Spring/Summer 2002, Volume 19.3
Wendell Mayo (Ph.D., Ohio University) is Professor of English at Bowling Green State University and author of three books of fiction: Centaur of the North (Arte Público, 1996, winner of the Aztlán Prize), In Lithuanian Wood (White Pine, 1999), and B. Horror and Other Stories (Livingston, 1999). See other work by Wendell Mayo at: https://personal.bgsu.edu/~wmayo
When he returned to his studio on Cotter Street, he tried to write about the things he remembered, and then he forgot them and found the black bottle of Concha y Toro at his elbow. He picked it up by the neck and swung it side to side, considering his studio, two rooms, one once a painter's. The walls were whitewashed except in places where the canvases had been worked, then taken down, leaving shadows of finished work—gone, blank, ghost-like spaces he had no use for.
When he wasn't writing, he sat at his desk and looked out the window to a great bed of wild roses, the intimation of mustard, powdery stamens among their papery white flowers. The roses grew in tangled, dense, watery shapes, and covered the small yard entirely. They rose and fell, each clump running into others, looking oddly like a slice of the rolling Gulf with four or five foot crests. When he went outside, the sun was straight up. He looked at his feet and noticed he was without his shadow, how other objects around him seemed unreal in their pure, washed-out states. A shadow rushed past him on the ground, something that soared over him. When he looked up, the source of the shadow was gone, and he wondered: had it been from instinct, loyalty, or compassion that a blackbird followed Diomedes to his grave?
He wiped a bead of sweat off his forehead before it trickled into the corner of his eye and noticed three gulls perched on the spine of the house across Cotter Street, his studio; they were laughing gulls, but they were not laughing; they were silent, tiny statuesque spires, their gray wings running together with the color of the shake wood, their bellies white: three gray-white flags.
A black tern appeared in the sky, coming in from the Gulf, its wings spread stiffly, catching the air rising behind the crest of the house. It dove, and he lost sight of it.
He walked to the North Marina where the half-day cruises came in, where he knew they'd be making photographs of the daily bounty, the dead of the sea hung by tails on metal rails: a baby shark, gray, white, smooth, barely three-feet long; two small albacore; and a yellowfin tuna colored mustard and black—and red, bleeding in lightning bolts at the mouth.
He watched people take turns standing by the dead fish to have their photographs taken. Then he turned from the dock, flags flapping high in the stubby masts of cabin cruisers. Laughing gulls now laughed and hovered over the marina. A black skimmer glided over the water in a slip between two cruisers, and a brown pelican arced over the water, tucked its wings in, and turned downward to stab itself into the water. He waited for the splash, but he could not get the arc the great bird had made out of his mind, the small arc formed at the top of its dive, the point at which the bird was neither rising nor falling. Even after the bird's splash, while he made his way back to his studio, out of the sun, he kept the arc of the pelican in his mind.
He followed the paved county road to the Gulf. He sat at the foot of a dune, where a few witchy blades of seagrass stood at his back. A snowy plover ducked behind the base of a dune, and in the distance he saw a long-billed curlew near a salt marsh. He put his knees and rested his clipboard on them. With his pen, he tried to transcribe the shape of the sea, first by making all sizes and shapes of interlocking circles on the paper. Then, he thought he'd try to interpret the sound; he flipped the page and ran his pen in straight, broken lines, allowing the pen to contact the paper with the onset of sound each wave made. But he didn't write how the waves curled over themselves—what caught his eye—only what came into his ears and what he remembered:
shhhhh… a man on a string, soaring like a kite… shhh… roles, actors, making love… shhhhhhhh… an old man and a young woman eating grapes… sh… something real, beautiful, important… shhh… one thing that connected your life… shhhhhhhh… gratuitous episodes… sh… something clean, orderly… shhhhh… city of god, city of devil… shhh… bury everything dead… shhhhhh… a species of blackbird, following Diomedes to his grave… shhhhhhh… give up everything… shhhh… start over… shhhhh… educate yourself to silence… sh….
Back at his studio, he worked and drank Concha. He started the way he always started, with the shapes of the wild roses out his window, trying to connect the body of the thicket with that of the sea. He finished only the bottle of Concha, though it seemed such a waste in the late afternoon heat, since the dark red wine only made him sweat more. He wanted to sleep and forget the work, the heat, and the Concha, thought it was time to quit trying, to take it all up again in the morning, work and marina and eastern sun…. Such a shallow vastness he inscribed himself within; it touched him in all places; he felt he could never get outside it.
