Excerpts from “The Vessel.”

by Rallou Lubitz

The archaeologist rows to shore. At her feet lies a clay tablet. The wreck where it was found exists only as an indentation in the sand, way below the waves. Even now, as they row back, it grows less.

She lights the lamp at her desk and makes her first sketch of the tablet. It seems to have writing on both sides. The script shows itself only as a pattern of hollows. It exists in the same way the wreck does.

She begins to translate.

We arrive at the harbour with a stone at its centre.

All night she has worked for a single line. Now almost dawn, even the sea has become silent.

They row out past the mouth of the anchorage, following a warm current, past the sea caves. There are two fishermen, one turns the pump providing her with air, the other places a hook in the water until his turn comes. It is hard to see the shapes beneath the boat as naturally occurring. Each mass of seaweed waving slowly in contrast to the waves above, each mound of sand in the shape of a listing hull is a language. It speaks of others.

After dinner in her room, she attempts another translation.

We arrive at the shore of stones, cypress the shapes of the wind.

How could it be so different, this translation from the previous one? She thought the script was made of phonetic symbols. Turning it over it seems instead she has attempted to translate endless tides engraving each pull of the moon; or the traces of a hermit crab as it has wandered back and forth. She closes her notebook and looks out at the square. Until her eyes adjust to the dark it is as if this place does not exist. Then, slowly, a tree separates itself from a wall. Clouds hovering low in the square become each a mass of leaves. Though there is a moment before each shape becomes more than its outline, when they appear as if they could be read.

She waits as dawn picks out the shape of each fishing boat at the wharf. When they cast off the light is barely on the water. The older fisherman smokes as he rows. The other, who is a similar age to the archaeologist, has gone into the city to buy supplies to repair the nets. Each summer he does this. Each winter they go further out until the shore is not even a dark line on the horizon. His departure to the city means already it is half way to autumn. When winter comes she will have no more money and must leave the village. The older fisherman has brought a coin for her to examine. This is how her evenings used to be spent before she found the tablet. Looking at the finds of the local people, at a statuette with the horns and muzzle of a bull. Turning over a bronze cup that leaves a green imprint where she balanced it on her palm.

Drawing a line through her previous translation, she begins again.

We arrive at the harbour with its baskets of sponges.

… possessing it they never thirst. Neither over long sea journeys where salt glitters on the waves and the air sticks; or in the marshes. Another animal builds its nest atop veins of gold, bronze and iron. Tear down this nest and it will lead you to other riches when it seeks a new site. We destroyed many nests. Dug beneath stones in the desert. Our hands brought forth only water full of creatures with white eyes that writhed on the surface. We followed the birds and lizards circling, rushing back, forwards, calling to their mate. They led us back only to broken eggs, half formed young gaping, hairless. We drank the last of our fresh water. Unable to dig new names for ourselves from gold, bronze, we cannot return. Our old names would fasten to us. We must set out…

Departing, thick stalks of seaweed curl round the helm.

She closes her notebook.

They row out, past a mass of seaweed circled by grey sea birds. Past the rocks that rise in a line from the water. Past caves where the sea rushes in to echo deep within the cliffs. The older fisherman rolls himself a cigarette at the rudder. They let down the nets. When they return it is already dark.

Lighting the lamp she begins.

We arrive at the ruined temple, a few stones frame the sea.

… an endless mass of waves. At dawn they resemble land. Beneath its light we saw red cliffs. Faint yellow harbours unravelling. Before the storm a rolling darkness surged up. We turned towards what must be mountains, hills thick with trees immense above the shore. Breaking, it becomes stinging salt. Again we are on the open sea. Dragging our ships up on to the sand we saw what had marked this shore like a knot in a rope, was ash. Another village burnt. Its people, carvers of ivory, fled. Or we find the white buildings of the port cannot be told from other ports. It seemed all was made of salt water, lost in its constant rise and fall. Years passed. I expected to find only a mound for my village of white houses. Apricots soured on the branches, for the bee filled orchards. Instead how solid my village walls. All intact inside. The stones passed the sun’s heat into my fingers; their breath, all who remain alive.

Departing, the long sea grass on the shore, closes over the stones as a wave.

It appears two phrases remain constant: ‘we arrive at…’ and ‘departing…’, though they do not seem to match the place described within.

Again she begins.

We arrive at the tower of stone in the desert, hollow for hunters to sleep inside.

… drifting we hear a voice lament: to be undone, made nothing. Rows of the dead pulled up on the shore. The inhabitants gather wood. Smoke shrouds the water. We crossed the sea a year ago to trade combs, sweets and garum. Driven back by contrary winds we passed by. This city moves as the tide does. A mirror of the currents. The remaining boats are upside down. Appearing as mound after mound of earth among the waves…

Departing, the clouds low in the sky, shifting from boar to lynx, are the only ones that leave a trail.

