of a brush
on a pale-skinned canvas,
forms taking shape
smooth curves, unblemished skin
an ideal form.
perhaps with a familiar face, or based
upon a photograph of a loved one,
a character from a show.
to ask questions. instead,
paint the answers,
in the form of
swaying hips and
paid up front.
draw by request, anything
your sick little mind can dream up,
and it can be yours... for a price.
it is the lesson every artist learns,
the progression from starving to success:
“He is life's liberating force.
He is release of limbs and communion through dance.
He is laughter, and music in flutes.
He is repose from all cares— he is sleep!
When his blood bursts from the grape
and flows across tables laid in his honor
to fuse with our blood,
he gently, gradually, wraps us in shadows
of ivy-cool sleep.”
― Euripides, The Bacchae
They called it Morgellons disease. When I told the doctors about the vines that had begun their march through my veins. The grapes that had begun to swell under my skin, creating bulges and ulcers that stretched my skin, pulled at my joints. My pimples began oozing wine instead of pus. It hurt to walk, for my toes had been swollen with grape-sized bunions. It began about a month ago.
I was twenty-two.
My finals were next week. It was my senior year. All I had to do was make it through the next month, and then I’d be free. Free to pursue my insanity. So instead of being institutionalized, I left the doctors office, holed up in my dorm, and studied.
I looked over my classical literature. I was a Classics major. It had always been a point of contention with my parents. A useless major, they said. A silly fantasy, chasing after childhood dreams, rejecting common sense in favor of a beautiful but shallow dream.
Some people wrote. Some people drew. Some people sculpted clay. My art form was consumption: The Odyssey. The Iliad. The Bacchae.
Something about that story resonated with me, a deep, sacred sensation that wove its way through my soul. It was a feeling I had never felt before, a sense of belonging, of place. An identity. Where did it come from? And why, only now, was I feeling it?
I had found myself in the pages. Purpose. Life. Meaning. Love. Joy.
I gave up on studying and instead read and reread Euripides’s tragedy until I could practically recite it from memory.
And thus began my Madness.
for the roaring voice of the God of Joy!”
― Euripides, The Bacchae
After failing my exams (an expected result, but still a painful one, especially my most cataclysmic failure: 13% in English, in what had previously been my best subject.) I resolved to dedicate the remainder of my life to madness. Contrary to popular belief, Madness, like any other skill, can be learned. Practiced. Mastered.
I freed the grapes from underneath my skin. Plucked them out and ate them. The wine that ran from my veins stained the carpet of my apartment, just like it stained my teeth. Red. Red wine.
My bed began smelling strongly of vinegar. Or perhaps it was piss. Piss and vinegar, ha, ha. I would wake up in the night clutching wet sheets, my body throbbing, the grapes growing larger and larger until my whole body was simply a mass of deformed flesh, and then shrinking back down again. Returning to normal. Except my skin was looser now. I was a vessel. A vessel for more grapes. More wine. More vines. My body was a vineyard, a winery. I was merely a field waiting to be tilled, a harvest of grapes waiting to be fermented into something greater.
No more college. No more job. I was a full-time Madman.
Of course, after three months of no rent and a foul smelling odor coming from my apartment, I was evicted. The rest of my savings went to paying for damages. Something about stained carpets. Alas, an unfortunate side-effect of my condition.
Madness, I have discovered, is a comfort. Insanity has freed me from those daily tediums. ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,’ right? I am no longer a dull boy. Now I’m sharp. Like a knife. Or a broken wine bottle, with deep red-hued pieces that get lost in the carpet and stick into your bare feet.
It’s funny, I’d always thought a psychotic break would be terrifying. No idea what is real or what isn’t. But I know exactly what’s real: the vines. The wine.
I drank a lot of it, the wine. More than before. I’d always enjoyed liquid courage on the weekends, but now, with no obligations, every day was a weekend. More time to devote to my new god, Dionysus. He had chosen me as his apostle, his servant, his protege. A new Pentheus, Man of Sorrow, except I will not make the same mistakes. I will remain reverent. I have been chosen. Of all the Madmen, every person with the dark seed within them, I have been chosen to let it flourish, let it sprout, let it grow, let my dark fruit give birth to the finest wine: Madness.
I wandered the vine-encrusted undersides of bridges, cut my feet on the broken glass and stones that lined my path. Follow the vines. Follow the vines. Follow the vines.
Once a boy holding a shining smartphone dumped wine on my head as I slept. It awoke me, cold, sticky, sweet. He laughed as he stuffed his phone into my face.
