Friday, December 31, 2004

by Mickey Hess

In a restroom someone has drawn the left half of a pot leaf. Like a lesson in symmetry, one of those explore-your-artistic-talent kits you get in the mail. Underneath it someone else has written "Please finish." As if he can’t wait to see how things are going to turn out. There is no more of this anticipation left for 2004. It has done, mostly, what it will do. Snow outside my office window, falling on the giant stone statue that looks to me exactly like the W symbol of one of my favorite rap groups. At night it is illuminated by spotlights. In the sun it casts a Wu-Tang shadow over our campus walkways. I bought a Wu-Tang Clan DVD to make me feel better about Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s death. But the concert footage, from only five months ago, has the opposite effect. ODB sits in a folding chair through most of the show, and looks like he’s too tired even for that. There’s a moment during "Cherchez LaGhost" when Ghostface walks over and sings directly to him, caresses his cheek, as if to ask "Are you ok?"

The end of things makes us think of their beginnings, and of where we expected or intended them to go. Has 2004 done what I wanted it to, and is there promise that 2005 will work harder? I remember a night last December: I am driving home from an out of town reading listening to Ol’ Dirty’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version. I received this album years ago as an Easter gift from my mom, the CD nesting in green plastic grass among Cadbury eggs. But tonight I’m listening to it differently. There’s some urgency there I never considered. Listening to such an amazing album, one I’ve memorized so thoroughly, creates an anxiety all its own. I’m barely two verses into "Brooklyn Zoo" and my mind is racing ahead to "The Stomp" or "Dirty Dancin'". It’s like the track listing can’t keep up with me. An hour later it’s the same thing with the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, the first album I bought with my own money. Then Ill Bill Is the Future, my new favorite CD, and a throwback to the Licensed to Ill era. The track sequencing is put together so smoothly that one song flows right into the next. I anticipate these changes. I’m one verse ahead of Ill Bill. I have no time for end fades on songs, no time to listen to the chorus repeating fainter and fainter until it disappears into dead silence until the next song begins. I like songs that begin with sirens, with gunshots and threats, albums that keep it moving. Driving home to Louisville at 2 in the morning, though, I’m wondering what this anticipation costs me. I look for ways to make things move quickly, to keep them exciting, but this now has me looking for endings everywhere because I’m ready for the next thing and the next. And that’s the problem tonight. I’m impatient with the Beastie Boys. I’m yeah-yeahing "Time to Get Ill," hitting the track advance button because by verse two I already know what time it is. It’s time to move on. On my second listen tonight, I fast-forward through the ends of some songs. This is blasphemy for me, as I believe the Beastie Boys should not be interrupted. I justify it as excitement for the upcoming track, but it turns into something different. Soon I’m skipping entire songs. "Girls" seems to be null and void now. "Slow and Low" is better on the live in Japan bootleg. I turn to the Wu-Tang Clan, scoring a mid-Indiana hour with their first album. "Hut one, hut two, hut three, hut! Ol’ Dirty Bastard live and uncut!" Exclamation points at the end of every line. I skip the slow songs, rushing through to the CD’s end, and the silence hits me hard. There’s no more Enter the Wu-Tang. That’s the end. I know for the rest of my drive that this is part of a larger problem, this inability to appreciate "Protect Ya Neck" while it’s playing, and my need to always look ahead to the next track, as if things can only get better. I fast forward through 2004 and its long car rides, through the New Year’s Eve countdown, my birthday party, and a funeral. When I was a baby, my mom tells me, the only way to get me to sleep at night was to take me for a long drive in the car. This stayed with me, and when I first got my driver’s license I used to fall asleep even on a short drive to work. Tonight, though, I do not fall asleep. I do not switch out Enter the Wu-Tang for Wu-Tang Forever. I do not push play.

Mickey Hess wrote a book called Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory. "Looks pretty good," says one reviewer.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

by Moe Bowstern

I had been fishing on the Jennie Lynne about a month when we caught the octupus. It oozed out of the moneybag and fell plop on the deck after what salmon we caught spilled into the hold. Normally Fred was quite casual about the ocean wonders we sometimes inadvertently snagged, but the octopus got his attention.

"Hey, wouldja look at that guy," he said, and Susan and Dave obliged him, peering at the pulpy red mass from around their raingear hoods.

"Let's eat it!" I shouted from the skiff. I have eaten octopus twice; once in a chewy soup and another time lightly grilled at a barbecue. It tasted okay, nothing too special. Mostly I wanted to challenge the moody boat cook, who I thought didn't feed me enough.

"Aww, we can't eat this guy," Fred said, "Watch." And the four of us watched as the octopus, whose boneless body stretched about four feet across, squeezed itself off the boat and into the water through a scupper five inches wide and two high.

The next day, fishing the same area, we brought up another octopus. I prepared myself for a new episode of Denizens of the Deep when Fred surprised us by running into the galley, where he grabbed a knife and stabbed the octopus repeatedly in the mantle. I was dumbfounded. The moody boat cook was grumpy. Fred dropped the octopus into the hold with the salmon. At the tender that night the moody boat cook informed Fred that there was no way in hell she was gonna cook the octopus. "You killed it, you cook it," she said. Fred thought that was just fine, as cooking sometimes relieved him of the incredible daily pressures of the first-year salmon skipper. He chatted with the skipper of the tender about the best way to tenderize an octopus. "You gotta beat it with a hammer, or you'll wear out your jaw chewing on it"

"Nah," the mate on the tender offered his opinion, "You just barely cook it, just sear it. The mantle is the best part." Fred wondered aloud about marinating procedures in relation to the cephalopod.

