A couple named Catholic and Ethos struggle with the loss of their child. How? With fishtanks and jellyfish burials, Persephone’s pomegranate seeds, and affairs with the neighbors. Fish in Exile spins unimaginable loss through classical and magical tumblers, distorting our view so that we can see the contours of a parent’s grief all the more clearly. “The result is a novel that forges a new vocabulary for the routine of grief, as well as the process of healing” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).
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Fish in Exile
By Vi Khi Nao
COFFEE HOUSE PRESSCopyright © 2016 Vi Khi Nao
All rights reserved.
I must think of myself first and get ahead. But the word ahead makes me sound like a sadist. A head. Someone's head, it seems to imply. Get a head. Outside, the wind is blowing leaves and dust across the meridian. The toilet hasn't completely dissolved the macerated toilet paper. At the bottom, a puff of cloud suspended. I stare at it hard for a long time, even long before the second flush. I keep staring at it as if it were my life: suspended between the ether of this world and sewage. I wish. Oh, I wish she had the courage to flush me down. The line between here and the alternate universe is just a flush away. After a while, the image becomes less depressing and more poignant, like going to the dollar theater with a tub of popcorn. It's just like that.
I remember being constipated and gazing down at the toilet bowl. She had fixed a blue disc to the inside edge of the bowl that made the toilet water blue like the sky. I watched as the adult meconium sky-scrapers ascended the cloud. I like the idea of our shits going to heaven.
Once, I was caulking the bathroom floor because Catholic told me to. I always do what catholic tells me to do. But I saw a cockroach running in and out of the cracks, so I timed it right. When the little fellow passed by, I caulked him to the edge of the wall. He tried hard to extend his head forward, to tear his legs from the viscid blanket of sealant. What if God were to treat me with the same kindness? What if he noticed that I keep running out of one hole and into another? What if he got annoyed with me! I hope he'd do me a favor and caulk me to the wall.
This morning, I stared at the refrigerator for an hour. I have other things to do. My wife tells me her carburetor stopped working and I need to fix or replace it. I told her I'd get to it. She doesn't ever listen. But I stared at the refrigerator for an hour because I listen to her. I actually listen to her. If I didn't, I wouldn't have stared at the refrigerator all morning wondering what to do. I stop by the junkyard's cemetery of car parts. I get derailed looking at the different types of rearview mirrors. They have all kinds. Rearview mirrors for a Toyota corolla or a Nissan Sentra. I buy one for five dollars.
After the junkyard, I see Callisto waving at me from the bike shop. he waves, and then I wave. We are scheduled to see each other on Thursday. Today is Tuesday. I see him waving, and if I wave a bit more, and if waving a bit more leads to a decent conversation, it may mean that we have seen each other and Thursday's meeting may have to be cancelled. To be safe, I shouldn't wave anymore. I stop and he gives me a weird look. We're like syncopated swimmers. Seeming to fear that I have mistaken his wave for the breeze, he waves again with half his leg in the air. I climb into the car. I wave to him again. I can see some if not half of his leg in the air. It makes me realize how genuine his effort to see me is. The memory of his leg in the air grows painfully on the wind- shield. I have nothing planned for the rest of the week. I drive away without looking at him.
I carry a haversack with me now only to be in exile. I carry it with me even around the house. I begin to stare at the refrigerator. I stare at it hard for an hour. After that, not knowing what to do, I stuff items into my haversack. I stuff an organic orange into it. I stuff the haversack. The haversack stuffs my eyes. I wrap cubes of butter in wax paper and insert the cubes into the sack. I untwist the tie on a loaf of bread and take out three slices. I open the cabinet, grab the jar of peach jam, and insert it into the haversack. I stare at the wall. The refrigerator. The cabinets. Hours pass. The horizon disappears from view.
I have tasted the harshness of her lips. The angle of her chin, turned away from me in sleep. Love has a hard face. Hours pass. I am lured out of my exile to confront the curtain. I watch as the head of the cloud turns round and round. I have been staring long at the dank world before me. I have been staring at the chair for what seems like an hour now. The world is quiet. The chair is quiet. My mother is quiet, but she is not here.
