Harp & Altar
Joshua Cohen
from North Vain, Bluff
North Vain

Evelyn Hampton

Lily Hoang

Peter Markus

Bryson Newhart

Robert Walser
translated by Mark Harman and Walter Arndt

North Vain
Joshua Cohen

Palmround, palmrounded, this snow, these frozen hunks. Balls of ice now hardened, once snow rolled, balled by cup as if to sip or sup, made from the fall that stilled his helicopter’s skids. He sat like this for days waiting for an assignment: a contractor’s business here to prospect oil, an opposing ecological legation always tapdanced attendance upon by its token indigeneity, Indian or Inuit, the requisite feather or fur, their red palm greased with greening—whatever would rub from the paper money, which would circulate between the same two hands or ten forever: dirty, handled, with egg batter, cum and the sperm of the nose, the register waitresses’, the daughter and cook’s, change from her cigarette purchase discounted if not held against her salary, if broke, from her work at the dinette that was the northern center of the country and their world. This was Alaska, the town of North Vain or village or else nowhere, in the far west though east off the coast of Russia and he was Russian, he’d come over here by flying, he’d escaped. He’d made it, his own life, and he still made it, his payload every week and payments monthly, and so could afford to sit around and wait without thinking, the only thing about him not idle his guilt. He sat at the edge of his helicopter’s bay packing the previous night’s fall into small round hunks as if he were young or just himself again, in vast and unaccounted Asia, and so could shape the world around to pleasure, at his forgetting or leisure, in whatever image pleased. Mil, his name was Mil and there was no problem. And this was his day, these were all his days the same until that morning. There was never any problem until that morning he killed a woman dead.

It had been the fourth or maybe, Sunday glorious Sunday, fifth day of packing this snow, of balling and cupping the winter in spring, since he’d flownup a special tire to a mining concern—that’s how the thought had first come. It had fallen from the sky and his mind was as open as daylight. The tire, though, was black and was pitilessly closed and huge, intended for some truck or other monstrous dumpster of a type he didn’t know, must be new. It seemed, only seemed, it’d be impossible to lift such a tire by its size, that incredible circle—the circuitous idea of a God Whose center is everywhere and so whose circumference, nowhere: infinite, snow-nowhere, ice-infinite, flaking, unfixed as patchless—but he wasn’t thinking rubber. That and it had a hole. Mil packed that hole with snow. He filled it, that Monday previous, all day until departure. Amazing, snow, in that you don’t have to work to shape it: snow shapes itself, is shaped. It’s the same with people, humanity—after a while you don’t even have to advertise or ask, they conform without question or protest, they give to the palm, go softly as their crystals compact, their edges rub up against one another, serrate each other, eventually cracking, then breaking apart, which is together, too, to harden into a central mass, a fistlike core—a pity, he thought, that he was a person, a man endowed with emotions and thoughts and not a machine or robotic as man could have only two of them, hands. Mil packed the tire’s hole with snow and so had a snowball and that ball of snow was big and undirtied against the blackness, a center creamy, enormously white and immovable, stuck hard. He tried to free it then, or tumble it, kick or prod the ball on out as if it were to be the bottom stand of a snowman that would be his double though senseless, but couldn’t: whether with the tire upright or with the tire lying down, he couldn’t get the ball out from its shaping hole except in clumps, in fingered digs, dings and chips of nail and knuckle grooves like tire tread, a flatness, becoming unmade, a hole within a hole, with him tearingout pads, wild with the thimbles, fistfuls manic at a time in dusts and cloudy bursts and lit threads of snow as if in a rough surgical stitching of the air, but never the whole ball, never the entire—and so he, Mil, and only Mil, alone (much to the ribbing doubt of his fellow pilots, Gulf veterans retired from the military to fly missions for private insanity in this northernmost netherworld for cash or check: certified, bank), began making these smaller balls, smaller balls of snow in pyramidal avalanching stacks and then depositing them in buckets and an old tincan trough he’d found around the portapotties behind the hangar, but only after he’d dugout with fits of nail that snow from inside the tire, its inmost rim, and then had it rolled, the tire emptied and undeniably smaller once he knew what it would take to fill it, again on its side then up the ramp and into his helicopter for delivery, which was late.

Money, that’s why they did it, and money was credit. Why they’d all come up here from greater Alaska, from greatest America, discharged from commissions and not, officers to privates, to pay down their helicopters’ premiums while putting a little away for alimony, childsized cabins, smokes and alcohol enough to forget how much they smoked and at what price, what body cost, how little those cabins were, their bunks and ambitions both, who they married, why—the baggage of their conscience. Oilfields torched liberty in the desert. Raping the anthills raised between the legs of burka widows. Siccing missiles on ruins, sacking palace for treasure. Gigantic gray concrete cities, the sky swaying like a palm. The Arab heat, Mil couldn’t imagine hot—Mil had issues with rage and difficulty imagining. Though he might have been the only pilot here not a veteran of the American force he was not the only murderer.

