Fish: A Short Story in Two Parts — Part Two

When the tooth entered this story, I questioned myself. Was this really what I wanted to write about, a dirty human tooth? But of course I wasn’t writing about a tooth. I was writing about something broader– an exchange, a contract, the value of a story. In a sense, narrative is currency. As Calvino said, “In a narrative, any object is always magic.” So what magic is in the tooth, and what is it worth?

Here is part two. If you missed part one, click here.

Fish: Part Two

The next morning George and Ant woke early to mine the hopscotch courts with bang snaps. The low sun cast long shadows across the macadam, and sparsely gathered crows looked on from the jungle gym as the boys lightly dusted gravel over the their mines. The girls would be out after breakfast to play in their summer dresses, and the boys liked to watch them jump and squeak as the tiny paper-packets of flash powder exploded under their feet.

Still, as the clouds passed over and the sun rose and fell in the valley, the boys could think of nothing so much as the tooth. They waited impatiently all day for George’s mother to leave the house for one errand or another so they could take the whiskey. They turned out the kitchen, but found nothing. They turned out the closets, but found nothing. There was nowhere left but the basement, dark and unfinished, filled with concrete and cobwebs. The air conditioner fans stormed in the shadows of the naked light bulbs. “This is the kind of place where teeth are pulled,” thought the boys. They looked around cautiously as the fans cut in and out. The rusted bikes, the workbench cluttered with vises, chisels, and pliers. The reserve supply of bottled water and toilet paper and baked beans. And then they saw it. The whiskey. Exactly two bottles on a shelf far in the corner buried in lint between the pipes and clothes dryer. Two bottles. Within an instant they were up the stairs, bottles in hand, leaving nothing but the echoes of their footprints suspended in the particle-laden air.

Car doors opened and closed in the driveways and streetlamps flickered on along the measured sidewalks of the neighborhood. Dinner would be served soon, and the boys agreed to meet by the big tree when the sun and moon lit the sky together. George arrived first with the bottles and climbed into the branches to wait. He thought about a battalion of tanks rolling through the valley laced with power lines; how easy it would be for them to cross the stream; how he would see it all from the top of the big tree where no one else would climb; how he would shoulder-fire anti-tank missiles at them as they passed.

Down below, Ant called out for George, impatient to see the stranger. Green leaves fell on the crickets and wildflowers as George descended. “You can see the smoke from the city up there,” he said, offering Ant one of the bottles to carry. “And if you try real hard, you can even smell it.”

On the way to the woods, the boys talked about the stranger. They talked about the fights he must have been in to get his scar and broken nose. They talked about what he probably kept in his pack—a gun and a deck of cards with naked ladies on the back—and they longed to see them. But most of all, they talked of the tooth and how he twisted it out of the mouth of a POW or how he pulled it from his own mouth on a dare and grew a new one.

When they came to the bridge, they made birdcalls to announce their presence. “Over here,” the stranger replied from his fire. “You have my bottles?” He filled his flask and stored the bottles in his pack. The boys snuck an unfulfilled glance inside. “If you’re looking for the tooth, I don’t keep it in there. I keep it in my pocket. Always.”

The boys protested their innocence.

“Now,” said the stranger. “We had agreement. Are you ready to hear the real story of the tooth?” Smoke drifted up from the fire, flitting sparks into the moonlight. The boys nodded.

“I want you to look at the tooth closely in the firelight. Do you see this cavity here? It’s small, so you have to look so close that your eyes go out of focus. Then you’ll see it. Remember the cavity.”

The boys strained their eyes in the shifting firelight, but could see nothing.

The stranger continued: “That’s what he told me. Remember the cavity. He was an old man on a little farm on the other side of the world. His fields were all fallow and there was blight on the crops for longer than he could remember, but he survived somehow. He took me in for three days and fed me on fresh fish he caught in a dirty stream behind his house. I looked at that stream every morning, but I didn’t understand how fish could live in it, it was so shallow. There was barely enough water there to drink. Each day I played cards with the old man to help him pass the time, so when I had to leave, he felt sorry for me. He told me I would never make it across the fields without food. ‘You have been good to me,’ he said. ‘Now I want to be good to you. I have seen you wondering how I have so many fish to eat when there is no food for miles around.’ And then he showed me this tooth. ‘This tooth,’ he said, ‘is special. See this cavity? Always remember the cavity.’ The old man then told me that whenever I wanted to catch a fish, all I needed to do was place the tooth in a stream and count to three. The next cast would catch a fish without fail. At first I didn’t believe him, but then he showed me how the fish rose up from the silt and bit his hook, one after another. ‘I can’t take such a gift,’ I told him, knowing that it was the tooth that kept him alive, but he insisted. ‘Every gift should be given again when the time is right.’”

