Vienna, 2018 Today, I am a man who stands behind a subway stop. I have been this man before. He wears layers of clothes and lugs his belongings in a two-wheel mesh cart that grandmothers use for carrying groceries. This man wears a beanie because he’s afraid his ears will get frostbite. He wears fingerless gloves and shiny business shoes. None of that is very important. His favourite item is a pair of aviator sunglasses with the left lense popped out. People can see one eye and not the other. It is his halfway mask. It is a pirate patch.
I see the pigeons behind the subway stop. They squabble and peck each other. I laugh when someone walks by and they flurry up in panic. Have you ever seen a baby pigeon? Sometimes I think these birds multiply using cell division. One pigeon divides into two. That’s why some of them are so big: they’re about to divide. I see a toddler waddle into a flock of them. He squeals when they fly up and he runs towards me without realizing I’m sitting here. His mittens are attached to the sleeves of his coat and his nose is red. I smile at him and he stares at me with uncertain eyes. I can speak to him without saying anything. Come here. Come talk to me and be my friend. The mother scoops him up and they take the train away.
I am the eyepatch man. He stands behind the subway stop and sometimes he shares his sandwich with the pigeons. Most people don’t notice him until he wants to be noticed. He’s a good hider. It’s nighttime now and the pigeons are gone. I see two girls walking to the bus stop close by. They are laughing and speaking in English with fake British accents. The eyepatch man has a British accent and speaks English too.
He likes these girls. They are wearing good clothes. One of them has black curly hair and is wearing black boots with heels. The other one is wearing a purple hat and white sneakers. They have a backpack and a small suitcase. They have different skin colors. He wants them to feel pretty.
I can walk all the way up to them without them seeing me because they are talking to each other so carelessly. They have nice laughs. The eyepatch man has no money, so he asks them for help. They seem like nice girls. “Hello, ladies. Spare any change? I need to make a call.” They both have startled eyes like that toddler from before. They shift towards each other. Babies. Baby girls. The one with the hat speaks first. “I don’t have any cash,” she smiles, uncertain. The other one is quick to follow. “Me neither, sorry.” The eyepatch man is kind. He understands. “Of course, I was just asking.”
He walks back to the phone booth where his mesh cart is hidden. The babies are talking to each other from the corners of their mouths. He doesn’t like that. They’re saying rude things about him. Teach them. Teach them manners. He takes his cart and returns to stand beside them. They stop talking again. He smiles. He can see them through one lens and one normal eye.
“Where are you two from?” They look at each other. “Canada,” and “India,” slip from their pretty mouths. The eyepatch man wants to tell them how rude they are to not ask where he is from, but I hold him back. They’re babies after all. They don’t know better. Yet.
The bus arrives and I push the button so that the doors slide open. I sweep my arm for them to go first because the eyepatch man is a gentleman. The bus is empty and he wants them to sit down with him but they stand beside the door. These are the rudest girls I’ve ever met. I could teach them to be polite. I have some things in this cart for teaching lessons like that.
They don’t know, but I can see their faces in the reflection of the bus window. The one with the curly hair has a face like a stone. She is paler than before. The one with the hat has eyebrows that point up and big worried eyes. She’s talking a lot. I don’t like that. The one with the curly hair grabs her wrist and she stops talking. The bus stops and neither of them move. The bus is about to lurch forward when the one with curly hair lunges forward and punches the button to open the doors. They both get off the bus. It’s too late to follow. They turn and see me through the glass. I glare at them as the bus moves on. I smash my fist against the side of the bus until my hand is bruised.
Today I am walking around Vienna. I see a pigeon limping on the sidewalk. I make soft cooing noises so that it lets me come close. I lift my cart and bring it down on the bird’s back. There is a delicious crackle. I thump the cart down again. I hear the bird bones break and the blood spilling out. Teaching manners. When I’m done I cradle the feathers and other goop in my hands and place it in a nearby bin. Manners.
… Today I am a man who drives for Uber. I have been this man before. He lives in a neat apartment with an old cat. He wears a baseball cap and has dice hanging in his rearview mirror.
