Finley J. MacDonald
Children of the Periphery
A neglected pavement led her along row houses like bludgeoned caskets and shipyards gone to dogs and tugs dissolute and tilting from their keels—a watchtower from before the Devastation laid to rest in hogwire like a capsized lamp. To be a Joan Arg, the mig Aldegun said had saved a great nation, she could hardly shrink from the ruined precincts (and what were they but dungeons of the heart, incarnated in iron and stone?) Aldegun had opened out the tome of pre-Devastation paintings and tapped a fat finger, grumbling in the rusty mothtrap of his throat. This mig reminded him of her. Her name was Joan Arg. She’d delivered a great nation from jeopardy. Her skin was pale, lips ruby. Aldegun showed her another painting—Joan Arg trussed to a post, wreathed in flames, face raised, as if to a lover, under faintly blooded clouds.
She skirted low-rises amassing banks of trumpet brush, broken mesh and staves, and she forded a stone bridge over greasy pools. A bald landrace led her through an echoing passage puddled and strewn and rustflaked. Upon a terrace severed by a gully choked with broken baskets and roof tiles and cobblestones, gusts raked back her hair. Beyond the ruin—over cloudbusters with their piles in the sea and cable cars pinned at intervals—a flash storm was arching like pale jaguars smudged with coal oil. In the distance, the cross-city rail labored, blue-plumed and thumping.
She took square-timber steps down between slabs and wallgaps filled with stairways and injured displays. And there they lounged. Bald, small-mouthed children posing along a wall and lankier, topknotted yegs perching on heaps of rubble, longarmed and dangling odd trinkets, shirtless or wearing garments sewn from stolen rags, hands and arms tattooed with stars and numerals. One tilted up a bottle of fortified ale. It clinked to broken tile. He scuffed his heel. Another gouged the stony meal by his leg. A stripling pushed a smoking butt to his mouth, the hand tiny and trembling and fragile like an infant’s. He held her in a steady and melancholic regard. A thinarmed yeg, crouching in a hollow under rusted pipes, thrust his chin and peeped, querulous and urgent. His cheekbones jutted, and his eyes were dolorous and gray. His colorless lips kept up their nickering, part derision—part imploration. She was close enough to run her palm over his skull. She saw herself as if from above. The collapsed parasol brushing her leg, her pumps jingling broken tiles. Her face—the lipstick a shade called “fearless” in its pale center—gliding past his, looking into his, turning from his.
She walked until catcalls broke to savage merriment behind a ridge of multiple peaks. In sorrel baths, frogs exchanged coarse murmurs. Crackbeaks were repeating liquid trills. The parasol shook. The ruin ended. Myrtle-collared palms lined the thoroughfare. Down the length of a wall ran the watchword HE IS COMING, and a tire was trickling smoke. Her heels broke glass as she stepped around a steam buggy with its windshield caved in. She could breathe now, gazing into the tradesmen’s fantastic darkened shops, reeking of grease; the beautiful skates, lean and shirtless and smoking behind outrageous banks of tools and fixtures spilling into a craze of wire, iron cadavers, buckets of nails, broken carts, and heaps of wood and stripped rubber.
She crossed under the tattered, leonine image upon the blade-crowned wall—her pumps knocking under the languid, contemptuous face, puckered and torn, repeating itself alongside the street, where brown leaves slid like crescents of cut leather. I can now see objects as they are. That black landrace nosing refuse. The wastrel slumped and rubbing his heel. The waitresses dozing on their arms like pigeons with folded wings. Did Joan not require a sporadic rebirth from the catatonia of unease? Did she point out the man and usher him into her tent before each battle? One morning, she had climbed over the rail outside the flat. With her hand on the hot rail, she had edged over a pacific rush, fishing for a garment. The day after she’d married, she’d washed bowls and burnt pots from the wedding feast. She had gone to the village to buy meat and vegetables. While the pot simmered, she scrubbed feculent grease behind the stove. He came in late. He had white liquor with his stew.
“What is in this?”
“A bit of pepper, and I got a price on—”
“Did you walk to market?”
“I caught a lift.”
He clenched the spoon, his face long as if squeezed between walls. A high bulge started the ramp of his nose, and his eyes, glazed in some kiln of strife, looked through and not at, disacknowledging present objects.
“From today, go by foot. Did you spent it all?”
“All of it? I am not a rich man. I will not have a wife who spends while I labor. Nor an idle one. Tomorrow, you will order that area in back. I mean to till and for you to plant. In good weather, and this is bloody good, use the charcoal burner—save on woodoil.”
