Alexandri & Absher – February 2017
Nathanael Absher and Maya Alexandri traded art and words. Nathanael shared this image, entitled “Demiurge,” with Maya:
In response, Maya wrote this short story:
The Full Circle
He was shot through again.
No, not shot this time. Tim was both reacting to being shot, again, and also aware that he was not being shot this time.
His shoulders were tensing, contracting as if pummeled from beneath, assaulted by his lungs as they recoiled, rocketing upwards in an attempt to launch themselves away from his lower abdomen, where he had been shot. Where the bullet had entered him. His throat was inflamed with bile and blood and horror. He had been shot.
He knew that he had not been shot again. He even knew that he was dreaming, that in his dream he was re-experiencing being shot, while knowing that he had not been shot this time.
When he had been shot, the bullet had seared. There had been a delay while the organs in his abdomen scrambled away from the bullet that was shredding his intestines; a pause during which he had thought that he would suffocate on his own stomach acid and fear. Then his guts had exploded with unbounded, blazing pain.
The pain he felt now was distinct. It was sharp. It plunged and receded. He was being stabbed. Speared where he had been shot.
Tim twisted on the spear tip like a thrashing fish. He heaved and coughed and contorted around the blade point. Behind his closed eyelids, he had a glimpse of bare limbs thrusting with the spear. The spear wielder had some kind of grudge. He was digging in and swooping around, like he was trying to spell damnation in Tim’s guts.
Tim did not fight back. He flailed. He clenched and gasped and cried out. The pain came and came again and when it again came, Tim found that he was screaming out loud. He was no longer asleep. He was entangled in his sheet, wet, and screaming.
Guilt about disturbing the people in the neighboring apartments silenced him. The clock glowed: 4:22 a.m. His tongue was dry as kindling, and his face was hot. He was ashamed.
His hands bunched the wet sheet. He considered blood and sniffed for urine, but the wetness had never been blood or urine when this dream had come previously. He turned on the bedside lamp. The wetness was perspiration. He was dripping sweat.
Before his open eyes, the dream had yet to fade. For a moment longer, the embers of a massive circle smoldered, floating, sparking upwards in the distance; and farther away still, on the lip of an infinitely-regressing horizon, Tim could almost see a promontory. At the top of the promontory, something flashed before the whole vision vanished, but it was so far away, rendered in so profound a miniature, that Tim thought he must have imagined that the flash was a bare arm.
He went to work.
It was just after 5 a.m. The community center where Tim was a security guard would not open until 7 a.m., but Tim had the keys and could let himself into the building. It was better to wait at the community center than to wait in his apartment. The community center had a peaceful air to it.
Tim did not know exactly what went on there, but he saw that the place did nice things for people. The community center offered HIV-related services, and Tim did not want to know anything about them. He did not want to know which of the community center’s regulars had HIV; he did not want the anxiety of having to behave normally around people that he knew were infected with HIV. But he knew the community center was not just about AIDS. People came for one-on-one meetings or group sessions, or for boxes of food, or for clothing, or for medicine, or for job fairs, or for needle exchanges, or for help of more general or specific types, and people at the community center helped them.
The people who came for help mostly looked worn or pounded. The people who helped them also looked worn or pounded, but they tended to be wearing better quality shoes. Tim spent a good deal of time looking down.
Tim almost felt that he was helping people too; but even starting to think and feel that he was helpful made disabling sensations of guilt spark through his abdomen. He was just a security guard at the community center.
The community center might have had some religious affiliation. Tim was not sure. He had never seen a cross there. But he was pretty certain that the woman he was waiting for that morning was a nun.
He waited in the staff break room.
He started the drip coffee maker going and opened the window for a local homeless cat that he had befriended and named Stanley. Stanley liked to materialize in Tim’s vicinity and meow. Now, as was his habit, Stanley sat on the windowsill and made demands. Tim poured himself a cup of coffee and gave Stanley a bowl of water.
