Vientre by Rebekah W. Olson

“The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.” Jonah 2:5

When Habib stepped into the road in front of the Santa Marta Airport his shoes sank into the mud up to the knobby bone in his ankle.  two women selling odds and ends on the concrete beside him clocked their tongues.

“You see,” one whispered to the other in Spanish, “he is not Colombian.  To step into the mud, and in white shoes…”

The other, on a bucket beside her, swatted at flies over the plantains.  “Then he is a tourist,” she said, raising an eyebrow and pointing at the man with her chin, “and he needs new shoes.”

“Meester!” she cried in English, standing up to wave a long, sagging arm at the assortment of plastic sandals they sold, “Meester, we have shoes!”

Habib sighed.  The clinic in Philadelphia felt very far away.While he scraped the mud from his shoes on the concrete, the women watched him.  Habib was short, shorter than any of the other medical students in his year.  His name and darker skin often led those in Philadelphia to believe he was Indian, but he wasn’t.  Habib was a name his mother found in a newspaper, a paper half-submerged in mud.  He was Colombian; he was home.

The women watched with lazy curiosity, one standing and the other seated.  Once he had both shoes on and was clapping the mud from his hands, the first woman hobbled to his side.

“Meester, you need shoes?”

Habib smiled, but shook his head.  In Spanish, he replied, “No, thank-you.  I can wash them.”  Both women blinked in suprise and laughed and laughed, patting his shoulders, his back, his head.

“Where are you from?” they asked.  When he just smiled weakly and looked at his hands, the women decided not to press the issue.  They patted his shoulders again.  “Welcome,” they said, and then walked back to their buckets.

Habib waited an hour for a taxi, a duffel bag with a few clothes and his medical supplies tucked under his arm.  He looked down the road to the north.  That’s where he was expected.

The medical clinic for the Red Cross was in the middle of the northern hills of Colombia, an area lush with bamboo, ivory nut palms, and orchids.  He had tried to apply to residencies everywhere else but here–the Cleveland Clinic, Duke University Hospital, Venice Regional Medical Center–but couldn’t outshine the competition.  In the end, he used his irth certificate and fluent Spanish to secure a last minute position with doctors in the Colombian Red Cross Society.  The country was always at war with itself in some way, and American medical volunteers and professionals had been in the country for years.  Habib had avoided the memories and mud of his country for more than fifteen years, and within thirty minutes of his plane landing, both were already firmly secured to his white American shoes.

When Habib was a boy, Colombia was always red.  Med, beans, blood.  When he was nine-years-old, his father came into their shanty with a rust revolver in the basket of goods he brought back from the village.  Habib remembered that he watched his father’s short, square fingers as he lifted the gun and turned to his wife.

“Sophia,” his father said, “I will go to Riohacha in the morning.” He put the gun high on a shelf above their matted blankets.  “My brother is there.  He’s in trouble.”

Habib remembered that his mother stiffened, then turned away.  She picked up a plantain with her thin fingers and as she peeled away the thick membrane from the fruit she nodded her head without speaking.  Three weeks later, when his father’s body was sent home, they could not recognize it.  Habib had to peel away the clothing before they could washing him for burial.

More than twenty years later, the memory still sent a dull buzzing down his spine and he shivered, looking away from the road toward his home.

When the taxi still had not arrived and the sun had begun to set, the women pulled out great tarps to roll their goods in, placing the large parcels on their broad, bony backs.  As they walked away, one turned and called out to him.

“If you want to get somewhere, you should cross the street and ask the truck driver.  He is taking a load of laborers to the fields in the south, and will help you if you ask.”  She turned and waved her hand over her head.  “Or wait for the bus heading north.  It should be here when the sun sets.”  Then she hobbled to catch up to the other, their bodies bent from the weight of their loads; old women bobbing through the crowd like wounded crabs.

Habib looked to the horizon and determined that the bus should be there in a few minutes.  In a few moments he would head north and would arrive at the clinic by midnight.

He followed the road with his eyes, the red of the mud diminishing into a needle-thin line as it got closer and closer to the horizon.

Red. It would always be red here.

His shoes, his father, his profession.

All red.

He felt the buzz in his spin again and realized, finally, that it was fear.  He knew he was not strong, or talented, or determined.  He’d known it a long time, but in this place he could not hide from it.  His father , and eventually his mother, died believing he would save his family, but he became a doctor to escape.

He was a doctor, and he was afraid of blood.

At this thought, he turned away from the horizon, away from the direction of the clinic and away from the bus that would carry him there.  He couldn’t get back on the plane, but he could stall until he figured out what to do.

He stepped gingerly through the mud until he found his way to the other side of the road to the truck.  A tall man–taller than any Colombian he had ever seen–stood at the back of the vehicle connecting a large metal frame and tarp cover to the bed.  As Habib approached him, the man stopped, wiped the sweat from his suntanned forehead, and put a hand on his bony hip.

“A storm is coming tonight, a large one,” the man said, grabbing the tarp cover and shaking it to check that it was secure.  After a moment he wiped his hands on his pants and pointed at Habib’s luggage.  “They sent you over.” It was more a statement than a question, but Habib nodded.

“The women said you were going south,” Habib said. “I’ll pay you to take me with you.”

At that moment, a group of young men in thin, faded shirts and dirt-stained jeans came out of the building in front of the truck, laughing and raising dust.

“If you can find a place in the truck,” the driver said, “I’ll take you.”

Balancing himself on tools and old woolen blankets between the others, Habib gribbed the side of the truck bed and listened to the conversations of the young men.  The ribbed tarp above the truck shielded them from the cool night breeze.  Most of the men casually ignored him.  He could tell they had worked together for a while.  They had a way of relying on nods and winks to tell jokes, hiding the punch line that everyone knew except for Habib.  The sunset over the hills and the hostling of the truck, combined with the friendly banter of the laborers brought Habib to a fitful sleep.

