song of the drifter

The drifter drifts into town in the wake of a tumbleweed stampede. You know the scene. Faded porches flank a straight-arrow main drag. The chink, chink, chink of spurs as boots kick up tiny clouds of red dust. A town gone dead for want of purpose.

The drifter pauses. Cocks head left then right. Continues chink, chink, chinking down what passes for a street in these parched, forgotten parts.

Are any of my friends here?

His shout echoes off the weathered grey clapboard buildings.

(How about my enemies?)

He laughs. My enemies. They may be legion but here they are not.

Above this parody of a town the sun busies itself with broiling the world beneath it. The drifter shields his eyes, peers up. High noon approaches. The time of reckoning, he reckons.

Out of his line of sight an alley-side door cracks open. A person of diminutive stature pokes its weather-beaten head out and focuses red rheumy eyes on the tall shadow growing larger out on the main drag. The head recedes and the door eases shut behind it.

The drifter pauses in his progress to once again bellow at the sky.

Have you forgotten me?

The tortured sound of the drifter’s voice carries. Below the porch of the town bank a pack rat pauses, whiskers twitching, in its survey of a pile of sweepings.

Where have all of you gone?

The drifter steps up onto the porch of the saloon. Chink, chink, chink. The door swings open with a creak.

In the darkness the two burning eyes pause to adjust. But there is not much to see. A roomful of dust-covered tables. A lacquered bar bare of bottles on the rack behind it. In one corner a low stage. In another a battered billiards table. And everywhere stagnation. Desolation of loss. An absence of company.

Outside the drifter removes his hat and wipes his brow. He stares across the street at the building from which had briefly emerged the diminutive creature with the watery eyes. Yes, that’s the one. He descends the stairs.

Inside the building minor panic has been rising to a state of mania. But the small man is now dressed. He snaps the top snap of his best shirt, knots his bolo tie. Now he pulls on his boots. Now he grooms his drooping whiskers. Now he fits the gun belt around his waist. He opens the door.

It is high noon. In the street stand two figures back to back: one tall and one short. Were it not for the gravity of context the sight might elicit a chuckle, perhaps even a guffaw. But the street remains silent. It is, after all, otherwise empty.

Twenty paces is the rule here, no matter the length of stride. And so they begin. Chink, chink, chink.

The pack rat scurries down an alley, back to its midden. It wants no truck with this scene.

The two figures turnone aims high, the other low.

On a bluff outside of town a shepherd’s shaggy head swivels at the pistols’ report. He gazes down at the town as his sheep nibble the last bits of greenery growing on this rocky point.

Drawing his horn to his lips the shepherd blows a long mournful note. Down below the drifter saunters out of town whistling a tune no one ever recognizes.

new zine: hatred of writing

Hatred of Writing, © 2018 S. D. Stewart

Now Available: Hatred of Writing

Selected short fiction from the past five years.

Limited to 50 numbered copies

48 pages, digest-sized, hand-lettered cover

Published in October 2018

$5 US / $6 CAN / $7 World

Order by PayPal or for cash payments via post send me a message.

the end of the story

Nothing happens at the end of this story. Yes, it’s that kind of story. To get technical about it, though, it is possible that something happens outside of the reader’s sphere of awareness. Let’s face it: that’s always a possibility. Someone might die, perhaps. For example, there is this one character. Across his throat stretches a sinewy silver scar, relic of a botched beheading. So, you know, given the previous attempt on his life, there’s probably a greater chance of him being killed off-page than one of the other characters, of whose possible prior brushes with death the reader is unaware and therefore are less of a factor in stimulating conjecture in the reader about off-page deaths in general.

There’s a bit of character development. Skeletal, really, by conventional standards. For example, Scarneck (let’s just call him that for the sake of convenience) lives with another person and the clickety-clacking of their long narrow limbs during frequent midnight lovemaking sessions often wakes the neighbors, who have short fuses and don’t shy away from confrontation. So, you know, the two of them have to deal with that delicate situation. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a direct path to a denouement or anything, though. But it plays a role, it plays a role.

At some point Scarneck and his paramour part ways, as is wont to happen in these kinds of stories. Here the plot grows murky as the reader suddenly enters Scarneck’s consciousness, which is a tenebrous locale, even for one already familiar with its formations. The natural structure of time and space dissolves and the reader is left dangling, so to speak, limbs occasionally bumping up against objects of unknown substance. It is a dark time of uncertainty for the reader, who is all at once seized by a persistent horror similar to what one feels in that moment of stepping into an elevator only to find the empty shaft yawning below.

