“The Good Husband,” Rilke, and the end

My latest story, “The Good Husband,” is just about wrapped up. I had a good workshop session last Sunday with Alexa Duncan and Theodora Goss, and the end is finally in sight. This short story collection will be in the mail before the month in done. Really, this time.

I have long been referring to this as my ghoul story, though now it’s something a little different. I don’t know if there’s a ghoul in it or not. But I know there’s cold air, and heartache, and death. There are things moving under the earth. And that’s what makes my blood move.

This is the poem that first inspired the story. It’s my favorite poem from my favorite poet. Even reading it now, I get goosebumps.

Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.   by Rainer Maria Rilke (Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

That was the deep uncanny mine of souls.
Like veins of silver ore, they silently
moved through its massive darkness. Blood welled up
among the roots, on its way to the world of men,
and in the dark it looked as hard as stone.
Nothing else was red.

There were cliffs there,
and forests made of mist. There were bridges
spanning the void, and that great gray blind lake
which hung above its distant bottom
like the sky on a rainy day above a landscape.
And through the gentle, unresisting meadows
one pale path unrolled like a strip of cotton.

Down this path they were coming.

In front, the slender man in the blue cloak —
mute, impatient, looking straight ahead.
In large, greedy, unchewed bites his walk
devoured the path; his hands hung at his sides,
tight and heavy, out of the failing folds,
no longer conscious of the delicate lyre
which had grown into his left arm, like a slip
of roses grafted onto an olive tree.
His senses felt as though they were split in two:
his sight would race ahead of him like a dog,
stop, come back, then rushing off again
would stand, impatient, at the path’s next turn, —
but his hearing, like an odor, stayed behind.
Sometimes it seemed to him as though it reached
back to the footsteps of those other two
who were to follow him, up the long path home.
But then, once more, it was just his own steps’ echo,
or the wind inside his cloak, that made the sound.
He said to himself, they had to be behind him;
said it aloud and heard it fade away.
They had to be behind him, but their steps
were ominously soft. If only he could
turn around, just once (but looking back
would ruin this entire work, so near
completion), then he could not fail to see them,
those other two, who followed him so softly:

The god of speed and distant messages,
a traveler’s hood above his shining eyes,
his slender staff held out in front of him,
and little wings fluttering at his ankles;
and on his left arm, barely touching it: she.

A woman so loved that from one lyre there came
more lament than from all lamenting women;
that a whole world of lament arose, in which
all nature reappeared: forest and valley,
road and village, field and stream and animal;
and that around this lament-world, even as
around the other earth, a sun revolved
and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-
heaven, with its own, disfigured stars —:
So greatly was she loved.

But now she walked beside the graceful god,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.
She was deep within herself, like a woman heavy
with child, and did not see the man in front
or the path ascending steeply into life.
Deep within herself. Being dead
filled her beyond fulfillment. Like a fruit
suffused with its own mystery and sweetness,
she was filled with her vast death, which was so new,
she could not understand that it had happened.

She had come into a new virginity
and was untouchable; her sex had closed
like a young flower at nightfall, and her hands
had grown so unused to marriage that the god’s
infinitely gentle touch of guidance
hurt her, like an undesired kiss.

She was no longer that woman with blue eyes
who once had echoed through the poet’s songs,
no longer the wide couch’s scent and island,
and that man’s property no longer.

She was already loosened like long hair,
poured out like fallen rain,
shared like a limitless supply.

She was already root.

And when, abruptly,
the god put out his hand to stop her, saying,
with sorrow in his voice: He has turned around —,
she could not understand, and softly answered

                           Far away,
dark before the shining exit-gates,
someone or other stood, whose features were
unrecognizable. He stood and saw
how, on the strip of road among the meadows,
with a mournful look, the god of messages
silently turned to follow the small figure
already walking back along the path,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.

Cook away your fears – macaroni and cheese edition

Mia is making the jump to sixth grade this year, and last night her new school held a potluck picnic at a nearby park so the new kids and parents could meet the crew, buy some used uniforms, and fill out the requisite paperwork.

Yes, you read that right: potluck.

I used to work in a kitchen, but that was years ago. I was younger, and foolish. Doing things that I didn’t really know how to do did not intimidate me. Most of my experience was behind the line at a restaurant, which is very much like working an assembly line in a factory, or heating up gruel for roughnecks in the Gulf. Since then my culinary ambition has not extended beyond scrambling some eggs or slapping some lunch meat on bread. If I ever had any skills in the kitchen, they are long gone.

