Shorts
Jonathan Ullyot

Preservation

There was a time in which the vogue, for those inhabitants of the North near the edges of melting ice caps, was to eat only animals that had been preserved in the ice; the thought being that meat aged like good wine. Needless to say, there was quite a dispute between the scientists and the gourmands when the first woolly mammoth appeared. The gourmands lost the case, of course, and every subsequent case, causing many to move on to other fetishes of consumption. But for a few, who had developed such a taste for preserved meat that they simply could not go back to the fresh plonk, they began to eat the one kind no scientist has any interest in – European explorers. To be a cannibal is taboo; but to be inconsistent is simply unbearable.



Spirit Sands

“The lake was beautiful. On the way home we stopped at the Spirit Sands desert. We didn’t go into it, but walked up to where it began. It was perfect there.” I know if I stood at the edge of Spirit Sands the way my friend had done, a thousand things would be racing through my mind. The perfection there is restless: white sand in the middle of a vast prairie, surrounded by strange hills and cliffs with little tufts of grass growing on them. But there is so little to do with such a scene: so I might think of giant monsters or a sudden storm, cracking thunder, and like a city under siege people would flee for their lives, dragging their children who would inevitably be left behind. Returning from these thoughts to the scene, I would feel the rush of nothing: the white sand, strange hills and cliffs with tufts of grass growing out of them. And the only difference between then and now is that today I would wait through all the disaster for the rush of nothing, and another, another, until the landscape became a line. Then, perhaps, I could see the end, the end of grass and sand: just the grass and sand. And yet this is only the dream of one who will never return to Spirit Sands to see the sand.



Exit 157

Something made me look up. There was a long line of pylons; then the accelerating bus reached an opening pass. The pylons stopped, for a moment, and “Exit 157” appeared. The road veered off into the trees. Something, shimmering, is along that exit. A sudden gulf: the center, the circle, the disappearance of the world.



Winks

She was the attention of the entire neighborhood. Some of the little boys fell hard for her, but she kept them busy with promises and deferred meetings. In school, she instantly took a liking to learning, and her teachers , subsequently, to her. The boys mocked her because they loved her, but found her impossible to approach. She listened to their mockery with understanding, and confided in a few that she did not take it too seriously, for it comforted her to know she could forgive their flaws without trying to correct them – a mistake which her mother had committed. Already more intelligent than any man, she was far more intelligent than any woman, whose job, she is told, is to defer to men. All through her high school years, she excelled not only in her work, but also in her ability to accept the flaws of others. And their contempt towards her was a comfort since it was clearly a form of frustrated love. Finally, embarking on her college years, she was taken to the capital and promptly found a nice place to live. A man had accompanied her and pledged his eternal love. She sent him home later that evening with a solitary kiss, letting him know that such a love could not possibly exist. Everything was ready for her, or at least it would have been, had she not taken a walk later that afternoon. For, on a corner, her eyes were drawn by the lines of a streetlamp and the side of a building under construction to a strange figure. If such a scene were painted one might assume this figure was either a mistake in perspective, or an object stuck to the canvas; yet the figure was so cleverly framed between the building and the streetlamp that she could not look away, and perhaps she knew at once what she was looking at. Nevertheless, she made the immediate mistake, aided no doubt by a strange feeling running along the backs of her legs, of winking at Death.



Demons

“But the echo sends this step back to him as the whispering immensity, and the void is now a presence coming toward him.” (Blanchot)

As a youth I saw tiny demons the moment the night closed in on me: rats on the walls, clinging, hands walking alone – or worst of all – the privates. (Certainly the male’s can be imagined, hopping along, but the female’s? I saw the very lack of appendage: the sleeve of the pink inner wall, rustling paper, which only implied a pair of scissoring thighs – but thighs dismembered at the knee!) Each creature, even the inside-out ones, swarmed, buzzed, and blackened before me. They were filled with eyes and had impossible minds, they could move and snatch with terrible swiftness and silence. Behind corners, in shadows, between the lips of an unfolding leaf, a creature might break out with a tiny claw that could disappear down my tear duct as fast as a clear crab can disappear in the yellow sand. Touring the mediaeval churches, visiting the insectarium, or simply looking down at myself refracted in a bath, I am reminded of those childish terrors with a little shiver of delight.

Now, now that childhood is gone, and the world is known. Now, I look back on those days as though they were the summer before traveling to a house of correction. I see no animals now, no familiar abstractions – but only the blurs of night: the blur that is the absence of vision, the blur that seems to be caused by a strange pain manifesting itself in vision. This is pure absence, the weight of guilt, the horror of all guilt, and a responsibility that can find no human eye on which to rest and respond, “Yes? Yes?” Interminable, now my night is only a glowing absence of that which I cannot see. To have demons again! To have an object of fear that can move within the realm of my world, and slice me apart like a series of living blades, spinning off of the trees as the helicopter-seeds!