That Sunday he returned from flying medical supply to a weather outpost condemned to an island off Barrow. When he’d left, however, it’d been Saturday night still, refusing the hospitality of their meal and mattress. Twenty miles off North Vain, a namelessness, and the sun had no name either. Mornings like this were a mirror of terrible in that they showed you to yourself and in showing told too much. After these many years, ten since Russia, when he flew an experimental helicopter off the edge of Asia, over the strait to the Alaskan gate, sold the helicopter to the government that was itself a failed experiment in exchange for asylum, investigative suspicion and interrogative peace, this work and that ticky tiny fishing cabin up in Bluff—after so very long, he shouldn’t still have been surprised. After all the sun was daily. Why should he still be taken in—not by the light but by the change, by his own reflection, startled—he couldn’t help but stare: there in the windscreen, a prismatic bubble of soap or frying fat, and yet perfectly burstless, a slathering shell. And beyond that glass that was plastic was east and almost light. Mil flew effortlessly and in a daze could see the sun rising slowly and oily yet graceful. A parting, a blowsy cleave of the horizon from the whirr of his rotors—the trees in a tremble, a glisten of needles and cones—such purity fielding, further, the middle dispensation of nameless nowhere’s reach: the earthen orb below only a whitetreaded, slicktreaded tire rolling forever on its polar axle to air its rounded surface, which might hide tarmac or dirt—and so going infinitely, eternally, nowhere and nameless white and slickly wet: which was snow and which ice, he was never sure. Mil never knew where the land of all ice gave way to the land of all land, when plates became the currency and not beachy shelves or sheet as the tectonic unseated, in quake and fissure overthrew the Arctic, and the blue ocean lost its nearer sky. Above, there in the plastic glass of his helicopter, its screening shield, and there projected, superimposed, as if a detailed if blurrily and faintly colored shadow—as if a dead ghost—him, his image. A reflection that was not soap, not fat, and nor was it water. And the sun’s ball had not yet cleared the horizon, which was a frozen road, the highway. In it—the capture of screen’s bubble as if a comic’s blurb—his nature. A bush greening about his mouth and nose. The personal rotor of his moustache. He looked horrific. His tinted sunglasses making infinities of his image in their twin mirrors because his glasses were not just tinted but mirrored, too, and there was a little sun now, burned upon his face, burnt upon his faces, the eyes of his eyes. The rise of the sun was always sure, preceded by this shade of him reflected, followed by noon and lunchtime heaviness, carb ballast, lethargy, depression. Mil was, momentarily, blinded. But there is blind and there is blind, there are many makes of blindness: black blindness, which is spiritual or hereditary and Mil had no God and his parents had long been forgotten and Russian, there is white blindness, which is Alaskan, ecstatic with freedom, then there is shallow blindness, which is greedy and gluttonous, and deep blindness, too, which is irreversibly all of them together. There is only one blindness, ultimately, and it is life, whether it’s to be separated into differences for understanding’s sake or standing united—unseeing, unseen. The two poles, undammed by gravity, broke away in their melt into water then, once frozen again, made continent. Oceans of land amid oceans. Mil veered westward by waterways, away from such madness where, at the furthest fingertip of squint, white gave way to gray, the crazed blankness of an idle mind. A boredom glacial. There is that other species of blindness, then: the sightlessness of that that never had, that never could have, sight—which is the blindness of that that he saw: nature, insensate nature. Its greenery grew denser, a buffer this conifer fringe, then sparser, the dirt guts between the trees widening, tarred to roads allweathered, these roads of untouched snow, these roads of snows tirepacked, treaded level and iced, over the asphalt, over the dirt and revolute earth.

