When Water Catches Fire – Final

WHEN WATER CATCHES FIRE

I SUBMITTED MY FIRST novel to a publisher in the year 2000 at age 15. The Death of Madame Brisbois was a story about a pair of Siamese twins, Gilbertte and Chloe Brisbois. Chloe was perched on her sister’s left shoulder, incapable of moving of her own accord, though she felt everything; if Gilbertte held a flame to her palm, Chloe felt the fire. To her horror, one night she awoke unable to speak with a black bag over head and duct tape over her mouth. When her sister removed the bag Chloe looked down at her mother’s bed, covered in blood and strewn with guts. Their father was at work, but returned home shortly and called the police.
While in custody, Gilbertte stuck little needles into Chloe’s vocal chords, pricking her lips, burning her hand and pinching her feet, tickling her mercilessly until finally she stopped speaking and her voice atrophied. Unable to testify on her own behalf, she wasted away in prison as they awaited trial, until finally an unnecessary appendage, accepting of her fate and ready to die. The judge considered Chloe only briefly in passing sentence, in lieu of her vegetative state, unaware she could feel and hear. So when they were hanged there was no noose for Chloe. Her head sloped to the side as Gilbertte danced on the air as their horrified father looked on.
I received a letter a few weeks later from an editor at Kensington, who, as he put it, was writing to tell me that though they had decided not to move forward with the novel, Gaszi, the editor, was to work with me. While I would not be offered any money up front, I was asked to not feel discouraged. Gaz, a Persian speaking 22 year old who had left his home in Saudi Arabia during the war in the Persian Gulf, told me that he had found my manuscript on his desk with ‘development prospect’ affixed to it. He assured me, ‘This means you might suck now, but we don’t think you’ll suck forever.’ We were fast friends after that.
Regardless, I had not been able to publish anything, and had become lethargic, losing the will to even work on the other stories I had planned. Before the submission, I had won South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor’s Award two years in a row. My English teacher had submitted some of my poems to a publisher, later published in an anthology shortly after my 16th birthday. Gaz sent me a congratulatory letter.
‘It seems that you suck less and less,’ the card read. I still have it. He signed it with the affectionate, ‘To the end of your failings!’ We would talk on the phone not long after, and I liked him immediately. He was well-spoken and shy, guarded in demeanor, but genuinely kind and helpful, always there to goad me on when a rejection put me off my work and left me aimless, drinking what the Gaz called ‘fucking rocket fuel’, and my grades were failing, jeopardizing my hopes of getting into the college of my choice.

2

The Gaz remained at Kensington until various complaints surfaced against him in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, and finally he was let go, for his own safety, he was led to believe, adding that starvation was a strange way to keep him safe. They had never clued him in on what it was he’d done, or if he’d done anything at all. Perhaps it was something in the air, and he was a convenient bogeyman and scapegoat for a society in the throes of panic and convulsion. His employers cited discrepancies in his immigration papers, I would later learn.
The economy was in a ‘tough place’ and people had to make ‘tough decisions.’ I did what I could for him, as he had helped me with a second draft of The Death of Madame Brisbois, and found him a job at a publicity company where a friend worked in Virginia. There he would seek to help other authors, as he had helped me, to develop them, nurture their talent. His days were spent looking over manuscripts and sending back form replies of rejections, each accompanied with a kind dismissal, as mine had been. When my second draft was rejected, I put away my work entirely, unable to focus, as my editor had become more and more despondent, and it seemed, that I had become the only friend he had.
I was to interview at UVA, not far from where he worked at Sgarlat, and, rejected again, we decided to meet at my hotel before I caught a Greyhound to New York where I was to interview at Cornell and Columbia. Unsure of myself, my work, or whether I would ever write again, I was certain that I needed to get absolutely fucking wasted. Gaz arrived at my hotel just after dark with a bottle of Graygoose vodka in a brown bag. It wasn’t of the greatest quality, he said, but ‘better than that rocket fuel you drink.’ He was right, as per usual. The Gaz was always right. It might not have been rocket fuel, but it took us to the fucking moon.
We had a good time, watching COPS and playing cards. I don’t remember much of the evening, save for the blue and red lights that ran along the walls and ceiling. We talked about my future projects, and I had given up, but I didn’t tell him that. He believed in me, and I wanted him to. We talked about stories, why people told them, why people needed them. To some, he said, it was a way to cope, through shared trauma and happiness and experience, and for writers, it could be catharsis for a beaten man, those struggling to cope with the loss of a father or a mother.
“Take Titanic,” Gaz said, “the James Cameron movie.”
“You mean the one with Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet and that Celine Dion song?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Never heard of it.”
He laughed, a common stupid joke we shared.
“The main characters, total fiction,” he said. “But that’s why people liked the movie, and why you hated it. People were brought in by the disaster and the spectacle, the bigger picture, but that’s not why it resonated. You can’t tell just the big picture. The audiences cared about the people. Two, beautiful young people. And, who does the audience cry for? For Jack and Rose. That’s all you have to learn, Brandon. You can’t paint nothing but a bigger picture, not quickly, take all that sweeping prose and bring it down to one or two people, maybe three, make it human. Put a face on it. No one weeps for the metal.”
He always took the mentor approach with me, being a bit older, and always spoke in an official capacity, despite being absolutely wasted. Forever informal, neat in that ruffled way and casual. When he looked at you, though, you saw he understood, that he felt, that he cared. A song came on and he seemed to relax, sweat beaded on his forehead and his cheeks flushed with drink. The mood ran the gamut from extreme merriment to the depths of regret and sorrow. When he saw me looking at the scars along the side of his face, revealed when his hair was brushed aside, he answered the question I couldn’t ask.
“I was burned when I was a kid,” he said, quick to change the subject. We talked about my plans, about what I’d do if I failed to get into college, the stories I was working on. He asked then if he could ride with me, to stay with me until I found out whether I had gotten into Cornell. He had always wanted to visit Ground Zero, he said, where the World Trade Centers had stood. We planned to board a Greyhound bus the next day, first to New York City, to Manhattan, where we would stay long enough to find out if I had gotten in, and then on to Ithaca. The night wound down and he was on his side of the bed, a small, strange little man. I got up to turn out the lights.
“Hey,” he called from the bed. “Leave the light on for me, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Not at all,” I said. I brushed my teeth and washed my hands, leaving the bathroom light on, not too bright nor dim, and returned to my side of the bed and pulled the covers over us both.
“Goodnight, Gaz,” I said.
He was quiet for a minute. Then he looked at me with a smile on his face, eyes sincere and sympathetic.
“I like you, Brandon,” he said.
“I like you too, Gaz,” I said. “But I’m not that drunk.”
He smiled.
“Goodnight, Brandon.”

3

The drive to New York City wasn’t a long one. I had been to Maine on a piss-smelling Greyhound before and we stopped at that same connection point walled in by high fences of thatched metal, burgeoning with idlers and vagabonds, all staring at Gaz as we walked to the terminal to await the bus to Manhattan. They were unable to validate my ticket, so we spent fifteen minutes walking around trying to find someone to loan me the $5 I needed to pay for another one. Gaz offered to let me try on my own, and hung back. The first person I came across, a stout Chinese man in a tailored suit, agreed to pay for the ticket, but only if he could come with me to the teller window. I welcomed him to do so and he smiled ironically, as if to acknowledge his own cynicism.
We had planned as best we could. After checking into the hotel, and leaving my notebook there, we found a bus tour around Manhattan, one that would go by the port from where you could see the Statue of Liberty. The skinny tour attendee, with wire-rimmed spectacles and thinning hair, narrated for us:
The Statue of Liberty was designed and built by Gustave Eiffel, a gift to the United States from the People of France. It was dedicated on the 28th of October in the year 1886. The famous statue has long been a symbol of the free world and the promise of America. Its famous inscription reads: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, sending those, the homeless, tempest lost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Gaz’s bright brown eyes were swollen with tears. It was the highlight of the trip, as in hearing these words, the trauma momentarily fell away, a Band-Aid in the shower on a healing wound, and each passenger, from the youngest girl in the back of the bus holding tight to her mother’s hand to an old man covered in soot and wearing a checkered coat in front of us, at that moment we all believed, in what I wasn’t sure, but the silence was an acquiescence we shared, all part of the same multi-colored arabesque, a tapestry that warmed us all.
The rest of the drive was quiet. Though the guide read on in his high, reedy voice, telling us of the historic buildings, the different cultures, the Omnisphere and Prometheus. When we finally arrived at Ground Zero, empty land beneath an empty sky, it seemed profaned by its emptiness. I had never seen that part of New York City, not in person, but I’d seen that famous skyline. Everyone on the bus had seen it, surely, either in media or in person, glowing at night and proud in the afternoon.
The mood changed, a different, uneasy quiet settled over us, and the narrator fumbled at his words. Where those two buildings had been, there was nothing, not even rubble, but I saw the ghost of twisted metal strewn about, in my mind, the specter of bent steel and fire.

4

The tour ended without ceremony and by the time the bus pulled back into the lot everyone was exhausted. Gaz and I decided to take a walk instead of going back to the hotel, just to get some air. A hectic place, electric even, a circuit board of sparks between skyscrapers. Gaz looked pale so we ducked into Mesa Coyoacan a Mexican Restaurant on Graham Ave. in Brooklyn, where I checked my email and found that I had been accepted into Cornell. Gaz congratulated me and we sat down at a communal table on a long, shared bench. Everything was so expensive. Where I was from, a pack of cigarettes was $3 for a good brand, your Marlboros and your Newports, but there the cheap brands were $15. Living was expensive enough, I couldn’t overpay for death. The school books were too expensive.
“What do you think?” I asked. Gaz looked the menu over. He’d been quiet since we settled onto the bench. “I’ve never seen so many different tequilas.”
“Maybe that’s their thing,” Gaz said.
“You think someone said, ‘You know, there are a lot of Mexican restaurants in this city. You know what? I’ve got it. I get these flashes sometimes. Let’s have all the tequilas.’”
A kind laugh.
“You could do worse,” I added. “There’s a Mexican restaurant in Newberry, South Carolina called La Fagota. You know what their gimmick is? ‘We’re the only Mexican restaurant in Newberry, South Carolina. Nobody has better tacos. You know why? Nobody else has tacos.’”
Gaz laughed again. “You are truly from a backward culture. But hey, at least it’s affordable.”
When the waitress came over with a bowl of dip and tortilla chips I ordered first, a quesadilla and chicken wings. Gaz ordered two tequilas, a mid-expensive brand and an extremely rare are you fucking kidding me? brand. When the waitress brought them out, she sat both of them down in front of him with a wink in my direction. He slid the more expensive glass over to me. “On your success. Here’s hoping you don’t turn into an Ivy League shit.”
The meal was an enjoyable one, the food was good, and the staff kind. The waitress returned when we had drained our tequila glasses.
“Can I get you guys anything else?” she asked.
“No,” I said, “but thanks. I’m good.”
She look at Gaz, who had gone quiet, and asked, “How about you?”
Gaz shook off his gloom and looked up with light coming back into his eyes. “I’m great,” he said. “Could I get a salad to go?”
“Sure thing!” she said. She turned to me. “He gave you the better tequila.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said with a smile.
She smiled a broad I’m not an idiot, idiot smile. “Is it the best tequila you’ve never tasted or what?”
I laughed it off as she disappeared into a swinging door, off into the kitchen. The restaurant was quiet until a boisterous man in aviator sunglasses came in, wearing camo shorts and long grey socks pulled up to his knees. He looked at Gaz with a derisive cock of his head and sat close enough to us that he could be heard, though the table was communal, there was plenty of room further down the bench. Gaz and I tried to continue our conversation, but the man, who had started out innocent enough, grumbled at having to share his table with a “towel head”. That’s when Gaz lost it. He stood and flung his tequila glasses to the floor and they shattered against the jade tile.
“I didn’t bomb your buildings!” he shouted. “I didn’t bomb your buildings!”
I had him by the shoulders and tried to pull him back onto the bench. The man in his camo shorts took off his glasses and put them on the table. The door to the kitchen opened and two short-order cooks in rolled-up sleeves came out in a rush and hopped over the balustrade and got between them while I held Gaz back, raging like a drunken fire.
“I’m a fucking vet,” the man said. “I fought in Desert Storm, to keep you people safe, you ungrateful scumbags.”
“Hey!” I called. “As a vet, you must be used to dealing with bitches. But since there ain’t no bitches here, how about you fuck off?”
The cooks separated them and escorted the man out in a hurry, leaving his stupid glasses on the table. Gaz staggered backward and the moment teetered on the edge of madness as the staff busied about calming the other customers and diners. The waitress returned with Gaz’s salad and the cooks escorted us out. I picked up the aviator glasses and stuffed them in my pocket and paid, counting out a proper tip and rushing to the exit where the two cooks stood outside, careful to keep the man away from Gaz as tears streamed down his face as the man hobbled off shouting obscenities.
“Don’t you pay that fuckin’ moron no attention,” one of the cooks said. “You’re just as welcome here as that moron is.”
Still shaken, his teeth chattered in the heat. The cook handed him a cigarette, which he took, though I’d never seen him smoke. After he had calmed down and the two cooks were assured there was no further trouble, they gave him a friendly clout on the shoulder and reminded him, “Fuck that guy. You’re welcome here.”
We stood there in the street for a bit longer, the city loud and uninterrupted by our drama, the crowd streamed around us like a stone amid a stream, swerving gently before continuing about its course.
“I was wrong, Brandon,” Gaz said. “I cried for the metal.” He wiped his eyes on the back of his shirt, buried his face in his hands. “I cried for the metal.”