Eventually the reader emerges as one does from a 20-mile naked march through the Mojave Desert with just enough water to prevent death: seared, parched, and disoriented. In this naked vulnerable state the reader creeps at an agonizing pace toward that final sentence of the last paragraph. And it is there, upon reaching the full stop, that the reader will confront Scarneck once again, as he steps out from the void that exists beyond all ending punctuation on the last pages of all stories written since the beginning of written storytelling. As the reader looks up then, dry mouth agape, at this looming apocalyptic figure, Scarneck reaches down, plucks the full stop from its resting place next to the last word, pops it into his mouth and swallows, thus annihilating the ending of what the reader has to admit had been a rather frightening story.

before the show begins

The translator’s communicator was malfunctioning so while she consulted with technical support about a repair or possible replacement I took the opportunity to whisper into the speaker’s ear. For many years, I said, I’ve been hoping for this moment, this interstitial space in which to build a wall of speech brick by brick in your ear, blocking the canal to keep out the sound of hundreds of millions of screaming humans on their deathbeds, each of them living in their own personalized squalor, sleeping under the stars winking out one by one, for isn’t that what you want, isn’t it what we all want, to not have to hear it, the sounds of our own world dying a slow strangled death—a pool of poison molasses creeping toward our personal boundaries at the edges of which we teeter, peering down and around, anywhere but at the death sludge soon to be upon us, enveloping us, drowning us. But wait, you said, what about the other ear, I can still hear out of that one. Ah, no worries, I replied, I have plenty of bricks stored upon my bowed back and a bucket of fresh mortar mixed up this morning after I arose against all odds what with the usual black fog in my head and rusted anvil sitting square on my chest. I feigned cheerfulness as I continued to whisper, now in the other ear, in case the speaker didn’t quite catch that last part about the other bricks and the fresh mortar. You see, I said, some of us have always known it was coming, maybe we were born under the wrong sign or something, that nonsense about carrying the weight of the world, even as infants (maybe that’s why we were so fat), then shedding pounds, stretching out, an entire planet’s worth of anxieties whittling away at us, stripping the flesh from our sides as the reality of what we’d been born into sank further in, spreading through our cells like a raging infection intent on nothing less than total destruction of life. However, I said…lucky for you, for those of us who know, who have always known, who will continue to know until the very moments of our very likely premature deaths, we are here to help the others, such as yourself, to block it all out, to keep you out of the know, so that you may continue to dwell in your blissful ignorance and follow your own self-serving interests. Well, you said, that’s all fine and good to hear and I appreciate your telling me all of it but you know I really must go now, I have a speech to give, I must reassure all these people in this great hall that it’s okay, the world’s not going to end, we’re all fine, it will be fine, stay calm and try not to think about it. Uh-huh, I said, sure, you go ahead, I’ve said what I came here to say and now it’s your turn to go out there and say what you came here to say, only just one second, just a moment, if you please, there is this one other bit of information I’d like to convey and that is, well, frankly, I think you’re a liar, I’ve always thought that, and it’s not just that you’re a liar, but you’re also a really bad liar, and I’m pretty certain that everyone out there in the great hall also thinks you’re a liar, they see through your ill-conceived, small-minded deception, and they’ve come here not to be reassured, as you think you’re about to do for them, but in fact they’ve come to bear witness to your final pack of lies because this is the end for you, it’s over, your time has now come and we’ll not be hearing your lies again, not here, not anywhere, it’s all been taken care of in advance you see. So goodbye, good luck, break a leg, enjoy the next few minutes, your last moments in the golden spotlight before your grand departure, before the darkness descends and your journey into the void begins …well, I won’t belabor the point…besides I really must go now, the translator is heading back this way and my friend is holding a seat for me in the front row. You’ll be fine, I said, smiling, and patted the speaker’s shoulder, who looked up at me with an expression that can only be described as blank. I slipped out around the curtain and down the steps into the darkened hall, where I took my seat and waited for the show to begin.

the infiltrator

The infiltrator had grown tired of infiltrating. Just once, said the infiltrator, I would like to be somewhere for a legitimate reason. No pretenses, no cover, just me at a place, any place, simply being myself, my real self, if such a self even exists anymore. I haven’t encountered it in so long, you see, that I fear it may have evaporated out of my false pores into an air that was already too heavy to hold me in all of my now free-floating particles.

Infiltration is demanding and wearying work. It wears on a body and on a mind. So much time living ‘in character’ to the point where the lines between self and character blur, the two ever beginning to merge in unpreventable ways. So much so that if you knew me outside my infiltrative self you might not know the difference. You might like me or not like me for the character that I am currently playing. You might never see beyond that character because what is beyond, as I have theorized above, may no longer exist.

