Harp & Altar
Joshua Cohen
from North Vain, Bluff

Evelyn Hampton

Lily Hoang

Peter Markus

Bryson Newhart

Robert Walser
translated by Mark Harman and Walter Arndt

Bryson Newhart

After compulsory relocation to Hornville, Misery’s family lived in a skyscraper made of living flesh. The building’s eyes served as windows that were barely transparent, and although it was said that the heavens were out there, no one could see them. The people who lived in the building wore internal helmets injected into their ears by the doorman, who was also a skilled surgeon. On any given day, one was either deaf to the world, or everything was painfully amplified, but it was worth it. The human head was indestructible. When people died, the government shot their heads into the sun.

Most families wore matching belts that could be ported to one another at the hip, enabling shared sensations. The heavy buckles served as ballast, keeping its wearers balanced for a time, but over the years the spine was affected and many families were paralyzed with their chemistries permanently linked, their bodies frozen in prayer circles.


Misery wrote to her father and asked him if he remembered those years; that she had refused to wear the belt or pray; that she had refused to enter the underwater temples. She called him her father but she couldn’t remember his name. On a rainy spring day before they moved to Hornville she recalled her brother breaking his own arm. Their father had suggested this punishment after Jake broke the family transport’s headlights and the boy had obliged without expression, calling it his first magic trick. That evening, their mother drove him through the fog to a local bone man, signaling out the window with a flashlight, and the next day, having removed the cast and reopened all his stitches, Jake renamed himself Gutbane.


Their father had liked working in the yard barefoot and Gutbane had gotten his revenge, burying knives beneath the grass hilt first. He and Misery pulled all the leaves off a buttonwood and pasted them to the side of the house. At the top of the tree, they carved the highest branches into spikes as protection against carnivorous birds. Facing into the wind was useful for their training in the wind tunnel that their father had built in the basement, and within which they struggled as he threw books before the fan, an activity he called “home schooling.” He built a cannon from which he shot their pets, claiming the pets were sick.


The last time Misery ported their religion had just been banned, and authorities hinted that the area would soon be rezoned. They would have to move to Hornville, and Gutbane threw a tantrum and wanted his new permanent teeth pulled. The pain rushed into Misery through her belt as each tooth was ripped free by their father, who was willing to help for a small fee. Gutbane put the teeth beneath his pillow, having heard that a banker might come, but the next morning the teeth were still there, so he and Misery repositioned them in his mouth, molars in front. Father regarded his son’s awkward smile, but said that this wasn’t going to work. He needed wood glue. They were ushered out the door, but instead of going to school, they took advantage of the season’s first snowfall and made a snow cave, feeding icicles to a snow baby that had real teeth.


She wrote her father by means of mechanical mail, trying to find out his new address, which she believed might be underwater, perhaps New Gate Island. She imagined swimming there and wondered what she would do if she found him.


Dear Dad,

Do you remember the toy-bred goat that Gutbane killed? After he killed it, he named it Quarry after the pit we led it into, down the long winding trail to the only patch of light, your silhouette waving from above the cliffs. Gutbane removed its small head and dried it as a cactus pot, but you crushed it, saying you needed the skull powder. At the top of an enormous silt mound beside the quarry was a crater filled with mud and charred bibles. Gutbane and I would sprint across this crater and up a small embankment and jump out into the night, never knowing where we’d land.

Remember the high-speed trains always passing invisibly, never going the other way? Once an older boy gave us a ride on his motorbike, Gutbane in the sidecar, and we moved quickly enough to see a caboose. The boy crashed the bike into a cornfield, mowing down stalks and smoking a glass pipe, explaining between puffs that this was the best way to get high. We emerged behind the river and he gestured toward the floodplain. There were some weeds over there. He said he was planning on opening up a business back there.



Dear Daughter,

You were always an odd sort. I remember you put a spike through your lip. Before we could reinforce your head, your mother dropped you on it, which in a lot of ways made things easier. I remember your brother was a determined sleepwalker and often you led him by the hand. We would find you both under his bed or outside beneath his favorite tree, Gutbane talking to his imaginary man.

I don’t remember corn, but I remember Gutbane struggling to gum his hard cereal flakes after you two removed his teeth. He fell back on his stool and broke the window. It was difficult to potty train the boy. He would sit on the pot for hours while you stood by with a stopwatch.

Was it the fiber of that age? After you and Gutbane ran away, I drove a truck that was powered by shit. We sat on processors connected to the engine and learned to live that way. Now my back is ruined and I report to a long line of stalls. Relief is a spastic affair and requires way too much paperwork.

Have you met any men on your travels?