In his dream he saw himself at the clinic in Philadelphia, the blinds of the windows cutting strips of sunlight across IV drips; rough, thin blankets; anguished faces; empty chairs.  He marveled at his hands, which seemed bloated and pink.  He watched himself, with a clipboard at his side, lead over a patient.  With a bump of the truck his dream shifted, and Habib found himself holding a torn cloth, blood on his hands.

“They took her behind the trees,” he heard someone say.  He turned to face the voice and watched himself move as if in water.  The cloth in his hand rippled in unseen currents.  There was no one behind him, but water flowed under the door of the office and swirled around his feet.  Habib could hear the sound of the truck and the men, but could not escape the foggy hold of his dream.

“Your mother was at hte post office waiting for your letter and they took her behind the trees,” he heard again.  In his dream, he took a step back and tripped.  He stumbled, looked behind him, and saw his mother standing beside the hospital bed with her eyes closed.  Her long, think fingers were clasped in front of her chest, her lips were moving as if saying a silent prayer.  She opened her eyes looking at Habib, and said nothing.

“Amigo!”

Habib startled awake.  The men were fathered around him in the truck.  Habib felt his own forehead and closed his eyes.  Rain thumped against the tarp above them.

“Here,” a man across from him held out a beer, “to bring you back to earth.”

Habib nodded weakily, took the beer, but did not drink it.

Another man, nearer to the cab, whispered under his breath, “He was whimpering like a child.  Like a stray dog.”

The man who had given Habib the beer beat the side of the truck and pointed at the man near the cab.

“Shut your mouth, Luis!  You embarrass yourself with your stupidity.” Luis jumped at the unexpected reprimand.  After a moment he curled his lip in disgust, and shrugged.

“Drink it,” the man prompted Habib again. “It will help.  I’m Ramon.”

Habib shook his hand and took a swig from the beer can.  He hadn’t had a drink for ten years.  He felt the liquor reach his fingertips and buzz beneath his nails.

“You’re not a laborer,” Ramon stated.

Habib nodded.  “I’m a doctor for the Red Cross.  I just got here from America this evening.”

The men around him started to whisper excitedly.  Habib put down his beer and looked around the group.

“Excuse us,” Ramon said, “but we were just talking about the revolt in the North.  We all have family there.  We heard a doctor would be coming.”

“It’s getting worse there,” another man whispered.  “They say the revolt has left hundreds dead.  They are left to bleed in the streets.  The volunteers refuse to leave the clinic.”

Luis brought a cigarette to his lips and turned to Habib, Luis’s eyes narrowed to thin, dark slits. “It you are the doctor for the Red Cross clinic in the North, why are you heading South?”

The men were silent.  Habib felt their eyes on his face, his shaking hands, his chest as he breathed.  He looked down at the beer he held.  He thought of his dream, of his own bloated hands.  He thought of the bloody strip of cloth rippling at his side.  He looked up at the men watching him.

“Because I am a coward,” he said.

The wind whipped the truck around the slick mud road and the rain fell so steadily and violently that a metallic hum began to fill the truck bed.

“You should not be here,” Ramon said quietly.

Luis grabbed the metal frame of the tarp above his head and stood up in the truck bed. “This man is running way from our families.  There are people dying because of him.” He looked at Habib, the cigarette between Luis’s thumb and index finger now.  “You can be a man and choose to go, or we will choose for you.”

The men looked from Luis to Habib.  There was a clap of thunder and the truck swerved in the mud.  Each man grabbed the truck side.

“Perhaps we should vote,” one man ventured.  He looked at Luis.  “To be fair.”

Luis sniffed and sat back down.

“Please,” Habib stood up shakily and put out his hand to calm the men. “You…you don’t need to vote.  I will get out myself.”

Ramon shook his head. “You can wait until we reach Cienaga.  That’s where we will stop tonight.”

“No,” Habib shook his head, “Luis is right.  I deserve this.”  He pointed at the storm, at the wind whipping the rain against the tarp.  “I’m afraid of the North and the people there.  I’ve been running away when I should be rescuing your families.”

Luis folded his arms across his chest and inhaled deeply from his cigarette.  “Then jump,” he said, “prove you’re not a dog.”

“Luis!” Ramon shouted.  “That proves nothing–what’s the point of forcing him North if he dies before he gets there!  We will stop at the next town.”

It was silent in the bed of the truck.  The other men looked from Ramon to Luis; both men sat ridgidly staring at the other from opposite sides of the truck.  No one looked at Habib.

Eventually, Luis exhaled a puff of smoke and closed his eyes.  “Do what you want.  I don’t care about stray dogs.  They carry viruses.”  Ramon stood up in a rage, one fist raised and the other rested protectively on Habib’s shoulder.

Habib looked down at Ramon’s hand.  It was the hand on his shoulder that was the worst insult of all.  In that instance he knew how the men viewed him.  Despite Ramon’s kindness, he was not equal to them.  More to prove something to himself than anything else, he pushed his way to the end of the truck, knocking knees with several men, and jumped headfirst into the storm.

The hum from the truck was instantly replaced by the gust of wind and rain.  When his face hit the mud, he felt the shock of sudden pain as his cheekbone and jaw absorbed the impact of his fall.  He rolled violently for several feet, his arms and legs whipping wildly.  When his mind caught up with him, he pulled in his arms and straightened his legs in an effort to reduce damage.  He slowed down a few moments later; mud caked his clothes, his nose, his hair.  He turned his head to look for the truck.  Through the rain he made out red brake lights in the distance, and heard distant shouting.  He did not move.  He allowed the rain to beat his bruised face.  A moment later, the lights disappeared and the sound of the truck’s engine bounced haphazardly through the wind.

Habib forced himself to stand.  With the adrenaline he still had, he began walking down the road in the opposite direction, rain pounding his shoulders, mud between his teeth.  As he took a few steps, he felt the air begin to vibrate wit hthe sound of another truck.  He saw the headlights move over his back and light the path before him.  With a screech, the truck swerved to a stop beside him.

“Are you crazy!” the driver shouted through the rain.  Habib was relieved to see it was not the driver from before. “I almost hit you!”

