The Animal Shifts

Paul Kingsnorth, "Beast"Come to a place like this, shut your mouth and your mind and walk on the moor, walk in the wind and the sun, and you will understand soon enough that this world is a great animal, alive and breathing, that we walk through it, we breathe with it, we are its breath, that when we stand on a mountain overcome by the sunset and all that it brings, or fall to our knees in front of an altar in the presence of something greater than ourselves, then we are sensing the animal shift and turn beneath our feet.

Paul Kingsnorth
Beast

 

The Earth is an animal that shakes off its fleas when they dig too deep, bite too hard. It shifts and our cities fall; it sighs and the coasts are overtaken. We really shouldn’t be here at all.

Dave Eggers
A Hologram for the King

A Prisoner

Long ago… I met a man at a party… who was celebrated because he had spent half his life in prison. He had then written a book about it which displeased the prison authorities and won a literary prize. But this man’s life was over. He was fond of saying that, since to be in prison was simply not to live, the death penalty was the only merciful verdict any jury could deliver. I remember thinking that, in effect, he had never left prison. Prison was all that was real to him; he could speak of nothing else. All his movements, even to the lighting of a cigarette, were stealthy, wherever his eyes focused on saw a wall rise up. His face, the color of his face, brought to mind darkness and dampness, I felt that if one cut him, his flesh would be the flesh of mushrooms. And he described to us in avid, nostalgic detail the barred windows, the barred doors, the judas, the guards standing at far ends of corridors, under the light. It is three tiers high inside the prison and everything is the color of gunmetal. Everything is dark and cold, except for those patches of light, where authority stands. There is on the air perpetually the memory of fists against the metal, a dull, booming tom-tom possibility, like the possibility of madness. The guards move and mutter and pace the corridors and boom dully up and down the stairs. They are in black, they carry guns, they are always afraid, they scarcely dare be kind. Three tiers down, in the prison’s center, in the prison’s great, cold heart, there is always activity: trusted prisoners wheeling things about, going in and out of the offices, ingratiating themselves with the guards for privileges of cigarettes, alcohol, and sex. The night deepens in the prison, there is muttering everywhere, and everybody knows — somehow — that death will be entering the prison courtyard early in the morning. Very early in the morning, before the trusties begin wheeling great garbage cans of food along the corridors, three men in black will come noiselessly down the corridor, one of them will turn the key in the lock. They will lay hands on someone and rush him down the corridor, first to the priest and then to a door which will open only for him, which will allow him, perhaps, one glimpse of the morning before he is thrown forward on his belly on a board and the knife falls on his neck.

James Baldwin
Giovanni’s Room

Deleterious and Malignant

She wondered what sort of herbs they were, which the old man was so sedulous to gather. Would not the earth, quickened to an evil purpose by the sympathy of his eye, greet him with poisonous shrubs, of species hitherto unknown, that would start up under his fingers? Or might it suffice him, that every wholesome growth should be converted into something deleterious and malignant at his touch? Did the sun, which shone so brightly everywhere else, really fall upon him? Or was there, as it rather seemed, a circle of ominous shadow moving along with his deformity, whichever way he turned himself? And whither was he now going? Would he not suddenly sink into the earth, leaving a barren and blasted spot, where, in due course of time, would be seen deadly nightshade, dogwood, henbane, and whatever else of vegetable wickedness the climate could produce, all flourishing with hideous luxuriance? Or would he spread bat’s wings and flee away, looking so much the uglier, the higher he rose towards heaven?

Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter

Leaking Out of the World

I worried about my father. Throughout his illness (that is the word that now, for the first time, came to my mind, and it shocked me and suddenly made me frightened), he had remained kind and remote toward me, as he had always been, but I had lately noticed him looking at me with a sort of wistfulness, as if he were not looking at me, but at a drawing or photograph of me, as if he were remembering me.

It seemed to me as if my father simply faded away. He became more and more difficult to see. One day, I thought he was sitting in his chair at his desk, writing. To all appearances, he scribbled at a sheet of paper. When I asked him where the bag for apple picking was, he disappeared. I could not tell whether he had been there in the first place or if I had asked my question to some lingering afterimage. He leaked out of the world gradually, though. At first, he seemed merely vague or peripheral. But then he could no longer furnish the proper frame for his clothes. He would ask me a question from behind the box on which I sat shelling peas or peeling potatoes for my mother, and when I answered and received no reply back, I would turn around, to find his hat or belt or a single shoe sitting in the door frame as if placed there by a mischievous child. The end came when we could no longer even see him, but felt him in brief disturbances of shadows or light, or as a slight pressure, as if the space one occupied suddenly had had something more packing into it, or we’d catch some faint scent out of season, such as the snow melting into the wool of his winter coat, but on a blistering August noon, as if the last few times I felt him as another being rather than as a recollection, he had thought to check up on this world at the wrong moment and accidentally stepped from whatever wintry place he was straight into the dog days. And it seems that doing so only confirmed to him his fate to fade away, his being in the wrong place, so that during these startled visits, although I could not see him, I could feel his surprise, his bafflement, the dismay felt in a dream when you suddenly meet the brother you forgot you had or remember the infant you left on the hillside miles away, hours ago, because somehow you were distracted and somehow you came to believe in a different life and your shock at these terrible recollections, these sudden reunions, comes as much from your sorrow at what you have neglected as it does from dismay at how thoroughly and quickly you came to believe in something else. And that other world that you first dreamed is always better if not real, because in it you have not jilted your lover, forsaken your child, turned your back on your brother. The world fell away from my father the way he fell away from us. We became his dream.