Only one road through is cleared, though, black. This is the horizon’s road, the highway, and just off it, set back a length of trail now obliterated in weather, was the church, the tallest house in North Vain not a tower—unless a steeple might transmit its good word frequency through bells and cross and the divine were not a universal presence but rather discrete, undependable, saving only in the irregular form of waves, disgracing ebb, redeeming flow. The crucifix atop the steeple was gold, formed from the local rush that’d never panned, when claimants first struck spike here a century ago, without prospects save hope, a rich supply of earthbound faith. They found nothing but a church: just enough of a glittering nugget—it was said by a vein of patrons mortally regular at the depot dinette, the Dine-In-U-It—for them to smelt a cross from their losses to crown that house of worship established by a missionary from an itinerant temperance society. The gold was an indulgence, dues, as rapturously apologetic to themselves as to heaven. Vain clearedout, only North Vain was left, and there only bums remained, the busted—as hollow as the shattered bells, as hollow as the belltower, the fry empty with bells shattered by clappers like wagging tongues. The building itself, below, was boxy, from here, to Mil, resembling cardboard, as if an appliance had outgrown and left it, a freezer, a refrigerator crawled for milder clime. The church was that mottled color of tobacco and the fence around it kept a yard strewn with brokenglass from whiskeybottles and stray plasticbags the ministry’s kids used to huff their glue: filling the shroudy depths with fumes they’d suck and snort until dizziness, dropping. The glass caught the light, bent it, throwing spectra to the sky—tangled, knotted, rainbows. There had never been a cemetery surrounding as the ice was too hard to bury through most of the year, even in spring the snow was too deep, but there was that spiky iron fence all the same keeping its yard wide and, without the dead but with the death of trash instead, incongruous. Mil had only been to this church once, inside, grounded, and didn’t believe in God or Christ His son or wouldn’t. He hadn’t been there for belief. It wasn’t his choice to go, he’d been asked, begged, then finally ordered by his employer from whom he was buying his helicopter and so, by installments, his life. In the air Mil was narrow, focused. The walls of his eyes closedin to cradle his reflection: a variety of nativity but he hadn’t been reborn and it wasn’t Christmastime, only summer. The wind around him was decked with candles burning in defiance, its howl the last words of saints—the clouds swelling the faces of his martyred friends, not his but the groom’s whose name he remembered was Hound. There was the pilot who’d died in a wreck he did to himself, a suicide martyr in the service of Hollywood, flown down to California to fly stunts for an action movie that made a fortune for its producers, director, and stars who would survive him, then the bathwater drown and the vodka overdose, a livered nose protruding as significant cirrus. One or two were still alive and working Alaska. They were witnesses and the party both. That one day of Mil’s visit to church was the wedding of their mechanic Hound to Diana, senior carwash attendant and eldest daughter of a gunsmith who rented the rear of his shop for North Vain’s only public Internet (as mechanic Hound was friend to all the pilots who were his only friends). Upon the Internet wave of his future father he’d loggedin, met a woman elsewhere. He flew away the night before the wedding. Nobody knew Hound could fly, maybe least of all himself, it was surprising. It takes great hatred of the self to be able to fly a helicopter and to fly it well but instead to become a mechanic and Hound was a hateful person. He chawed tobacco and when he talked would spit and spoke only curses (which was how Mil had come to know this language, its blacker aspect). Mil stood in church that day and was embarrassed for her, prayed to himself for thrust, a lift away from there then a pornographic session aside the fire in his cabin, alone just him and the mapless placelessness of Bluff where nothing echoed and if there were any trees they would fall, when logged, without sound. The altar had switches, levers red and green, a gauge. He felt to smash it all, but her. The face of a dial cracked with condensation, the organ loft webbed by water. And then the other men, three, should’ve been four, two groomsmen then him but the priest, who was usually drunk, hadn’t shown, had maybe, they thought like parents or police, absconded, on his own, with Hound. The best man had been sent for the Mayor who was late himself, as justice of vain peace. It was abhorrent, disgusting—being in a church for a wedding three men none of them the groom alone with the bride in her dress and them in day off civvies. It was even colder in the church than outside despite the fire from the candles lighting everything to day, to early morning. Diana the carwash attendant attending without vehicle, turned bride, was snowwhite and as flat as a griddle, and her dress was white, too, grilled lace above the spikeheel shoes that made everything about her tall and precariously tawdry. She wobbled, she leaned, was weak. Everything suggested rape on a massive scale. A spectacle of an almost ritual defilement. Martyrdom was lurid. She had breasts, a tiny pointy pair, and crying eyes, puff and wildness. She had grown older since, stunted shorter, gained weight as if she hadn’t been jilted but widowed after pregnancy. Veiled in smoke and often as evangelically drunk as a priest, she’d become a shapeless skirted huddle just below him. A hunch, a roundness rolled, or rolling herself, slowly, painfully it appeared to Mil, from the road, a shovel stuckout in front of her, pincering, a mechanical proboscis. With this she was clearing the way to church and the short way behind her from the highway was cleared and underneath was muddy dirt and gravel. Mil hovered just above the tangle of light that was the church’s crucifix then circled the spire at a tilt heading toward her. His face, his eyes, left his westward reflection. He stared through himself and so his reflection, he, was no more. There was only whiteness, the horizon terminant as another highway now, and this widow shoveling a swoop beneath. Mil felt as if he were steering a tire, captain of a bucket of rust: unwieldy, and this gave him the strength of recklessness with purpose. She’d been going to church daily since that aborted wedding day. Not quite nunnery, it only felt, to her, that she’d married or was related to if not God then the church, and not the Church but that cardboard box flapped with chapels so undeserving of reconstruction that, after life left, flew, they might as well have been tightly sealed, resealed, with the tongues stilled to silent bells above her.