Next morning after we pulled anchor Fred jumped into the fish hold with a knife. He had decided to cut the octopus up and marinate it for a day, then lightly fry it in olive oil with onions and garlic.

June daylight comes early in Alaska, and though it was 4 a.m., there was enough light in the fish hold for Fred to see that the octopus had . . . disappeared. For a few moments he panicked. Days before, we had spent precious fishing time replacing the boat's faulty reduction gear. Fred had an instant and terrible vision of the octopus crawling through the engine hatch from the fish hold, wrapping itself around the works and dying in some inaccessible corner of our cramped and tiny engine room, forcing Fred to fish it out of the black and oily depths of our inner bilge. I came around from where I was coiling up anchor line on the bow to see Fred pop up from the hold. His hair stood in a spiky nimbus around his head and his eyes were too wide for that early hour. "It's gone," he said.

Fogged by little sleep and no coffee, and accustomed to Fred's irrational ravings, I feigned deafness, "Huh?"

"The octopus. It disappeared. It crawled into the engine. Oh, why didn't I carve it up last night! Lazy," he shook his head, silent, "Well, I guess we'll just have to see. Get in the skiff." That was my cue to grab my hat, beg coffee from the moody boat cook and go freeze my butt off in the predawn gray of the early morning set.

The first set of the day is usually a miserable affair, with the entire crew sleepily resisting the full realization of another long fishing day. I passed the hour that it took for us to set the net and bring it back on cursing--cursing our stoveless boat, the slowness of morning coffee preparation, the failure of the sun to fully rise and warm me, and the cruel bite of the wind in the open skiff. By the end of the set, when I was again hooked up and looked hungrily, hopefully towards the galley, I had completely forgotten about the rogue octopus. Getting up early paid off; we made another set immediately, as most of the boats fishing around us were still on anchor. After the second set, however, we faced an hour-long wait until we could fish again. Susan pumped out the fish hold as I headed into the galley with breakfast on my mind. From over my plate of pancakes, I heard her stop pumping and climb down into the fish hold. "How disgusting!" she hollered, "Fred!"

"What?" Fred looked down from the flying bridge.

"I found the octopus," Susan sounded dismal. I left my breakfast and joined Dave on deck. Susan tugged at the bottom of the sump pump, which she investigated after finding it clogged. Slowly, slowly, she extracted the missing octopus leg by leg out of the two-inch sump hose. We discussed awhile on deck as to whether the octopus had died of its stab wounds sometimes in the brief night or if it had survived until morning, when the suction of the deck pump had turned the entire creature inside out within the sump.

We still don't know, but we did learn a few things. That octopi don't die immediately when stabbed in the mantle and that skippers don't have the same opinion two days in a row.

Moe Bowstern comes from a storytelling family. Telling in this day and age doesn't always work; no one has the time for anything over a minute and a half so she started writing stories in 1993 as a way of explaining to her urban peers the summer life she led as a commercial salmon fisher in Kodiak, Alaska. These stories led to her first zine, Xtra Tuf, and there are 4 issues of it, all about commercial fishing, free to commercial fishing women (must prove it with an authentic and salty tale). Her newest zine, Second Set Out, features 10 years of writing for other zine editors. "Scupper Supper" is the first story in it, and was originally published in Mudflap #6 a decade ago. You can also read her stories in the anthologies Drive: Women's True Stories from the Open Road and Steady As She Goes: Women's Adventures at Sea (Seal Press). Moe still fishes now and then (she's always looking for a new fishing adventure, if you need a deckhand) but mostly she lives and works in Portland, Oregon USA. You can order her zines from Microcosm and Last Gasp. Write to her (no zine orders at this address please) at P.O. Box 6834, Portland, OR 97228 USA.

Monday, December 13, 2004

by Joe Meno


In our History Class, we had to do a twenty-minute oral report on An Event That Changed America, and Mike and I were listening to a lot of old metal records and also very into serial killers at the time, and the girl, Dorie, who was put in our presentation group because she looks as about as hooked on drugs as Mike or me, well, we decided what the heck, and told Mr. Aiken that we were going to do it on the Boston Strangler. When Mr. Aiken asked why we thought the Boston Strangler was an appropriate Event That Changed America, I thought we were busted right there, but Mike said, "It has greatly affected our sense of trust and comfort," and Mr. Aiken nodded, impressed, I guess, and he gave us a check-mark on our assignment sheet and him giving us the big OK was our first mistake.


