay, and god, the hangovers were fantastic.
There was only one bus, and it ran every three hours. Neither of us knew where to buy a ticket. "A trap," you murmured, "for the Stranieri." The ticket inspectors got you on the train in. You hadn't validated your ticket, and then to make matters worse you snuck into first-class for the air conditioning. No one was there, not a soul. Everyone was sweating it out, but "Fuck it" you said. The poor junior officer might have let you get away with one violation, but not two. You pleaded with him, tried to be as English as possible, wet-eyed and saintly. But they slapped you with a fine of two hundred euros anyway.
"It was all my spending money," you told me.
Thus the Prosecco.
But now we're both trapped on this bus, ticketless, guilty as sin. So we sit together. I tell you I can make a distraction if they come for us, you can run for it. I'm half-joking, mostly not joking. Already I'm in love with you. I'd let them string me up. I'm telling you, I'd let them crucify me. It's bad taste, but you laugh like you've forgotten what taste is.
No one asks for our tickets.
I think I'm disappointed. I wanted to show you how serious I could be.
There's an urban legend about gold leaf. They put it in vodka. If you drink it, they say, then it'll cut up your insides. It'll slice up your throat. It gets you drunk faster, they say.
Was that how the Romans did it? Did it cut their victims open? Did it make a thousand tiny mouths of their insides, all ready to gobble up whatever came down?
We got boozy and falling down drunk together. We stripped off our clothes and dived into the pool, well past midnight. There were other people from the conference there. They must have heard us giggling, must have hated us. We didn't care. The sun had burned itself into the pavement and left everything warm and shining. When we jumped in the water there were sharp, stinging bubbles that filled our noses like lemon juice.
"God, I love this," you said, meaning everything: water, the smell of oleander and jasmine, running from the sauna, the night creeping up on us though we were thirsty for it to come.
You took my hand, and placed it on your hip. We were dancing. We were dancing and our waists were above the water and our feet wouldn't move, so we swayed. You slumped against me. Your hair was wet and tame. I took it between my fingers and squeezed it out, one lock at a time.
"What're you doing?"
I wouldn't tell you. Really, I had no idea only that touching you was all I wanted to do forever and ever.
"I'm sleepy," you said.
"People don't drown in swimming pools."
But you knew better. "People drown everywhere, dummy. Let's go to your room."
Or maybe it had to do with choking. The scene when Goldfinger smothers Jill Masterson in paint? That was your favourite, wasn't it? Her lying on the bed, gleaming.
Skin suffocation. Bond claimed it used to happen to cabaret dancers.
There was a rumour that Masterson had asphyxiated during filming. Or a body-double had. It was nonsense, of course. There had been doctors on the set. They had left a six-inch strip of her stomach bare, just in case.
Still you were careful with me that first time: "You can only touch me for a little while," you said, asking me for what? Oxygen, air, room to breathe. And later: "Don't be so sad now, you. Buck up, sailor."
But you came home with me from Italy, came back to St. John's. You took up teaching part-time for a little while but eventually let it go. You'd never loved it, you told me. But you loved the students, loved how they watched you, how they wrote on your evaluations: "It's so nice to be taught Shakespeare in an English accent." You kept yourself distant from them, mysterious. You spoke in a voice you never used at home where your grammar was slouchy and free.
That first year was so difficult. You needed to take long walks by yourself, exploring the hard coastline, the grey afternoon light, while I taught Intro to English Literature to bored eighteen-year-olds whose fathers had been fishermen. You wanted to understand this place. The mist in the air reminded you of home: Yorkshire dales, craggy rocks breaking out of the dirt and the thin grass of the moors. Wuthering Heights was your favourite book. You loved to read to me about Heathcliffe clinging to the lattice, crying out to the ghost of his beloved. And Catherine, damning: "I gave him my heart, and he took and pinched it to death; and flung it back to me."
In spring you spotted icebergs from Signal Hill. You dragged me from my office to see them with you. Your hands were cold, ungloved, and when we kissed your nose was red to its tip.
I could tell you were making a decision about something, you had been all winter.
Gold is soft but durable. Immune to decay. I wondered about that when I heard the story about the death of Aquillius. Mithradates poured molten gold down his throat.
It started a craze. That's how Marcus Licinius Crassus went. He was the richest man in Rome and the Parthians stuffed it all down his throat. They gagged him for his greed. Afterward, the carried out his skull for a wedding feast. His face was frozen solid. It glittered like a death mask.
"We bring from the mountain a wonderful prey."
The crowd was snickering. They appreciated a good joke.
That summer I was terrified of my own happiness. It burst upon me like a burning continent rising out of the water: massive, red-hot, full of its own newness. Every moment I wanted you, but I was afraid to touch you.
I remember it was raining, heavy sheets of it, but you wanted to go to the shore. White sand, turning grey, swept up by the sea. Clouds boiling overhead, thick and yellow and wondrous, making a sound like nch-nch-nch. The wind, I guess.
You were soaked through. Your clothes were sticking to your skin, and I could see the full glorious shape of you: breasts, those narrow thighs like columns. An ankle, a foot leaving divots in the marble sand.
Then lightning, tongues of it, licking down from the sky. Bang, bang! The thunder was on top of us. Pressure sucked at our eardrums, which were thin and shaking already. But God, what was left behind? Glass – great coral branches of it where the lightning struck the sand and froze it solid. These huge bursts of light, blinding us, and then in the afterglow were heavy crystalline wreathes. You were scared but half-mad with joy, clutching at me.
"Get down!" I screamed. "We have to get down, we have to get down."
So we were lying in the sand, and the water was falling on us, and the ocean was creeping up closer and closer. You tasted like seawater. The sky was a pair of black hands clapping.