“Look at this loser,” he said with a cackle. “I bet you’re addicted to crack, aren’t you? Ain’t ya? Ancha? Ancha?”
Ancha. Ancha. Ancha.
His voice distorts, becomes a chant. Like a prayer to some ancient god.
Without thinking, my hand closes around his wrist. He drops the phone. The screen shatters. I see my wild eyes reflected in it, twin pits, deep, bottomless, empty.
“You’re gonna pay for that, you crackhead bitch!” he screams.
I stare at him with cold, dead eyes.
The voice was not my own, the words, a language I did not recognize. The question was as much directed at me as it was at the boy. If only I knew what I was asking. What I was being asked.
I let go of his wrist. White marks on his skin turning red. He ran. I ran. Opposite directions. I just knew I could not stay here anymore.
He left the broken phone on the sidewalk.
I was aware after minutes (Hours? Days? Years?) of running that I was being followed. My shadow was in front of me, illuminated by approaching red and blue lights, the rhythm of my heavy breathing obscured by the pulsating rhythm of sirens.
I stopped running, surrendered. A deep feeling in my stomach, somewhere between dread and peace, told me it was time.
“O Dionysus, Son of God,
do you see our sufferings?
Do you see your faithful
in helpless agony before the oppressor?
O Lord, come down from Olympus,
shake your golden thyrsus
and stifle the murderer's insolent fury.”
― Euripides, The Bacchae
I was twenty-four, and the padded cell made it hard to breathe.
Not in the literal sense, simply in the metaphorical. Here there was no wine, no vines to follow. Only white walls, too soft for me to crush the grapes upon it.
It was still hard to breathe. In and Out. In was easy. Getting out, much harder.
I have to get out.
I had been there, in the place they call Harvest Hospital, for two months before I resolved to end my life.
I thought extensively of how I would do it, confined to four padded walls and two pills a day. Antipsychotics, they told me. I learned it was in my best interest to lie when they asked about my “persistent delusions.”
The vines were still here. The grapes were still here. The only thing missing was the sweet sweet wine.
I found myself picking at hangnails until they bled, comforting myself on the miniscule droplets of wine that shed from my fingers. When I could, I smeared it on the walls— the padded walls may have resisted my flesh, but the wine it absorbed hungrily, a stain— in words I did not recognize, but that thrilled me with some infernal meaning.
One of the therapists (one of many, an every rotating cast of professionals whose names and faces blurred together, psychiatrists and specialists and doctors and soothsayers and mindfulness coaches and every manner of well-educated quacks who claimed to understand what I was feeling, what I was.) inadvertently translated this phrase for me in a session.
“So what does Dionysus mean to you?” she asked.
I was startled into speaking.
“Dionysus. The word on your walls.”
I was silent, mulling over this new significance. She continued to prod, but I ignored her. Dionysus. He was here, within me, exerting his influence. Closer than I’d ever imagined. It was a thrilling, almost sensual, realization.
It only strengthened my resolve.
I knew I needed to die. To kill myself. It was the final step in a two-year journey. The ultimate climax of Madness. I began my search. On the rare moments when I left my room, I was scouring the floors, looking for anything I could use. A screw. A broken bit of plastic. A discarded paper clip. Anything.
I scratched an itch. A particularly annoying pimple— a grape— I picked at until it oozed sweet wine. I sucked it away. A red ring left on the flesh of my arm where it used to be. An abscess. An absence.
I wondered if I could tear out my veins— the vines, ΦΛΕΒΕΣ— with my teeth. Perhaps I could. But probably not. I’m not crazy enough yet, I suppose. I must push myself further.
Once alone, I bite my shoulders, easily hidden underneath the cream white hospital gown. Deep red marks. No blood.
Not Mad enough. Never Mad enough. Get better. Get stronger. Rip and tear and bite and swallow the wine and the grapes and write His name on the walls. Dionysus. ΔΙΟΝΥΣΙΟΣ.
I am close. So close. Very close. I can taste the wine, smell the vines, lose myself in the sickly sweet sensation of Madness.
I bite again. This time there is blood. A small bead of it, like a dew drop on a spider’s web, crimson. Red wine.
Closer. Closer still.
I surrender for the night.
“His blood, the blood of the grape,
lightens the burden of our mortal misery.
Though himself a God, it is his blood we pour out
to offer thanks to the Gods. And through him, we are blessed.”
― Euripides, The Bacchae
Blood. Wine. Grapes. Flesh.
He is trying to tell me something. It is written on the walls. I cannot read it. Yet. I have tried to decipher the letters, and nearly succeeded, but I cannot decipher the words they spell. Meaningless collections of consonants and vowels. Letters without words. Words without meaning. A lost language.