Artwork by Edward Steichen “Charlie Chaplin” 1925.
A group of young girls are strolling down the sidewalk on a hot summer day in New York; all at once, their four heads turn, and they gaze with equal interest at a series of shiny spherical objects that seem to be floating along the wall. Nobody has initiated the gaze; nobody is gesturing towards the objects or checking to see if her friends noticed them too. It’s as though the objects themselves demanded all four girls’ attention at once. The viewer of this photograph will therefore become curious as well, and pay greater attention to the bubbles than she would have if the children weren’t in the frame. Each bubble has part of its edge resting against the border between two or more bricks. If these objects are soap bubbles that are simply floating along, then Levitt has captured them while they are all in a state of in-between; none of them float in the centre of a single brick. If they are not soap bubbles, they could also be glass spheres embedded in the brick, like underwater windows on a ship, which offer a glimpse into the underground world beneath the road. The photograph allows for both possibilities, and each creates a mystery. If the objects are glass spheres, then who put them there, and what is their function? If they are soap bubbles, then where is the soap bubble blower, and how have they survived for so long without popping?
The girls’ synchronization is what causes our interest, not the objects themselves. If Helen Levitt had chosen to photograph the wall and the glass spheres without the children, the image wouldn’t be interesting because we wouldn’t stop to see them as anything other than bubbles against brick. But when we notice what the children are noticing, we start to see things the way they do. Levitt’s child subjects become a conduit for the adult viewer’s own imagination, we ask ourselves: do they see everlasting soap bubbles, a coded message, or tiny portals into other worlds? Since we are unable to ask them what they see, and wouldn’t want to break the spell of their imagination anyways, we return to our own imaginations for answers.
Implicit in the taking and viewing of this photograph is the creation of three different imaginary worlds layered on top of one another. The first is the children’s imaginary world that has been activated by the bubbles; this creation occurred during the actual moment when the photograph was taken. The second is Helen Levitt’s imaginary world, which was born when she chose to remove this moment from its temporal context by capturing it in a photograph; a photograph can tell a narrative that is entirely separate from the reality it was captured in, and in doing so it becomes its own fictional world. Finally, there is a new imaginary world built into the mind of the viewer as she thinks about what the children might be imagining. Whether she is aware of her imagination being activated or not, the viewer will unconsciously become a creator too. This collaboration between child-subject, photographer, and viewer recurs in Levitt’s work, and keeps the viewer oscillating between the three imagined worlds as an unknowing participant in the artistic act.
In her article, “Helen Levitt and the camera,” critic Elizabeth Gand argues that Levitt uses children to explore the ways in which art gets made. “If she engaged so deeply with children, it was because of what they allowed her to say… Her pictures conceive children’s play as the foundation of artistic production; they are portraits of the artist as a young child.” Levitt reveals the creative process by representing children who are at play: transforming the ordinary world into something fantastical. By capturing the four girls in a synchronized moment of wonder, she shows us the moment when a detail from the real world can tip the artist-as-child into her imagination. She also reveals what might be missing from regular adult observation. The four girls are naturally drawn to the bubbles, which an adult or non-artist might pass without taking a second glance. By seeing what the children are looking at, we might also see the absence of the curiosity we once had as children. Fredrick Wiseman’s statement about his reaction to one of Levitt’s photographs is applicable to many of her works. “I like this photograph because it makes me ask myself these silly questions when I, of course, have no idea what either these children or Helen Levitt were thinking and can only project my fantasies onto this photograph.” The activation of the adult imagination is a major part of Levitt’s intention. As a statement about art-making, “New York c 1945” advocates for the careful observation of the subtle oddities that are present in the regular world. Inside a bubble, the artist might find a universe, the way a child does.