There was no television in the break room, and Tim did not feel like looking at the screen on his phone. He sat on the second-hand couch. Wildly proliferating tendrils of the hanging spider fern made a glade of the couch’s armrest. Stanley was satisfied to sit on Tim’s lap and intently examine the fern glade for some minutes. Perhaps upon concluding that the fern glade was entirely devoid of spiders, crickets, or ants, Stanley rose, stretched his hind legs, and departed through the open window. Later, Tim closed the window.
He wondered if she was the only person at the community center who knew his name. She had been there when he had oriented on his first day, and when introducing himself he had told her why he had left the police force and taken this job: he had been shot. She was the only person at the community center that he had told, and she was the only one there who greeted him by name; who greeted him every time she saw him.
He turned from the window to answer her greeting. He did not usually look directly at her, but this time he did because he wanted to know whether she was a nun. He had already decided that he would do whatever she recommended. He did not know what else to do, and following her guidance was better than doing nothing. Besides which, he felt like she would be right; a nun would not lead him astray.
He did not know why he was so confident that she was a nun. She was large for a woman, tall and strong, but still small relative to him. She wore those black clogs that nurses wear, navy slacks, and a burgundy cardigan over a thin black sweater. Her hair was loose.
It was her face, he decided. It was open and smiling, even when her expression was neutral. Her face radiated light, as if she had tilted her halo forward to cover it.
“Hello, Delphine,” he said, meeting her eyes for the first time since orientation day. The connection caused him to forget himself, and he spoke easily, as if his next sentence was socially appropriate and utterly normal: “I have a confession to make.”
“I think I must have done something wrong. Can you help me find out what I did wrong?” Tim asked. “So I can …” he paused, unsure of the right word. “Make it better?”
It was Tim’s lunch break. He worked 7-to-7, with thirty minutes for lunch and two fifteen-minute breaks that he was not allowed to take back-to-back. In response to Tim’s request for confession that morning, Delphine had invited him to meet her in her office during his lunch. Apparently, she was a social worker.
“Why do you think you’ve done something wrong?”
“Because I am being punished.”
“How are you being punished?” Delphine asked gently.
“I have this nightmare,” Tim began and was surprised at how thick his throat was. His face had flushed instantly. He looked down and cleared his throat. He tried to breathe deeply and failed, wheezing. He was confused. He was not afraid to cry. He knew crying was okay when talking to nuns and social workers, even for men; he just had not expected himself to do it. “I have this nightmare,” he mumbled again, wiping away the tears.
“Take your time,” she assured him.
A resistance to her offer of comfort spurred him. His lunch break would end soon, and he would be back to his solitary post and the occasional company of a wayward cat. He would not be comforted; he had no reason to feel comfort. A determination to stumble through his confession seized him. “I think I am being raped,” he rasped. “In my nightmare. He rapes me in my gunshot wound with a long, sharp pole. Night after night. He sticks the pole in me where I was shot and swoops it around.” He saw from her expression that she was making efforts to understand, but he could not stop to explain. His account rushed out: “Last night, or this morning, the last time it happened, I think I saw him. He has bare arms. He sits like an eagle on a promontory peak. That’s where he crouched after he raped me. Far away. There was a smoldering circle between us.”
Delphine let the pause following his outflow grow until the silence was an indication of acceptance and the ease with which a pair of animals can sit in proximity. Then she asked: “Does it hurt? In your dream, being raped with this pole, does it hurt?”
“It’s like being stabbed where I was shot. I wake up screaming.”
“I am sorry,” she said quietly. “That sounds very hard. I am really sorry.” After a beat, she asked, “Is that why you think you are being punished? Because of the pain?”
Tim nodded. “And the,” he gulped, “rape.” He wiped his eyes and choked out his next sentence in a whisper: “It’s like being tortured.”
Delphine’s posture shifted so that her entire physical presence conveyed empathy. She waited until Tim’s affect suggested receptivity, and then she said, “Could it be possible that your dream might have some other meaning? Like, maybe, a meaning that’s different from you being punished, raped, or tortured? Is there anything else that could be happening?”