Habib raised a hand and apologized.  “Do you have room for me in your truck?  You’re heading North, no?”

The driver was a fat man, with splotched, stretched skin.  Empty beer cans rolled around his passenger seat.

“You have a strange accent,” the fat man said.

“I’m Colombian.  I studied in America.  I need to go North.”

The driver rolled his small black eyes at Habib and jabbed a finger toward the uncovered truck bed  “You’re too dirty to sit up here.  You can ride in the back as far as Santa Marta.”

Habib walked slowly to the back and pulled himself into the truck bed.  A second later the driver sped off, the tail whipping in the mud and wind.  Habib struggled to grab the side of the truck.  The driver seemed unaware of the wild slipping and jerking of the truck in the mud and wind.  Habib felt himself grow green from the shifts and jerks of the drive and threw up as he grappled for a steady handhold.  Through the cab window the driver laughed and called out to Habib.  “How are you feeling, little minnow?  Are you done swimming in Colombia?  Does it storm like this in los Estados Unidos?” He laughed heartily to himself again and drank from a can in his car.

Habib trembled from the effort to hold on in the rain.  As the truck swerved along the road, Habib closed his eyes and wondered what time it was.

As the truck sputtered wildly up one of the hills, a flash of lightning illuminated the entre landscape.  The driver gasped and choked on his beer, twisting the steering wheel violently to the left.  Habib clung desperately to the rusted holes in the bed of the truck as it flipped through the rain.  He felt the tires under him lift off the ground, his body floating in the tumble of dirt and metal.  When the truck crashed in a few yards downhill, it landed upside down, the cab crashed a few yards downhill, it landed upside down, the cab crushed and the bed of the truck caging Habib in a box of metal and mud.  Habib still held to the rusted holes in the truck bed, which were not above him, and realized he was still screaming.

When they found him later, Habib did not initially tell them his name.  They found the truck three hours after the crash, when the storm had stopped, and it tool eleven men to lift it enough for him to crawl out.  They gathered around him, gently patting him on the back as he stumbled between them.

“You are a real hombre,” they said excitedly.  “Trapped in a smoking truck for three hours!” They watched him intently, waiting for him to explain.

Habib looked down at his hands, bleeding and raw.  He looked at the mud on his clothes, his white shoes.  Then he looked up at the crowd of men around him.

“I’m Colombian,” he said.

Vientre

by Rebekah W. Olson

“The waters encompassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.”
Jonah 2:5

When Habib stepped into the road in front of the Santa Marta Airport his shoes sank into the mud up to the knobby bone in his ankle. Two women selling odds and ends on the concrete beside him clucked their tongues.

“You see,” one whispered to the other in Spanish, “he is not Colombian. To step into the mud, and in white shoes…”

The other, on a bucket beside her, swatted at flies over the plantains. “Then he is a tourist,” she said, raising an eyebrow and pointing at the man with her chin, “and he needs new shoes.”

“Meester!” she cried in English, standing up to wave a long, saggy arm at the assortment of plastic sandals they sold, “Meester, we have shoes!”

Habib sighed. The clinic in Philadelphia felt very far away.

While he scraped the mud from his shoes on the concrete, the women watched him. Habib was short, shorter than any of the other medical students in his year. His name and darker skin often led those in Philadelphia to believe he was Indian, but he wasn’t. Habib was a name his mother found in the newspaper, a paper half-submerged in mud. He was Colombian; he was home.

The women watched with lazy curiosity, one standing and the other seated. Once he had both shoes on and was clapping the mud from his hands, the first woman hobbled to his side.

“Meester, you need shoes?”

Habib smiled, but shook his head. In Spanish, he replied, “No, thank you. I can wash them.” Both women blinked in surprise, and then laughed and laughed, patting his shoulders, his back, his head.

“Where are you from?” they asked. When he just smiled weakly and looked at his hands, the women decided not to press the issue. They patted his shoulders again. “Welcome,” they said, and then walked back to their buckets.

Habib waited an hour for a taxi, a duffel bag with a few clothes and his medical supplies tucked under his arm. He looked down the road to the north. That’s where he was expected.

The medical clinic for the Red Cross was in the middle of the northern hills of Colombia, an area lush with bamboo, ivory nut palms, and orchids. He had tried to apply to residencies everywhere else but here—the Cleveland Clinic, Duke University Hospital, Venice Regional Medical Center—but couldn’t outshine the competition. In the end, he used his birth certificate and fluent Spanish to secure a last minute position with doctors in the Colombian Red Cross Society. The country was always at war with itself in some way, and American medical volunteers and professionals had been in the country for years. Habib had avoided the memories and mud of his country for more than fifteen years, and within thirty minutes of his plane landing, both were already firmly secured to his white American shoes.

When Habib was a boy, Colombia was always red. Mud, beans, blood. When he was nine-years-old, his father came into their shanty with a rusty revolver in the basket of goods he brought back from the village. Habib remembered that he watched his father’s short, square fingers as he lifted the gun and turned to his wife.

“Sophia,” his father said, “I will go to Riohacha in the morning.” He put the gun high on a shelf above their matted blankets. “My brother is there. He’s in trouble.”

Habib remembered that his mother stiffened, then turned away. She picked up a plantain with her thin fingers and as she peeled away the thick membrane from the fruit she nodded her head without speaking. Three weeks later, when his father’s body was sent home, they could not recognize it. Habib had to peel away the clothing before they could wash him for burial.

More than twenty years later, the memory still sent a dull buzzing down his spine and he shivered, looking away from the road toward his home.

When the taxi still had not arrived and the sun had begun to set, the two women pulled out great tarps to roll their goods in, placing the large parcels on their broad, bony backs. As they walked away, one turned and called out to him.

“If you want to get somewhere, you should cross the street and ask the truck driver. He is taking a load of laborers to the fields in the south, and will help you if you ask.” She turned and waved her hand over her head. “Or wait for the bus heading north. It should be here when the sun sets.” Then she hobbled to catch up to the other, their bodies bent from the weight of their loads; old women bobbing through the crowd like wounded crabs.