"Stay with me," I wanted to tell you. So badly. But the storm was overhead, and it was burning in the sky. And so, instead, I held your hand, and I felt it grow hot in mine, felt all of you lighting up.
And just like that, it was over.
We collected the fulgurite afterward. The pieces were smaller than I had thought they would be. As small and breakable as seashells. They cut your pockets to ribbons.
Acrisius was a bitter old man who feared for his life. He kept his daughter Danae in a tower lest she bear the grandson promised to destroy him. But Zeus saw her at the window, and, oh, he was struck by the sight of her. What a clever letch! He poured himself into her lap as a golden ray of light. He fit as snugly as a key.
It wasn't long before Acrisius discovered his girl was in the family way. He locked her and the child both in a chest and set them adrift on the ocean where they bobbed along for a record-breaking sixty days. They came ashore at Seriphus, bone-tired and hungry. Danae could not stand. Her bones were brittle from confinement, her skin red and ragged, but King Polydectes loved her anyway. She was grateful to him. Maybe she loved him. What she didn't know was the babe who clung to her breast, sucking salt from her teat, would do away with him too when he came of age.
The gods are cruel: that sad sliver of prophecy buried so unlovingly inside her.
Now the autumn is coming on us again. I can feel it like a thundercloud ready to burst: all that frost and heaviness, every living thing seized up inside, moving slower. And I'm paralyzed by the thought of my mother. How three years ago she noticed a spot of gold in Dad's left eye. It was perfectly round, like a coin, and just beneath the pupil. It reminded me of those science fiction movies where the sky has two suns or two moons. Unnatural, but lovely.
Uveal melanoma. Survival rates at fifty percent.
And the way she held him during that long period of recovery, carefully, as if he were weightless. It was such a tiny thing. She told me she wanted to fish it out with the tip of her tongue the way she'd fished out lashes from my eyes when I was ten.
"Make a wish," she used to tell me. I had that kind of faith in things.
There was an operation that left him blind in one eye. He stumbled into chairs. Dark continents drifting across his vision. "I'm going away," Dad told me. "Don't come after me." And then all at once we were scattering his ashes in the sunlight. Shining, heavy, black soot and dust. Like crops of mud turning to ice. Or snowflakes.
Happenstance. Bad fortune. Decay.
At this time of year there is no sunset. The daylight stretches itself over the cliffs and night beats against it but never breaks through. It's three in the morning, and you and I are drinking cup after cup of espresso, trying desperately to stay awake.
"It's just a visit," you've told me a hundred times, but some kind of animal fear has lodged in my throat. I'm afraid of car accidents, the taxi ride to the airport – you won't let me drive you – and the flight to Heathrow hijacked. Or something worse: what will happen when you see your sister's house again, that worn-down cottage on the edge of the moor so familiar you could walk its halls in your sleep.
"There are so many things that go wrong in the world," I want to say, but you know you need to do this.
Laughing but tender: "I'll be home before you know it."
But the uncertainty in your voice makes you pause. Neither of us knows for sure. There are transformations and transformations: what if one glance brings you back to who you were before me?
I can imagine you standing in the kitchen staring at a yellow streaked sky, as a child with your eyes, your dimpled chin, bangs a spoon against the cracked red tiles. And in that moment you are absently scratching your neck, everything fading, everything falling away from you, trying for your life to remember what made me so beautiful.CHAPTER 2
STRANGER IN ME
By my thirteenth year, I had never seen a river. I had never seen a staircase. I looked up from the chopping block and saw a low mean sky snot-yellow in the east and I remarked to my Pa, Might that be trouble coming? The wind was so unruly it stole the breath right out of my nostrils. It was 1937, only April yet. Gophers asleep in their holes. Geese moving north. Blood moved like with like together.
Pa halted in his axe swing and looked to the east and said, That's trouble coming if I ever saw it. Don't pay him any attention. Maybe he'll pass by.
And I looked again in that direction where the wind flattened the grasses by the road and saw a stickman come limping along beside our fence. His pants flapped loose enough to scare crows. If he did pass by, where would he be going? To the west was empty prairie, then the distant Cypress Hills that made me think of Al Capone and whisky runners hid in the folds. Bones of some historic massacre white against the grass. Indian arrows and wolfers' bullets scattered about. Sitting Bull was up there too, with his thousand starving refugees. Cattle rustlers, hunters, giant lizards whose bones were collected and stored in the school basement in Wolf Willow. All concurrent in my mind. Sitting Bull, the wolfers, Al Capone amid the giant lizards, the secret cattle corrals.
I kept my head down and my hands in my pockets out of the wind. Pa looked at me with his flat eyes and he didn't have to say it for me to hear it and know it. I raised you. I couldn't afford you, but I raised you. So get ready, boy. He swung the axe stiff-armed and stiff-legged. No give in those bones. Bent only where he had to. I darted forward to catch one half of the cloven wood before it hit the ground and set it on the block for Pa to quarter. There should be some rhythm to it by now, but there wasn't. If blood moved like with like, our blood was not like enough. My shoulders jerked like the wings of a startled hen each time the axe fell. Wood flew into the mud and my fingers were stiff and cold scrambling for it. I threw the quartered pieces in the creaky wheelbarrow and pushed the wheelbarrow twenty feet to the covered porch where I filled the wood box beside the front door of the house. That house hardly more than a shack. Rough shiplap walls, no flowers to glorify the edges. Two planes meeting, simple and delineated. House and mud-cracked yard.
Excerpted from Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Anthology Series, Book Six by Xequina. Copyright © 2016 Exile Editions. Excerpted by permission of Exile Editions Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsCVC BOOK SIX,
Preface by Gloria Vanderbilt,
About the Winners and Finalists,