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  • This is the companion piece to "the uncollected poets (part 1)," from a few days back.

    ***

    Annie is telling me about the conference that just happened, earlier that week. "It was all about the new show, Frozen Planet." I knew all about it; I said it looked amazing, which it does. "Well, I found out that penguins are really, really mean animals. They're awful. They're bullies. They abandon each other."

    "And then the killer whales! My God! They will be hunting a seal pup, which is trapped on a small iceberg, and they're smashing into the iceberg. Breaking it into pieces, until the pup falls into the water. At which point the whales start playing with it, until it's dead. Until it finally drowns. They captured all of this, these guys, by staying out there for months at a time. They basically go crazy, because there's nothing out there but penguins, and they come to really hate the penguins, especially since the birds are being so vicious. At one point they see, not a person, but just a seal, and the guy goes absolutely crazy with joy. He's running up to the seal, trying to have a conversation with it. You could tell how depressed they were getting, because as they're narrating this, they start talking slower, and slower, in a total monotone."

    "Absolutely," I say. "People don't know this, but actually March of the Penguins was the first thing Morgan Freeman ever did. That's why he always talks like that."

    Meanwhile, I'm thinking about André Gregory. A few years ago, I saw André give a reading in Los Angeles. He was reading from a series of long poems set in Antarctica. "This seems like the opposite of My Dinner With Andre," I said to him. "You've moved from an ordinary dinner, in ordinary surroundings, to an extreme continent where there's nothing but ice."

    "I don't think it's so different," he responded. "In these poems I'm remembering my wife; in the film, I'm talking to my estranged friend. They're both about how you find your way back to connections you have lost."

    The film was released back in 1981; famously, all that happens is playwright Wallace Shawn has dinner with André. They're working from a script, but Wally and André play themselves. The movie began with a real conversation between them, a real exchange of stories. Early on, André describes a wonderful visit to Findhorn, a group of New Age mystics based in Scotland.

    "See," he continues, "I keep meeting these people. [...] Just a few days ago, I met this man whom I greatly admire -- he's a Swedish physicist, Gustav Björnstrand? And he told me that he no longer watches television, he doesn't read newspapers, and he doesn't read magazines. He's completely cut them out of his life, because he really does feel that we're living in some kind of Orwellian nightmare now [...] Björnstrand feels that there's really almost no hope, and that we're probably going back to a very savage, lawless, terrifying period.

    "Findhorn people see it a little differently. Their feeling is that there'll be these pockets of light springing up in different parts of the world...as we, or the world, grow colder [...] They feel that there have to be centers, now, where people can come and reconstruct a new future for the world. [...] In other words we're talking about an underground. And the purpose of this underground is to find out how to preserve the light, life, the culture. How to keep things living."

    ***

    Ms. Harris, the painter, is one of the first to share a story; our initial sprout is ghosts, which are supposed to be plentiful in the cove. "And there, in the middle of the living room, was this woman. She was in a bathing suit; she had her hair done, and lipstick on. That's my ghost story." And then she adds, sternly, "And that really happened."

    A little later, a story about a relative begins like this: "So, she's into her nineties, but you can still count on her to send emails about the virtues of the Republican Party every day, at about 3 in the morning. She's always been a letter writer." The story is really about her relationship with her son, who horrified her by joining the Hare Krishnas. He had difficulty managing his fasting, and lost so much weight that he needed to be hospitalized. At this point, his mother intervenes, and as I'm listening to all this, I'm terrified of what she will do. Is she going to sue the Hare Krishnas? Is she going to forcibly remove him back to their home? I should probably be more focused on his poor health, but I'm not.

    "So what she does is, she writes his guru a letter. She writes, my son is in trouble. You must do something about this. If you do not do something, I will not leave you alone. I will send many, many more letters. You will never be rid of me. And her son receives a visit from his guru. 'Your mother is really upset,' he tells the son. 'She has been writing to me. It is not a good situation. You must leave your exercises for right now and go be with her.' The son protests. He has not received his Hindu name. Immediately, the guru names him. 'There, you have your name. NOW GO!'"

    The stories were like this; they were rich and sweet. At the same time, they were not tidy. One of the most breathtaking stories was about a woman who, as a child, had been forced to walk through battlefields, surrounded by horror. She cleansed herself with an honest-to-goodness ritual: a vision quest. "Now, some of my relatives are Native American, and they were not in favor of this at all. 'Sometimes,' I was told, 'white people like to do these things -- they like to pretend they're us. Which they are not.'"