Tim looked at her, curious, but uncomprehending. Her face was radiating light.
“Is it maybe possible that the dream has the potential to be healing?”
Tim shrugged. “I don’t know how.”
“Because your dream has mythological references in it,” she continued. “And the mythological references are not about punishment. They’re about creation.” She rose from her chair and scanned her bookshelf until she located a volume and pulled it down. “Have you heard of the demiourgos? He’s from Plato.”
Tim had heard of Plato.
Delphine fanned through the pages until her search was rewarded: a picture secreted between the books pages, like dried flowers being pressed flat. She returned the book to the shelf, sat back down, and examined the picture. “The word means ‘craftsman,’ and I guess you could say that demiourgos is like an artist. He’s a creator who renders a perfect idea into an imperfect material existence. You know, the way artists do their best to give concrete form to the beauty in their imaginations.”
Tim did not know.
“In Plato, demiourgos is the creator god of the world. He’s got a stylus, which is a long, sharp pole,” Delphine looked at Tim with a kindly wink, “which might be making an appearance in your dream. But a stylus is for writing, and what demiourgos writes is the circle of creation. Do you think that could be your smoldering circle?” She smiled.
Delphine was moving a bit fast for Tim.
“In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was a circle, was ‘O,’ the enso of perfection, and the first sound in ‘Om.’” Delphine met Tim’s questioning eyes and smiled again. “Well, maybe. Anyway, here.” She handed him the picture. “Of course, before the Word in the beginning, there was probably something else. The pre-beginning was the sensation. The Word is the beginning of the mind making a story about sensation.” Delphine sighed. “You know, when the sensations of a traumatic event return repeatedly, that could be post-traumatic stress disorder —”
“— I don’t have PTSD.”
Delphine smiled her acceptance of Tim’s immediate rejection of her suggestion. “Well, being visited by a god in a dream is not an unusual experience,” she said. “We’ve got good evidence that humans have been dreaming visitations by gods for as long as we’ve been able to make lasting evidence.”
Tim looked at the picture she had handed him. He was so unmoored that the image was not even properly forming before his eyes. He gave up trying to see the picture and glanced beseechingly at her. “But what should I do?”
The question escaped his mouth even though Tim knew that Delphine could not answer it. Tim had experience with social workers. He had talked to his Employee Assistance Program counselors after he had been shot. Nothing they had said was helpful, so Tim had concluded that he must not have PTSD. He would not have talked to Delphine if he had known that she was a social worker. He had only confided in her because he had thought that she was a nun.
To his surprise, Delphine answered now: “You might try letting the demiourgos draw his circle inside you.”
Tim shook his head. He was not sure if he had ever had a weirder conversation. Possibly when he was in high school and had tried shrooms, those conversations might have been more bizarre, but he did not remember them. And yet he was answering, nonsensically, even as he judged that what he was saying was ridiculous, “Can people even do that? Decide how they dream? Negotiate with the god that visits them?”
“Oh sure,” Delphine replied, like it was no big deal.
Tim sat in bed, scrutinizing the picture that Delphine had given him. Now that he could focus on the image, it disturbed him. Gazing at the painting was like reenacting his dream; the painter had seen what he had seen. But from the opposite direction. In the foreground of the painting was the promontory, on which the demiourgous crouched, with his back to the viewer. In his dream, by contrast, Tim had been in the foreground, looking at the promontory in the distance, and the demiourgous presumably had been facing Tim. But the other details in the painting were the same as in his dream: in the distance, the infinitely-regressing horizon; and between the horizon and the foreground, the smoldering circle. And more than the specific details, the mood of the painting conjured the dream.
He was stupefied that a stranger had captured on canvas what Tim had believed to be his private experience. He flipped over the picture and read on the back that the painting was in the collection owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The artist was Nathanael Absher. These names were meaningless to Tim.
