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Kaemi's IFComp 2021 Reviews, November 14, 2021
Terseness keeps the rhythm raw: “he was probably handsome, when he had his skin.” Rawness pervades, even as this world that has claimed you uncloses: “it’s been twenty-four days since everyone else floated up. / you haven’t been out since then; Momma doesn’t like you leaving the flat without her, and the effort of getting down the stairs hasn’t been worth it anyway.” But if all you know are walls, how do you learn the horizon? “it is big. it is threadbare. it is forbidden.”
And you know what it is like to be forbidden. An unexpected kiss, unexpected pleasure, leads to immediate reprimand: “do you want to live in sin? is this what you want? She had roared as She dragged you towards the water.” The water which drowns every gasp for air, which seethes over us, sears, sears us: “why does the water have to be hot, sweet girl? / because fire washes away the sin. / that’s right, She’d said, but I can’t wash you in fire because I love you. so this is the next best thing.” Full of sin, aren’t you, isn’t this the cause for all their cruelty? Sinful inescapably, self as a source of wrongness, an understanding of the body only as broken, how they insist we cease, pliable, sermonable, able, just like God’s precious first martyr. How Christian hyperguilt cycles lead to the perpetuation of cruelties, holiness as absolute denial of any self outside a productive blankness: “do you know why you’re in a chair, child? / you shook your head. you honestly didn’t. / he nodded, somewhat sadly, and then he told you. / it’s because you’re a sinner.” Sin as a perpetuation of abuse down a hierarchical chain; the closer to holiness, the more paradisical your removal from the rest of the community: “this is… his private garden? it’s nearly as large as the entire Community farmland. / and the food growing here! grapes and corn and mint and broccoli and… peaches. / as if by God’s own will, a peach falls from its tree and lands directly in front of you. you lean forward and snatch it immediately. when you bite into it, the juice dribbles down your chin. / you briefly ask yourself why Prophet Hunter would keep all this to himself, when the rest of you had barely enough to get by. there’s a revelation somewhere in your brain, but something else blocks it from surfacing.” Those who hurt you and their self-satisfied nonneed to hurt. You too can nonhurt, just smother yourself, dulled to everything, finally holy, indefinably null, numb: “the bottom drawer opens with a rattling sound. it is absolutely full of the same kind of little yellow bottles that Momma’s meds come in. you sift through them. they’re almost all empty. you pluck one out and hold it up to read the label. / what in the world is oxycodone?”
But the wrongness isn’t inside you, it’s everywhere, and you can’t bring yourself to return to the insularity prison of projections, even though “it looks so comfortable, but you just got up. it’s not worth the effort—swinging your body up, manually pulling your legs over—that would be required to lay back down.” Traveling along a map, inspecting everything, a fugue of memories that build and leave nothing there but the bareness: “they are still and cold and silent. / inside, no hymns are sung. / inside, no breath is drawn. / The Beast is laughing. / you wonder if there might be some unspoiled food in someone else’s apartment. / you imagine an icy hand closing around your throat. / you doubt you could make it up the stairs, anyway.” You look for any hint of the holiness that was supposed to protect you, but the thin veneer fails, you peek behind it: “on closer inspection, it’s not a lamb. it’s… something else. something wrong. / it regards you cooly with seven insectoid eyes, spaced evenly around its head. / bony spurs protrude, seemingly at random, from its body. you count 1 before your eyes begin to hurt. / for a moment, your surroundings seem to flicker. you see a throne behind it, and four beasts surrounding it, and a sea of men extending into infinity, watching it.” As you wander, looking for the hope that is not here, you realize it must be elsewhere, it is out there, somewhere, beyond the gate, these memories, this stillness eternal.
If the message is laudable, it is perhaps too determined in its despair to cohere its grays to delve beyond surface severities. Relentlessness of terse miseries with no variations crumbles like desiccated dust, especially as it loops through tropes, with no space for individuality to make the prebuilt circuit sparkle. The bleakness flattens everything, and the story seems almost self-aware of its own predictability, as in some footprints we find: “as unpleasant as the thought is, you know they’re made of blood. what else would it be?” Indeed, what else? The lack of range in the emotions also compresses the scales of expression, such that even a child not receiving a peach wrings the same cords as the bleakest scenes: “you were awash in a sea of grief. the bereavement, the shattering of your hope, it was all too much.” The story, again aware of its own straining to more than strain, tries meekly to emphasize itself at certain points, but doesn’t know how except to mine the same veins: “of all the things you’ve seen today, this makes you go cold. bleak. desolate.”
The brutalities are unsubtle, however, and in those scenes the story excels in its terse cruelties so raw they resist presentation, as when the prophet enchains our guilt once more in a ritual public performance of abuse: “i’d like to thank delilah, daughter of ẗ̴̬̤̲̼͍͙̼̼̟̤̘͗̒̈́ȃ̵̙̲͎͕̯̑́̌́͒̃̅̔M̴̡̻̯͍̖̭̰͒͂̓͌̓̾̆̍̐̑͠ͅr̵̡͍̬͕̲͕̬̩̿̀͒̿͛̏̑̎̓̅̃̏͘͜͜ ̴̛̻̻̣̿̓͊͛̓́̌a̵͔͔̾̅̏̿̀̋̃̄g̸̨̻̹̣̯̱̥͙̘̑͝ͅͅŗ̸͓͉͖͉̲̗͔̠̻̊̍̍̿y̷͈̘͔͇̰͖̓̒͋̌̋̏̍̀͛̈́̆͘͝ͅṂ̶̨͇̲̩̪̫͎͛̆̆͜͜ê̶̦͔͕̪̰̪͙͂̃̌͐̐͑ͅȧ̶̗̈́͊̈́̓͝r̴̡̧͎̝͓̳̹̲̥͕̿̐̍̑̿͋̒͛͊̈́͜ͅ, for bringing these grave offenses to my attention.” The terseness, when used to its maximal effect, slows down the reader’s engagement, jolting physical each passing moment: “it’s a slow process getting yourself down without it—a lot of scooting your rear end down one stair at a time, using your arms to push and move your legs so your center of gravity doesn’t shift too far forward. you stop halfway to catch your breath.” And, in that slowing, we can feel the trickling inklings of how memory fractures into lifetimes of wounds: “when you were little, Momma would spray it with wormwood perfume. the smell is long gone, but you still hold the blanket up to your face and inhale deeply before laying it across your legs. you feel comforted.” Comforted? And there, amidst the relentless bleakness, is perhaps the starkest anguish.