If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
I am my grandfather, the first man in my family to go to college.
A Black boy, fresh from the Navy, filing off a bus in Harvard Square. Mustache trimmed, hair embalmed with lye, fist clenched around a promise. He is going to fight it, this black box he was born in. Every Charles City boy chanting “Chicken Leg Cotman.” A mob of coal eyes chasing him down the sidewalk-chalked, cotton-pocked streets of his past.
In biology class he learns to sit up straight and nod like an oil well.
In chemistry he practices chortling. He rounds his vowels and neuters his consonants, projects them from the back of the classroom.
Cupped in the arms of a white woman, he keeps his eyes closed and imagines her skin thawing, caking on him like wax.
In his sleep he is a baby in a forest, dangling from his ancestors. A cascade of umbilical cords curling around the necks of his brothers and sisters, stretching from the strained womb of his mother. She’s hanging like them, tethered to her mother, who in turn twirls on the gushing tendril of her own mother. A black totem of stacked generations, casting shade with its sway.
My grandfather pulls a branch from a neighboring tree, wraps his weak, pink fingers around it, and saws at the cord. For months he tears away, until a rain comes and makes the skin soft.
The line snaps and he plummets, a cascade of blood and water carrying him to the forest floor. He scours the mud off himself with the stick and keeps scraping when he reaches his plumb skin. He whittles until he is as pink as the palms of his hands and hobbles naked from the forest into a wide, bright opening.
White schoolchildren in picnic-blanket dresses play hopscotch and crush bugs with bare feet. A little freckled girl greets him, lets him borrow her school coat. She wraps her hands around his hands, shows him to her friends. They teach him how to hop, how to count, how to sing and shriek their songs. A once tender-headed, now pink-scalped boy hands him a magnifying glass and points. An ant crawling up my grandfather’s face. Then the sun. My grandfather lifts the lens over his head, winces at the ring of white faces constricting around him. The coiled hair on his head sizzles like spit on coal.
This is a test of the emergency broadcasting system
I’m a bouncer at a beehive, leaning against the wall of an arched wax foyer. It’s an inter-insect bar, a pollen fog of rice-paper wings and spliced thoraxes, water bugs cresting puddles of piss, a limp-winged ladybug blotting new beauty spots onto her back in the amber bathroom mirror. They all speak bug. Grasshoppers rubbing their legs, bees shaking—it’s all the same sing. The silkworm bartender weaves new cocktail napkins. The barback worm, saddled with a wicker bin full of spitty glasses, asks a mantis to slice him down the middle during the midnight rush so the two of him can clear more tables. Stick bugs flirt with table legs. Stink bugs quelsh tumerant belches. Aphids ask to put three tables together, bring their own booze, make a scene. I’m holding
scissors. I have instructions to clip the wings of any barfly too turvy to flap home. How many fingers am I holding up? 200. This guy checks out, I let him bounce. Any bug can come in, but I say if they are ready to leave. Boris ties and hangs them in the backroom if they need to sober up. That’s how it works here.
Dolores calls me over with her pincer. Eight more fruit flies facedown in the red wine. I’ll clean it up. Thanks, babe. Toss the dead ones in the bar mix. Give the rest to the perv. Boris is already scurrying across the ceiling, excited and dripping pre-web. I walk behind the bar, peer into the bulbous decanter. The bodies look like clots in a globe of blood. A few of them are still twitching. I pick up one little guy by his wing. Hey, bud. I’m gonna have to reel you in. Tie you down for a bit until you sober up. He’s nodding, but all 6,000 honeycomb pupils are rolling back. I pick out the living ones, toss them up to Boris. He’s grunting, shooting net from his spinnerets. Dolores gnashes her fangs. Jeeesus, Boris. Do that in the back. How many times I tell you, you horny fuck? Boris, swaying like a black matte birdcage, contracts his legs around the flies, drops to the floor. He chuckles, spilling drool. He tumbleweeds through the Employees Only swinges. Dolores snatches my scissors. You gotta think! You can’t just let him splooge like that with all the customers watching. I haven’t been sleeping good, ma’am. Looks like you’ve been wearing eyeblack. I’m not feeling so hot. Sweetie, I’m calling your shift early. Gush will cover for you. Go wake him up.
Gush is in the back. Gush is a slug in a hammock. I flip it. Wake up. Snip-snip time. Shit man, how long I been laying? Two weeks, slime dick. I still got a few more days, then. Nope. She called my shift early. I’ll cover you in the new year. Even? I guess. What’s it like out there? Rowdish. You had to clip anyone? No. The scissors are getting rusty, man. Did have to fish out some fruits. Oh, that’s heaaavy. They say that if you’re gonna do it, this is the time of year it’s gonna happen. Why start another year when you don’t even want any part of this one? I guess. Still selfish, though. We lost a good bottle. Dolores never leaves the good stuff out in the open. Alright, well I got you. Where ya headed? Home, I guess. To shut some eye? No, the sun’s still out. Hasn’t set for nine days or something. No shit? We saved too much daylight this year, so now we gotta spend it all before the new year or He’ll cut our sun budget. God is stingy. Ya, way. What are you gonna do until it sets? Keep myself busy, I guess. Alright. Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas, Gush.
We discontinued the tokens last week. You gotta have these Black Smart Squares©.
I just got off work. All I have are tokens.
It’s five bucks for the square. I can set one up right now.
I don’t know. I’m tired.
You have a wallet, right?
Yeah. I’m not feeling too good.
Shit, man. Either buy a pass and get on or you hop off my bus.
What time is it?
Two-thirty? You okay?
Yeah. I have a wallet.