My wife is quiet. She is not here, either. I am not sitting. Leaning. Nor standing on it. I am just here by the chair. Its four legs; my muscles rub against the front leg. It is quiet here next to the log. This morning, I looked at her face on the bed. The forest was our witness. I looked at her face. I have stared at her for so long. At the uncertain road ahead of us. She asked me to participate in the future. I replied: I'm in exile, can't you see? She didn't understand. We have gazed far into the distance before. On the balcony, she was sipping tea from the ocean, and I had my fingers wrapped around a Corona. Sometimes I paused to hear her breathe.
She was diaphanous. I could see through her. Her lungs exposed beneath a thin coat of rice paper. Could she see through me? We spoke every now and then about returning to the sea. Where the waves would weather us from the emptiness of the bovine. I sipped from the well of the Corona. The head of the clouds turned round and round.
I return to the bedroom and am startled to find her spread out on the comforter. Her closed eyelids are like two eggshells. I stare at my briefs.
I remember the earlier days. Now, before my wife, I am so small. I leave the threshold of the bedroom and walk into the kitchen. I pull open the drawer near the refrigerator and take out a pair of scissors. Walk along the wall of the house until I reach a path into the garden. Stare at the daisies pointing their yellow eyes at the sun. The roses, the tomatoes, the turnips, the clusters of sorrels, and the eggplants gather around the daisies. A floral séance. Walk up to the daisies and cut seven heads off a cluster. Lift the waistband of my briefs and put the heads of the daisies inside. I push the vagrant parts of the daisies deep inside my briefs so they're full and so even a leaf won't be mistaken for pubic hair. I return to the kitchen and insert the scissors back into the drawer. I go into the bedroom. My wife is still sprawled out on the comforter, hair spilling over the pillow like lacquer. Before I approach, she opens her eyes. Her eyes become wide. And then wider.
CATHOLIC: Come here, Ethos.
I walk slowly to the bed. Afraid. The daisies move inside my briefs like wilted paper. A quietly rasping eulogy. I can hear them talking.
Perhaps observing their own funerals. Walk slowly. The distance from door to bed is long.
I arrive, and she runs her right hand over my chest. The sound of her lingering on my oxford shirt syncopates with the frangible voice of the daisies. Before I know it, I am above her, longing. My head shortens the light illuminating her face. Her right hand continues to circle my chest. She strains her neck to reach for my face with hers. I feel the intensity of warmth, the responding fever of her kisses. I am rocking my body into her body. The violent friction of the pelvises.
After all, she is my wife. Her body against me, rubbing infinity into our spines. I lift her blouse above her head. She touches my shoulder, signaling me to turn over. We take turns sharing light.
Before her I see our babies roll over, turning into cold stones.
She lifts the waistband of my briefs and lowers it to my thighs. The daisies crawl out, falling onto the comforter like confetti.
My wife stares at my eyes, and then at my deflowered penis. She alternates this ping-pong gaze for five seconds before wiping the daisies swiftly from my penis and leaping off the bed. She sobs her way into the bathroom and closes the door. I lie on the bed and stare at the ceiling. I don't understand women or cameras. My thoughts are outnumbered by white diminutive dots. There are ants climbing up the slanted towers of my pubic hair to gaze into the milky horizon. I gently push them off my body with my palm. I know I should go to her. I crawl down onto the floor and hold myself in the fetal position.
The sobbing has receded into the wall. The only sound is the sound of my body on the floor. I stay there until the light passes through the house and returns to the bosom of the chthonic world. When darkness arrives through the windows, I lift my body up from the floor and walk toward the bathroom. It's wide open and unoccupied. My wife is gone. I am alone.
I go to the pantry and withdraw the dustpan from the shelf. I grab the broom from its place against the cans of chicken broth and walk back to the bedroom. I press the mouth of the dustpan to the floor and sweep the drooping daisies into it. They smell acidic. I take a handful and stuff it into my mouth. I chew it like tobacco.
I am on the phone with Callisto. My voice vibrates against my jugular flesh. I mumble something incoherent.
CALLISTO: I broke my tailbone having sex with Lidia. Do you think you can fix it?