The child’s imagination could be considered a universal theme or topic of interest, but Levitt chooses to situate her work in specific communities. Her subjects often come from the margins, but she escapes the trap of using them to make overt sociopolitical commentaries; instead, her photography allows for ambiguity. For example, in the photograph “New York, 1940,” Levitt depicts two black children absorbed in their own internal worlds. The girl’s hair has not been combed, her clothes are rumpled and she has her arms crossed in a self-comforting or protective gesture. The boy is sitting on the ground at the threshold between inside and outside space. Both children seem to be waiting for something. But if they seem vulnerable it is because of our assumptions about their circumstances, not because they are performing vulnerability to us or because the photograph has captured them in a moment of weakness. I would argue that both children exude a kind of power. Both of them are gazing out, but don’t seem to be looking at anything in particular; they have left their circumstances behind for a moment. They have the power to leave the real world while they wait.
Walker Evans once called Levitt’s photography anti-journalism. Her photos cannot be read with one single narrative and they are not a call to action or a cry for social justice. Her subjects are often unconcerned with the photographer’s presence, and the photographs themselves seem unconcerned with what the viewer might take from them. However, while Levitt’s work maintains ambiguity and resists simple political readings, it is also not a-political. Scholar Lorraine Sim argues, “her photography undoubtedly assumes a politics in the sense that it focuses on poor neighbourhoods, the working classes, women and children, and often African-American and immigrant subjects—and in ways that depart from stereotypical representations of these groups.” Levitt is making a choice to photograph the marginalized, but she does not use the individuals she is photographing to tell a story of marginalization. When we look at the photographs today, they can become documentary in the sense that they portray groups that were not part of the mainstream narrative at the time. Scholar Alison Dean argues that today, “we can begin to re-frame her practice in terms of questions of visibility and invisibility that are central not only to the way we see Levitt, but also the way (and the fact that) we can also see her subjects.” Visibility is not a-political; at the same time, we should not over-use it in our readings of specific photographs.
In “New York c. 1945,” three black children and one white child walk together and notice bubbles at exactly the same moment. This group could surprise a contemporary viewer, who might not have expected black children and white children to play together on the street in the 1940s. In his article, critic Alan Trachtenberg points out Levitt’s ability to reject stereotype by portraying marginalized people as, “neither victims nor impossible heroes, her subjects appear as themselves. It’s a breathtaking achievement, an artist taking poor people entirely on their own terms.” The friendship between the four girls is not made heroic or sentimental, it simply exists. Levitt’s choice to photograph this moment normalizes the girls’ relationship rather than twisting it to fit an agenda. Yet our imagination of that time period could cause us to see this group as an oddity, and construct a racially-motivated message in the photograph that isn’t really there. It would be easy to misread the children’s grouping and synchronized head-turning as Levitt’s way of suggesting that racial harmony exists in the children’s world in opposition to a racially divided adult world. But she is never saccharine in her depiction of childhood, and this photograph does not suggest that the children are free from their sociopolitical reality: instead, it allows the real world to exist in the frame. The girls are penned in by a high wall and we cannot see the sidewalk ahead of them, so we have no way of knowing what things will be like when they pass through this moment. If there is a story about race that is being told through this image, it is not as simple or sweet as: look at the magic of interracial friendships.
The composition of the photograph draws a parallel between the girls and the bubbles, which are both captured during a time of transition. The bubbles are all crossing from one brick to the next while the girls walk on the transitory space of a sidewalk, which acts as a fault line between a road and a row of buildings. The bubbles also seem to be floating along and the girls are all captured mid-stride. The parallel between the children and the bubbles suggests that the children are fragile too. They exist in a world where it seems to be a small miracle that they have not popped yet. While the children are mobile, the photograph slices through mobility by splitting the distant car in half, cropping out their future walking space, and showing a horizon with no openness. It seems that eventually the children will reach a dead-end, and will need to turn around. Even if they reach the wider world that is shown in the top right corner, it is a place with no sky: only buildings layered on buildings. This crowdedness creates a kind of simmering anxiety, even in the magic of the moment. Race, class and gender all play a part in Levitt’s photographs because they are a part of the real world, which children inhabit too. Despite their harsh realities, she captures children from all socioeconomic groups when they are at their most powerful. She sees when they are engrossed in the small mysteries of the real world, which they are uniquely equipped to see, and she captures them at the precipice between reality and imagination. When we start to wonder what they are seeing, we slip down the cracks of our own imaginations too.
