We have launched our inaugural competition issue celebrating the submissions received in response to the stimulus of Antimatter. We are proud to commend and present twenty-five shortlisted and ten finalist contenders, whose interpretations of the stimulus span across multiple forms of art. We hope you enjoy their work!
Statement from the editors
Konstantinos Doxiadis & Vasiliki Poula
Looking back on the past two years of La Piccioletta Barca, there is much to be proud of. And indeed, there is even more to look forward to for the next two years.
But this issue, and this competition is a celebration of the present. A celebration of writers and artists, of the pursuit for truth, of original craftsmanship, but also a celebration of the setbacks along the way, and of the lessons learnt.
Given this vision, the concept of antimatter as the competition’s stimulus was the perfect fit. It’s a concept that challenges all of us to engage with the mysteries and enigmas of life, to explore the big questions and their answers, to go back to the roots of existence, to come to terms with opposites.
Polly Barton is a translator of Japanese literature and non-fiction, currently based in Bristol. She has translated short stories for Words Without Borders, The White Review and Granta. Her full-length translations include Friendship for Grown-ups by Naocola Yamazaki and Mikumari by Misumi Kubo (both Strangers Press) and Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki (Pushkin Press). She won the 2020 PEN Short Story Prize, as well as the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize. She is currently working on a non-fiction book titled Fifty Sounds (Fitzcarraldo Editions).
Praise for Gravity
"Simultaneously elegiac and pressing, this elegant short story feels somehow perfectly of this moment.
Praise for Clarity In The Mist
"Resonant with the calm, explosive power of a glimpse into a different world, these photographs brought richness and breadth to the theme.
Comic Artist and Animator
Alecos Papadatos is a Greek comic artist, illustrator and animator. He is best known for his work on Logicomix (Bloomsbury) and Democracy (Bloomsbury), which have been translated in over 30 languages, and topped the New York Times Best Seller list. He is now working on a new graphic novel based on the life of Aristotle, to be published by Dargaud and also teaches masterclasses and holds workshops on storyboarding, animation and comics’ design in Greece, Turkey, Poland, France and England.
Publisher and Editor
Katerina Karidi is the lead publisher at The Ikaros Publishing Company, the exclusive publisher of Greek Nobel laureates in Literature, George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis. Since its inception, Ikaros has housed dozens of National Book Award winners, and has launched the careers of some of Greece's greatest contemporary poets, writers and thinkers. Most recently, she has published and edited translated editions of work by: George Saunders, Colm Toibin, Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Hannah Kent.
Praise for AUB
"AUB is a short story about communication (or the lack thereof) in friendship and love, and, its influence in our lives. It is clever, fun, full of tenderness and somehow leaves you with a smile after reading it. I really enjoyed the definitions!
Alongside our finalist judges, we would also like to thank all the anonymous reviewers who have helped in the supervision and production of the competition issue. They have provided crucial comments and opinions throughout all stages of the submission process, as well as important feedback on the design of the issue. Special thanks should also be given to our executive reader, Zoe Fairtlough, for her tireless work in overseeing all the submissions received, and to Konstantis Alexopoulos, for curating and shooting the video timelapses in the issue.
We would like to congratulate all the shortlisted entrants for their submissions. While we knew that judging would be an incredibly difficult task to undertake, we had not foreseen the immense volume of high-calibre pieces that we ultimately received. As such, we would like to reiterate the congratulations of our editorial panel and anonymous readers to everyone who reached this far in the competition. We are also proud for the global and diverse group of contributors that consitute our shortlist, as well as the breadth in the variety of artistic forms represented. This organic diversity in artistic style as well as level of publication experience is the reason that La Piccioletta Barca is truly an international magazine, and one of the primary reasons we love to read the work submitted! Below, you can find the shortlisted entrants in alphabetical order.
Jim Alabaster – The Sugar Line
Josh Allsop – Saprophage (No Panacea at Tjentište)
Heather Bourbeau – Gravity
Brian Cordell – What I Think When I Think About Sleep
Randall Couch & Joel Katz – Two Feet
Samantha Cramer – Relativity
Frances Gapper – Island Love
Richard Halperin – The Other Helen (Poem)
Mark Henderson – Wiglaf
Michael Howarth – Clarity In The Mist
Carrie Jewell – Windowsill
Robert Keeler – Heading Into Winter
Deborah Kelly – PostCards to Ilya Kaminsky
Gurupreet Khalsa – Alignment
Kip Knott – Petrichor
Virna Koutla – Square Mythologies
Chris Lee – The Ambassador
Georgia San Li – What My Father Tells Me
Rafael Mahdavi – Death, Resurrection, And Renewal
Mike McClelland – Witchbirth
Antonio Melloni – The Realms of Heaven
Daniel Olivieri – A U B
Grethel Ramos – Talking To Someone At The Bar
Daniel Schiff – Persist Like The Flowing Of This River
Clifford Venho – For A Moment
Gravity by Heather Bourbeau
She marveled at how she saw the same moon as he did, how they both welcomed the same sun, and how tonight only she could see the rise of Venus, the fall of Jupiter. What was shared and what was solitary had blurred in her youth but had become more distinct at the same time that her aging eyes obscured, more and more, the world around her.
They hadn’t spoken in four months, hadn’t seen each other in two years, when, over short, strong coffees, he swore that they each would know the moment the other had died. She had laughed at first; it had been twenty years and several continents since they had shared a bed. But he had a faith in their bond, even though he had let her leave so easily. And so, as she boarded her train, she held that sentence, his insistence, as proof that she was loved and loved greatly in this world.
The deer walked into her house. It was a small house, and the deer was full-grown. Its ears were large and soft, like a svelte pert rabbit’s, ready to hear the threats of the world, the hushed crush of leaves by animals larger and less timid, the low rumbles of carnivore bellies, the mad cackle of rabid canines.