Habib looked to the horizon and determined that the bus should be there in a few minutes. In a few moments he would head north and would arrive at the clinic by midnight.

He followed the road with his eyes, the red of the mud diminishing into a needle-thin line as it got closer and closer to the horizon.

Red. It would always be red here.

His shoes, his father, his profession.

All red.

He felt the buzz in his spine again and realized, finally, that it was fear. He knew he was not strong, or talented, or determined. He’d known it for a long time, but in this place he could not hide from it. His father, and eventually his mother, died believing he would save his family, but he became a doctor to escape.

He was a doctor, and he was afraid of blood.

At this thought, he turned away from the horizon, away from the direction of the clinic and away from the bus that would carry him there. He couldn’t get back on the plane, but he could stall until he figured out what to do.

He stepped gingerly through the mud until he found his way to the other side of the road to the truck. A tall man—taller than any Colombian he had ever seen—stood at the back of the vehicle, connecting a large metal frame and tarp cover to the bed. As Habib approached him, the man stopped, wiped the sweat from his sun-tanned forehead, and put a hand on his bony hip.

“A storm is coming tonight, a large one,” the man said, grabbing the tarp cover and shaking it to check that it was secure. After a moment he wiped his hands on his pants and pointed at Habib’s luggage. “They sent you over.” It was more a statement than a question, but Habib nodded.

“The women said you were going south,” Habib said. “I’ll pay you to take me with you.”

At that moment, a group of young men in thin, faded shirts and dirt-stained jeans came out of the building in front of the truck, laughing and raising dust.

“If you can find a place in the truck,” the driver said, “I’ll take you.”

Balancing himself on tools and old woolen blankets between the others, Habib gripped the side of the truck bed and listened to the conversations of the young men. The ribbed tarp above the truck shielded them from the cool night breeze. Most of the men casually ignored him. He could tell they had worked together for a while. They had a way of relying on nods and winks to tell jokes, hiding the punch line that everyone knew except for Habib. The sunset over the hills and the jostling of the truck, combined with the friendly banter of the laborers brought Habib to a fitful sleep.

In his dream he saw himself at the clinic in Philadelphia, the blinds of the windows cutting strips of sunlight across IV drips; rough, thin blankets; anguished faces; empty chairs. He marveled at his hands, which seemed bloated and pink. He watched himself, with a clipboard at his side, lean over a patient. With a bump of the truck his dream shifted, and Habib found himself holding a torn cloth, blood on his hands.

“They took her behind the trees,” he heard someone say. He turned to face the voice and watched himself move as if in water. The cloth in his hands rippled in unseen currents. There was no one behind him, but water flowed under the door of the office and swirled around his feet. Habib could hear the sound of the truck and the men, but could not escape the foggy hold of his dream.

“Your mother was at the post office waiting for your letter and they took her behind the trees,” he heard again. In his dream, he took a step back and tripped. He stumbled, looked behind him, and saw his mother standing beside the hospital bed with her eyes closed. Her long, thin fingers were clasped in front of her chest, her lips were moving as if saying a silent prayer. She opened her eyes, looked at Habib, and said nothing.

“Amigo!”

Habib startled awake. The men were gathered around him in the truck. Habib felt his own forehead and closed his eyes. Rain thumped agains the tarp above them.

“Here,” A man across from him held out a beer, “To bring you back to earth.”

Habib nodded weakly, took the beer, but did not drink it.

Another man, nearer to the cab, whispered under his breath, “He was whimpering like a child. Like a stray dog.”

The man who had given Habib the beer beat the side of the truck and pointed at the man near the cab.

“Shut your mouth, Luis! You embarrass yourself with your stupidity.” Luis jumped at the unexpected reprimand. After a moment he curled his lip in disgust, and shrugged.

“Drink it,” the man prompted Habib again. “It will help. I’m Ramon.”

Habib shook his hand and took a swig from the beer can. He hadn’t had a drink for ten years. He felt the liquor reach his fingertips and buzz beneath his nails.

“You’re not a laborer,” Ramon stated.

Habib nodded. “I’m a doctor for the Red Cross. I just got here from America this evening.”

The men around him started to whisper excitedly. Habib put down his beer and looked around the group.

“Excuse us,” Ramon said, “but we were just talking about the revolt in the North. We all have family there. We heard a doctor would be coming.”

“It’s getting worse there,” another man whispered. “They say the revolt has left hundreds dead. They are left to bleed in the streets. The volunteers refuse to leave the clinic.”

Luis brought a cigarette to his lips and turned to Habib, Luis’s eyes narrowed to thin, dark slits. “If you are the doctor for the Red Cross clinic in the North, why are you heading south?”

The men were silent. Habib felt their eyes on his face, his shaking hands, his chest as he breathed. He looked down at the beer he held. He thought of his dream, of his own bloated hands. He thought of the bloody strip of cloth rippling at his side. He looked up at the men watching him.

“Because I am a coward,” he said.

The wind whipped the truck around the slick mud road and the rain fell so steadily and violently that a metallic hum began to fill the truck bed.

“You should not be here,” Ramon said quietly.

Luis grabbed the metal frame of the tarp above his head and stood up in the truck bed. “This man is running away from our families. There are people dying because of him,” He looked at Habib, the cigarette between Luis’s thumb and index finger now. “You can be a man and choose to go, or we will choose for you.”

The men looked from Luis to Habib. There was a clap of thunder and the truck swerved in the mud. Each man grabbed the truck side.

“Perhaps we should vote,” one man ventured. He looked at Luis. “To be fair.”

Luis sniffed and sat back down.

“Please,” Habib stood up shakily and put out his hand to calm the men, “You… you don’t need to vote. I will get out myself.”

Ramon shook is head. “You can wait until we reach Ciénaga. That’s where we stop tonight.”

“No,” Habib shook his head, “Luis is right. I deserve this.” He pointed at the storm, at the wind whipping the rain against the tarp. “I’m afraid of the North and the people there. I’ve been running away when I should be rescuing your families.”

