Spring 2017 Prose

A Mazing Maze: This Life | Sarah Odishoo

“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily, not to dare is to lose oneself.”

—Soren Kierkegaard

* * *

With labyrinths, there are two kinds: unicursal and multicursal. The first has one entry and one exit that are the same. The second has many. In the first, the walker can rely on the architect’s design of the maze to get her in and out. In the second, every turn is random and her choice alone. She may never get out.

But both have these things in common: the walker doesn’t know the pattern. Memory is a key to finding one’s way. From the moment one enters, one is lost. And finding one’s way has more to do with remembering where you last turned, and then discovering your own responses in reaction to the unfamiliar.

They both have a center, a logos, a core. And when the walker finds the core, she knows half the way. If she doesn’t get to the center, she may be forever lost.

It’s memory that fails when you get lost. That’s the gift and the curse. Without memory, all is new. With memory, all is fated. At first I didn’t know the difference.

There was only one man who got out of the labyrinth. It was Theseus. And he wouldn’t have escaped if it hadn’t been for Ariadne, who learned from Daedalus, the maker of the maze, that in order to return, Theseus would have to tie a thread to the entry door and unwind it to his destination. Then he could follow it back. Without Ariadne’s thread, he might have slain the Minotaur, a monstrous half-bull, half-man, but he probably would never have been able to find his way back.

* * *

Are we caged by our desires? Like Ariadne, I was hungry to know. I wondered. And like the labyrinth, as many different circuitous, indirect routes I took in my desiring, all seemed to lead to blind exits.

* * *

When I went to Israel, I met a man, one who had lived in and near the Negev Desert all his life. He took me into the Negev. A desert is hardly a labyrinth.

Something brighter than the sun moved inside the desert stalk he held out to me. The plant stalk held ashen-shelled fists drooping from its branches, a hollowness that would allow it to stay undisturbed in its bony grooves. Splayed out in the shaming sun, it held its gray fists up and shook them when the wind whipcracked across the sand.

I would have missed it if it hadn’t been for this man, who bent down and snapped off one of the tightly-curled blooms.

“This is a flower. Do you know it?”

Shaking my head, I returned the branch to him, he who was intent on whetting my disbelief—and so it started.

He buried the plant’s tiny fist in his mouth, licking and sucking the seeming gray fossil with the one-armed posture of a soldier who had retreated from saving the dying for one more hour, shivering at Heaven’s saving grace.

And in the dark center of his mouth, cradling it in the lick of his tongue, he wet it open. Soft and petaled, it splayed wide, flaming bone white its daisy-petaled center. And he held its bouquet for me to see this wet galaxy leading into itself.

“When it rains in the desert,” he said, “it opens, and the desert blooms white as a bride.”

I laughed and buried my face in its white feathered bloom. It had opened fully blossomed as a feathery white daisy, soft and delicately exposed, revealing its undefended epicenter—flourishing.

A few minutes in the dry desert air, it curled back into itself again, withdrew, and hardened, looking like the other rocks and stones scattered in what I had first perceived as a barren region.

* * *

Now something brighter than the sun split the sky open…open…

* * *

I had a dream that night of a man made of stone parting the veil of a mountainside with his hand. I was in a canyon’s gorge when I saw him and I stopped. He had a small black key in his hand, and he inserted it in my heart, turned it, and turned it, winding it up—my heart. Desire.

And as I left I looked behind me. An endless line of women lined up, following me, waiting for the mountain to whirl its hilltop key to cyclic revelation.

* * *

A tree grows by repetitive branching, repeating the same information so that the process is the same story of processes that created it, repeated it, forming a complex and infinitely-ongoing pattern. Scientists call that branching a fractal, a never-ending pattern of infinitely-complex patterns that are self-similar in an ongoing feedback loop…

Fractal Foundation

* * *

Natural fractals include all branching patterns like trees, river networks, lightning bolts, blood vessels, and spiral patterns like seashells, hurricanes, and galaxies—the universe. . .all created from a simple equation called the Mandelbrot set.

Fractal Foundation

* * *

Seeing a frozen-fisted bloom made me glimpse the god that winds us up—one that gives us heartfelt direction. When I awoke I had a foretaste of that thread of wet light, winding in and out of here and there—everywhere.                                                          

* * *

What I had assumed were flashes of insight in the dark was a living Presence, finger-pointing to a prime reality that surges and fills all that exists. Desires that fitfully, and in sudden glimpses and openings, lead to a world lit inside out. What I didn’t know was that a primordial memory of that light, that reality, is what desire, the thread, endlessly reveals. That’s what I was after: the light thread that would lead me back home—that which is in the heart, at the core of the labyrinth, and unlocks and exposes the desert bloom—the longing to know what is inside the bloom that is human love: Knowing and Naming.

