[Author’s note: The following pieces are excerpted from Palace of Rubble, a collection of one-page stories composed primarily from single words culled each day from the front page of The New York Times, among other news sources. Written in the tradition of Oulipo, they are reconstructions that in no way resemble the original texts, but draw from the same reservoir of vocabulary — K.S.]
I — THE WEDDING EXIT
The tiger stands in her gown on the eve of the great day, holding still against the wall like a taxidermy trophy, as the young painter begins to sketch her portrait.
Each of her stripes is lost in translation on the page, a gash in the skin of the original image, a bar on a window of a prison with no name. The Sunday television blares on in the other room, with news of bee colonies and longdistance swimmers, and lastly, the tale of a woman who fell from a balcony.
Tomorrow, the tiger’s face will be unveiled as no one has seen it, riddled with thoughts of gardens and playrooms, all but forgetting the blood of the jungle. They will be married in the old theater, on a street like many others, where shoes dangle from the wires they’ve been flung to in the night and the sheriff walks mournfully through a crowd of blue eyes, only dreaming of the chance to lay a hand on his pistol.
“Make way for the still-life bride,” he calls out, ‘come to the killer’s feast.”
And the dogs swarm in from the prairies, and the suits from the heart of town, and even those who linger in empty rooms turn their heads. The wedding creaks on its spool like a moving picture, a romance of ideas fluttering in the dark. In the final scene, the bride and groom step into a time machine, not waiting to say goodbye, jetting off to the honeymoon their children will imagine for them. Hearts rush with sugar as the newlyweds depart. Flowers are thrown up into the air after them, madness blowing ties over guest’s sunken shoulders.
But the tiger and her husband are already miles away in time, each walking by the riverside of their last virgin springs, crawling through the grass to some new mirage of danger. The sun flashes in long exposures of broken china, of sea urchins lying dead on the beach. It sets over an abandoned house, haunted with shadows of a once living glow. The curtains blow out from the window like tongues of flame, as flocks of memory fade with the sirens in the distance.
In a year or a day or an immeasurable instant, the tiger’s portrait will hang above the mantle inside, the replica of a face that has seen the ghost of love.
II — THE AVALANCHE
Many mocked the address, a remote eastern edge above the canyon, eroding and exposed with metallic colors. The banquet of masqueraders make their meeting place there, on a cliff half collapsed before the great abyss.
The desert expanse has become a magnet, like certain vast regions of the heart. What lies before them was once a fabled far flung city like Timbuktu. But now they stare down at a valley of unrecognizable shapes, finding clearer visions in their cups of tea. Some wear masks as they sip, a conference of bandits in carnival plumage, facing a night of anonymous adventure. Others hold up binoculars, as if watching a ballet or a tragedy, the cliffside crumbling in phrases of beautiful movement.
“Schools of fish and flocks of birds are interchangeable,” says one of them. “They move on the current or the wind, swinging back and forth across the sky with no direction.”
“Yet their hopes are not blunted by the thought of never finding a way,” says another.
A few paces off, a man sits at the edge, dangling his feet over the side of the cliff, reading a novel. Each page is like the view from a car window moving fast through blurred landscapes—scenes shifting like postcards exchanged and erased: a cathedral, a farmhouse, a field of snow.
He has known many of these places, but can only sigh at the great number to remain myths never arrived at. His former wife walks in the valley below, thinking the same thoughts, out for a stroll among the thieves and dark shop windows. The evening is dense, marked with few lights but from the eyes of wandering pigeons.
“Why are you out walking at this hour?” asks one of the birds in the street.
“I’ve been here forever,” she replies and continues on through town, as though at the bottom of a sea that has long dried up.
The night hastens, as does the avalanche tumbling from the mountain tops. At the banquet table on the cliff, it is time to rattle the china for a toast.
“To the midnight!” says one masquerader.
“To the wolves that howl!” says another.
They throw off their masks and binoculars and empty their tea cups into the ground, all of them hanging upon delicate threads, as the cliffside is sure to disintegrate in a moment. The man at the edge throws his book into the abyss and orders the masqueraders to tie him to a tree, remembering Odysseus tied to the mast of his ship, hearing the siren’s song without leaping into the ocean.
It is in this way that he sees the avalanche: the sinking mammoths of rock into sand, mass into dust, touch into thought. The beautiful sound coming from the canyon will persist long after.
III — SOMEWHERE ELSE
They’ve been on the road for a long time now, driving through a deepening anxiety of the landscape, first a warm winter, then an early spring.
“Well, this should at least be a boost for austerity,” says the father at the wheel, gazing stoically at the wife beside him.
They pass signs that read phrases like “Chaos Ahead,” “Slow Down,” and, “Decay.” These warnings have grown more frequent the deeper they’ve traveled, eclipsing the old road blocks of “Construction” and “Men at Work.”
“The houses and stuff here, it’s all a little strange,” says the boy in the back seat, lost in the fabric of reverie between his mind and the window, thoughts of skeletons and vacuums and a recent trip to the museum.
He recalls when his teacher asked how dolphins communicate, and how a boy next to him reached over to underline the right answer, causing him to blush.
