Saint Agnes House by Justin Carmickle
“‘How much work can sitting with an old man possibly be?’ Ian’s mother…”
A Lonely, Cold Place by Barbara Harroun
“I rise in the dark brutality of mid-February, feel for my slippers, grope for my warm, parka-like robe and cinch it at my waist…”
Built to Sink Biannually by Jaap Kemp
“Our ideals were at once immortal and despondent, seeking the sense of perpetuity that only death can afford…”
Tusk by David Nelson
“I knew there was nothing to say. You kept glancing down the line, then looking over at me to see if I’d caught you…”
The Good Sentinel by Alex Pruteanu
“Many years later, as he stepped up to the gallows…”
Ghostland Blues by Billy Wallace
“I can tell that Bennie’s no townie. He wants to smoke, but doesn’t want to leave his drink…”
The Ninety Day Wonder by Judy Bolton-Fasman
“Decades after he was in the Navy, when I was no more than six or seven years-old, my father tracked the weather as if he were still on the bridge of his supply ship…”
HG Pieces by Michael Levan
“Over the next three days, he realizes his life is ruled / by numbers…”
Plumb from a String: An Essay in Nine Sutures by Connor O’Neill
“It was something like the sound of two clocks ticking just out of sync, my brother’s bandages being cut….”
Dead Animal Farm by L.B. Thomas
“The goat screamed all night. It sounded like a human child yelling at the top of its lungs…”
How Not to Spell Gymnasium by Roy Bentley
“As for the rest, they spat consonants and vowels
in correct order while I was…”
Tucson in the Future by Kayla Rae Candrilli
“In the time it takes to fly across
the desert again…”
Girl in the Cave by Tasha Cotter
“For years, the messages go unanswered…”
Life in Outer Space by Tasha Cotter
“The people vowed never to leave…”
After Eden: Hopper’s Pennsylvania Coal Town by Karl Plank
“After Eden he made his way to Pennsylvania
tracing the coal seam with bruised feet…”
Still Life with Pronoun and Scalpel by Christina Stoddard
“With this blade, I must trim you…”
(Reenactments of the Maiden Voyage of the Titanic)
“In memory–Alex Bednarowski–1986-2013”
Our ideals were at once immortal and despondent, seeking the sense of perpetuity that only death can afford. Timelessness: every two years we hoped to reset the clock, to bet again that first grand wager, to pronounce ourselves unsinkable. The accusations against us (that our ideas were first and continue to be hawked from better artists) are, I admit, partly true—we borrowed, for instance, the Artist’s Sacrifice. Regarding this concept, a cursory background for our uninitiated readers may prove itself constructive.
The Artist’s Sacrifice: The year was 1915. The arrival of spring did nothing to abate the unmitigated chaos swarming through Europe. January had brought the first recorded use of poison gas as a wartime chemical weapon. By February the waters around Great Britain were declared a war zone. And despite continuous heavy casualties, the Dardanelles still had not been captured in mid-March. America remained more or less oblivious. April brought to us grim reminders of recent, closer-to-home horrors, death dates not soon forgotten and still remembered. One such example, convenient to our intentions: 15 April: fifty years living with Lincoln’s untimely absence (reports of his ghost lumbering through the White House’s so-called ‘Blue Bedroom’ [now the eponymous ‘Lincoln Bedroom’] had already begun accruing) and a mere three years since the sinking of our beloved Titanic. ‘Coop’ Sylks, a New York actor of very little public renown, arranged an invitation-only performance, a single engagement, for the night of that black anniversary, wherein a full production of Tom Taylor’s infamous Our American Cousin was mounted, with an entirely professional cast and crew, for the sole purpose of a singular moment in the third act, when ‘Coop’ Sylks, the original sacrificial artist, who had positioned himself in the lower stage left balcony, was shot with preternatural precision through the skull, behind the left ear, by an otherwise unemployed vagrant to whom ‘Coop’ Sylks had paid a handsome one-time fee in order to provide just such a service. The select audience was entirely unaware of the nature of ‘Coop’ Sylks’ performance and were thusly thrown into utter pandemonium. The vagrant did not leap from the balcony to the stage, as he had been explicitly requested to do, but rather escaped through an exit in the upper catwalks and similarly thereafter escaped from all recorded history. A thorough manifesto is required in order to explain the principles of the Artist’s Sacrifice. But such a manifesto has yet to be written, as the craft’s most proficient practitioners never live long enough to produce one.