Luis folded his arms across his chest and inhaled deeply from his cigarette. “Then jump,” he said, “Prove you’re not a dog.”

“Luis!” Ramon shouted. “That proves nothing—what’s the point of forcing him north if he dies before he gets there! We will stop at the next town.”

It was silent in the bed of the truck. The other men looked from Ramon to Luis; both men sat rigidly staring at the other from opposite sides of the truck. No one looked at Habib.

Eventually, Luis exhaled a puff of smoke and closed his eyes. “Do what you want. I don’t care about stray dogs. They carry viruses.” Ramon stood up in a rage, one fist raised and the other rested protectively on Habib’s shoulder.

Habib looked down at Ramon’s hand. It was the hand on his shoulder that was the worst insult of all. In that instance he knew how the men viewed him. Despite Ramon’s kindness, he was not equal to them. More to prove something to himself than anything else, he pushed his way to the end of the truck, knocking knees with several men, and jumped headfirst into the storm.

The hum from the truck was instantly replaced by the gust of wind and rain. When his face hit the mud, he felt a shock of sudden pain as his cheekbone and jaw absorbed the impact of his fall. He rolled violently for several feet, his arms and legs whipping wildly. When his mind caught up with him, he pulled in his arms and straightened his legs in an effort to reduce damage. He slowed down a few moments later; mud caked his clothes, his nose, his hair. He turned his head to look for the truck. Through the rain he made out red brake lights in the distance, and heard distant shouting. He did not move. He allowed the rain to beat his bruised face. A moment later, the lights disappeared and the sound of the truck’s engine bounced haphazardly through the wind.

Habib forced himself to stand. With the adrenaline he still had, he began walking down the road in the opposite direction, rain pounding his shoulders, mud between his teeth. As he took a few steps, he felt the air begin to vibrate with the sound of another truck. He saw the headlights move over his back and light the path before him. With a screech, the truck swerved to a stop beside him.

“Are you crazy!” the driver shouted through the rain. Habib was relieved to see it was not the driver from before. “I almost hit you!”

Habib raised a hand and apologized. “Do you have room for me in your truck? You’re heading north, no?”

The driver was a fat man, with splotched, stretched skin. Empty beer cans rolled around his passenger seat.

“You have a strange accent,” the fat man said.

“I’m Colombian. I studied in America. I need to go north.”

The driver rolled his small black eyes at Habib and jabbed a finger toward the uncovered truck bed. “You’re too dirty to sit up here. You can ride in the back as far as Santa Marta.”

Habib walked slowly to the back and pulled himself into the truck bed. A second later the driver sped off, the tail whipping in the mud. Habib struggled to grab the side of the truck. The driver seemed unaware of the wild slipping and jerking of the truck in the mud and wind. Habib felt himself grow green from the shifts and jerks of the drive and threw up as he grappled for a steady handhold. Through the cab window the driver laughed and called out to Habib. “How are you feeling, little minnow? Are you done swimming in Colombia? Does it storm like this in los Estados Unidos?” He laughed heartily to himself again and drank from a can in his car.

Habib trembled from the effort to hold on in the rain. As the truck swerved along the road, Habib closed his eyes and wondered what time it was.

As the truck sputtered wildly up one of the hills, a flash of lightning illuminated the entire landscape. The driver gasped and choked on his beer, twisting the steering wheel violently to the left. Habib clung desperately to the rusted holes in the bed of the truck as it flipped through the rain. He felt the tires under him lift off the ground, his body floating in the tumble of dirt and metal. When the truck crashed a few yards downhill, it landed upside down, the cab crushed and the bed of the truck caging Habib in a box of metal and mud. Habib still held to the rusted holes in the truck bed, which were now above him, and realized he was still screaming.

When they found him later, Habib did not intentionally tell them his name. They found the truck three hours after the crash, when the storm had stopped, and it took eleven men to lift it enough for him to crawl out. They gathered around him, gently patting him on the back as he stumbled between them.

“You are a real hombre,” they said excitedly. “Trapped in a smoking truck for three hours!” They watched him intently, waiting for him to explain.

Habib looked down at his hands, bleeding and raw. He looked at the mud on his clothes, his white shoes. Then he looked up at the crowd of men around him.

“I’m Colombian,” he said.

Interview with Kimberly Johnson

Kimberly Johnson is a poet, translator, and a literary critic. Her collections of poetry include Leviathan with a Hook, A Metaphorical God, and the forthcoming Uncommon Prayer. Her monograph on the poetic developments of post-Reformation poetry was published in 2014. In 2009, Penguin Classics published her translation of Virgil’s Georgics.

Her poetry, translations, and scholarly essays have appeared widely in publications including The New YorkerSlate, The Iowa Review, Milton Quarterly, and Modern Philology.

Recipient of grants and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Utah Arts Council, and the Mellow FOundation, Johnson holds an M.A. from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, and M.F.A> from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Literature from the university of California at Berkeley.

Kimberly Johnson lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

INSCAPE: The third section of your book, Uncommon Prayer, relies on different organization than the previous two sections. Recognizing your use of prose poetry and the military alphabet, what factors did organization play while you were composing this last section of your book?

KIMBERLY JOHNSON: I was experimenting in terms of organization. Poetry is a mode  of writing that relies on organization of  some kind, but I wanted to figure out what principles or strategies I could bring when there is no organization built into the language while dispensing with the use of lines, rhyme, and meter. I used the military alphabet as a way to translate something ordinary, the alphabet, into something that has denotative and connotative meaning. For example, an M is also Mike. J happened to be Juliet. This language is shouting to be played with. I was trying to impose structural organization onto chaos.

INSCAPE: You co-edited the anthology Before the Door of GodAn Anthology of Devotional Poetry, which traces the history of devotional poetry in its historical traditions of religion. how does the poetic practice, the process of creating poetry, influence the spiritual practice?