* * *

So perhaps there is a thread to see the (w)hole? The Maze Unmazed…

The God of Destruction Saramanda Swigart

Was April nervous? Just a little. She swung her feet below the office seat. Its cushions were leather-soft but the back was stiff with those tube-steel girders around the outside that you can feel through the cushions. They left the senses in confusion. What was sitting in a seat like this communicating about the experience to come? Don’t get too comfortable! Or: this might look like luxury, but let’s not forget where we are.

April opened her homework. Before the end of the Christmas break, she had to read “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates and write a summary. It’s a story about the bad things that happen when you leave a young person at home alone. It takes place in the suburbs, where crimes don’t happen often, so death just rips everyone apart. The young girl is raped and killed by a guy who comes to her house and cuts the telephone line. When a story like that happens in New York, everyone’s reaction is, Oh. Again? April hooked her legs around the legs of the chair. That was the reaction last summer when Charlie died.

After English she had to get familiar with cell division, but since she and Mahesh, her lab partner, had the falling-out, she couldn’t concentrate on biology. She unhooked her feet and kicked the tubular steel with her Doc Martin toes, which were also steel, so that the whole chair rang and vibrated. She kicked it again. But the only other person in the pediatrician’s waiting room—a sharp-faced older woman holding an infant—looked up angrily. April smiled at her and watched her face soften. April’s smile was her superpower. But inside she cursed the woman who thought this waiting room needed more gravity than its gray-and-pink wallpaper, worn-out Highlights magazines, and pastel art prints already emitted.

She looked back at the story. Homework made her anxious. She had to pass, of course, but couldn’t do so well that she drew teachers’ notice. This story is a story about a not-very-smart girl who is left home alone and a man comes to the girl’s house in a muscle car. In English the secret was long sentences, repetition, and a smattering of grammar errors (but not so many)—a configuration designed to bore Ms. Glancy cross-eyed, so she would file April in the “mediocre-but-not-a-problem” category.

“Thurston?” the nurse called out. When April approached the kiosk, the nurse touched her arm. “How are you, honey?”

April relaxed into the touch and, when it was proffered, took the nurse’s warm Irish hand, holding on for a little too long.

“I’m good, Mrs. Flaherty,” she said. “How are you?”

“We’re so sorry to hear about Charlie.”

April kicked out her foot against the rubber bumper around the kiosk. The toe of her boot left a scuff mark, so she kicked out and left another mark parallel to the first. She didn’t change her expression. “Thank you,” she said.

“How’s your mum holding up?”

“Better every day,” said April.

“There’s nothing worse than losing a son,” Mary said. “I lost mine at three months. I thought I’d die. Really. I thought it would kill me. I can’t even imagine losing a son—or a brother—Charlie’s age.”

“We’re managing,” said April. But then, sensing this was not what Mrs. Flaherty wanted, she added, “It’s so hard, though. Charlie is, was, the family’s center. We’ve lost our center.” Something her mom said, and April realized it was true: Charlie’d been the family’s center in the way a big thing is orbited by small things, and if the big thing goes, the small things are unmoored.

Mrs. Flaherty gave a sad smile.

Outside a record snowstorm was brewing. April felt tears brewing below her larynx, hoping to get up and out. Something was holding them down. She wished they would come while she was here with Mrs. Flaherty. Maybe she could hold the nurse’s hand again.

“Tell your mom she’s in my prayers,” said Mrs. Flaherty. “Dr. Best will see you now.”

April wanted Mrs. Flaherty to bring her into the little inner sanctum and give her the familiar set of instructions—put this on, clothes here, pee into this—but no such luck. She sat alone on the pink vinyl stool, counting the clowns stenciled around the moldings and allowing, finally, the smile to drop from her face.