Each morning she’d make the church and by the time the sky lit her prayers would be offered, to be refused by nightly moon, lunacy, loneliness—every morning with the shovel. It glinted at Mil, this shovel, flashed him with its nakedness, with its cold and naked metal, and Mil blinked, squinted, saw blindness again, then recovered her, that womanly spot, her black blight form, cut lower, cinched his circle tighter. He was tense in his stomach and had to piss from too much coffee at the weather station, an hour spent resting with a midnight cup emptied over the engorged controls in his lap, ogling the scientist secretary. Up there they measured storms, forecasted fronts, perpetrated a form of magic if secular. They had the mystic sky and then they had these many little skies that were screens upon which everything had the same color as in nature but different, better. Each ocean’s blue was individually blue, if unnaturally comprised, constellate of pixel. Each white was ever whiter. A pattern, if popularized on radio or television, became a trend. Catastrophe was good. Ratings went through the roof, which would be rippedoff by a storm surpassing category. This was an extreme, to be sure, antipodal, nearer the Pole, and so expectations were differently backward: terrible weather was exciting to them, it was incredible not in the death it brought but with the opportunity come knocking with wind. Scientists up there might have been manipulative or smart but they were also sick with a form of diabetes or perhaps a disease of the autoimmune, probably from those massproduced, plasticpackaged, microwavable meals they ate and those energy drink mixes they mixed with purified water then drank in lieu of fresh milk or juices for flavor. Lately there was an emergency. The station’s most prominent minds had taken ill, not enough for airlift to Fairbanks but sufficient to make Mil flyup late with supply. He hauled drugs and syringes, which drugs he didn’t know but all syringes were uniform, all sharpnesses the same. His receivership scientist had had a passable body and, Mil had thought, an equitable mind. She wore a gauzy labcoat she took off to make coffee and under her cap had been a messy blonde (or Diana was). The ball of her head, Mil thought of it as, was large and round, then next ball came that cuppable breast, fit to the fist, but a neck between that had been strangled too thin, distended, as if overly craned, too much time spent asking, in inquiry, on research and microscope, the telescope screen, a conclusionless bobble look in her eyes, tiny together knees under a frump skirt over what were essentially sweatpants, or leggings as they were called in the catalogs she ordered from through the mail, which he delivered, too, the catalogs and what she’d ordered from them and from the Internet, didn’t help or even flatter help, nothing. He couldn’t look her in the eyes and those eyes became an eye in his not looking at them as they were spaced too closely together, not allowing breath to her nose. The buttocks once had been two, since sat on too much, couched, chaired at the windows or viewfinders, squished into one that would overflow her waist to include, subsume, her stomach, too, fat from the microwavable food and all the sugar that granulated her coffee, ten cups a day due to the extra shifts she had to serve thanks to sickness. Resistant to abortion, hers was the type of pregnancy you got from surrender, from grave inaction, or premature retirement, as opposed to that of the motion fucking kind. Mil had no children and obviously no wife. He had only a woman below him. He reached for the bucket just behind.

