in transit | patricia j. mclean at elohi gadugi
I started writing a story about Clytemnestra years ago. This morning, I woke up thinking about her. Thinking about her name and how difficult it is, how unpretty. You’d have to be a queen of no small stature to pull off such a name. Since she is a fictional character, I feel at liberty to reimagine her, to lift her out of the culture a little bit, enough to consider how terribly the stories treat her. Is Clytemnestra truly the story of the passing of matriarchy as some scholars posit? The Clytemnestra we know most familiarly is the one Aeschylus created out of the older stories. There are many versions of the story. In some, she is exiled instead of executed. In some stories, her sister Helen is Polydeuces twin, in others Polydeuces and Castor are twins. The stories are ambiguous and contradictory as are the most useful mythologies. We have to make them our own. Thread together what makes sense to us and disregard the rest understanding that what we take from these myths are what we comprehend of life and that is an ever-changing mirror.
The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of the story.
Helen and Polydeuces began one night while our mother, Leda, slept in the room that Castor and I shared. It was not uncommon for her to sleep there. She often did so when Father was away looking for allies.
Castor slept in the cradle next to mine. I could see his face clearly because the moon was uncovered and the touch of its light had awakened me. Beyond Castor, I could see the outline of my mother as she slept on her back, one arm flung above her head, her hair a thick black streak falling over the edge of her bed. A shadow crept slowly across the path of the moon. A sudden wind rose and pushed against the outside walls of our room. It funneled in through our window, roughing my cheek as it passed. Then the air pooled and stilled. A great white bird floated down to the windowsill and thrust its long snake neck toward Mother’s face. The bird paused for a moment tilting its eye at me, snapping its beak. The bird spread its wings wide blocking the moonlight before it pushed off the windowsill and dropped toward Mother’s bed. Wings arched back, its great orange webbed feet lit as silent as snow on her breast.
She must have been entranced. Otherwise, she would not have let him lay his long black beak across her face or allowed him to press his tail to her the way he did. But that is what happened. That is what I saw and when I told Father, he believed me.
Very quickly, Mother grew round in the belly and soon she birthed an enormous silver egg. “Let the swan sit on it,” my mother said.
But the egg was not like those you find in chicken roosts. This egg was given to my mother by a god. A great silver egg, such as this one, does not need sitting, but it does bear watching. I put it in my cradle and crawled in beside it to watch it grow.
When it opened, the shell, as if the silver were melting, receded. Ridges formed like the cracking of earth. Then it burst apart and the babies spilled out. Their perfect round heads, crowned with birth fuzz, sparkled with bits of clinging silver shell. Polydeuces rolled away from me, but Helen’s open eyes clasped my face. We met there, eyes pressed to eyes, searching. Our souls, bent together in the first light of her being, bent toward the same moon.
Helen raised one tightly closed fist and flung it open. A cloud of silver danced off her palm into the air and held in place for a moment before drifting out the open window where it formed into hundreds of tiny doves and sailed off into mother night.
Without warning a bolt of lightning broke and thunder shook the room so hard our cradles rocked. Castor wailed in fear, Polydeuces lay still as a stone, and Helen — Helen laughed.
Our mother, answered Castor’s cry. She looked into the cradle, at the new babies and at the broken egg shell. Then she went to Castor and lifted him against her shoulder and took him out of the room.
In a moment, two nursemaids came and one put Helen to her breast, the other Polydeuces. From the first, Helen had a fierce hunger. She fell upon the nipple so hard the nurse cried out in pain.
The Israeli poet is American born. Israel, she says is ancient. Everything is old there, the buildings, the streets, the temples, monuments, cemeteries, hills, the sea — old, old, old. She feels the age of it like a line of descendance. It passes through her now. She is connected to the past and the future through that line. She has a role in the passage of history. A certain future will exist because of her, like those behind her, she is creating worlds.
She lives in the Settlements, so she is also connected to the destruction of worlds. Certain futures will not exist because she is there. She has made a choice to be there, to be part of the making and unmaking of worlds.
For now, she is on the winning side of the wall. Perhaps that is all the justification she requires of herself to remain there.