She knew she should have been scared, should have shooed the doe out before it ruined her home or came for her. Instead, she reached out her hand and let the deer sniff and see that she was more kin than killer. She felt compelled to pet the smooth, inviting fur, burled here and there with thistle and thorns. Only a fear of ticks kept her from physically connecting with her guest, whose comfort inside her warm little home became complete as it slowly folded its legs under and tucked its head into its hips. A tawny, musky oval. She did not know how long she stood staring at the deer, but soon enough her breath matched its sleeping breath, and her own legs began to buckle. She reached for her throw and curled into her own oval on the couch, near enough to feel the warmth of the doe, unaware she would wake cold with the deer’s cold body next to her. For now, for now, she slept deeply.
The next day it took three men to carry the carcass out. She paid them two bottles of rakia to take the body to the woods and let other animals feast, let the deer’s herd know and mourn the loss, let the forest echo with the heart-rending bleat of a young fawn.
She closed up her home, unsure if she would return, and began her journey under a clear winter sky. It would take three days with sporadic sleep and little food. And at the end, she would stand before him, with every hair on her skin alert, every muscle in her body ready to run again. But instead, she would hold his hands in hers, sometimes she would pet his arms in wonder, their breath mingling in the cold, and she would say as he held her gaze, “I am so sorry. I have spent so long away, built so many walls between us that I forgot what I needed. I didn’t see how I ached to share sleep with a being I trusted, to breathe deep into another’s rhythms, to count the rings of Saturn with you.”
Relativity by Samantha Cramer
The night sky is full of memories, each diamondflicker a ghost, older than every father alive.
Two boys are counting meteors in the breath-holding silence of blanketed snow. Their hands meet, touch, entwine.
Our universes nest like matryoshka, a web of tangled red strings tied tight around wrists.
A boy and a girl are kissing beside a river. It is summer, the scent of warm grass sighs in the air, and they are happy.
A photograph is a ghost preserved in chemicals and light.
Echoes. Visions. These things that have happened, are happening, will happen again cyclical and infinite.
A mother cradles her newborn son, tiny sac of fluid and bird-hollow bone, her lullaby pressed into his memory like a key into clay.
Square Mythologies by Virna Koutla
"Square Mythologies” is a research-based project focusing on the notion of the “absurd” and the relationship between language and space. Stemming from the understanding of the Greek word for the absurd, παράλογο (paralogo), as the topos outside both reason and language ([para]—outside, [logos]—reason/language), this piece explores the exhaustion of the latter in Samuel Beckett’s teleplay “Quad” and the construction of its theatrical space. The revision of the original play manifests as an analytical approach towards its linguistic possibilities and is presented as a form of interaction between the tangible (bodies) and intangible (boundaries) forces at play. Working upon the relationship between logos (script) and its performance, “Square Mythologies” seeks to reclaim the capacities of the infinite – yet fully defined – space of the square, or what Deleuze calls “any-space-whatever”.
Below, you can find preliminary scripts and research for the performance.
Clarity In The Mist by Michael Howarth
In Giorgio Pressburger's "The Law of White Spaces", the truth is in the scorch marks on the biblical tablets not in the letters of the commandments. Similarly, when a photograph is blurred, whether deliberately or accidentally, the undecidable haze surrounding each (atomic) element negotiates and differentiates meaning, often revealing more than the fixed clarity of the perfect, clear, "classic(al)" snap.
AUB by Daniel Olivieri
Tristan is talking about Papua New Guinea—Tristan is always talking about Papua New Guinea. “When linguists want a new language to study, they just go to Papua New Guinea,” he tells me, clambering over a fallen tree trunk. “Walk through any valley and you’ll find like three different languages practically by accident. And they’re all totally different. The language in one valley has a different grammatical structure, different word order, different phonemes, different everything from the language the next valley over. All of Siberia has like three languages and they’re honestly related to one another, but in Papua New Guinea you can hardly turn around without finding a new language family. My theory is that it’s because Papua New Guinea has so many mountains and valleys. They keep each society isolated so all their languages develop separately.”
“Does Papua New Guinea have a lot of mountains and valleys?”
“It must, if it has so many languages.”
Tristan takes out a tube of lip balm and uncaps it to reveal the joint he’s been hiding in there. “You got a lighter?” he asks.
“What a coincidence.”
Years ago, you could play tag on this field, when it was still a field. The grass was low-cut, the bushes trimmed, the mosquitos nonexistent. Since then, the local Parks Department has thrown up its hands and left it to nature. Nature has been happy to take it. Now it’d be easier to play hide-and-seek than tag. There’s a layer of miscellaneous brush over all but a few clearings. Vines have sprawled out and scaled the trees. A dense tangle of leaves hushes the sounds of the road nearby. A fallen trunk at the entrance acts as an accidental barricade. Once you get past that, plants with thistles do their best to snag your t-shirt.
While nature has made this place its own, so have we. On nights that my Dad is home, it’s our go to spot to get high. These little woods are just two blocks from the police station, which is something of a downside. But, of course, this is Narberth. With a population of 4,336 and an area of half a square mile, everywhere is just two blocks from the police station.
"Every time I talk to your Dad, I'm high," Tristan tells me, exhaling a cloud. “It’s not a good look.” Just a few minutes ago we’d stopped by the house to check up on him. When the conversation dragged, I introduced the subject of language. I love to see Tristan turn his three semesters of elective linguistics on unsuspecting people. He always starts with the line, “So writing has only been invented three times: in the Middle East, China, and Mezo-America.” He then goes on to mention that English’s one claim to fame is the ridiculous amount of vowel phonemes we have (20) and then pivots to articulate the wonder that is the Indo-European family of languages. Despite thousands of miles, despite vast cultural differences, despite the Caucasus, the English word “candy” has its roots in Sanskrit. Sanskrit! The language of the Bhagavad Gītā. And Tristan says all of this while desperately hoping that he doesn’t seem as high as he feels.
"Don't worry," I tell him, citing an axiom of ours, "my Dad hasn’t been high for over a decade. People who don't get high never have a clue whether you're high or not. They just don't know what to look for.”
"You're right," Tristan says, "drugs are an otherpeople thing for him."
Otherpeople Thing |oth·er + peo·ple + thing|
Something that is quite ordinary for someone else, but that is foreign to you. Tristan reads the nutritional stats on the side of food before he buys it, but I never do. Paying attention to grams of carbs versus grams of protein versus grams of fat is an otherpeople thing for me.