    This hung in the air; it was not dispelled, and did not need to be. At the beginning of the expedition, she begins to worry about food: "We were going to be fasting for four days. Well, as soon as we left camp, I was hungry." She thinks about running back for help, "but there wouldn't have been much point to that. You couldn't get anything out of the adult supervising us, because he was just incredibly stoned, all of the time."

    She was not granted a vision; instead, an actual soldier descended into her campsite, after being surprised that anyone was camping in such a desolate place. She is discovered by a military drone, and then visited by the soldier, who of course doesn't know he is dressed up as her nightmare. She ended like this: "I was absolutely petrified. He slowly came closer. He waved, a little. He was probably scared, too."

    One would think that all stories get to be this way, building up to such a perfect, crystalline moment of empathy. But it's not like that at all. If you can write, you quickly find yourself in the strange position of getting paid to write, which often means coming right up against stories without being able to touch them. One storyteller, a journalist, became close to a family by reporting on the area where they lived. As he spoke about it, his voice was like a piece of lead: "They want to make me a part of their family, but I know what this means. They are thinking, perhaps he can help us. They will ask if I can pay off one of their bills. They will want me to buy them smokes, something to drink. I go over to the house, and everyone is drunk. They want me to stay and hang out. They don't know why I don't want to be around."

    "One of the men in the family drinks so much he is going to die. I will see him, and he's too drunk to stand up. He's pulling himself, by his hands, down the street. One day I found him lying sideways, passed out. He was, well, he'd pissed on himself. I woke him up and said, 'We should talk right now. We might not get another chance to talk.' He nodded, and we talked. But he doesn't die. I see him and he is still the same. We've even talked about that. He said to me, that he knows he will die soon. He says. He's ready."

    ***

    Annie's story, about being a crime reporter: "So I'm on my way to this crime scene," she says. "The guy has chopped up his mother and sister into pieces, put the pieces in garbage bags, and then taken these garbage bags and driven them to the river, so he can dump them. This type of story is called a 'chop.'" We all burst out laughing. "Really, that's the term. Anyway, I get a call from my editor. 'Annie,' my editor says, 'I want you to really get inside this guy's head. Pretend it's you. You're driving a car full of garbage bags filled with the remains of your mother and sister. Tell me: what is going through your head at that exact moment? You're in that car, what is it like? OK? That's what I'm looking for here."

    It seemed, to me anyway, like a terrible moment for a reporter. It's so upside-down: here's somebody telling you to be imaginative, to have empathy with a particular individual, one with whom it is normally rather difficult to empathize. It's everything a good short story dreams of being. At the same time, you know that whatever you come up with will be used in the wrong way. The published piece will frame every speculative detail of his thought process so that it amplifies our experience of his inhuman core: "he got frustrated in traffic, just like anyone, but in his case, THE SUITCASES WERE PACKED FULL OF MURDER."

    When Marija told her story, she asked us a question. Why only stories about the past?, she asked. What is keeping us from telling stories about the present, or about the future? She's right; her question is partly what inspired me to tell this story. At the same time, it felt as though every one of these stories had a particular sort of meaning in the present. They were not just stories about self-destruction, or religion, or reconciliation. They were also reflections on what is missing from the carefully tailored writing we publish elsewhere.

    About a week earlier, I'd left Facebook. "Why?" Annie asked, now that we were talking in person. Then she looked around at the beautiful sunset. "Oh, nevermind, it's obvious. For this, all of this. There's the beach. The ocean's right over there."

    "No," I said. "I've got nothing against the Internet in general. There was just, for example, so much nobody could say on Facebook -- that you wouldn't dare say."

    Another person in the group overheard us. "Seriously!" she called over, in agreement. "I post stuff on Cowbird that I would never post elsewhere."

    As I wrote in Part 1, on either side of the beach were long, steep cliffs, extending a good ways out into the waves. The little inlet is somewhat protected, hence the name Shelter Cove. Ironically, though, this makes it rather treacherous; the only people who have always had a great liking for it are lawbreakers. We heard this from a local friend of Jonathan's, who confirmed that during Prohibition, the name was changed to Smuggler's Cove. The overlapping names made perfect sense back then. I think they make sense these days, too, under a different set of equally oppressive conditions. A hiding-place for contraband. A place of shelter for everyone. Posting a story in order to remind yourself: that really happened.

    In other words, we're talking about an underground.
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