At the same exact time, Mrs. Madden’s, Mike’s mom, got her divorce finalized and she finally lost it, and one day, while we were in her kitchen, smoking, she said to Mike and me, "That’s it. I‘m giving up they both of you as human beings." She said, "Fine. If you want to be anti-social, fine. If you all want to grow up without any prospects, it doesn‘t bother me in the least." So now we can smoke dope in her basement as long as we don’t do something stupid like trying to drive later. And no fucking around, as she put it, between boys and girls. We can have girls down there but no going all the way. That was her terminology. No going all the way. If either of you guys get a girl pregnant, you‘ll be out on your ass. She said that to me and I’m not even her kid. The bad part is she took out all the telephones in the house and called the phone company and they came in and put in an actual payphone. I mean, right on the wall, like Mike’s kitchen is a bus stop or something. So Mike doesn’t hardly ever call anybody anymore. Also, before the divorce got signed or whatever, and before Mrs. Madden completely flipped out, you could go over to Mike’s and dig around in his fridge for like some left-over pizza and some Jewel-brand soda pop, and eat it there, over the sink, standing up, but nope, none of that now. There‘s a goddamn lock on the fridge. So Mike and his little brother, Terry, who’s only twelve, well, they got to buy their own groceries or pay their mom for meals. Seriously. Mike’s older sister, Jean, who has a big round face, the way I like a girl’s face, kind of mean and smart-mouthed, you know the kind, the kind of girl who looks at you like you aren’t nothing, and then makes-out with you just because she’s bored, well, Jean, who’s two years older than me and Mike, seventeen, well, she saw the payphones and the lock on the fridge and took off with the road manager from the band R-E-O Speedwagon, who are very big in our neighborhood, because one of the guys, the drummer I think, went to our high school. Jean leaving has killed Mike, being his older sister and all. She would buy beer for us and tell us what girls like you to do and how to get them to at least consider having sex with you by saying stuff like, "I feel like you‘re the only one I can say personal stuff to." The other night, we had two girls down in the basement, two girls who Mike had met at the 7-11 and who were definitely Catholic, because they were as clean as any girls I’ve ever seen, not just their hair, but the way they talked and smoked like movie stars and even crossed and uncrossed their legs. Well, we passed around a bowl and the girls got high and then I had put on "I can’t fight this feeling anymore" and I had my hand up this girl’s shirt and was feeling her up over the bra and she had her eyes closed, like if she had her eyes closed she wasn’t going to have to go to Confession next Saturday or whatever Catholic girls got to do, and well, Mike, he just stood up suddenly and said, "What the fuck?" and I said, "What?" and he said, "Don’t you got any goddamn consideration for my feelings, man? I asked you not to play this record anymore," and I said, "I don’t get it, it‘s a good record," and he said to turn that goddamn thing off unless I wanted to go in his backyard to do my dryhumping. Which I did not. A girl, on a couch, is a lot more likely to just lie there and let you do what you want than if you‘re, say, in the backseat of a car or under her back porch. I don’t know what goes on in their heads, if they just look up at the ceiling and count the tiles or if they are thinking about their homework assignments or imaging you are somebody special like Scott Baio, but if you can get them on the couch, you are half-way there, my friend, or so I have seen.


Dorie, the girl in our history presentation group, is the only girl I have ever loved from afar. Most girls I do not care enough about to spend the time thinking about. I am not one of those kind of guys who is particular, like Mike, who’s been in love with Lisa Hensel since fifth fucking grade, even though everyone in the modern universe knows she’s never going to have anything to do with him, because, well, she is like on Student Council and is always handing out Mothers Against Drunk Driving and D.A.R.E buttons. I mean come on, Mike, get over it. There are tons of other decent-looking girls who want some non-descript, renegade, loner-type to de-virginize them so they can have it over and done with and never see the doofus again. That’s where I like to think I come in. Monica Dallas. De-virginized. Kelly Madley. De-virginized. Kathy Konoplowski. Not totally de-virginized, but close.

Dorie, in our history group, is not like that. She’s smart, as smart as anyone, but not nerdy, and she smokes, and wears the same Iron Maiden "Somewhere in Time" tee-shirt everyday, which must have been black but is gray now and soft from being worn so often. She is tall and skinny and has long greasy brown hair that is cut in bangs. Fuck. No girl has bangs in our school. They wear their fucking hair in ponytails. I mean, fuck. The last thing that gets me about Dorie is kind of weird, but, well, she always has hickies, you know. Which means she fools around. I don’t know. I like the idea that she fools around and doesn’t care about it, like fucking around in high school to her is not like getting married, which is how some girls think of it, because I asked her, "You got a boyfriend or something?" and she said, "No," and I said, "Well, what the fuck happened to your neck?" and she said, "Some asshole mauled me," and I said, "Somebody I know?" and she said, "Shit, I don’t even know his name," and it was like I fell in love with her right there maybe.


Mike’s mom and dad are now definitely getting split and the paperwork’s definitely been signed his dad made it obvious by going out and buying a brand new, red, convertible Cadillac, big beautiful chrome bumpers, automatic roof recline, and Mike and I were at the mall, killing time with this new Cop-Killer game at the arcade and then we were outside, waiting for the bus, throwing rocks at the seagulls and we saw his dad cruising by with some blonde in this red convertible and they were both laughing like they had known each other their whole lives. Mike’s dad saw us and pulled over and said, "Get in, dudes, I’ll drop you off," and Mike’s face got all red and he said, "Mom’s supposed to pick me up," which was a total lie, and his dad nodded and said, "See you later, dudes," and pulled away and I asked Mike, "Hey, man, are you all right?" and he just frowned and said, "Jesus Christ. This is not how I imagined my sophomore year going at all," and I said, "Yeah. Shit," and then just to say something, I said, "Maybe we should stop by the library and see about this Boston Strangler dude," and he said, "Maybe," but we just stood there, not saying anything else, waiting for the bus, not even laughing when a group of junior high kids showed up, and they all had New Kids on the Block tee-shirts on and everything.