* * *

When April and Mahesh became lab partners in October, her grades improved. She found herself having to take countermeasures to stay off Mr. Arguelles’ radar: only turning in half of her homework and deliberately missing questions on quizzes. Mahesh, skinny with wire glasses, wore tee-shirts that said Schrödinger’s Cat is Dead on the front and Schrödinger’s Cat is Alive on the back. He wasn’t like her other friends at school—pretty, emo girls with pale lipstick and faux-fur jackets. Making friends was easy for April. What was harder, since Charlie died, was understanding what friends were for. The girls’ bathroom chatter tired her, though she chattered right along, listing the girls who weren’t virgins and the ones who lied about it; sharing techniques for giving the perfect hand job; collecting the names of bars that let underage kids drink (Irish bars, yes; cool bars near the colleges, no). They never went to the bars, just enumerated them. April applied mascara and yammered, keeping her smile fresh and unwavering.

Mahesh liked different things, a fact April discovered when she started going to his apartment after school to prep for biology.

“What’s that smell?” said April the first time she visited.

“What smell?” he said.

“It’s spicy, kind of. Like food but sweeter.”

“It’s the shrine,” he said. “See? We worship Shiva, this statue here. You smell the incense.”

A metal statue stood on one leg in an alcove. It had four arms, each holding something different—a flame, a cup, what looked like a noose.

“What’s she the god of?” asked April.

He is the god of, well, of destruction.” Mahesh held a stick of incense under her nose. She smelled, in addition to the incense, his own smell, yeast and boy-sweat.

“God of destruction. That’s metal,” said April. Then she put on a movie-trailer voice and said, “The God of Destruction!

Mahesh laughed. He assumed a Kung Fu pose and repeated, “The God of Destruction!” and this time he played up the accent he usually concealed, an exaggerated roll to the “R.” He brought his hand down in a karate chop, and when she blocked it, he let his leg sweep up in a side kick. She tumbled toward him in a flurry of hand feints, finally landing one on his bony waist, and just then his mother opened the apartment door. Mahesh stiffened and pulled away. They were both breathing hard, and Mrs. Mantha froze in her scrubs when she saw them before recovering and stepping forward with her hand out, a coolness behind the polite of her eyes.

“Amanthi,” she said. Her accent was lovely, deeply inflected and imperious. “You are who?”

April put on her biggest, warmest smile and saw, with disappointment, that Mahesh’s mother wasn’t immune either. She visibly relaxed. April despaired that even this woman, clearly adept at sizing people up, couldn’t see past the smile.

“I’m April,” she chirped. “Mahesh and I are doing biology.”

“Yes. Go to.” She touched her son in a proprietary way. “Mahesh will be studying medicine, so work him hard. Snack and soda are in the kitchen.”

She watched April and Mahesh walk toward his room, as far from one another as the hallway allowed.

When they were out of sight, Mahesh whispered, “By the way, I won’t be studying medicine. Don’t tell her that.”

“Because you’ll be worshipping the god of destruction,” April said.

Mahesh laughed. “He’s also the god of dance.”

In his room April posed like the statue, one leg raised, foot curled; one hand up and one down. “I’m Shiva,” she said. “And I’m going to dance you…to death!

* * *

The door opened. April started. Dr. Best had been her pediatrician for as long as she’d been alive. Now, at age fifteen, she’d called his office because she didn’t know any other doctors. When she was young he’d said, “If anything is ever wrong at home or school, I want you to call my office. You’re almost my kid.” He told a lot of jokes, usually about being the “best in the biz,” and he still made things appear from her ears, even though he knew it was schmaltzy. Today, though, Dr. Best didn’t smile.

“What happened, April,” he said. It wasn’t a question.

April smeared her smile over her face. Yes, there were the tears. Come on! Up you come! But they didn’t come and she sat there grinning, or grimacing, or whatever her mouth was doing.

“I don’t know what our coordinator told you over the phone,” Dr. Best went on, “but we really don’t do this here.”

“But I got the release signed. Like she said.”

“You don’t legally need a release. There are other fine clinics that will take care of you confidentially. I’ll refer you.”

Now tears did threaten April, but these were tears of fear, not the other tears, the ones that make you close to someone. How confident April had been that her own Dr. Best, playful and fatherly, was the adult of last resort. “But you don’t understand. I got it signed. Like your coordinator told me. It’s my mom’s signature, there.”

Dr. Best ran his finger over her name, Lily Thurston, written in a fine hand. No teenaged daughter forged that signature, April could see him thinking.

“April,” he said slowly. “I sympathize with how hard this must be. But I’m just not this kind of doctor.”

April sat still, grinning. Dr. Best watched her for a long time. Then his brow loosened a degree. “April, you’ve had a hard year. I wonder, in addition to what you need here—and I’m sorry I can’t help you with it—if you might want to talk with someone. Just talk. I can give you a referral for that too. We all need to talk sometimes. Especially in the wake of…yes.”