Blood. Wine. Flesh. Drinking. Hunting. Darkness. Heat. Shattered. Broken fragments of memory. Memories that don’t exist.
What does it mean?
ΚΑΤΑΝΑΛΩΣΑΤΕ ΤΟΥΣ ΥΠΗΡΈΤΕΣ ΜΟΥ, ΑΝΕΞΑΡΤΗΤΑ ΑΠΟ ΤΙΣ ΣΥΝΕΠΕΙΕΣ. ΤΩΡΑ ΚΑΤΑΝΑΛΩΝΩ ΤΟ ΜΥΑΛΟ ΣΟΥ.
It was a voice without form, without sound, without substance. An echo from within.
“I don’t understand you! What are you saying to me?”
Now I am swarmed with doctors. I hadn’t realized I’d spoken aloud. I’m still screaming.
“What do you want, my lord? I’ll do it! I’ll do anything!”
One of the doctors, or nurses, or therapists, or just some random person, shoves a needle into my neck. The pain is short lived. But the darkness approaches. Perhaps I will meet him. Perhaps I will receive the answers I seek. In dreams. The sweet nectar of the subconscious rises in my throat like vomit.
I swallow. And then I am gone.
A black hole of memory. Dreams of parasitic grapes fermenting in my stomach. Innards turned to wine. A great black hole reaches for me, consumes the wine and flesh. A gaping hole. There is nothing. Nothing left. It has all been taken. Something sacred has been stolen. I cry out, my voice echoes, falling on deaf ears. Red spots dance in my vision, like mirages of grapes. A mouth stretches towards me, oddly familiar lips. Stained teeth. It sucks at my stomach, tongue licking my intestines, sucking away the wine. I am unraveling, eviscerated.
Then I am awake. Cold. Sweating. Afraid.
The mouth was mine.
“The gods appear in many forms,
carrying with them unwelcome things.
What people thought would happen never did.
What they did not expect, the gods made happen.”
― Euripides, The Bacchae
The room is smaller now. Tighter. They give me three pills instead of one, and check on me at the top of every hour. I never leave. I have lost that privilege. I am “dangerous” now, unpredictable. There’s a red label at the top of my chart— I saw it when the nurse came in to check on me. She was afraid when she looked at me. Like she expected me to lunge, attack her.
She was pretty. Almost excessively so. It was hard to look at her, knowing that to her, I was an animal. A monster. This hospital was a zoo for her, full of degenerate monkeys. She’s forced to feed us, and every time she prays she does not get bit.
I found myself thinking about her long after she left. My food had grown cold. There were no shadows outside my door.
I wondered what it would feel like if we had met another way. Another time. Another place. She looked familiar.
But that is not what Dionysus wants for me. It is not what I am meant for.
I can so easily imagine soft blonde hair in my hands, kissing soft lips…
There is a brief fleeting moment where I remember something. Understand something. Know everything.
The moment passes. I am gone.
Today is the day.
For twenty years I have been waiting in this gods-forsaken hospital. Scrounging what I could. Bargaining for what I couldn’t. An unholy cocktail of substances has both kept me alive and doomed me to a premature death. I could feel it. The vines grew fat and wide in my veins. The grapes began to swell into my throat. But the premature death was, of course, inevitable. It was always supposed to happen this way. Every day I awaited the day I could sink my teeth into my flesh and tear free the vines, taste the grapes, sink into the dark pool of the afterlife.
My teeth feel sharp. My flesh willing. Knives and fruit. Scissors and paper. Corkscrews and corks. Teeth and flesh.
I am watching the door. It is midnight. They will be coming to check on me, and then it will be a whole hour before they come back. If all goes well.
All will go well. This is all part of Dionysus’s plan.
Door opens. Face peeks in. I am pretending to be asleep. Door closes. I could hear the footsteps as they walked away. Maybe it was the nurse again.
One-two, three-four, five-six. Right-left, right-left, right-left.
A wine-hued haze descends over my vision. I am frantic, manic, devoted, motivated.
Teeth ripping into flesh. Staining the clothes, the sheets, the floor. Running down my lips, my neck, my hands. Sweet wine. Sweet death. Liquid death. I am coming, Dionysus.
ΠΑΡΑΔΙΝΟΜΑΙ ΣΕ ΣΟΥ. I surrender. To you, Dionysus. My Lord.
Vision blinking in and out. No. Not yet. I need to bite more, rip and tear, bleed, die.
Oh Gods it hurts, it fucking hurts, deep red agony, ripping, tearing agony. ΑΓΩΝΙΑ.