Now there is only fear.

A typical cupboard in my "kitchen." The plastic pumpkin is the closest thing to anything food-related you will find in there.

My kitchen has a microwave oven, which is where all the action happens. Everything else is storage space.

My counter. None of your fruitbasket fripperies here. Behind the bottles are some volumes of witchcraft. I stay away from that shit.

I’ve been meaning to change this for a long time. Since, oh, Mia was born. She’s eleven now, so I think it’s time to start. I was going to bring something to the potluck, and it wouldn’t be bean dip. My friend A gave me a recipe for homemade macaroni and cheese, which she assured me would be easy.

“Don’t be intimidated by the roux,” she said.

Roux? That’s some old-school New Orleans shit. Real cooks fuck with roux. I was starting to get scared. But I went to the store to get the ingredients anyway. I was going to push through this. There were going to be a lot of people very happy to judge me at the picnic. I was determined to blow their minds with my mac and cheese.

I went to the tv dinner store. Apparently they sell other things too.

I had to buy basics, like flour, and salt and pepper. I thought food already came with all that stuff included. What the hell?

Get some flour, the recipe said. Look at this ridiculous selection. The rational mind breaks down. Mia in the foreground: "Daddy, I'm frightened." Me too, kiddo. Me too.

We went home, laden with foodstuffs, and I set to work. Mia patted me on the shoulder. “Congratulations, Dad, you’re actually going to finally cook something after talking about it my whole life!” Then she retreated to her room, well out of the blast zone.

In the thick of it. The laptop is there because it has the recipe onscreen and also because life is a pointless abyss if I'm not plugged in.

The recipe told me it would take me ten minutes to prepare. It took me more like twenty-five, and things did not go according to plan all the time, but it got done. The resulting batch was enough to feed two hungry people. Not enough — at all — for a potluck.

I would have included a picture of the finished product, but we ate it before I remembered to. It pretty much looked like macaroni and cheese.

So we made an emergency call to my mother and she promised to make her tater tot hotdish the next day. She did, there was plenty of it, and people devoured it. A culinary success.

I am, however, heartened by my first real kitchen experiment. I made a roux. I used pots. There was some flour involved in there somewhere. The end result both looked and tasted like macaroni and cheese. This first minor success has encouraged me to try cooking more often.

Fire, knives, and Tabasco sauce … what could possibly go wrong?

Tor.com, Hellnotes review Naked City, “The Way Station”

Brit Mandelo reviewed Naked City over at Tor.com, coming down decidedly in its favor. She highlights a few stories, one of which is “The Way Station”:

“Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Way Station” is another story of the sort I’ve come to expect from him: emotionally intense, riveting, and deeply upsetting in many ways. It deals with loss, with the aftereffects of Katrina on a homeless alcoholic who’s haunted by the city itself before the flood, and in doing so it’s wrenching. The strangeness of the haunting—city streets in his chest, floodwater pouring from his body—creates a surreal air, but the harsh reality of the world the protagonist lives in anchors that potential for the surreal into something more solid and believable. It’s an excellent story that paints a riveting portrait of a man, his city, and his loss.”

Dave, at Hellnotes, has this to say:

“An expert example of embracing the theme of the collection, is “The Way Station” by Nathan Ballingrud. Alternating between the cities of St. Petersburg, Florida, and New Orleans, Ballingrud looks to the latter as ghostly inspiration. Beltrane is a former inhabitant of that tortured city, and literally carries its woes within him. Now haunted and homeless in Florida, the disenfranchised African American remains at loony loose ends. The reality of his world is allegorical and ambiguous: “A small city has sprouted from the ground in the night, where he’d been sleeping, surrounded by blowing detritus and stagnant filth. It spreads across the puddle-strewn pavement and grows up the side of the wall, twinkling in the deep blue hours of the morning, like some gorgeous fungus, awash in a blustery evening rain. It exudes a sweet, necrotic stink. He’s transfixed by it, and the distant wails he hears rising from it are a brutal, beautiful lullaby.” Tinged with poignant pathos, “The Way Station” exemplifies the lingering horrors of the souvenirs of loss.”

Thanks, Brit. Thanks, Dave.