Many critics have suggested that Levitt’s photography is “artless,” and “style-less.” They see it as emblematic of the “white style,” meaning she has a “fully automatic, active collaboration with chance.” While her photography must be spontaneous, since it is not posed or artificially constructed, I would argue that it is also not captured at random. Greater emphasis should be placed on the subtle complexity of her composition and the choices that she is making rather than her spontaneity and seeming invisibility. Critic Sandra Phillips uses “New York 1940,” to point out the subtle effect of Levitt’s different cropping. In an earlier print of the photo, the two children exist in a “wide sea of space surrounding the central figure,” but later editions crop that space down, “usually the effect is one of more mystery and psychological content.” Levitt also uses recurring motifs in the creation of an aesthetic. For example, her child subjects are almost always occupying liminal space. Three boys crouch on a front stoop: a space that is both public and private because it is owned by whoever owns the building but is also visible to the outside world. A boy hangs onto a doorframe: half in one room and half in another. Another boy squats in a corner, nestled between the sculpture of a lion and a window into a restaurant or café. This recurrence of a type of space is not a stroke of luck, but an aesthetic choice. Levitt also chooses to allow the children’s surroundings into the frame, to give context without allowing the surroundings to dominate the subjects. The way her subjects choose to behave: their postures, movements and facial expressions may be up to chance, but everything else about her work is artfully constructed.
Levitt is making choices to create an aesthetic experience, yet she also resists the creation of a single narrative or journalistic message. Her often impoverished subjects appear as powerful creators; there is no condescension or sentimentality or judgement being passed about them or their circumstances, which is impressive when so many well-meaning pieces of work about marginalized groups fall into those traps. But the absence of her opinion about her subjects does not mean that Levitt is absent from the photographs. Through her aesthetics, she allows her subjects to teach her viewers a new way of seeing. There is power in leaving the real world behind for an imagined one, and it’s a power that the viewer discovers when she wonders what the children are making out of the world around them.
Works Cited Dean, Alison. “The Invisible Helen Levitt.” Performance Matters 2.2 (2016). Gand, Elizabeth “Helen Levitt (1913-2009) and the Camera.” American Art Vol. 23 No. 3, pp 98-102. The University of Chicago Press, 2009. Handy, Ellen. “Helen Levitt: Childhood as Performance, City as Theatre.” The Lion and the Unicorn (2001). Philipps, Sandra S. “Helen Levitt’s Cropping.” History of Photography (1993). Sante, Sue; Kleinzahler, August; Eggers, Dave; Malamud-Smith, Janna; Wiseman, Frederick; Pemberton, Gayle; Weschler, Lawrence, “Symposium on Helen Levitt” The Threepenny Review (2001). Sim, Lorraine. Ordinary Matters Modernist Women’s Literature and Photography. Bloomsbury Academic (2016). Trachtenberg, Alan, “Seeing What You See: Photographs by Helen Levitt.” Raritan.
References Hellman, Roberta; Hoshino, Marvin. “The Photographs of Helen Levitt.” The Massachusetts Review (1978). Levitt, Helen; Agee, James. A Way of Seeing. Horizon Press (1981).
This city unfolds along a watery spine. Small fishing hooks dip into the water from both sides, and white birds rest among the waves. In a park, a child wearing rubber boots topples into a flock of pigeons. A golden dog closes its eyes. Some buildings here are also Russian dolls: a church inside a mosque inside a museum. Your fingernails might split when you try to peel back the layers. The light here streams through small windows, and splinters into spider threads that breeze against your face. You will try to collect the thread, and it will always disappear by the time you return home, but if you’re lucky you’ll find a baby spider in your pocket. Leave it on your favourite windowsill and watch.
Driving there you will think you’re seeing faces in the rock. Coney caves spiral up in the valley, with smoke pouring from their tops. A woman mourned her lost child here by carving her way into every rock with a spoon. Inside each cave there are endless rooms.