4

We stayed together for the rest of the summer after that. The PR firm Sgarlat let him work from his laptop, as he hadn’t left the hotel after that first night, and had been silent on the long bus ride to Ithaca. The campus was more beautiful than I had imagined any school would be. Gaz was overjoyed that I had been accepted, and took the occasion to tell me that if he could buy a new life, a new face, new skin, he’d stay with me there and finally teach me how to write.
The first night there we visited a reception at the Robert Purcell Community Center for a gathering of freshmen. I got to meet some of my professors. Everyone was kind and accommodating, well-mannered and cheerful, though I could tell that Gaz felt uncomfortable as the eyes moved about him as we passed through the crowds. We didn’t stay long. I shook hands with everyone I thought I should shake hands with and decided to get some air and tour the campus. I had the feeling that the smattering of voices, though unintelligible, had brought the scuffle at Mesa Coyoacan back into Gaz’s thoughts, and he had trouble enough coping with the eyes that seemed to follow him, like a xenophobic Mona Lisa. We left together, back out into the open air into the comfort of silence.
After leaving the community center we turned off Jessup Rd. and walked toward the large golf course, where we stopped to ask an older student how to find the Mundy Wildflower Gardens. He walked with us as far as the bridge to Judd falls Rd., left us at the Wildflower Garden, hurrying off after a cordial handshake and good-bye. To look upon the flowers, Gaz’s demeanor changed. I decided to pick some flowers to send him while he stood enamored by a ghost orchid. I had a flower from each species in my secret bouquet, to give him the following morning before he left for Virginia. We left the Wildflower Garden, as he wanted to see as much of the campus as possible before our strange trip together had to come to an end. We found our way, with a little help, back onto Judd Falls Rd. then headed for Werly Island, then onto Beebe Lake. We weren’t the only ones to walk that well-beaten path. Though the gardens and the roads between had been sparse, many students had camped on the embankments around the lake.
“Hey!” Gaz said, tugging at my jacket. “Let’s go talk to those ladies there.”
We hurried after the two young women who were jogging slowly. When we caught up Gaz was the first to speak. “Good afternoon!” he called. “Mind if my friend and I walk with you?”
“Not at all,” the brunette said. Both were sweating, their hair pulled back in neat buns, and wearing Adidas windbreakers. “Are you a freshman?” the blonde girl asked. Her name was Jennifer. Her slightly taller friend introduced herself as Vanessa.
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“Because you’re polite,” Vanessa said. They laughed together and we laughed with them, falling in line with the path they were on. “My friend Gaz here, he told me this lake was magic. No! Really. It’s not as dumb as it sounds.”
The girls looked at each other smiling.
“Let’s hear it then,” Vanessa said. We kept pace as best we could.
“Well the legend goes,” I said, “that if you walk around the lake with a friend, or a girlfriend or boyfriend, you’ll never part. It sounds silly, I know. I know. But, I thought if we walked together, maybe it’d come true, and we’d always be friends.

5

On his last night Gaz stayed with me in a cramped dorm room. I sat at my new desk looking through a list of books I’d have to pick up from the campus bookstore. Gaz had the news on again. Channel after channel, violence and opinions about violence, terrorism and threats, featuring violence. Then he saw that tape; a tape posted to the Al Jazeera agency in Qatar, an old VHS supposedly delivered by Osama bin Laden, a tape that would later leak onto the internet, onto smut sites like Rotten.com and Ogrish, digital faces of death. I had watched them, how could you not? It’s a curious thing, to be drawn to violence, by nature, as flies are to shit. I didn’t enjoy it, but I thought I should watch it, maybe by way of misguided empathy, so that I could suffer for the people who I never could have helped.
I tried to go to bed early that night but Gaz woke me up sometime in the early morning. He had sat in the darkness listening to the news, the lurid images flashing against his face, breaking him bit by bit.
“Brandon,” he said. “Are you awake?”
“Dude, I’m awake now … you can’t wake somebody up to ask if they’re awake.”
“I miss my home,” Gaz said. “Saudi Arabia, you’ve heard of it, I’m sure. Right? You’ve seen Aladdin, that’s the image, of barbaric peoples. I was born there… What do you think of when you think of Saudi Arabia? Camels? The camels, ah! They aren’t even indigenous. We import them! And that’s where those people were from, who destroyed your buildings, Saudi Arabia they say. But they weren’t from my home, not that place where my heart is. There’s something about home that doesn’t change, no matter where you go. What do you call it? A haunting, maybe, that follows you. I was born in Saqeren, and it’s a beautiful place, with waterfalls and granite walls, roads carved into the mountains. Maybe I miss the memory, maybe it’s a phantom, conjured by a starved memory looking for images of comfort and home.”
I didn’t know what to say, and so said nothing, but he continued.
“I was the youngest child in my family, a family of four. My dad had disappeared in the war. My sister Anahita was the oldest, and I adored her, but we were not close. She ran away or was kidnapped and we never saw her again. I had two brothers, and I loved them. Of course I didn’t. Even Kohinoor, my oldest, what an ass! He was so stubborn, and always talking down to me and my other brother, Kaveh, and I loved him, he was just fourteen when he died. But we both looked up to Kohinoor, we called him Kohin. He was the oldest, heir to our meager lands. And he was the type to play the hero.
“Kohin believed in fighting, but no one in our family would support that madness! He was confused, like so many during the war. He was mad at the world and wanted to fight for something. People are not born monsters. He wasn’t one, not at first, but got in trouble with the police, but then the police were taken away and replaced by scary men in black with foreign accents. Gaz isn’t even my name, Brandon. I don’t know what it is… I’m lucky though, plenty of kids like me, thousands of them, thousands died in the war, the one that buffoon boasted about at dinner. Those kids died, and not one printed word, only victories for the forces of freedom, for heroes.
“And now, I see everywhere eyes that follow me with contempt. I’m not a barbarian! Surely it is no crime to be born! Those police officers, the ones that were replaced, they weren’t cavemen! But it’s on the news, so they’re cavemen. They weren’t fools, they were just regular people, with families and jobs and hobbies. And they just disappeared, pop pop pop in the dark, like blowing bubbles. That was my favorite thing… “We used to have those little toys, plastic sticks with a hoop at the end, we’d dip it in gasoline and blow bubbles through it and they’d float for a while, pretty in the sun and pop. Pop, pop, pop, they’d disappear. But then everyone was angry. The problem was, they had to be mad at something, and it was a choice between others or themselves. No one chooses themselves.
“What do you do when your enemy is the dark? Not in the dark, but the dark itself, with no way to fight it without it swallowing you up? No one knew who to fight, but they wanted to, they needed to. They were being hurt. So they tore each other to pieces. When you brutalize a people, when you handle them like beasts and monsters, you don’t make angels of them, you don’t reform them, you make monsters of them, monsters or ghosts and there is no other choice, no choice but to run and hope someone is there on the other side of darkness, like someone here, this country I’ve loved, where you’re not charged for the sins of your father, or your people, your culture. I ran. From my family, my brothers… They were kids, too, they never grew up.
“Kaveh, he became a ghost, and Kohinoor a monster. Ghosts are real, Brandon. Some are kind, those that die peacefully, in their sleep and surrounded by love. But some, like those in your great buildings, those are angry ghosts. And now I want to fight. I need to fight, but don’t I want to. I don’t want to be a ghost, Brandon, I don’t want to die like my brother, or become a monster. But if I must, I should want to be a kindly ghost, one that helps the others on, through the fire into peace, into rest. And that eats at you, fighting with yourself, eating you from the inside like a botfly until your heart is black and you want to make this world bend into the darkness with you to drown it of its light.
“The last day in Seqaren I remember, that I know is real, because I have the scars, which is why I prefer the dream. I was walking down a hill towards a little pond, and children were already there splashing about. It always dirty that pool, but that day it was as dirty as I ever seen it. I thought someone had poured ink in the water, but I stripped down to my trunks and stood on the edge of the beach with broken bottle glass cutting into my feet. Then I saw Kahven running down the hillside with a puff of dust trailing behind him and then Kohinoor on his heels with a gun in his hand
“I thought it was some stupid game, but I was a child, and so scared, I was always scared. Kaveh grabbed me with both hands and pulled me into the water with all his clothes on and yelled ‘take a deep breath!’ just before we went under, taking me beneath the blackened water with his fingers pinching my nostrils. I struggled to come up for air, but Kaveh held me under. Everything was happening so fast and I popped back up and saw Kohin being chased by men all dressed in black, god dammit! Have you ever heard a gunshot, muffled by water? It rippled out, dozens of shots at once, tearing Kohin to pieces, when you’re hit you’re just a mix of blood and water and gas. And they followed him to the edge of the pool but he kept moving somehow, struggling along the glass beach on his hands and knees towards the water where I was hiding with Kaveh. And before he died his eyes widened with surprise as he saw my little head bob up and gasp for air and breathing oil, an oil spill in the water like octopus ink, and because the little pool was between two high cliffs, the shadows of the overhanging rock kept us hidden until the water caught fire.
“When he saw me he stopped crawling and the men caught up with him finally. I struggled to get to him, the men were shouting but I didn’t understand them. He mouthed something to me and put his hands behind his head, with his fingers interlocked, he was dying anyway, and just closed his eyes and lay there. I was frozen, wrapped in fire, as the muffled gunshot rang out muffled with the water in my ears dulling the sound. He fell over with that same smile on his face. I was a fucking child. And then the men came up, all I saw were there eyes and those guns, and dead or not they shot him in the head. One of the men in black pointed at the water and Kaveh grabbed my nostrils and pulled me under water, fire white now blanketing the surface.
“One of the men, and I don’t know who he was ’cause I just saw his eyes and the bottom of his face when he pulled that mask up and took out another gun, a little pistol, and shot Kohinoor in the head. He just shot him again, shooting a corpse. What kind of madness must be bred to have one man shoot another knowing he’s dead? He’s just wasting bullets, still angry, killing a corpse without remorse or pity or anything. Then he just went through his pockets, took some of his bullets, took his gun, and walked over to one of the other men in black and came back with a burning sock in one hand and a white paper cup in the other. That gasoline taste was in my mouth, I’ll never forget it… Then the man dropped the sock on my brother and whoosh! He goes up in flames. They pushed him into the water but he kept burning … turning into soot, not ash, the gasoline in my eyes between bubbles.
“I guess they were content that he was dead by then, I took one last pull of air and closed my eyes and prayed, I’ve never known or believed in the customs of my people but I begged any listening god to take me to a place where I could breathe, a place without fire. He was dead on the surface face down and I saw the blank expression on his face, molting like that, like shedding skin, peeling away with the fabric of his t-shirt each layer of skin. And something shook the earth in the distance… It shocked them as much as me and Kaveh looking through the gasoline bubbles rimmed in bows of rain, and that finally scared them, when the water had caught fire. It’s … They ran off, back up the hill, and Kaveh held me there, trying to protect me, and he drowned eventually and I floated up to the surface That’s what happened to my face… I know, I know. And somehow I kept burning, deep down, and each breath was pure fire filling my lungs. It could have been forever, and it died out, finally. I don’t remember the rest so well, but I’ve been on fire ever since, when water touches me, cold or hot, I keep burning.
“I remember mama coming for me and sobbing. She didn’t want to leave their bodies their for the carrion birds. But me and mama left anyway. We left without them. We got into the back of a truck and waited. Kids were stacked on top of each other like piles of clothes wrapped around bones. We drove through the night and into the next afternoon. We met an American there and his wife and his two kids, and the truck driver told us that we would have to learn our new names, and began passing out Egyptian visas. I didn’t know what they were, I just remember staring down at the face of a kid who looked like me, and was about my age. I memorized his birthday and his name. I don’t even know my real birthday, Brandon. So I never know when to celebrate.”
There was a long silence.
“Let’s say today is your birthday, then,” I said. “You can have those flowers from the atrium, and take them with you if you go back.”
“You know,” he said, “I can’t go back, unless they make me. Where I must fight or be a monster, one side or another, a monster or collateral I’ll end up a ghost like my brothers, forgotten in all the confusion of just another afternoon.”
“Who’s going to teach me to write if you leave, Gaz?” I asked. “Let’s be practical here, you won’t have time to edit my stories if you die.”
He laughed, the vitreous humor crusting in his eyes with embarrassment. He wiped it away.
“I’ll haunt your Word processor, and leave you notes here and there. We’ll develop that talent someday.”
“I knew I could rely on you.”
He smiled.
“Thanks, Brandon.”
I smiled. I didn’t know what to say. Thinking back to it now, I wish I could have comforted him, even if I had to lie. He kept on drinking. And so did I. The television was still blaring news, the same sort that had dominated the airwaves. Finally I turned it back to the Satellite standard music station. He hadn’t lost his composure, not completely, and he hummed some little song. Well, I’m not sure it was a song, as I didn’t know the language. I butted in.
“Have you ever heard Anna Moffat sing?” I asked. “Madame Butterfly? I have to pretend to be cultured now.”
He shuffled through his mp3 player and put on a piece of music. The instrument was a rabab, he told me. I think. I didn’t know what it was, but it was beautiful and serene, and I thought if they could import camels, maybe they could import a waterfall and make an atrium, and plant one for everybody, every ghost, each man and woman and child they could’t account for. I wanted to help, or be consoling, or confer in him something personal, or say something wise and meaningful. Sometimes silence is the best consolation.
He had shaken it off somehow by the time he started packing. Or appeared to do so, regaining a measure of his composure, he was smiling and laughing. Maybe it was for my sake. Tears welled up in my eyes. He thumbed them away and wiped them on his church, then took a handkerchief from his jacket and handed it to me. His expression changed when he saw the hurt in my eyes.
“Hey,” he said. “I like you, Brandon.”
“I like you too, Gaz.”
“Do well.”
“I’ll try, my friend.”
“And …” he added, “You could have saved Chloe, in your story. If her father had confessed to the murder… The criminal would’ve gotten away, but the innocent would have lived.”

Denouement

I woke the next morning and he was gone. All his things, his assortment of flowers, those aviator sunglasses. Sometimes I imagine him wearing them, somewhere in a garden, by a waterfall in Arabia, surrounded by ghost orchids, blowing bubbles. I have looked and looked, through newspapers and on the internet, fearing that he had joined the fight for the sake of fighting. I kept a garden when I moved back to South Carolina, and planted a white ghost orchid, Gazsi’s ghost. He’d disappeared. Just like that, a gasoline bubble going pop.

When Water Catches Fire – draft 2

WHEN WATER CATCHES FIRE
By
BRANDON K. NOBLES

I SUBMITTED MY FIRST novel to a publisher in the year 2000. The Death of Madame Brisbois was a story about a pair of Siamese twins, Gilbertte and Chloe Brisbois. Chloe was perched on her sister’s left shoulder, incapable of moving of her own accord, though she felt everything; if Gilbertte held a flame to her palm, Chloe felt the fire. To her horror, one night she awoke unable to speak with a black bag over head and duct tape over her mouth. When her sister removed the bag Chloe looked down at her mother’s bed, covered in blood and strewn with guts. Their father was at work, but returned home shortly and called the police.
While in custody, Gilbertte stuck little needles in Chloe’s vocal chords, pricking her lips, burning her hand and pinching her feet, tickling her mercilessly until finally she stopped speaking and her voice atrophied. Unable to testify on her own behalf, she wasted away in prison as they awaited trial, until finally an unnecessary appendage, accepting of her fate and ready to die. The judge considered Chloe only briefly in passing sentence, in lieu of her vegetative state, unaware she could feel and hear. So when they were hanged there was no noose for Chloe. Her head sloped to the side as Gilbertte danced on the air as their horrified father looked on.
I received a letter a few weeks later from an editor at Kensington, who, as he put it, was writing to tell me that though they had decided not to move forward with the novel, Gaszi, the editor, was to work with me. While I would not be offered any money up front, I was asked to not feel discouraged. Gaz, a Persian speaking 22 year old who had left his home in Saudi Arabia during the war in the Persian Gulf, told me that he had found my manuscript on his desk with ‘development prospect’ affixed to it. He assured me, ‘This means you might suck now, but we don’t think you’ll suck forever.’ We were fast friends after that.
Regardless, I had not been able to publish anything, and had become lethargic, losing the will to even work on the other stories I had planned. Before the submission, I had won South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor’s Award two years in a row. My English teacher had submitted some of my poems to a publisher, later published in an anthology shortly after my 16th birthday. Gaz sent me a congratulatory letter.
‘It seems that you suck less and less,’ the card read. I still have it. He signed it with the affectionate, ‘To the end of your failings!’ We would talk on the phone not long after, and I liked him immediately. He was well-spoken and shy, guarded in demeanor, but genuinely kind and helpful, always there to goad me on when a rejection put me off my work and left me aimless, drinking what the Gaz called ‘fucking rocket fuel’, and my grades were failing, jeopardizing my hopes of getting into the college of my choice.

2

The Gaz remained at Kensington until various complaints surfaced against him in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, and finally he was let go, for his own safety, he was led to believe, adding that starvation was a strange way to keep him safe. They had never clued him in on what it was he’d done, or if he’d done anything at all. Perhaps it was something in the air, and he was a convenient bogeyman and scapegoat for a society in the throes of panic and convulsion. His employers cited discrepancies in his immigration papers, I would later learn.
The economy was in a ‘tough place’ and people had to make ‘tough decisions.’ I did what I could for him, as he had helped me with a second draft of The Death of Mdame Brisbois, and found him a job at a publicity company where a friend worked in Virginia. There he would seek to help other authors, as he had helped me, to develop them, nurture their talent. His days were spent looking over manuscripts and sending back form replies of rejections, each accompanied with a kind dismissal, as mine had been. When my second draft was rejected, I put away my work entirely, unable to focus, as my editor had become more and more despondent, and it seemed, that I had become the only friend he had.
I was to interview at UVA, not far from where he worked at Sgarlat, and, rejected again, we decided to meet at my hotel before I caught a Greyhound to New York where I was to interview at Cornell and Columbia. Unsure of myself, my work, or whether I would ever write again, I was certain that I needed to get absolutely fucking wasted. Gaz arrived at my hotel just after dark with a bottle of Graygoose in a brown bag. It wasn’t of the greatest quality, he said, but ‘better than that rocket fuel you drink.’ He was right, as per usual. The Gaz was always right. It might not have been rocket fuel, but it took us to the fucking moon.
We had a good time, watching COPS and playing cards. I don’t remember much of the evening, save for the blue and red lights that ran along the walls and ceiling. We talked about my future projects, and I had given up, but I didn’t tell him that. He believed in me, and I wanted him to. We talked about stories, why people told them, why people needed them. To some, he said, it was a way to cope, through shared trauma and happiness and experience, and for writers, it could be catharsis for a beaten man, those struggling to cope with the loss of a father or a mother.
“Take Titanic,” Gaz said, “the James Cameron movie.”
“I’ve heard of it.”
“The main characters, total fiction,” he said. “But that’s why people liked the movie, and why you hated it. People were brought in by the disaster and the spectacle, the bigger picture, but that’s not why it resonated. You can’t tell just the big picture. The audiences cared about the people. Two, beautiful young people. And, who does the audience cry for? For Jack and Rose. That’s all you have to learn, Brandon. You can’t paint nothing but a bigger picture, not quickly, take all that sweeping prose and bring it down to one or two people, maybe three, make it human. Put a face on it. No one weeps for metal.”
He always took the mentor approach with me, being a bit older, and always spoke in an official capacity, despite being absolutely wasted. Forever informal, neat in that ruffled way and casual. When he looked at you, though, you saw he understood, that he felt, that he cared. A song came on and he seemed to relax, sweat beaded on his forehead and his cheeks flushed with drink. The mood ran the gamut from extreme merriment to the depths of regret and sorrow. When he saw me looking at the scars along the side of his face, revealed when his hair was brushed aside, he answered the question I couldn’t ask.
“I was burned when I was a kid,” he said, quick to change the subject. We talked about my plans, about what I’d do if I failed to get into college, the stories I was working on. He asked then if he could ride with me, to stay with me until I found out whether I had gotten into Cornell. He had always wanted to visit Ground Zero, he said, where the World Trade Centers had stood. We planned to board a Greyhound bus the next day, first to New York City, to Manhattan, where we would stay long enough to find out if I had gotten in, and then on to Ithaca. The night wound down and he was on his side of the bed, a small, strange little man. I got up to turn out the lights.
“Hey,” he called from the bed. “Leave the light on for me, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Not at all,” I said. I brushed my teeth and washed my hands, leaving the bathroom light on, not too bright nor dim, and returned to my side of the bed and pulled the covers over us both.
“Goodnight, Gaz,” I said.
He was quiet for a minute. Then he looked at me with a smile on his face, eyes sincere and sympathetic.
“I like you, Brandon,” he said.
“I like you too, Gaz,” I said. “But I’m not that drunk.”
He smiled.
“Goodnight, Brandon.”

3

The drive to New York City wasn’t a long one. I had been to Maine on a piss-smelling Greyhound before and we stopped at that same connection point walled in by high fences of thatched metal, burgeoning with idlers and vagabonds, all staring at Gaz as we walked to the terminal to await the bus to Manhattan. They were unable to validate my ticket, so we spent fifteen minutes walking around trying to find someone to loan me the $5 I needed to pay for another one. Gaz offered to let me try on my own, and hung back. The first person I came across, a stout Chinese man in a tailored suit, agreed to pay for the ticket, but only if he could come with me to the teller window. I welcomed him to do so and he smiled ironically, as if to acknowledge his own cynicism.
We had planned as best we could. After checking into the hotel, and leaving my notebook there, we found a bus tour around Manhattan, one that would go by the port from where you could see the Statue of Liberty. The skinny tour attendee, with wire-rimmed spectacles and thinning hair, narrated for us:
The statue of liberty was designed and built by Gustave Eiffel, a gift to the United States from the People of France. It was dedicated on the 28th of October in the year 1886. The famous statue has long been a symbol of the free world and the promise of America. Its famous inscription reads: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, sending those, the homeless, tempest lost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Gaz’s bright brown eyes swelled with tears. It was the highlight of the trip, as in hearing these words, the trauma momentarily fell away, a band-aid in the shower on a healing wound, and each passenger, from the youngest girl in the back of the bus holding tight to her mother’s hand to an old man covered in soot and wearing a checkered coat in front of us, at that moment we all believed, in what I wasn’t sure, but the silence was an acquiescence we shared, all part of the same multicolored arabesque, a tapestry that warmed us all.
The rest of the drive was quiet. Though the guide read on in his high, reedy voice, telling us of the historic buildings, the different cultures, the Omnisphere and Prometheus. When we finally arrived at Ground Zero, empty land beneath an empty sky, it seemed profaned by its emptiness. I had never seen that part of New York City, not in person, but I’d seen that famous skyline. Everyone on the bus had seen it, surely, either in media or in person, glowing at night and proud in the afternoon. The mood changed, a different, uneasy quiet settled over us, and the narrator fumbled at his words. Where those two buildings had been, there was nothing, not even rubble, but I saw the ghost of twisted metal strewn about, in my mind, the specter of bent steel and fire.
The tour ended without ceremony and by the time the bus pulled back into the lot everyone was exhausted. Gaz and I decided to take a walk instead of going back to the hotel, just to get some air. A hectic place, electric even, a circuit board of sparks between skyscrapers. Gaz looked pale so we ducked into Mesa Coyoacan a Mexican Restaurant on Graham Ave. in Brooklyn, where I checked my email and found that I had been accepted into Cornell. Gaz congratulated me and we sat down at a communal table on a long, shared bench. Everything was so expensive. Where I was from, a pack of cigarettes was $3 for a good brand, your Marlboros and your Newports, but there the cheap brands were $15. Living was expensive enough, I couldn’t overpay for death. The school books were too expensive.

4

“What do you think?” I asked. Gaz looked the menu over. He’d been quiet since we settled onto the bench. “I’ve never seen so many different tequilas.”
“Maybe that’s their thing,” Gaz said.
“You think someone said, ‘You know, there are a lot of Mexican restaurants in this city. You know what? I’ve got it. I get these flashes sometimes. Let’s have all the tequilas.’”
A kind laugh.
“You could do worse,” I added. “There’s a Mexican restaurant in Newberry, South Carolina called La Fagota. You know what their gimmick is? ‘We’re the only Mexican restaurant in Newberry, South Carolina. Nobody has better tacos. You know why? Nobody else has tacos.’”
Gaz laughed again. “You are truly from a backward culture. But hey, at least it’s affordable.”
When the waitress came over with a bowl of dip and tortilla chips I ordered first, a quesadilla and chicken wings. Gaz ordered two tequilas, a mid-expensive brand and an extremely rare are you fucking kidding me? brand. When the waitress brought them out, she sat both of them down in front of him with a wink in my direction. He slid the more expensive glass over to me. “On your success. Here’s hoping you don’t turn into an Ivy League shit.”
The meal was an enjoyable one, the food was good, the staff kind. The waitress returned when we had drained our tequila glasses.
“Can I get you guys anything else?” she asked.
“No,” I said, “but thanks. I’m good.”
She look at Gaz, who had gone quiet, and asked, “How about you?”
Gaz shook off his gloom and looked up with light coming back into his eyes. “I’m great,” he said. “Could I get a salad to go?”
“Sure thing!” she said. She turned to me. “He gave you the better tequila.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said with a smile.
She smiled a broad I’m not an idiot, idiot smile. “Is it the best tequila you’ve never tasted or what?”
I laughed it off as she disappeared into a swinging door, off into the kitchen. The restaurant was quiet until a boisterous man in aviator sunglasses came in, wearing camo shorts and long grey socks pulled up to his knees. He looked at Gaz with a derisive cock of his head and sat close enough to us that he could be heard, though the table was communal, there was plenty of room further down the bench. Gaz and I tried to continue our conversation, but the man, who had started out innocent enough, grumbled at having to share his table with a “towel head”. That’s when Gaz lost it.
He stood and flung his tequila glasses to the floor and they shattered against the jade tile. “I didn’t bomb your buildings!” he shouted. “I didn’t bomb your buildings!”
I had him by the shoulders and tried to pull him back onto the bench. The man in his camo shorts took off his glasses and put them on the table. The door to the kitchen opened and two short-order cooks in rolled-up sleeves came out in a rush and hopped over the balustrade and got between them while I held Gaz back, raging like a drunken fire.
“I’m a fucking vet,” the man said. “I fought in Desert Storm, to keep you people safe, you ungrateful scumbags.”
“Hey!” I called. “Fuck you! Fuck you and your lederhosen.”
The cooks had separated them and had escorted the man out in a hurry, leaving his stupid glasses on the table. Gaz staggered backward and the moment teetered on the edge of madness as the staff busied about calming the other customers and diners. The waitress returned with Gaz’s salad and the cooks escorted us out. I picked up the aviator glasses and stuffed them in my pocket and paid, counting out a proper tip and rushing to the exit where the two cooks stood outside, careful to keep the man away from Gaz as tears streamed down his face as the man hobbled off shouting obscenities.
“Don’t you pay that fuckin’ moron no attention,” one of the cooks said. “You’re just as welcome here as that moron is.”
Still shaken, his teeth chattered in the heat. The cook handed him a cigarette, which he took, though I’d never seen him smoke. After he had calmed down and the two cooks were assured there was no further trouble, they gave him a friendly clout on the shoulder and reminded him, “Fuck that guy. You’re welcome here.”
We stood there in the street for a bit longer, the city loud and uninterrupted by our drama, the crowd streamed around us like a stone amid a stream, swerving gently before continuing about its course.
“I was wrong, Brandon,” Gaz said. “I wept for the metal.”

4

We stayed together for the rest of the summer after that. The PR firm Sgarlat let him work from his laptop, as he hadn’t left the hotel after that first night, and had been silent on the long bus ride to Ithaca. The campus was more beautiful than I had imagined any school would be. Gaz was overjoyed that I had been accepted, and took the occasion to tell me that if he could buy a new life, a new face, new skin, he’d stay with me there and finally teach me how to write.
The first night there we visited a reception at the Robert Purcell Community Center for a gathering of freshmen. I got to meet some of my professors. Everyone was kind and accommodating, well mannered and cheerful, though I could tell that Gaz felt uncomfortable as the eyes moved about him as we passed through the crowds. We didn’t stay long. I shook hands with everyone I thought I should shake hands with and decided to get some air and tour the campus. I had the feeling that the smattering of voices, though unintelligible, had brought the scuffle at Mesa Coyoacan back into Gaz’s thoughts, and he had trouble enough coping with the eyes that seemed to follow him, like a xenophobic Mona Lisa. We left together, back out into the open air into the comfort of silence.
After leaving the community center we turned off Jessup Rd. and walked toward the large golf course, where we stopped to ask an older student how to find the Mundy Wildflower Gardens. He walked with us as far as the bridge to Judd falls Rd., left us at the Wildflower Garden, hurrying off after a cordial handshake and good-bye. To look upon the flowers, Gaz’s demeanor changed. I decided to pick some flowers to send him while he stood enamored by a ghost orchid. I had a flower from each species in my secret bouquet, to give him the following morning before he left for Virginia. We left the Wildflower Garden, as he wanted to see as much of the campus as possible before our strange trip together had to come to an end. We found our way, with a little help, back onto Judd Falls Rd. then headed for Werly Island, then onto Beebe Lake.
We weren’t the only ones to walk that well-beaten path. Though the gardens and the roads between had been sparse, many students had camped on the embankments around the lake.
“Hey!” Gaz said, tugging at my jacket. “Let’s go talk to those ladies there.”
We hurried after the two young women who were jogging slowly. When we caught up Gaz was the first to speak. “Good afternoon!” he called. “Mind if my friend and I walk with you?”
“Not at all,” the brunette said. Both were sweating, their hair pulled back in neat buns, and wearing Adidas windbreakers. “Are you a freshman?” the blonde girl asked. Her name was Jennifer. Her slightly taller friend introduced herself as Vanessa.
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“Because you’re polite,” Vanessa said. They laughed together and we laughed with them, falling in line with the path they were on. “My friend Gaz here, he told me this lake was magic. No! Really. It’s not as dumb as it sounds.”
The girls looked at each other smiling.
“Let’s hear it then,” Vanessa said. We kept pace as best we could.
“Well the legend goes,” I said, “that if you walk around the lake with a friend, or a girlfriend or boyfriend, you’ll never part. It sounds silly, I know. I know. But, I thought if we walked together, maybe it’d come true, and we’d always be friends.”

5

His last night there with me Gaz got to stay in my cramped dorm room. I sat at my new desk looking through a list of books I’d have to pick up from the campus book store. Gaz had the news on again. Channel after channel, violence and opinions about violence, terrorism and threats, featuring violence. Then he saw that tape; a tape posted to the Al Jazeera agency in Qatar, an old VHS supposedly delivered by Osama bin Laden, a tape that would later leak onto the internet, onto smut sites like Rotten.com and Ogrish, digital faces of death. I had watched them, how could you not? It’s a curious thing, to be drawn to violence, by nature, as flies are to shit. I didn’t enjoy it, but I thought I should watch it, maybe by way of misguided empathy, so that I could suffer for the people who I never could have helped.
I tried to go to bed early that night but Gaz woke me up sometime in the early morning. He had sat in the darkness listening to the news, the lurid images flashing against his face, breaking him bit by bit.
“Brandon,” he said. “Are you awake?”
“Dude, I’m awake now … you can’t wake somebody up to ask if they’re awake.”
“I miss my home,” Gaz said. “Saudi Arabia, you’ve heard of it, I’m sure. Right? You’ve seen Aladdin, that’s the image, of barbaric peoples. I was born there… What do you think of when you think of Saudi Arabia? Camels? The camels, ah! They aren’t even indigenous. We import them! And that’s where those people were from, who destroyed your buildings, Saudia Arabia they say. But they weren’t from my home, not that place where my heart is. There’s something about home that doesn’t change, no matter where you go. What do you call it? A haunting, maybe, that follows you. I was born in Saqeren, and it’s a beautiful place, with waterfalls and granite walls, roads carved into the mountains. Maybe I miss the memory, maybe it’s a phantom, conjured by a starved memory looking for images of comfort and home.”
I didn’t know what to say, and so said nothing, but he continued.
“I was the youngest child in my family, a family of four. My dad had disappeared in the war. My sister Anahita was the oldest, and I adored her, but we were not close. She ran away or was kidnapped and we never saw her again. I had two brothers, and I loved them. Of course I didn’t. Even Kohinoor, my oldest, what an ass! He was so stubborn, and always talking down to me and my other brother, Kaveh, and I loved him, he was just fourteen when he died. But we both looked up to Kohinoor, we calleed him Kohin. He was the oldest, heir to our meager lands. And he was the type to play the hero.
“Kohin believed in fighting, but no one in our family would support that madness! He was confused, like so many during the war. He was mad at the world and wanted to fight for something. People are not born monsters. He wasn’t one, not at first, but got in trouble with the police, but then the police were taken away and replaced by scary men in black with foreign accents. Gaz isn’t even my name, Brandon. I don’t know what it is… I’m lucky though, plenty of kids like me, thousands of them, thousands died in the war, the one that buffoon boasted about at dinner. Those kids died, and not one printed word, only victories for the forces of freedom, for heroes.
“And now, I see everywhere eyes that follow me with contempt. I’m not a barbarian! Surely it is no crime to be born! Those police officers, the ones that were replaced, they weren’t cavemen! But it’s on the news, so they’re cavemen. They weren’t fools, they were just regular people, with families and jobs and hobbies. And they just disappeared, pop pop pop in the dark, like blowing bubbles. That was my favorite thing… We used to have those little toys, plastic sticks with a hoop at the end, we’d dip it in gasoline and blow bubbles through it and they’d float for a while, pretty in the sun and pop. Pop, pop, pop, they’d disappear. But then everyone was angry. The problem was, they had to be mad at something, and it was a choice between others or themselves. No one chooses themselves.
“What do you do when your enemy is the dark? Not in the dark, but the dark itself, with no way to fight it without it swallowing you up? No one knew who to fight, but they wanted to, they needed to. They were being hurt. So they tore each other to pieces. When you brutalize a people, when you handle them like beasts and monsters, you don’t make angels of them, you don’t reform them, you make monsters of them, monsters or ghosts and there is no other choice, no choice but to run and hope someone is there on the other side of darkness, like someone here, this country I’ve loved, where you’re not charged for the sins of your father, or your people, your culture. I ran. From my family, my brothers… They were kids, too, they never grew up.
“Kaveh, he became a ghost, and Kohinoor a monster. Ghosts are real, Brandon. Some are kind, those that die peacefully, in their sleep and surrounded by love. But some, like those in your great buildings, those are angry ghosts. And now I want to fight. I need to fight, but don’t I want to. I don’t want to be a ghost, Brandon, I don’t want to die like my brother, or become a monster. But if I must, I should want to be a kindly ghost, one that helps the others on, through the fire into peace, into rest. And that eats at you, fighting with yourself, eating you from the inside like a botfly until your heart is black and you want to make this world bend into the darkness with you to drown it of its light.
“The last day in Seqaren I remember, that I know is real, because I have the scars, which is why I prefer the dream. I was walking down a hill towards a little pond, and children were already there splashing about. It always dirty that pool, but that day it was as dirty as I ever seen it. I thought someone had poured ink in the water, but I stripped down to my trunks and stood on the edge of the beach with broken bottle glass cutting into my feet. Then I saw Kahven running down the hillside with a puff of dust trailing behind him and then Kohinoor on his heels with a gun in his hand
“I thought it was some stupid game, but I was a child, and so scared, I was always scared. Kaveh grabbed me with both hands and pulled me into the water with all his clothes on and yelled ‘take a deep breath!’ just before we went under, taking me beneath the blackened water with his fingers pinching my nostrils. I struggled to come up for air, but Kaveh held me under. Everything was happening so fast and I popped back up and saw Kohin being chased by men all dressed in black, god dammit! Have you ever heard a gunshot, muffled by water? It rippled out, dozens of shots at once, tearing Kohin to pieces, when you’re hit you’re just a mix of blood and water and gas. And they followed him to the edge of the pool but he kept moving somehow, struggling along the glass beach on his hands and knees towards the water where I was hiding with Kaveh. And before he died his eyes widened with surprise as he saw my little head bob up and gasp for air and breathing oil, an oil spill in the water like octopus ink, and because the little pool was between two high cliffs, the shadows of the overhanging rock kept us hidden until the water caught fire.
“When he saw me he stopped crawling and the men caught up with him finally. I struggled to get to him, the men were shouting but I didn’t understand them. He mouthed something to me and put his hands behind his head, with his fingers interlocked, he was dying anyway, and just closed his eyes and lay there. I was frozen, wrapped in fire, as the muffled gunshot rang out muffled with the water in my ears dulling the sound. He fell over with that same smile on his face. I was a fucking child. And then the men came up, all I saw were there eyes and those guns, and dead or not they shot him in the head. One of the men in black pointed at the water and Kaveh grabbed my nostrils and pulled me under water, fire white now blanketing the surface.
“One of the men, and I don’t know who he was ’cause I just saw his eyes and the bottom of his face when he pulled that mask up and took out another gun, a little pistol, and shot Kohinoor in the head. He just shot him again, shooting a corpse. What kind of madness must be bred to have one man shoot another knowing he’s dead? He’s just wasting bullets, still angry, killing a corpse without remorse or pity or anything. Then he just went through his pockets, took some of his bullets, took his gun, and walked over to one of the other men in black and came back with a burning sock in one hand and a white paper cup in the other. That gasoline taste was in my mouth, I’ll never forget it… Then the man dropped the sock on my brother and whoosh! He goes up in flames. They pushed him into the water but he kept burning … turning into soot, not ash, the gasoline in my eyes between bubbles.

“I guess they were content that he was dead by then, I took one last pull of air and closed my eyes and prayed, I’ve never known or believed in the customs of my people but I begged any listening god to take me to a place where I could breathe, a place without fire. He was dead on the surface face down and I saw the blank expression on his face, molting like that, like shedding skin, peeling away with the fabric of his t-shirt each layer of skin. And something shook the earth in the distance… It shocked them as much as me and Kaveh looking through the gasoline bubbles rimmed in bows of rain, and that finally scared them, when the water had caught fire. It’s … They ran off, back up the hill, and Kaveh held me there, trying to protect me, and he drowned eventually and I floated up to the surface That’s what happened to my face… I know, I know. And somehow I kept burning, deep down, and each breath was pure fire filling my lungs. It could have been forever, and it died out, finally. I don’t remember the rest so well, but I’ve been on fire ever since, when water touches me, cold or hot, I keep burning.

“I remember mama coming for me and sobbing. She didn’t want to leave their bodies their for the carrion birds. But me and mama left anyway. We left without them. We got into the back of a truck and waited. Kids were stacked on top of each other like piles of clothes wrapped around bones. We drove through the night and into the next afternoon. We met an American there and his wife and his two kids, and the truck driver told us that we would have to learn our new names, and began passing out Egyptian visas. I didn’t know what they were, I just remember staring down at the face of a kid who looked like me, and was about my age. I memorized his birthday and his name. I don’t even know my real birthday, Brandon. So I never know when to celebrate.”

There was a long silence.

“Let’s say today is your birthday, then,” I said. “You can have those flowers from the atrium, and take them with you if you go back.”

“You know,” he said, “I can’t go back, unless they make me. Where I must fight or be a monster, one side or another, a monster or collateral I’ll end up a ghost like my brothers, forgotten in all the confusion of just another afternoon.”

“Who’s going to teach me to write if you leave, Gaz?” I asked. “Let’s be practical here, you won’t have time to edit my stories if you die.”

He laughed, the vitreous humor crusting in his eyes with embarrassment. He wiped it away.

“I’ll haunt your Word processor, and leave you notes here and there. We’ll develop that talent someday.”

“I knew I could rely on you.”

He smiled.

“Thanks, Brandon.”

I smiled. I didn’t know what to say. Thinking back to it now, I wish I could have comforted him, even if I had to lie. He kept on drinking. And so did I. The television was still blaring news, the same sort that had dominated the airwaves. Finally I turned it back to the Satellite standard music station. He hadn’t lost his composure, not completely, and he hummed some little song. Well, I’m not sure it was a song, as I didn’t know the language. I butted in.

“Have you ever heard Anna Moffat sing?” I asked. “Madame Butterfly? I have to pretend to be cultured now.”

He shuffled through his mp3 player and put on a piece of music. The instrument was a rabab, he told me. I think. I didn’t know what it was, but it was beautiful and serene, and I thought if they could import camels, maybe they could import a waterfall and make an atrium, and plant one for everybody, every ghost, each man and woman and child they could’t account for. I wanted to help, or be consoling, or confer in him something personal, or say something wise and meaningful. Sometimes silence is the best consolation.

He had shaken it off somehow by the time he started packing. Or appeared to do so, regaining a measure of his composure, he was smiling and laughing. Maybe it was for my sake. Tears welled up in my eyes. He thumbed them away and wiped them on his church, then took a handkerchief from his jacket and handed it to me. His expression changed when he saw the hurt in my eyes.

“Hey,” he said. “I like you, Brandon.”

“I like you too, Gaz.”

“Do well.”

“I’ll try, my friend.”

“And …” he added, “You could have saved Chloe, in your story. If her father had confessed to the murder… Gilbertte would’ve gotten away, but the innocent would have lived.”

Denouement

I woke the next morning and he was gone. All his things, his assortment of flowers, those aviator sunglasses. Sometimes I imagine him wearing them, somewhere in a garden, by a waterfall in Arabia, surrounded by ghost orchids, blowing bubbles. I have looked and looked, through newspapers and on the internet, fearing that he had joined the fight for the sake of fighting. I kept a garden when I moved back to South Carolina, and planted a white ghost orchid, Gazsi’s ghost. He’d disappeared. Just like that, a gasoline bubble going pop. But I leave the light on for him.When I finally sold the story, The Death of Madame Brisbois, I dedicated it to him, as he was like poor Chloe, as he had burnt like her, from a fire lit by another, unable to move his hand.

When Water Catches Fire – draft

WHEN WATER CATCHES FIRE

By

BRANDON NOBLES

1

I had an editor named Gazsi once. I knew him for a long time before I knew him. I called him The Gaz. He  was a Persian speaking 22 year old who had been in America for ten years when we met in February of 2000, when the manuscript of one of my first novels found its way to his desk with the header ‘development prospect’ affixed to it. He contacted me by post, and told me that, although I would not be able to publish my book, he was tasked with “developing me” – something I was told meant something like, “We think you suck, but we don’t think you’ll suck forever.”

I wasn’t offered any money up front, but I was promised that my work would be considered by the publisher the Gaz worked for, Kensington, which was a big deal for me as an aspiring author; I had tried to publish my first story after winning South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor’s award two years in a row. My English teacher had sent some of my poems to prospective buyers, and she managed to get my work published in an anthology, just one poem in a collection released in 2001, not long after my 16th birthday.

I remember sending a copy to Gaz, and he said, ‘You continue to suck less and less. Congratulations!’ He sent me a card and – and I still have it – telling me, toast like and at a distance, ‘To the end of your sucking!’ And we talked on the phone for the first time not long after that. I liked him immediately, despite his shyness, his guarded demeanor. And he seemed to genuinely want to help, as my rejection had left me lethargic, unable to face the possibility of continued failure. He didn’t tell me much about himself, other than that he was born in Saudi Arabia and immigrated to the States during the war in the Persian Gulf.

2

He stayed at Kensington until various complaints surfaced against him, even threats, in those panicked days after those two planes toppled the World Trade Center buildings in New York City. He was let go finally, on paid leave but still working with me. Of course they never clued him in on what he’d done, or if he’d done anything at all, or if it was something new in the air, some new bogeyman he would be painted as. They had found discrepancies with his immigration papers, I would later learn.

The economy was in a ‘tough place’ and people had to make ‘tough decisions.’ I did what I could; I knew someone at a publicity company and helped him interview for the job, a PR firm that sought out new authors to help develop them, as he had developed me. He did quite the same thing he had done at Kensington – they scoured the newly forming digital world for talent to develop and helped the few become the authors they wanted to be, looking over the rejected manuscripts of the many who would remain the rejected authors they feared they’d be. When I got the rejection form I called him up, as he lived nearby, unsure whether I would ever write again, but certain I needed to get drunk.

He arrived at my hotel just after dark with a bottle of cheap vodka and explained, ‘Smoother than that rocket fuel you drink.’ He was right, again, and we sat at the foot of the bed watching an episode of COPS. It might not have been rocket fuel, but it took us to the fucking moon. We had a good time, though I don’t remember much of the evening, swirling blue and red lights running along the ceiling. I was once told that any night that begins with liquor and ends with mystery must be considered a success. Gaz and I talked, I remembered that, first about my future projects, about stories, why people wrote them, and why people needed them. Some way to cope, through shared trauma; catharsis for a beaten man.

“I think the best thing is,” said Gaz, “in a story, what is real is not measured by its facts, but by its feeling. Take Titanic, that long James Cameron movie?”

“Yes, I think I’ve heard of it.”

“Look at the main characters,” he said. “They were a total fiction. They were absolutely fiction, but that’s why people liked that movie, and why other people hated it. People are brought in by the disaster porn, but that’s not why it resonated. They cared about the people. Two beautiful young people. And how many of those others – what I mean, who does the audience cry for? A thousand people died, but the tragedy is cut down to one person.  Is it right? Maybe not. That’s all you have to learn, Brandon. You can’t tell a story like that, not quickly, and hope to keep anyone’s attention. Take all that sweeping prose and bring it down to one or two people, maybe three, and make it human, put a human face on it. That’s when it becomes real. No one cries for metal.”

He was very much a mentor to me, and being official, and speaking in an official capacity, despite being absolutely fucking wasted. The Gaz was forever informal, neat in that ruffled way and casual; but when he looked at you, you saw that he understood, that he felt. A song came on he seemed to like and he relaxed, and I saw, with the sweat brought about by drink, the tone of his face had darkened, his hands remaining the same vaguely ethnic color. The mood ran the gamut from extreme merriment to the peak of regret and sorrow. He saw me looking at him, the scars along the side of his face, and he responded to my unspoken question:

“I was burned when I was a kid,” he said. “Hey, it’s not as bad as it looks.”

We talked about my plans, what I would do with whatever school I managed to get in. I wanted to write. I always wanted to. Well, I always did. Wanting to do it never factored in. We looked at information about the English programs at the schools where I would be interviewed; I decided to interview at Columbia and Cornell, fingers crossed for either, with a stupid hope for Cornell, one that did not punish me for dreaming in the end. We planned a road trip to New York City, to stay there for a week before going on to Ithaca. That’s when he asked if we could visit Ground Zero, where the World Trade Centers had been.  The night wound down and he was on one side of the bed, this strange little man, short and fit. I got up to turn out the lights.

“Hey,” he called from the bed. “Leave the light on for me, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Not at all,” I said. I left the bathroom light on, not too bright and not too dim, and most comforting. I returned to my side of the bed.

“Goodnight, Gaz,” I said.

He was silent for a moment. A long moment. Then he rolled over and looked at me with a smile on his face, his eyes sincere and sympathetic.

“Brandon,” he said. “I like you.”

“I like you too, Gaz,” I said. “But I’m not that drunk.”

“Good,” he said. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Gaz.”
3
The drive to New York City didn’t take as long as I thought it would. I had been to Maine before on a piss-smelling Greyhound and we stopped at a connection point somewhere in the city. I had a connection ticket that was to take me from the terminal in NYC to Boston, but they couldn’t validate my ticket. So I wandered around the bus terminal in need of $5 to get another ticket, to make it up Boston. And then further on to Maine. The very first person I asked for money, a Chinese man in a suit that seemed out of place, agreed to pay for my ticket – if he could come with me to purchase it. When I welcomed him to do so, and happily, he smiled, as if to acknowledge his own cynicism. I shook his hand and thanked him. I boarded the bus to Boston in the early morning.

We had planned the day as best we could. We checked into our hotel and I left my notebook there. We found out there would be a bus tour around Manhattan, out toward Ellis Island and finally we made it out to the Statue of Liberty. The skinny tour attendee narrated for us. The statue of liberty was designed by the French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel, a gift to the United States from the people of France, it was dedicated on the 28th of October, 1886. The famous statue has been a symbol of the free world and the promise of America. Its famous inscription reads: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, sending those, the homeless, tempest lost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Gaz’s bright brown eyes had swelled with a happy sadness, and I understood, everyone on the bus – or maybe not, maybe not the guy reading off his cards – from the youngest girl in the back of the bus looking out the window, to an old man covered in soot and a checkered coat, we all believed in America, its promise, and everyone on that bus, they didn’t have to say a thing – we were all a part of the same, multicolored arabesque, the tapestry that made America, we knew it in our hearts, was a quilt, a counterpane meant for everyone.

We were silent for the rest of the drive as the guy read off his cue cards in his squeaky voice, telling us about the historic buildings, the different burroughs, the Omnisphere and central park with that gold Prometheus; the history and the culture. Then the empty sky among a littered landscape somehow seemed loud, profane in being empty. I had never seen that part of New York City, not in person, but I’d seen that famous skyline. And everyone on the bus had seen it, glowing at night, prominent and proud in the afternoon. It was a different silence on the bus, and the narration got lost in my head. Where those two buildings had been, there was no rubble there, not now, but there was the twisted metal strewn about unwavering, lingering in my mind, and that’s what I saw, the ghost of twisted metal and steel

The bus tour ended without ceremony. I think everyone was exhausted. So many people emigrating to America had seen that Statue in the distance first of all, on their boats, that giant tower in the clouds not far away, and New York became a nation of mixed heritage, the biggest in human history united under principles instead of warlords, courts of law instead of Emperors. They came from Europe, the Jews fleeing progroms in Tsarist Russia, the Chinese fortunate to get out before Mao’s revolution, the Spanish fleeing military dictators, the Irish seeking refuge from the potato famine, refugees from Vietnam, Cambodians who got out before Pol Pot and his Angka turned the clocks back to Year Zero.

My father’s side had come to America after the fall of the Soviet Union, of Ukrainian ancestry, an Ashkenazim Jewish family; and my mother’s descendants went back to the 15th century in England, and they too had fled with dreams, hearing the same whispers that statue once murmured to the world, a promise that the law was just, and justice was for all. The tour guide, despite his cards, was a sharp kid, taking questions, answering them with breadth and concision. It was overwhelming. But I didn’t want to waste away in the hotel all day so Gaz and I decided to clear our heads with a stroll.

It’s a hectic place, electric even, a circuit board of sparks between skyscrapers. Gaz looked pale and so we ducked into a Mexican restaurant, Mesa Coyoacan on Graham Ave. in Brooklyn where I was staying until the start of term, after I was accepted into Cornell. It was a strange scene, something right out of history. The tables were aged wood and the tables were shared, a communal dining experience. It was a bit pricey for me, as was everything else. Where I was from, there was one red light. A traffic light, but one of them. It was the Traffic Light, and a pack of cigarettes was about $3 for a good brand, your Marlboro Menthols and your Newports, but there were brands as cheap as $1.99, which I often bought – living is expensive enough; never overpay for death.

“What do you think?” I asked. Gaz was looking over the menu. He’d been quiet since we went back to the hotel to change. “I’ve never seen so many tequilas,” he said. “Do you think that’s their thing here? Do you think someone said, ‘There are lots of Mexican restaurants in this city… What can set us apart? Hold on, hold on I’ve got it, this happens to me sometimes: let’s have the most tequilas of all.’”

“You could be known for worse,” I said. “There’s a Mexican restaurant in South Carolina, in Newberry County called La Fagota. You know what their gimmick is? ‘We are the only Mexican restaurant. Nobody has better tacos than us.’ You know why? Because nobody else has tacos.”

“You are truly from a backward culture,” Gaz said. “But hey, at least it’s affordable.”

I ordered a quesadilla and wings. Gaz ordered two tequilas, a mid-expensive brand and an extremely rare are you fucking kidding me? brand. Both for him, of course.

We were having an enjoyable meal until an old man wearing aviator sunglasses walked in wearing camo shorts and long, grey woolen socks pulled up to his knees. The table was communal, and despite more open space further down the bench he sat close enough to me and Gaz as to be heard. We went about our meal, talking about the fall, talking about the future. The old man started out innocently, mumbling to some people beside him, and to their everlasting credit, everyone at the table ignored him. But he kept talking, louder and louder and louder still, egging Gaz on and on. To my shame I didn’t say a thing, and to his everlasting credit, neither did Gaz. Gaz drank his two tequilas until we were drunk enough to shrug off the passive aggressive insults of that ridiculous parrot.

The waitress came back to the table.

“Can I get you anything else?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “No thanks, I’m good.”

She looked at Gaz, “And you?”

“I’m great, thanks,” he said. “Could I get a go-bag for the rest of my salad?”

“Sure thing,” she said. She turned to me, “He gave you the better tequila.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.

She smiled. “Is it the best tequila you’ve never tasted or what?”

Gaz took two of the tequila glasses and slammed them on the floor.

“I didn’t bomb your buildings!” he said. “I didn’t bomb your buildings!”

I grabbed him by the shoulders and tried to put him back on his stool. The man in camouflage shorts took off his glasses and the waitress hurried over to where he was sitting and, despite not being able to hear what that young woman said, that guy sat back down and cleared his throat, “This ain’t a place for towel-heads and sand niggers.” The door to the kitchen opened and several men came out, all very quickly. Gaz shrugged my hands off of him and started toward him, yelling:

“I’m an American!” he shouted. “I’m a fucking American! Fuck you! Fuck you!”

The man stood up, Gaz staggered backward. The moment teetered on the edge of insanity. The kitchen staff pulled him away and took him to the front door. I hurried after him.

“I’m a fucking veteran!” the man yelled. “I fought in Desert Storm to protect you people, and you ungrateful scumbags..”

“Here, ma’am! Hey!” I called to the waitress. I put all the money I had on the table. I ran to the door with Gaz, where he stood detained by two of the staff members. They were stern but not excessive, and within ten minutes he had calmed. Still shaken, the two employees tried to talk him down. One of the guys had offered him a cigarette, which he took. I’d never seen him smoke. He shook and his teeth chattered in the heat, waves of steam rising from the tarred midtown roads.

“I was wrong, Brandon,” he said. “I wept for the metal.”

4

We stayed together for the rest of the summer. The PR firm Sgarlat was letting him work from his laptop. We had fun together, a lot of fun. The drive to Ithaca was longer than I thought it’d be, and the campus more beautiful than the pictures had prepared me for. Gaz was overjoyed that I had been accepted into a good school, telling me that if he could buy a new life somehow, he’d stay there with me and finally teach me how to write.

We spent the first night at the Robert Purcell Community center for a get together of the starting freshman class. I got to meet some of my professors. Everyone was lovely, accommodating to not only myself but to Gaz as well. We didn’t stay long after I shook hands with all the people I felt that I should shake hands with. I got the feeling that the smattering of voices, unintelligible but loud, was a bit jarring to him, after what happened at Mesa Coyoacan, so we left, out into the open air, into the comfort of silence.

We turned off Jessup Rd. leaving the Community Center and walked toward the Golf Course where we stopped and asked an older looking student how to find the Mundy Wildflower Gardens. He walked with us as far as the bridge from Forest Home to Judd Falls Rd., and leaving us at the Wildflower Garden, he said a cordial goodbye.

That was his favorite moment, I think, of the entire trip, seeing the Wildflower Gardens. I got some flowers for him while he was preoccupied with a ghost orchid. I had picked a single flower from each species after he wondered aloud if we were allowed to take any. I planned to give them to him when he left the morning after. We didn’t stay too long, hoping to see as much as possible before our strange trip together had to come to an end. We found our way with a little help back onto Judd Falls, then headed for Werly Island, and on to see Beebe Lake.

We weren’t the only ones along the similar path; as the Gardens and the roads between had been sparse, there were many, many students camped out around the lake.

“Hurry!” he said. “Let’s talk to those ladies.”

We hurried after them and when we finally caught up Gaz said:

“Good afternoon!”

“Hello,” I said. “Mind if we walk with you?”

“Not at all,” said the brunette. Both were sweating, hair pulled back in a bun and wearing wind-breakers. “Are you a freshman?” the blond girl asked. Her name was Jennifer. Her slightly taller, more earnest friend was named Vanessa.

“How can you tell?”

“Because you’re polite,” Vanessa said. They laughed together and we laughed too.

“My friend Gaz here,” I said, “he told me this lake was magic. It’s not as silly as it sounds…”

“Let’s hear it then,” Vanessa said. They kept walking and we kept pace as best as we could.

“Well the legend goes that if you walk around the lake with a friend or with a girlfriend or a boyfriend, you’ll never part. It sounds silly, I know! I know! But I thought if we walked together, maybe it’d come true, and we’d always be friends.”

And we were, Jennifer and Vanessa and I. I knew them all the way through graduation. And I was friends with until he disappeared.

5

His last night with me Gaz got to stay in my cramped dorm. I was sitting at a desk looking through a list of books I’d need. Gaz had the news on again. One channel after another, news and violence, opinions about violence in the news: also featuring violence. Then he saw that tape. You know the one – one of the tapes posted to the Al Jazeera news agency in Qatar, an old VHS video tape that would leak onto the internet, onto smut sites, gore porn like Rotten.com and Ogrish, the digital faces of death. I watched them, how could you not? You know it’s going to hurt you – if you’re not a fucking sociopath – but you feel the need, at least I did, I didn’t watch it to enjoy it, but as some way of misguided empathy, to need to suffer for the people who suffered I could have never helped.

A copy of the New York Times was open on the bed beside him, the one that ran the infamous Judith Miller story, as it had been circulating around campus as an effort to discredit the push for war. I finished looking over the long, long list of books I’d need and sat beside him in the dim light of a small lamp I’d bought the day before, the dim light of the flickering TV. I finally fell asleep sometime after midnight, somehow keeping my spirits up in spite of the deluge of horror coming from the small TV set.

Sometime in the early morning he woke me up with surprising strength.

“Hey,” he said. “Brandon? Are you awake?”

“Dude, I’m fucking awake now cause you woke me up!”

“I’m sorry!”

“It’s fine,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

We both had a laugh together.

“Have you ever heard of Saudi Arabia?” he slurred.

“Dude,” I said. “You woke me up for that shit?”

“Okay, okay,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve heard of Saudi Arabia. You’ve seen Aladdin. Read the Arabian Nights. What do you think about when you think of Saudi Arabia? I was born there. Do you know where it is? Don’t look at me like that! I’m kidding!”

I laughed: the most casual way to admit ignorance without actually admitting ignorance.

“But you know, smart as you are–and I don’t hold this against you! I was born in Seqaren. Most Americans, when they think of Saudi Arabia, you think of deserts and Lawrence of Arabia. And camels. The camels, ah! The camels aren’t even indigenous! We import them! And that’s where those people were from, who destroyed those buildings… And any country with that kind of … But they weren’t from my home. There’s something about home that doesn’t change. What do you call it? A characteristic of a place, something that speaks to you when you see it? It’s not a landmark, it’s something in the blood… And it can’t be taken from you. It’s printed on you, understand? Yes, there are deserts in Saudi Arabia and there are camels in those deserts, but in Saqeren – where I was born, what a beautiful place! And there are waterfalls and granite walls, roads carved into the sides of mountains

“There was a waterfall not fall from my house, where I grew up, nothing fancy, nothing chic, nothing modern. The waterfall started as a little stream high up on the hill, a large drop off and at the bottom is a small pool of water. I never seen the top. It might not have been perfectly clean but we thought it was safe to swim, to cool off, to have fun. We were children. Where… wait, I have a point. I… Fuck, Brandon. It was a sewer and I miss it! Maybe I miss the memory, the happiness of being a kid. How quickly does it end, childhood. Maybe it’s a phantom, conjured by starved memory searching out images of comfort and home.”

“Well, tell me about your last day there… In … Sekaren?”

“I was the youngest in my family… My sister was the oldest Anahita, Hiti… I was not close to her. So pretty, I wish I could see her again. She ran away when she turned eighteen and we never saw her again. She didn’t get along with dad. But I had two brothers, and I loved them! Of course I did… But my oldest brother, what an ass! Kohinoor, so fucking stubborn. You know? He always talked down to me and my other brother Kaveh, who was fourteen. But he looked up to Kohinoor. Kohin was the oldest, the heir to our meager lands. He wanted to play hero, too, but in games, with toys, make believe! Kohinoor believed in fighting, but no one in our family would support that madness! He was confused, he was mad at the world and wanted to fight for something. These people are not born monsters. Maybe he just wanted to fight, for his country or his religion. He had gotten in trouble a lot with the local military, the police had been taken away and replaced. We never saw them again…”

“Gaz…”

“Gazsi’s not my name! Just some vaguely ethic nickname. We have Roberts and Georges and Micahs. Even Todds and Tuckers yes speaking Persian, you think they want to use a Kalashnikov? They want to go to Starbucks and see Tarantino films… But these kids will die, thousands of them, no one will print a word. Only leaders of monsters, figure-heads, that brainwash children into being fodder for dispassionate carpet bombing which, it’s just a fucking button issue here, anger! I’m not angry, at that fucking phony in his camo he risks nothing! Nothing! But he was born better so he’s entitled to fucking judgment!”

“Okay, okay, relax. It’s fine, it’s fine. It’s all right, man. If I fail, you know, getting in here was pointless.”

“And you look at me like that. Yes, Ivy League, how modern and cultured, and you’ll sit in those classrooms and pretend you care until refugees start pouring out and then that Statue of Liberty doesn’t apply. Surely it is no crime to be born! I’m not a barbarian! Those police officers, they weren’t cavemen! But it’s on the news, so they’re cavemen now. They weren’t fools or barbarians they were regular fucking people with families and just regular fucking people. Ah! And they just disappeared. Pop, pop, pop in the dark. Like blowing bubbles. We got those little plastic toys, a little stick with a hoop on the end. We dipped it in gasoline and blew through it and they’d float for a while pretty in the sun and pop! Haha! Pop, pop, pop. They disappeared, and everybody was angry. Who wouldn’t be? The problem was, they had to be mad, and they had to be mad at something.

“What makes you angry when your enemy is the dark? Not in the dark, but dark itself, no way to fight it without becoming a part of it. No one knew who to fight, but they wanted to, they needed to. Just because they were being hurt. So they tore each other to pieces. When you brutalize a people, when you handle them like beasts and monsters, you don’t make angels of them, you don’t reform them. They become monsters or they become ghosts and there is no other choice except to run and hope that someone here, this country I love, won’t hold you accountable for the sins of your father, or your people, or your culture. I ran. That’s what I did. That’s what the smart people did. From my family… Both my brothers, they were kids. They never grew up. Kaveh became a ghost, not an angel, and Kohimoor, he became a monster first and then a ghost. Ghosts are real. Some are kind, those that died in their sleep. But some, like those people in those buildings, those are angry ghosts. And what can I do? I don’t know who to fight, but I want to fight. I need to fight, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to be a ghost, not like my brother. I want to be the kind of ghost that helps the others on, through the fire and into peace. And they changed names all the time, easy, yes? So many names you forget who you are, and the regret eats you from the inside, like a botfly, inside out until your heart is black and you want to cover this world in darkness with you.

“The last day in Seqaren I do remember, and it’s real, and I know it’s real, and that is why I prefer the dream. I was walking down the hill towards the pond at the bottom and there were children already in. The little pool was always dirty, but that day was as dirty as I’d ever seen it. I thought that someone had spilled paint into the water, but I got in anyway. I stood on the edge of the little pool on sharp little rocks, cutting my feet on the glass from broken bottles. I saw my younger brother coming down the hillside in a hurry, chasing a ball but fell and slid dust coming up behind him and down he went from the sheer cliff, the drop off where the water comes…

“Once he hit the incline and started running I couldn’t tell if he was crazed with happiness or with madness or with fear, but I was a child. I was afraid, and got out of the water to try to help. He ran and ran and ran finally I saw… My brother Kohin was chasing him and he had a gun. I thought that it was some stupid game until my brother Kaveh grabbed me and pulled me into the water and jumped in with me, with all his clothes on taking me down beneath the black water grabbing my nostrils and he yelled ‘Take a deep breath!’ That’s what scared me! He had his clothes all wet and I knew mother would be very angry with him. And my father…

“I struggled to stay above water, but Kaveh tried to hold me under, and I thought, Maybe he’s horsing around? Then I saw the group of men behind Kohin, all dressed in black, and the… It’s… it’s god damn, god fucking damn. God dammit! Have you ever heard a gun being fired? There were dozens of shots at once, rippling, and it just tore Kohim apart, tore him to fucking pieces. Metal doesn’t bleed, nothing like that, when you get hit you’re just a mix of blood and water and air. And they followed him to the edge of the water. He crawled across the glass towards the water, towards where I was hiding with Kaveh, and before he died his eyes widened with surprise as he saw my little head bob up and gasp for air breathing oil; there had been an oil spill in the water, no paint! and because the little pool was between two high cliffs, the shadows had kept us safe until the surface of the pool caught fire.

“A group of people all garbed in black were running after him shouting in a language I didn’t understand and when he saw me he stopped running and he stopped crawling and the water was boiling in my eyes but I was covered by the oil in the shadow watching as he knelt, hands behind his head with his fingers interlocked. He stopped trying to get away, and he just closed his eyes and lay there. I froze there unable to move, as the muffled sound of the Kalashnikov rang out dead and muffled with the water softening the shots. He tumbled over, same stupid smile on his face, dead or pretending I had no idea, I didn’t know, I don’t I fucking I was … I was a child! And the men came up, all I saw were there eyes and those guns, and whether he was dead when he stopped crawling, he was ten feet or so away from us. They shot him in the head. One of those men in black, I guess he was the leader and he pointed at the water and I grabbed my nostrils and dove deep into the black underneath the fire white now blanketing the surface, their muffled shouting and gunshots. I don’t know who he was. I just saw his eyes, the bottom of his face when he pulled that mask up when he took out that gun, that little pistol and shot Kohinoor in the head. He just shot him again, shooting a corpse.

“What kind of madness must be bred to have one man shoot another knowing he’s dead? He’s just wasting bullets, still angry, killing a corpse without remorse or pity or anything. Then he just went through his pockets, took some of his bullets, took his gun, and walked over to one of the other men in black and came back with a burning sock in one hand and a white paper cup in the other. That gasoline taste was in my mouth, I’ll never forget it… Then the man dropped the sock on my brother and whoosh! He goes up in flames. They pushed him into the water but he kept burning … turning into soot, not ash, the gasoline in my eyes between bubbles.

“I guess they were content that he was dead by then, I took one last pull of air and closed my eyes and thought, I’ve never known or believed in the customs of my people but I begged any listening god to take me to a place where I could breathe, a place without fire. Two of the other men came over and with a little effort they flung my brother’s body into the shallow pool. He was dead and another body was just something they couldn’t carry, molting like that, like shedding skin, peeling away with the fabric of his t-shirt each layer of skin. And something… It shocked them as much as me and Kaveh looking through the gasoline bubbles rimmed in bows of rain, and that finally scared them, when the water had caught fire. It’s … They ran off, back up the hill, and Kaveh held me there, trying to protect me. That’s what happened to my face… I know, I know. And somehow, wet, we kept burning, deep down, and breathing in each breath was pure fire filling your lungs. It could have been forever, and it died out, finally. I don’t remember the rest so well, but I’ve been on fire ever since, when water touches me, cold or hot, I keep burning.

“I remember mama coming for me and sobbing. My brother wouldn’t leave Kohin’s body, but me and mama left anyway. We left without him. We got into the back of a truck and waited. I think we were waiting for papa. I don’t remember his name, he had changed it so often, and mama told me it was best I didn’t know. If one side didn’t kill him the other one and the cleanup crew didn’t notice the differences in the eyes or face or those wrinkles in a man’s forehead that say so much or the sadness for a mother having to leave without her child. We waited until we couldn’t anymore and besides, the truck was too full anyway. Had he made it, we’d have had to tell him he couldn’t leave. Brandon, they waited on papa, not to take him with us, but to apologize for leaving, they were waiting to say goodbye.

“He was probably somewhere with a gun or in a ditch, being noble, fighting the cause, while we left down a long long road, people were stacked on top of each other, kids stacked like piles of folded pants. We drove through the night and into the next afternoon. We met an American there and his wife and his two kids, and the truck driver told us that we would have to learn our new names, and began passing out Egyptian visas. I didn’t know what they were, I just remember staring down at the face of a kid who looked like me, and was about my age. I memorized his birthday and his name. I don’t even know my real birthday, Brandon. So I never know when to celebrate.”

There was a long silence.

“Let’s say today is your birthday, then,” I said. “You can have those flowers from the atrium, and take them with you if you go back.”

“You know,” he said, “I can’t go back, unless they make me. Where I must fight or be a monster, one side or another, a monster or collateral I’ll end up a ghost like my brother, forgotten in all the confusion of just another afternoon.”

“Who’s going to teach me to write if you leave, Gaz?” I asked. “Being practical, you won’t have time to edit my stories if you die.”

He laughed, the vitreous humor crusting in his eyes with embarrassment. He wiped it away.

“I’ll haunt your Word processor, and leave you notes here and there. We’ll develop that talent someday.”

“I knew I could rely on you.”

He smiled.

“Thanks, Brandon.”

I smiled. I didn’t know what to say. Thinking back to it now, I wish I could have comforted him, even if I had to lie. He kept on drinking. And so did I. The television was still blaring news, the same sort that had dominated the airwaves. Finally I turned it back to the Satellite standard music station. He hadn’t lost his composure, not completely, and he hummed some little song. Well, I’m not sure it was a song, as I didn’t know the language. I butted in.

“Have you ever heard Anna Moffat sing?” I asked. “Madame Butterfly? I have to pretend to be cultured now.”

He shuffled through his mp3 player and put on a piece of music. The instrument was an a rabab, he told me. I think. I didn’t know what it was, but it was beautiful and serene, and I thought if they could import camels, maybe they could import a waterfall and make an atrium, and plant one for everybody, every ghost, each man and woman and child they could’t account for. I wanted to help, or be consoling, or confer in him something personal, or say something wise and meaningful. Sometimes silence is the best consolation.

He had shaken it off somehow by the time he started packing. Or appeared to do so, regaining a measure of his composure, he was smiling and laughing. Maybe it was for my sake. Tears welled up in my eyes. He thumbed them away and wiped them on his church, then took a handkerchief from his jacket and handed it to me. His expression changed when he saw the hurt in my eyes.

“Hey,” he said. “I like you, Brandon.”

“I like you too, Gaz.”

“Do well.”

“I’ll try, my friend.”

“And …” he added, “Failure is not final, quitting is.”

Denouement

I woke the next morning and he was gone. All his things, his assortment of flowers. I wondered if he’d make it into that peaceful place and have a garden, a home and a wife, something worth being peaceful for, for his daffodils and daisies and orchids, a laminated lotus flower in my notebook on top of a list of books for class:

Brandon,

Not all pain is the same, nor equal. Some pain may teach you. Something about life, something about yourself. Then there’s this other kind, the kind that shouts at you until your ears ring, until you can’t hear anything but white noise, the kind of pain that breaks you, leaving you worthless, and thereby breaks you twice. Study hard. You’ll be a writer someday. Remember, if you base a story on the truth, the spirit of it must be true or else it’s a lie, not fiction.

                                   The friendly ghost,

                                                          Azar.

I never saw him again. And I looked, I looked through newspapers and the internet, fearing that he had joined the fight for the sake of fighting. I still tend the flowers prepared for him, and keep a living ghost orchid, Gazsi’s ghost. He’d just disappeared. Just like that, a gasoline bubble going pop. I still leave a light on for him.

 

The Contrarian Argument & the Decay of Political Discourse

The contrarian argument fallacy

Bullshit, (bo͝olˌSHit) noun: what other people passionately believe.

Whenever discussing issues of controversy or politics, it is a popular trend to deflect a charge against one’s own political party/ideas by a deflection. It usually follows the same pattern in the discourse. Whenever you are discussing the shortcomings of A, a supporter of A, instead of answering the charge, will assume the contrarian argument and deflect the charge. Instead of addressing A’s behavior, the response to it is to bring up the behavior of B, and therefore avoid any responsibility of actually having to answer any difficult questions about one’s own political or philosophical opinions. A common method in the modern discourse is to bring up a negative quality about, say, a particularly beloved/hated politician. Now, to defend them, a contrarian argument may form as accusation against the person whose argument it is; they will neglect to address any issue involved with their own party and instead rebuff you with the “well, maybe he did kill a flock of California condors, but at least he didn’t bathe in the blood of virgins to retain eternal youth.

Now, the problem with this should be obvious: it reduces and degrades the discussion to a series of accusations, substantive or not, and by lowering the stakes (as to whether or not one should bear the full responsibility for one’s behavior) the conversation changes to: so what? Your [insert party/cause here] does this. It is the modern political argument equivalent, I know I am, but what are you? Look for this: whenever someone cannot answer an honest charge with a grounded defense without contrarian charges, their fucking argument is built on quicksand, if that.

Now, the problem with this isn’t just a matter of argument or semantics: degrading the discourse limits the opportunity for those of differing opinion to find common ground or compromise, and you end up with the argumentative equivalent of two fingers in your ears shouting about how bad the person to whom you’re talking supports Soandso McExample and how terrible they are. This is problematic: as far back as ancient Rome, in the senate, the policies of state and the nation were largely left to the debates of senators; whoever had the argument that carried the day carried the motion. It was like this in the French Revolution: speeches and discussions are a part of the body politic, the mouth, primarily, and without this give and take of honest and genuine scrutiny we reduce ourselves to a nation of ear-pluggers, no more willing to listen to anything outside of our own bubble than we are willing to stare into the sun.

The importance of civil discourse is what underpins the authority of a government. When that government’s authority is reduced to contrarian attacks, the foundation turns from concrete into quicksand and dissolves beneath its feet, taking everyone with it into the mire, braying like a flailing horse, unintelligible, and those who hear remain unconcerned, unless the horse was their mascot. Then a state funeral will be held, dedications made, and passionate eulogies read. The only way to solve differences of opinion is not to destroy another person’s opinion, but to find a common ground where two seemingly mutually exclusive opinions can co-exist with something resembling mature thinking. So, whenever someone criticizes a point you’ve made, don’t resort to the fallacious “well, my point may be untenable, but all of your points are FUCKED.”

By waving the response to a charge, you aren’t denying it, rather you are making the presumption that the charge doesn’t matter, even if true; as long as this mentality persists, nothing will be solved, and we will have nothing but a crude, miasma of dissent, with ears plugged on all sides, with no progress, no middle ground, and no resolution.

PS. That politician you like is a total asshole.

Theatre: Tradition & Ritual IV

Tragedy was at its highest when Greek society was at its highest. Comedy was an outlet against and for the frustrations of society, as a diversion for the masses, and was therefore greatly popular during the decline of the Greek government after losing the Peloponessian war against Sparta in 404 BC. In 336 BC, Alexander the Great, a Macedonian King came to power in Athens. Political issues were to be ignored in comedy, understandably, and familial and family relationships were brought to the fore. This was called New Comedy.

For the first time in ancient drama, as much is known, love became a principal element in the drama, though hardly was it considered an honest love. Dialogue was still cast in verse, as the role of the chorus diminished in New Comedy. The costumes and masks were based on the dress of normal life. The masks were more realistic, except, that is, the masks for slaves and the elderly; they remained exaggerated, caricatured. There is only one complete New Comedy known to historians, and it was recently discovered.

DyskolosThe Grouch, was written by Menander, and contained a common theme in comedy, a parent’s disapproval with a child’s chosen partner in marriage. And it had a happy ending. Menander’s characters spoke in contemporary dialect, using colloquial language, and concerned themselves with the affairs of the day-to-day instead of the great myths of the past, as had most popular tragedies at the height of the Dionysia, and it would not be presented there, but at a smaller festival, the Lenaia.

As hard the forms of the past, after the 3rd century BC, new comedy as well began to decline, as did the contests of the Dionysia ceased completely in the first century AD, bringing an end to the classical period of Greek theatre. Its importance, to the audience and performers, is apparent in its surviving monuments and texts, such as the Lysicrates (334 BC), which commemorates the triumphs of the Dionysia. It would be the choregos, a financier of the winning play, likely the myth of the god Dionysis, and the monument served as a pedestal, a reminder of better times; with a bronze tripod upon its summit and trophy for the victor. A modern replica of this monument can be seen in Berlin.

Athens was to be rebuilt in grand fashion after victory in the war against the Persians. Temples most magnificent rose on the acropolis. Pericles was a popular statesman at this time, a period most known for the period of the Parthenon. The orchestra was still known to be circular in the theatre of Dionysia. During the festival a temporary wooden changing hut (the skene) was placed. The theatre was further excavated to make a more secure foundation for the wooden seats. It’s likely that these seats were divided into ten different benches, for the ten different tribes. It is believed another bench would have been put aside for women.

One of the first permanent, roofed theatres was built adjacent to the theatre of Dionysus in 440 BC: The Odeion of Pericles. The possibilities offered by this unique facility were many: dramatic activities as well as recitations. Using existing archaeology, the popular theory is that the roof would have been supported by a forest of columns, which would, of course, result in a sight-line disaster for nearly half of the spectators.

In the 4th century, under the statesman Lycurgus the theatre of Dionysus would finally be rebuilt in stone. This is around the same time period Menander began producing new comedies. Also, racked-stone tiers were constructed where wooden benches had once been. It is believed to have allowed for as many as 17,000 spectators.

The orchestra, the dancing place was still in front of the stage building, a circular pit, and behind facing each side were projecting wings behind the skene (the paraskenia). The word theatre originated from the word for the auditorium, theatron; it meant, ‘seeing place’, (koilon / cavea / auditorium).

Foreigners would have watched from the upper part of the theatre, highest in altitude and furthest from the stage. The proskene, the acting platform, was a low acting platform behind the orchestra, becoming ever more like what we know as a stage. To the rear, behind the skene and backstage area, was a Dionysus sanctuary, with the old temple and the new. Opposing entrances (paradoi) allowed for opposing entrances to the stage by the actors. There would be two diazoma, upper and lower crosswalks between levels of raked seating areas. The front row could consist of 76 marble stalls; the theatre of Dionysus can still be seen today, each seat carved from stone.

When the king of the Balkans took over the city-states in Greece, plays were no longer performed at the Dionysia in Athens. Many new theatres were built and some are still standing, including the best-preserved theatre in all of Greece; consisting of an estimated 14,000 seats, the theatre at Epidaurus still contained the traditional, circular orchestra as its focal point. Another is the Delphi theatre, c. 350 BC, and it has an estimated 5,000 seats, and is spectacularly sited, using the same focal point. This wouldn’t change until the next major period — the Hellenistic period. Which we’ll come to presently (in the sense that, in some future present, I will have finished writing it, and it will be available on this site. Check back for the rest!)

Theatre: Tradition & Ritual III

After the introduction of Tragedy in the Dionysia in 534 BC, the Dithyramb in 508 BC, and the Satyr play in 501 BC, it would be comedy in 501 BC. IT would be the last major form, and is divided into two periods: the period of old comedy and the period of new comedy.

Five comic writers would present a single play, each perhaps on one of the five days of the Dionyisia. The structure of comedy, like that of a satire, was similar to that of tragedy. Plays were episodic, with bottled episodes alternating with a chorus rhythmically. The chorus was no longer the satyrs, the half-beast, half-human companions of Dionysus, but wasps, frogs, even clouds. As tragic actors wore elaborate costumes, like priests and musicians, comic actors were not to be outdone: they wore padded breasts, padded asses and stomachs, and to top it off, was a long, floppy phallus for the male characters, but not for the chorus.

Note: all characters, female included, were still played by males, in this instance, the case is that the men playing female characters were denied the dick costumes. The masks of old comedy were distortions, caricatures intended to ridicule, and sometimes ridicule real people, priests, politicians, other playwrights. Especially Euripides, for writing strong female characters and questioning the Gods. No from Plato on whether not Euripides has apologized.

On preserved vases and pottery you can still find scenes of old comedy depicted. It is thought that the origin of old comedy may be found in the old Dionysian phallus song. It could be found from without, as well, in the city of Doran on the island of Sicily. The only comedies of the 5th century known to history are the work of a single comic poet, Aristophanes, and though he is believed to have written forty or more plays, only eleven have survived. His comedies were largely political-social satires. They still took the form of the most extravagant of the burlesque. Aristophanes was brutal in his abuse, skewering the politicians and celebrities of Athens.

The circumstance of it being a part of the tradition of the Dionysia allowed him to get away with saying things he would normally be unable to say. A choral ode, the parabasis, was a choral ode, but unique in that the playwright could take to the stage and discuss, at liberty, anything he so desired, and it needn’t have anything to do with the play. At the height of the Poloponessian War between Athens and Sparta, Aristophanes produced an anti-war comedy Lysistrata – in it, two women swear an oath to deny all men sex until the end of the war. Motivation. Athens, perhaps, capitulated for this reason, knowing a true defeat for Sparta was the end of battle and the recommencement of married life.

Theatre: Tradition & Ritual II

The City of Dionysia festival, the first annual annual, was held each year in March, beginning with an announcement by the three selected playwrights and the subjects of their tragedy trilogies, respectively. A great procession was held, a procession in which citizens – men, women, children, colonial representatives – marched through Athens carrying the wooden statue of Dionysia, from outside the theatre of Dioynsus to the southern slope of the acropolis. The procession ended with parties and celebrations.

Dionysus wasn’t a one-note deity, the God of wine, but also of fertility, humanity, and of land, and as such, the phallus was a popular symbol of fertility. As such, a giant statue, of bronze or wood, of a phallus would be carried in procession, while a cart pulled a much larger phallus. This is a custom that survives to this day in Japan, in traditional kabuki theatres, as there is a large cart carrying an even larger phallus. To be clear, phallus is just an archaic word for penis. Large penises were pulled into crowds full of drunks celebrating the most brutal of tragedies performed in the Dioynsia contest.

Dionysus was not only the god of wine, but of fertility, human beings and of land. The phallus was a popular symbol of fertility in those days. Therefore, a wooden or bronze phalloi was carried in procession and a cart pulled a much larger phallus. A similar custom is still continued to this day in Japan, where there is the carrying of a giant phallus to proceed kabuki ceremonies and performances.

In 500 BC a new contest was introduced to draw loyalty from the newly formed Athenian tribes. To parlay favor, a dithyramb contest was held, separate for men and for young boys. Mesomedes is a popular melody writer from the 2nd century whose work is still known. The singing performances were accompanied by lyres, sitars, as aulos and other types of pipe instruments.

In 501 BC, the Dionysia was again extended: it would include a Satyr play. In Greek mythology, a satyr was half-beast, half-human companion to Dionysis. These characters would make up the chorus in a traditional satyr play. So in the 5th century, not only the the playwright be expected to produce a trilogy, a trilogy of a single, larger tragedy, but also a satyr play – this was the comic relief, alleviating some of the misery that had preceded it. These would be more or less burlesque versions of familiar subjects, gods and heroes, but set in a rural area, full of boisterous scenes and drinking, and the absolute indecency of colloquial language, introducing a tradition of slang. While dick jokes have fallen out of favor, keep in mind, the very first performed jokes known to history are dick jokes.

Only one known completed satyr play from this period is known to historians, Cyclops by the playwright Euripides, based on the episode in the episode when Odysseus encounters the cyclops Polyphemus. You can still see paintings of satyr plays depicted on vases and pottery, where chorus members wore scant-dressings of goat skins with a linen-sewn phallus for comedic effect. The structure of the satyr play was similar to that of a tragedy, and the English word satire derives from this tradition of the Satyr play introduced into the tragedy contests in the City of Dionysia.

Theatre: Tradition & Ritual I

Theatre’s origin is right there in the middle, in the circle, center-stage in the dancing place at the foot of a hill – this would be the focal point for spectators. That’s where Dionysus was celebrated, God of fertility and wine, born from the thigh of Zeus. Worship was ecstatic. In (or around) the 6th century BC, the celebration was formalized, ritualized: a tradition of regularity, a framework was established. The celebration of ritual was the celebration of normalcy, and contentment: women were no longer allowed to participate. Serious business.

By the orchestra – the focal point of everything – a temple, the Temple of Dionysus was built. A play would begin with a ritual sacrifice, to a goat – Tragos. The word tragedy itself comes from this word, and means ‘goat song.’ Hamlet was a goat song. The altar was right in the middle, as it was on-top of the pyramids in Meso-America; except the Athenians used goats, not people or virgins, and the sacrifice was to the God of Fertility and wine, not the sun. Wine is behind all of this. As such, the earliest results, or at least the earliest of performances, were hymns – dithyramb – by 50 or so men, and were sang to more or less Oriental-sounding music. It was a hymn in the most traditional tradition, the religious tradition. If this were to happen in the modern world, it would manifest as a group of hundreds watching a group of maybe fifty, dancing in rehearsed movements while singing, or miming This Little Light of Mine. Or, Amazing Grace, if you’d like. Substitute a popular call to worship in any culture and perform it, and you have the efforts of the formal ritual.

Rituals are important in the way that hobbies are. The difference between a ritual and a hobby is that a ritual is a hobby you can do with other people. This was enough for the earliest performers, to drink and toast the God(s), and dance around and sing. None of this was written down, passed along, and none survive. It is thought that the poet Arion of Corinth would be the first – or first known – to base this on a literary composition. The words were recorded and memorized, and around this center rose the classical culture of Athens. This is the Athens that comes to mind when we read of democracy in ancient Greek traditions. It formed around the ritual, expanded into the broader culture as a tradition, and the traditions led to the culture and its saturation. And democracy in Athens is a true part of history, albeit a brief and unpopular one. The idea of democracy in Athens was to give all male citizens, low class, middle, or high, the right to have their voice heard in state affairs. The heads of the traditional 10 tribes would have the loudest voices, and the crowd would mingle with them at the performances.

While Arion is credited with transmuting this ritual into writing, Thespis is created with the creation of performing characters.  A performer, an actor (the word thespian comes from Thespis) would impersonate the character the song was about, or take on the character doing the singing. When more actors were brought in, masks were used to differentiate between the characters. The masks were made of single-use cloth or cork. An outside character, hypokritos, would step onto the stage to interact with the solo performer, in the character of a God, mimicking a trance or state of divinity (an enthoustase).

It is believed that the writings spread out of Athens on the cart of Thespis, though this is probably apocryphal, and performances of the formal plays would take place in other towns. The traveling performance troupe, actors and singers, would be the primary form of theatre well into the middle ages, all the way to the edge of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England and on until the Golden Age of Broadway, silent films, into our own time.

At the source, it would become an annual festival, a contest and celebration in the City of Dionysia, circa 534 BC. There would be a prize for best tragedy and runners up would be officially noted and shamed accordingly. Thespis is believed to have won the first competition. His pupil Phrynichus is credited with introducing female characters into the performance, characters who would be played by male actors. He’s also credited with the introduction of contemporary personalities and subjects. None of the work of these 6th century dramatists is known to historians.

The popularity of the festival continued into the 5th century, growing into ever larger and more permanent, elaborate arenas: rows of temporary buildings would be built on the side of the Acropolis, and the orchestra, the circle – the dancing place, still the focal point and stage – and a building was built behind it, a skene – a type of hut for actors, for the changing of costumes and masks. The skene would also serve to preserve the written source, the notes a director would leave today, and each actor would decide which characters to play, when to change, and who was to take a given role. It wasn’t as strict as it is today. The first settings were temples, palaces, and royal courts. There were two or three doors actors used to enter a scene. A permanent backstage, solidified by stone, would only become standard in the 4th century.

Of the plays known to have been written in the 5th century, 32 tragedies of only 3 playwrights have survived. The first (we know) is Aeschylus, who would diminish the importance and number of the formal chorus. Aeschylus’ treatment of Agamemnon is still-performed and relatively popular today. In the time of its first performances, the actors would be in the open air with thousands of spectators. The deliveries were loud and declamatory, each starting with a prologue, to get everybody on the same page.

Next would be Sophocles, perhaps the most well-known of the ancient Greek tragedians, most famous for Oedipus the King and Antigone. He has also been credited with the introduction of the third speaking actor, making the three actors convention the convention for centuries. This favored an exchange between characters and actors and would bring theatre closer to what we imagine when we think of modern theatre, its acting and plot. He has also been credited with the invention scene-painting, achieving this by using painted panels (pinakes) similar to modern flats (or back cloths). A century later it would be closer still to modernity. Sophocles is widely regarded as the most skillful of the three dramatists, and Oedipus the King has been called “the most perfect Greek tragedy.” Compared to Aeschylus, Sophocles created more psychologically complete characters and has a relatively easy-to-pronounce name, as no academic or historian really knows how to pronounce Aeschylus.

The next of the famed trinity of playwrights is Euripides, from whom 18 complete works have survived. His plays foreshadow the ultimate form of drama as we know it today: he employed a naturalistic, more human approach than his contemporaries. In his time, however, his plays were not highly regarded, and this could be due to his questioning of Gods and their role in human misery and injustice, and by showing strong, intelligent female characters.

The most popular symbols of the period, and most endearing, have been the tragic masks, often found depicted on ancient pottery and vases. The well-known laughing / crying pair of masks has remained popular, although the earliest of these depictions are from a time long after the plays of the period were being written and performed, and are traditional for the sake of being traditional. It is the celebration of a celebration; that is tradition. For there to be an annual happening, first something happening must become annual. The City of Dionysia and its Tragedy Contest would be an annual event that would enjoy lasting fame, a popularity that would stretch across time, politics, and culture.

Theatre: Tradition & Ritual – Part I

This non-fiction history of theatre starts in the 6th century BC, Theatre: Tradition & Ritual tells the story of how theatre began and evolved, its early pioneers and later masters, and how it has shaped world history and culture. It is a uniquely human tradition, and the theatre is a place where stories have been told for thousands of years, shaping the way we see and interact with the world. Its power continues to influence the culture: through movies and Broadway and popular music, through every possible iteration, the tradition of ritual and performance continues to give depth and dimension to the character of humanity.

Part 1 tells the story of theatre from its beginnings in Athens to its height all the way through its decline; part 2 continues the story into Elizabethan England and tells the story of the second great Renaissance in Western theatre, discussing the major playwrights of that period – such as Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Robert Greene, and an obscure English playwright named William Shakespeare – also known as the greatest dramatist ever. Part 3 continues the story of theatre into the modern age, looking at the theatre scene in New York City and Paris, as those are the only theatre scenes I know enough about to fulfill the three-act structure of this thing. 

Part 1 – Creating and Defining Form

I – The First Annual ‘Annual’

II The Tragic Tragedy Contest

III – Downfall in the Third Act

IV – Epilogue: Moving Forward