Our work seeks to continue the traditions established by our visionary founder—we call it our work, we speak of ourselves in the plural, for there is no single individual among us who can support, fulfill, or even (to an uncertain extent) fully comprehend our philosophies. This is what gives us our unmatched creative impetus. But this is also what keeps our ideals from a wider public dissemination. Those of you who know of us and have seen one of our performances often get the impression that you have seen such work before, in other venues, by better-equipped professionals. I assume this impression is a direct result of our lack of upper leadership, our lack of a spokesperson. For the truth is, while there are aspects we have borrowed and continue to borrow (the Artist’s Sacrifice being one, the reenactment being another), you have not seen our work before. No one but us possesses the fortitude not to abandon ship.
‘Coop’ Sylks’ revolutionary work received all of its press from the crime pages; meanwhile the so-called Arts Review sections covered banal revivals of Moliere and Wilde. Initially only the more or less hopeless attempted to follow his example—psychopaths, suicidals, narcissists, compulsive liars, schizoids and bipolars. The next performance of note was (coincidentally, or with suggestive purpose—who can say?) also a theatrical reenactment, occurring on 7 April, 1916, meaning to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the death of P. T. Barnum by stroke while on stage in the midst of some circus routine. The specifics of Barnum’s final performance were composed on the fly and therefore never remembered for posterity, but William Tecumseh Sherman (we can assume this a stage name and, therefore, no relation to the march-to-the-sea earth-scorcher), an indigent actor and clown for hire, re-imagined that fateful night as a composite of all of Barnum’s known stage work, relying on firsthand accounts to reproduce certain of Barnum’s acts. Throughout the performance William Tecumseh Sherman could be seen chewing and swallowing handfuls of monkshood seeds, harvested (it has come to be known) the previous winter, when the poisonous agent is most concentrated in the roots. He vomited and purged his bowels several times on stage before cardiac arrest was induced—a very poor replication of Barnum’s stroke, admittedly. But one must consider this was the poor punchinello’s only recourse. William Tecumseh Sherman’s performance garnered our craft’s first artistic review in a major city newspaper (the Stratford Patriot), which, as might be guessed, was, alas, critical. One month later, on 3 May, 1916, the Avon Partisan out of Bridgeport, Connecticut reported that William Tecumseh Sherman’s (the actor’s) grave had been “disturbed, molested, and plundered.” His corpse was recovered the next day in Glastonbury, at the foot of Blackledge Falls, alongside the freshly-dead body of a man identified only as Hannibal Hamlin—as written on his clothing tags, and as signed upon a note discovered in his left jacket pocket. This note described Hannibal Hamlin’s intention: to recreate the struggle between and deaths of Professor James Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes, which had purportedly taken place twenty-five years earlier to the day at Reichenbach Falls. Hannibal Hamlin (the actor) evidently posed William Tecumseh Sherman (also the actor) as the Moriarty to his own Sherlock, struggled with the corpse for five to ten minutes atop the head of the waterfall (according to local police sources, who analyzed the indentations upon the grass), and then flung himself and the corpse over the drop, which, at only twenty-six feet in height, should not necessarily have killed Hannibal Hamlin (the actor), had he planned the whole engagement with a touch more accuracy. Instead, Hannibal Hamlin fell so that his head and neck were crushed against the weight of his own body and the corpse of William Tecumseh Sherman, ensuring that his Holmes would not live beyond this Final Problem. Some of us consider Hannibal Hamlin’s (the actor’s) performance to be canonical with our own ideals. Others think of it as blasphemy. It’s a touchy subject. Of peculiar note is the fact that both William Tecumseh Sherman (the Union general responsible for the March to the Sea) and Hannibal Hamlin (the Maine politician and vice president to Abraham Lincoln) both also died in 1891, along with Phineas T. Barnum and Sherlock Holmes, meaning that 1916 provided the 25th anniversary, or the actual death, of all men involved. It was one more in a long string of dark seasons. America would not enter the War to End All Wars for another year. Also of note: P. T. Barnum, credited with coining the phrase There’s a sucker born every minute, never, to anyone’s knowledge, uttered those words. The illusion of deception is the greatest deception.