Mrs. Madden, who is very thin and blonde, with short hair, who might be hot if she wasn’t so nervous and twitchy, and well, crying all the goddamn time, well, she has made it obvious that the divorce has gone through by wearing the same see-through yellow nightgown all day, which is beginning to get dirty. Also, she has started smoking, which she did not do before. And drinking. Canadian Club whiskey. We were down in the basement smoking dope and it was late and I was going to sneak home and I came up and Mrs. Madden was sitting on the floor with a bottle of Canadian Club and watching Mary Tyler Moore reruns. I thought about it as I was walking home. When I got there, my dad was crashed on the couch, which is where he has slept for the last couple of years, and upstairs, I could hear my mom sewing, the sewing machine going, at like two in the morning, and I thought nobody anywhere over the age of eighteen was glad to be living.


At this time, I decided it would be cool to have lines shaved into my hair, you know, like Brian "the Boz" Bosworth from the Sooners, like where you have long hair in the back and the sides are short and there are lines like shaved into the side of your head in a cool pattern. I had seen Bosworth on TV and it looked cool so I asked Mike to try it and he wouldn’t do it. I mean, I even went to Osco and bought a hair trimmer kit for twenty bucks and there I am and no one will do it and I even asked Mrs. Madden and she said she’d do it for fifty bucks and it was like everything else. You get a good idea and people go out of their way to make it hard on you. Here, I was the one who said, let’s do our report on the Boston Strangler and Mike won’t go to the library and Dorie like is never in class or at home because she’s out getting hickes from people she doesn’t even know and already, it’s the weekend before the oral report is due. So shit.

Dorie finally calls back because, well, she’s got to pass this class, like us, because she’s smart but doesn’t give a fuck about school, and so she comes over to Mike’s on that Sunday and we plan on doing the report, but Mike, he’s in a mood, and he keeps playing "Changes" by Black Sabbath, which is a very weak song if you don’t happen to know, where there’s like a piano, a piano on a fucking Black Sabbath song, and Ozzy kind of mumbles about going through changes, and all Mike does is lie on his bed, and I point out all the crazy stuff to Dorie in Mike‘s house, the payphone and lock on the fridge, and the bowls and one-hitters lying out in the open and she just shakes her head and says, "Mike, your home-life is definitely fucked," and he lifts his head up from the bed and says, "I totally know."

"Well, what the fuck are we gonna do about this report?" she asks. "I got two books from the library but I don’t have time to read them. I got to be at work in like twenty minutes."

"Work? Where do you work?" I ask. "You’re only fifteen?"

"My dad’s restaurant. Dockie’s."

"The fish place? On Kedzie?" I ask. "How long have you been working there?"

"Since I was a kid. I’m the night manager."

"The night manager? You’re like a kid. How can you be the night manager?"

"My dad needed help, you know, he had back surgery and there’s nobody else so I go there at night and help him. Plus," she says. "This guy, Duane, the cook, he usually brings some dope to smoke."

"Is he the guy that fucking mauls your neck?" I ask.

She looks down and then lifts one eyebrow and says, "Jealous?" and I say, "How old is this dude?" and she says, "Twenty-five," and I look at her and realize I am so in love with her, it is not even funny. I want to ask her right there if she would maybe think about being my girlfriend and she could wait until we are married before ever doing it with me, but she says, "So what the fuck are we gonna do tomorrow?" and I say, "I dunno," and then I ask, "Have you ever cut anyone’s hair?" and she says, "My dad’s," and I say, "Do you think you can cut lines in my hair like that football player Bosworth?" and she says she can try and she does it like in five minutes, right there in Mike’s basement, with my hair on the floor by the pool table, and it looks badass when she’s done and I say, "I’ll give you a couple of bucks," and she says, "Just make sure this report is good," and I say, "It’ll be the best fucking report Mr. Aiken has ever seen," and it’s like we’re going to kiss, but we don’t, which is OK with me.