But Absher had seen what Tim had dreamed – of that, Tim was convinced – and Delphine had known that Absher had painted Tim’s dream. Tim was dumbfounded at her prevision. This kind of divination was not in the social worker’s skill set, he felt sure; he did not even think augury was something he could expect from a nun. The idea that Delphine was a person with such extreme access to prophecy made him feel dizzy.
Overcome as he was, Tim merely accepted Absher’s testimony that the demiourgos was bare everywhere, not just his arms. There was a time when this fact would have concerned Tim, but tonight he was beyond being upset about the proposition of a naked man spearing him in his gunshot wound. All his energy was devoted to the problem of letting the demiourgos draw the full circle inside him.
When it started that night, it hurt, like he expected. It hurt. He was shot through again. He was conscious that he was reacting to being shot, again, and simultaneously that he was dreaming. The demiourgos was visiting him in his dream. Tim was pinioned on the point of the demiourgous’ stylus, which thrust into the scar from his gunshot wound. He was being stabbed where he had been shot.
Tim clenched his teeth and balled his hands into fists. I am not being shot, he told himself in his dream: let the demiourgos draw the full circle inside you. The stylus began to swoop, describing an arc through Tim’s thorax, and the pain was extraordinary. Tim bit his tongue. Sweat ran off his body, and his hammering heart felt bruised beneath his ribcage. He convulsed and shook and swallowed back nausea.
I am not being shot, Tim screamed to himself, as he cringed into fetal position, and the stylus plunged off its course, tearing sharp and hard and deep tracks of pain before retracting. Tim howled, howled, but to his immense gratitude (of which he was aware, even as he dreamed), his cry remained dream-bound.
Panting, terrified, desperate to end his ordeal, and struggling for the strength to allow the god to finish, Tim uncurled himself and lay flat. The effort took a long time. He had strong impulses to contract and protect his abdomen. He countered them with his determination to gain liberation from the recurrence of this dream. To be done with reliving the sensations of being shot. And, he realized: to allow creation to take root in his wound. He lay in his bed, asleep and dreaming that he was lying flat in his bed, awaiting the completion of the circle.
When the stylus again penetrated his gunshot wound scar, the pain was less. Tim’s shoulders tensed reflexively, but he coaxed them to relent. The stylus dug deeply, and Tim gasped, but then calmed his breathing, resolved neither to resist nor to re-experience being shot.
Behind his closed eyelids, Tim saw the limbs of the god fluorescing, the glowing limbs wielding the stylus, and the embers of the smoldering circle that the demiourgus was inscribing inside Tim began to spark. Tim’s back arched with the stylus’ motion. His knees and elbows bent as his arms and legs flopped open, and the ball-and-socket joints in his pelvis rotated outward: he was unstrung.
Now the heat of the rapidly-forming circle spread throughout his body, and he no longer felt pain. He had a vision of sparks, only bright sparks, white hot. The motion of the stylus through him was like a ladle through molten honey. He could feel it circling and circling and circling, and he was coming, contractions rippling his thighs, sleeping and dreaming and moaning, entangled in his sheet, wet, sighing, and he came again, the stylus circling inside him, and when the stylus again came full circle, he again came.
* * * * *
Maya shared this story with Nathanael:
Sylvia didn’t understand how blacks got stereotyped as hypersexual. Born and raised in East Africa, she considered her exposure to blacks not inconsiderable, and in her experience they were obsessed with money. The lascivious looks from blacks were occasioned by her wallet, not her breasts. Blacks were vulgar only in their refusal to form any but the most shallow relationships with her, in order to discard such pretenses with utmost speed when the opportunity arose to shake her until all the coins fell from her pockets. The blacks were, without question, the Jews of Africa.