I look around the world I inhabit. A world I did not choose, but my forebears did and they chose to be the makers and unmakers of their times. They had no regard for the people whose worlds they were unmaking, people who died easily by the touch of breath or skin. People whose weapons were more suited to hunting than war. Ancient history is harder to read here. But it does exist as sandals in a cave, arrowheads, and 15,000 year old stone tools, Though few of us know how to do so, history can also be read in the Willamette Valley which has been cultivated and manipulated for thousands of years. Geologists decipher the pyrocultural record In the strata of soil.
I remain here. Where would I go, a refugee from the sins of my fathers? A DNA test might tell me what European family I have inherited the most genetic material from, but it won’t tell me if I have a place in that family. After all, my ancestors were exiles, either self-imposed or forced. Who welcomes home the exile? Who would make a place for me at their table?
The sun is in the east, backlighting the slender blond haired woman in ponytail cutoff jeans a lightweight jacket over her torso. One leg is bent a the knee, the other straight. She dangles a cigarette from her right hand. A man with a bicycle stands a few feet from, and to the south, of her. The man sits motionless astride the bike, his broad back covered in a black t-shirt, wearing jeans, head bald, skin sun-browned or brown-brown.
As I near them, she bends. I think she is putting out her cigarette, but she is picking something up off the ground. Pennies. And, as I pass, she says, “I’m going to need some luck today.” Or did she say, “everyone needs some luck”?
She might have been a prostitute. Certainly there are those who would make that assumption. But what does that say about who she is really, or even what she is? Her story, her existence is so long and so deep, I can’t say anything about it. I can only see this moment, when she bent from the waist and her ponytail fell down along her arm and the sun lit it up and lit up the line of her forearm as sweetly as a sun ever kissed anyone.
You drop that little piece of something out the window of the car, covertly, as if to hide it from the driver or anyone who might be watching. As if I were an undercover bicycle cop and the fine for littering might suddenly be enforced and the price too much to pay, but the risk is one you’ll take, carefully.
What impels you to decide that this bit, this small strip of purple nothing, should flutter to the street here instead of to the floor of the car in which you are a passenger?
What bird will find something other than death by eating it? Why should I, or this world, this earth, this street be less important than the interior of that car?
I know nothing about you. Why you were so furtive when you dropped that bit. It might have been a bandaid, or a purple strip of paper with a secret inscribed. You’ve been kidnapped and you are leaving a trail in the desperate hope that someone will follow and find you. You work for the CIA, you’re a spy and you thought I was your contact. The signal conveyed, I should go to the drop site and pick up the latest code, I will decipher the message, uncover betrayal.
I think of this too late. You’re already far down the road. I’ll never be able to give you a sign, to let you know that I am not your confederate. It was a dropped signal in the dark anyway. One you never expected to complete.
Monday, July 25th
Sleep past five am eludes me. I sit in the old white wingback watching the sky glow a lighter shade of grey as the moments slip past. Objects in the room take form, stacks of boxes, so many fewer now than yesterday. We worked nonstop on Sunday and my bones feel it, my knees and feet ache.
The loft is finding a shape underneath the burden of our belongings. There is not quite yet a space for the couch coming tomorrow. So glad we didn’t get it last week.
Phone line is not connected yet so we don’t have the net. This is good. Instead of playing stupid games, I’m writing. I need to write so bad and I have the drawing ache again. Sometimes I need to have a pencil in my hand and be sloping across the page, laying down lines as if there were a purpose to it.
On Saturday night with our refrigerator still basically barren, we went urban foraging and found a Chinese restaurant half a block away. Some of the best Chinese food I have had in Portland.
In the courtyard of the Studios, a painter was busy at his easel as the light dimmed from afternoon to evening.
Rain this morning loud enough to hear. I am happy that we will be able to hear it rain. Wind pushes at the leaves of the maple tree. It feels good to be home.
I think we should be mindful with language, to know what we are saying before we speak. Everybody knows that words are more powerful than sticks and stones despite the schoolyard litany to the contrary. Bones mend, and if you think that words cannot kill you, then the lessons of history have been lost on you.
Leaving aside the deadly uses of language, what do we know about the words we use daily without thinking? Words of greeting: Good Morning, How are you, Have a nice day, Bless you.