In the end, we opt to do a skit, because Mike thinks it’s the best way to disguise that we have not done anything. It goes like this: Mike is the detective telling the class about historical facts, "The year is 1962, Albert DeSalvo works at a rubber press during the day, at night, he tracks his quarry all over the city of Boston," and I am the Boston Strangler, and I have a stocking cap on because he had one on in the book Dorie got, and Dorie is the victim, and she is sitting at the head of class, filing her nails and chewing gum and doing whatever victims do before they get strangled, and right there, I decide to do something different. Instead of going to strangle Dorie, who is looking bored, and lovely, man, really lovely, well, I creep up the side of the classroom and strangle Lisa Hensel, the girl Mike’s been in love with forever, and she starts screaming, but I cover her mouth and Mike sees what I’m doing and shouts, "The Boston Strangler has struck! No one can tell where he will commit his evil deeds next!" and he runs besides Lisa and says, "Another victim of this unpredictable killer who is impossible to predict!" and by then I’ve strangled Debbie Otis, who gets the drift, and falls out of her seat, playing dead, and Mr. Aiken starts shouting, "OK, guys, that’s enough, that’s enough," but I don’t stop until I have my hands around Dorie’s neck, and it is long, and soft, and I think I can feel her breathing, oh, God, I can actually feel her breathing, and there, there are two hickies popping out of the top of her shirt and I want to kiss her more that anything in the world, and she can tell, probably, because she looks up at me, and blinks, but like a girl, with all her eyelashes, which is something she never does, and I decide not to murder her, and instead, well, I just run out of the room and hang out in the cafeteria because the lunch ladies there know I‘m cool.

Joe Meno hails from Chicago, Illinois USA. This appears to be the short story that was expanded into his latest novel Hairstyles Of The Damned, published by Punk Planet/Akashic this year. It's his first on an independent publisher and perhaps it's not a coincidence that it's also his best. Contact him at profjoe13 (whereit'sat) aol dot com.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

by Edward Mujinga

They walked quickly down the road, down the hill towards the station. A little of the early morning mist still hung in the valley. The air was fresh. The pavement fluctuated in width so where the kerb had crumbled away Tonda, the younger of the two, was obliged to step into the gutter. He bobbed up and down gaily, not minding the inconvenience in the slightest, for he was in fine spirits; his large head was swinging from side to side, observing all the familiar houses decked out in the year’s first dusting of snow. He was a stocky man, in contrast to Honza, who was taller and thinner. They were marked out as brothers by the colour of their piercing blue eyes. As they hurried along beside the train tracks, they greeted the villagers clearing the snow from pathways and threw hastily gathered snowballs at a few favourite dogs.

"Sun’ll probably melt it by ten o’clock anyway" sniffed Honza.

At the station they stamped their feet to shake off the excess snow and clapped their hands. Tonda told a rude joke which made his companion guffaw great clouds of steaming breath and caused Mr. Mrkev to turn around and give a stern look in their direction. Then they ducked their heads to step into the tiny ticket office, where they bought two return tickets for Prague.

"Nice to see you again young Honza" said the grizzly old lady behind the desk.

"Thanks Mrs.Tatarka, I’m enjoying being back."

"Snow in November? Whatever next?"

"Yes. The village looks beautiful though."

"You’ll be here for a while I hope. It’s such a nice time after university, with all your options spread out in front you."

If only you knew the half of it you dear old bat, thought Honza as he smiled and nodded his head like an obedient child. Then he heard the hoot of the train at the bridge and was spared any further questions.

On the train, Tonda opened up his book (‘Space Menace’ screamed the cover) and was soon immersed. Honza watched him for a while, amused at his rapt expression, then slouched down in the seat and turned his attention to the fields flashing past. His eyes flicked back and forth, he was amazed that the landscape could look so different despite the number of times he had already travelled through it. Only the man-made stuff was recognisable as the train eased its way into the familiar grey outskirts of Prague. He closed his eyes and drifted off into one of his favourite reveries, imagining walking around the streets of a deserted city, with no other people around to spoil his appreciation of the terrible grandeur of all the empty buildings, the silence of a place finally at rest. Then there was a roaring in his ears and when he opened his eyes they were in the tunnel under Namesti Miru; most of the people in the carriage were already standing up and buttoning their coats.

The two brothers stayed seated. They exchanged a smile as the train slid into Hlavni Nadrazi, which broke into laughter when they heard the antiquated jingle of the public announcement system, the one that they used to enjoy singing along to so much when they were kids.

"I don’t think they’ll ever change it" said Tonda.

"How could they?"

When they got off the train, they entered the city. Everyone seemed to be running from one place to another and the brothers found it hard to stay together, caught up in the crowd flowing towards the exits. They battled to the steps and descended into the main station. It made Honza feel alive to see all the movement, to hear snatches of a thousand conversations, to observe the pickpockets sizing up the tourists and the police following the pickpockets and the drunks watching the police and the tourists holding their maps upside down and looking lost. They helped a bewildered French couple find the platform for the train to Dresden and then continued. After getting attacked by a swarm of Japanese schooolchildren and picking up a stick for a polite elderly gentleman who turned out to be as drunk as a newt, they made it into the fresh air. It felt a few degrees warmer than back in the village. Tonda screwed up his nose.

"Phooey, it smells of piss here."

"Come on cowboy, this here odour is the authentic healing air of Prague central. Where’s the snow?"

"None here. Be yellow anyway. So where we going?"

"Vaclak then Starometska?"

"Sounds good."

They struck off at a fast pace towards Wenceslas Square, flowing along in the stream of office workers. Honza had not been to Prague for a year or so, and he was enjoying being back. He could tell Tonda was happy too, from the way he was staring at the shopfronts, the cars, the pretty girls.

"What’s that noise?" asked Tonda as they neared the square. They could hear some sort of discordant music, it sounded like some cooks banging pots together and chanting. They quickened their pace imperceptibly and bent their heads forward in unison. As they came around the corner, the sunlight glinting down the square dazzled them momentarily and then they were surrounded by flowing orange robes and unearthly singing.