This city was built underground following a small disaster. One day, a woman sat alone outside and a raven landed beside her. After a brief hesitation, she stood up and moved away, but the raven followed her. It hopped and cawed and no matter where she went it followed. She saw a picnic blanket abandoned in the grass and rolled herself in it to avoid the raven’s gaze. But more birds arrived. Their beaks glistened and their throats bobbed. Still more circled overhead until the sky was a thick, dark cloud. The old men had seen a black sky like this before, and began making tunnels in their basements to hide their wives and children in. While the tunnels became rooms, which branched into more tunnels, the ravens flapped around the woman’s head and their claws got caught in her hair. More ravens came and the sun disappeared behind them and things began to crumble as they tore out chunks. The city tunnelled faster. They even had rooms for livestock, baptisms, and making wine.
“Mom has been acting a little strange lately. We can all agree.”
Suzanne stood on the talking stool in the centre of the treehouse. The talking stool had three legs and wobbled dangerously if you didn’t spread your weight right, but when you stood on it, nobody dared to interrupt you. It was for serious business, and in a house with six kids, sometimes you needed to take a risk to be heard.
Suzanne was still wearing her school uniform, and one of her pigtails had come out, giving her a dangerous, unkempt air. She was standing under the flashlight we’d hung with a shoelace from the ceiling and it cast dramatic shadows across her face as it twirled. The second-youngest kid, Arthur, was a little afraid of her, so he was hiding behind the frayed curtain that covered a big crack in the wall. The baby burbled stupidly in the corner. The rest of us sat in a circle around her, on upended crates that had once been filled with apples. Suzanne was one of the middle children, but she had the respect of even the eldest, because she could talk like a grown up. Most of us murmured our agreement, there was something different about Mom.
“Hmm, I don’t know. Is she really acting that weird?”
That was David, another middle child. David had wispy hair and watery eyes, and he liked to say the unpopular opinion, but was always surprised when we beat him up for it, or locked him out of meetings. Suzanne gave him a withering look.
“You’re stupider than the baby if you haven’t noticed a change. Haven’t you seen her, walking out to the car at night and just sitting, locked in there for hours? Or that she comes home later and later each evening, smelling like beer?”
If any of us had failed to notice those things, we weren’t about to admit it. We nodded along. Suzanne seemed to grow taller.
“And haven’t you seen her going down to the basement with tape-measures and IKEA magazines? Do any of you realize what she’s up to?”
“Maybe she’s finally building us a play-room?”
“She’s putting the baby’s room down there?”
“She’s buying more bookshelves?”
Suzanne held up a hand, and we all stopped talking.
“I heard her talking on the phone to Marissa Claire.”
We groaned. Marissa Claire watched us all from under her pencil-thin pointy eyebrows whenever she came to visit. She was always making jokes about how nobody could’ve convinced her to have so many kids.
Suzanne continued, “Mom is creating a Mom-Cave downstairs. We won’t be allowed down there anymore. It’s going to be a space just for Moms or Marissa Claires.”
We all stared at her. This was news. Mom wanted a cave? Why?
“I have a theory,” she said, “I’ve been reading and I think Marissa Claire is a vampire.”
Under the dangling flashlight, with the sun already set and the wind gently tugging the October branches, Suzanne looked deadly serious. I felt myself shiver; someone coughed. Arthur sprang out from behind the curtain and leapt straight into the eldest’s lap, almost knocking him over.
“There’s no such thing as vampires, is there?” he asked in his warbling four-year-old voice.
But the eldest simply looked to Suzanne for the answer.
“I know you’re afraid of me, Arthur,” she said, “but you’re old enough to know now. I’m not what you should be afraid of.”
We all watched her with wide eyes.
“Marissa Claire isn’t our biggest problem either. The reason Mom is acting so strange, is because she’s slowly becoming a vampire too.”
Now that was harder to believe. Mom, our Mom? The same Mom who taught us to ride bikes and tie our shoes? Who went to our parent-teacher nights and coached our soccer games?
Suzanne continued,“Think about it. What else needs a cave but a bat? What else goes out at night, and hangs out in dingy places looking for prey? Mom is under a curse, and once she builds the Mom-cave, the transformation will be complete.”
“What should we do?” I whispered.
“We have to reverse the curse. And banish Marissa Claire from the house forever. And most of all, we can’t let the Mom-Cave be built.”