Greetings and salutations. Hello and to your health. Friendly, with meaning only so far as to say, I’m not going to pull out a knife and kill you actually or metaphorically, and whether or not we mean to be friendly when we make the greeting is not the point. How often are we thinking about how much we would like the stranger or friend we are greeting to have a good morning? How would we know what a good morning would look like to them? How often do we really want to hear a report of someone’s condition when we query, how are you? Have a nice day– nice, not spectacular, nice as if that is the best we can hope for or are willing to confer upon another.
Bless you? Ah, now there’s a greeting, a salutation that carries a lot of baggage. This one is doing more than saying, “I’m not going to kill you”. This one is an identifier. It says, “I’m Christian”. The person offering the greeting may indeed want to confer the blessings of God upon the friend or stranger or they may just want to make a statement about their own identity.
I’m thinking there are very many folk out there bringing down the blessings of God upon their fellow human beings who have not really examined the meaning of the word bless. Lately, I’ve been studying French and reading French news on the net. Lots of these news stories involve, as one would expect, events wherein persons meet with unexpected death or are wounded, injured as a result of some calamity. Tuer, to kill. Mort, death. Blessé, injured. Interesting.
Look up the etymology of that word, bless and you find that it is sanguine. All about blood and sacrifice. To be blessed is to bleed in the cause of something. A word like this is beautifully ambiguous. To be blessed by God could mean to be wounded by contact and that wound could be the sign of your state of grace. Holy wounds. Like the Moravians who became obssessively focused on the wounds of Jesus. Like stigmata.
But over time, as the experience of being human in the English speaking world becomes ever more removed from danger, as death withdraws to a safer distance, we lose contact with the sanguine element of blessing.
To invoke blessing becomes less about the blood of Jesus and the life of the spirit and more about removing obstacles that stand between ourselves and what we want. And also about revealing our own sanctimony. Who stops to consider whether or not the recipient of the invocation has any interest in the blessing? Like a spell being cast, an unsolicited prayer may be perceived as unauthorized interference.
A man with a gun walks into a town hall session in a parking lot in Tucson, Arizona. He kills six people among them a judge, a child, a politician’s staffer, an elderly man, he seriously wounds a US Congresswoman. He is driven by some terrible certainty, or some incomprehensible logic, or cognitive dysfunction, or insanity. Within hours, as the investigation unfolds, it becomes known that his behavior grew increasingly bizarre over the months preceding this action. It is also apparant that he planned to kill the representative. He took time to buy a gun, to buy ammunition, to say goodbye on Facebook.
Will we find out that he was an unhappy child, that he suffered bullying or other abuse? Or will we find out that he was quiet, a loner, or that he was popular and outgoing? Will we find out that he was indistinguishable from thousands of other children and only grew into unreason as an adult? I’m not sure it matters what we find out about him.
What we find out about ourselves is more important and has more potential to impact our world, our country, our communities. The man with the gun will be tried, judged, and sentenced. His power is spent, his day is done.
Has the event frightened people? Is that why we hear people voicing so much violence as they describe what should be done to the shooter? Fear is often masked by bravado, hatred, violence. So maybe that is what it is. Millions of terrified people. But I don’t think so. I really don’t. What I hear in their words is that they have identified their target, just as the shooter identified his. There was something wrong he thought he could make right by killing a particular person in a very public and deliberate way. He had his target. Now he is the target. He is the thing that can be destroyed in order to make things right again. There is something primal about this. A sacrifice must be made.
We scent the air for blood. Our noses twitching our hands reaching for the stones. Except that the rule of law stands between us and our bloodlust. All we can do, the most we can do is envision the horrible things that ought to be done to the shooter and seize the opportunity to broadcast our ultimate solution. And for some, for many, the vision and the chant will elicit glee, for some the pleasure will arouse.
A few, too few, will witness this mob madness with dismay, despairing that humanity will not ever rise above its baser instincts, that as a species, we will never learn how to reason. We hear Gandhi say, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” and then we pluck out eyes with greedy abandon. Gandhi was wrong. The whole world is already blind. We are blind people grasping at the blind eyes of our neighbors, groping in darkness afraid of the intolerable light just beyond our cave.
We went to Wordstock today walking the mile and a half there in a steady drizzle. One umbrella between us, which I used because Duane has a hat. Just the one umbrella. I’ve lost too many of them to be trusted with one of my own. It really didn’t seem like that much of a rain, but we were damp by the time we got to the Convention Center. There were not many attending Wordstock. Not like in years past. Something a little depressing about it this year. I don’t know when they started charging for the event, but I think that has something to do with the lower turnout.