Scattered raindrops slipped through the leaves as the rattling of cicada songs rose and fell in the distance.

“Is the time right now?” the boys asked.

The stranger urged patience. “The tooth can only change hands when the moon is full. Tonight is too soon. Tomorrow will be better.” He paused and looked at them with a narrow eye. “What makes you think the tooth should be passed to you?”

The boys replied at once with all manner of reasons, but none of them would satisfy the stranger. “Those are good,” he said, “but this tooth is very valuable to me. If you want it, I’ll need something valuable in return. Something I lost a long time ago on the other side of the ocean.”  The fire hissed lightly in the rain. “A golden ring.”

In houses full of jewelry, a golden ring was not hard to find. In fact, as soon as their parents left, the boys found several. They carried them all day on their fingers as they wandered around the fields and the neighborhoods and hurled crabapples at the occasional passing car. They watched the moon slowly appear in the afternoon sky, and they talked of the craters formed on its face from massive explosions years ago, until finally the daylight fell away and they could see the ragweed and dandelion seeds held aloft in shafts of moonlight. It was time for them to claim the tooth.

Fireflies lit the trees and underbrush as the boys looked for the stranger’s encampment. They tried the places they had seen him the previous nights, and they tried the stream. They tried the bridge, and they even tried the hollowed-out tree trunks they imagined were washed-up submarines. And then from behind them, a voice whispered, “Have you brought the ring?”

The boys asked the stranger about his fire, whether he would leave tonight, but he only repeated his question, “Have you brought the ring?” George and Ant brought out their fingers, adorned in gold, for the stranger to see. He thanked them for offering him a choice, commending them on their kindness. “We had an agreement. One ring for one tooth. Now, which of you will take the tooth. I will take a ring from only one of you.”

George volunteered himself, and Ant put away his hands. The stranger examined each ring in turn, taking notice of how the moonlight interacted with the luster of the gold, until he made his selection.

“This is a fair exchange.”

George felt the absence of weight on his finger as the stranger disappeared back down the tracks, the breeze from his footsteps lightly bending the wildflowers that peered up through the sleepers. The words, “Always remember the cavity,” echoed faintly behind him until they too dissolved into the damp night air.

***

When Ant arrived at the stream the next morning, George called out to him, “You missed it! I did just as the stranger said. I put the tooth in the water and came up with a fish!” As the boys discussed the stranger’s last words and the supposed size of the fish, the ghost of a cicada shell landed softly on the water’s surface and drifted downstream towards the city.

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Festina Lente part 2: Some Thoughts on Emblems and Still Lifes

If I paint a hammer and sickle people may think it is a representation of Communism, but for me it is only a hammer and sickle. I just want to reproduce the objects for what they are, not for what they mean.
–Picasso

In my earlier post on cycling, I focused on the motto Festina Lente, hurry slowly. I didn’t get into the emblems associated with that motto. There are two that Calvino calls out: A dolphin wrapped around an anchor, produced by Aldus Manutius near the start of the 16th century, and a crab and a butterfly, produced by Paolo Giovio early in the 16th century.

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I find emblems very interesting with their incongruous and potent imagery–I even contemplated making a book of new ones. Today we think of emblems primarily in branding–corporate logos or country flags–and we also know them in chivalric terms–every great family has a shield, for example–but in the 16th century there seems to have been a real pursuit of emblems as a moral art (though this could also just be the proliferation of a long-standing tradition now made public by the invention of the printing press). They represented ideas and mottos that have value independent of brand (though Apple’s first logo was very emblematic, and, in todays visual culture, a real dud). They were essentially visual fables. The first formal book of emblems was published by Andrea Alciato in 1531, though it is worth noting that each emblem was accompanied by a poem.

In some ways we can think of a still life similarly to an emblem, and this seems to be what troubled Picasso. This might also be an underlying assumption in the imagist proclamation “no ideas but in things.” Calvino puts that idea differently when he says “in a narrative, any object is always magic.”

But can a thing ever just be a thing? The answer is likely to be no, because all things are interpreted through the lens of culture, but I wonder if that depends on how the thing is rendered and what objects are included in a composition. In the Alessi and Zeke’s sketch I did, the two objects go together naturally, and I rendered them as such. They seem to only convey coffee, with no assertion of value, no tension. Is this true or am I taking an oversimplified look at them? Is there any greater lesson or meaning in them?

