The Prophet Jeremiah

She was such a dogmatic atheist, she didn’t even believe in the heart. It’s just a pump, she said. The skin is the only truly romantic organ, and it doesn’t need to hide in a cage. You can tell at a glance whether a scar has healed. I was heating a razor with a cigarette lighter to sterilize the blade; she needed some blood for an art project.

Our affair had been brief, and had ended two years before. Thank you for doing this, she said. I wouldn’t have been able to stand the pain myself. Pain is a gift from God—a warning that something is wrong, I said, half joking. But in fact the blade was so sharp and the four, parallel cuts in the back of my arm so shallow, I barely felt a thing.

She collected the red drops in a small cup, then filled a fountain pen and began to sketch. The heart is like the prophet Jeremiah, I went on. It never shuts up, and it always has the same message: we’re going to die. I only listen to the voices in my gut, which are often louder in praise than in complaint. And while I chattered, her pen fleshed out a beautiful machine.

Hansel and Gretel revisited

Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ Artlog:

Gretel is careful to take the Witch’s cat with them when they leave the gingerbread house, explaining to Hansel that they must be responsible for it. Later, back at home, their parents aren’t exactly pleased to see them. It has been quieter without the children, and with more food to go around too. One day Hansel comes in from playing to find the parents missing, and the cat gone too. Gretel sits next to the stove, humming while waiting for the joints to roast.

Shaggy dog story

I’m taking a break and highlighting some classic posts from my first full year of blogging, 2004. I used to post stories more often than I do now — sometimes true ones, and sometimes fictional ones that started out as if they were nonfiction, just because I liked to mess with readers’ heads. I seem to recall the original comments (via Haloscan, subsequently lost like all comments left before April 2006) included one or two confessions from readers who continued to think it was a true story even after the passage quoted here. (Please click through to read the whole story.)

New tricks:

“You make them yourself?” I asked, remembering that her parents had been artists.

That laugh again. “Oh, it’s not like I have a forge in my backyard or anything…”

Then, perhaps sensing my frustration, she knelt down and pointed out the outline of a dog sitting on its haunches. “They’re so popular with dog lovers… Anyone who’s ever had a companion animal knows what a deeply spiritual connection that can be… Like my Hermione here? Would you like to say hello to Dave? Dave, this is Hermione…”

There was a dog on my bed. A brown and tan mongrel – a beagle-border collie mix, by the look of it. “Hello,” it said.

Trojan Horse

What is this gift whose innocent acceptance precipitates the horror that we know is coming: our transformation after dark into mindless flesh-eaters? It doesn’t seem to matter. We cling to each other, the tattooed woman and I, instant lovers — until the knock comes from the top of the stairs and the searchlight finds us and we are history, one with the zombie masses swarming the gates. I turn in my sleep, not quite surfacing. Now we are in the Channel Islands, and there is a possibility of escape. Our helicopter looks for a place to land, fighting the wind, which is so strong all the trees grow parallel to the ground. In this conference room, we will be safe. Colonel Gaddafi and President Obama are here with their entourages, each making a great show of being relaxed and in control, preparing for a chess match that will end the war.


We’re in a ramshackle farmhouse in the far north, a half-dozen of us, sleeping at odd hours because there are no clocks and the sun never sets. Though ostensibly this is a writers’ colony, we think we might be stars in a covert reality TV show, a la The Truman Show. How else to explain the complete psychological profile and multiple photos required in the submission process, and the rule that we only wear certain brands of clothing? Anything can be a camera these days — and besides, who ever heard of hummingbirds above the Arctic Circle?

I find a window no one’s looked out of before. It shows me a twelve-story Chinese pagoda in flames that do not consume it as long as I watch. Perhaps the flames are really autumn leaves, pulled upwards by extreme low pressure. Someone else needs to see this, I think, but the nearest writer turns out to be sound asleep, though his pen still inches across the paper. I go outside to look for the pagoda and get lost in a maze of streets. Eventually I come to to a town square with a big bank clock. 12:45, it says. If that’s a.m., I’ll go to a bar. If it’s p.m., I’ll go to a coffee shop.