Another time, I found him fumbling for an apple in the barrel we kept in the basement. I could just make him out in the gloom. Each time he tried to grab a piece of fruit, it eluded him, or I might say he eluded it, as his grasp was no stronger than a draft of air threading through a crack in a window. He succeeded once, after appearing to concentrate for a moment, in upsetting an apple from its place at the top of the pile, but it merely tumbled down along the backs of the other apples and came to rest against the mouth of the barrel. It seemed to me that even if I could pick an apple up with my failing hands, how could I bite it with my dissipating teeth, digest it with my ethereal gut? I realized that this thought was not my own but, rather, my father’s, that even his ideas were leaking out of his former self. Hands, teeth, gut, thoughts even, were all simply more or less convenient to human circumstance, and as my father was receding from human circumstance, so, too, were all of these particulars, back to some unknowable froth where they might be reassigned to be stars or belt buckles, lunar dust or railroad spikes. Perhaps they already were all of these things and my father’s fading was because he realized this: My goodness, I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow; peel back my scalp and you will see my cranium covered in the scrimshaw carved by an ancient sailor who never suspected that he was whittling at my skull — no, my blood is a Roman plow, my bones are being etched by men with names that mean sea wrestler and ocean rider and the pictures they are making are pictures of northern stars at different seasons, and the man keeping my blood straight as it splits the soil is named Lucian and he will plant wheat, and I cannot concentrate on this apple, this apple, and the only thing common to all of this is that I feel sorrow so deep, it must be love, and they are upset because while they are carving and plowing they are troubled by visions of trying to pick apples from barrels. I looked away and ran back upstairs, skipping the ones that creaked, so that I would not embarrass my father, who had not quite yet turned back from clay into light.

Paul Harding
Tinkers

Discernment

It is true that you get accustomed to money very quickly, that the miraculousness of the idea of it wears away and it becomes unremarkable. … Around the neighborhood it became clear that I had money. I bought whole packs of Wings cigarettes and not only smoked them continually but was generous with them. In the pawnshop on Third Avenue where I went for the glasses I found a reversible satin team jacket, black on one side, and then you could turn everything inside out and presto it was a white jacket, and I bought that and strutted in the evenings in it. … So I was wearing that and with my cigarettes and new sneakers and I suppose my attitude, which I might not be able to discern in myself but which must have been quite clear to others, I represented another kind of arithmetic to everyone on my street, not just the kids but the grown-ups too, and it was peculiar because I wanted everyone to know what they figured out easily enough, that it was just not given to a punk to find easy money except one way, but at the same time I didn’t want them to know, I didn’t want to be changed from what I was, which was a boy alive in the suspension of judgment of childhood, that I was the wild kid of a well-known crazy woman, but there was something in me that might earn out, that might grow into the lineaments of honor, so that a discerning teacher or some other act of God, might turn up the voltage of this one brain to a power of future life that everyone in the Bronx could be proud of. I mean that to the more discerning adult, the man I didn’t know and didn’t know ever noticed me who might live in my building or see me in the candy store, or in the schoolyard, I would be one of the possibilities of redemption, that there was some wit in the way I moved, some lovely intelligence in an unconscious gesture of the game, that would give him this objective sense of hope for a moment, quite unattached to any loyalty of his own, that there was always a chance, that as bad as things were, America was a big juggling act and that we could all be kept up in the air somehow, and go around not from hand to hand, but from light to dark, from night to day, in the universe of God after all.

E.L. Doctorow
Billy Bathgate

Refusals

For her first nine years on the planet, Big Red had lived a life of compromise. She wanted to be beautiful, but she’d had to settle for being nice. She wanted to see the Aquanauts for her birthday, but she’d had to settle for the gimp lobsters at the Crab Shack. She wanted a father, but she’d had to settle for Mr. Pappadakis. Mr. Pappadakis smells like Just for Men peroxide dye and eucalyptus foot unguents. He has a face like a catcher’s mitt. The whole thing puckers inward, drooping with the memory of some dropped fly ball. Big Red’s mother has many epithets for Mr. Pappadakis: “our meal ticket,” “my sacrifice,” “vitamin P.” He is an obdurate man, a man of irritating, inveterate habits. He refuses to put down toilet seats, or quit sucking on pistachio shells, or die.

Karen Russell
‘The City of Shells’

Water

She saw her waist disappear into reflectionless water; it was like walking into sky, some impurity of skies. All was one warmth, air, water, and her own body. All seemed one weight, one matter — until as she put down her head and closed her eyes and the light slipped under her lids, she felt this matter a translucent one, the river, herself, the sky all vessels which the sun filled. She began to swim in the river, forcing it gently, as she would wish for gentleness to her body. Her breasts around which she felt the water curving were as sensitive at that moment as the tips of wings must feel to birds, or antennae to insects. She felt the sand, grains intricate as little cogged wheels, minute shells of old seas, and the many dark ribbons of grass and mud touch her and leave her, like suggestions and withdrawals of some bondage that might have been dear, now dismembering and losing itself. She moved but like a cloud in skies, aware but only of the nebulous edges of her feeling and the vanishing opacity of her will, the carelessness for the water of the river through which her body had already passed as well as for what was ahead. The bank was all one, where out of the faded September world the little ripening plums started. Memory dappled her like no more than a paler light, which in slight agitations came through leaves, not darkening her for more than an instant. The iron taste of the old river was sweet to her, though. If she opened her eyes she looked at blue-bottles, the skating waterbugs. If she trembled it was at the smoothness of a fish or snake that crossed her knees.

Eudora Welty
‘The Wanderers’