The Wrong Kind of Island

Peter Makela

Suzanne Rivecca

The lady who read palms told me she’d do it for free because I carried a notebook and she liked that I was young and artistic. The notebook didn’t have art in it, though. It was filled with lists of things I’d dreamed of: a thousand tiny glass animals in a deserted shop with walls like the inside of a shell, pearly as congealed cream; a boat filled with men from the past and tied to a dock forever; a tumbler filled with orange juice that wasn’t really orange juice, but something wilder and thinner and much less sweet, the juice of something that grew in vacant lots, wrung out of the saffron petals of a freckled iris. A roomful of kittens I’d forgotten to check up on. I told her I was always myself in my dreams. I asked her if it meant I lacked imagination. I asked her if it meant I was trapped. My palm had a broken line in it. I was so young, she said, and would recover. My palm had a thing on it that looked like a cross, the kind drawn by a kid in a moving car: skittering, and bent, and feathered into filaments. Is that luck, I asked. She said yes, it was luck, but not mine. 

The man in the park told my friend she was a black cat in a different life. He wouldn’t tell me what I used to be. She is a woman of science, he told my friend, pointing at me, and I will not waste time on her. We tried to placate him, to draw him out so he’d say more. So we could have a story to tell later. A good one, with a punch line. But he was too angry. You’re a waste of my time, he said to me, over and over again, and you, he told my friend, walking backwards, away from us, into the milling crush of sad men brandishing roses they sold silently, with the gentlest smiles, you were a black cat that never learned to hunt. 

The lady in the small room with the fainting couch and candles and cards told me she could fix me; she said she’d put me under and dig around and take out what was blocking me. She said this once she stopped crying. Sorry, she said, into a tissue. I’m an empath. I don’t think I went under. I felt above it. I closed my eyes and tried to picture an opening in my mind, the size of a porthole, big enough for her to peer through. I tried to polish it clear, like I was scrubbing a fogged-up mirror. I see a man inside you, she said. He’s causing all the trouble. Then she sighed. It’s too sad, she said. Just let him stay. He has nowhere else to go. 

The lady with the cauterizer in her hand told me she could fix me; she could dig around and take the thing out and I wouldn’t even have to go under. As she cut me open, she told me about the best birthday she ever had. What was yours? she asked, probing around for the treasure, and before I could answer she said, I have to cut deeper. That’s where it lives. The cauterizer smoked and sparked against my breastbone. There were tiny shocks. She told me I have a high pain tolerance. Then the thing was out of me, and it looked exactly how I’d imagined. Taken out of its element, and angry to have been disturbed. It felt too late to tell her about my best birthday, although I realized, with a pang, as she cradled the pitiable fleshy thing, tenderly, and put it on a towel to seethe, that I knew the answer and had been waiting for someone to ask. 

The lady who owned the crystal shop was seated and holding a crystal, a big one like an icepick with a blue flame inside, and she said, Wow. You have a lot going on, when I wandered in, and I asked her, Is that good, and she smiled the way someone does when they hold a door open for the infirm: tightly and sheepishly, in unostentatious deference to weakness. 




Our procession trudged over the frozen lake, toward the place where the water met the sky in a wavering seam, a seam with the stifled blueness of a vein. No one knew why we were marching or where. We were somnambulant, reverently so, like we’d been enchanted by a shaman, like we were following a star. We couldn’t slide on the lake because it wasn’t shiny like a rink; it was rough terrain, waves frozen mid-crest and jutting like steppes; we had to look down so we wouldn’t trip. That’s what I remember most: the shuffling, toe-stubbing tedium; what it takes to get somewhere. Once it was over, I only remembered certain impressions, and not all at once: they inched out in sly shards, like how glass works its way through the scalp, little by little, after a car accident. I never saw any of those people again, or wanted to. It was not the kind of ordeal that brings people closer. 

 One time I climbed an active volcano. It was anticlimactic: the churning heat at the apex; I could feel its helplessness, not its power; how at its core it was just an ignoble gasper, roiling and belching like acid reflux, holding something acrid and terrible inside it, something it tried so hard to get rid of but couldn’t. Take it, it was saying to us; it wanted to pour everything out: not to scald us, but to relieve itself. We stood on the lip of its maw and let it cry itself out. Its heat on my cheek felt like a plea. It took six hours to climb back down: mud in my mouth, three inches taller from the sand lifts in my boots. That’s why, afterwards, I chose another element. 

But the lake was bad in a different way. When we stopped for a second it felt too Siberian, forbidding, and there was no camaraderie; we were all so shapeless. The cold was the kind of cold that makes you hallucinate: you start seeing flashes in the sky—turquoise eels, parrots aflame, magenta claw marks—and you think it must be the Northern lights because what else happens in a place so cold and dark; but it’s not the Northern lights; it’s the tapestry of blood vessels inside your eyelids, dense as a wallpaper pattern; and you feel cheated, like you’d just panned for pyrite. Because your eyes are closed, and you’re starting to fall into that swaying standing sleep, the bad kind of sleep, that sleep you won’t wake up from—that’s why it feels so sinking and soft and not-enough, like one tiny sip from the snifter; it would be so nice to down it and get heavy—and that’s what the cold does. It estranges you. It removes you from yourself, swift and courtly as a safety valve, so you don’t have to feel the worst of it. I know how to do that to myself now. It feels like a favor, that ether-soaked cloth held over the nose: a gesture of abduction, and of mercy. 