In my dream, God was a jerk. I was a lawyer for the plaintiff: a man who had been crippled by a strange disease that turned him into a blue lizard. I hadn’t expected to talk to the big guy Himself, but I rose to the occasion. I suppose you know what I’m here for, I said. God had shapeshifted into a middle-aged, bearded white guy — an exact replica of myself, in fact. He imitated my every gesture like an obnoxious street mime. I began to lecture. Why don’t you act your age? Just as you have to obey the laws of physics, you’re not above ethics, either. He smirked. Homo sapiens is one species out of billions, a failed experiment, He said. But this universe — is it not also one of billions? I asked. Surely there must be other gods, then. If you’re not careful, one of them will hear our cries, come over here and kick your ass. He glowered. I took off down the stairs as fast as I could.

Bento Boxes

Tweny-five years ago I outsourced my motivation to the Japanese. I wore the Kansai humidity like a second skin and shaved my beard to get closer to the soup. I went to all kinds of extremes, even fell in love. Anything to avoid going to class.

Opening a bento was like taking the roof off a cheap apartment building, the kind where you can hear every word through the thin walls but understand nothing. I speak from experience: the woman in the next apartment had a screaming orgasm every afternoon at 3:00. My roommate took to accompanying her on the guitar.

I spent so much time in one noodle bar, an older construction worker became my official sponsor and paid for everything. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t communicate very well because we had very little to communicate other than respect on my part and kindness on his. The other people in the noodle bar schooled me in how to behave.

Their economy was booming then, and it took a lot of asking around to find where the homeless lived, over near the Osaka zoo, behind a fence: another bento box. I went there with a friend. We sat down on a bench and waited for someone to join us; it didn’t take long. He’d come down from the north 16 years before to work at the World’s Fair, he said, and never went back.

The only foreigner I met who’d completely mastered the language, modern and classical, was a drunk who went to sleep in the middle of an empty street. Flies, I heard him mutter, why do you always call on me when I’m not home?

Written for the > Language > Place blog carnival.

The Machinery of Time

Direct link to video on Vimeo.

A flash-fiction videopoem featuring the hands of my niece Elanor and members of her plastic entourage. The depressing subject matter might have something to do with the fact that I had just seen the documentary Gasland (highly recommended, by the way). And in fact, my preferred style of videopoem-making borrows heavily from documentaries, relying as it does on discovery rather than invention (e.g. actors following a script), and using voice-over narration to convey the text of the poem.

The Machinery of Time

The time machine was our only answer to the apocalypse we’d set in motion. Some chose to travel 10 million years into the future, by which time, they figured, new multicellular organisms would’ve evolved. Others of us decided to go back & try to change history. Someone thought she could help Carthage win the Punic Wars. Someone else wanted to insert a fable about hubris into the Homeric epic. But the backwards travel unraveled us, thinned us out & made us ineligible for death. We appeared only in mirrors, or to people with second sight, provoking fresh terror at a haunted world. When after millennia of helplessness we reached our own birthdays, we crumbled like the pages of a burnt book.


That’s about the maximum length for the text of a one-minute videopoem, by the way. I had to cut out a few phrases and read more quickly than usual to fit it in. Still, after almost three years of writing for the world’s tiniest daily newspaper, The Morning Porch, one minute seems like more than enough time to get an idea across. The above text would fill five tweets.

The Rescue

I am rescuing Roma children from the Gestapo. They have, I discover, a marvelous gift for silence. We escape to the forest and live off whatever their quick fingers can find: eggs from hidden nests, truffles from the roots of oaks, frogs and arrowroot and wild carrots doing their best to masquerade as water hemlock. They are good at helping each other. Whenever I make a suggestion, they tilt their heads to the side, and on rare occasions when one of them speaks, it’s a single word, phrased like a question, in a language I don’t understand.

A little bit of hunger can sharpen the wits, but too much makes you dull. When dullness threatens to overwhelm us, we launch a night raid against some nearby farms, first drugging the dogs, then slipping in among the sleeping cows, their steamy breath, their hot stink, to liberate a gallon or two of milk from some rubbery teat, while the stealthiest child goes into the shed and eases a chicken from its perch without waking it up.

It’s a tricky business. The pasture is nothing but mud and we struggle to hold on to our prizes as we slip and fall and grow mired. The smaller children flail; the older ones settle exhausted onto their haunches and wait for dawn. The moon comes up and everything is illuminated: this is not mud but oil. These are not children but seabirds robbed of flight. And whatever you call this foaming about our feet, it is not the sea.