by Mark Spitzer



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781581950311
Publisher: Zoland Books, Inc.
Publication date: 07/01/2001
Pages: 227
Product dimensions: 5.82(w) x 8.56(h) x 0.89(d)

About the Author

Mark Spitzer, Managing Editor of Exquisite Corpse Annual, is the author of 11 books, ranging from novels like CHUM (Zoland Books) to poetry books like AGE OF THE DEMON TOOLS (Ahadada) to translations of Rimbaud, Celine, Bataille, etc. He is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. For more info, see his website at

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Lo: an island so far north and so far removedfrom the Alaskan mainland that it is almost Russian—wayway out in the Bering Strait, in the steelgray spray, beneath the dirty dingy oceanic sky, in theswirling fog and breaking waves where the ice of the Arcticcomes screeching down like a host of hags to freeze inthe beards of fishermen, who are used to coughing, flu,phlegm, and the monsters they haul from the blue-blackdepths: grotesque bubble-eyed cod, great skates, half-tonhalibut, gothic sculpin, cabezone, and all the bullheads androckfish and dogfish and ratfish they know—which theytake back to their island that doesn't even have a name, justa cannery, a trailer park, a market, a bar, some summerhomes, a school, a church, roads in disrepair, a power plant,a gas station, and the high cliffs and beaches surroundingthis rock—where ships from Russia, Japan, Canada, andthe States stop for fuel, then leave this place where men fishand fight and fuck and the women work in the cannerywearing slate gray smocks splattered with the blood ofcreatures brought in bins and spread out on the slime line,where they're gutted and cleaned and processed into dogfood.

    These women have been together so long, and haveworked together so long, that their bodies are attuned toeach other. Once a month, the cannery becomes a dim fluorescentmenstrual hut, where the salt air hums with a tensionas thick as the mist in the bay. Sometimes a life is lostin the cogs, or the pistons of machinery, but nothing evercomes of this. And it's the same at sea, where the elementsstrike randomly. There is no law enforcementhere, just apost office, a company story, and a graveyard. Fifty is theaverage age, seventy-two is the oldest. The young are rare,and the main cause of death is suicide. Rape is the norm—that'show people are born.

    Up the hill, at the highest point on the island, there's aniron cross on top of the church, attached to a cable strungto a pole driven into the earth. Here, lightning strikes everywinter, sometimes ten or twenty times per day. It is almostalways raining.

    In March the storms reach biblical proportions. Thesky billows black from morning to night like some all-consumingmushroom cloud held in, sometimes blowing inat a hundred miles per hour, looking like the depths of hellerupting from some rupture and roiling with the wrath ofGod searching for a Sodom or Gomorrah to smear.

    There are tendrils in the turbulence, detonations, andgulls tumbling in flight, feathers snapping, wings ripping,necks twisting. It's a storm that comes every year, smashingboats, sinking ships—it rides the skyline, right above thewaterline, which rises to meet it, foaming and frothing, liftingand breaking, then churning into waves that crashdown on each other with hundreds of tons of pressure—wherethe unlucky have clung to whatever they could, nosense of gravity or direction in that space of chaos wherewater and weather rush together, roaring toward the islandin the shape of a comma half the size of Iowa. There'snothing to do but batten down the hatches.

    The people of the island, however, are not afraid of thisstorm; it is part of their life and just as expected as birthand death. The plywood goes up and the anchors go down.The cannery is the safest place in town, a concrete cubewith cinder-block walls. The women go to work and themen stay at home, sleeping or drinking or beating their kids.Though some men go out, with nets and traps and bucketsof chum, but not because they're braving the storm. Theynever know where the tempest will form, or if it will evenhit the island. Sometimes it misses, and then a day's catchis lost from laying low. Other times, though, the town mustbe repaired. In any case, the resource they depend upon isalways worth more than the lives of a few measly men, whoare disposable and paid by the pound—as are the captains,who make the decision when to go out and when to come in.

    Such is the scene one morning in late March: the womenare scrambling to get to work, the school bus is unloadingin the darkening dawn, and the sun is coming up somewherebeyond the hovering clouds. It's one of those daysthat could go either way; the horizon is low and the sky'snot getting any lighter. It could hit that afternoon, it couldhit in a week. The town is preparing; hammering can beheard on every street. Shattering glass is a pain in the ass.

    Five boats took off before dusk, two have already comeback. The captains have either chickened out, caught theircatch, come to their senses, or they're dead. They alwayscut it close.