I suppose the infiltration began in adolescence. More of a hobby at first, or rather a defense mechanism that grew into a habit once I discovered my aptitude for it. Adolescence being a time when personal identity is at its most fragile point—slippery and malleable—subject to change at a moment’s notice for a myriad of reasons. As time passed I grew to exploit this psychological state of development to its fullest potential, donning and discarding identities like so many flimsy drugstore Halloween costumes.

When I reached my late teens my skills were suddenly noticed by a recruiter and so it was that I turned professional. Since then it’s been one job after another—sometimes only for a few days, other times for months. I even did one gig that lasted for two years. The pay was phenomenal, but I shed so many layers of my identity that by the end I knew not who I was. I now live in fear that I never fully recovered from that experience, that I crossed a line every infiltrator knows well should never be crossed, the one that cannot be stepped back across, the one that strips away the last vestiges of one’s original identity like the husk of an overripe fruit, leaving behind a pulpy indeterminate mass.

And so now I exist in this liminal state where every direction leads to a potential new identity and not moving toward any of them means a sort of hovering in place, neither here nor there, nor really anywhere…said the infiltrator, to no one in particular, somewhere in between the empty moments of a forgotten day.

hatred of writing*

they were busy forming words out of letters while we wrung our hands in despair. there were noises coming through the wall and through the ceiling and no one knew what to make of it. then they took notes and formed them into phrases strung out on lined paper so we fumbled through the chords but there was no life in it. the words were the same, set neatly together in row after row, page after pageone could nestle down quite comfortably within them yet still feel a pea poking one’s back through the width of several paragraphs. no one felt compelled to point it out but it was still there and we all had a bad night’s sleep because of it. upon waking i stated ‘i don’t know how much more of this i can take’ staring out at the grey sheets of icy rain forever falling on the piles of rubble we used to call our world. so one of us picked up the busted banjo and plucked out a few notes because, really, there was nothing else to do about it. soon another raised a quavering voice in answer to the twang. i made coffee for the third time from old grounds and we all drank from our tin cups, choking down the bitter fluid and listening as it hit the hard pans of our empty stomachs. it was hard to believe it had come to this but at the same time it had happened over such a long expanse of time that it actually wasn’t that hard to believe after all. a certain percentage of us had left and these few had stayed behind. the decision to leave or stay felt arbitrary and so i failed to make it thus by default staying for it required the least effort. when it got cold we burned all the books and i grew giddy at their destruction. the liberation of all those free-floating letters wrangled into words, corralled onto pages, bound into covers and set to gather dust on shelves that we used to board up the windows. sure i used to read them but what was the point. there was never any point. they never told us anything we didn’t already know if we only looked close enough. that was the problem. it was just a way to fill the empty hours, a way to put off facing ourselves. at least burning them warmed our bodies for a night. and as we sat there with the one strumming the banjo and the other’s voice rising til it cracked and all our feet tapping without us even knowing i thought it was only ever this sort of thing that came anywhere close to describing what was scrawled across those inner walls and perhaps we do have what it takes to save ourselves. so i took another swig of that vile black liquid no one in their right mind could dare call coffee and raised my own broken voice to the roofless upper stories. sure i knew i couldn’t sing myself out of this nightmare but tomorrow in all likelihood i’d wake again and that was something. who knows it might not even be raining.

*with a nod to tim hecker

fiat lux

I remember. They said I wouldn’t but I do. I don’t remember everything, but enough.

Dawn is now breaking—through the window pink sky appears, followed by a spray of golden light. From close overhead a lone crow utters a single drawn-out caw. Silence follows.

The silence only spreads itself so far. I stretch out its thin covering and fold myself inside it.

This is neither a beginning nor an end. I know how I arrived. I can turn and see a faint trail threading back to the fields of my youth. There are burn marks where attempts at erasure have been made.

I wanted to help, in this one way, this very simple way. They said my ‘self-limiting naiveté’ would destroy me. They were wrong. Instead their rigid framework destroyed me.

The air was cold, like it is today. And these stretched and endless limbs were no more suited to it then than now.

What strange form of life it was. How grew the light late in winter daysspreading across fields, streaming out over the river. How the darkness hid our fears.

Holy songs and rituals haloed material desires. Now far offnow beyondnow tinny at the end of this dying line.

Sudden harmonics ring out like hinges from one wall of noise to the next. Awash in reverb, notes soar to the forbidding sky.

I am underneath them. They enter my bones. The fullness of sound enters me, expanding at speed to the point of fracture.

The rending leaves two tottering halves, headless and forlorn. Push one down the hill while the other spins and spins. Rotate or roll away, makes no difference.