He slept at his desk and woke feeling stiff and tired, needing to move, and so thought to make his way out to the Gulf again, first finishing the heel of Concha, then running water over his head in the sink to cool himself down.
When he arrived at the shore, he heard the familiar sound of waves breaking and running over the sand, and he walked on the wet sand, the dark, cool, safe strip of beach periodically lapped by shallow, transparent tongues of waves, and he blocked their sound from his mind, watched instead the silent heat rising in waves from the dunes, beach houses smuggled between their hot fleshy slopes, clumps of prickly pear dotting their ridges.
He watched a laughing gull hover at his side, its white wing feathers quivering in the wind. He found a fish, a small grouper, recently dead, washed-in, cemented in wet sand by the high tide. Its eyes were opaque, and he noticed a large, long-shanked hook embedded in its gills. Scar tissue had formed around the hook, but some of the wire rigging attached to the hook had sliced through the scarlet flesh inside the gills, and the fish had drowned. Near the grouper he saw the claw of a blue crab and the gelatinous heap of a dead jellyfish near an oiled seabird, dead also. He couldn't tell which kind of bird it was, but it looked paradoxically vital with its smooth black coating, a negative image of what had been a living creature of flight. He tipped the dead bird over with one hand, but found no place on its body the oil had not found first.
The sun began to set, and he watched the end of the long jetty, a black point in the water on the horizon, a point at which nothing after was jetty and nothing before was Gulf.… Then he noticed all at once, in the light that persisted in spite of the sun's absence, how the disintegrating positive images of all he knew only moments before—the dead fruits of the sea, inscribed by the sky, earth, the maddening limits of his imagination, even the colors, greens and blues of the crab, reds and blacks of the grouper, the lavender of the jellyfish, the ruddy spears of light from the dying sun—how all of it became one great concoction of dead things inside a circle of indifferent space, touching that space on all sides, but never breaking out of it—and so that moment his mind swam inside that vacant, indifferent space. He fell to his knees, then forward onto his elbows, and down onto his stomach, the life seeming to wash out of him, wanting before he slept to peel open the world's shell, but believing that nothing he could do would ever penetrate it. So he slept; he slept the way he believed dead things slept, without dreaming, without caring if the indifferent tide came in, floated him, and carried him into the Gulf… and before drifting off, he wondered what any of the individual things inscribed by the shell mattered, bird, fish, sky, sea… himself, and he wondered how he fit into the vacant frames that all dead things left behind, like those in the whitewashed room he could not bring himself to use, and he wept inside, without tears, a haunting weeping, as if weeping inside a great conch that to the ear and eye drowns the human sound with that of rushing air, its every whim amplified and indecipherable, and swallowing human sight with it in dark and winding corridors….
He woke, rolled onto his back and saw a dim, dark sheet of water before him, nearly at his feet, whole and black and deathlike in its vastness. He saw the black outline of a night heron passing in the sky, and further out over the sea a magnificent frigate bird. Behind him were the curvaceous black shapes of the dunes. And all that he saw, wherever he looked, was clearly outlined against only the dimmest possible light cast by the stars in the hazy night sky—and in that moment, he shifted a little on the sand, not feeling rested, but nevertheless noticing that all the shapes around him were pure and true in their blackness, and anything else they had been only a vague recollection. The heron was black, but in his memory the heron in full light was dusty blue. The dunes were black, but in his memory they were fleshy and dotted pale-green with prickly pear. The black sea, he knew, had many colors and manners in full light. Even the dim outline of the grouper had behind its blackness his memory of the gray, cloudy color of its dead eyes, the scarlet of its torn and bleeding gills. His eyes were open and suddenly drinking in all the light possible, seeing the dark shapes against the night sky, their selfsame shadows, and the vital colors they signified….
And later that morning he worked feverishly in his studio near the room with vacant frames.… Out his window, in the clear morning light, a species of blackbird had followed him home, two red patches, like great, dazzling wounds in each shoulder of each wing, a creature distinct from all things, beating its wings in desperate rhythms to keep itself barely above the thicket of wild roses, its neck and back arched sharply, alive, aloft, a dark comma suspended in air….