It could have been a shower of petals, as if from a piñata; it could have been a funneled cascade of platelets; it could have been a beaded curtain, murmuring if the air is restless, or still as condensation. It could have been an optical illusion for which I had no frame of reference. Someone said I see shapes where others see patterns. Someone else said I would never be a good driver. A third said he cried so hard he laughed, then laughed so hard he threw up; he called me when I was alone in that cabin in a wet green town on the edge of a bigger town, all paper mills and limestone. I had a hard time. I wrote on my tiny device with my tiny body parked at a giant table in a giant loft with too-high ceilings, and it felt wrong, whimsically so, nightmarishly so, like I’d gone through the looking glass, eaten magic beans, followed a trail of crumbs through the woods to a chapel where martyrs had burned. I took three baths a day to remind myself I was solid, insoluble, there. I thought I was being poisoned. The people in that town were visitations: too out of time, too ostentatiously quirky to be flesh. It was a parody of a Bob Dylan song. A terrible couple rode a fucking penny-farthing through the raw streets; the man wore a monocle and spats; the woman was cinched into a corset, her hair piled high. I passed a young man who kept swaying, uncoordinated as a zombie and just as slow, as inexorable; when I bobbed into his line of sight, he’d follow, and when I ducked into a doorway, he’d wait. Then the sad, lurching pursuit. I wasn’t scared; I just wished I could say something he’d understand. I passed an old man in suspenders and fingerless gloves playing a violin outside an empty old hotel. Tell me what you want to hear, he said, and I said, I can’t think of anything, and he repeated it—I can’t think of anything, he said. I don’t know that tune.  My friend told me I was going to have to fight, that I had no choice. So I did, but nothing’s been the same since; and once I got out of that place I never stepped back into my rightful shape. Each part of me became bracketed and discrete; I balked at stimuli like an old word processer. Nothing coheres. I look wrong. People can tell. I spent three months in bed, watching strange faces balloon with Juvederm and booze, and it showed. When I saw my friend next, he gave me a picture and asked what I saw. I looked hard, like it was a test. It could have been petals; it could have been platelets; it could have been beads. Circles, I said, and he seemed satisfied, as if there was only one kind.



On the surveillance tape they were noiseless, made of static and fog, with Lite-Brite eyes: the drunk men, the tiger, the cop with the gun. You can see the beginning and the end. The first few seconds are madcap, a caper with a fuzzy cast of fools, like footage from a corroded Chaplin reel: the loose scrambling of the men as they knock against each other, hurling things over the enclosure: a shoe, a stick. Then it became her show. She jumped: twenty feet up and over the wall, seamless as a circus trick. She seemed to manifest like a conjuring, or like Athena from the head of Zeus: born mid-flight, full-grown and unsummoned, born of a plunderer, a rampager, a ruiner who said, when he saw her, I made that. Then she started to walk—beautiful and huge, obscenely incongruous, through the food court in the dark, past the cartoon penguins, past the ticket booth, the restrooms, the wooden signs shaped like animals she’d never smelled or seen. Then the tape went dark; they destroyed that part. Too gruesome. And then, like buried credits, just one more scene: her, reclining next to the man she’d killed, paws outstretched, head raised, watching in the dark, like a mourner at a vigil. Like a different kind of hunter, one who prays before she eats. That’s what they do, I learned later. A fatalist’s deferral: they guard what they kill. It’s intrinsic, the anticipation of the fight. They know the gods are jealous. It looks sorrowful. It looks contemplative. It was, I thought, the saddest part of all—that strange shiva, sacred because of the instinct, not the optics. Sacred because she died for it, in good faith. She stood when the cop came, his hat fuzzy, the baton on his hip wiggling when he walked: on the tape, it glowed comically, like a light saber from a costume shop. She stood up to fight. Then she sank back down. 

I went to a church named after the patron saint of animals. I wanted to light a candle, but all the little holders—guttering and red, like shot glasses in a bordello—were already lit. They said the cop was sad about it. They said the surviving man would sue, and he did. Everything stayed the same: the field trips, the raw meat feedings, the paper dishes of crinkle fries. Everything but the wall, which got taller. The tiger had a name. It was the name they gave her, her California keepers: the name of a Russian princess, one of the last of a doomed dynasty, fluent in three languages, gunned down in a basement. They didn’t even name her after the family’s most famous princess, the youngest one, the absconder, rumored to have crawled through the hail of bullets and the Siberian forest to live a furtive life of exile and madness; but on my way out I passed a stained glass window depicting the saint the church was named for, brown-robed, preaching to his docile minions of all species and sizes, and I thought it was her—the one that jumped, the one they shot—in a peripheral pane, faithless, stalking the saint through the reeds, having landed in another wrong place, one ale-eye gone, but in color this time, and alive. 