To return: it was not until the next year that the art form had progressed to encapsulate a wider scale. In January 1917, the unofficial founder of our particular troupe, Turner Dow Cunard, first began organizing actors and stagehands for his Grand Spectacle. He himself was not immune to the fomentation bubbling up in the artistic community, the unrest, the disquiet, the internecine pulse. But he was the first to channel these creative urges into a scale grander than any historic individual. His primal intention was to plan a reenactment of the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic in time for the fifth anniversary of its sinking—14-15 April, 1917. He wished to be accurate in every detail possible, from the exact departure at Southampton to the specific delineations of each point of its route, both planned and actual. In Turner Dow Cunard’s mind, the greatest difficulty lay not in rebuilding an exact replica of the Titanic (the ship, he seemed to think, might simply build itself when the time was appropriate), but rather the coordination of an iceberg to meet the ship’s path at the exact location and time as five years earlier. What little funding he had he poured foremost into this conundrum. On 10 April, 1917, a handful of unpaid actors arrived at the Southampton docks, all dressed in the fashions of five years previous, and discovered the promised Titanic was not waiting for them. It is generally assumed that the iceberg had been so carefully forethought and worried over, that, had the Titanic been prepared for them, they would have had no trouble in encountering it at the appointed and appropriate time; a wide and common belief among our troupe is that the initial iceberg was carried out without flaw, and lacked only a premeditated Titanic to complete its sole purpose and Perfect Union. But those disappointed actors at the docks of Southampton did not despair. No: they would be, Turner Dow Cunard promised them as he sought out additional patronage over the next five years, the first to die.
Meanwhile President Woodrow Wilson had appeared before a joint session of congress to seek a formal declaration of war against Germany. Both the Senate and the House voted to support such a declaration. This would cause major setbacks to Turner Dow Cunard’s efforts to procure his necessary funding, as those with an excess of monies or materials had higher priorities. Seagoing vessels, particularly those with the exact or near exact specifications of the Titanic, proved impossible to requisition. And any potential benefactor with money enough to commission a customized ship from any trusted contractor also possessed sense enough not to fund such a venture. But what Turner Dow Cunard lacked in monetary support, he gained many times over in volunteers willing to participate as actors, many of whom would be able to provide their own costumes and properties authentic to the era (five, six, seven years earlier), as they had been unable to afford purchasing new clothes or personal items for themselves for many years even before the Titanic sailed. Over the next years, trifling sums of money accumulated. Most were gained under false pretenses or under the name of one of Turner Dow Cunard’s many so-called charitable organizations, none of which kept financial records of any kind. The 10th anniversary of that maritime tragedy neared. Turner Dow Cunard began considering, out of tragic necessity, to employ a scaled-down version of the Titanic, at least for his initial reenactment. One can imagine that such a concession tore at his conscience; after all, he was unwilling to compromise in every other aspect, he was especially unwilling to compromise the sacrifice of his own life and the lives of all participants. And around the world, uniquely unified by participation in total war, the Artist’s Sacrifice had gained momentum. Reenactments occurred in every artistic community of every metropolis, major and minor, in every civilized country on Earth. No certain doctrine of artistic principles inspired any of them—each was organic in its own manner—yet all seemed to retain a primitive morality: 1) All participants in the Artist’s Sacrifice must be willing and aware of the consequences of their inclusion in the production, and 2) all audiences must be naturally occurring, if invited or advertised the invitations and advertisements must not reveal the true nature of the performance, all audience members must leave the performance of their own volition and in sound health, any injuries sustained by audience members during the course of the production must be incidental and not a direct result of the production itself. It is to be noted that these moral principles applied only to the physical health of spectators. Mental health was neither discussed nor cared about. Perhaps this is why, through many years without fail, the majority of participants were first accidental witnesses.