Time

In a coffee shop which doubles as a kind of neighborhood halfway house, there is a man is sitting before an empty cup. It is summer, and he wears a suit hopelessly out of fashion. He has the kind of face that knows it has never even been remotely pleasing to look at – a giant nose, long hair brushed neatly over his ovoid head. Incessantly, he looks at his watch, as though he were waiting for a companion that is late. But he is not. In fact, he is not even killing time, before a drink, perhaps, or for “a more reasonable time to come home.” This man is finding time; he glances intermittently, in the way someone else might walk the streets finding old cigarette butts or a young girl her true love.



Search and Rescue in the Sonoran Desert

“I say a little prayer for every body. You try not to let it get to you. But every one of these bodies is somebody’s son or daughter, somebody’s mother or father.” (New York Times, May 23, 2004) So it was with a cob of corn I had just finished eating. Every corn came from a field, and every husk had been husked. And so I wept by the window, where I hoped she would see me.



Plotting

It was on a snowy evening (of course I am remembering it in spring) that I had decided to plot out the ends of my stories instead of just writing them willy-nilly, as was my custom. I thought that “geometry,” as a certain French poet described it, was in order. I found that each story I designed would end exactly where it began. “Certainly that’s the problem!” I shouted, not without the help of a woman who has always wanted to see me fail (and has always seen me fail), who reminded me that if the Beginning equals the End then it is not a story at all but a portrait. So I began to watch people in restaurants, trying to capture what they do. They were very dull, and I saw that most life has no plot either. I didn’t want, however, to move to books, to read books and try and guess the endings: that would be like painting from a painting. Instead, then, I began to murder. It was clear to me then, but now that I have begun I have lost all sense of my dilemma, and the word “geometry” has as much significance for me now as it probably does for you.



Epitaph

Every institution knew his name and praised his strange abilities. But he could not publish one poem, or get one hour upon the stage. In fact he could not even cook for himself or convince a woman (and later a man) to stay and talk to him as he ate.



Decisions

A manic-depressive ran up screaming to a well-dressed lady who was peeling an orange on a terrace. He shouted: “My life is a mess! No – more than a mess! A veritable nightmare!” “Why?” she asked, looking up at him with her gloriously large eyes, not disrupted from the long peel she was working on. “I cannot make any decisions!” he shouted at her, frantically scratching his disgusting beard, and almost spitting on her. “I may have thrown away some of the best opportunities of my life because of certain decisions, or certain instances in which I couldn’t make one fast enough. So what am I now? An empty life, drifting in and out of hospitals, never coming close to love, approaching old age!” he screamed, as though he had just been reading Dostoyevski. “Indeed, you may have thrown away your life by certain decisions, and lack of decisions,” she replied, almost yawning, “but what an absurd idea that what confronted you in life were ‘opportunities.’ This is not a game show.” And immediately the beautiful orange shoestring dropped to the terrace floor. “Perhaps the decision was already made for you, and is always being made for you, including the very anxiety you have now. Then even your indecisiveness and unhappiness would be not from the realization of your sad fate, but it too would only reflect the decree already made by Him who is in charge of your life.” When she stopped, as though she were going to continue, the man began to scream, effeminately, as though he were becoming some kind of monster. The vacationers on the terrace grew quickly and visibly upset. (A woman screamed when she saw a man’s eye pop out. It turned out to be only his monocle.) But the woman, who had finished peeling, began to parcel out the orange by dipping one, then two, then three soft fingers into the apex, and finally splitting it apart into perfect sections with one beautiful motion of her hand. “That said, you still always have one decision at your leisure,” she said, and the man instantly stopped screaming. “What is that?” he whimpered, as if asking the devil for hope. “You can decide to die: no decision-maker could ever decree such a thing. It would be beyond the capacity of a decision.” He turned his heels so fast one might have thought he had broken his neck and ran away squealing like a pig. The woman ate only one section of her orange and left payment only for the section she ate. “They ought to be paying me,” she thought, “for having peeled and sectioned it.”



Parlor game for the right hand

A parlor game was devised by myself and some friends for the boy who had recently lost his left hand: throw him a small object, such as a coin, that he could only catch with his left hand, and watch how when he goes to catch it, he shrieks in terror, experiencing the coin to have “fallen right through his hand.”

Shorts by Jonathan Ullyot
The Movie by Charles Simic
Magnificent Obsession by Stan Badgett
This Story by David Koehn
To a Literary Friend by Constantine Contogenis
Vernal Equinox by Mary Chatfield


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