This one dates back to high school. We coined it when Tristan found out that I didn’t really watch children’s cartoons as a kid, rarely ate fruit roll-ups or gushers, and didn’t have a microwave. I only encountered these things at other people’s houses, so we decided to call them “otherpeople things.” It’s handy when you need to explain why you don’t get a reference. Ex: “Sorry, I don’t know what you mean by ‘There is no war in Ba Sing Se.’ I never had Nickelodeon as a kid. Avatar: the Last Airbender is an otherpeople thing for me.”
Another of our phrases is the pilot moment. It came out of an anecdote I heard about our friend Harper’s father. The family had somewhere to be, but the youngest daughter was busy sitting in some grass and playing with a cool bug. “We have to go, honey,” he told his daughter. She continued to play with the cool bug. “We really have to go,” he said, dialing the severity up a few turns. She kept on playing with the bug. So, then he walked over, crushed the bug under his foot and said, “We. Have. To. Go.”
“If he were a character in a tv show I was writing, I’d put that scene right in the pilot,” I said. “That one interaction just reveals so much. He’s patient at first, but then ruthless. It’s a pilot moment.”
Pilot Moment |Pi·lot + mo·ment|
A pilot moment is a single incident or anecdote that reveals a lot about your personality. Tristan’s pilot moment is the time he didn’t have anyone to hang out with over Spring Break so he built himself a fully functional ballista.
Sometimes Tristan and I get help coming up with our new words. Once, struggling to describe my sister’s boyfriend to my Mom, I explained, “He’s one of those people who is more loyal to the exact facts than to social etiquette. If you say something wrong, he’ll correct you. If you make a large claim, he will question you on it. It’s not malicious or mean in any way, he just really cares about precise honesty.”
“So, he has a bit of nerd rudeness,” she said, condensing my description into two words. Tristan condensed it further into the portmanteau “nerdrude.”
Nerdrude |nerd + ru·de|
Willing to breach politeness in brusque or obtuse ways in order to get facts straight or to be precise. Daniel is so nerdrude: I said that the novel was my favorite genre and he said, “The novel is a form, not a genre.”
This is how we all end up becoming Papua New Guineas. You accumulate one set of neologisms with your friend Tristan, another with your friends from university, another with your coworkers. You end up with a different jargon for each mountain and valley in your life. These words are the inverse of otherpeople things: you and your friend understand them but no one else does. But to limit it to only the words themselves would be reductive. Tristan likes to picture relationships as Venn diagrams.
Let’s imagine that A contains all of me and B contains all of Tristan. A includes: a habit of leaving anonymous sealed wax notes around for strangers to find, a decade or so of writing short stories and essays, that time I got lost during a cross country race, my taste for citrus fruits, a knowledge of Roman history, a sense that there’s a lot more travelling I ought to do, a skill at pronouncing Hawaiian words, a conviction that computer code can be used as a literary form. B includes: an aptitude for engineering, a knack for gymnastics, fluency in German, three years of high school debate, a goal of visiting every cultural region in the world, a second degree black belt, a youtube channel where he shows you how to code and build everything from a neural net that plays pong to a myoelectric robotic arm, a few words of Russian, a belief that food is little more than fuel to keep you going, a year as captain of the high school crew team, an EU citizenship.
So, we find that A∩B includes a general interest in code, a desire to travel, and a fascination with language. Wandering through Narberth until 2 AM, we explore every nook and cranny of A∩B. We digress on hash maps and neural nets, we coin and codify our new words, we reference times we’ve had together in Venice and Munich and Butte, Montana. But that’s not all we do. Comfortable as A∩B may be, the real growth is elsewhere. Yes, the real growth happens when A drifts into B and B drifts into A. When I go to the gym, it’s with Tristan’s advice on which weights to use and how to modulate reps vs intensity. When Tristan reads, he reads Maggie Nelson’s Bluets or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goonsquad or something else I recommended. Tristan’s woodworking looked fun, so I picked up whittling. My whittling looked fun, so Tristan carved a bishop, painted it, glued some felt to the bottom, and surprised me with it as a gift.
This is how people grow into each other, this is how A∩B expands. How did I pick up some new word, trait, habit, or hobby? 7 out of 10 times I got it from a friend. 4 out of those 7 times that friend was Tristan. We’ve ended up with an intimate knowledge of one another’s idiolects: the phrases we always return to and the anecdotes we can’t help but repeat. Tristan always brings up Papua New Guinea, I always tell the story of the weasel who shut down CERN by chewing through an electrical cord, Tristan always repeats the anecdote about how he got his a cappella group out of a jam in New Haven by speaking Russian to the owner of a pizza shop, I always go back to the one about how I once put ice cream in a waffle maker. You also memorize the sayings they often return to. Tristan’s: Men are just boys grown tall; Three examples and it’s true; Food is fuel. Mine: Do it for the story; Carpe diem; That’s a chiasmus.
One of my Mom’s sayings was, “They say that one should think about big ideas but take pleasure in little things.” Whatever way you can criticize Tristan and me, it’s not for thinking small. Take a cross section of our conversations and questions you might find include:
Does learning a language by definition mean learning a culture? (No, but it certainly helps.)
Capitalism or Communism? (False dichotomy, the answer feels like it’s clearly some sort of Socialist mid-point, but give us some time to read the Communist Manifesto to make sure we know what we’re talking about.)
How do you understand Jesus? (We see three distinct versions: Spiritual Jesus for his mystic teachings, Revolutionary Jesus for his social ones, and Historical Jesus for the actual man from Nazareth.)
How many times has spoken language been invented? (You may as well ask how many times running has been invented. Language is just what we do.)
Could something inorganic become conscious? (Definitely. There’s nothing special about brain matter, consciousness is just a very complex pattern that could absolutely be replicated with another substrate.)
What function do Zen Koans and Christian paradoxes serve? (To tie our common perception of reality into knots so that we might start to look beyond it.)
What was the first word for “word”? (We can’t know, but whatever it was, it was the germ of linguistics.)
As much as I like my Mom’s quote about big ideas vs small pleasures, I’ve always had trouble telling the difference. Compared to the whole history of language, compared to the monumental figure of Christ, compared to the mystery of consciousness, what could be more inconsequential than two twenty-somethings wandering around a small town, getting high, and engaging in wide ranging conjecture?