The next day, Marissa Claire came over, and she and Mom sat in the living room with stacks of paint swatches and home decorating magazines. Us kids were supposed to be watching TV, but we took turns spying on them instead.
“It’s going to be so great to get away from the old nag once your basement is finished. You know I’m going to be hiding out here all the time,” Marissa Claire said.
“Yeah, I mean, I think I deserve a little recognition. It’ll be nice.”
“Women need to be able to be women, even in a family.”
Marissa Claire handed Mom a rolled-up poster. She unrolled it halfway, and I saw the naked torso of a very muscular man in a firefighter uniform over her shoulder. My mouth dropped open.
Mom gasped, “Missy! You’re terrible. You know my husband would throw a fit.”
Mom tried to push the poster back into the woman’s hands.
“Well, who says he’s allowed down there? It’s supposed to be your space.”
I raced upstairs to report back to my siblings.
“It’s time for phase one,” Suzanne said.
We asked Mom if we could go to the playground, and trooped out of the house soon after. Mom didn’t make sure we wore scarves, even though it was a chilly day, so the feeling in our little group was morose. The eldest zipped our jackets up to our chins, and insisted that David wore a hat, but it wasn’t the same. Luckily, Mom didn’t ask us to bring the baby.
We arrived at the church, and Suzanne passed us each a Tupperware before she walked up to the front and tugged on the door. It was locked. We split up, each looking for a door or window that would allow us inside. David found it and we all raced over to a stained-glass window that was slightly ajar. Suzanne pushed it all the way open, and we tumbled inside one-by-one. We hadn’t been to church since last Easter, and I was immediately hit by the familiar heavy-perfume-and-dust smell that seeped up from the carpets.
“Find the Holy Water and the free rosaries!” Suzanne ordered.
We knew that the church gave out white plastic rosaries sometimes, and assumed they would be up for grabs somewhere. The Holy Water was easy to find, it was in a big bowl at the front of the church, for dipping your hand into. We each filled our Tupperware until the bowl was empty. The rosaries were a challenge though.
“We need them, to tie Mom up and reverse the curse,” Suzanne insisted.
We split up and looked everywhere, on each pew, in the supply closets and under the kneelers. I decided to check the altar. I climbed the steps and checked beside the mic stand, and then under the white cloth. Then I saw the gold box where they kept the communion. There probably weren’t any rosaries in there, but I decided to open it, it couldn’t hurt to check.
“Stop! Thief!” a voice boomed through the church.
We all tried to scatter. David dove under a pew, Arthur shimmied behind the statue of Mother Mary, the eldest shut himself in a supply closet and I sprinted for the open window. Only Suzanne stayed calm.
“We’re not stealing. We’re looking for the free rosaries.”
So, the priest sat us down, and we told him all about the Mom Cave and our vampire theory.
“This sounds very serious. You kids were right to come to the church, you’re not safe.”
My heart sank. So, it was true.
“We’re planning on tying her up with rosaries and sprinkling her with Holy Water,” Suzanne said.
The priest nodded his approval, “I can see you’ve done your research.”
Suzanne was right. Mom was turning into a monster.
The priest gave each of us a rosary and sent us home with the reminder to pray more often.
A few nights later, Suzanne woke me up and we slipped away from the others to watch Mom through the front window. She had a suitcase with her, even though there was no trip planned that we knew about. We watched her load the suitcase into the back of the car, turn it on, and sit inside without driving.
For some reason, my eyes were filling up with tears, “Why doesn’t she just go?”
“That suitcase is full of Marissa Claire’s mind-controlling tokens. Mom is just trying to get rid of them,” Suzanne assured me in a whisper.
Another voice spoke before I could, “Or maybe it’s full of empty vials of blood, because she’s already a vampire.”
David was standing behind us in his rumpled pyjamas. Something about his pouty mouth and stupid slippers made me angry. I lunged for him, but Suzanne held me back.
“We have to be strong,” she said.
“We should have done the ritual sooner. What are we waiting for?” I snapped.
“Tomorrow, it’s a harvest moon,” Suzanne said.