"Hey, it’s the Hare Krishnas!" cried Tonda excitedly; they were in the midst of a group of sweet young disciples with shaved heads and trusting eyes who danced around them, shaking tambourines and thumping drums. Honza had a broad smile as he watched them traipse off down the street. Once one of his friends had told him that they all wore Nike trainers under their robes and he had never known for sure if it was a joke or not; he had been happy to confirm that it was. Like all true adepts, they wore sandals.

"Only in Prague eh?"

"Hare Hare Christmas."

At a relaxed pace, they followed the distant chanting and happily told each other how much better and less commercial the square used to be. The Old Town Square was also a disappointment, its beautiful cobblestones dominated by a group of twee little sheds selling souvenir crap for tourists, and even worse, a bar selling beer and mulled wine.

"As if they’re weren’t enough bloody inns already in Prague" moaned Honza, "You know, a few years back, I used to enjoy sitting on the statue of Jan Hus with my friends from college and smoking a nice big reefer, just chilling out watching the people. Then they made it a fineable offence to sit there and put benches around it, now if you sit on a bench all you get to see is drunken English lager louts getting more hammered. What’s the point in that?"

"It’s a terrible, terrible disgrace grandad" replied Tonda. "But hey, isn’t that Professor Mason?"

Although Honza had no particular wish to see his old tutor, Tonda was already waving him over so he had to pull his face into a serviceable smile.

"Tonda, Honza, nice to see you both again."


"What brings you to Prague?"

"Oh, just a social visit" lied Honza.

"I was just on my way to Puzzle Books. Do you fancy joining me?"

"Sure, why not?" Tonda nodded enthusiastically and propelled Honza around so that the three men were lined up with Mason in the middle. He was a classic avantgarde theorist, with de riguer wire rimmed spectacles, a black suit with a black polo neck underneath, and a black leather attache case which he clutched to his chest as if it contained all the secrets of the universe, which of course it did--for him at least. He was indeed an excellent, passionate teacher, but Honza had followed the usual course of first falling under his spell, then tiring of his routine and finally rejecting the source of his knowledge so as to evolve his own standpoint. Such is the inevitable cycle, both men knew it, but it made meeting like this slightly awkward. To make matters worse, now Tonda was Mason’s student and in the first flush of infatuation, despite Honza’s frequent attempts to make him see sense. So Tonda rabbited on as they left the square and passed under a small bridge into a courtyard with a few shops scattered around it, both men listening respectfully to a rather unsophisticated critique and waiting for a decent moment to interrupt. When Tonda finally paused for breath, Mason interjected "Interesting Tonda, very interesting. And now Honza what exactly have you been doing?"

Honza opened and shut his mouth. He hated these questions. And especially today. At the door of the bookshop, Mason turned towards him and fixed him with a special look.

"Better perhaps not to catch you off guard like this" he said and gave a rare curt smile.

"Now if you excuse me I must make an order. But first let me recommend this to you both."

He plucked a book off the nearest shelf and handed it to Tonda who grabbed it as if it had just fallen from the very skies above. Honza gave it a short glance but preferred to brood on his recent inability to respond to direct questions.

"Look Tondik, I feel like a walk before I meet Jitka. See you at the train station cafe at seven?"


Tonda looked a bit surprised, but he would plainly jump at the chance to spend more time with Mason, his unofficial guru, so Honza was able to slip away out of the shop and breathe some fresh air.

He felt like getting away from all these people, all these buildings, all this energy. He wanted to be walking in the forest near his house, with the calm trees and the subtle sounds of nature, not stuck in the middle of this constant roar. He pushed past groups of people taking photographs of buildings so frenetically it was as if they were about to vanish and followed one street after another as the turnings popped up in front of him. He dived into a passageway and miraculously came out back on Wenceslas Square again. He frowned and wondered how it had happened, he wanted to get to a park and had planned to go to Letna but that meant retracing his footsteps over the Old Town Square and he disliked going backwards, so instead he decided to go to Vysehrad. He crossed the road quickly and started walking up the hill. The air was brisk but not cold and without really looking at the people he passed, he marched up through IP Pavlova and down a footpath. He stopped for a moment to look across at the two towers of the Vysehrad cathedral, standing as dark and as proud as ever and something in his heart lifted a bit. The tears that had been pricking at his eyes retreated and he skipped down the steps. By the time he reached the park he was smiling again, and he ambled around the citadel, checking all his favourite views and places to sit; but there were also a lot of other people everywhere, drawn out by the afternoon sun. Inane chatter invaded his thought, clicking cameras interrupted his own mental photography, he felt himself growing irritated again. He was stood looking down towards the Vltava, watching it snake underneath the railway bridge and he decided he had time to walk over to Andel, have lunch there and then go to the hospital.

Halfway across the bridge, Honza stopped for a moment and looked down at the water. Some swans were swimming in a line towards the campsite island and he wondered how toxic the water was--it looked rather brown. He had seen a few fisherman dotted along on the waterfront,yet he had never seen any of them catch a thing. Furthermore, he could not understand why they did not take the car that was always parked nearby and head out of town to where the river was less polluted and the scenery nicer.