KIMBERLY JOHNSON: Poetry and spirituality have been fused together for thousands of years. Some of the earliest poems we have are hymns and prayers and some of the earliest rituals we have are experienced through poetry. There is a closer relationship. Lyrie is utterance with no expectation of a response. It speaks itself out into the world; nobody talks back, nor does it expect a response. This is just like prayer. The auditor remains inaccessible, in-apprehensible. Poetry and religious practice have natural affinities because their strategies of communication end up being identical in the way they constitute speech and desire.

INSCAPE: You have often been identified as a devotional, religious, and metaphysical poet. Do you pay attention to these terms? Do you find them listening?

KIMBERLY JOHNSON: It is certainly true that I am interested in the history of the devotional lyric, as a scholar and poet, but I am more interested in the language. The most urgent crisis that I experience is the fact that words don’t mean. Our experience exceeds any representation of it. I’m very interested in how poetic language tries to compensate for that lack. This isn’t so much a theological issue as it is a representational issue; however, the term that has become the preeminent metaphor for the unknowable in Western culture is God. It’s a read-made metaphor for me to return to over and over again. when I am dealing with questions of meaning, meaninglessness, or the disconnect between how we experience the world and how we put things into language.

INSCAPE: At the risk of being a selfish question, what advice would you give to a twenty year old poet?

KIMBERLY JOHNSON: Read everything. Read in the shower, read magazines, read the back of your cereal box, read crappy novels, read science journals. You never know what might be interesting to you. Poetry is about language and you have to be sucking it in all the time in order for it to strike your ear. Your goal is to have a perpetually defamiliarized relationship with language. You never want to be so comfortable that you start to not see what the words are doing. You want to feel the texture of each word. You can only do that if you’re exposing yourself constantly to different modes of language. The best way to make language seem strange is to learn a different one. Each word becomes a choice, and that’s exactly where you want to be as a poet.

Heartbreak 101 in 3-Part Simile

by Jim Davis

Grilled sweet corn, baby. Hawks 3-2 over the Blues and an apron that said London, Paris, Rome, St. Louis in red stencil. When he slept, white grubs with black heads covered him from jaw to splintered toenail, cracked heel, he’d been walking and said maybe I was born to walk, or maybe I was born to hold onto things which can’t be held: sunlight, dream , more soup since his passing away, in the traditional sense since there was nothing left to do. he could unite anything

 

with his teeth: dependent arising. Fire, red wide long and terrible. He lived into his 80s with his sister in the bed beside him-two misers eating rhubarb pie, drinking chicken stock, raising rare birds, cleaning fish bowls of water, neon gravel, ceramic divers, castles…no fish. I wish I had been good enough for Allegheny, he said, the college he couldn’t get into, but his sister did. He would have found a wide there, career, new shoes. He drinks black tea, orange

 

slices dipped in sea salt. The ghosts of their garden apartment have rearranged the furniture, bent rabbit ears on a heavy Magnavox. he watched a lot of local hockey. He looked up a stalk of potpourri, named it “wet wood lying in water” and used it to stoke a fire, which he named “dependence” and let it do what it did which he knew would someday end. he named his sister Gotama, braided her hair every morning, brushed it nightly. It is easy to fall in love with heavy silent snow.

Paperclip

by Zach T. Power

this is the story about michael. he is a novelist. or was a novelist. it’s hard to say, seeing that he could be anything by now. but he was the kind of novelist that would take a rather large and wide piece of paper and sharpen a tiny pencil. he would start to write a story on his paper. but when michael started to write his story, he didn’t know what to write. he looked out the window and saw a bird fly by in the sky, and wrote down on his paper a bird flew by in the sky and then someone knocked at his door, and he wrote someone is knocking at my door. well, the person at his door kept knocking at his door kept knocking, and he wrote this person at my door is knocking persistently. he rather liked that line. so, gaining courage from a mediocre line, he wrote about the person who was knocking at his door. with his tiny pencil, he wrote that it was his mom knocking at the door, whom he invited inside his house and asked her, what are you doing at my house. and she said that she wanted to run a race with him. michael hadn’t run any races since he was a boy, and he was caught off guard. mom, he said, I can’t run a race with you. I am writing a novel. he folded his arms. so his mother held out running shoes and asked, what’s a novel. he folded his arms. so his mother held out running shoes and asked, what’s a novel. and he told her that it’s a story on a really big piece of paper, sort of. she said, well, what is your story about. it’s about a dragon that goes into town and eats a bunch of sheep, michael said as he walked back to his aper. oh, dear–how morbid, she said. michael looked at her. mom, the story is about a dragon. dragons aren’t morbid, they blow fire and fly in the sky and besides, this dragon was getting sleepy after eating so many sheep, so he went to his cave and he fell asleep and then he started to have a dream. the dragon started to dream about a herd of goats that were climbing the mountain and looking for a little boy goat. and the little boy goat was at the top of the mountain painting a picture. his mom and his dad were looking for him because they wanted him to eat his dinner and go for a walk around the neighborhood, but he was painting a picture of a man who was trying to catch a really big salmon in alaska. and the man who was fishing had his son next to him. his son was trying to catch a shark, and his dad laughed and said, son, I love you, but there aren’t any sharks in alaska. and then the son started to reel in his fishing line. it was really tight and the boy was trying so hard to reel the shark in, and the dad said, woah, son, I think you are catching a shark. and the son said, dad, this is a big shark. and the dad said you can do it son, and the son did it and they took the shark home and they ate it for dinner, and the dad said that catching a shark in alaska reminded him of his grandpa, and the dad started to cry, and the boy wanted to know what a grandpa was and told his dad that he was okay. it’s okay da. we caught a shark and I love you. and the dad said thanks son. they listened to the stars and then the boy asked his dad, what is a grandpa. and the dad told his son about his grandpa. who was an old man who had a library of books and the books were all sorts of colors. there were blue books and red ones, and books that had every color on the cover and tehre was even a book that wasn’t any color at all. and the old many would stand at the front of his library with a smile with lemon drops in his pickets, which are little candies that look like magazines. and the old man would give lemon drops to all the people that came to his library, but nobody came. and the old many would smile even though he was alone without any friends. and someotimes he would eat his own lemondrops, and sometimes he would stand on a box and read his favorite books out loud with his voice so everybody could hear him tell a story about a lonely pillow. you see, this lonely pillow lived in a lonely place called an orphanage. and in the orphanage there were lots of little boys and lilttle girls who didn’t have moms or dads. they were just kids, and they loved being just kids, but they missed their moms and dads. and they would sit around the dark with all their little heads on their lonely pillow and tell each other stories about how they were going to find their dads or meet their moms at a park that had a pond that had a boat, and the little orphan boy would go on a boat with his mom and the mom would hold his hand and tell that she loves him. and a little orphan girl would say, yes. and I would see you, little orphan boy, at the park with your mom, and I would say hi and my dad would say hi to you, but I would yell hi really loud and not with my hand because I have ice cream in my hand and my dad does too and his other hand is holding mine and we can’t wave because our hands are holding ice cream and family. and my dad would take me home and his shoulders and he would tell me stories about my mom as we walked home to meet her. and the dad would tell the little girl who wasn’t an orphan anymore, you have the best mom in the world. one time she went to your brother house and knocked on his door, because she wanted to run a race with him, but he never answered the door. we went inside and he was spilled all read on a large piece of white paper. he had shot himself in the head. after the funeral I saw that he written: dear mom, a bird flew by in the sky. I thought of you and the dragons we slayed together when I was young. I thought about the time you and dad found me in the mountains, I thought about fishing and the books, and, now that I grown, about how absent I . . .