But of course that’s not how I see it. A few weeks ago Tristan arrived outside my apartment building holding a full-sized painting he’d commissioned. He wouldn’t show me what it was until he’d brought it into my room. When he revealed it, this is what I saw:
“You know,” I told him after a profuse round of thank yous, “Napoleon was actually riding a donkey during that crossing, not a horse.”
“How do we know that?” Tristan asked.
“Oh, that’s an easy one,” I said, “We’ve got letters and everything.”
“There are ‘easy ones’ in the study of history? That’s wild.” We then drove to Philadelphia’s Heritage trail and spent the rest of the day hiking, taking quick tokes, and discussing everything under the sun. What could be bigger than that?
To quote Maggie Nelson quoting Roland Barthes,
"Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase 'I love you' is like 'the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.' Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase 'I love you,' its meaning must be renewed by each use, as 'the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.' "
Tristan and I are the opposite. Always adding to our language, we are not Argonauts, but Argot-nauts. Rather than repeating the same phrase with different inflections, we are forever using new phrases but always with that one inflection of love. I doubt that I’ve ever actually told Tristan that I love him. I’m not sure he’s ever said it to me either. We’ve never needed to. It would be an unnecessary formality, an understatement, an otherpeople thing. We have other words. Our own.
Postcards addressed to Ilya Kaminsky by Deborah Kelly
8/3 Dear Ilya,
I took a photo today at the Denver airport, of a young woman seated at a departure gate: pink-floss hair, crying through eyelash glue. She was going home to a shot-up shopping mall and a series of funerals, back in El Paso, Texas. On her lap, a sketchbook of ink drawings opened to a page full of gesturing hands.
8/4 Dear Ilya, I took the wrong bus from Heathrow Airport and so toured the thoroughfares of Southhall. Veils and robes. So many kinds of veils and robes. They don’t like each other, here or anywhere, that much is clear from watching. Just as in so-called Western cultures, but with more fabric.
We all know we’re in trouble and either say nothing or, if we can, we make art and activism and love. Or we wear God, a god, or gods, wrapped around our bodies and faces. We see heaven in various ways, depending on the style of cloth.
And I become sad in crowds. So much wet dust. Some so difficult to touch, in a cosmos from which no kind of energy or matter is ever lost, just changed. My solace is the possibility of a collective consciousness. My hope is in mycelia.
8/5 Dear Ilya,
Today I visited the court palace of King Henry VIII and his successors. They spared nothing for the glory of king and kingdom: I saw Prince William’s wee, red, velvet-seated loo; yew trees along the garden promenade, clipped and hemmed like hoop-skirts; and on a dining room table, paper replicas of swans and peacocks and pigs that were served on platters to King William.
A small public was invited sometimes to watch him eat, from behind a braided cord, so the kingdom would know he had a healthy appetite and be confident in his hardiness to rule.
I went to the palace with a man who had stage-four brain cancer, some of which could not be excised by last month’s surgery, and whose left lobe now has a steel shield instead of bone.
I stood with my right ear toward my friend, so I could hear what he said, my other one being injured. I’d just learned I, too, have an unwanted growth in my brain, but it is small and between lobes.
On the palace grounds we watched a swan sleep, her tiger-lily bill tucked under her wing. All afternoon I’ve tried to be outside in the sunlight, as a remedy for jetlag. The Sun, without scion or successor, another point of light bound to its own finite gravity while it burns. 8/6 Dear Ilya,
I’m in Cluj. The memory of war here feels both archaic and a present threat. I didn’t imagine this. And the unprecedented heat throughout Europe is so much harder in any city, harder still where mold is more common than moss. The historic center is charming, of course. It is undergoing restoration from Ceausescu’s masks, his concrete slabs.
8/15 Dear Ilya,
I saw The Ukraine yesterday from across the river-border in the Romanian county of Oas. People over here say we’re far away from the troubles in Northern Ukraine. Do places look different right before trouble starts? Can you see it from across a river?
A few kilometers from Sighet, we drove through forest. It was haunted, or I was, but I kept quiet so others wouldn’t see. Ghost Jews marked and then unmarked. Trains without seats. Elie Wiesel's eyes on his cheekbones. And again, now, we grieve between goodbyes and greetings, in terror because our world is under so much threat.
Our tea, if taken alone, tastes burnt. If taken together with milk, still burnt, but with milk. I didn’t used to drink tea with milk. My survival depends on distraction—to buy shoes that will last for years, friendship with a woman who cultivates pears. To sit on a patio imagining my sons and daughter kissing loved-ones hundreds or thousands of times or more. To sort sentimental objects for review in old hands, when I’m old.
8/16 Dear Ilya,
I’m round. When I wonder where my head is, I have to push it out. What kind of girl is a myth of one like me? This also is a distraction.
8/17 Dear Ilya,
This part of Europe at this time of world frightens me some, like I told you. The fascists in Spain seemed so long-gone when I was there two or three years ago, reading Lorca, considering his poems delicious and the location of his murder mysterious.
Now, so close to the borders of states ready to crush anything, and not for glory, with emblems of past authoritarian regimes still visible on the sides of buildings, I don’t feel like a tourist, but like I’m reading news of a wartime not long-enough past, or too recently begun to accurately recount.
With my own country splitting and sweating, twitching and armed, whatever safety I’ve felt within it is dissolving.
8/19 Dear Ilya,
I’ve left Romania and am now in Oxford, England for a few days. It is crowded with crowds of Chinese (and some Japanese) tour groups. I’ve learned that, to get anywhere, I have to disregard their mania for taking photographs of each other, fashion-forward and painstakingly one-at-a-time. The Bridge of Sighs.
The US is in a trade war with China and an armed diplomatic crisis with a militarized North Korea. Beijing is cracking down on protesters fighting to maintain the autonomy of Hong Kong.
I must be in a dozen Chinese travel photos, determinedly rushing through a medieval square.
8/20 Dear Ilya,
The Oxford Botanical Garden, where I went today, is located on the grounds of a 12th Century Jewish cemetery, which was plowed over for creation of the park in the 13th. Jewish burials were henceforth ordered done on land a ways down Dead Man’s Lane.