I am shaking. Sobbing. Suddenly afraid.
It’s not wine. It is blood. My blood. Death. My death.
I am not ready.
“You who are so desperately eager
to see those things you should not look upon,
so keen to chase what you should not pursue.”
― Euripides, The Bacchae
ΕΣΕΙΣ. Ο ΔΟΛΟΦΟΝΟΣ ΤΩΝ ΙΕΡΩΝ ΤΕΛΕΤΩΝ.
I feel the words. They pulse like hot blood at my wrists, through my vine-veins, oozing from each pimple and scab.
Then I understand them. Hear them. As if spoken, although I cannot see their source.
“You. The Killer of Sacred Ceremonies.”
“Who is there?”
There is a deep, rumbling laugh. No. Not a laugh. Laughter is too human. This was some unholy expression of Eldritch amusement. A horrifying sound, a sensation too powerful to comprehend.
“You know who I am, boy. As I know you.”
It seemed too good to be true.
The darkness around me swelled with purple light, undulating, vibrant.
I looked upon the face of my God.
I expected a bearded man, a crown of vines, deep black eyes. I expected the Dionysus that I had seen in statues, in myths. Strong, powerful.
What I got was an abomination, an incomprehensible mass of flesh and vines, thousands of blinking eyes, a nonexistent mouth that formed Ancient Greek words that I could only half understand. The stench of decay mixed with sickly sweet fermenting grapes. Dripping with wine in all shades and varieties, wines as old as time itself. Aged. Sweet. Sour. Wine that by sight and smell alone made you want to lean in, take a long, endless drink… Ambrosia, the nectar of the gods, the taste of paradise itself, if only I could just…
I screamed with the raw terror that only a dead Madman can produce. The sound seemed to feed him, to stabilize the roiling mass of flesh into something distantly resembling a face, if you squinted.
His many eyes watched, and waited.
Finally, I could no longer scream. The terror had abated into a kind of distant, manageable dread.
I looked down at my body, suspended in the void, and I saw… nothing. No vines pulsing under my flesh. No grapes swelling at the edges of my bones, bursting at my skin. Just the loose skin of an addict. Wrinkled, yellowed, scarred.
Now I could finally have the answers. Why I was chosen, why he sent me down this path.
He shifted the roiling mass of his body. As if he was cocking his head to the side. Amused.
“You have a question, I see. Ask, child.”
He stops moving. His malformed face surges towards me.
“Why what?” he spit. His sudden malice rendered me speechless for a moment. But only for a moment.
“Why was I chosen? To be here? To follow this path?” I only seemed to make him even angrier, so I continued, hurriedly. “I mean, was it boredom? Obsession? A random impulse? You must’ve chosen me for something.”
Some of Dionysus’s anger abated. His laughter was dark, cold. It tingled in my ears. Like wine in the brain.
“As if I’d ever ‘choose’ the likes of you,” he sneered in a garbled version of English. It sounded as if he was mocking me.
Suddenly I wanted to cry.
“Punishment, then?” My voice shook. “For… for what?” I was afraid to ask, but as I spoke Dionysus seemed more amused than annoyed. The twisted face he’d formed grinned, impossibly wide, with teeth stained wine red. His many eyes rolled in disdain. Then he fell still, his eyes almost seeming to mist over with a gloss of tears… if such a thing was even possible.
“I see… so you truly do not remember.”
Η ΑΜΑΡΤΙΑ ΣΟΥ.
ΤΟ ΕΓΚΛΗΜΑ ΣΟΥ.
Ο ΒΙΑΣΜΟΣ ΣΟΥ.
“I don’t understand.”
Dionysus smiles, that twisted, inhuman expression. Like he wanted to swallow me whole. Pop me between his teeth like a fat, fresh grape. Plucked from the vine.
“You used to be quite the partier, Everett.”
Saying my name stirred a memory that I didn't recognize. Tried to taste the memory of parties. Tried to remember the last time someone, myself included, had used my name. Found that I could not. All I knew, all I could remember, was madness. At 22, my life began. Everything before that had been consumed into a darkness that I could not understand. I didn't remember my parents. My friends. Only the Madness. There was only ever Madness. What everyone saw as a fantasy was my one and only reality.
“Everett Sterling. That is your name, isn’t it?”
His grin was cruel. I couldn’t remember, and he knew it.
“What is this?”
I was seeing things. Things with dim house lights and bitter liquid. Not wine. Stronger.
“You found yourself in the wrong frat party. One populated with the wrong kind of Greek Life.”