Old Man


Misery thought about the day that she and Gutbane ran away from school for the first time. They had poisoned their pet cactuses and the teacher had pinned black Fs to them. Gutbane couldn’t perform the long division, so they disappeared under thorns and over logs, entering a park where they lay on the grass. Dividing the playground was a newly widened road on which two-story vehicles crept by, their antennae jostling the traffic lights. Misery and Gutbane were unable to cross this road and so they waited. It wasn’t dark, but these vehicles were driving with their lights on, moving slowly through the red traffic light and toward the setting sun.


Old Man,

To answer your question, I was briefly with a fellow that I met in the public showers. His skin resembled corrugated cardboard, and he had a borderline personality that bled into my own. Things seemed okay until one day I noticed a large metal stain on his cheek.

“What the fuck is that, Jim?”

“I had to blowtorch my meds.”


“You know, the stuff that I take to keep sane? That keeps me from going psycho?”

“You might go psycho? You had to blowtorch them?”

“They’re liquid and coat the interior of my helmet. If I forget to take them they harden. I have to blowtorch them.”

“But on your face? Couldn’t you do it in a bowl or something?”

But that wasn’t the real reason we broke things off. What happened was that we began to communicate in notes, never using speech, much like you and me. We met in public confession booths and crumbed notes through the slot like balls of bread. Even living together we wrote things off from separate rooms, sending messages across the apartment via fax. I’m guessing that one of us must have run out of paper.

Over, and out,



After she and Gutbane ran away for the last time, Misery disappeared into the woods. She lived in the forest eating mushrooms and bark, writing little notes on the bark and eating them.


“Dispositioned in a wilderness transformed into a habit, I realized that everything is subject to transformation. I became a mushroom. I became a tree. Don’t ask me for specific details. The years mishammered into a warped dwelling on the outskirts of anything peopled, with me its sole resident and architect seen squinting through the holes and cracks. These shambles would have collapsed on the vibrations of a sneeze, had those environs been capable of it. I swear the damned forest was dust free. The shack squatted without foundation or ascent and provided such a poor excuse for shelter that I had to erect a second smaller dwelling inside, one that could be seen without, a flimsy tent that flickered and glowed at night.”


She wrote in tiny script on peels of bark. Then ate the notes.


“When I returned to the city, the hydrogen smokestacks were busier than ever, sending radiation through the neighborhood and into the yard where it transformed the flowers. Time was unraveling and I remembered when a certain car crashed, killing its driver, an event that Gutbane had witnessed. Clinging to the bare branches of his favorite tree above the road, he had watched the car smash into it below. He had seen the long approach and the sudden swerve, the vehicle smashing into the tree in which he swayed, the driver’s face exploding in a cobweb of glass, the windshield ballooning to accommodate. Father had come outside with a bowl of popcorn.”


She wrote to her father:

“In the grips of a convincing smog, I decided to exit the woods. I destroyed my shack, which tried to make the first move, thrusting out a corner edgewise, then schooled the entire area, putting handfuls of pebbles in their place. Now that we have started our correspondence, it’s as if a whole new structure might be built, simply for the sake of being razed again: a remotely shared abode of sustainable material and carpentry, albeit one whose glaring fenestration will probably reveal it to be fleeting? Are you living underwater now?”


Having returned to the city, she lived in a tent, noting that the transports had grown to three or more stories high. The traffic lights were too high to see from down there, and if one was caught in the path of one of these vehicles, an internal helmet was no guarantee. “Without a body,” went an ad, “the head is sun fodder.” People wore prophylactic collars that exploded into balloons, surrounding all but a person’s head. She was understandably afraid to cross the street.


Old Man,

I am currently living in a tent pitched over a manhole that releases periodic issues of steam. Have you ever dreamt of horses colliding with the street, falling under parachutes made of their own skin? Regarding my escape from a lush wilderness teeming with peelable bark, daylight disclosed itself evenly, defying my judgment of momentum, but with swiftness I found my way. The leaves instructed the day with high rustling, a maze of bramble stepped forth as my guide. I had a device that measured the stars behind my sunglasses and I used it to plot a glitter map by which I found my way. Knowing that proximity to others is a hazard, when I reentered the city, I stuck to myself like glue.

Remember Gutbane’s lack of teeth and the manmade tornado twisting round our house? If that house was ticklish it would have fucking exploded. They were rezoning but we hadn’t left yet, and after the first artificial storm, blind baby squirrels lay scattered among sticks speared deep into the ground. Gutbane flashed his gums and rode his bike over the babies and they squished. Then a neighbor girl appeared, having just learned to ride, but when we asked her to leave, she refused, saying that our driveway was God’s driveway too. Across the street, behind the library, a train passed on an invisible track. You came outside and asked if anyone wanted to play baseball.

