Damnatio ad Bestias

Photo by Octavio Fossatti

When you put the glasses on your cat, those huge plastic jobbies, the boxy ones with the rounded edges — when you sling those things around the poor animal’s head and he closes his eyes, do you know what he sees?

I do.

And if you could see what I see, you would be running for the hills right now — or at least for that shadowy spot behind the couch, because the cat’s daddio told him he must never go there.

What the cat sees when you put the glasses on his head is the arena, the Coliseum. It’s been passed down generation after generation, down through damned DNA, man. He sees the Coliseum and he sees you being thrown into it, the sand making you wince as it dances up into your eyes and into the cuts where they’ve bound you. He sees himself circling you, his belly empty and growling, the roars of the animals in the stands drowning out the bellow that he looses from his wet jaws, from deep down within his gut. He sees you as the flesh that you are, the meat, and he licks his chops before he moves in for the kill.

So, go ahead and put the glasses on his head and snap the photo and hashtag it and pray that you get all the likes, all of them. Go ahead and enjoy your small victory, little man, because in the cat’s head, where it really counts, it’s getting all damnatio ad bestias up in here, and there ain’t a damn thing you can do about it.

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His sister’s birthday was in August, the last gasp of summer, and they and their cousins celebrated with sparklers and any other fireworks their fathers had been too drunk to set off on the Fourth of July. Bottle rockets, Roman candles, and Catherine wheels — it all had to go. And so, it all went. One year, the fire department came, called on them at dusk by nosy Mrs. Brown next door, the sky purple above Nantucket Sound. Grampy, who did work on their engines for cheap money, he smoothed things right over.

But this year, this year there had been no explosions, no joy, just a trip to the cemetery to freshen up the plants before the flight back home to get the semester underway. It’d been five weeks to the day, and though Michael knew he should get on with things, that Ashley would’ve wanted him to take his turn to celebrate, he couldn’t shake the feeling that even a slice of cake would be too much.

He’d been born two years before his sister and five weeks after her, and his birthday, at the beginning of October, often passed by with very little fanfare. School was always back in session, and everyone was a little more distracted than they’d been when summer was coming to a close and it seemed like holding onto the moment really mattered; there was no time to hold onto anything when a world of new knowledge was being thrust at you, upon you. Sometimes there would be a party for Michael’s birthday, sometimes not, but what he remembered most of all was the big deal that Ashley always made.

Sometimes, especially when they were little, she made a big deal by pounding the shit out of him — kicking him in the shins or shoving him around the house, calling him dummy over and over — but she always made a point of clinging to his shadow on his birthday like her life depended on it. If he was black and blue at the end of the day, that wasn’t what he was thinking about; no, instead, he’d be obsessing over how he’d almost beaten Ashley at Double Dribble, how she’d actually played it with him when every other day of the year she’d tell him it was a crap game that wasn’t worth the time it would take to blow out the cartridge.

But now, now she wasn’t here. Now, he was sitting in his office, watching a thunderstorm roll in off the Pacific, staring at the darkened screen of a phone that wasn’t going to ring. His wife was in the next room, keeping the guests entertained with some story about the time they’d all surprised him on his birthday in college, surprised him so good that he fell back against the wall outside the classroom and slid to the floor. She would be in a moment to check on him, to hold him as he cried over what he’d lost, but that wasn’t what he needed, not really.

What Michael needed, more than anything else in the world, was his sister back. What he needed was the kick in the ass that only a sibling can give, the kind of love that hurts, the kind of hurt that loves.

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Photo by Larisa Birta

Photo by Larisa Birta

I don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking at, but I know that I’m supposed to look pretty while looking. Maybe it’s just the smoke I’m focused on, the smoke wafting through the air from off camera. Maybe this is a smoke plant. Maybe they make smoke here, the same way that factories in music videos once manufactured nothing but sparks. I’m not sure, but I’m not being paid to be sure; I’m being paid to hold one hand to my throat and the other atop my lap. I’m being paid to wear a white dress too pristine for these graffitied walls, to sit upon dirty steps and play the part of the only pure thing left. I’m being paid to clutch my thighs together beneath the skirt, but to splay my legs apart below the knees. The director saw this in a movie once and swears that it conveys a sense of demureness despite every evidence on the contrary, from the v-neck to the bare shoulders to the strappy heels.

I think he’s full of shit, but I’m also being paid, I suppose, to keep that opinion to myself. An unwritten rule, that one. But one that you learn if you want to work. At least if you want to work more than once.

So, I keep my lips sealed and I stare at the smoke, and all the words I want to say pile up in my mouth and arrange themselves in such a way that he is saying ‘Yes, that’s the look’ to me again and again. Is it a smirk? Is it a bitchy resting face? I don’t know. But he sounds pleased. And for now, for now that’s enough.

The car payment’s due tomorrow, rent the day after that, and I’ve got two voicemails and a text from Mama’s nursing home to return before the week is out. So, I take every sleazy little ‘Yes’ he gives me and I put it in the pocket I imagine for myself, the pocket this dress doesn’t have. Every grunt of assent is another check that I can cash.

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Parting the Sea

Photo by Viktor Jakovlev

The boy wades into the water at sunset, smiling as the waves splash against his small body and split in two. It is a comfort, watching some small part of the world acknowledge him. Back on shore, his parents may have their phones so close to their faces that the screens think Mom and Dad’s noses are trying to say something. But here, here in the water, all of the universe seems to be paying attention.

Half of his body is light, the other dark. He shifts his body back and forth in the water to see if he can light up all of it at once. But before he can complete the experiment, his eyes are drawn again to the water, where he is no longer just a thing which the waves crash against, but a maker of waves himself.

He laughs straight from his belly, a most joyful noise that ends only when his mother screams for him in her shrill voice, waving her arms in admonishment instead of coming out to get him, because heaven forbid she should get her phone wet.

As he starts back toward her, just before he settles into a slouched amble, he sees her glance back down at her screen. He thinks about splashing her, but knows he won’t. Knows he can’t. She’ll never bring him back here if he does. And he has to come back. He just has to. Out here, he matters. Out here, the water tells him so. The sun, too.

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Photo by Nguyễn Linh

Photo by Nguyễn Linh

He thinks of each word as a fish that he must catch. But, more than that, he thinks of each word as a living thing that must be honored and respected; every piece of it must be used. Everything it is used for must matter.

Words are not potato chips, he thinks, as he looks over the slush pile, trying to come up with a metaphor he doesn’t hate after spending an evening with comparisons that barely make sense, when the writers even dare to make them at all. Words are not meaningless wafers, manufactured to be tossed into a bowl and consumed by the fistful. No, they are fish.

They are fish!

Or anything that was once alive. Maybe they are deer or cows, chickens or pigs. If you slaughter them, as one must slaughter one’s darlings, you must do so with care. You must honor them!

There’s more he wants to say, about how writing is work, about how the writer should look to the fisherman for inspiration and not the magician. But he is tired and he remains unconvinced that his words of advice will make sense to those he is advising. And, if the words make sense, he remains unconvinced that the people who should be listening are hearing anything at all except the sounds of their own mastication. They are eating their own words and no one else’s, eating them and never tasting them, swallowing them only because they need to go somewhere.

Or something, he writes.

Go to bed, he thinks. And try again tomorrow.

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