She closes her notebook. Each attempt has a sense of arriving at a new destination. As if she has journeyed to five islands along the coast, each an entire day’s rowing from the other. Beginning each translation she feels she sights land suddenly on the edge of a wave; or the imperceptible thickening of clouds into city walls. Closing her notebook there exists the pull of a harbour receding. These places appear to return. They echo in each ridge of lights picking out the spine of an island. Or she hears them described by one of the shepherds forcing his goats through the narrow streets either side of the square. In the way a life remains not only in traces of bone and hair, but in its resemblance to other lives.

The younger fisherman still has not returned from the city. He should have gone by sea but instead decided to walk. This way he will not return for another two or three days. The boat is silent without him. Listening to the waves it seems if she pressed the tablet against her ear she would hear the sea wearing the vessel. If she placed her head against the vessel she would hear the words within the tablet. She may not be able to tell one murmur apart from the other.

The next evening she begins again.

We arrive at the stone lions. Pass through.

… I came to sell cloth. Much time has passed since first setting out. Though the harbour appears to me, little by little; built of thyme exhaling beneath the sun, or from light reflected off the waves at the prow. It builds itself out of sand as I approach the city and pass through the sting of it, to find it fade behind me. I look for it reflected in the water by the roadside. On the city walls the laws are written, the script is familiar but not the sounds. It seems these glimpses are fragments of my return, which being scattered through different lands has ceased to be. I should have been gathering and keeping together all these pieces, to sail into its harbour. Or perhaps its outlines have become blurred with those where they were glimpsed; and returning I will not be able to know my own…

Departing, there are mountains behind the city, pass through.

She makes a note that compound words are born trying to convey something that has never been described before. How few names enclose their subject, rather they sit as a mask laid on a rough sea.

She begins.

We arrive at the waters of gull coloured clouds.

… the axe is lifted, the branches cut. On the shore, towers of kindling lengthen their shadows. Messages of red cloth are tied to the mane and tail of a mare, in the language of the gods. She is let loose on the first day of harvest. Her ears pricked for their footsteps. Fires are lit. Fragrant smoke billows up to draw the skies close. The ash spread across an ox skin, its pattern read. On this lake I wait. On the first day of harvest a city beaten from gold rises to its surface. Rippling with the arduous rising. Some say it is the reflection of the fires on the water. Others, the shadows of gold cups and cattle thrown into the lake. It has the pattern of silence, an uninterrupted wholeness. All year I wait to learn it. To witness its unfurling within the lake’s sigh. The clarity of these patterns, like understanding the progress of a knot. I have seen it cover the lake…

Departing we race against our reflection before the wind.

She closes her notebook. The translation may be incorrect as some words remain untranslatable, becoming instead a reflective surface. In the way the bottom of a well returns the face of who ever gazes on it. All the lights in the village are out. The square is empty. It seems each evening is an echo of the previous one. She goes down to the sea, following the ripples left by the tide. Inscriptions echoing from shore to shore. If she were to copy these patterns into her notebook would she discover the words of the tablet there? In the house closest to the sea, the window of the younger fisherman is lit. He returned yesterday. On the ground outside a net is sewn by his shadow. There is so much to make ready before autumn.

Rallou Lubitz lives in Melbourne, Australia where she runs a small secondhand bookshop with her husband. She is currently at work on a novel.

Smoke and Ashes

by Carlos Bortoni (translated by Toshiya Kamei)

Without telling anyone he celebrated the smoking ban in closed public spaces. After putting up with his old comrades’ smoking for years, he would be able to enjoy his coffee without being exposed to tobacco smoke. Never again would anyone blow smoke in his face, stinging his eyes and aggravating his heartburn. Never again would he be forced to inhale smoke from others smoking around him. Never again would anyone contaminate his coffee with smoke and ashes.

He had spent all his exiled life – more than sixty years – breathing in secondhand smoke without doing anything about it. From the time he stepped on Mexican soil until now, he hadn’t stopped hanging out with his comrades in defeat at different cafés around Mexico City. They always did the same thing: they talked about the Republic, their enemy’s victory without ever mentioning it, their escape through the Pyrenees, and their days in exile while smoking and drinking coffee. Every day he showed up on time, even though he didn’t smoke. About ten years ago their meetings took place at a small café in the Colonia de Valle and around the same time they began to get together every day from eleven in the morning until three in the afternoon. All of them had retired, so they didn’t have to go anywhere and spent their days meeting up with friends, eating with their families, and sleeping in front of the TV before going to bed. Monotony no longer mattered to those who had failed miserably in life.

The news of the smoking ban took everyone by surprise. No one believed it, not even he himself. After developing a vice for decades, they would be forced to improve their physical, mental, and social well-being, as well as that of their families and friends. But only he understood it that way. His comrades took it as the last humiliation they had to suffer before death. There wasn’t any other choice: they would have to break their routine and quit smoking while drinking coffee and brooding over the past…or give up getting together.
He never imagined they would abandon the café. Even though he didn’t say anything either in favor of or against it, he was sure they would accept the ban, that they would refrain from smoking from eleven until three. But the opposite happened: one by one they stopped coming to the café.