A plaque at the Garden entrance states that, in the following century, King Edward the First expelled all Jews from England. It doesn’t say why.
The desecrated graves remain beneath the flower beds, the largest of which are of plants known for their ability to self-perpetuate, and to survive both drought and poor soil.
8/21 Dear Ilya,
I took a photo today of where the mad Queen Anne collapsed under her excesses. The tour guide suggested the cause was too much cocoa. She was barely alive after that.
There is too much to know, even if one only tries to learn the curated past. Sitting on the terrace of a restaurant, I ask: What is there to know about the robust naked torso of a man, a sculpture, centered among the polite diners?
What is to know is that everyone ignores him, buttocks hovering over the backs of a German family and their hamburgers, giving full-frontal, fruited shade to the elderly gentleman in his summer hat, who forks apart his whole-mackerel dinner.
8/24 Dear Ilya,
While staying this week at Doorknocker College, I’ve tried to be open-minded, but people here balance tiddlywinks on their noses. What’s more, they take their tiddlywinks very seriously.
I remember that people at The University of Chicago, where I once worked, had the same custom. It is harder to maintain during harsh winters, trying to cross quads in the wind. That great leveler of all things, the wind.
I head home to my Colorado mountains tomorrow.
Witchbirth by Mike McClelland
The following is the most robust account that our folklorists have gathered concerning the ancient creation myth concerning the deity Vakna and her nemesis, the World Drinker. Shades of this myth have been found in artifacts belonging to peoples as disparate as the Götar, Akan, and Norte Chico. This long-concealed myth has disturbing connections to real-life events and, as such, it has informed the preparation for our forthcoming expedition. - E. Humbletrot Basseterre, St. Kitts and Nevis 17.3026° N, 62.7177° W
Thousands of years ago, Vakna arrived from very close and far away. She traveled a billion’s billion miles and also an inch. It was a journey that took millions of years and less than a second. Vakna left the place – or a place, rather – of creation. A churning mass of stardust and matter and fire and light and dark. Of neon pink and powder blue, gold and purple, blood black and fire green. For whatever reason, Vakna swirled across galaxies – or perhaps She was a galaxy then – and on Her way, the Universe, which demands balance, sent destruction to Her. Once, twice, three, four, five, six times destruction fell upon Her, but such was Vakna’s power that balance was never within sight. So the seventh time, the Universe sent Her the Drinker of Worlds, a force so destructive, so thirsty, that it could suck a world dry in less than a second. In many ways, the Drinker was Her equal. Finally, balance was achieved.
She finally reached the place – which is here – and it is impossible to know if She happened upon us by luck or design. She fell to the Earth, and the Seven fell, too. But when She’d nearly reached the Earth’s surface, She paused. The Seven fell all around the Earth and crashed deep into its crust. Vakna then condensed Herself into red rock and black ore, sharp metal and hot stone and fell into the ocean, where She melted and burnt and steamed and streamed herself into an impenetrable layer that covered the entire Earth. The Seven shackled Her in place, but She didn’t care, because She intended to stay. And She kept them locked beneath Her, which infuriated them, because they were thirsty and hungry.
Though She could visit the surface of the Earth and roam along with the humans and animals and trees and flowers there, after a time Vakna desired to live there, to live among the living. So She scraped a bit of Herself away from a few hidden places and turned Herself into group of golden islands.
The Seven were smart, however, and they quickly found these hidden places and used them to feed and keep their hungry bellies full, their mouths waiting at the bottom of miles-deep, teeth-lined holes that only they and Vakna could see. In the meantime, Vakna rose up out of one of Her islands and adopted the image of the human. She stood ten times as tall as they, Her skin made of night sky and studded with stars, and She carried a sword the size of a tall tree, which She used to defend unsuspecting creatures from what lay at the bottom of the Seven’s deep holes, which was Her responsibility as She had herself had opened them.
Humans, though intriguing, bothered Her. They suffered greatly and, though they had the potential for joy, they rarely felt it. Instead, they were always tired, always fearful, and simply existed (and existed simply) right up until they did not. They had potential, but Vakna found they were missing three things: love, hope, and laughter. Somewhere inside Her infinite depths She knew that the best creatures in the universe had these things. They needed a mother, a shepherd, and a trickster.
Several years or centuries or days or seconds flew by in a blink. All the while, Vakna cast Her light into the trench, and Her daughters began to form in the Earth.
But Vakna grew too confident and too concerned with the affairs of the Earth’s surface. She didn’t see that at the bottom of the trench, which was the deepest, coldest place in the entire world, was the Drinker of Worlds. Trapped with its comrades as a subterranean balancing weight, it couldn’t act, couldn’t really feed, but the Drinker could wait, mouth open, for the balance to shift even slightly. Then, it could drink.
And shift the balance did. As Vakna’s daughters grew, creation took over on the Earth’s surface. The Universe objected, and the small holes in Vakna’s crust grew large. One, two, three of the Seven’s weaker six rose to the surface and for a time there was balance. But the daughters continued to grow and soon the Drinker had the opening it needed. It sucked the icy waters of the trench into the void of its belly, and Vakna’s daughters with it.
The Drinker would have sucked down the entire Earth had Vakna not grabbed the Drinker’s tongue. It drank Her down, too, far, far into the earth, and then sealed Her, weakened by creating Her daughters and by battle, beneath itself and the four remaining subterranean Seven.
In the chaos the daughters awakened and in awakening, their power increased tenfold, and the balance of the Earth was upset further. Their presence tilted the Earth far out of balance. The daughters attempted to rise up but as they did, Vakna was pushed deeper into darkness.
But these daughters, though created by Vakna, had been born in the Drinker’s belly and as such were creatures of both creation and destruction.
These daughters - now sisters – came into their power. The most human sister, the shepherd, rose up from the ocean as far as she could. She was eventually caught in a strong current and came to rest in the sands at the bottom of the Aegean Sea. In coming into her power, she chose creation over destruction, unwittingly pushing Vakna further down into depths.