We cruised the booths. I had a nice chat with a couple of vendors. Duane and I went to our friend’s reading and there really wasn’t anyone else we were interested in hearing until much later in the afternoon and even though we paid $7 to get in, we left to find something to eat and go home. We talked about why Wordstock seemed so unsatisfying this year. We figured that most of the attendees were writers or people involved in the publishing industry in some way. The exhibitors were much the same–writers and publishers. Nothing wrong with that. Except that something is missing. It isn’t creative or exciting. It’s restrictive, traditional, stodgy.
Portland has a tendency to be stodgy in spite of all the young creatives everyone claims have moved here in droves, in spite all the tattoo parlors and micro-brew pubs, at heart Portland has always been the sort of city a little afraid to color outside the lines. At least on the surface and it is on the surface where Wordstock takes place. What Portland needs is an underground literary festival for all the fringe dwellers and marginalised folk, the ones who can’t afford the Writer’s Dojo or writing jaunts to Prague with their favorite author. It should take place on the streets and in the coffee houses and small bookstores. It should take place in the tattoo parlors and brew-pubs.
A proper literary festival would be a celebration. It would be a recognition of language as the primary medium of culture. It would explore the history of story, the politics and economics of literature, the state of the publishing industry, how literature has been shaped by invention–the printing press, the internet. There would be discussions on the impact of film on literature, the search for authentic voice, and translation. It would involve theater and meaningful workshops.
People would read their work, sell it, trade it, give it away. We might come to understand that the tradition of word is an endlessly evolving creative stream and we could walk away dazzled by our own dreams, which is how it should be.
The cherry tree across the street is thickly blooming. Heavy pink clusters wave in the slight breeze and contrast against the lush green lawn dotted with dandelions. Grape hyacinths edge along the base of the house. Trees all around are pushing out new leaves. Tulips of red, yellow, pink, pumpkin, purple, black, white, striped and spotted, abundant–Spring in Portland.
In Powell’s the thin white girl, in a thin white dress, with thin brown hair sits bent over her work. Her right arm forms a triangle, bent at the elbow back toward her body and her back bent the way it is forms another triangle with her legs. In her pale skin the blue veins glow. On her shoulder blade a tattoo is visible through the gauzy material of her white cotton dress. She is all angles and transparency.
The Windup Girl
Title: The Windup Girl
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Paolo Bacigalupi presents us with a devastating vision of the world that could be should we allow the corporations with their production of GMOs to control our food supply as they seem disturbingly intent upon doing. He also reminds us that change and suffering are constants in human existence.
Everything is under extreme tension in Bacigalupi’s Thailand city of Krung Thep. Seagates guard the city from inundation, but during the monsoons must be augmented with coal-fired pumps, which add to the environmental degradation, which in turn has led to rising ocean levels. Starvation is held at bay with genetically modified foods, which are susceptible to toxic diseases. Everything created to solve one problem creates another.
So many millions have died since the disappearance of cheap energy and safe food crops that the departed must wait and wait and wait for suitable bodies to reincarnate. They hang about waiting, sometimes engaging in conversation with the living.
And the tension spring is the primary power supply for almost everything. Trains are powered by them, but the vast majority of people travel no faster than a bicycle. A vehicle from the “expansion” era travels at speeds almost incomprehensible for the people of Krung Thep and are as rare as snow leopards.
There are new beings in this world. Cheshire cats, genetically engineered as a birthday gift to a modern Alice, have supplanted the domestic feline. There are new people, too. People made of recombined DNA of animals and humans to exhibit the obedience of dogs and the strength and speed of the swiftest and strongest of animals. There are also flaws deliberately engineered into these people. They cannot reproduce and their cooling system is deficient causing them to overheat quickly.
But they are human in shape and thought and feelings. Most everyone regards them as less than human, without souls. It is the old argument. That which has no soul is less than and can be created, exploited and disposed of without consideration, without karmic consequence.
Is this a story about the tension between good and evil? It could be, but The Windup Girl is not that simple. It is a story about choices and about the consequence of choice. Ultimately, the characters must make choices they can live with and in that way are all, including the windup girl herself, exactly like the rest of us.