That is, except for the Indians, who in East Africa were labeled “Asians,” a term that, considering its roots in British colonial parlance, had surprising potential for endurance in an ever more politically correct world. As the Asians had been marginalized from East African government – the locus in which the blacks grew rich siphoning funds for communal purposes into personal coffers – the Asians were left to dominate certain commercial sectors. Though free from legal obstacles restricting their assimilation in society, the Indians eschewed mixing, choosing instead to live in closed communities, bound by their distinctive food, their inbreeding and their money. Definitely, they were the Jews of Africa.
Until, possibly, the Chinese arrived. The Chinese truly had no interest beyond money. If the blacks wanted to shake her until the coins spilled out, the Chinese throttled all of East Africa until the red earth split open and poured forth its wealth. Openly contemptuous of blacks, uninterested in the society, landscape or animals – except to whatever extent such resources could be exploited – separated by language, looks and living conditions, the Chinese cultivated an isolation that made the Asians appear, by comparison, boosters for East Africa. If one was looking for a parasitic Jew feeding on an economy, one looked no further than the Chinese in East Africa.
Unless one looked at the whites. The most corrupt black politician, the most rabidly capitalist Indian, the most rapaciously exploitative Chinese – none could compete with the whites, who had been corrupt governors, rabid capitalists and rapacious exploiters so much earlier than everyone else. Their head start was insurmountable. In fact, the whites had so much money that the allure of riches in East Africa had long ago ceased to arouse them: what captivated the whites was the power. Whether fucking or feeding the blacks, the whites presided from a precipice of power. In this respect, the whites couldn’t fairly be called the Jews of Africa.
Which was funny because she was Jewish.
Sylvia didn’t understand why the Renaissance happened in Venice and not, say, Delhi or Xi’An. Chewing with his mouth open, Arlen opined that the Venetians understood “the essence of beauty.” The statement was one that she now recognized as a typical expression of his thinking, which she characterized as “fuzzy,” but which might more generously have been labeled “French.”
She objected that the Indians and Chinese had also, early on, developed highly sophisticated aesthetics; that, up until the Medieval period, Venetian visual art showed no advance over Indian or Chinese art in terms of perspective, three-dimensionality of subjects, realism or composition; and then the Renaissance happened in Venice, while Delhi and Xi’An were still awaiting a similar upheaval in visual perception.
He replied that there had been “some theories” about why “civilization” had developed around the Mediterranean. “It has to do with a triangle,” he said, making the shape with his fingers. “Some theories, in fact, I think it is very interesting, very good.” He stroked her cheek.
Instead of flinching, she finished her spritz. He hadn’t been her idea. She’d agreed, but – like overseas schooling – he’d been her father’s idea. And despite the overseas schooling, she was still susceptible to her father’s pressure. (Indeed, she reflected, as a mid-thirties, unmarried woman, she might in some ways be more susceptible to her father’s pressure than she had been as a teenager.) She realized that finding herself in Venice with an unmarried Jewish academic who owned an apartment in Paris was not some people’s (to say nothing of some East African people’s) idea of a situation about which to complain. She wasn’t complaining; but she was arguing:
He hadn’t heard of Jared Diamond, a Jew, but she cited his ideas about how geography had facilitated advances in human societal development in Europe, as contrasted with the rest of the world; and he hadn’t heard of Walter Ong, a Jesuit, but she mentioned his analysis of the differences in consciousness between oral and literate societies; and she synthesized these theories to propose that geography and literacy had combined to enable the shift in human consciousness on which the achievements of the Renaissance rested.
He nodded as if he understood her argument without having to pay attention to it and said that the Renaissance rested on “the idea of the individual.”
He hadn’t heard of Randall Collins, a sociologist, but she countered with an adaptation of Collins’ theory that philosophical innovations only arise through the interaction of groups: the “genius men” of the Renaissance depended on communal momentum to vault them over the pre-existing Medieval limitations. “That’s why Venice was special – it had more patrons than anywhere else and supported a bigger community of great artists simultaneously.”
He agreed only insofar as stating that he was sure the Renaissance happened in Venice because of “many particularities.”
Which was unsatisfying because he was an art history professor, while she was a humanitarian aid worker.