Veins bulged rhythmically at his temple and his spoon clicked as he bent over the bowl on a table surfaced in white pre-Devastation tiles and grouted seams. Hip-level along the wall ran a double row of hubcaps of ancient motor buggies dug out of the ruins high on Utterjabock Cay. Later, he undid the line of tin buttons in his goat-hair drugget. His shoulders were scarred and hardened and abscessed. His trousers of brown canvas, called brasspants, hissed down his thighs. In the wedge-shaped window behind him, built around buggy glass, a sprig of oleander lolled and the light of a naptha lamp that her father had won off a sailor glimmered between broken slats of the tumbledown fence that separated Slee’s holdings from her father’s. The long-faced man rolled a cigarette and lowered himself into the wooden tub. What else was he but the outcome of her battle with Old Nean, her father? The hard violent angel of a reckoning forged in the conviction that she should learn her place, realigning the points of a fundamental order. In the last act, squeezing a sponge over the shining, lumpy shoulders, she located her willingness. I will try I will try I will try I will try I will try. A mastering of darkness through a closing of the eyes—even as the cay partridge will remain frozen as you grasp its tail. Howbeit, under cover of her I will try I will try I will try I will try I will try, another instinct operated—or for what purpose had she misinstructed Slee about the pennies?
By midmorning, the instinct had taken over—to the point of impelling her over the rutted track that led along row oaks to the village (which abutted the wharf), the woven strap of the canvas bag over her shoulder. Within the bag, a last gift from her friend Wye, who had left (escaped?) Utterjabock Cay, was a blouse, a neckerchief, hairbrush and pins, and the pennies. She had not packed it. She’d been perching on the sawbuck, pushing barrow gut in a tub of brine, the door open, its iron rings shining, spiked to heavy oak. She thought, I’ll just step through to get away from this stinking gut. As she passed the iron rings, her hidden part, still under cover of I will try I will try I will try chose its moment. Grab the bag. Just keep walking. Don’t stop. Be quick. You will not get a second chance. Watching her alien feet stepping over the moke’s shit apples, she thought, Slee, don’t you lose a wheel pin. If I catch sight of you, I will throw this bag. I’ll say I was going for victuals. Oh, if you catch me you will take me to school if not murder me where I stand. I tried, I tried, I tried to be that. But I can’t be.
Stepping from the ferry over a narrow, flashing channel, the reel of her mind had not ceased to mill its own astonishment and guilt. I tried to be that. I couldn’t. I found that I could not be that. I could not be a drying shell which you pop with your thumb, a womb curling as it dies and offers itself for the sake of a row of hard beans in an endless, concatenated procession. She climbed the wharf in violent light. Cleavers shone, knocking through heads of fish. Flies whirled and crawled on rocking mutton quarters. Blinking fowls huddled in cages. Curs bickered over trash. I couldn’t be a shell which dies (and not to initiate some eventual glory, an unfolding of wings and promise of flight, nor even to leave behind an ornate shape upon the sand) in the service of a sluglike onward concatenation. To maintain the cycle of capitulate transformation of child to hardmouthed factotum—to that flat and sallow slattern wiping asses of and cleaning behind ears of and setting pots of scorched porridge before whelps and mending rags in shadow and in sullen and watchful resentment and taking a dick like a flattened hen or as a moke with a twisted ear takes the harness and all this under a roof wrapped round by a slat fence that you don’t bother to fix because you know that what it fences is ultimately nothing but a hardscrabbled concatenation of a blind and motile appetence. Sputtering lasers, the sun played upon rows of barred windows like harp strings, wobbling from a glaring, back-beaming building so tall you had to bend your spine to see its top. Like sheep on the wing, buzzbikes came bleating, and curs giggled, and in the socket of some alley, a radio muttered.
In a narrow ribbon of shade at the base of a pumice-colored low rise, she broke a seam in her bag, tearing into the hidden pocket where she’d tucked the scrap with the address in Wye’s handwriting, and she pulled it out and unfolded it, wending on in a flux of men, unicycles, steaming Phaetons and Cabriolets, wagonloads of finger limes and melons. Hammers echoed and steamdrills rattled and whelps raised begging bowls. In bottle-littered entrances, stolid women done up in scarlet plumage smoked and beckoned to anyone. Before a group of migs with bare thighs and fur-trimmed boots, she showed the address, and they all pointed along a raised and rattling omnibus track.
She stood before a narrow tenement building with bars over the windows. She mounted the mesh-iron platform where a rat, smashed in the grid, bared yellow teeth. The iron door swung open, and she caught it and climbed to a charred landing, where she stood looking at the number stamped among tongues and glue on the inner door. She pulled out the neckerchief from her bag and wiped her face. She picked up the moveable link and tapped. The door swung in, and a woman with a lipless mouth peered out both ways, framed by the iron diamond, as if to make out some threat back of the perspiring mig on her landing.
“Pardon me. Is this the home of E. Sincross?”
The woman ran the back of her hand under her nose.
“Sincross. Could be the old woman who lived here. Died about a year back. I live here now, me and Bilbray.”
Back out on the foot pavement, she wiped her neck with the cloth. She passed under a stone entablature into a vast and echoic hall. She reached a door assigned Ladies and Pennies only and heard a trickle of water beyond the wrought-iron grid. Outside, she leaned against a colonnade. Edifices towered pale in the heat (each could house entire villages) with dark bands under their cornices—like stone warriors on a millennial watch. Devouring a green apple, she wobbled back down the steps. A dray in blinders was clopping past, throat shining, wine-stained under the harness. Outside tarp edges glossed the ice. She trudged on, searching the gutter for a penny. She came to a canal bridge, where she rested on the rail, thinking, if only I find one penny, I can pay the ferry back before the cockfighting ends. Wash the barrow gut and start soup. Clear out that back area fast. Pretend to be sick, maybe. But he will know.
Halfway up a rise she came again upon the ice wagon now with pavers blocking its rear wheels. Beneath the endgate, lines of droplets were feeding rivulets. A crowd had gathered about the hitch. With the driver at its head, the dray lay still, eyes half closed, legs stiff, nostrils flaring over a pool. Someone tipped a bucket, and the stony jaw streamed. The head rocked, the tail lashed, and the hooves scraped cobblestones. It rest with wide-open nostrils, ribs heaving. She wiped her brow with the soaked neckerchief. Before her, the crowd and green-and-yellow patchwork mingled in a dizzy, adulterated mash.
A wart-studded, bespectacled man with a pouch joining his chin and neck was deploring the fate of the dray. The driver says he is twelve. Says he tripped. Bloodyhell, these drivers push their horses. That ice will not last in this heat. He ought to let folks have at it. The man stood disheveled in his straining, paint-spattered shirt, his smile bland and constant over a wobbling gullet, his skin gray-brown as the city. Droplets of sweat slid along the lines of his forehead. Where are you from? What are you doing here? Do you know? A flower in your hair, and you’d look quite like a model very famous in her day, Victorine Meurent. Around her cay, stonefish lie knobbed and spiked, blending in at the bottom of pools and on rocky shoals, thick lips frowning, fins clasping the bottom. Between tumid fore cheeks, the man’s solemn, woody eyes measured hips, breasts—the length of her neck. If you are dying of hunger, you’ll do better than to cast stones at stonefish. All he will want is that. Better that than the other.
Aldegun put her up in a boarding house. When he was feeling well, she’d sit for him in his studio, a room with Queen Horsanet drapes. Among lampshades like skirts of firewalkers, stuffed chairs supported gold-framed paintings of naked children in hats. Upon an iron stand, a tank bubbled. The eel within butted and displayed a pearly belly, a frill about the flattened club of its tail. Wheezing and shuffling like a hamstrung boar, Aldegun would trundle out his wheeled bench laden with crimped paint tubes. As he worked, the scent of tung oil pervaded the studio. The palette knife would click. Wearing only pumps, she’d lie upon a heap of white dutchwives, the black ribbon of Olympia about her neck, a yellow bracelet upon her wrist. Sitting required presence, like that of the white-clad fishermen that she’d see between boarding house and studio, silhouetted against the full, platinum glare—a race of physicians waiting for ailing pontiffs or princes sick with love.
As she came near her flat, trees were swaying like mothers with newborns. Awnings sizzled, and rain slapped down, a yellow, lamp-blurring gush that drove across bay rum trees and horse-eye beans, sputtering on manholes, flushing leaves, newsprint, and meat wrappers beyond red heaps of a dug trench. Parasols bobbed, a welded couple slid, and a copyboy up on pedals fired past her. Under a cornice of her building, a man (in Center-speak, a friend) stood apart from a crowd pressed against the wall. He was throwing glances up the railing, his shoulders spotted with raindrops. He wore a tie. She had not seen him in weeks. His name? He’d said, we yegs of the Berzandia State School were a damnable slurry poured into premade lives in the shape of actuarial suits. Easy money, said the receptionist with the pixie haircut, pointing into the black folder. A navy hagiographer looking for a guide. As she closed the gap to where he stood tall and alone, a koel was whooping, and then she caught him by the sleeve, and the horse-eye beans lashed great droplets at them, and she pulled him along the wall, and she pushed the long key into the oiled lock.