His eyes never leaving her he saw sex, heard his own Vietnam in his head, the movies he and his fellow pilots always told, breakfast special reenactments, divebombing white toast into coffee taken black. As for Mil (if it was his turn to tell it), he’d served communism in Afghanistan, gunningdown mules and tribes and then, once cited enough for bravery, as test pilot, bemedaled, careered. He sat around, smoked, drank, masturbated, tested new technology. He flew helicopters no one else had ever flown before as he was the best or fearless or only ordered to. Dangerous, but the hours not too demanding unless he died. With a fist of snow and his other hand packed to the cockpit’s stick as if it were the arm of another possible life of his drowning he had to save or else drown himself, Mil dove. No longer a blemish on the landscape the woman, because she was a woman, had never stopped her shoveling, helicopters around here being too common to countenance, even one coming this low and near. Each thrust with the shovel she hunched forward, down to her haunches, set herself strained almost to falling, to her knees, her face, and plowed her way to God. Mil’s first throw went long. Out the sidewindow against the wind, way long, a white bird whose rounded contour from speed and height he lost to the whiteness surrounding. She didn’t move or rather didn’t stop moving. Vain—no locals ever thought to first call it North—was just waking over the highway, between the two highways, both empty. A stretch of smoke, the entire complex—fifty odd streets, fifty off streets—of outbuildings, the entire city—town, northern nowhere—an outbuilding itself, an addon of shedding sheds and trailer regret. A smudge of stacks and latitudinal girder, the whole an abandoned factory district—you’d wonder if you were a wonderer, once you’d toured these outskirts or industrial suburbs belted by warehouses notched by wire, where Vain proper was, where the actual life. The center of this centerlessness was a large squalid litterbox square fronting a library the yellow of a malevolent moon or bad butter (its holdings included one dictionary, half an encyclopedia set, but an unparalleled map room). Even in the brightening sun the whiteness fallen wasn’t enough to override a certain shadiness, an ominous reserve. Already other helicopters were stirring—one flying the Mayor to work, to be greeted on the helipad atop the Town Hall, opposite that library, by a dogpack trained to keep the tarmac free of foreign landings. The Mayor owned the heliport, most prominently, and then most everything else—the gas pumps and common mechanic business. The town being so tightly integrated the Mayor was also Hound’s uncle.

Mil’s second shot landed a length just ahead of her. The snowball hit hard to powder, hurling a thick mist up at her downward face. She stopped, totally, but didn’t look up. Mil circled again, taking pleasure at her horror—a buzzard encased in ice yet still airborne: a frozen prehistoric buzzard he was, armed with guns of weather, supernatural rounds. Mil threw his arm forward as if castingout the already dead, diving himself in mechanical suicide, and screamed. And though she couldn’t have heard his scream she now looked up. Rather she threw herself up, sloppy shoulders to ears and hairtips frayed, the pompom of the knitcap she’d kept as carwash severance. She herself now hurled a word that missed Mil but not its echo, which was physical, landing as if a cusp of mucus in the mouth, slugging down his throat the wrong way to the lungs to trouble his next breath. Hefting the shovel, which as it was metal was cumbrous and effort, she began, slowly, to turn. With momentum she twirled. And the ice and the snow spilledout from her twirl, she swirled, and was soon unstoppable. She twirled at first like women twirl in the womenmovies, in the women televisionshows, like brides twirl in the glossy fields of bridal magazines and ads folded into newspapers, as if stirred or stirring herself. She spilled herself as if into the rotation of the planet in the rotating universe as in his own head, space, Mil’s, into the spilling, spinning, spiraling of all space and even spacelessness, her arms outstretched with both hands on the shovel. She circled herself around herself around her own booted tracks—spiraled as if to prey upon herself, a personal vulture of the selfsame and still living, if just for now, not much longer given the weight and the numbing at the handle. She whirled as if to make herself unto her own assailant, her own private steel death angel, a helicopter of flesh, a natural and fatty screw unwound—spinning as if to make herself, once confirmed in her humiliated flightlessness, into the church’s double, it seemed to Mil, a fallen cross the shape of her shapelessness flung wide and open with the shovel as if to rise in ascension up and off the grounding earth upon this heavy and heavier rotor, under the cutting blade of its one sharp wing. She spun a whirr by its handle in the hope of lift, the shovel’s mouth open to the sky to cup the gusts and sift for air but nothing, but wasted as she spun down instead as if digging with weary feet down into the earth and deeper: elliptical becoming dimensioned to orbital, a groove of a grave, her spiraling wet white debris not flung up but driven down by her steps into the earth’s very core lapping at her calves, layers, strata, molten hells unwarming. She did this deeply, this mineshaft or augered fishinghole, a twirled passage toward life’s other darker side or just to the sound sleep Mil hadn’t had in a while. She was soaked plus with the arm tear and the lungs seized and so—she released the shovel from her hands and her body’s dizzy involutions, hurling it up as if a missile or bouquet of spears, a murderous garland to do for her magic battle in the air with Mil bearing now, ultimately, down and releasing his third and final volley. The shovel disappeared into the sky—and the sky, it disappeared from her, the earth, the world. Hard, packed, the snowball, the iceball—it had struck skull and knocked her, flattened, packed her hard herself and leveled and as Mil groaned, throttling, to haul himself up with frozen hand on hand high into the air to avoid impact and so his own numb death, rising to level over Vain to circle, circle, then land, he knew that she was dead and that no one would ever know—as the weapon dispersed, dissolving into the whole and total element from which it’d come and balled—what or who had killed her.

She remained there for an entire day—a black X marking nothing but her own crossed self on a map that would be cleared again by evening, come the weather.