I just need the five bucks. You can keep the rest of this.
In the morning?
Hey, anybody back there mind calling an ambulance?
Yeah, I’m fine. I just need to go to sleep.
We’ll get you a big bed real soon. They pick up? Tell them we’re
on Walton, just south of the Wollam Bridge. Hey, can you keep your eyes open for me?
This sun is a bitch. When’s it going down?
Hey! Don’t stare at it! You on anything right now?
I work with bugs. They don’t respect me. It’s disappointing.
Yeah, his pulse is dropping.
Gush said if it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna be now.
Turn him over. Turn him over! Ah, shit, they’re rolling back. Is
there anyone we should call??
This is disappointing. It’s too bright to know which light to go
toward. Suns are disappointing. I’m going to shut them.
The bard of St. Gnolan curtsies to a crowd, unamused and hungry. He plucks them to sleep with lulling lyre notes as he stalls for a story. To be out of material is to not be a bard. Still, he is blank. The Parable of the Blood Orange still rots in last week’s square—stale rind, not fit for the clucking pigeons shitting atop the town gallows behind him.
Before the crowd, its mouths agape in a voracious yawn, he fumbles and flits for something to feed them. Then, like a mutt gnawing at the gristle of a bone remembers the marrow mousse steaming within, the bard of St. Gnolan cracks himself open:
My father has been trying to kill me while I sleep. Almost a year it’s been. He invites me over to pick up something—a DVD, a book, a hug? Sometimes there is food waiting. Other times there is nothing in the room but the kitchen table and the interrogation lamp illuminating a cloth sewn of rotted peach skin laced with olive eye flesh, stone pits of unspoken hurt I’d strained into toilet bowls years before. The body has a way of protecting itself when it’s too young to know that it isn’t normal to piss blood and chunks of past. All things must pass—throat, urethra, funnel of time, all avenues to Point B breaks.
Sometimes he hugs me, even lets me go.
Sometimes he’s naked, straddling me, holding a magnifying glass to his pendulous self, jealous heat branding its sizzling imprint into my forehead, my cheeks, my tongue.
Sometimes he snaps my neck.
Sometimes he tosses my mother aside and chases me down the hall of his apartment building.
Sometimes he sucker-punches me in the lobby.
Sometimes he guts me and from my insides fashions a pulley rigging for my drawbridge jaws.
Last night, he skewered my temples with his pointer fingers, pressed till I popped. In the morning, on the walk down Van Meter, the wind stole a hat suddenly too big for my skull.
The bard awakes in a manger, drenched in oat water. Above, straddling him, stands an old plow-hand with a bucket at his side. Hey now, wake up. Groggily, the bard peers into the stranger’s face. Patches of white stubble pock his cheeks. He has cauliflower ears and two lazy eyes which seem to trap the bard in their blind spot, walling him in with their off-mark gaze. You’ve been out here some time now.
The bard looks between the cranny of the old man’s legs and sees that night has already fallen. The crowd figured you dead, the way you fell over like that. When we seen you’d pissed yourself we were sure you’d passed on. Turns out you only passed out. The bard peers down at his own crotch, embarrassed. His mouth tastes of blood. He feels for his teeth with his tongue—all there. This here’s the master’s stables. A gang of us carried you over from the square, but they’re all gone now. It’s just been me taking care of you for some while. I took your things inside my place. Didn’t want nobody stealing from you. My wife’s been keeping a good eye on that instrument and those papers of yours and all. Told her not to touch a thing, just to stare at ’em until I came back.
The bard’s head is buzzing. His party-line mind echoes a throbbing busy tone, as if somebody had patched through while he was out. He reaches out his hand, half expecting the plow-hand’s stained fingers to pass through his like an apparition. His breath catches in his chest when their hands intertwine, and he vaults upright. Why don’t you come inside and sit a while? My wife set a fine table. Come on in, dry off, have a meal, and grab your things before you head on. It won’t cost you, ’cept maybe a story or two.
The bard of St. Gnolan shakes his head, declining the invitation, and tears out of the manger. Streaking through the feudal grounds, he sheds himself of his secondhand tales, all stories worth telling. Naked, except for his allodial thoughts, he chants new songs in the square of his skull. Though faint, he can still hear the moon crickets outside, drowsy drunk in dew, chirping their displeasure. Pushing into the wind like a wedge, he reaches for some phantom cap, its sheer muffs teetering in gusts, scrapes it down his temples, and plasters it to his ears.
Are you awake?
Your dad is here? Can we let him in to see you?
Happy New Year, Bud
I need to go
I brought champagne
It’s been too long
We should do this more often
This is your new place? Is it still down the hall?
It isn’t normal, not seeing your son
First door on the left?
Take a load off. Stay a while
It’s locked. Someone in there?
Your new sisters will be out in a second. But first, I want to
give you this
Please, not too tight
Don’t worry. We’re having the carpet replaced next week
I thought I could hold it
You can’t forever
In real life… I’m in bed, aren’t I?
You are. Are you gonna wake up and text me? Are you gonna change your sheets?
Langston Cotman is a Baltimore-based writer. His work can be found in the Virginia Quarterly Review, and he is currently completing his first book of fiction.
Originally published in
Our winter issue includes interviews with Tashi Dorji, Danielle Evans, Walton Ford, Guadalupe Maravilla, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, the Ross Brothers, and Aaron Turner; DIY cookbooklets from Dindga McCannon; poetry by Rae Armantrout, Imani Elizabeth Jackson, and Allison Parrish; prose by Langston Cotman, GennaRose Nethercott, and Brontez Purnell; a comic by Michael DeForge; protest drawings by Steve Mumford; and more.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.