The artists would ask for me. I could stay still for hours and my face had the right sort of absence. It’s a quality suited to modeling, and to torture. The term I liked best was contrapposto, how it sounded, how it looked: that demure shifting of weight, how it feminized the bulkiest of us, even the man with one arm and a barrel chest shiny with scars. I used to stand behind him in line at the bursar, both of us collecting our twenty-four dollars. They said I was the best, but I did a few things wrong. No one knew. Once I crept into the studio early, stole a red satin kimono with a dragon on the back. I deserve something, I thought. It reeked of mothballs. I was remorseful right away; I wanted to bring it back, but the smell was too telling, like exploding ink in a bank robbers’ stash. Another time I stood naked on the pedestal and looked straight at them, just for a few seconds as their heads were bowed, one after the other after the other as they drew me, a stealthy mannequin, re-animating coyly by degrees. But the worst thing I did was make them look at me, depict me: so long, so hard, so many times, that I became standardized, an unwanted reference point, a rained-on Platonic ideal. They had to carry me around on their backs, a portfolio full of me, each successive approximation closer to the original, which kept changing and moving, farther and farther away, and stealing. Sometimes I rode the bus home and one of them would be across the aisle. I felt nakeder in street clothes, draped in the skirts I wore then, clutching the bills in my hand, and it was their turn to be still, wary of incitement, reluctant to ignite the spell, like Pygmalion, face to face with the wrong hunk of stone. 



That horse had a face like a grandfather clock, grave and portentous. The cows gathered in quiet masses when we approached, crowded together, heads bowed and waiting, downcast but secretly titillated, like observers at a public execution; but the horses were different. They approached one at a time, insistent, pounding the ground with the frustrated dignity of preverbal children. This one was dark brown, with a white mark between its eyes in the shape of an hourglass. The shape men make with their fingers to describe the body of a woman they want. But they do it ironically. No one really wants that: the padded curbs of those hips, the unwelcoming waist—waspish, it’s called, like it stings—and the embarrassing exaggeration of it, that bawdy configuration, unnavigable as a bad road. The road we took almost killed us. It was so foggy, all the way back to the coastal town, the weird farm, the paddock; and we strained in our seats the whole way, trying not to die, everything in our proximate past elevated to the status of legend, fodder for the eulogy: how we made the bed together and laughed because every activity was funny, an arch and bemused playacting, a droll novelty; how we knew we were in love—I knew it when you held the other end of the fitted sheet, tucking it like you cared about doing a good job, the tender, preoccupied industriousness of your face—and how we ordered at the diner and you looked at your food and said grace. Your grace was this: I love you. We tried not to die on that road. Do you know how I knew we would live? I saw the horse through the fog and knew we were home. It was running back and forth in the fog: a white horse, I thought, how poetic, and we fell through the door in savage relief; and the next day, reluctant to part with my ruined shirt—I liked the lace trim, and you apologized for tearing it—I clutched it in my hand like a white flag, looking for the pale horse, and it was there, but dark in the daylight, and aggrieved, pounding its hoof like a gavel, like it knew every contract we’d breached. 



If you want the spell to work, follow these instructions. Go to the edge of a dock. You’ll see cattails thick as sausage. You’ll see a sky occluded as an opal, but moving, in the frantic scudding way of deer. Think about your school pictures, how they all had the same background—that grainy hospital-blue, like a medicine ground up and mixed with wallpaper paste—and pick the one your parents hated most, the one that looked like they beat you. Imagine it on a milk carton. Imagine it on a poster. Imagine it next to mine, and remember how we both said we were immutable, and believed it. I already was who I was going to be. Remember that? We were so pleased with ourselves. Turn around three times. Drink the potion. Remember what I told you, how that girl kissed me on the dock, in the dark, on the bayou where swans built nests, and I kissed her back. Remember what I told you about the tiger. Remember the dream you said you had: walking into the water, seeing the sharks, taking my hand. Try to discern what you can through the mist. It might be a ship like the one that burned. It might be a sovereign nation. It might be an island, lumpy and wan, bulging and shadowy through the fog like a hand under cheesecloth: the wrong kind of island, the penal kind. Would it help to pretend it’s a Rorschach? Would it help to pretend it’s prescribed? Drink some more. Remember everything I told you? Spin in circles until you forget it, all of it. Then replace it with two facts: the first is that results of this process may vary; the second is that we weren’t fully formed—not when it happened, not when we said we were, not now. 



Peter Makela

Peter Makela is an internationally exhibited painter who’s sky paintings are highly influenced by the 5 months he recently spent in the Himalayas, Vajrayana Buddhism, and Teachings on Dharmakaya. Peter received his MFA from the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art and his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Suzanne Rivecca

Suzanne Rivecca is the author of “Death is Not an Option” (WW Norton 2010), which won the Rome Prize in Literature and was a finalist for The Story Prize, the PEN/Hemingway, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and the New York Public Library Young Lions Award, among others. She lives in Berkeley, CA.