Phase two of the plan was capturing and overpowering Mom, tying her down with rosaries and sprinkling her with Holy Water. But things did not go according to plan. That morning, Dad went off to work as usual while Mom made breakfast. We were all supposed to go to school, so we walked to the bus stop with our backpacks, but as soon as Mom drove off with the baby we snuck back inside the house. It was time to create the trap.
I can’t tell you exactly how the trap was supposed to work, it came right out of Suzanne’s imagination, but it involved laundry baskets, Christmas lights and white sheets. She ordered us around for an hour, assembling it, and then we heard footsteps approaching. Someone rang the doorbell. Did Mom forget her keys? Did she know we were at home? Arthur wandered over to the door, despite our collective “Noooo,” and opened it.
A man in a bright yellow polo shirt was standing at the door. He glanced into the chaos inside our house, and smiled brightly at Arthur.
“Is your Mommy or Daddy home?”
Arthur quaked with terror at his mistake. We could all hear Suzanne’s mind whirring with fury.
“I’m here to deliver some furniture. Hello? Is there an adult home?”
One wrong step from the IKEA man could spring the whole trap. Suzanne popped out from her hiding spot, causing the man to jump.
“She wants it all on the front lawn.”
“You heard me.”
The man must have recognized the same dangerous power in her that we had, because he unloaded everything onto the front lawn, and had her sign for it even though she barely reached his elbow in height.
“This stuff must all be for the Mom Cave,” the eldest said.
“We’ve got to get rid of it!” Suzanne raced onto the lawn, beckoning to the rest of us “quickly, we have to take it to the pond and sink it.”
We dragged the red wagon out from the garage and got to work stacking the boxes on top. It was heavy work, but if Mom came home and IKEA was on the front lawn she would know something was wrong. Once we had stacked it all, we wheeled it carefully down the driveway.
Mom was standing on the sidewalk, holding the baby. Her car was parked a little bit away. For a moment, we stared at her, and she stared back at us.
“What are you all doing? Why aren’t you at school?”
We were caught. It was over.
“What is all of that stuff? Is that… is that my IKEA order? What on earth?”
David started to cry. The eldest picked up Arthur, who buried his face in his jacket sleeve. I could’ve sworn Mom’s teeth were so long that they were poking the top of her lip. Mom wiped her cheek with her sleeve. Had she been drinking blood, and she was trying to wipe it away? Only Suzanne remained calm.
“We thought they probably delivered to the wrong house, you know how sometimes the neighbour gets our mail,” she said.
Mom’s face became a mask of fury.
“That doesn’t explain why you aren’t in school.”
None of us could explain that, and none of us could explain the mess we’d made inside. Mom identified Suzanne as our ringleader, probably because we kept glancing at her for instructions.
“Suzanne, I should’ve known. Go upstairs and wait for me on my bed. The rest of you had better help me clean all of this up.” Mom said.
Without Suzanne, we didn’t know how to use the trap. Mom made us bring the IKEA boxes downstairs, and put everything back where we’d found it. Worst of all, she found the Tupperware’s full of Holy Water under our beds, and rosaries stashed in the bathroom cabinet. When we didn’t answer what they were for, she dumped the water down the sink and tossed the rosaries into the trash, then locked us in our rooms. That evening, Mom didn’t make us dinner and we could hear her and Marissa Claire playing loud music in the basement while they assembled the Mom Cave. I looked out my window at the harvest moon, which glowed orange while my stomach growled. Someone unlocked my door. It was Suzanne. Everyone else was standing behind her, and she was even holding the baby.
“It’s time to go. We tried our best,” she said.
We were about to reach the front door when we heard Dad’s heavy footsteps behind us.
“What are you kids up to?”
We looked at him over our shoulders and said, “Nothing!”
He shrugged and wandered into the kitchen, probably looking for a snack, wondering when it was time for dinner.
Poetry should begin as a splinter A bodily irritation, mild panic caused by a wet deck and bare feet. A small sharp stab. There! The rubber kiddie pool, Benjamin up that tree, And a popsicle abandoned in grass– Melting down You plop yourself in a garden chair, ankle resting on your bent knee, yank your foot up for inspection.