“I… I don’t… I don’t understand.”
Dionysus’s voice became static, burning into my eardrums, slicing into my brain, ripping me apart.
“YOU DISTURBED THE SACRED RITES,” he roars. “YOU DARED TO LAY HANDS UPON MY MOST DEVOTED FOLLOWERS.”
The force of his voice is enough to blow the greasy strands of hair out of my face.
“I don’t… I don’t understand.”
“Of course,” Dionysus says, his voice suddenly cold and calm again. “To you, it was just another house party. Your friend Marty invited you, yes?”
I did not remember a Marty. But I was beginning to feel sick.
“He was killed after what happened, of course. He couldn’t be left alive. He was one of my own. A satyr, trained to seek and find those with the seed of Madness within them. He saw potential in you, Everett. The potential for Madness. The good kind. The kind of Madness that makes artists great, that makes men into immortals.” His smile was rueful, bitterness and sorrow. Not regret. Merely tainted with the knowledge of what could have been. “Everett, you were, in fact, chosen… in a way. Marty was trying to save you by taking you to that house party. I mean, seriously. A business major? You would’ve been miserable in a nine-to-five, and you know it. It’s why you gave in to me so easily.”
“So… what changed? What happened? What did Marty do?”
“Marty did nothing beyond extending the invitation. His punishment was by proxy. A relatively painless death. But you… you did the real crime. You entered into MY TEMPLE, invited to one of the finest revels in all of human history, and you decide to do what you humans are always so fond of doing: drinking. And taking. Except this time you went too far. You found one of my Maenads. My most vicious warriors. This time you decided you needed her. You wouldn’t take no. This time you were the vicious one. This is the one event where my Maenads are not allowed to attack, where gods and mortals can come together as one. And you used that against her.”
“No…” I pressed my knuckles into my neck. They are red, raw, thin. “No. I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t do that.”
“You DARE accuse me of lying, boy?”
“No. No, no. I just… I couldn’t… I don’t remember…”
“FOOLISH. You know what you did. You’re just afraid to admit it. Afraid to admit that you are capable of such a thing. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying: Alcohol doesn’t change one’s character. It merely intensifies it, reveals that which might otherwise be hidden. You are, deep inside, nothing more than an abuser. A user. A predator. ΥΒΡΙΣΤΗΣ.”
“I couldn’t. I couldn’t. Please, there must be some mistake… I would never defy you, Lord Dionysus. I devoted my whole life to you. To Madness. Please.”
“You merely served the punishment you were given. You think you are more noble than any other madman? The woman who drowned her kids in the bathtub because she thought that was the only way to save their souls? The men who devoured the flesh of their brethren to survive in the harshest mountains, bargaining with God to excuse their sin? Better yet, do you think you are any better than the women who fight back against their abuser, who live a life of pills and therapy just to come to terms with someone else’s senseless violence?”
“No. No. I just… I just…”
“You just refuse to accept that it is over. You wasted your life thinking you were better than everyone else, believing yourself to be chosen, the heir to my eternal rewards. Even before you fell victim to my curse, you thought you could do no wrong. Women were merely objects to you. Even holy women.”
I tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come.
“Silence now. I grow tired of this talk,” Dionysus says. “We are going in circles.” Vines separate themselves from the mass, creeping towards me.
“Wait!” I yell, my voice finally coming. “What… What will happen to me now?”
“The same thing that happens to every other man like you. Just another shade tied down in the Fields of Punishment for eternity.”
“But what, fool? You think yourself deserving of some special new punishment? Nay, boy. I do not dare lump you in with the myths of Sisyphus or Tantalus. Your tale will not be immortalized. You will not be remembered. Already, my Maenad has forgotten you exist, lost in a manic slurry of more joyful memories. She will recover. You will not.”
“But… It’s not… It’s not fair…” I was gasping now, the words coming out of me in desperate bursts.
Each and every one of Dionysus’s eyes lit up with fury.
“What do you know of fairness, ΑΝΟΗΤΟΣ? You dare to face your sin with indignity? This is your burden. You must bear the consequences of your actions.”
The dread was intensified into terror again, but this time the terror cut too deeply to formulate a scream.
“Di… o… nysus… My… Lo… ord…” My voice is disappearing. My already pale skin is growing paler, translucent. Transparent. Fading. “No-o-o…”
And thus ended my madness.
You know what they say about idle hands. Devil’s best friend, and all that. My hands are never idle, constantly occupied, twitching with some imagined duty. The devil has no place within my fingers, no hellfire comes from my nails as I strip them down so near to the bone. Teeth gnawing at the strips of loose skin that hang listless from my hands, enamel grinding together in tandem with every tick and tock of the clock.