Yet still the light remains, ever-present, flashing in our eyes. It illuminates the new but it is the same light, and from the same sources. Even with our backs turned it warms us.

As we return to plaster together the beginning of another day.

 

[Text extracted from several years’ worth of abandoned drafts and reassembled, with minimal edits, to form a new whole]

bob sloth’s one-man show

Vinyl siding salesman Bob Sloth was starring in a nowhere-near-Broadway production of a play he’d written called ‘My Life Feels Like a One-Man Show.’ One night he wasn’t feeling well enough to go on so he called his understudy, also named Bob, better known as Bob the Sloth, for he was indeed an actual sloth. Bob the Sloth (or BTS, for short) had been waiting for (and dreading) this call ever since he first agreed to help Bob out. He answered the phone is his usual slow manner.

Hello, Bob speaking.

Bob, this is Bob.

Oh, hi.

Look, I’m not feeling myself today, so I need you to play me in the show tonight.

Uh, okay, sure…

C’mon, man, I need you to muster some enthusiasm. I need you to convince me you can play me. That you can be Bob.

Well, I am Bob.

I know, I know. But you’re Bob the Sloth. I need to know you can be Bob Sloth.

I can do it, man. I won’t let you down.

Great! I’m glad to hear it. Break a leg tonight.

BTS hung up the phone with a heavy sigh. It had taken all of his remaining energy to convince Bob he could do a good job. Consequently, he decided that a nap was in order. A nap would replenish his energy and he would still have plenty of time to practice his lines and get down to the theatre. The theatre was in the town of Largest, not to be confused with Largesse, which is the town where both he and Bob lived.

While BTS took his nap he dreamed of his ancestral birthplace—the Land of the Sloths. It was a pleasant dream and he awoke with a tinge of sadness that it was now over. To sweep this feeling away, he rehearsed his lines for the play.

Hi, I’m Bob, he intoned. But the intonation was off. That was not how Bob spoke at all. BTS went through a few more lines—all of them fell flat. He grew discouraged and soon fell asleep curled in a ball on the floor.

When he woke up it was late. He only just had time to get dressed before he had to rush out the door and hustle down to the theatre. From behind the curtain he stared out at the audience. It was a big crowd. The word had spread about Bob’s show and the reviews were good. ‘Bob really nails the role’ screamed the headline on this week’s issue of Variety. The review goes on to rave about how it almost seemed as if Bob was born to play this role. ‘The most genuine performance we’ve ever seen from Bob Sloth,’ it triumphantly concluded. Well, thought BTS, those people out there won’t be seeing Bob Sloth tonight. They are stuck with me. So here goes nothing.

It’s really best not to belabor the specifics of what happened next. Suffice it to say, BTS did not kill it. In fact he was booed off the stage. He couldn’t remember any of the lines, for he had not learned a single one of them.

The next day Bob Sloth called up his understudy but there was no answer. He’d heard the reviews and wanted to make sure BTS was holding up okay. After trying him a few more times he went down to the theatre for rehearsal. On stage practicing his lines he heard a faint snoring sound coming from below his feet. He peeked down into the orchestra pit and there was Bob the Sloth sound asleep, curled in a ball on the floor.

Bob…Bob!!

Hnrrh??

Bob, wake up. It’s me.

Oh, hi Bob.

Look, man, I know things didn’t go well last night, but I just want you to know that it’s okay. You’re not me, I get it. So how can you be expected to play me in my own one-man show?

Well, I didn’t want to let you down, Bob. No one ever asks me to do anything responsible like this, so I felt like I couldn’t say no, like it was a big opportunity for me. And then I blew it.

Don’t worry about it. Tell you what—let’s go and get some ice cream. I bet that’ll make you feel better.

Thanks, Bob. That sounds real nice.

On the way out the door, BTS turned back and looked down at the stage. Maybe one day I’ll have my own one-man show, he thought. If I ever do, I think I’ll call it, ‘My Life Feels like Bob Sloth’s One-Man Show.’

the awareness of vytrox

Suddenly Vytrox felt aware that he was having an experience. This awareness soon grew to such outrageous proportions that it began to seriously impede his enjoyment of the experience. With growing alarm Zonitor now sensed Vytrox’s awareness of their shared experience and subsequently also felt a significant reduction in enjoyment of the experience. Vytrox looked at Zonitor and knew immediately that their experience had been compromised. Zonitor returned Vytrox’s gaze and instantly saw this realization in his eyes.

To recap: they now both knew and also knew that the other knew.

What do we do, cried Zonitor.

We must leave the island at once, Vytrox replied. I can’t live like this.