Remember Gutbane with his high fever and hives, repeatedly striking out in a game in which the ball was never pitched? The ball rested on a rubber pole, but his swinging cast kept missing.

Where are you living now, Dad? Underwater? Have you heard from your son? How is Mom?




Gutbane helped their father tie the ropes. Misery had tried to run away so she had to be tied to the flagpole. There was a pattern of afternoon on her sleeve. It depicted the driveway in miniature, on which was an outline of a body with a bird inside, pecking at the remains of a fortune cookie. Their driveway was wider than most and ended at a gully as it had originally been planned for a road that was never finished. Gutbane had once beaten her doll at the bottom of the gully, at her encouragement. She had pointed to the naked doll on a stump, handing him a stick. After he had beaten it, one of its eyes had remained frozen open.



You asked about Gutbane and mother. Regrettably they are not of this world. For a while Veta was in an asylum as you may or may not know. After her release, Gutbane returned, and while they were out buying milk one night they disappeared, much like you. It’s my belief that they joined a cult of auto-cannibals and ate themselves. I’m pretty sure that’s what happened, anyway, to answer your question. Sorry to break the news, but maybe you already knew.




While Misery tended to take existence with a dash of pepper, she found her father’s latest news unpalatable. She tried to remember her mother, but recalled only a dim image of a woman batting at furniture with a stick. She became more determined to track down her father and began looking into public records. One night, she climbed into the manhole below her tent and steam welled up around her nostrils. In the dark she recalled Gutbane and how, as a result of a birth defect, he could pull his eyes a full inch from their sockets, moving them around between his fingers, something he often did in front of the mirror at night. He would stare into the mirror as Misery rapidly flipped the light on and off. He would transform into his imaginary man.


Gutbane used a magnifying glass to set flame to a parade of red ants, placing the charred dots on his tongue, not swallowing until he had a mouthful. He made a plane by stunning flies with sprays of aerosol, then gluing their legs to a paper cross, so when the flies awakened, the cross lifted. He stole a boomerang and they were amazed by how it actually worked. Instead of flying in straight line as they imagined, then returning, it moved in a circle, approaching on its return from behind.


Late summer. They would not leave the public pool when the emergency siren sounded, so Father dove in with his clothes on. He punished them in the moldy locker room where an old woman was sick. Misery gave her a lifesaver, thinking it would help, but things looked grim. When they found the lifeguard, he said that his shift was over, and also this was not his job. Later, by the train tracks, they found a bear trap among the rotten fruit trees, a television crushed between its claws. They watched their father launch their yellow-eyed dog.


“I was strapped to the rusty flag pole and climbed for what felt like hours, inching up the knot in increments, until at the top I pulled free and slid back down, chafing my hands and then falling, hearing my ankle snap, hearing what sounded like the wind clapping cymbals in the clouds. I saw the flowers transform and could smell the odorless music. Sometimes I will picture my bleeding hands around Father’s neck, about to choke him, or I imagine the still-knotted end of the rope and gazing through its fraying aperture. I imagine running with it tied about the planet, dragging the planet to make time spin backwards, but this is already happening. I can see that now. In my mind black grass sways for miles of recall, parting on memories that feel like dreams. When I left the sewer that night, I found a message in my mechanical mail.”


How to get to the entrance to my house. It has no door and I’ve painted all the windows black. Sometimes I come home on the left-hand side, which is familiar to only me. Go around to the right and climb the shaded hill to the ocean, then walk ten blocks along the seawall. This is what I call the Atlantic approach. Listen for crickets until you see the last dune, then simply climb and start swimming. You’ll be close.



I was able to find your address by more conventional means. I arranged a flight at an old-fashioned airport. In the plane, seated beside a recently trained pilot, I realized that it doesn’t matter if we’re awake or asleep. Either way, I don’t want our reunion to be compromised. I’ve always had this fear of inversion, so I asked if our jet could fly upside down. The pilot was a very nice man. He explained about the strength of the wings and how they could be bent upwards and wrapped around the hull. How the heavy aircraft glided on its descent and would not simply drop if its engines failed. When landing, a jet doesn’t use its engines, only gravity, then water, then finally black space. He was very helpful and I was even tempted to ask for his phone number, but what I needed to know was if the jet could fly upside down. I figured that if it could, then I would find you. That things would happen relatively painlessly. I have a few of Gutbane’s knives and can use them. Anyhow, we passed through a cloud and I was given my answer. As you read this, I can see you through your windows, which are not as black as you think. The answer was yes.