No, I say.
CALLISTO: she threw me on the bed, but I landed on the bedpost. I think something's broken. Do you, by chance, have an MRI machine?
No, I say. You need a doctor. I can't help you.
CALLISTO: I have a fever and I can't ejaculate properly. Do you have any duct tape?
Yes, I say, I have duct tape. Do you want it?
CALLISTO: I'll be right over.
He leaves me hanging on the phone. I put down the receiver. I rummage through the house looking for duct tape. I remember it was in one of the kitchen drawers. But it is impossible to know now where I left it. In exile, duct tape is a luxury. I hear a knock at the front door. I think: How did he manage to get here so quickly with a broken tailbone?
I run to the DVD player and put in La Notte. The knocking continues. I fast-forward until I see the faces of Moreau and Mastroianni, then I sit down and stare at the screen. The knock comes again. Harder this time. I can't ignore it. So I open the door, expecting to face the face of a broken tailbone. It's Lidia.
LIDIA: Callisto sent me over for the duct tape.
She is bulky, face-wise, and possesses talents not naked to the public eye. I am trying to grasp the meaning of the broken tailbone. Lidia is a little over five feet, petite, and has hair the color of fried octopus. Whenever I see her I want to chew on her hair. I can't imagine the impact this fried octopus has on that tall man, Callisto.
ETHOS: What really happened to Callisto?
LIDIA: he wants to duct tape his tailbone. He can't ejaculate properly, either. He's thinking of duct taping his scrotum too.
I think it's a bad idea.
So he is telling the truth.
ETHOS: I am watching La Notte, and I haven't a clue where the duct tape might be.
LIDIA: catholic might know.
ETHOS: she isn't home.
LIDIA: Where is she?
ETHOS: she wasn't here earlier, but maybe she's back. Let me check.
I walk down the hallway. I see light piercing the bathroom door.
CATHOLIC: I'm in the bathroom.
ETHOS: Lidia is here. She wants the duct tape.
CATHOLIC: We ran out. We used it all to send a package to London for your mother.
I return to Lidia.
ETHOS: We shipped all of it to London.
LIDIA: Why would you ship duct tape to London?
ETHOS: London needs it.
To emphasize its gravity, I add, badly.
LIDIA: Callisto will be disappointed.
ETHOS: Why did your boyfriend sleep with my wife?
LIDIA: Apparently that's something some neighbors do.
ETHOS: We're not such neighbors, are we?
LIDIA: You never made the move.
ETHOS: It didn't occur to me.
LIDIA: You mean it doesn't appeal to you.
ETHOS: It does appeal to me, but it didn't occur to me.
LIDIA: But appeal and occur in this context are synonymous.
ETHOS: What context?
LIDIA: No context at all, apparently.
ETHOS: I like flowers on certain things. My wife doesn't like flowers on anything.
LIDIA: I like flowers too. Callisto hardly gets me any. A bouquet — small, very small — would be nice.
ETHOS: Would you like some daisies?
I close the door on her face and face the wall. After about five minutes, I return to the evidence Michelangelo Antonioni left in the living room. He is spilling all over the sofa, laminating it with a thin coat of film. I stand in a pool of black-and-white images.
The phone rings.
CALLISTO: has catholic told you that she doesn't love you anymore?
ETHOS: Not yet, but she will.
I think it's a decent response for someone who is unable to duct tape his scrotum. I do not like the way my wife smells when she's tearing me apart. I sit in a corner chewing the elbow of a baguette. I sit far from the sofa, nibbling on the crumpled elbow of the baguette, inside a pool of black-and-white images.
Catholic comes into the living room. I pull the haversack closer.
CATHOLIC: Go away.
I lower my head and she leaves the room. I tear the flesh of the baguette into pieces and jam it into my mouth. I take the butter from the haversack and peel the wax paper off. The outside world is knock- ing at my gate.
This is my body cheating death. This is my body creating life.