“I thought I could talk here. I mean about options.”

“I’m a pediatrician. That kind of talk isn’t my wheelhouse.”

Dr. Best stood. He was a pediatrician, she no longer a child. April couldn’t believe he was leaving her. The tears came now, hot and outraged, and they rolled down her smiling cheeks. She saw Dr. Best think about reaching out to touch her, as he would have when she was younger, and then she saw him decide against it. Maturity had contaminated her. He held up one finger, wait, and left the room.

April sat reeling. Loneliness and panic did battle in her chest.

Dr. Best returned. “Here are some names,” he said, brisk now, one adult to another, and handed her a folded paper. “The names at the top are colleagues who can help you out, and the bottom names are some therapists. I urge you to give one a try.”

April rose, making as little sound as possible, making her body take up as little room as possible.

“April,” said Dr. Best. “Be more careful. And please. Take care of yourself.”

She pulled on her hat and hurried out of the office, avoiding Mrs. Flaherty’s eyes, into the dark January day. The storm was swirling and a thick haze of snow blurred the street, the sky, the buildings around her.

* * *

Seven weeks earlier, in mid-November, her dad left. After that April started engineering run-ins with Mahesh around school, and he would walk her to class or drop her off with her friends in the cafeteria. (“Who is that guy who’s always hanging around you—” they asked, “the one with the shirt?”)

At his house they worked in his room. And then, at the end of the semester, they started to talk. All the off-limits words April couldn’t say at home crowded into her throat. She told Mahesh about Charlie’s car accident, about her father leaving town just when she was getting to know him, and how now her mother never left the house.

Mahesh was a serious listener. He watched and nodded. His eyes said, Go on.

When she fell silent, he said, “There’s something I don’t get: you’re so smart. Why are your grades so poor?”

“Because otherwise I’d have to go to Dalton, like Charlie.”

“Why wouldn’t you go to Dalton?” Mahesh sat up straight. “If I could—if my parents weren’t saving for university—I’d go tomorrow. Dalton’s, like, one of the top schools in—”

“I know. I told my parents I didn’t get in. I wanted…I don’t know. My own thing. ‘Smart’ was Charlie’s thing.” How could she explain how invisible she’d been at home and how much worse it would have been at Dalton? Charlie’s shadow was long. Basketball star, salutatorian, star in every play, ludicrously popular. At home Charlie stole the oxygen, bullying, teasing, talking over everyone. April, cute, good-natured, was neither a wit nor a bother. Public school had seemed a place of privacy and individuation. But of course, after Charlie died, she found herself maintaining her invisibility at public school too. She couldn’t say why.

Mahesh sat, aghast. “You got into Dalton?”

“Yes. I wanted something that was mine.”

To her surprise, Mahesh nodded. “Yeah,” he said, laying his hand over hers.

“I thought it was my turn,” April continued. Tears began to fall. “You know? It was always Charlie, Charlie. Then he died and they’re even less interested.”

“They? Your parents?”

April nodded. Charlie dying was horrible. Of course it was. But it was also, for a short time, the best thing that ever happened to her. For the first time, her dad took her to Central Park, to the zoo, to museums, like she was small—like they were starting over. They jogged around the reservoir. He helped with her homework. But then he left, off to California, and everything got so much worse than before Charlie died that her skin prickled all the time. Her mom shuffled wherever she went and seemed unable to provide herself with the fundamentals, food and basic hygiene. April flailed in the sudden void.

Mahesh was quiet. Then he said, “You know, whenever something terrible happens, we always think we’ll help each other through it. But really all our coping mechanisms come out and interact badly with other people’s coping mechanisms.” He frowned, still holding her hand. His hand was brown but his palm was pink, almost the same color as her hand. “Right around the tragedy isn’t when we’re close,” he went on. He touched her hand to his chest. “But it gets better. It really does.”

April watched him, feeling his words open in her chest like a blossoming. Could it be temporary, the horror her home had become? She’d assumed it was forever. The B.C. (Before Charlie) was the good time—and the A.C. was the unchangeable after. But Mahesh had gone through something similar, maybe, and maybe he had mended things. Perhaps—and here the blossom of hope became a dangerous blaze—the family could be even better than before. She smiled a genuine smile.

“What?” said Mahesh.

Words and memories floated in her mind, but she was too relieved to speak.