In 1920 Turner Dow Cunard crossed the Atlantic to seek out new investors. After several weeks he was put in contact with Carbourde Coffins, a recluse and a suspected eccentric, who claimed to have several hundred thousand pounds sterling he might be willing to donate, if Turner Dow Cunard’s plans were meritorious enough and not simple hokum. The two agreed to meet at the Southampton docks in order to discuss their prospects and witness firsthand the proposed port of departure. Having arrived early, Cunard was the first of the two gentlemen to discover, docked in port and nearly (by all appearances) ready to launch, an exact full-sized replica of the RMS Titanic. Witnesses report Cunard was struck dumb—perhaps thinking Carbourde Coffins responsible for a grand joyous prank, in that he had already commissioned and nearly completed this Titanic and was now presenting it to Cunard as a gift. Upon regaining his senses and making proper inquiries, however, he discovered it was the work of one William T. Shakesman, the world-renowned glove maker and manufacturer of fine ladies’ garments. He’d held some interest in the maiden voyage of the Titanic, having lost a distant uncle on its failed crossing. Being educated in all areas of polite society he too had heard the uncertain rumblings of the artistic community during those years. But he’d gathered only scraps and patches of fleeting thoughts and was thus ill-informed regarding the specifics of our ideals. His version contained only two lifeboats, one being a symbolic manifestation of all those too-few lifeboats, meant to bear a single representative passenger (William T. Shakesman himself, naturally) away from the sinking mass at its predestinated time (and Shakeman’s Titanic, of course, would not sink into the Atlantic fully, but would instead be swamped with water from an as yet unknown source, and later dried out and sailed to New York, where it would await further future use by the William T. Shakesman Glovery and Garmentry Corporation, Ltd.) and the second lifeboat being reserved for backup purposes, should the first be deemed unfit for service. The whole production was expected to receive illustrious and unceasing press; Turner Dow Cunard was understandably enraged. Carbourde Coffins failed to appear at the designated time or at any time thereafter, and it was never made clear whether he even existed in the first place or was simply a name scrawled on an unsigned letter.
Turner Dow Cunard shrank back to America a philosophically wounded man. He despaired even of his desire to take his own life—for that was what had given his life meaning, the possibility of ending it by means of some allusive example. He’d hoped to set a pattern for others. Life, he once noted in hasty scrawl on a tavern napkin, has meaning only in its full execution. Such was the zeitgeist then. Such was its mastery over us.
Which is more lonesome—to be alone, adrift in the mid-Atlantic, but yet cruising to a certainty of survival? —or to be amongst hundreds set together upon a steady course towards assured self-destruction? This we refuse to discover, and this even the coward William T. Shakesman cannot tell us, for, in the instant before his Titanic was scheduled to adjust its course (an empty, ceremonious gesture indicating the original iceberg-inspired course correction—although there were no icebergs in that location on that day, as Shakesman arranged with great circumspection), he unexpectedly approached the starboard midsection railing on the first class deck and, for reasons unknown, without gesture or message, shot himself with a pistol through the right temple. His lifeless body toppled into the sea and was never recovered.
Shakesman’s Titanic was salvageable but no one was interested, not even Turner Dow Cunard, whose needs it fit perfectly in all respects but one: he considered it highly inappropriate to die aboard another man’s Titanic. He sought funding elsewhere. More years passed.
Interest in the Titanic faded. Most were now reenacting the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand or the public execution of Charlie Birger, the gangster and bootlegger, who famously ascended the gallows with a bizarre grin (the upkeep of which proved quite challenging to most sacrificial artists attempting this production), which inspired the title to Elzear “Zez” Confrey’s short-lived radio variety program The Goin’ to the Gallows with a Grin Ragtime Fun Hour. Charlie Birger was one of the last public executions in America, and many claimed to have witnessed it but did not. For two or three years reenacting his execution was a popular fad but he soon after faded into obscurity. Birger’s last words, uttered with a smile while he surveyed the crowd around him: It’s a beautiful world.
It was not until 1947, the 35th anniversary, that our troupe rallied together under waves of wholly unexpected public sympathy to our cause. We’d ceased all fundraising efforts during the second war, as ours seemed a rather trite method of death compared to the sanctity of battlefield glory. It is likely we owe a great debt to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and all the inherent meaninglessness humanity discovered at the core of the atom. Unsolicited volunteers discovered our organization and wrote senseless pleas begging to be conscribed. Donations to our cause spiked in that year of remembrance, we were viewed as the good old days, a simpler time, an era that knew not the wantonness of modern destruction. Turner Dow Cunard died years earlier, run over while jaywalking, penniless apart from what he’d invested in the cause, struck down casually in the street by the Pontiac Streamliner of an inattentive grandma. Several of Cunard’s initial investments matured: we afforded our first down payment. Life for us was good, which made us all the more wary, and discontented.
Our maiden reenactment was scheduled to depart Southampton on 10 April, 1952, forty years after our inspiration. We’d received an unprecedented influx of monies between 1949 and 1951, most from denounced film professionals who somehow saw our ideals as subversive (how they arrived at such a conclusion, we are wholly uncertain). Additionally our troupe received a boon of actors from screen and stage willing to work our production for no salary—they had been blacklisted, after all, because they were deemed red. For many people during that time, our philosophy provided the only viable option. We also received monetary support from sympathizers within the American government who purposefully misallocated naval funds from the ongoing Korean War. Even with this wider public acceptance of our craft, we couldn’t ignore that all contributors of time and/or money were still, as at our beginning, all more or less hopeless cases, suicidals, narcissists, compulsive liars, schizoids, bipolars, etc. Either their number had increased since we first began our mission, or the number of sound-minded and sane individuals had decreased significantly, due, we supposed, to war, disease, carelessness, or a simple giving up of the ghost. There’s a sucker dead every minute.
The time was out of joint: since that night to remember, night of our constant thought and worship, we’d hoped to reset everything, to call back every unlikely turn, to reclaim the unknown territory we were meant to discover in place of the 20th century we did discover. 10 April, 1952 we set sail, spirits elated, nervous murmurs and portends electrifying us. Most of us were living in the realm of our parentage, a lost world, a decadent age that knew no Great War nor Great Depression. And even though we preferred living in this world of our elders, we also preferred dying there—as if dying in our own time would forever solidify us among all the filth inherent with that territory. We could return to the safety of the womb; la mer, la mère; le père, périr. For five nights we trembled in each other’s company across the bosom of the deep Atlantic, daring not repeat all we’d read and heard of death by drowning during our years of planning, daring not thinking of turning back from cowardice. By 11 p.m. of the 14th hundreds of us were cluttering the decks, sharing antique furs and cloaks, gulping down the last stocks of brandy and champagne, together prematurely chattering rounds of “Nearer, My God to Thee”. We shook then with a realization which many of us have been trying to figure out in the decades since—we, knowing full well our destiny, were no better prepared than those who years before us were entirely oblivious. Even our communion with each other and our common ideal could not save us: only the lifeboats. We murdered each other, slashed necks with broken brandy bottles, bashed brains with deck furniture, smothered throats with hand-me-down furs. One crewman had a gun—we clawed at him with fingernails and pocketknives until all his exposed skin was ribboned into pulp. What happened to the gun we don’t remember. We rushed to the limited lifeboats and filled them, some were too heavy and Atlantic ice water gargled over the sides and sank them where they dropped. Others in smaller groups managed to break away with their own boats and paddle off quietly into the night. Their fates remain unknown. Those of us left alive realized it was well after midnight; our Titanic had suffered no serious injury. We had completely forgotten to plan the iceberg.
Two years later, another Titanic has appeared at Southampton docks, as if summoned by miracle. We figure it has taken eighteen to twenty months to build, perhaps longer—perhaps it was in the works for many years more than we care to admit, or be aware of. The iceberg has been thoroughly plotted and accounted for. Now we cannot even bear to board the ship. We’ve all brought weapons this time, we eye each other with deviant suspicion. We wonder what sort of fortitude our forefathers possessed, that they alone might face a vagrant’s pistol, that they might wrestle with corpses and suffer unnamable torments, that they might ascend the gallows smiling and proclaim through grinning teeth: It’s a beautiful world. Others two years from now will take our place, we’ve seen that the order is already underway, and this is something of a comfort to us. We hesitate to board. Most of us appear clenched and ready to pounce upon each other. Perhaps that unwritten manifesto of the Artist’s Sacrifice is what we have been attempting to write here. But we see now our time has been wasted.