It is chilly here when I return from the sea. The spiders are out and so are the mosquitoes. Everything is blue like heaven. I tug the haversack closer to my body. I must now face the door. I stare at it, hard and cold. And then I release it. I release the grip of my eyes on it. The door softens. I am driven by the impulse of phlegm. I am tired and feel that closing my eyes is death. I won't shut my eyes. I woke up this morning from a strange dream. I have walked across the room in hopes of crossing out our life.
I am sitting by the window where the sun can receive me. This is where my darkness, in broad daylight, doubles. Here is my frame, solid and complex, flesh all alike, and there is my shadow, next to the micro- wave. I sit in exile where catholic and I used to watch the sun lower his toga. I ask, is it better to be in exile at home or at home in exile? I labor over my fruit. I labor over my knowledge of my life and my marriage.
Over onion, garlic, sugar, and salt, my dear wife joins me. Over the haversack, I reveal the contents of my sparse, indigent thoughts to my wife. She turns away. Her face, her back, the turn of a century, the parting of one resilient cloud. Catholic turns, and we are away from each other. She is away from me, rather. Turning is toxic. As toxic as light pollution. When she turns her shoulder away from me, how her skin radiates then. Something in me dies this way every day. Her shoulder. When she turns and I'm able to take a closer look at her ear, her earrings come to me, dangling like branches on the tree of her ears. They are glittering limbs, suspended between her earlobes and shoulders. When catholic turns her shoulder from me, something in me dies.
I watch as she pulls herself up. I see her heels lifting, removing stacks of thread from her footing. Each step is a swallow. A vacuum. I swallow the vacuumed space. Each step strikes me higher and higher in the stairwell of my loneliness. But this is not loneliness. Not the wall. Not the ending in the middle. She lifts her heels, and I jolt up and grab the haversack and tuck it close to my violent, dead heart. The garlic. The salt. The grapefruit. Her heels. My eyes chase after her heels. And when my eyes stop, so do her heels. I tap lightly on the shoulder that has turned away from me.
ETHOS: Where are you going?
CATHOLIC: I am going nowhere.
ETHOS: Are you sure?
ETHOS: can I come with you?
ETHOS: Why not? Why can't I join you?
CATHOLIC: I want to think of ways I can love you properly. Right now you're getting in the way of that contemplation. ethos: Don't you think it would be good for me to be a part of this conversation?
CATHOLIC: You can't be involved, ethos. You can't be involved in my happiness.
ETHOS: Don't you think this is wrong?
ETHOS: I'm confused.
CATHOLIC: We are not two halves. We are not some bifurcated thing. Happiness is not a fluid. It doesn't contaminate the body of melancholy. It separates the chaff from the wheat. Think of it this way, love, you are solitude. Our marriage works because I've deserted you completely. Let me be and I'll love you properly.
I assure you.
I watch her heels lift emptiness from the ground. Those footsteps. My longing. The heat of the home condenses. My thoughts expand. The contractual obligation of physicality in the face of ennui. Her shoulders come to me again. And again. I am alone again. To face the stairs. To face the falling body of the curtain, the blank wall, the canisters, the blender, the toilet paper, the beater, the garlic peeler. My wife has spoken about solitude. Has woken me up from the despair of my body. The despair of a life. This separation between married individuals. This disconnected and obscure and elliptical space between husband and wife. Am I now finally alone because she has a strong compass about our solitude? She is convinced of our separate paths in a united realm. What is solitude if not two parts (or more) emerging as one? Is this what she means? I don't understand.
I fall asleep in the chair. When my body wakes from its perennial flight, I walk my body into the bedroom. The world is moving slowly. Light shifts, lifting the four corners of the room into an origami box. As light moves around the sculptured paper, darkness begins to enclose me. Darkness falls on my chest and an involuntary impulse pushes the frame of my body toward the pillows, where a fetus or two may have crawled out to make room for my head. My head falls into the deflated pillow. My hands tucked between my thighs. I dream the earth is populated with blueberries. During REM, my body sprawls out involuntarily; my left hand overlaps Catholic's torso. The contact stirs me awake. My eyelids flutter open.
Excerpted from Fish in Exile by Vi Khi Nao. Copyright © 2016 Vi Khi Nao. Excerpted by permission of COFFEE HOUSE PRESS.
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
Callisto & Lidia, 115,