Had I painted, say, a hammer and an iPhone together, the resulting incongruity would have taken on a variety of meanings. Would it be a Luddite statement, or a statement of design and build elegance? Would we assign a silly motto like “build through communication,” or something stronger and more sinister? It depends on how we view a hammer, as a sign of construction, or destruction. A nail beside it would show construction. A hole in the wall would show destruction.

So how about this? What do we take away, or are these just things?

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Thanks for humoring me on this one. Back to original watercolors soon.

Learning from Winslow Homer: On the Stile

I have been taking some close looks at Winslow Homer this past week, and decided it was time to get into his painting through an attempt of my own–a copy of “On the Stile.” His style is a nice blend of freedom and precision, with a surprising hold to it. Given my last post on Quickness, the timing seemed appropriate.

I remember when I last took up painting in high school before turning to history and literature, I copied a Winslow Homer and enjoyed it very much. That was my favorite class in high school, and I am not sure why I didn’t stick with it. I also started to appreciate classical music during that class, and it has since become a staple in the house.

Looking at Homer recently, I found myself at first wondering what the “greatness” was. I think I see it in the sense of immediacy in his Houghton Farm watercolors. He doesn’t waste our attention on extraneous parts of the composition. I think the pastoral sophistication also has a timeless appeal, at least to me, who spent some time with pastoral literature in my last novel.

I wanted to work on a few things in this exercise:

1. Use a limited palette of Prussian Blue, Permanent Yellow Deep, and Primary Red Magenta (all Maimeri Blu). I have relied on the earth pigments in prior attempts, so wanted to understand how I could get good browns and greens with only this palette. I wondered if I could get a more transparent result without the earth pigments. Also, it seemed Homer worked with these three or similar pigments for this painting.

2. Understand how Homer focused on his subjects and where he got a little more haphazard, or at least opted not to spend so much time, so I could better decide how to do the same in my paintings. I was struck by how much the perception of his paintings can change when viewed over a short period of time. At first they’re compelling, then they seem flat, then, upon closer study they become very interesting, far beyond the first impression. For example, the girl’s dress has a lot going on in his painting, and it seems so effortless.

I am reminded of one of the selling points of creative writing programs: even if you don’t make it as a writer, you will be a better reader. This exercise has made me a better reader of Homer’s paintings.

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Festina Lente: Cycling, Leopardi, and Galileo

Speed and conciseness of style please us because they present the mind with a rush of ideas that are simultaneous, or follow each other so quickly they seem simultaneous, and set the mind afloat on such an abundance of thoughts or images or spiritual feelings…
– Giacomo Leopardi

If discoursing on a difficult problem were like carrying weights, when many horses can carry more sacks of grain than a single horse, I would agree that many discourses would do more than a single one; but discoursing is like coursing, not like carrying, and one Barbary courser can go faster than a hundred Frieslands.
– Galileo

I was thinking about Calvino’s essay on Quickness while biking this morning, in particular the quotes from Leopardi and Galileo. Calvino explains that the horse has long been a metaphor for speed of thought in literature. I suppose a road bike is a decent substitute. In both quotes above, it is important to note that the speed reflected is that of reasoning or writing, not speed of execution. They are not arguing for Kerouac-like binges. Much preparation goes into achieving the speed of thought. This is why Calvino likes the motto “festina lente,” or hurry slowly.

In order to achieve quickness on a bike, one must prepare one’s body. In order to achieve quickness of thought, one must prepare one’s mind. The same is true with any visual art, as my gestural sketch below shows. I executed it in about 30 seconds while holding up my bike. This is not an ideal way to go about things, but I wanted to see if I could achieve both quicknesses at once–in execution and in thought or expression. I think not yet, but it was fun regardless. This attempt, as others like it, will enable a better understanding and execution when it comes to painting, at least so I hope.

Watercolor is a medium that perfectly aligns with the festina lente motto in that patience is so important to producing a watercolor that reads like Galileo’s courser, or Leopardi’s style that sets the mind afloat. I think of this usually in terms of avoiding mud and making a watercolor light, so taking time between glazes, etc, but it also applies to the more apparently haphazard methods of painting, such as rapidly poured watercolor moved around with credit cards and other things, that seem so casual, so easy. This kind of painting quickly as performance, like racing a bike, can only happen effectively with patience in advance to learn the way the paint moves.

It has been interesting and refreshing rereading Calvino’s Six Memos in the context of painting rather than writing fiction. As I tried to do in writing, I need to remind myself again in painting: festina lente.

Thanks for reading.

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