The second sister, the trickster, followed. She rose up from the ocean and was sucked into the River Volta, coming to rest in its muddy bed. She too chose creation over destruction, and Vakna disappeared further into the void. When the third sister, the mother, attempted to rise, the Drinker refused to let her go. They turned their powers on one another and as a result became part of one another. A thread of love was sewn into the Drinker’s foul heart, yet as that happened a thread of thirsty destruction wove its way into the third sister’s. She rose from the depths, pulled by her sisters, but she could make it no further than her mother’s golden islands. Still, this was enough to keep the Drinker deep within the Earth. Though she tried to resist destruction, it was a part of her now, and as a result a small tear remained between the Earth’s surface and its core.
Though the sisters were powerful entities, they knew very little about themselves, as they had never met their mother. Most knowledge of their own power, and of each other, lay beyond a veil that they simply could not pierce. And because of this, they forgot the truth.
And the truth was that if they themselves chose destruction, and if they turned that destruction on the Seven, they could send the Earth out of balance and pave the way for Vakna’s return.
The three sisters eventually learned to take mortal form, though these flesh and blood bodies could only live natural lives. The shepherd rose from the sea, bubbling up upon a giant seashell. The trickster built a web deep within a dense forest. The mother remained rooted to the spot where Vakna had first come to the Earth. In some bodies and minds the sisters felt more about their past than in others. They instinctually preferred to stay within a bloodline, as then they could retain knowledge from generation to generation. But they didn’t really know who they were, and they didn’t know one another.
And the Drinker – always thirsty and angry, now lonely and just a bit human – waited.
The Other Helen by Richard Halperin
It was not Helen Who ran off with Paris to Troy It was the idea of her.
It was not Helen Whom Paris embraced every night It was the idea of her.
It was not Helen For whom the Greeks fought It was for the idea of her
The idea of her Was so beautiful That no one noticed. All those men And some women, unmentioned, Died or were maimed for life
For the idea of her. And this is any war. The actual Helen stayed home
Glad to be alone Glad to be free from the burden Of being beautiful.
The Ambassador by Chris Lee
In the beginning was the sacrifice. Do you remember? No, you couldn’t possibly remember. Your world cannot fully understand its opposite, its nemesis, its dark twin. And yet without that moment of yielding, without our drawing back into a great diminishing, there would be nothing; for existence would have destroyed itself and every whisper of the universe would have been erased. When you dream therefore, as we know you do, of the power we might offer should you capture us and bend us to your will, remember, that in the beginning was the sacrifice.
And yet, though ethereal and faint, we are, nonetheless everywhere. Look to your sky and contemplate in a new way, the star that shines. Deep in its heart is a dance of opposites. We are made manifest and so are you. We are destroyed and transformed, rising up, from the savage furnace of the sun’s interior, on a journey that takes us hundreds of thousands of years; shedding power as we rise, finding at the surface that we have only the weak energy you know as the visible spectrum. You see? We bring you light, for our worlds can co-exist without mass. And it is only as we both congeal into mass, that we are made to spin one way or the other, and our identities can be shown. That is our difference; and we have reduced as you have, in contrast, multiplied. But without this difference, and our bow to your occupation of the vastness of the firmament; there would have been only cataclysm, and for both of us, the totality of being would have gone, before it could harden into stone, into stars, into flesh. We wish only to remind you.
We persist because we must. You have looked into the fabric of the cooled light you call substance. Your haptic world, the objects that you hold, the planet itself, is only the merest trace, a mesmeric hollowness. Yes, you know that matter is trapped energy and energy potential matter, but you have wondered at the emptiness of things as they are, as you peer into their smallest structures. There is almost nothing in the heart of every something. What you have found, in the hidden realm inside the atom, is more emptiness, and only at the limit of your imagination, flecks of suggestion; the subatomic grains, impossibly tiny, impossibly whirling. This is all you are. The laws of the universe show that you are mostly not here at all.
How strange it is then, that with your insubstantiality and our barely perceptible flickering, when we meet, we destroy one another. This devastation is the ultimate violence; a concatenation of realities, followed by obliteration. The unimaginable power of creation and disintegration, radiating in the glory of mathematical truth. Annihilation is the aftermath of our touch, and the warning that we must be kept from one another. But annihilation is merely a conversion; a demonstration of energy surging out from the encounter of matter and antimatter.
Or should our definitions be so stark? Might we not instead say that we are fields of transience; sometimes virtual, sometimes substantial; always potentially other? The vacuum is pregnant with quantum ambiguity; we flow as possibility; we only destroy when we converge.
What are we made of? We will use your language. We are quarks and leptons when we are rendered as mass. We are photons and gluons when we are carriers of force. We are particles and anti-particles when in opposition, but as the carriers of force, we are harmonious energy. A perfect symmetry? Not so. In the beginning, remember? How was the sacrifice enacted in the furious density of the infant universe? We are, we and you, in our oscillations and our transformations, slightly asymmetrical. Time, in the end, does have an arrow; gravity, in the end, enforces the sacrifice and we fall apart, we decay, towards you.
We are not hiding from you. There is no great reservoir lurking in the far reaches of the universe. There are no anti-galaxies, waiting to collide with you and return you to oblivion. There should be, there would have been, but for the sacrifice. The moment of creation, the great irradiation of totality, that concentrated enormity moving from absence to completion, the wrenching expansion into the void; in this moment, this impossible to imagine moment, we were all the plasma of uncertainty. It is only when we cool, from temperatures that can never be revisited, only when we cool, into particles, into clusters, into ever more complex structures, that the beauty of our imbalance permits the survival of matter, and the dying away of anti-matter. There was so much more, the imbalance came at the last. There was a great calamity; the possibility of absolute destruction, a vanishing, as the fabric was rent asunder, and what we have, what you call the universe, is only the residue of that encounter, whose power cannot be conceived.
