To reach the city of Joseph, one must first become utterly lost. Signifiers: a curved wooden bridge, a shack of corrugated iron; a rotting scarecrow, these things held meaning on first sight, but as we passed through the grassy plains the sun whirled in concentric circles and the bridges and scarecrows were seen again and again, replicating and proliferating, joined by others until it seemed that everything was everywhere and we were disoriented beyond belief. Dizzy, we closed our eyes and slept, and when we woke were confronted by the same details, the same bell towers and stained glass, but rearranged into entirely foreign formations.
Walking under the coral tracks of a tram line, the morning transformed into the rafters of a temple, we wondered if we had found the city that we would never be able to leave. I stopped an apple seller and asked him how he found his way. Joseph, he said, was a home for true explorers. He had no interest in revisiting old sights, so he had settled in the city, and still found something new around every corner. Whichever path he took, that was his way.
In the end, we did not leave Joseph so much as the city subsided around us, and we were once again able to place familiar landmarks with some degree of certainty, and make our way back to old haunts. But, to this day, if I were to turn a corner in the bazaar and see a stall that I had never noticed before, I would wonder for a moment if I had ever truly left that place.
Amy lifted her top, showing her belly to the man sitting opposite her. The train rumbled past Manningtree and the sun shone through the window, warming her navel. The man blushed and turned away. Amy lifted her top further, exposing the underwired seam of her turquoise bra. She ducked her head to try and look into the man’s eyes. She rubbed her belly in a lewd, circular fashion, probing her button. The man narrowed his eyes and refused to acknowledge her.
A little later the conductor came by, and he was game. He took over tummy rubbing duties while Amy slapped her breasts with her fingers and made noises. They both kept their eyes locked on the other passenger, and this performance continued until the train reached Colchester. When the passenger left the carriage in a hurry, Amy thanked the conductor with a peck on the cheek and ran off after her new friend.
Sharon didn’t wake up the next morning. Just lay beside me without life.
No one knew why the prosecutor stood so close to the fire. It couldn’t have been comfortable, but he sure cut a dashing silhouette. When Sharon’s fat spat, and got in his face, no one saw him lick his moustache.
Not without second thoughts, Amy retrieved an issue of Brown Stories from the shelf. The cover showed a man and a woman on their knees on a deserted motorway. Beneath the road ran a thick river in shades of blue and yellow. The couple clutched their heads in their hands and stared at the sky where the title hovered and quivered above them. BROWN STORIES. Amy took the comic into the reading room, settled herself into the comfortably padded rocking chair under a gracefully bowing lamp and started to flick through the book.
Issue 39 of Brown Stories tells the story of a couple, Martha and Andrew, who live next to a swamp in Louisiana. Although they are a well-to-do couple in pearls and pleated skirts and brown tweed suits, their house is little more than an old bayou shack of the type that usually comes with a Keep Out sign and a barrel of writhing shrimp on the stoop. When Andrew is at work, Martha seems to spend most of her time out in the swamp, nimbly navigating the sucking mud and monstrous dangling moss spiders. Her high heels and cashmere sweaters must suffer a pretty severely reduced life span, but this is not made explicit in the text.
Each character and object in the story is almost drowned by the background colouring: a bubbling galaxy of brown so uniform and thickly textured that it seems every item of interest has been reclaimed from the dirt only through painstaking carving and brushing. The cat made from twigs and bones and brown clay that Martha brings back from one of her strolls is the exception that proves the rule. Amy gets the distinct impression that the comic may have been somehow defaced, and that the vandal with his paintbrush and a bucket of gravy may have daubed the cat over a pre-existing pet. Amy suspects this may be the apparently unadvertised conceit of Brown Stories: take a story from something like Young Romance and then see what happens if you drop enough brown on it to suffocate even the mightiest river-dwelling trout. In any case, Martha takes delight in her new pet and Andrew is happy for her as well, though unable to summon much enthusiasm for the presence of the unnerving, golem-like cat, which disdains cat food but appears to subsist contentedly enough on the brown lizards that it hunts down while walking the bayou with Martha. Having owned the cat for a few weeks, Andrew becomes preoccupied with keeping an eye out for a murky figure who seems to be hanging around the house at night, occasionally waking the couple up by banging on the windows or thudding against the thin walls of the shack. Andrew takes to keeping his baseball bat propped up against his bedside table. One night, he hears the pans clanging in the kitchen area and reaches for his bat, only to find that it has disappeared. Dark footprints trail in and out of the bedroom. The next day, the banging resumes as soon as the sun goes down, and Martha and the cat cower behind an unarmed Andrew as the predictable gloopy swamp man smashes open the closed door and lumbers into the living room, stinking like alligator shit and balefully scanning the soft furnishings with what looks like two living crawfish embedded in his melting head. His big brown speech bubble bursts from the burbling mudslide. “MIIIINNNE!” he shrieks. Andrew does what any sensible husband would do, backing away with the sobbing Martha while indicating with his own re-lettered speech bubble that the intruder is welcome to relieve them of the mud cat that stands in the middle of the room, slowly drying out from the effects of the electric heater. Amy is legitimately surprised when the intruder ignores the cat entirely in order to focus on knocking out Andrew with his own bat and carrying Martha off into the swamp over his shoulder, leaving Andrew to regain consciousness with no one but the mud cat for company. The story ends there rather abruptly, with the last page and a half subsumed entirely in brown muck; what once may have been a happy ending now sadly lost to dun revisionism.
So what if Jesus was skeletal and intimidating, with skin the colour of oxidised copper and clothes streaked in shit? So what if His palms and shoulders bristled with dirty steel spines, and He leaned at an unnatural angle? He is still our Lord.
Deadly bored with a Lit class, Alasdair leapt from a window of the English department. It was the seventh week of term, and the class was discussing McEwan. Before anyone could reach the windowsill, Alasdair landed on a white petal, halfway between the classroom and the ground. A gust of wind caught the petal and he soared upwards until he couldn’t see the ground. He was terrified and freezing cold, high above the clouds. He may have passed out. When the petal finally landed, it was in a clearing in a jungle. Greenery clung to a gigantic stone wall, untold thousands of years old. An ancient cracked staircase began somewhere deep in the earth and disappeared above the canopy. Its steps were strangled with ripe fruiting plants. Stray peacocks wandered around him where the sunlight met the short grass. Don’t ask me how I know this, because we never saw him again.
Amy’s pet praying mantis was from Dharamshala. When she bought it for £3 it could be held in one hand, and lived in an oily yellow bucket. Now it was the size of a Jack Russell terrier.
Sneaking into Mohammed’s garden late at night, Amy indicated for the mantis to climb up the wall to his bedroom window. Mohammed woke up when he heard the tapping of its scythe-like limbs on the glass. Still half asleep, he flung open the windows, and the mantis fell three storeys to split like a spindly watermelon.
Amy wouldn’t look him in the eyes for a week.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s not my fault,” he said.
“You don’t even care!” she shouted.
“I do care!” Mohammed whined, but it was a lie. He did not understand how she could love those mandibles, and that brittle green chitin; those eyes like stab wounds in limes. He couldn’t buy her another one. He would not have wanted to. The way he saw it, a creature like that had nothing to contribute to the relationship. No value beyond catching rats.
One day I was walking along, and then I found out that scientists have basically been lying to us this whole time. They had not been properly examining the genetic structures of animals before going to the press with their bullshit findings. When they told us how much DNA we shared with various animals, the information was based on false evidence.
“Well,” the discussion began, “apes have faces, so that’s one gene we have in common.”
“Also,” said someone else, “they fear death, I think, so that’s another one.”
The conversation went on like that until they ran out of things to say, then they counted the bullet points, and that was how many genes humans have in common with apes.
They did the pig late in the evening, at the tail-end of Professor Whitby’s birthday party. Everyone was getting pretty puzzled on the fruits of his liquor cabinet.
“Female pigs can ejaculate!” shouted a young intern. “I saw it in an art installation!”
“Can female humans ejaculate?” asked Clarissa the secretary.
“Yes,” said the intern. “I saw it in a porn movie.”
Everyone murmured happily.
“Pigsh can be… they can be inshured,” slurred Professor Whitby.
“No. Well, yesh. But I mean insssured. Ta da!”
“Hooray!” everyone shouted.
And that was how they decided that humans share 44 genes with pigs, more than with any other animal.
Sadhia batted his jowels playfully.
“They don’t see what I see.”
Now, Great Khan, I will tell you of the city of Coz, a place nourished beyond all description. Travelling through thick forest, we knew we had found the city when the bushes closed around us so tightly that we were forced to abandon our horses. In these cool, leafy ravines we walked sideways up narrow passages, vegetation pressing against our breasts and backs. That night we slept upright, our limbs held by branches. My fingers wandered, and found overgrown doorknobs and window frames in the greenery that seemed to shrink from my touch.
Uncertain of the hour, we slept late, but were woken by the trickle of fresh water on our faces. Looking upwards for the first time I saw spindly figures clambering in the vines overhead, watering cans in their hands, long pipes in their mouths and long lush beards upon their chins. For the rest of the day we watched the slits of sky, and called to the city’s inhabitants when we saw them. We were trying to ask for directions, but only ever received a courteous tip of the hat and a smile of greeting before they rustled on their way and out of sight.
We followed the branching paths towards the centre, but came to the other side of Coz without finding a door or a plaza or an opening of any kind. It may be that by approaching at ground level we only ever saw the fertile gutters of the city, and that the buildings and the statues existed somewhere high in the trees, ever-sprouting, seen only by gardeners and birds.
Swimming Pool Stereotypes
You can find these guys in any swimming pool that you go to:
— The hunk in the blue shorts who is the worst at front crawl and doesn’t mind other people sexually massaging his girlfriend
— The bald man with the boggly eyes who stands in the middle of the lane doing aquacises. He can’t actually swim and spends most of his time in the steam room talking to everyone as if he can actually swim
— The Chinese woman, purporting to be from Denmark. She undulates up and down the pool extremely slowly and complains that it would never get this crowded in Denmark.
— The Chinese woman’s adult son. He gasps along in an approximation of the front crawl, his head at his mother’s shoulder. He hits her in the side of the face with every other stroke.
— Doctor Robotnik impersonator
An Orc in Antwerp was some kind of prestige one-shot, replete with thick, waxy paper and a glossy cover depicting a silhouetted figure with pointed, rat-eaten ears smoking against a lamppost. The story portrayed, with remarkable delicacy, three days in the life of Jazabaal, Antwerp’s only licensed sex orc. Each of her customers had their allotted two hours tenderly detailed, coming and going with seemingly no impact on the psyche and body of the professional. These people paid handsomely to be introduced to the sexual habits of the orc, that monstrous race which had evolved, side-by-aide with humans, not ever so far from their origins as wild pigs of the forest. From the client’s point of view, they were subjected to degradations more intense and depraved than anything that could reasonably be imagined by their common man. Bestiality, of course, is fine as long as you don’t mind your partner having little to no creative input into your intercourse. Finally, with the arrival of the orc in Europe, here was a beast that could fuck you back, in ways that expressed not just the body but the retarded red mind of the animal. From Jazabaal’s perspective, what she practised on her clients was very different from the densely ritualistic ecstasy of inter-orc lovemaking, with its patterned, deeply felt vulgarities and backbreaking thirty minute orgasms. She purveyed what she thought of as a kind of sexual butchery; an artisanal but emotionless treatment of meat. Johns and Janes (of which there were a few) came away having been partially cooked, beaten with a bag of Jazabaal’s own toenails (heavy as walnuts and sharp as thorns), choked in pus, urethrally gored and occasionally missing digits, if that’s what it took. They would be summoned to these appointments at times of Jazabaal’s choosing, sometimes by a simple phone call to the family house. She made no attempt to conceal her identity, and in Antwerp it was a mark both of shame and of upper-class refinement to have one’s wife or husband be informed in this manner that one had been illicitly visiting the sex orc. For the partners involved, it was an event of unspeakable horror tempered by the knowledge that your spouse was a virile, vital and physically powerful enough character to take on this kind of experience. Rich men and women would appear in Jazabaal’s parlour and break down in front of the orc who ruined their lives, unable to break down in front of anyone else. Jazabaal would respond in the only way appropriate: by kicking them in the head, retrieving the jagged yet pliable cartilage dildo and dragging them to the bedroom by whichever wretched body part first came to hand.
Amy flipped to the last page, as Jazabaal turned up the collar of her trenchcoat to the rain and sloped off into the night. It was a bleak treatment, Amy thought. She hoped that real and human dominatrices, even if they took no more pleasure in their work, could at least end the day joking with friends or watching a movie with a significant other. The story didn’t offer the number of other orcs at large in Europe, but if there were any, they didn’t seem to socialise, which Amy thought was odd because pigs are social creatures.
Amy was plucked from obscurity to be a major part of the Olympics opening ceremony. They dressed her in long, shimmering robes, gave her a sword to hold and placed her on a large circular podium. When the ceremony began, Amy’s podium started lifting out of the ground. Within minutes she was stranded. It was too far to jump down. For four hours, the podium continued to rise. The smiling faces shrank away and the cheers became a small wave breaking far below. Amy pulled her robes around her arms and crouched low on the dais, setting herself against the steely winds that swirled high above the stadium.
Eventually the pillar stopped rising and the distant applause seemed to die down. Amy crawled to the edge of the platform and looked down. From far below, another cheer drifted up and Amy had to pull her head back as fireworks blasted past her ears to explode in cacophonous red, white and blue all around her, so close that she was struck with showers of ragged plastic. Peering through the blaze, Amy could see another towering podium illuminated, extending from the opposite end of the field and reaching the same height as her own. A dark figure knelt there with his hands clasped around his skull, presumably in great pain.
Now I will tell you of Mikaela, reached by a long journey through black fields.
For many evenings, we saw silver lights flare as if through thick fog, while the city seemed to grow but never become closer. Still peering into the shimmering brume, we were surprised when we passed through the gates and found ourselves within. The people there told us of the colleges of architects, who wrought the skyline’s onion domes from the finest, most transparent veils of caesium. On contact with the mists that roll in come sunset, these veils hiss and degrade, dissipating into the metallic haze seen by travellers even on the clearest nights.
Within each dome maintained by the colleges squats a junior architect in a mandatory year of deployment. Hard at work all day, she constructs a blanket of caesium around herself and slowly fills it with dry air. The blankets inflate within each other like balloons, rising to the surface and continually replenishing the outer dome as it drifts into the atmosphere.
With their year of delicate labour completed, the architects emerge from their towers with jutting ribs and silvery branches staining their forearms. They gaze, eyes narrowed, upon a city that daily sheds and regenerates its skin, in homage to God’s design for women and men. After each trip to Mikaela I return to you bearing gifts of patterned caesium silk, but my chest is old and no longer airtight, and the garments dissolve into vapour.
Seeing an opening one morning, Amy scuttled through her neighbour’s front door and hid in his living room while he thundered down the stairs and off to work, slamming the door behind him.
Alone in the man’s house, Amy took to exploring. She watched his Blue Planet DVD, tried on his shirts and masturbated with his pornography collection, pushing her fingers deep inside herself, trying to touch and smooth out that part of her that trembled so insistently with the sensation of trespass. She ejaculated into his wastepaper basket and then made herself a sandwich with ingredients she found in his kitchen.
At 3 p.m., Amy tried to leave the house, but the door was locked. She hid behind the sofa, waiting for him to come home, but she fell asleep. When she woke up it was dark and he still wasn’t back. She found a book to read and ran herself a hot bath.
Afterwards, naked and a little cold, Amy stripped the double bed in her neighbour’s room and made it up again with crisp clean sheets from the airing cupboard. She wrestled her way under the covers and held her knees to her chest, rubbing her arms. He was probably at the pub or working late. She would stay there with her book until he came back and unlocked the house.
The strange thing, she found, was that he never came back. In the many days that followed, when she was watching his DVDs, cooking his food and trying on his clothes, she would sometimes worry about him for a second. She hoped that wherever he was, he was safe and comfortable. She thought that if he knew there was a nice girl in his house, keeping it warm and tidy, he would appreciate that until such time as he chose to come home.
Eventually, finally, I saw what he was trying to show me. A black rock and a yellow rock on ground so far from the sea I could not fathom it. The white sky buzzed and screamed like a warning siren. No one had ever been there.
And then, in the end, I came among hundreds of tall aerials dividing the empty air. From the double-glazed window where I began, to the low white wall where I eventually lay, there had been no dips or rises, no small stones in the sand, and no shelter from the cool blue sun.