Sylvia didn’t understand why her viscera and cerebra refused to cooperate. She knew that she wanted to be married and to have children, and she knew that she wanted to be married to man who would love her simply and faithfully. She knew (from experience) that she didn’t want a man inclined towards emotional manipulation, verbal and physical abuse, financial exploitation, or addiction. She knew Arlen met these criteria.
She nonetheless felt that his presence was almost unbearable. His every comment bored, his every touch aggravated. His apparent obliviousness to the world around him – his messiness in their shared hotel room, his inability to read a map – incensed her. Restraining herself from openly cringing, yelling or balling her hands into fists exhausted her. She ate and drank heavily to dull her senses, to ease her ability to undergo his caresses.
She knew that she might be undermining her chances of a decent marriage. She knew that modern expectations of marriage were unreasonable. She knew that every marriage requires compromise, and that he represented an acceptable compromise. She knew that her resistance to him might be based on fear: perhaps he offered her “real love,” and she was scared of the vulnerability that “real love” entailed. She knew that she was critical of him because he embarrassed her; and she knew also that her embarrassment was unfair: for an academic, he was good looking, well dressed and confined himself to the expected range of gaucherie.
She nonetheless could not become aroused. He would suck her lower lip, blow in her ear and lick her breasts to no avail. His inability to find her clitoris was not altogether different from the deficiencies her past lovers had displayed, but it disgusted her. His incessant petting of her “bush,” as he put it, made her want to scream. He seemed to have no exposure to sexual practices quaintly termed, in days of old, “sodomy”; and his innocence made her reluctant to ask him to do anything that might turn her on. She was relieved, at least, that he seemed unfazed by her frigidity.
Which was maddening because she couldn’t accept her own sexual dysfunction.
Sylvia didn’t understand why anyone thought that awareness raising led to behavior change. Identification of stereotypes – racist, provincial, demonstrably wrong – that plagued her construction of reality did little to reduce their utility in appropriate circumstances. Education in persuasive reasoning techniques, especially as such techniques differed across cultures, proved unable to prevent her from snapping when her audience tried her patience. Years of therapy to dredge the irrational triggers for unhealthy behavioral patterns failed utterly to deprive the triggers of their power.
In fact, she was convinced that self-awareness bore the blame for her life’s dissatisfactions.
No rational argument could dissuade her from her convictions that exposure to “others” was edifying; that segregation by law, economics or happenstance was bad; that promotions programs for disadvantaged and marginalized groups in society were good; that travel reduced provincialism. And still, when she entered the improbably-named-yet-actual establishment in Venice called Café Karibu, she was looking for a black man, a fellow East African, for a specific purpose, a function that chafed against her enlightened beliefs. She found her black man turning up the radio.
Nor could she believe but that every human must be treated with dignity; that the stupid as much as the brilliant are entitled to basic respect; that the responsibility was hers to communicate (even complex ideas) so that her listener could understand. Nonetheless, when she returned to the hotel from Café Karibu in a certain state, and Arlen switched on the electric light and ineptly attempted to hold her to account, she spat harsh and contemptuous words that made him sick with humiliation and bewilderment.
Still further, she trusted that talking about anxieties and traumas was helpful; that self-knowledge supported maturation; that gaining perspective on how others’ perceived her restrained self-involvement and fostered empathy. And yet, when he didn’t hold her in his arms, and instead abruptly left their hotel in Venice, walked to the train station, and took the train back to Paris, she suffered because his departure reinforced a pattern in her life of abandonment by people who claimed to love her.
She was aware that she’d used a black man for a prurient, supporting role that propped up her flailing sense of herself; that she’d been cruel to a harmless love interest; and that her feelings of abandonment were unwarranted in the circumstances. But the revelation changed none of the foregoing; it only made her feel guilty about behaving just as she would have without the awareness.
Which was frustrating because she genuinely wanted to change.
In response, Nathanael made this image, entitled “The Penitent Magdalene”: