History Will Judge Them

Consider: William Howard Taft, colonizer, President, Supreme Court Justice, diplomat, reformer, war criminal, and yet most popularly famous for getting stuck in a bathtub, a story neither true nor kind. His political mentor most famous for being a face on a desecrated mountain and a handful of inscrutable references in cartoons now four generations out of date.

Or: Jean-Paul Marat, revolutionary, philosopher, writer, journalist, war criminal, remembered most clearly for his assassination by Charlotte Corday in a bathtub. One of the leading figures of one of the most famous almost-revolutions in the last several centuries, just a dead body slumped over, naked, undignified, moist.

The villains of our parents generations fade into nothing; the villains of their parents are already dust. Professional students of history carry their sins and their virtues in their hearts, or trip into a cross-century romance pursuing them through letters, reports, archival papers, but for most? For us? For the people who live in the long shadow of their legacy? Soap film drifting across the surface of a bath continually draining.

Decompression Sickness

80 floors in under a minute; 13 feet a second.

Petra’s ears pop and she struggles to swallow, dry-mouthed and nervous, even though this is long-familiar. The view, too, is familiar, or should be, but somehow it always catches her off guard. It’s a grey predawn down on the street, but early morning up here; the hallway is bathed in rosy-fingered light, and the terminator sweeping over the valley from the mountains takes her breath away.

Vertigo: she feels the earth dropping away beneath her, curving away from the sun.

The man in the bed is old, with the delicate paper skin they all have, the curled spine. This one is well-fed, comfortingly — yesterday’s was light as a bird, scarely more than a skeleton and memories, disquietingly closer to a wire sculpture than a human. She wheels the bed to the window, and the man smiles up at her, eyes wide and calm, all pupil. They spend a moment looking out at the early morning, crisp and clear before the heat closes in, until their breath settles into a shared rhythm, until her pulse keeps time with the gentle ticking of the monitor.


Petra pulls the window shut again, and leans her head against the glass. She cranes her head toward the street, listens for an impact that never comes. Where they go, she doesn’t know, but she rides the elevator down alone, as always.

Valhalla of the Word

Utter chaos.

They’ve been locked in the meeting room for an eternity, and tempers have frayed as the humidity has risen. There’s a miasma there, a visible stench, the thick choking smell of leadership. It creeps up nostrils and down throats as they breathe, invades stomachs and mouths when they swallow. The water is long stale, the trash overflows.

Something breaks; a fork flashes in the diffuse light and a scream, raw and vibrant, strums the air like a plucked guitar string. Blood flashes, bright as a new penny, red as a maple leaf, and they shudder in release and turn on each other.

They have no weapons, but they have teeth and nails and thumbs, and those will do in a pinch. Eyes pop, ears are bitten off, throats are torn out, skulls are stomped beneath scuffed leather dress shoes, bones ground beneath sensible kitten heels; they stab and slash with keys and hat pins and emery boards, plastic ballpoints and shattered dinner plates, anything that will serve. They die in glory, merely glad to be delivered at last from the impossible work of quiet talk.

An illusion, alas; there is evening and there is morning, and when the sun rises they are seated again around the long table, a glass of water warm as blood by their elbow, the hum of speech somehow uninterrupted.

Debate resumes.

Harden Your Hearts, You Pharoahs

You’ve been holding down the third slot in a three-band club and things haven’t been going great. You’ve got the look down pat — all lace cuffs and mirrored shades and a tight, catlike smile that never pulls your lips away from your teeth — and the crowd likes you… well, they like you okay, most of the time, but that’s the problem, it’s only most of the time. When you’re on, you’re untouchable, and when you’re not, it’s nothing but a sea of baffled, bored faces. Pretentious, they say, which in the quiet space of your windowless basement room you’ll admit is fair; unlistenable.

The band feels it, too. The three perverts you found to play backing and drums don’t say anything, but the new blood on keyboard and guitar aren’t shy about coming for your throat. They’ve been after you to play one of the songs they wrote, or at least listen to them, but you’ve been doing this for a couple hundred years, you’re not about to take advice from a pair of jumped up new romantics who are barely old enough to remember Grover Cleveland’s first term.

There’s an aspiring singer that comes sniffing around for a job that catches the eye of the number one band; you take her out to the shores of a nameless lake and leave her on the bank, bare skin slightly steaming in the predawn.

Along the Six

The longest night of the year. The heat cranked as high as it can go, but there’s only so much the pitiful baseboard heaters can do against the killing wind clawing at the single pane windows. Three feet out from the wall and it’s still there, the cold, sinking its teeth into your aching bones. The swarms of Japanese beetles have died at last, their brittle, hollow bodies a crackling carpet in the corners and an inch deep in the dish of the floor lamp. Wrap yourself in every blanket you own, drag the mattress to the center of the room, pray you make it through till dawn.

Wind cold enough to freeze the breath in your nostrils. Wait, steaming, just inside the doors, for your glasses to defrost, the icicles crowding your nose, your mouth to melt. Bodies left in the snow will stay fresh for spring; the grass, brown and bitter, waits for the first rains. Once they burned these plains in summer to keep them fertile, to keep them growing, but those centuries of human care and cultivation have been swallowed by time and cold and genocide, paved over and mucked under with hog farms, corn fields, nazis.

In the town they spit at you; it rattles against the thick padding of your coat, just one more piece of windblown ice.