I do not allow myself to rest, to sink into that sloth that invites sin. As long as I keep moving, keep twisting and untwisting my fingers as if wringing out a damp cloth until it becomes as dry as bones worn down by the desert sands of time, I will stay safe, protected from the darkness within my skull. Tearing at the skin around my nails, picking at the flesh of my lips, anything to escape the sinful thoughts that plague me, the devil that has taken residence within my ribcage and waits, sly and oh so patient for any shred of inactivity to prey upon.
I’m in my room, knuckles white around the leather bound Bible, gold leaf lettering on thick brown covers, thin pages so easily torn by careless fingers. I do not tear it. Each sheet is lifted and set down with a close precision, creases smoothed out and pages never dog-eared. It is knowledge and power wrapped in synthetic skin, a testament to the longevity of faith. It is holy, innocent, beautiful, precious. All the things that I am not. I’m staring at it, trying not to notice the shadow upon my wall, a girl’s figure that hovers in the corner of my eye, tempting me to look. Forcing the hairs on my neck to stand at attention, the darkness that causes my eyes to drift, ever so slightly, to her. To the delicate curve of her body, the slight part of her lips, the wisp in her hair that I want to smooth down with my fingers. Her name is Emily Baker. A good name, a holy name. The kind of name that makes preachers smile and nod, think to themselves her parents must be so proud. Not a name like mine, a name that makes teachers cluck their tongues and passerby turn their heads away in shame. For once I want someone to look at me, to smile the way that they smile at Emily. To look at me the way I look at Emily.
But I cannot look, cannot allow myself to be tempted, cannot allow myself to disobey everything my parents taught me. Cannot cave to the vile desires that lurk within me, Lucifer rattling his chains, constant noise in my head.
The girl’s shadow is gone; she was never here. Never here. She is a mere personification of my ultimate sin, a mere projection of my guilty conscience.
Guilt, what is guilt? Is it the frantic beating of a heart, the dry patch on the tongue, the picking of skin, the fear of idle hands? Is it the shadow on the wall that looks a little too much like her, or the magnified voice of Father Harry every Sunday, the itch of your stiff dress as you sit, hot and uncomfortable, in the cold wooden pew?
Idle hands are the devil’s best friend, and for that if nothing else I will never allow my hands to be idle, throwing myself into every task, tapping mindless rhythms on the school desks, picking at my skin, fists clenching and unclenching, hair pulled out one thread at a time, hands smoothing down the pages of my pocket Bible as I read and reread the lines, a futile attempt to convince myself of my own innocence. If I read them, maybe I’ll believe that they are true. Maybe I will find answers in old quotations, reprieve in these pages of history. Maybe there will be solace in the movement of my hands, the desperate movement of my eyes raking across the page. Maybe if I reread it again I’ll find what it is I’m missing, the secret to normalcy, to quelling the cruel desires that flood my heart. All that matters is that I keep reading.
Because if I allow myself to slow, if my hands cease for even a moment, then my thoughts will move to her, the curve of her body, the peace in her smile, the tenderness in her words. She is holy and good and beautiful, and I’m just the girl who sits in the back pew in a futile attempt to escape my shame. She and I are too different.
And, in all the ways that matter, too much the same.
It is 80 degrees, but still the man hugs the trench coat around his body as if he is cold. In another life, you might be concerned, might find him creepy or just plain sad. Another drug addict, maybe, or a homeless man. But you've grown used to strange people lining these streets. He is just another shadow, another background character fighting to be seen, lost in a sea of other outlandish side characters.
Until he peels away from the outskirts and begins to follow you.
You quicken your pace. He does not. But he remains steady, and you can, like a superhuman instinct, feel his eyes on the back of your neck. You pause at a crosswalk. He catches up. You take a step into the street, desperate to escape, even if it means braving near death and blaring horns. But you're too late-- his hand grips your shoulder, ragged nails catching on the seams of your sweater.
You turn to him, face his leering grin.
"Y'know," he drawls, clearly only half conscious. "I'm sure I've seenya sommere before."
"Uhh... I don't think so," you say. Before you can form another word, a question, perhaps— Can I help you? — you see that he has flung aside his trench coat, to reveal nothing underneath.
You expect to see skin, but that is not there either. No bone or flesh. All you can see is the back of the trench coat. He is a head wrapped in cloth, floating in some hellish semblance of a man. You look around, wildly, praying that someone else is nearby to save you, to reassure yourself that you aren't crazy. But the streets have somehow become empty. Empty? Here? Something— if that wasn't obvious before— is wrong.