Up ahead, tourists flail their arms in clouds of black specks, as clumps of homeless children swarm through inconvenient public places. They climb in humming clusters over light posts and parked cars, attracting crowds of gasping onlookers. Never before has the country seen so many of them, a tidal wave of deportees in mass exodus, blurring the line between where they come from and where they are going.
The television trucks are first to arrive, casting aside the stars of reality, as the children bend tree branches and carpet the hollows of the square.
“We’ve waited a long time for this,” says the man with the microphone to no one in particular. “It’s quite a phenomenon.”
Paradoxically, the past always returns. The people outside scour the walls of every building, plastering their bodies over the windows of shops. The barber’s chair groans on its hinges, as the barber runs inside and quietly panics. The grocer huddles against the door and weeps, while the shop girl bites her lip and reaches into her pockets, reminding herself that she has little to lose.
As the road-trippers approach, the flow does not diminish. One swarm covers their station wagon, trapping the family of three inside. The boy in the backseat locks eyes with one of the children on the other side of the glass.
There is no difference between them, they are neither zombie nor mutant, nor any other variety but human. It is a mere case in which it has been decided that only one of them belongs.
The boy inside calls out to the child pressed up against his window. He moans and whistles in sound waves that echo between their foreheads, the language of dolphins suddenly remembered. The father at the wheel pulls a newspaper from the glovebox, rolling it up to swat at the crowd.
He has already read the day’s headlines, that bees are slowly disappearing from the countryside, honey drying up from the lands of milk.
IV — THE AMERICAN FALLS FROM BELOW
The giant stands on the roof of a skyscraper, peering over the edge at the city below. In a linear metropolis where all the buildings point up, the towers now grow in the other direction, crumbling deeper into the ground. They tilt from the sky like jigsaw obelisks, gaping holes along the sides of them where parts are missing, the structures only teetering on jagged beams left protruding from the core. Derelict gardens grow from the windows, spiraling vines rusted over with weeds, now and then a three-legged lizard scattering from the branches or an orange hibiscus closing its petals.
An aging woman dances in an empty ballroom in one of the towers, the heels of her shoes wobbling beneath her. She throws her arms dramatically into the air, conducting the music with a long peacock feather, the vines growing over the ceiling above and the old phonograph playing a bossa nova waltz. Occasionally a body falls past the window where she dances, although she barely takes note of it anymore. She is used to this place, a cluttered landscape of surrender, where men plunge beautifully from high buildings on all sides.
The giant on the rooftop above her prepares to make the descent himself, straightening his suit and spreading his arms out like wings.
The telephone rings.
“It’s cold, don’t go to work,” says his wife in Spanish.
(His wife in English hasn’t woken up for the day yet.)
Alarm clocks tick through the parks below, left by sleepers escaping the heat. Children lie in their underwear on mattresses out on the fire escapes, rising from their tangled piles of siblings to watch the giant leap.
On the side of the building is a glittering waterfall. The waves crash down to a swirling gully, gushing from the precipice in arcs that twist in the light with unnatural color. A figure can be seen walking with an umbrella below, jumping along the rocks under the sprays of water.
It is dusk. The chants begin to echo from the mosques in the distance. The giant flings himself from the edge of the high-rise, shedding new light on the art of accident, plunging swiftly into the void. As the body falls, the woman stops her dancing. She runs to the window, agape at the mere size of it.
“The American falls from below,” says the figure looking up from the foot of the cascade, as if they were words scrawled in pencil on an antique postcard, fading out at the bottom of the picture, a faint sum of parts scattered like birds through the sky.
V — A WALK BY THE RIVER
He sits before the typewriter and punches in the last letter.
“It’s finished, baby,” the wolf exclaims, turning from his desk towards the empty room, as though someone has just walked into it.
He takes off his spectacles and lays them on the windowsill, shoulders hunched over and head hanging low. The animal is exhausted from the work he’s brought upon himself, eyes sunken in from days without sleep, clipping out the last of his reports on endarkenment.
He has wandered nearly every ruin on the continent, a colossus of geography stretching between seas, and each night has returned to the same moon to howl his findings. Life has gone on this way, years of ecstatic days in the trenches, but as each pillar crumbles from the kingdom, lately the world has aged him with grief.
Still, the wolf must honor his appointments, today a rendezvous with a beloved young friend. They meet once a year for a walk at noon, the virgin and the wolf, a curious pasttime that always raised his spirits. She’s just returned from a long trip of visiting volcanoes, climbing up to the top and peering into the caverns, then running down the graveled sides as though she had wings. Each summit only led to another, her travels charted on the map as a constellation of senseless and beautiful dots.
Now, girl and wolf have found their way to each other, two strange and distant friends on the same piece of ground.
They walk together through the town square, past the monuments and pigeons, and turn at the end of a corridor to go down to the river. The wolf has been carrying a great tome of files, pages of research he has used for his reporting.
When they get to the bank at the edge of the clearing, he throws all his papers into the river, watching the ink bleed from each page, until the whole stack floats away empty. The virgin takes his hand and they stare at the water. It glitters there silently in the middle of the day, the picture undulating before them, as if about to fade.
“From now on, I’ll watch from a park bench,” says the wolf.
The virgin climbs onto his back and they limp off together up the road, the animal’s front paw wrapped in a bandage.
“The wolf who isn’t there still howls,” says the girl.
She stares ahead, as though still watching curls of smoke swirl up from the abyss.