Mahesh looked down at his textbook. April didn’t have to reach far to lay her hand between his crossed legs, over his thin, loose pants, where she felt Mahesh’s penis twitch once and then snap up at the exact moment his head snapped up, and the three of them sat like that in utter surprise. April had imagined that a hard penis would be actually hard, like stone or metal, but in truth it was like a tense, living animal, warm and trembling, like something frightened. She let her hand move, thinking about the girls and their hand job advice, and how, with the real thing in her hand, it was obvious none of them had first-hand knowledge. When she squeezed slightly, the spell of stillness was broken, and Mahesh was upon her, kissing her with urgency, moaning at the back of his throat. He ran his hands under her shirt, and they shook when they found her bra and fumbled under it. Merely curious at first, April soon grew breathless herself and found her own hands beneath his shirt feeling, for the first time, his thin chest. He had a patch of hair on his sternum, and this moved her, this evidence of manhood on that boyish chest. He pulled her shirt over her head. He rubbed his cheek against her breasts. Only once did he slow down and pull away.

“Are you OK?” he asked, voice thick with desire. “You want this?”

“I do,” she said.

They undressed almost shyly. He arranged himself over her and inexpertly pushed his way inside her. It hurt but there was also a profound bodily joy that billowed up with the pain. April lay still, observing, until she was compelled to move against him, and she felt her heart open to the feelings, both emotional and sensory, that washed through her.

Afterward Mahesh cradled her as their breathing returned to normal. His fingers stroked her shoulder, and he turned his head to kiss her neck. April lay, full of happy confusion and a sense of forward momentum. She rested her hand in the wiry hairs on his chest. So this was the next step: these the intimacies of adulthood. Her smile stayed in tune with her feelings.

But suddenly, without warning, Mahesh tensed and he sat up. He quickly pulled his pants on.

“You’d better get dressed,” he said.

She gathered her clothes from the floor. From the other room came a closing door and sounds of movement. Mahesh’s mother was home. Dressed, April sat on the chair opposite the bed and spread out her homework.

“It’s late,” Mahesh said, standing over her.

“Mahesh?” Mrs. Mantha called.

“You want me to go?” she said.

“Yes,” he said, pulling her up.

“Mahesh kanna?” Mrs. Mantha said again, closer.

When Mahesh saw April’s expression, he said, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

* * *

But he didn’t call. During the remaining biology classes before the final, he was tense, speaking only when necessary. He wouldn’t meet her eye. Why? April thought furiously at him, willing him to hear her. He avoided her in the halls and, during the final exam, sat as far from her as he could. When the semester ended she waited almost until Christmas before calling his house.

“Yes?” said Mrs. Mantha’s musical voice.

“It’s April,” she said brightly. “Is Mahesh home?”

“Just a moment,” she said, and April heard hushed voices in the background.

When Mrs. Mantha came back on the line, her voice had changed. She sounded sorry. “He’s not here at present. May I have him return your call later?”

“Oh. OK.”

“Thank you, honey.”

April placed the phone in its wall cradle and held a hand to her chest, where a great emptiness dragged at her.

Christmas came and went. Dad was in town for only three days and spent most of that time alone in his office: gifts of a sweater, a book about San Francisco, and a pair of flannel pajamas. After that April realized she’d missed a period. She called Mahesh again and had to leave a message. But then she remembered the Manthas were in India for a week. She didn’t call again, even when she knew they’d be home.

Now, walking through the heavily falling snow, through the muffled silence, she felt anger and despair and loneliness rise up into her sternum and swirl together into a potent cocktail that made her feel powerful. The storm was gathering. At first, when April looked into the lit windows of the brownstones around her, it was like the opening scene of a movie: a camera in the snow, zooming toward a window where the story is about to happen. April, stuck outside, wasn’t in the story. But slowly, as the powerful feeling began to change her, April realized her feet were not carrying her toward home but toward the East River, where Mahesh and his family lived. She reared tall. Her Doc Martins crushed the vulnerable snow beneath them. The story wasn’t inside—it was following her, like a film crew where she was the star—or maybe the villain. Oates’ creepy rapist with the hot rod, sneaking around the house to cut the telephone wire. Only April’s boots made noise, and the vortex of sensation in her chest, and her hands gathering into fists. Who am I? The god of destruction! and she almost laughed, and felt herself to be the storm, chasing everyone home, making this snow fall forever, burying the city and everyone in it.