Ray of the Star

Ray of the Star

by Laird Hunt

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781566892322
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Publication date: 09/01/2009
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 1,256,708
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Called "one of the most talented young writers on the American scene today" by Paul Auster, Laird Hunt is the author of three previous, genre-bending novels: The Impossibly, The Exquisite, and Indiana, Indiana. A former press officer at the United Nations and current faculty member at the University of Denver, he lives in Boulder, Colorado.

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CHAPTER 1

Now you must learn how to last.

Then one day the deadly ones did appear.

They stood in a smoking row and told Harry what they were going to do and Harry rose, trembling, and said that he would go, that they could take him, could please take him instead, but they just smiled, wisps of smoke escaping their already blood-soaked lips, then vanished, and Harry screamed and ran for the door, even though he was 500 miles from home and snow lay deep over the countryside and the world was a dead thing under the stars, so that later, as he stood in dark wool nodding at people who placed their hands on his arm and looked at him out of puffed eyes, he wondered why they weren't looking at him through ice, why ice didn't fall from their eyes and cover the floor and coat the walls, and end all warmth, and that later still it seemed to him that all warmth had ended and that the world around him had shrunk to the size of his fist and that the fist would never open again, upon which his wounded mind saw a fist bloom into a beautiful hand, and, with a crushed sob, he began to creep out of the sorry thing his life had become, but this was only after years had passed.

Leave, Harry thought so he locked the front door, threw the keys into the snarled forsythia, got into his car and drove past houses he had long ago stopped looking at and did not look at now, and knew he would never look at again, and then they were behind him and the country beside the highway opened up, when there weren't any subdivisions or industrial parks, onto cow-peppered grassland above which hawks circled and balloons hung heavily and gliders scraped away at the sky, an endless, hopeless affair the color of a postcard he had been sent, unsigned, some years earlier from a great city where he had once spent a few happy months, some kind of blue with a few drops of bloody red in it, which called to mind a drink he had once had but couldn't remember the composition of as he had sat in a bar in that great city and smashed himself to smithereens for no compelling reason, the way he had done many things in that particular part of his deep past, when he had worked hardly at all and slept a great deal and very little had mattered, much like, he thought as he took the exit for the airport, now, this moment, these last years, although the situations were not the same, oh no, even if very little now mattered and very little had mattered then there had been those intervening years when everything had mattered and that changed it, irrevocably, and as he walked away from his car, he thought again of the great city and that shade of blue, which had surely shifted over the years he had kept the postcard — part of a collection which even now, as he set his credit card down on the counter and said the name of the great city, was sitting, continuing to shift, in an Adidas box beside his desk in the house that years ago had stopped being his home.

On the plane that carried him over the Atlantic he sat next to a young woman with short hair the precise color, she informed him, of crushed pomegranate flesh, who was reading a coffee-table sized book called, Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder, which presented the argument, through neutral text and heavily inflected images, that the murderer in the famous unsolved case of Elizabeth Short was an amateur artist and physician named George Hodel, who was known to be a friend to and admirer of various surrealist artists, and it was certainly true, as the young woman explained to him over airline chicken, pasta, and peas, that the authors of the study made a credible case for their hypothesis, in part through the skillful juxtaposition of macabre crime scene photographs of the "black dahlia" — cut in half lying in high grass; cut in half lying on the autopsy table — with multiple famous surrealist canvases by Dali, De Chirico, Man Ray, etc. that showed women in various states of vivisection, all of which Harry found compelling and strangely moving, but not nearly as compelling and strangely moving as he found the young woman explaining all of this to him — this young woman with her deucedly bright hair and rather fat face and crooked teeth and pleasant voice and long earrings from the end of which dangled miniature blue skulls — and he said to himself, I hope she doesn't stop talking, but of course in time the stewards and stewardesses came and took away their massacred trays, and the young woman stowed her book and brought out a pair of headphones, and Harry, left alone with himself, began to fear that he would have one of his episodes and would have to go and lock himself in the bathroom, but instead he grew sleepy and stared at his hands and, legs twitching, eventually dozed, his head lolling ever-so-slightly from side to side, and every now and then he would wake and wipe his mouth and look over at the young woman and hope she would bring out the book again and talk to him, but she didn't, and, unable to come up with anything that felt even vaguely like a conversation starter, he was left to fill the long hours with empty thoughts, until, as he stood in line to use the restroom toward the end of the flight, a leather-faced man wearing a lapel pin with a fish motif about Harry's age embroiled him in a conversation about golf and an exciting new golf ball that was being released that very month, onto the central stem of which conversation Harry, for his part, pasted one or two remarks about Restless Leg Syndrome, from which he had suffered, increasingly, for years, as well as a new method for rendering certain objects invisible that was being elaborated in some cutting-edge laboratory somewhere, which conversation seemed to Harry to form an interesting echo of his earlier interaction about surrealism and the Black Dahlia, not least because almost from the moment the man had begun speaking to him about the issue of Golf Digest he was holding in his hands, he, Harry, had half-imagined that he was speaking to the Dahlia's presumptive murderer, George Hodel, which was why — hoping to draw him out and remembering something the young woman had said earlier about Hodel feeling "in his twitchiness," either untouchable or unseeable or both — he had interjected the comments about Restless Leg Syndrome and invisibility, but the man had more or less ignored Harry and had gone on about golf and then had stepped into a free restroom and had vanished by the time Harry came back out of his own cramped cubicle.