Still thinking these thoughts, he reached the other bank and decided to hop under the railing, take a shortcut down the slope and walk along the riverside path. The gradient was quite steep and he was distracted by his thoughts, so he slipped and landed smack on his arse. He stood up slowly and rubbed his behind, feeling a little bit foolish. A loud laugh made him jump and he turned round to see a genial old fisherman, decked out in the usual uniform of a lumberjack shirt and tatty green trousers.

"Saw you fall over you young tyke! Head in the clouds I'll bet."


"Fancy a spot of rum to erase the memory?"

The old man waved a small hipflask and beckoned him over. Honza shrugged and gingerly picked his way to the riverbank, where the man had a small camp set up. There were two rods, set on stands with the lines extending out into the river. He had a expensive looking foldable chair into which he collapsed with a grunt and various accroutrements set around it, such as a radio, a flask for a warm drink, the remains of his lunch and a book.

"Sod this" he said, and put the hip flask back into a pocket, "You look like you need a proper medical-sized shot."

The man pointed to a tree trunk which looked like a good place to sit and pulled out a bottle of rum from his bag, producing also two plastic beakers into which he poured a sizeable splash.

"Best of luck."

"Your health."

Honza was a bit bewildered by this unexpected generosity and now the rum was burning at his throat. He coughed and wiped his mouth.

"Strong stuff eh sailor?"

"Yeah. Hey, can I ask you a question?"

"Go ahead young man, go right ahead."

The old man nodded magnanimously and carefully adjusted his rods.

Honza blew his nose and thought how strange and beautiful it was that with some people one can instantly feel at ease.

"Why sit here all day? I mean, granted you must like fishing, but I mean, why not take the car and drive out to Karlstejn or Dobrichovice and have a fish in the countryside where the water’s fresher?"

The man looked at him sharply.

"It’s the same river here isn’t it?"

"Yes, but-"

"No, no, I quite understand. The thing is that you misunderstand the purpose of my fishing."

"Do I? Why I never even-"

"Well you see the thing is, I’m not sitting here because I want to catch fish, or even because I actually enjoy fishing. My sole intent in being here is not to do anything else. You follow me? So actually the fishing and all this gear is quite extraneous. I’m here because my wife is not here, my troubles are far away, the neighbours don’t exist. Here and only here I’m free."


"And I’ll tell you another thing, the location does not matter either, except for the fact that I need to be near the river. It could be Decin, Dresden or Hamburg for all I care. Now tell me something. Have you ever listened to the river?"

There was a pause. Two swans appeared heading for the bridge. Honza realised that this time he was actually supposed to say something.

"Er, well, yeah, I like to sit by the stream near my house and listen to all the noises it makes. I find it a lot more soothing than the noise of the city actually."

"Exactly" The old man grinned delightedly, "That’s exactly the point my dear boy. I knew you understood. That’s what I’m doing here, escaping the city and listening to nature. You can learn a lot from this river. Try and listen. Go on."

Honza looked around at the discarded cigarette packets, McDonalds wrappers, beer cans, old boots and ripped plastic bags on the dirty river bank and wondered if he had met a loony. Still, he understood what the man was talking about, so he listened harder and caught the sound of a gentle, powerful lapping. And something else too, something beyond words. He smiled.

The old man jerked his head enthusiastically.

"There you go. You hear it too I know. Another shot of rum?"
"Yes please" said Honza mechanically. He did a very quick mental calculation and realised that this would have to be lunch. The rum tickled his throat and warmed his stomach.

"It’s funny how the river is always changing yet always the same. I mean the water that went past two days ago is probably somewhere like the North Sea by now."

A train rattled over the bridge above and they had to wait until it passed before continuing.

"Yes, young man, yes, but think about it further. The water flows past and goes on and on, and eventually gets evaporated back up into the air--who's to say this cloud above hasn’t come back from the North Sea even? Maybe if it rains tonight some atoms of the water that went past here last week will end up precisely at this point again. Who is to say? This universe works in much more mysterious ways than we can ever imagine."

Honza looked at this man, a new friend and a broad smile broke out across his face. He handed back the beaker and shook his hand.

"It was nice to meet you. I’ve got to go meet someone. Good luck with the fish."

"Who cares about the fish? Goodbye!"

Honza walked up to Andel, looking anxiously for a street clock until he saw one at Na Kniezeci and realised he still had enough time. He bought a Tatranky and loitered at the bus stop, watching an old lady slowly shuffle her way across the tarmac, her frame bent almost double. The bus ride passed in a blur of thoughts. Then he reached Motol and saw Jitka, waiting on the steps. She had her hair pulled back into a bun and looked more serious than usual, more business-like in her best clothes.



"Look, I’m sorry about the other day ..."

"Me too."

"I said some things I didn’t mean."

"You can be a real bastard if you want."

She smiled her toothy grin and her eyes flashed. He kissed those sweet lips and hugged her tight. He looked at her again and he could see that she had been crying, her make-up was a little bit smudged. He tried to remedy the situation as best he could and she wriggled away from him.

"You still wanna do this?"

"Uh huh."


"Yes. Now give me another hug."