It began when they read the sign for the first time: “No smoking in this establishment for your sake and your family’s.” The small café in the colonia, despite its five tables on the sidewalk in the style of a terrace and its large windows, which were open all the time, fell into the category of closed spaces because the air didn’t circulate freely. That day he thought some of them would leave cigarettes alone. And it was not easy to stay put for four hours without taking out their lighters and opening their cigarette packs. In fact, most of them left before three o’clock. Individually and as a group, they had decided to stoically resist the urge to smoke. They resisted, as they had done all their lives. One of them even made a joke: ordering only a glass of water, he said he would embrace a healthy lifestyle from then on.
But the next morning the mood was different. The absence of those who were not present was strongly felt. At the usual table of nine, only six old men were seated.
“They’re probably sick,” he said.
“They decided to stop coming,” someone responded. “Yesterday they said it wasn’t the same.”
“They will shut themselves in their houses,” he said.
“I don’t know.”
Every day someone else was absent.
“I saw them on my way here,” one of them said.”Smoking on the benches in the park.”
“So they will come later. After smoking,” he said.
“I don’t think so. In their other hands they held thermos bottles.”
Two days later only three old men came to the café, which was beginning to fill with a new type of clientele: women who killed time between dropping their children off at school and picking them up.
“We should go to the park.”
“What for?” he asked.
“To smoke,” they answered.
“I don’t smoke,” he mumbled laconically. Then he stared at his cup.
That Friday he sat alone at the table. He never bothered to find out, but obviously his comrades were in the park, talking about the Republic, their enemy’s victory without ever mentioning it, their escape through the Pyrenees, and their days in exile while smoking and drinking coffee.
He kept showing up at the café every morning. He kept sitting at the same table. And he kept asking for cup after another until three in the afternoon. In the eyes of the waiters and new customers who frequented there, he was an artist who fell on hard times. He, who recovered his right to breathe fresh air, spent four hours drinking coffee in silence.

Never missing a single day, he went to the café. Even when it became obvious that none of his comrades would come back. Even when he admitted he missed chatting with them, and now instead, he would ask for another coffee, ignoring the heartburn it gave him. He drank cup after cup of coffee when the silence at his table became unbearable and the conversations around him turned lively and animated. So he took unhurried sips, but without interruption. Nothing stopped him, not even the gastric reflux burning his esophagus. There was no reason to put down his cup before it reached his lips, laugh or disagree with what he had just heard, much less forget about his coffee in front of him, which would get cold while he remembered, with the others’ help, how they managed to escape the enemy’s siege.

One afternoon, at a quarter to three, he began to throw up blood. While someone was calling for an ambulance and others were trying to help him with napkins that were soon soaked red, he died with his face pressed against the table next to his cup.

No one smoked at his funeral. His old comrades went outside for a cigarette. His wife and children decided to cremate him. But that was another decision made in the name of coexistence: cemeteries take too much space. And ashes, which are easier to handle, can be scattered easily or placed inside a small urn.

Carlos Bortoni was born in Mexico City in 1979 and still lives there today. He studied history at the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia. His books include El imperio soy yo (2007) and Perro viejo y cansado (2007). English translations of his fiction have appeared in In Other Words and Johnny America.

Blue Primitives Wild By Tyler D. Findlay.

The water was cold and no one was home so it felt like he could die in it.  Kenneth stood there naked, forcing himself to embrace the onslaught of ice water rushing over him.  The gas bill had gone unpaid for months.
He stepped out of the shower into the warm late summer air carried in through open windows.  Toweling off, he saw no reason to clothe himself and roamed nude through the house smoking a cigarette.
He watched it hang in the air.
Drift toward a window.

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The Great They by Janet Yung.

It suddenly smells like back to school.  Harriet can’t identify the source triggering the memory, but that’s the image conjured up when she finally gets around to opening the morning paper a little after lunch.

She takes a deep breath thinking maybe it smells like the book bag she had in grade school.  The kind they don’t make anymore.  Of course, there are a lot of things they don’t make anymore.  That notion sets her to thinking momentarily who the great “they”, who’ve controlled and defined her life, might actually be.

“You need to be specific,” was the one thing she tried to instill in her ninth grade English classes.  “Site an example,” she’d repeat with every class as she critiqued the load of papers she assigned and then returned with grades running the gamut from D to A.  Fs and A+s being rare.

Sad so few students stood out in her thirty year tenure, eventually fading into the group comprising the “they:”  The only thing distinguishing one group from another, the current clothing trend.  Most of the students she remembered were from her early years on the job.  Early years when she imagined she could make a difference.

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