Upon returning to his seat, Harry, whose intention had been to begin gathering his things — the unpromising copy of the New Yorker he had brought to read but hadn't opened, the half a Snickers bar he had stuffed between its pages an hour into the flight, the packet of salt and pepper crackers he had saved from his meal — instead leaned his head back, pushed the aluminum seat recline button, shut his eyes and found himself thinking, with startling immediacy, of footage he had seen on television the week before of a brilliant green tree frog with prodigiously spatulate toes and huge, heavy-lidded eyes negotiating the undulating upper canopy of an unnamed rainforest that stretched, like the surface of some improbable off-world ocean, in all directions as far as the camera could reveal, which gave way to a succession of treetop close-ups, first of what had looked to Harry like a cross between a caterpillar and a piece of delicate, white coral, then an enormous lizard that put him in mind, even though he knew he was dealing in gross approximations, of a Komodo dragon, then of an unmoving insect, also frighteningly large, with frozen onyx eyes and legs locked into aggressive right angles, then another tree frog, this one deep brown, that lowered itself, as the camera covered it, into a cave of wet bark, and as Harry sat there, as the plane adjusted its attitude and, quite palpably, began its descent, which prompted the attendants to begin moving about the cabin to collect garbage, and scattered passengers to lift their arms up into the half-lit, under-oxygenated air to adjust the overhead lights, it seemed to him that the trespass committed by the camera — held aloft by a specially designed airship, which would now make this previously under-explored territory readily available to science, not to mention, as the expression went, "the thousands of eyes hidden in every camera," — had all the dimensions of a ghastly crime, one that wouldn't cease to expand in scope until it had ensured the destruction of this ocean of damp leaves and soft bark negotiated by the brilliant green tree frog, which, Harry suddenly imagined, turned its head, looked Harry in the eye, and smiled a bloody, Dahliaesque smile, he was sure had been as aware as its brown colleague that something unprecedented, if only dimly perceived, was nearby, and that this something must, at all costs, be hidden from, and while Harry might have continued to nourish this lugubrious line of thought, which he found strangely comforting, mired as he was and had been for so long in hopelessness, for the remainder of the flight, it wasn't very long before an attendant came and tapped him on the shoulder and asked him and the woman with the crushed pomegranate hair to put their seats in an upright position and to otherwise prepare themselves for the plane's impending return to earth.

After nearly ten hours in the rattling fuselage, Harry stepped off the plane into the smell of ocean, a salty thickness that became unpleasant, vaguely criminal, he thought, in its sweet, festering undertones, when, looking for the men's room, he walked down a flight of stairs that adjoined the baggage claim area into a bulging envelope of air that seemed very little better for breathing than the water in an overcrowded or forgotten fish tank, and he might well have fled immediately had he not, on regaining baggage claim, where the luggage was at last coming around on the conveyor belt, found himself again stationed next to the man he had spoken with on the plane, only this time the man was talking about the new ball to someone next to him whom Harry, too nauseous to turn his head and look, imagined was the young woman with the pomegranate hair, and that as the man described the new ball, which was to come in three colors and three corresponding qualities, the young woman was nodding but not really listening — who really listens in such circumstances? — as she watched for her bag, but of course Harry was wrong, it wasn't the young woman at all, as he discovered when, during a break in the delivery, a deep, accented voice said, "You could really lay siege to a course with a ball like that," to which the first man responded, "It'll be like assault and battery, I'm telling you, with this ball, life will be a siege," which series of extraordinary assertions got parsed and twisted in Harry's mind as he hefted his duffel bag and valise off the belt and onto a cart he had secured, then made his way past customs to the exit, into the phrase, "assault on life," which he rather liked, it seeming to represent the inverse of what he had been conducting for quite some few years now, and when he stepped outside into the sunlight, there was a fresh wind that swept out his mouth and nostrils and pleasantly filled the taxi he climbed into then out of in front of the building where, 1,000 years ago it now seemed to him, he had groggily, via the internet, rented a small apartment on a long, curving street, whose stone edifices, none built more recently than the late Inquisition, seemed to Harry, who was very close to falling asleep as he stood absently handing money to the driver, to be about to burst out of their own windows and come crashing down on his head.