There, the dark line under your skin: the splinter, the poem. Don’t push it down! You need tweezers now It comes out bloodlessly, to your surprise A secret thing, to hold in your palm and whisper to.
Once it has begun, a poem cannot lie still or echo back without adding. It smashes words with hammers to find what might be glittering inside.
As she walks the winding road, the traveller pulls threads from her clothes and uses the dust under her fingernails to construct the unknown city in her palm before she gets there. She hides this model from her companion, ashamed of its size. Finally, when she is done with imagining, she might look up and realize that she has arrived at the crossroads between the Twin Cities.
One city lies to the left. It creeps up the sheer face of a mountain and insists on silence from the incoming traffic. The quiet city radiates out from a large square and the people look at you from ledges as you ascend. They carve the day’s history into wood. An elevator glides through the throat of the mountain, swallowing some and coughing up others. If you take the stone steps up, you’ll find a young man smoking outside of an old theatre. You’ve seen each other before, in another city, but won’t acknowledge it, or see each other again. Later, you might come to a cable-car that will take you to visit one of the gods. Please remove your shoes. This city is kind to monkeys and dogs, though the monkeys will not always be kind to you.
The younger twin lies to the right. It tumbles into a valley and nestles among mountains that make it feel small. Some parts of it stretch sleepily along a turquoise river. The people tiptoe over bridges and carve their names into rocks. A waterfall rushes nearby, tempting travellers to take the dangerous path to see it. Later, you will be jostled up a mountain and someone will sell you an umbrella so that you can leap off the sheer face. You will float above the city, your feet swinging wildly until you touch the ground. There are rafts on the glacial river and sometimes the sky is thick with balloons. If you eat at the cinderblock restaurant, the night will unfold like bird wings while a man sits beside you, smoking. You will both look at the passing headlights, those small moons.
Between the twin cities there is the gap, similar to the space that exists between two mirrors when you press them together. You long to slither into that space, to see the mirrors reflect themselves, but your presence changes everything, no matter how inconspicuous you wish you could be.
the town is quiet when you first meet. houses don’t all look alike but each one contains something tangled inside: a necklace or perhaps some yarn. the townsfolk are both wary and warm. they aren’t cat or dog people, but will tolerate the occasional retriever.
waking children is difficult, they complain with mussed hair and sleep-pulled eyes, but the adults enjoy their morning-time and mixed-fruit juice. neighbours skirt each other on their way to work, pretending last night was full of sleep instead of secrets. eyes glittering.
there is a high petty-crime rate here, courtesy of the charming thieves. they will talk the average man out of his own watch.
all the buildings are on wheels. some nights the strong men push each building to a new place. chatting, thigh-muscles straining. townspeople wake up on new streets, wave to new neighbours, then continue on with their days. new maps reflect the change and old maps lay forgotten in a damp cardboard box.
this place is full of stories. short ones graffitied. long ones carefully documented and bound. the town storytellers have permanent lights in their eyes, and can develop night vision as they grow older. prime tales are told on bonfire night, or at the pub, and each child dreams of being one of the tellers.
the music teacher carries a trundle of instruments on his back. he knows how to play every one, and his voice is like water. it carries over the pavements and makes people pause. sometimes his songs are lonely.
there is a place where people in business suits go to work. they debate around the water cooler and the bosses find them hard to control. sometimes they disappear into cities and return with briefcases full of cash. at night they sneak out to play poker.
there are temples on the outskirts of town that are treated politely. sometimes god shows up.
it is always summer here. unless two people fall in love. then the sky gets heavy with snow and the children rush out to feel flakes against their eyelashes and cheeks. old couples are bundled in wheelchairs. they hold hands through mittens and feel the delicious frost again.
hot chocolate is free when it snows. the aged never live alone or go without good meals and hot water.
sometimes the sky holds its breath with thunder-filled wait. the people close their shutters and the few dogs whine. this town can be a drum-roll.
it also gentles in sleep. legs entangle under blankets and arms tighten around torsos. midnight is the softest hour.