Mrs Rae received a letter on smokey paper written in the light of flame and buried inside a can in a shallow hole adjacent to the stream where were found huddled together in the trickle that could not protect them, a woman, and she and her children burned together in one mass, in that trickle that could not protect them, and on being found, were unable to be separated, one apart from the other, and at the bottom, an infant child, having drowned, mostly preserved, crushed into the creek mud, only his tiny foot blackened. Mrs. Rae received that letter.

That the woman even had time to write or scribble in the red hot dust, dark as it must be, and probably wrote on the run still expecting to get away, or wrote before they started off, and just in case…and that the ink is run with the moisture of the mud, and most of the note unreadable, but for the determination that emits wordlessly from the page.

And that someone found the can, for they must have stepped on it, and noting the cover off, and pen and paper within, a bit of that paper still whitened at the edges, and the whole scene so out of place, and that someone picked up the can, tenderly, as if knowing what it must contain, and saw the address, and rather than lay the words on a cross, on site, saw that it was sent off to the address visible, and that it arrived at Mrs Rae’s a couple days later.

And that Mrs. Rae held the note for a long time before she could unfold what was left of it, and that this note came from her twin sister, and that she cried, huddled into the corner so that her children would not see her face, while her arms clutched her shawl tightly to smother the anguish, so that no sound but an erratic gasp for air resounded from the corner, and the world thrust at her and subsumed her into nothingness, darkness, and that this is happening in 2022.

What’s happening mommy?

And the children could not get her to respond for the longest time, and the older shooed the others so they would stay away, and distance was created for a cavern so deeply blocking now to the next, what might be possible, unknown, and the children sat in the hot yard, and pick at the dead grass to make tiny homes for the baby rabbits, and that no one comes to see if everything is alright, even though the news had circulated through the airwaves and across the tongues of neighbors, and these people thought: Only by the grace of God go…and that they neglected their roles, and their responsibility in the evolution of calamity, one they follow one upon another, no, the cause could not be…could not be traced back to any one of them.

And that it is a slow death to stay outside too long, and that it could be a slower death to hide inside, praying away feverishly, for, what could have brought all this on, and why, and that the hunger pains grew as the crops failed, and the store shelves were barren, and even insects were unable to be found, to be eaten, as few remained, and leaves from the trees browned and held no moisture, and the few handfuls of grain that could be found were quickly harvested, and that even rats were roasted on a stick.

And a man has built a cavern into the long back, far above the river that still flows, and the cavern is lined thickly with anything he might store, and it has a coolness that refreshes, and he can air out and stretch, and then he builds a second for the passerby, and a third for the homeless children, who are so afraid.

And that they were still to die there too, and all the others….

10 Comments

  1. Al Kratz

    Yowsa! Awesome way to tell this story John. Holy shit. It hits every note in the right pitch. I think the one that hit me the hardest was “and that this is happening in 2022.” That says everything without having to say it.

  2. Benjamin Niespodziany

    “and that even rats were roasted on a stick”

    As this story progresses, it reminded me more and more of McCarthy’s ‘On the Road’ in the best of ways. It felt apocalyptic and helpless, with darkness always nearby. Poet Miriam Bird Greenberg has a wonderful apocalyptic chapbook called ‘All Night in the New Country’ and it’s really worth checking out. I think it matches the vibe that you’re capturing here. Haunting and bleak.

  3. Robert Vaughan

    Hi John, this has all the feels. Desperation, darkness, apocalypse. Reminds me of Faulkner, or as Ben mentioned, McCarthy. Touches of Grapes of Wrath. The daunting narrative adds such dimension/ depth with each progressing paragraph. I barreled toward the ending- that death presses in on them/ us. Inside, outside… it is coming. Nice job creating this alternative universe in such a short span of words.

  4. Jonathan Cardew

    John,

    How’s it hanging? Great to see you in these Bending Genres pages again!

    Oh goodness, this is a powerful and poignant piece. I was gripped at this point: “huddled together in the trickle that could not protect them…” An aching thread of anguish runs through this story and the way you set up the sentences leaves us a little breathless with all the “and’s” and embedded details like, “a bit of that paper still whitened at the edges, and the whole scene so out of place, and that someone picked up the can, tenderly, as if knowing what it must contain, and saw the address…” I really like the staccato rhythm of the “and” in this story! It’s dizzying and confusing, but in an intentional way that puts us into the shoes of these forlorn characters.

    I love this line: “And that it is a slow death to stay outside too long, and that it could be a slower death to hide inside.”

    What are you going to do with this? That’s a good question (thank you, me)!

    HOW ABOUTS:

    1. Less is more? I often ask this question of a draft. I like Nancy Stohlman’s technique of chopping a story in half (or rather reducing the word count by 50%), seeing what will happen to it.

    2. And and? I dig the “and’s” very much in this piece, and I wonder if you could dive down into them even more, perhaps shortening the story (as mentioned previously) and creating a single block of paragraph (could be a long one) glued together with the “and’s”

    3. Place us. There is a dark, murky quality to this piece (which is fantastic), but do we need a few specifics in terms of place. Could even be a name or two dropped in? Something to anchor and draw the murkiness even tighter around.

    VENUES:

    Immediately when I was reading this, I thought of Ghost Parachute and Atlas and Alice, both journals that run these kinds of stories. I could really see this in one those journals.

    Looking forward to the next one. Bring it on.

    Cheers,
    Jonathan

  5. Len Kuntz

    Hi John,

    This is one of the best dystopian pieces I’ve ever read. So dark and you’ve left not of the horror out. Yet you don’t delve into melodrama and your details and descriptions are riveting and beautiful. The “And that” usage is a wonderful technique. This was fantastic.

  6. Wendy Oleson

    John, oh wow. The way you ended that first paragraph with the echo of the first line: “Mrs. Rae received that letter” really got me. This piece reminded me of The Road as well–and I can see Faulkner like Robert mentions. Oh, man. there’s this heaviness and grief mixed with that matter-of-fact. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    John, F’ing brilliant. I’ve read it over several times. I love the breathless pace that fits the relentlessness of the richly terrible content, all of it in a sequence of one sentence paragraphs, except the first paragraph that paces with one long sentence and quick summative second, “Mrs. Rae received that letter.” Wow. A wonderful read! Thanks, John.

  8. David O'Connor

    John, this is so good. I think starting each paragraph with “And” keeps and builds momentum, adds poetry. I am becoming more and more amazed at how accomplished your writing is and is becoming, often I feel stuck, like I am repeating myself, then I read your work and see growth and it gives me hope, thank you. I think you found flow here, transcended that little editing voice, the one we all have nagging and mumbling away inside, and delivered a powerful flash, well done!

  9. John Steines

    If anyone reads this note, late in the process -> this piece is so present-day topical that I worry it needs a warning, if it were sent out. Thoughts, or let it be? Thank you all for the encouragement. I’m one to risk truth and reality instead of make believe, I admit.

  10. Wilson Koewing

    John,

    Fascinating story. At first I was having a little trouble with the style, but it really grew on me and made a lot of sense. I still wonder if maybe just at the beginning it could be toned down slightly, Hold our hand into this world a little, but that’s probably more a me issue. Really cool story!

    Wilson

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