Honza held her tight again and told himself that the universe works in many vague and mysterious ways. She was crying when he looked at her and he could not think of any words which were adequate, so he just hugged her and held her until it was time. He wanted to tell her about the old man but not now.

"So, you sure you don’t want me to come with you?"

"Yes. It’s better like this."

He still didn’t understand why it was better like that, but if that was how she felt, then that was how it would be.

"So let’s meet later, say six o’clock, Old Town Square?"

"Okay, fine, see you then."

She kissed him but already her eyes were far away, lost in a distant realm where he had no ticket to travel. He stood up and watched her push the doors open, a small smartly dressed woman pushing with her shoulder against the ponderous heavy doors of the hospital. Then the doors swung slowly shut and she was inside.

He went back to the bus stop and stood there, lost in thought. A bus came and went and he only noticed when it was too late. He laughed and waited for the next one. He had a little over three hours to kill so he went back to the Old Town and wandered aimlessly around the tiny streets. He stopped for a cup of tea then headed for the Old Town Square, buying a falafel on the way. As soon as he got there he remembered how the rampant commercialism had annoyed him earlier in the day and wished that he had arranged somewhere else to meet. He munched his food thoughtfully, trying to ignore the shouts echoing over from the bar area, watching the people walk past, all different, all unique, all running at different speeds but somehow managing to exist together in such a delicate four-dimensional space. He squinted at a figure in the distance who reminded him of the fisherman, but it was someone else. He imagined himself at forty or fifty years old, wearing the checked shirt and camping trousers, leaving Jitka at home to sit in his own private space under the Vysehrad bridge. Just him and the river. It was quite a nice idea. Then he turned his attention to the stage by the bar and was amused to watch a choir of small girls murder a version of 'White Christmas'.

"Good God, it’s only bloody November and they want us to start buying Christmas presents" said Jitka as she sank down beside him.

"Hello ..."


"So, how was it?"


"Well, come on, I want to know if you’re OK or not."

"I’m OK. But it was horrible. Degrading. Weird. Never again."

"No, definitely never again."

He squeezed her tight and hoped she was not harbouring resentment against him. In some obscure way he felt that he deserved it.

"When’s your train?"

"Seven thirty, like always. Do you want to come?"

"I can’t. Got work tomorrow. Next weekend maybe."

They sat for a bit and watched the people walking past them. Then the clock struck half past six and it was time for him to go.

"I love you."

"I love you too."

At the cafe, Tonda was full to bursting with newly acquired knowledge, spilling his coffee in his eagerness to greet Honza and get him seated. Honza took a seat and ordered a coffee; he nodded when he judged it appropriate and concentrated on stirring in the sugar.

"So you see Kant’s theory of aesthetics is ingenious. He blends the mystical and the scientific and takes a leap into the void of human understanding centuries before the ‘rational’ scientists come along and tell us that the brain works with synapses and electrical charges."


"Yes. When he talks of the aesthetic function being performed by the faculty of the imagination rubbing together with the faculty of understanding, he’s making a fundamental insight into the working of the human brain. Quite astounding for a man writing in the eighteenth century without the discoveries of modern science."


"Once again philosophy leads the human quest for knowledge."

Honza sighed to hear a maxim he had heard too many times before and put his head in his hands. The table felt cold against his forehead. He was compelled to hurt his brother’s feelings.

"Look, to be honest, I’m not in the mood to hear a word-perfect rendition of a Mason lecture right now Tondik. I am familiar with these views already remember and to be really honest I think they’re a load of horseshit."

Tonda started to reply, then thought the better of it. He scratched his head then prudently changed the subject.

"Where’s Jitka? She’s not coming back with us?"

"Not this time, no. Drink up, let’s go."

And so back to the train, an identical version of the one they had caught so early that the morning, which now seemed more like yesterday. Honza wanted to get home, to have a bath and then sleep. Outside the window it was already dark. Tonda had got the message that Honza wanted to be alone with his thoughts, so he was immersed in the book which Mason had recommended.

The train moved slowly out of Prague and as it trundled over the Vysehrad bridge, Honza looked down at where he had been sitting with the old fisherman and ruminated on their conversation. It was certainly correct that man could learn a lot from the nature around him, but Honza felt that this was only part of the picture; man could also learn a lot from his fellow man. He looked over at Tonda, wondering what he was thinking about. Their eyes met and his brother flicked him a grin. Honza smiled back and decided he had done enough for one day. He was tired. He relaxed his shoulders and settled down in his seat, listening to the train clattering along, the rhythmical shunts and bangs which would form the benign soundtrack to the journey home.

edward betrand le mujinga lives in a squatted nuclear bunker in holland. his only companions are two brave czech cats. he is stockpiling short stories for an eventual assault on the literary establishment and occasionally publishes a fine zine called (unsurprisingly) mujinga. issue sixteen is currently thrilling the masses. to gain a copy of this esteemed publication, email bintang (whereit'sat) seznam dot cz --trades, mail art, collaborative offers, weird things and unsolicited goods are welcomed. he thanks you for your time and hopes you enjoy this story, which appeared in a previous issue of mujinga. and by the way, if you feel like publishing a short story by him, please do get in touch.