Stoop

by Jim Davis

Sitting on the front steps as the rain comes in. Call me
one’s demeanor through the doorway of a yurt, or
entering a psychic’s dojo through glow-string beads, or
talking to a child, or sitting on the steps
drinking Corona, listening to Dusk Ellington play rain.

When I sit I wear a bag on my head, painted like my downstairs
neighbor. Talking too much to a girl with a boyfriend, texting
as the page stipples with hushed early drizzle, warp.
I will map the brain someday. My childhood had a rooster
put to sleep–now there’s no way for me to wake.

Sometimes Sheila comes to sit, three hundred pounds soaking wet,
and she is because she walked here from the bus. She brought
baggies of honey baked ham, spiral cut. I like the smell
of her neck, a mix of sweat and perfume. If I asked her to
name every worm-eating animal, she’d forget me.

When we sit every color’s terra cotta, every shape is butter
lettuce fussing in the breeze. Someone else is living
in my hand-me-down sneakers. My favorite pain is too much
ginger. Tonight if I fall asleep standing up, there will be no noise
to wake me. I am especially regretful, as Sheila is

incapable of love. Music begins in the teeth
of the piano I haven’t bought but imagine hoisted up
the building to a window, where I’d look out over the stoop,
listening as it plays itself into the rhythm of the highway
and the dogs and birds and rain. They told me if you leave the city

you come back haunted. Deign. Stained with gallant imaginings.

And the Heat Goes On

by Ann Howells

October: the sure finger of God has set
the Texas oven on high,
construction crews drip like candles,
office towers rise like muffins,
and a rapist stalks East Dallas–
choosing victims on jogging trails
and grocery store parking lots,
hiding behind an ordinary face.

There are those who claim
he’s sure to be illegal;
others blame an unidentified black man.
FBI profiler says he’s white, single,
20 to 35, un- or under-employed,
resentful of women. No shit, Sherlock!
The artist sketch resembles Homer Simpson.

The clerk at Kroger says women ask for it,
but we’ve already pegged him:
a creepy little twerp 20 to 35,
under-employed, resentful, but
not resembling the sketch.
Jo says our have/have not economy
produces thieves and rapists;
Sidney ties rape to ice cream sales. Uh-uh.

Summer is on overtime,
every blazing sun a golden dollar,
cumulous fails to accumulate. The heat
goes on, and cool won’t come.
We hear rattles at our doorknobs,
glimpse shadows at windows,
sweat in our locked rooms,
stalked relentlessly in unrelenting heat.

Editor’s Note by Lauren Bledsoe

This issue is dedicated to two poets: Mark Strand and Craig Arnold.  As a first-time editor of a literary journal, I could not be more thrilled to bring you two previously unpublished poems by these tremendously talented and respected artists.  However, as simply a person who has been trying to write poems for many years, I would like to briefly address the impact these poets have had on my own life.

I first encountered Craig Arnold’s work through a podcast from the Poetry Foundation.  It was 2009.  Craig had recently disappeared in Japan while hiking a volcano, and the podcast episode was a tribute to his life and work.  As a poem “Asunder” was read aloud, I distinctly remember the impact that poem had.  I was entirely taken over by language in a way I had no idea was possible.  It was in that moment that I realized the powerful vehicle for empathy poetry can be.  It was as if my own experience was being uttered back to me in a visceral, palpable, utterly real way.  The idea that someone else had felt something similar to what I had felt, and could render it so precisely and distinctly, was a moment of revelation.

I ordered Craig’s collection, Made Flesh, immediately and connected as powerfully with each poem in that slim volume as I had with “Asunder.”  I read this collection obsessively, and within a month or two I had memorized most of it.  The poems in this collection contain the kind of sophisticated sounds, vivid images, and explosive lyrical moments that accomplish that impossible act of rendering human experience on the page.  Reading Made Flesh was my first experience with contemporary poetry, and it is because of that collection that I decided to try to write poems of my own.  I knew that if poetry could have the power to make someone feel less alone in the world, it was an enterprise and endeavor I needed to be a part of.  I never met Craig Arnold, yet his poetry had a tremendous impact on my life, and I am very honored to be able to publish one of his poems in this issue.

Unlike Craig Arnold, I did meet Mark Strand.  Three years after discovering Made Flesh, I had transferred to BYU and was devoting myself to becoming a poet.  At the time, however, I was particularly pessimistic about my writing.  I had come to conclusion that the immense amount of effort I was investing in writing poetry had amounted to nothing, and that my poems were not very good at all.  When I flew to Tennessee to attend Sewanee Writers’ Conference, I bleakly imagined it would be my last hurrah in the literary world, and that afterward I’d probably give up altogether.  Cue Mark Strand.