    It isn't raining but the wind is picking up. A strangegreen glow can be seen in the foam. The tide is rising, lappingat the driftwood left last year. Every time the tide recedes,dead fish—or nearly dead fish—are left on thebeach. Some are already rotten, smelling sweet and fetid,attracting flies. Others are buried under kelp. Man-o'-warsare everywhere, their orange and yellow streamers coatedwith sand and pieces of white shell.

    Out on the spit, over a thousand Ping-Pong balls havejust washed up—for a reason that no one here will everknow. They bounce and roll and float between the barnacledmasses lodged in the sand: rusty axles, mufflers, tires.Puddles of oil also wash up, with shreds of netting, litter,logs. Then an eel appears, six feet long, half-devoured bythe crabs. Then a salmon, gasping.

    An albatross swoops down and stands on the sand,amidst the flipping fingerlings. Spray begins to blow towardthe land. A dead dog washes up, bloated like a buoy, its furworn off. It hits a piling, punctures, and slowly deflates.Another boat comes in, its flag at half-mast.

    Over by the rocks, a seal pops up, swimming toward themusseled caves. Rain can be seen a few miles out, thicker insome places, thinner in others—but nevertheless comingcloser. Crows begin to call to each other, a dog starts tohowl. Others answer. Their communal cry hangs in the air.Doors swing open and fishermen come out, kicking at cursand yelling, "Shut the fuck up!" It doesn't do any good. Agunshot goes off. Somewhere, a dog lies dead as a man goesback to bed. But the baying does not cease.

    Now the waves are getting higher, and there is even moregarbage blowing in: Russian wrappers, Canadian cans, bottles,diapers, pieces of paper. It all ends up caught in thekelp. More and more fish wash up. Some have been deadfor days, but the eyes of most are just starting to film over.Every time a wave rolls in, hundreds of fish are left in thesand: sand dabs, sea perch, tomcod, ling.

    The gulls descend and rip into flesh. There are thousandsof gulls lifting and diving and swooping along thebeach. They are in a frenzy, tangles of intestines bloodyingtheir breasts. Like buzzards, they fight each other, eventhough the spoils are everywhere. Birdshit splatters, raindescends.

    Another boat comes in, and then a wall of water hits.Sheet rain slams the beach so hard that gulls fly squawkingback to the cliffs, but only some of them make it. When araindrop hits the sand, it forms a crater larger than an egg.The sand starts to shift and writhe with a texture just asalive as the water. A rumbling comes closer.

    The dogs are all inaudible now, hunkering under trucks,stairs, stoves, each other. Only the armored venture outside.

    They come up from the sea and down from the rocks,emerging from crags, tide pools, grass. There are thousandsof them: brown, red, blue, green. Covered with limpids,barnacles, kelp: snow crabs, spider crabs, red rock, Dungeness—feastingon the smorgasbord, gnashing claws,clicking, scratching, scavenging. They climb each other,carpet each other, consuming the entire beach, tearing atthe meat. In some places, the sand is knee-deep in crab.

    The crab masses devour. The rain beats down. The roaringincreases. The ocean lifts—then descends, smashingtheir backs. Thousands are sucked under, then spat upagain. Shells splinter, pincers are ripped out. Trees washup. A life preserver, faded yellow by the sun. Human waste.Styrofoam chunks. And then the battered gulls arrive, halfof their feathers torn away, slapping down on the crabs,rolling in the sand, freshly dead—a belt of them, fortyor fifty or sixty miles long, pushed ahead by the tide. It'scoming.

    Lightning strikes the cross on the church. Once, twice—thunderbooms, hail smashes down in lug-nutlike conglomerations,bouncing off the docks, cascading on theroofs. Pigs get hit and die on the spot. The noise carriesthrough the harbor like machine-gun fire, sounding thefirst barrage of the storm. But suddenly, it's gone and replacedby sleet. Plants break under the weight, the streetsare instantly glazed.

    And then it appears eighteen miles out: complete blackness,rising higher and darker than anything anyone herehas ever seen. Church bells start to clang: Emergency! Takecover! Stay away from windows! Pray to God, Motherfuckers!

    The islanders know what to expect. The power will goout and the blackness will take over. Things will get hit bymysterious missiles, and gutters will gorge, forcing pressureinto homes. Toilets will erupt, so are duct-taped shut.Buckets will be used. And mops and rags and barrels anddrums. Rain will burst in. Destruction is a given. Peoplewill be injured, maimed, killed. Livestock is doomed. Andwhen it all blows over, there will be fish in the streets, uprootedtrees, overturned cars, trailer homes floating out tosea, and school will be canceled. But before the cleanup begins,the whole town will go to the beach to reap what Godhas given them.

Excerpted from CHUM by MARK SPITZER. Copyright © 2001 by Mark Spitzer. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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