Then the buildings are gone. The street. The lights. It's a blink, and it takes you several long moments to process the new absence. Another blink. The man's head is gone. There is a trench coat and emptiness. You and that goddamn coat are all that remains.
Another blink and you are standing at the street light. There is no trench coat. There is no man. There is no void. You shake your head, spinning wildly in circles. You've begun to attract some stares. Finally you surrender to the tide, drifting along between passerby. They have faded away into extras in a film. You have returned to that blessed, detached existence, and you float in it all the way to your front door.
The knob is stuck. It takes the weight of your entire body— no slight frame, either— to open it. Something is blocking the door.
You look down at this new obstacle. The scream dies in your throat.
It's the homeless man wrapped in a trench coat. Trisected: head, torso, and finally, his waist. Legs. Crotch. All barren, naked skin, wrapped in that godforsaken trench coat.
And a note, written in some eldritch script that unravels into words before your eyes.
Once upon a time someone told me I was broken.
I took that moment and encased it in a snowglobe,
a glass dome on a pedestal, figurines frozen in time.
I grew up, but the world inside the snowglobe stayed the same.
It sat on a shelf gathering dust, until one day
I dared to take it off its dusty shelf, wipe away the dust,
and shake it, until the words leapt off the ground and swirled
like asbestos snowflakes, poison. I translated them
into ink, turned their venom into tattoos
that I imprinted on notebooks instead of skin.
I outgrew the body, outgrew the snowglobe.
The notebooks were filled.
The shelves expanded to make room for new memories, new globes,
some words less poisonous than others.
But the original globe still remains,
on the highest shelf where I almost can't reach it.
It is the snowglobe from which all others are born.
My poems are innovations, and the memory
is necessity, the mother.
Some days it makes me angry, other days it makes me sad.
Sometimes I revel in it, the knowledge
that I am shattered beyond repair,
and might as well live with the pieces.
Once upon someone told me I was broken,
but I could not let it go.
So I ensnared it in glass and injected it with meaning,
shook it until I could make it make sense.
Now I am frozen inside it, watching the world move on without me,
while I remain stationary,
shaking the walls until a new word
falls into my lap
waiting to be woven
into the narrative of my pain,
and I wait alongside the words
for my chance to be released,
expressed, created, made real. I dream of taking myself off this shelf
and setting my childhood free
to find the snowglobes
I never got to see.
My name is Broken,
and I live in a snowglobe,
catching fake snowflakes on my tongue
and swallowing the stale words
until I spit out new ones.
Anonymity. A blessing and a curse. Hatred flows more easily, confessions thrust from sealed lips.
From behind a screen, a young boy types a threat:
My world is broken. I'll break yours, too.
No one takes it seriously until he's in the school with a gun. A scared little girl calls 9-1-1.
Police arrive: the boy bursts forth, waving an assault rifle that his dad gave him for his 15th birthday. Shots fired. He goes down. They check the body–– no pulse. The gun: unloaded. The press calls it suicide by police.
There are no heroes, no villains. Only victims.
the line between crazy and imaginative has always been
indistinct, with scribbles and erased pencil marks around it
where it has been changed, revised, with culture, with time.
crazy isn’t as clean cut as it used to be. does depression
make you crazy, does anxiety make you crazy, does trauma
make you crazy, or is it merely a new form of cancer,
insidious and invisible, spreading through your cells until it kills you?
in some places, it’s considered normal, encouraged, even
to talk with your dead relatives after they’ve passed on.
you can ask them for advice, tell them stories about
the grandkids they never got to meet, the new neighbors,
the world that is moving on without them and holding you
captive in its arms while people die every day and somehow
you are alive. is that crazy? in america we call that
schizophrenia, psychosis, hallucinations, crazy.
i want to kill myself, i’m so depressed, i had a panic attack––
we’ve normalized these expressions of agony, commodified it,
bought and sold it, seen it used like a weapon and an instrument
of pity, in the comments section of social media posts where it
is allowed to fester and grow, spread into school hallways and
casual dinner table conversations. once upon a time, that was crazy.
maybe it still is, maybe we’re all crazy, maybe we really are all
suicidal, maybe we’re all looking for the trigger, maybe we’re all
Panicking at every little thing until finally we snap and we
kick the chair out from under our feet and we gasp for air
until we can no longer breathe and our faces are purple.