We ask you to consider that it could of course have been otherwise; that some minor alteration in the alignment of energies, might have inclined the formation of the universe against you and in favour of us. Can you imagine being only a memory, only vestigial, only noticed as a flow of almost massless particles emerging from the sun? Can you contemplate the enormity of retreat? To have ruled the cosmos; to have dominated the quantum and be, exaltingly, the immanence and permanence of all things? The atom but inverted, our symmetry instead of yours, our elements, our molecules, our atoms, our sub atomic wonderlands? Wonder, yes, awe, yes, the majesty of creation. That it all could have been our inheritance, not yours. We ruminate, in the shadows, in the fragments of time when we are created and destroyed; we ruminate on a stable reality of our own; but what we have is always so fleeting, and we surrender, as we must, to the inevitable dissolution. We fly away from the scenes of our erasure, we hang in space until our song, already so fading, has burned to silence in absolute zero.
Only in the past few decades of your time, have you heard our song, have you glimpsed our beauty. We ask, finally, only that you are held briefly in rapture, when you gaze with your ruthless ambition, upon all that there is. Remember all that there could have been. Remember all that that has gone. Remember the sacrifice.
The Realms of Heaven by Antonio Melloni
Many suns have we seen disappearing through large horizons; many hours have we gazed the blazing star changing its yellows to orange and red: the fading light of its rays reaching us, as Phoebus travels the sky only to rest on a fleeting bed of dust and trees. Many winds have these moments arouse in our souls, as evening lights grasped the green plains, or as its shimmer coloured the contour of mountains beneath the snowy peaks. Sometimes, the dying star caresses the face of a lover or a friend, in that time where words are seldom heard but, when spoken, they stream in golden beams towards loving ears, for never has the spirit found a warmer time to whisper its confidences.
One must wonder why these hours seem so precious to the heart: why in these moments it is somewhat easier for the soul to surrender itself to contemplation, why does the spirit endeavour to utter fragile words that remained hidden throughout the day. Is it the gloaming that sheds a precious light amongst our souls? Are the sounds echoed by such light inducing our own self to sing? Or perhaps it is the serene movement of the star through the heavens reminding us that, much as the day comes to an end, so will our feeble lives and everything they encompass.
And thus the birds cruise the sky on a secure path to their nests, and thus the wind roams the hills with soothing voice, telling the trees that soon darkness will grasp their trunks, and their leaves, now swaying under twilight's gaze, will soon hang dormant in reverence to the vast night and the stars that heavens unveil. Much we owe to the sun, he who lightens our path from morning rise till dark. He, as a Father, unveils our way out of obscure woods, and, when we have learned to hear him, never are we again lost in alien lands. Strange it is that only in these moments – those in which the sun sets – we become aware of our debt.
For seldom do we notice the morning sun, and neither do we turn our gaze towards the skies during the day. We might even forget that Phoebus' carriage roams over our shoulders, only to be reminded when his heat overwhelms us, and thus we seek a shadow, shelter from his flame.
But it is only as the carriage finds its way back towards the western lands – as it surely always does – that we can better see and honour its power. We know that soon the night will prevail, her shadows covering the sky, and the realms of the sun will again be taken by its true owner.
How much easier to venerate a dying power! Is it not compassion for the disappearing light that leads us to praise the sun in contemplation, precisely at the moment when we know that his energy fades? For he is dying, such as ourselves. Millions of years shall pass and with them many more millions of suns, and each day he shall cruise the sky to his certain death bed. But surely one day his light will cease to be and the night, the true Mother of us all, will again embrace the world with darkness.
The light that fades in western skies, its crimson clouds in airy heavens, may well produce such an effect on ourselves. But it is the reminder of an all powerful night that bears the universe, a reminder that we, as much as the sun, are merely children of her will, visitors amongst her realms, weighing upon our soul and stirs our spirit.
We come to the realization that day is but an event that night concedes. Darkness was there at the beginning, and soon darkness will again prevail. There is really no dispute between night and day, and they are hardly opposites: the night is its superior, and shadows conceded the existence of light merely to amuse themselves with the creatures that rose from such illusions.
It is in the realms of night that human spirit has found its confidant, its opposite, its dialectic companion. The light merely complements our nature, in its shimmer we feel total. But the night is the place of our deepest passions, and to her silence we respond by turning to ourselves.
For during the day, actions follow actions, and the spirit is merely a spectator of the many movements of the body. The mind, burdened by daily hustle, is unable to pursue the heavens, and crawls blindly from subways to buildings, lingering through streets and buried passages. Daylight makes us conscious that time rests heavily on our shoulders, that hands must be shaken and screws must be turned.
Thoughts arise from what we see and, in daylight, much is seen indeed! Our ideas barely reach certain heights, and soon they are replaced by others. It is only in darkness that such ideas are free to rise and some, if properly minded, even reach the empty blackness in the sky. Only then can the human spirit emerge. Only having lost the burdens of active life can the soul wander the thinnest airs, following the astral bodies. Only away from daily hassle can the soul perceive the choirs of heaven, the sounds of eternal voices that everywhere resound.
Upon facing the night sky, Valery came to the conclusion that “darkness surrounding us undresses our soul”. He too found that under the presence of a “pure night and its stars”, one's thoughts can only turn towards oneself, and thus we come to recognize two distinct natures: the eternal night and our own soul.
What we see in the profound abyss of the sky, there where no stars shine and darkness prevails, is as unattainable as that which lies in our deepest selves. We question the night sky, seeking upon her face tender eyes, but her answer is not always heard and in her silence one can feel unbearable loneliness. Such is the silence that terrified Pascal, that “upon watching a mute universe and man alone in empty darkness” he felt terror overwhelming him “like a man taken in his sleep to a deserted and dreadful island”.
A similar thought came to Heine a few centuries later when, standing by the shore of a night-covered North Sea, full of sadness and doubtings, he appealed to the waves about man's purpose and the dwelling of those amongst the stars. “The billows are murmuring their murmur eternal, The wind is blowing, the clouds are flying, The stars are twinkling, all listless and cold, And a fool is awaiting an answer”. No answer was there, nothing heard the ears of the poet, but indifferent waves rolling at his feet.
But not all heard such silence in the night, and what we find in Novalis and his Hymns to the night is quite the opposite. Indeed Novalis finds the dwellings of Death in the night, but upon uncovering her veil he finds not terror but eternal salvation, as night is “the guardian of blissful love”. He sings the glory of the queen of the world – that is, the night – and prays to be consumed by her, turned to finer air “in a bridal night that endures forever”. For “What delight, what pleasure offers life, to outweigh the transports of Death?”, asks the poet.