Mark was the faculty member at Sewanee who was assigned to give me feedback on my work.  It is an understatement to say that Mark was a rock star at the conference.  Mark Strand was a rock star in the poetry world.  And there I was, meant to get feedback on my “poetry” from this icon.  In spite of his status, Mark was one of the most disarmingly warm and charming people I have ever met.  When we met to discuss my poems, I was taken aback by his support of my work.  He took me seriously as a poet, and urged me to continue writing.

In one of our conversations, he told me, “Lauren, your poems are sexy.”  I knew this was supposed to be a compliment, but I struggled to see it that way.  I admitted it was something I was worried about.  He seemed baffled by this, and asked why.

I answered honestly.  “Isn’t it kind of a taboo thing?  To write sexy poems?”

He lit up with his trademark wry grin.  “Only in Provo.”

Throughout the ten-day conference, Mark approached me multiple times to urge me to keep writing what he called my “wild poems.”  On the last day of the conference, he gave me his email address and said to keep in touch, and to keep writing.  We kept an intermittent correspondence after the conference, sending poems back and forth, and he never failed to keep encouraging me.  When I began working on this journal, I asked him if I could publish one of the poems he sent me.  He graciously agreed.  About a month later, I received news that he had passed away.

Mark Strand was a brilliant man and a gifted artist.  Among numerous equally impressive achievements, he won a Pulitzer, taught at Columbia, and was regarded as one of the best poets of his generation.  And yet, he took the time to be a friend and mentor to me, a person who could do very little in return and to whom he owed nothing at all.  All this to say: Mark was not only an accomplished artist, he was a deeply generous and kind human being, and it is a personal joy to include him in Inscape.

This issue is a very personal one to me.  It includes work that I feel is important, meaningful, and most of all, deserves a place in the world.  So please, read & enjoy.

LB

Remembering

by Wesley Turner

Jeremy was changing Mr. Thompson’s bed sheets when Sally told him the apocalypse was underway. An asteroid–melting ice caps? Jeremy didn’t quite catch it. There was an endless list of things to do, and he had learned long ago to take his days one at a time. But when he entered the rec room during free time, the end of existence was all anyone wanted to talk about.
“Jeremy, is it true Berlin has been swallowed by the sea?”
“Yes, Jeremy, tell us, have the mountains been made low and the valleys made high?”
“Is it true the stars are falling? That the weight of a soul can be measured at death?”
Jeremy felt uncomfortable. All of the patients were facing him. He looked at Sally, his fellow CNA, for answers. She shrugged sadly.
“I don’t have any answers,” he said finally.
“What?”
“No answers,” Jeremy said, loud enough for Mrs. Baumgartner to hear. They all moaned.
“We’re afraid,” they said, “and no one cares about us.”
“I care for you,” Jeremy insisted. “Maybe you should contact your families?”
“We can’t remember their phone numbers,” they said.
“I’m sure we’ve got their numbers around here somewhere,” he said.
“Why can’t they call us?” they said.
“Perhaps they don’t know our number,” he said.
“Can’t you make love to Sally?” they said. “We’ve forgotten what it’s like and how it works.”
“Sally is married,” Jeremy said. “And the chemistry is all wrong.”
The patients moaned again.
“Jeremy,” said Mr. Penksy, “Tell us about Michelangelo, won’t you? I’ve quite forgotten him. I know he was important once.” Mr. Pensky used to be a teacher, or an artist. Jeremy couldn’t remember.
“Michelangelo was an artist who lived in Europe. He was a painter and he liked to paint pictures of God.”
“God?” said Mr. Pensky.
“Did he have a family?” Mrs. Bennet said.
“Yes,” Jeremy said.
“Was he a good father?”
“Yes, I’m sure he was.”
“Did his children visit him on Thanksgiving and call during the week?”
“They always called on Thursday, because that was Michelangelo’s Sabbath (he so often had to work on Sundays), and Marta brought the sweet potatoes on Thankgiving, and Boris brought the cranberry sauce. Harry didn’t attend Thanksgiving because his shrew of a wife insisted they go to her family’s.”
“Oh, yes.” And those who could remember became nostalgic for the old days when Thanksgiving was ruined by controlling daughters-in-law.
“And which one is God?” Mr. Penksy asked.
“God is God,” Jeremy said. “Many people worship him.”
“What people?” they said.
“Well, there’s Protestants, like Baptists and Methodists, and there’s Catholics, and I’ve heard of Greek Orthodoxy, and I guess Jews believe in God too, and Muslims. And Hindus believe in more than one God, and Buddhists believe in something as well.”
“And which do you believe?” they asked.
“My grandmother was a Quaker,” he said.
“And which is true?”
“I’m not sure.”
“How does one know which God to follow?” Mrs. Bennett asked, “How can one be sure of their convictions?”
Jeremy thought hard. “We could all make bets.”
“Yes! We like that!” they said. Mr. Bennett bet on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mrs. Bennett bet on the Unitarians. None of them argued, because none of them remembered where they had worshipped as children. There were a surprising number of votes for the Zoroastrians because Mrs. Abernathy had observed that it sounded like an exotic and beautiful flower. Mrs. Baumgartner bet on Darwin until everyone started booing.
When the very last bet was made, the door to the building flew open, and flames and smoke erupted around the room.
“Can you see, Jeremy? Can you see who it is?” they said. They wanted to know so they could enjoy their winnings for a few more moments of mortality.
Jeremy stared at the person in the doorway for a long time. He saw the features; he could see the eye color and the clothes. But he had no idea who it was.
“Why, it’s Michelangelo!” Jeremy shouted, raising his hands over his head and laughing. There were tears streaming down his eyes. Sally kissed him.
Everyone cheered until, a few moments later, they each forgot about the apocalypse and Ahura Mazda and the weight of souls and returned instead to their dominoes.