Deep slumber should immediately have ensued, but the most annoying part of Harry's nocturnal disorder was that the greater his fatigue the more pronounced it grew, so that instead of immediately and gratifyingly giving himself over to oblivion after the long journey, he was obliged to spend the better part of an hour simultaneously resisting the urge to rip the affected flesh off his burning legs, which felt like an army of invisible termites was settling in for a long stay, or like someone had taken the content of an endless Tarkovsky movie and somehow shoved it under his skin, or like all the hair on his thighs and calves was growing inward at sickening speed, and doing vigorous knee bends and imprecise sun salutations and running through low-level logic puzzles — tedious things to do with knights and knaves — in an effort to trick his mind into thinking he was interested in being awake rather than asleep, which usually, eventually, gave him some relief, and as he went through this prolonged version of what, with certain variations, had over the years become his nightly routine, the low sloping ceiling he had already managed to smack his head against, the faded prints of deltas, root systems, and family trees that hung in worn-out frames from the walls, the dishes stacked precariously on shelves that were manifestly too small for them, the uneven tile that covered the floor of the kitchenette, seemed, as his mind mashed them together, like an extension of the interiors of the unpleasant air terminal and the rattling airplane and the house whose keys now hung in or lay under the forsythia bush, and it was hard not to think, with despair, about the remark a clerk at the local supermarket had made — when Harry, unprompted, had blurted out that he was planning to leave and probably forever — that it was "too bad we have to go with ourselves when we undertake such journeys," although he was quite surprised that when a few minutes later he sank onto his new bed, and began to drift, his thoughts turned not in the direction of the clerk's observation but toward a pair of wire service articles he had read just before leaving for the airport, the first of which had concerned a woman who had been stopped at a border somewhere in Gaza because of her unusual shape and was found to have wrapped three baby crocodiles around her stomach in an attempt to smuggle them into Israel, a discovery that had caused an apparently quite general pandemonium, comprised of screaming and running about, which image had actually been matched, if not exceeded, in its agreeable improbability, by the other article, which announced the recent marriage of the world's tallest person, and showed a picture of him standing with his new bride, who had her arm wrapped around his hips, and which as a kind of afternote, related the key role played by this really very tall person in using his long arms to remove chunks of plastic that had become lodged in a dolphin's stomach, and that would have killed it without his timely intervention, and as Harry made his way, panting slightly, into sleep, a wary but resolute Chinese giant with a trio of dolphins and a small Chinese woman strapped around his midsection led him there.

"Now," said Harry, speaking to the mud-colored pigeon scrabbling away at the inhospitable roof's edge below him, and to the bits and pieces of clouds that were forever threatening, at least since he had been there — how many days had it been? not so many really — to coalesce into something dim and wet, "Now," he said again, "I will begin my assault on life," but where to begin: with a bit of hard sausage and some rosemary goat cheese and certainly a pickle and a bit of bread then some sparkling water, followed by a slice of apple and some additional cheese — blue this time — all of which and more Harry had procured that morning at the city's central market: a gigantic, cheery affair attended by red-faced, thick-fingered men and women who had seemed to him almost grotesquely happy to be hovering over their wares, which were no doubt fine enough, but still, surely not terribly profitable, not to mention constantly threatening to rot or tumble to the ground, plus there had been a chill in the air, something vaguely sinister, and already, even this early in the season, the smell of tour-bus diesel exhaust and brightly clad tourists following locals carrying clipboards and flags, a combination that Harry had found just irresistible enough to attach himself to a group of travelers from India, who after a time had looked at him with such collective fury that he had been obliged, or so it had seemed, to run away at top speed, his heavy bags bonking his knees, "Which means nothing," Harry said to the one-legged pigeon, "What do you know of happiness, or remember of it, not, I imagine, very much," and he brought one of the tiny pickles to his mouth then pulled it away again and turned from the window and the table and made for the near dark of the bedroom, where after staring at the crumpled heap of himself in a wall mirror for several minutes, he said, though without great conviction, "you must be mad."

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Ray of the Star"
by .
Copyright © 2009 Laird Hunt.
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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