The wind slammed the door behind them. She shook her parasol while he checked papers in his satchel. He shot a look at her muddy pumps. What the hell? You picked up that mud between here and the Center? As she led him up the stairs, his voice echoed between walls of ecru, gashed and peeling, and goblin’s heads of mildew, and thunder boomed in the stairwell and rain knifed across broken windows. Behind a door, a spasmodic vocal embrace mounted to a high, pithy crick. On the landing, she tugged mail from the slot. Water bill. Envelopes. Advert for the basalt pyramids: the sun auguring light between jet triangles of sea, an invitation to immigrant laborers to leave behind their whelps and make—history! She felt for the key on its ring, and she jimmied the doorlock.
“I am letting you into a wreck. I haven’t had time to clean.”
“I won’t judge.”
“Keep on your shoes.”
She picked off her muddy pumps and slipped into slippers and hung the parasol and reticule on hooks by the door and laid mail on the kitchen counter. Above the sink, a grackle clung and sidled. The kitchen smelled of paint, and a hollow radio voice was emanating from the roommate’s bedchamber. At the table, framed by the sitting-room doorway, the man flopped down, sleeves folded, tie loose, jaw brilliant and damp. At his elbow lay the ashtray, dice, a handbill marked in the roommate’s writing. On the wall above his shoulder, like a bobbin on a sepulture, hung the bi-directional phone. When she spoke into the mouthpiece, her voice echoed, as if the “friends” resided in lairs along a subterranean cavern. She switched on a rattling fan. She brushed her shoulders and checked the level of water in the kettle and screwed a flint into the lighter. She twisted the knob and struck the flint, and the burner flared and settled to a blue ring. She put the kettle on, found a towel in a drawer, and brought it to him.
“I don’t believe I gave you my address. How did you find me?”
“I didn’t exactly. I saw the masses of plants on the fire escape.”
“I spent the night in the archive. Going back I was dead on my feet, and I saw that I was on your street, the very one you described—with the prison wall and the posters of the killer. I don’t have an umbrella. The busses are not running. So I was on the lookout for you.”
While he patted his face, she stepped past the roommate’s dim four poster, pulled her own door, and closed herself off. The honking and sputtering of steam buggies from the street below filled the room as she stood before the closet and mirror. The dress puddled at her feet. She dropped another garment over her head and tugged the waist. She picked up her garment and draped it over a chair. He was still toweling as she passed. In the kitchen, she pushed her arms into a paint-speckled apron.
“Warned you it’s a wreck.”
He dropped the towel on the table.
“Not at all. It is neatly kept.”
“I will kick you out after a spell. I have to leave. We are constructing flats this afternoon.”
He smiled blankly.
“Well the play I told you about.”
“I’m afraid my roommate—”
“An unexpected guest. I understand.”
In the kitchen, she scrubbed bowls, circling her hand to rinse, sliding plates to the shelf above, toeing the trash can. She squeezed the cloth and draped it over the faucet and twisted her hands in the apron and hung it, and she watered the rubber tree. Beyond the window pane, slow marbles were falling between slantwise cords, and drops slipped along the iron rail and whitened and fell among clivia and potted palms. A cracked lower roof shone. Umbrellas glided for cover in a cross-angled, helter-skelter boxwork cloistering away massive camphors and palms tossing glittering chevrons. In the expanse beyond the clutter of rooftops stretched a dim bridge.
She filled tea jars and bore them to the table and followed that with a bowl of rinsed oranges. She found the pre-Devastation postcards on a chair by the roommate’s bed, and she set them before him on the table. “These are interesting.” She sat down to face him, her palms on the sides of her seat. Beyond him, the flat looked mousey and battered, with a stitched tear in the settee, mildew in the corners, spiderwort spreading roots in a jar. Another radio with wires strung from the antennae. He gazed at the stack in his hand and slid postcards and blew on his tea.
“Lot a streets blocked. I had a view of the riot yesterday from the steps of the Hoggormurin building. Do you know the look a screw takes on before he beats up his lackey?”
“A sort of bellicose popping of the eyes. And he swells up—like one of those frilled lizards.”
“A classic male expression.”
“Well. You have me there.”
The rain increased. The man picked white pith from an orange before prying it open and breaking a section and throwing it into his mouth. The crushed slits of his eyes traced the roommate’s painted wall vines: an expression of bleak interest this face might have invented. He’d looked that way over the battered shell case before paying for it and dropping it in his rucksack—peered that way into the cave-like shops under leeched canopies. And then they went along, she pointing out the distant cays and the pre-Devastation foundations between sheetgray roofs and grimy cottages. At the beach, they walked under oil palms with trunks sloughing layers of burlap, and waves gathered, green where the light shown through, lifting tar-hatted fishermen in their skiffs under the white conflagration of the sun.
