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Robert Calabrese


Totentanz in a Bushel of Lentils

A sort of beetle, just mated disgusting with armored half-shell winglets and the type of mandibles that seem enormous—though they are quite small in the scheme of things transfixing—because they evoke in the human mind some ante-millennial instinct, fear of typhus, or malaria, or staff, or whatever might be born on the primordial mouthparts of a being with lowly table manners; a sort of beetle that crackles like tallow when plunged into flame by its own phototactic misdirection or a boy with a stick stroke-coaxing it to take a hold with its serrated jaws; just mated and dying with nauseating pathos, falling lightless, blind and inadherent—what is it that lets go inside to allow a thousand droplets of surface tension bubbling out its sticky setae like the carefully measured notes of a gymnopaedia retract in an instant, and they fall—raining off my shoulders, a minor distraction in the numb dead-center of early morning Columbus, Ohio, where men and bugs lose their grip on reality, quietly, and without noticing one another; onto the paint-chip porchboards with the crisp crack of exoskeletons and improbability, into the tapered necks of beer bottles with adulterating fecal plops, wings serving only to scuttle a once uncanny airship, insidious props impelling each into the suffocating foam.

Such is the scene this torrential morning, at 3 a.m., when cats bound fifteen feet or more to snatch tiny lives from the trees and worms pour out of the earth like dybbukim rising from Gehenna, only to drown in concrete puddles, and beetles shudder epileptic and helpless and I feel nothing but the memory of a washed-out sense I would have once described as horror, and a hope that the trees keep growing.

The night coughed a sudden sound, the cat-snatched sparrow screeching its distress then, lung-punctured and hopeless, reaching with all its oscine skill for the closed cadence that would end its Dies Irae—Tuba, mirum spargens sonum per sepulchra regionum, coget omnes ante thronum.

See the socket separate, the ligaments hold fast and break, does the cat’s stomach turn? as it plies its grisly trade; do its moiled bowels provoke a certain appetite? or do slight and sinuous sights of unwrapped fowl cream its instincts into frothy satisfaction?

A malignant absorption; will of merciful nature; the coupling of Pluto and Mars which manifest complexity through the simplest of algorithms: lend wing to every flight of fancy, and tooth to those that do not fledge.

Was it the sparrow’s senses which failed him, or perhaps his temperament, a faulty brain chemistry expressed as the phenotypical predilection for hedgerows slight of stature—where were ye Nymphs when the remorseless deep, clos'd o're the head of your lov'd Lycidas? Every form in the universe is exactly calibrated and passes through the same matrix, but verily, we are all subject to historical contingency, and death alone is not enough to deem one nature’s reprobate.

Disease is. It makes us. It may even have created us. It belongs to this state of activity which we call life, and what convention calls health is, after all, no more than this or that passing aspect of a morbid condition, frozen into an abstraction.

Life then, is what? a phenomenal manifestation of the noumenon Disease. Does then each of Nature’s aborted efforts, in its essence, remain extant in the noumenal realm? It feels more likely that individuals are their own essence, and such an essence once spent would retain no ontological substance to sustain it? Who’s to say when nothing is without motion, when form comes into focus only as concentrated activity and even abstractions sweat and grow disheveled?

I will continue reading poetries and encyclopedias, plighting my troth intermittently to lousy pictures of women in lingerie—The thyrsus, in my right hand shall I hold it?—unable to keep it all in, to keep anything in, let it all fly to land spent again, a dealated termite after its winged nuptial, its mort-par-vagin.

There are only two valid questions. The first is ontological: why is there something instead of nothing; the second ethical: why should I be something instead of nothing? All others are either permutations, or else matters of relativity.

For the sake of a previous plan which, manifest from nothing and by no volition of my own expanded as if impelled by some cosmological constant, these thoughts will be set aside, pressed behind is more the feeling, damned up, a torrent behind the tension of the thing, but what of when the thing is done, and the cables of necessity relax their creaking filaments? What then, when the dam, no longer in use or in need of one’s micro-maintenance, when it ages a thousand years in a day and crumbles and the deluge comes crashing down upon you? What will be the nature of this postdiluvian age, when time and consequence total their sums and memories undergo their hypostasis and the future falls proleptic like the stocks and stones of so many well-laid deadfalls on the head of he who dared upon its trigger, faults beneath the mantle of activity, waiting on a finger touch from God to wipe out human fault.

A rain, slick and cold on my bare skin, head-egg pounds, an oily gin has left me numb with bleary eyeballs staring from within at 6 a.m., nothing left to dream about; hoping the rhythm of the droplets loosed from their work of adhesion in the feet of spent arthropods might extract me from myself, to commune with bits of existence small enough to ring in single pitches without the mud of timbre, a sense of quanta in my bones creaking like an old man’s back in an antique bed that will die with him, new in his mind as time collapses and things thought gone become but layers of a place, new as the first day he bought it with wife in tow, thinking dirty thoughts. The wind sweeps by like Kansas, like two teens struck by puberty in spent fields of chaff, not knowing where to begin. It catches the underside of some soggy, far-off newspaper and hefts it suddenly airborne, flapping back and forth but anchored to the ground by a mass that my egg-eyes are just resolving, and it strikes me then, sipping coffee in the half-light, all at once and heavy as thunder—¡DaDāmyata! though this is one of those slow, eternal rains—the wing of a dead sparrow, still aerodynamic in death, fat on one good gust and struggling with the weight, an uncooperative corpse, soggy and eyeless and full of cozy flies.

My skin feels porous as newsprint, pasted on my back like a sticky setae. There is a cold blast and the rattle of the bones, and I wonder if there might behind me be, the work of some merry misfit, a poster of Piaf with naughty additions in indelible red, bleak and humorous, the sparrow turned pigeon in the mind of he who roils with possibility. And so the chuckle spreads from ear to ear.