But we can’t. You sank the boat the other day.

Dammit. I forgot. Maybe we can fix it?

Doubtful. It’s at the bottom of the ocean.

Well, we can build a new one. You always said I’d make a good carpenter.

I may have been joking. But I’ll start gathering materials. You draw up some plans.

They set to work as the sun crested the palm trees on the summit of Mount Dessication.

[some time later]

Vytrox noticed as he was drawing up the plans that his hand was moving without accompanying thoughts occurring in his brain. As he sat back and watched, the crude form of a boat appeared on the yellowing graph paper he had saved for just such an occasion. Pleased with the result he ran out of the hut onto the beach to find Zonitor.

Zonny! Look!

But Zonitor was unimpressed and sent him back to the hut to work up a second draft.

[more time later]

The sun was now high in the sky and Zonitor was exhausted from gathering materials. Instead of waiting any longer for Vytrox to finish the plans, she expertly crafted a dugout canoe, waterproofed it with pine tar, and carved two oars. She then dragged the canoe into the surf and took it for a test run around the island.

Meanwhile in the hut Vytrox’s hand had stopped moving independent of his brain, leaving him at a serious disadvantage considering he knew next to nothing about boat design. To make matters worse his awareness of the experience of not knowing what to draw began to grow. It grew and grew and grew until Vytrox felt like his eyes would soon explode and awareness would shoot out the empty sockets in two parallel streams of hot showering sparks. He sat down and mopped his brow. Out the window of the hut he saw Zonitor paddling back and forth in a canoe. Relieved that the situation seemed to have resolved itself he rushed out of the hut.

Zonny! You did it! We’re saved!

Zonitor pulled the canoe ashore and cast a critical eye over Vytrox’s visage.

You’ve been further compromised, haven’t you.

Um…well, yes, maybe just a little bit.

What’s happening right now.

Oh, don’t be that way. Let’s just get ready to go.

He went to the hut to gather their few possessions. Zonitor stayed behind and pondered the situation. She wondered if she could ever hope to have an experience again without Vytrox’s awareness impinging on her enjoyment of it. Are they now condemned to a life of hyper-awareness suffusing everything they do together? Just exactly how far have they been compromised?

Luckily for her Vytrox knew what to do. While she was out on the beach fretting over their shared future and, to be perfectly honest, considering in the vaguest of ways whether she should not just sneak off in the canoe on her own, Vytrox was inside the hut trepanning himself. At the very moment of completion, Zonitor turned on impulse and saw a long stream of sparkly dust flowing out the window of the hut and up into the air, heading straight for the sun.

Seconds later Vytrox emerged beaming from the hut carrying their two carpet bags.

I found these bags in there, he shouted with glee, pointing unsteadily to a small grove of coconut trees located a few clicks west of the hut.

The connection was tenuous at best but Zonitor took it in stride.

Good work. I’ll take those.

She stowed the bags in the canoe as Vytrox stared at the sand, his beatific face erased of all worry lines.

Are we going somewhere?

Yes, and I think I better handle the navigation. But if I show you what to do with this paddle, do you think you can help move us through the water?

Sure! That sounds fun.

After an intensive four-hour lesson in paddling and canoe safety they were ready to leave. The full moon welcomed their sturdy craft out onto the open sea. Zonitor checked the sextant and pointed Vytrox in the right direction. She knew it wouldn’t be easy but at least now they had a chance at full immersive experience. And she was already warming up to the new Vytrox. As she watched the shadows play over his vacuous expression she knew he’d made the right decision. Shedding his awareness like an exoskeleton, Vytrox had bypassed a full compromise of their positions. She would ensure his sacrifice was not made in vain.

[revised] guidance [from two years ago]

There is nothing where you are going.

What do you mean…nothing.

I mean what I say.

That means nothing.

I understand it to mean something.

I think it’s just something to say…

[shrugs]

But there are things here…around me.

Are you certain.

Yes.

Describe them.

Leaves scattered on the sidewalk. A car’s headlights flicking on in the predawn gloom. The distant whistle of a train.

And do these things have meaning to you.

I-I’m not sure.

Take a closer look.

Well, I notice them.

And what about faces—do you see faces.

They are obscured.

Do you wish to see them with more clarity—to distinguish one from another.

Perhaps.

Now it is you who are evasive.

It is in my nature.

And everything that came before—what happened between when you left and when you returned—is it now gone.

Yes, for the most part. I see only glimpses but I cannot bring it all into focus.

In those glimpses you see more than in what surrounds you now. The latter is of little consequence.

How do you know.

It does not matter. What matters is in between.

In between what.

The words.

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