or maybe the phrase itself has become cheap, so that when we
cry out for help, we are drowned out in a chorus of “same here”
and left to flounder, wondering why your agony is so amusing
when it feels so hopeless. so you learn to leave it unsaid, and
just like the rest you hide your thoughts behind mindless comments:
“this is my thirteenth reason” except this time it’s a joke, because
you’ve learned that people don’t like to take pain seriously,
so it’s easier to laugh along to a chorus of “i wish i was dead”
than to admit that you actually wish you were actually dead.
kids get to play with their imaginary friends, the lonely child
kneels over the crack in the sidewalk and talks to the water
pooled up inside and calls it nymph and runs outside in the rain
to visit her. that’s not crazy, that’s just kids being kids. but when
a sixteen year old has an imaginary friend, suddenly he’s got
some form of psychosis and he’s hallucinating and we’ve gotta
dose him up with seroquel. and the medicine makes you tired
but you’re not allowed to protest because your psychiatrist says
you need it. kids are allowed to be crazy, but once you get older
you’ve gotta shove the crazy down where no one can see it, don’t
let them hear you talking to yourself in the bathroom when you’re
home alone because that’s crazy. so instead you let the words run
circles in your head and you ask questions that answer themselves,
and your thoughts teach you things you never knew before, never
expected to think. is that crazy? or is that just how we learn?
van gogh cut his ear off in a manic depressive episode,
and legend has it he did it in order to master his own
self portrait. but of course once the ear is cut off, you
don’t really need to paint it anymore, do you? that’s art.
is art crazy? is the artist? must we be deeply in tune
with the songs of madness if we wish to produce
a melody of our own? is each painting, each poem,
each story and song and sketch, merely a reprisal
of the same uncanny tune, a song entitled Crazy?
but these are the things we are not allowed to say, because
that would be crazy. better just to stay silent and let the words
ferment in your mind, growing mold, getting stale, the same old
problems repeating across generations, reborn in new, insidious forms.
crazy just changes with the times. it never goes away. it just shifts,
like the scales of a malevolent sea serpent glimmering under the sea.
the line between crazy and imaginative has always been indistinct,
but some of us know it is simply because they are one and the same.
me and my body
do not get along.
like snakes biting
at the scalp they emerge from.
when i was nine,
the boys on the bus called me
because i was
"the ugliest creature
in the world."
i used to wish
they were right
so i could look them in the eyes
and turn them to stone.
when i was sixteen
medusa's story all over again,
a survivor, rebelling against
the men who tried to control her
and the women who tried to blame her.
and i found solace
that i could survive, too,
even if it twisted me
into a monster.
me and the mirror
its surface threatening
to freeze me in place.
it is wielded like a weapon
waiting for the right moment
to sever my head,
my brain leaving my body
and taking refuge somewhere far away.
i have been told
i am ugly
i have been told
i am broken
i have been told
who i am supposed to be:
but it is up to me
how i use their words.
i can treat it like a mortal wound,
nurse my grievances
in the darkness of isolation.
or i can turn it around
and fight back,
turning their expectations
so they can't hurt me anymore.
something about it was comforting, the way the misshapen face
seemed to smile in solidarity at our shared plight:
the battle of the deformed, although my fallacies were less visible.
the eyes bulged, in tandem with my envy––
eyes always seeking out reasons to be less than another.
or perhaps it was the cracks in the lips, dried out
like my own, craving the saliva of another to soothe me
and yet unable to find the time to cultivate such intimacy.
perhaps it was the shriveled ears, only hearing what i
allowed myself to hear; the opinions of like-minded individuals
making themselves known in the echo chamber of my mind
because i cannot stand to be wrong, but even more so
i am tired of people insisting i am wrong simply for existing.
maybe it was the fingers, crooked with age, a symbol
of my greatest fear: that one day my body will bow
under the weight of my mind, and i will no longer be able
to do what i love: writing, my fingers pressing down on keyboard keys
or scrawling in notebooks with the fragile tip of a pencil
that breaks if i put too much pressure on its tip.
more still, it could have been the gaping maw of crooked teeth,
sunk deep into rose-tinted gums, those enunciators of words
that come out all wrong and cut themselves on the edges of my molars
they bleed when i speak them aloud.
i watch the painting, entranced by the way it reflects me as easily as a mirror.
i grimace to see if the painting changes alongside me,
stick out my tongue and pull on my cheeks to see if it opens its mouth,
to see if its throat is just as distorted as mine, twins in our suffering.
a family walks past with their children, the mothers huffs––
"they really shouldn't show such disturbing things in here.
think of the poor children who'd have nightmares looking at that thing."
her daughter points at the painting and giggles,
"look mommy, that man has a silly face."
i couldn't tell if she was talking about me or the painting.