A bus and a rump-fed ronyon next to me. He is carrying a cup of steaming coffee. He grunts and hums, violently; he is desperate to keep it in.

There are bubbles in his lungs. I can hear them roll and pop, it sounds far away and painful. There is vast construction in the distance, the 4/4 beat of a pile driver, sound of aluminum, no, steel, in a cube, no, a long thin sheet dragging across concrete covered in a miracle of useless stones—even you serve some purpose, with that artichoke head of yours. The man with bubbles in his throat clenches his fists and beats his thighs, coffee splashes on his bare ankles. He does not notice this.
Tiresias passes us, tapping out a southward route. There is something vaguely threatening in the morning cold; the world has made itself a metronome and that can only mean one thing—Duck!—for the authenticity of life will soon lay waste to our houses, static as they are in time and space. There is a t-shirted woman—an eagle tenné, volant in a roundel argent, displayed upon a field azure--she is munching boiled peanuts, a paper sack curled back upon her lap...

It is written in the blind man’s expired plume—I’ll do, I’ll do, I’ll do. Paddock croaks beside me, choking on a portentous neck bone, here it comes, up with much heaving and exertion and down with a glunk and splash and black coffee all around us and the bone floats, immaculately white, and twisting in antipathy to the driver’s yawning yaws but sympathetic to the whirling earth which cants its head as whelps oft do, in an effort to discern their master’s meaning, and for a moment we all wobble in our orbit and it, the bone, looking ancient as a canyon face, wind-burned and land-slid and river-ravaged to the purity of bedrock, settles down with gentle wax and wane into a southward bearing certain as the celestial pole which has no need of the aged rivalry ‘tween Polaris and The Dragon.

There it stays…there it stays! Though the bus may tack into the wind and the cane may tap against the curb and the piles rattle the city’s primordial stone, though magnetic fields may summersault and stars slip down the rain-soaked skies, south is a situation, impervious to time. The choking man is quiet now, and I am frightened for the bolts of every bridge we pass beneath, for words are like rhizomes rising from the earth to tear down every elegant construction.

A room alone, kneeling with one ear held close to the vinyl tile, dropping needles on the floor. There is a crystalline note unique to each of these apparent clones which resonates with a soothing simplicity that cannot be ignored.

Furniture looms, an architecture of comfort on gothic perimeters, the distended giants of Brücke cityscapes peopled with countenances like stone daggers, tecpatl-people twisted with the burden of the years they carry heavy on their fleshless backs, born out in tritonic scales (argent, gules and sable). In sway-legged chorus they build the necropolis, day and night, but the dead can’t bury the dead, as they are dead, and incapable of digging. And so a human being must turn the earth atop his losses and regrets. These must be covered lest they spawn cholera, a dysentery of the mind eroding on loose memories in which nothing new has taken root to steady the billion bits of razed construction, the sediment beneath his sedentary feet—Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men, or with his nails he’ll dig it up again! Our hopes must be returned, di manes, to the good souls of the dead, whom we admire because they serenely disdain to destroy us, so that when that dust of former passion—oh, fretful handful—has ossified beneath the pressing of our presence it will become the metamorphic slabs upon which are placed the invisible cities of the future. And so I curb myself, and swallow down the call-note of deep-dark sobbing, and find in hope’s discarded rind some tree on the hillside to be daily seen again, yesterday’s street, and the pampered loyalty of a habit that liked being with us, and so it stayed and did not go away…verses, written in Roman characters on fine vellum paper, fastened with a silken chord into a red morocco case, like a Damascene blade hammered out of steel wire, a thousand layers of flexible resistance…but when though comest, uneasy spirit, all conversation is spoiled.

Come, let us rally each other during the whole of dinner, that one dead moth may not make grey the evening, that a word with a hard hit might find each its occasion, and we shall spin the kreuzrad that the black humus of light dreaming through the flesh might flower into fields of Urpflanze across the steaming continents which will again ring with intelligible sound—their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world—and we in our wrynecked vessel may no longer wonder of its whirling.

I tell myself these many things, and yet I sit here waiting, with a decadent miasma threatening my senses. I am not moved to dig, to become again the mudman; I am waiting on the saulie’s dirge, but not for me. It is not for me she wails and pulls her hair, it is not for me she tears her mantle. I wait because a man must know the meaning of his losses, or he will perish with them, and this moirologist, though she came cheap, is natural and affecting; it is only when she leaves the stage that she is acting. I wait because a man must take his boots off every day, or he will get to blaming on his boots the faults of his feet, and then there is nothing to be done.

How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life!

And I feel my lifetime filled with this smallest of thoughts…the details one hasn’t to go into…save to say that the vassals of a once and future king, will surely fall to factious squabbles, over who has better served their master’s mute desire.

…the golden orb atop the obelisk, shipped to Rome from Egypt in one hundred twenty bushels of lentils, having dehisced in 1586, betrayed no stately secrets and proffered only dust.

All forms of human society have reached an extreme of their cycle. Now, in the look of every gravid youth, glows the glaze of resignation, solitary mirrors, gathering their own out-streamed beauty back into their faces again… la luce data alla luce…for in this nightmare of the dark, where all the dogs of memory bark, not a harrowed soul endures.




Robert Calabrese was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1979. He studied Creative Writing at Case Western Reserve University before attending the Masterís program for Screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. After graduate school he continued to travel and write living for a time in Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Milan, Italy. He currently resides in Florence, Italy. This short story is an excerpt from a larger work in progress entitled, The Deuteragonist. Contact author.

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