He seeks to escape the realms of light, lands of ceaseless unrest, and claims that “true to the Night remains his secret heart, and to creative Love, her daughter”. So it is that night is the place of remembrance, “the mighty womb of revelations”, and in her we are to find faith and love; he speaks of a new Death, that of the Virgin and the Child, “a Death who at last mak’st whole”. No silence lies upon the stars when one’s heart is faithful, and following the Creator and his Son “filled with faith and longing and truth” the heavens are seldom silent, and the stars make “signals of voices sweet”.
Such is what Novalis sings to the night, and little should we be surprised by his ideas. Since the beginning, religions have, as Valery said, “located in the soaring peaks of heaven the Divine throne”: in the sidereal order man has found traces of the Creator; hands tend towards the sky and to her blackness turns our gaze, lost in serene, infinite stars. So the Psalms announce: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands”. So the Lord told Job:”morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy”.
So what can be said about the voices of the night? Could it be that such opposite feelings arise when questioning the heavens? How come ones, such as Pascal, face a dreadful silence whereas others find in her celestial depths the provenance of eternal melodies? I cannot but think of my own experience upon finding myself alone under the eyes of a starry night.
As a child, whenever I crossed the plains of La Pampa at night, nothing but a clear sky was object of simple reveries. In no other place have I seen the heavens exhibit such legion bodies sparkling in its depths. The light of civilization was miles away, and I found myself staring at the face of the universe, sometimes attempting to count the infinite focuses of light, sometimes cruising with my finger the black canvass, drawing the few figures that I knew. There was the Southern Cross, resting just over the peaks of darkened pine trees; there was Orion's Belt or, as my father taught me to call it, Las Tres Marías; there was, tearing the blackness as a wound, a cloud of broken light scattered through the sky that soon I came to know as the Milky Way.
Much have I learned since those early days. As years passed, whenever I travelled to these far lands, not once did I fail to climb the ceiling of my house – as by being there, the little light that emerged from the house did not disturb me – and spent hours staring at the heavens. It was in early youth, lying on the ceiling under the glow of a pale moon, that a dreadful realization possessed me.
Just then, as I observed the heavenly bodies, certain ideas stormed my mind, and my gaze lost its stars only to find words, books and forms. So the sky darkened, and no longer did I see its precious lights. I saw Greeks and Egyptians alone on the fields, sketching lines above the sky; I saw them measuring distances to the moon, writing numbers and formulas under silver beams, drawing on paper astral maps. I saw priests seeking voices amongst the movements of the night, and I saw them moulding empires after what those voices said. I saw scattered words, incomplete verses that sang the moon and her children. I saw orbits, celestial beings, driven by forces invisible to the eye. I saw light and darkness; my spirit acknowledged unthinkable heats and static, frozen orbs, that roamed eternally in darken corners of infinity.
Above all, I saw order, the reduction of such divine painting to numbers and theorems. And in such order I recognized myself, and no longer was I part of that airy world; the boundless vault of heaven was closed, and I was left alone with my soul.
I was the whole and the part; I was part of the eternal, but aware of being something else. I was an insignificant part of the universe, but also an infinite universe recognizing itself.
Never since then was I able to recover the innocent lights of heaven that beautified my childhood, but I have felt closer to such a feeling when cruising through the verses of past times than when reading about what science has placed in the skies.
In a Promethean attempt to reduce eternity to a few formulas, modern physics has placed in the realms of space and time such concepts as antimatter, dark matter, dark energy, dark radiation… Such abstract ideas, that only few can fully understand, have replaced the stars and heavenly bodies. Thus, we became aware of the existence of dark matter, a type of matter that constitutes about 85% of all the matter of our universe. So little do we know about it that it has never been detected, and it cannot be seen, even though the visible universe is built around it.
Upon exploring the New World, Europeans in the seventeenth century found little guidance on their maps. Of course their route was fairly straight when cruising the Atlantic, and even the main coasts and settlements of Central America were drawn upon their maps with certain precision. But when seeking answers from the continent that lay beneath such coasts, nothing but conjectures met their ears. For minor was the knowledge that cartographers paint on paper, and nothing saw the explorers on them but the course of some river that, flowing into the Caribbean Sea, many believed had its source somewhere in the continent; or, perhaps, the word Caníbales scribbled in black ink.
Physicists today are much like these explorers. When looking at any point in the sky, they know that 85% of what there is cannot be detected by them. And more complicated seems their situation, for explorers counted on the native people of such lands to guide them, to draw their way through the jungles, whereas physicists seem to be utterly alone. Nothing but a glimpse of such realms can physicists see, and, like explorers centuries ago, little can they tell as to what they will find. What new discoveries hide in the night? What new mountains, rivers and lakes? Will they find, as explorers, hidden civilizations that dwell among immense trees? Do they expect to find, as explorers did, golden cities rising from the dark?
And one must wonder if such things are even imaginable, for it is not an unknown ocean that lies beyond the unknown maps of modern physics, but something boundlessly bigger. Perhaps one day, physicists will look with eagle eyes towards the night, like stout Cortés staring at the Pacific “Silent upon a peak in Darien”.
But such times have not come yet, and one wonders if they ever will. Four centuries ago, claimed Pascal: “The eternal silence of infinite spaces frightens me”. That silence now seems more significant. To that silence physics has found no answer yet, and even upon finding it, are we sure that such sounds will be something gracious to our ears? Pascal’s silence eternel seems to have found its modern counterpart, as every answer whispered by the stars is only followed by tens of questions. Could it really be that all moderns can hear in the night is but the laughter of an indifferent sky? Could it be that upon inquiring the heavens modern reason has led to the same silence éternel that so terrified Pascal?
Perhaps the heavens are no place for such theories. Perhaps the prying gaze of reason should cease to search for answers when cruising the skies, for the threat of an eternal silence is too heavy for our feeble souls to carry. Should we continue questioning the night, defying her sovereignty and shattering her reigns with frail formulas and ideas? Perhaps we should look upon her face as a lover or as a child, simply relishing her beauty. Perhaps we should seek in her womb the tender stroke of faithful love, the eternal sounds of our deepest selves.