“I couldn’t write my own biography,” he’d said, strolling. “It’d be full of lapses. I can’t remember my protempore’s face. Only his flat, bare chest in our shanty. His sirenic tattoos. His skinny arm pulling down the handle, that bucket heaping with flanges. I remember my older brother. The last thing he said was, I can swim that. That was my brother. I can jump that; I can climb that; I can cross over that. And he could, mostly. It had rained the river up. I took his threads. He climbed down the broken bridge and into the current. It was brown and surging, bearing along trash. His head came up, and he shook his hair. Then he was hooking his way across. I ran along through stands of bamboo, but I lost him. When the rain turned to hail, I hid out under a tree. Balls of ice got bigger and bigger, popping all around. I went home and sat there with his threads over my lap while our protempore bent flanges. I am still waiting. Any moment, he will be along.”
Behind the man’s hand, black leaves swelled and slipped down to a thick bed at the bottom of his tea jar. He slid up his sleeve and stroked his arm. “This rain gives me fucking hives.” He smiled grimly at the roommate’s bedroom. The announcer was evaluating the chances of the candidates. “Who,” he said, “do you like, if anyone, in the election?”
“I don’t have a clear idea about them. I am not political. Maybe the Lady in Black. ‘Earthly betterment is a journey of the heart.’” Listening to the radio address of the Lady in Black from the radio below her loft bed, she heard the gentle diction, like a messianic hand, assuaging the heat, the madness of the streets. Citizens of Hoggormurin—there are those who have leveled this charge—that we stand in the way of reindustrialization; on the contrary, we welcome reindustrialization; we hope for a virtuous reindustrialization; and we call for a reindustrialization set firmly on a foundation of justice. As she lay in her bunk, impressions would flash behind her eyelids. Detailed, sensual, visual archetypes, stallions with veins and exquisite musculature, clots flying along their flanks.
The man chuckled over the rim of his jar.
“You doubt it.”
“I feel goddamn cynical about it. Forgive me. This—grinding deluge has me down. Elicits unhelpful flashes of memory. After my brother was gone, you know, I’d see a chair or a cup or a book or a radio or a birdcage—I’d be awash in contempt. Burn it all. And if something did, I’d go out to watch. It was in that spirit, I suppose, that I stood on the Hoggormurin Tower steps watching the screws beat down immigrants. There you have it. I’m not proud.”
“I understand. A painter I knew died a couple of weeks back.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“It wasn’t unexpected. A mercy, actually. He was ill.”
“How did you know him?”
The man pushed the stack of postcards. On top, a horseman was pursuing a herd of cattle into a pall of dust. He drew from his satchel a trench lighter with the islands of Berzandia on the face. He tapped a cigarette, poked it to the flame, and the lines in his forehead deepened. He drew an ankle and blew smoke. He set the cigarette across the tray. He picked the cigarette up again and tapped the drooping ash. His eyelids closed for a moment and opened, his mouth a straight, amused line. The cigarette was poised at his temple, smoke curling up calligraphic and blue. He gazed at her and around the room, his eyes seeming to lose and recover focus. The fan was rattling, and threads of smoke peaked and flattened through the bars where the grackle paced and pointed up his beak.
“Would you like more tea?”
He shook his head. He tapped the table and smiled, eyebrows up, head down, as if he possessed inside knowledge. She rose and tidied the sitting room. “I have to leave in a minute. I’m sorry about that. I can lend you a parasol.” She dropped a mirror in a drawer. She picked up a hat from the settee and stepped through the doorway into the shadow near her roommate’s four poster and placed it on the corner table. Against the plum wall, tops of perfume bottles were lined up like polished chimneys. A pinwheel tilted from a vase, and a doll rest against the wall. She could hear the scrape of his chair. He stood in the doorway. She faced him coming into the room. He was only a shape. He might have been a gondolier. An Assyrian runner. A rider of mastodons from the plain of Doggerland. He swayed forward, got her under the arm, placed his flat hand on her sternum, and shoved her onto the four poster.
Pre-Devastation music was fading in and out, exultantly bird-brained: rainhonkers morose and shimmying. A million needles pricked the windowpane. While thunder blasted, rolling from one end of the ceiling to the other, and mare’s tails lashed the city and its ruins, she squeezed her calves round him, riding his hipbones, driving her fingers into his hair, pulling down his head beside hers, cradling, beneath some wild and beatific shadow, another lost child of the periphery.