from IMAGINE A DEATH

JANICE LEE

THE OLD MAN

.

It was as surviving a shipwreck, as if he knew exactly how many days had passed since the ship had run aground in the storm, but what had been lost was not a ship, some wooden vessel that would transport him away from here where he might be able to sit, legs crossed in the sun, one hand holding a glass of lemonade and the other an oatmeal cookie, no, he had lost something far greater, something that felt like bones cracking, like being torn asunder under a starry sky, like perhaps his old life was lost forever and here, I don’t know how to go on, he thought, as if surveying the island he had washed up on, as if, this was the shore where he might die, and it was hard to know if this was the very shore he had originally set sail for, but here he was, grieving the loss of something he couldn’t remember and when he looked out upon the vast darkness what he saw was the blue sea, just like in the Emil Nolde painting, thick and blue and green and dense and swallowing, that sense of gazing for a long while at something but only the tiniest stirs and movements that let you know you are not eyeing an artificial image but the real landscape, just that still, just there, still, and still, and then something stirred in his chest, a great and urgent desire to know how to set sail, that is, he had been fixed at this point for so long (how long had he been simply standing there on the shore, soaked through and filthy, the other survivors asking him more and more specific questions that he couldn’t answer, and all he could do was continue to listen, that is, continue to live his life in the way that he had, with so much control over everything around him to make things just so), so that everything had revolved around him, and even when hit by a storm such as this one, he had somehow managed to keep it all in orbit. But he did remember, didn’t he? He knew that he had to get out, even if he died on the journey (wasn’t life just the journey to death anyways?), and he whispered, as if the incantation would make it true: I’d like to know how to set sail. There he stood at the edge of his bed, hunched over, his right hand still grasping the mattress for support, outside some kind of maddening squall of birds and dogs subtracting, and he thought for a moment he could feel the slow binding movement of the ground beneath him, a sort of rumbling that vibrated his feet, a tremor that emanated from difference, that is, the difference in remembering and not remembering that had triggered all of it, and the mattress was all he could hold on to to keep himself from shuffling like a crab and because he was tired, he stood still, stood completely still for just a moment longer to  open his eyes and see. Wasn’t it just the morning, or, was it the feeling of the cold ground on his bare feet that might drive him to insanity?

After a recent accident, the old man had slowly been losing his sense of smell and taste. The injury had mostly affected his nervous system and his sense of balance, but the doctors explained how his ears and nose and brain were all linked, and at first, he took solace in the fact that he was still mobile and would take his evening walks and listen to the birds outside but as his sense of smell and taste faded, so did his connection to food and the memory of his mother and the desire to walk to the grocery store and the usage of his joints and his interest in organizing the spices and his enthusiasm in organizing at all and gradually all the pleasure of chewing food dissipated and because he had to eat but couldn’t enjoy it, he started to feel more and more like the food he was chewing inside of this mouth than the chef preparing the food, and he began to have dreams of being diced up and thrown into a boiling pot of broth or being pruned then plucked alive and a giant monster’s mouth taking a bite out of his side, and one day he planted two tomato plants on his balcony and it became his morning routine to come outside each morning to check in on the plants, to breathe next to them, to try his best to shield them from the heat but let them absorb some of the sunlight, and he could sense their struggle in the climate and he could only describe it as the feeling of getting close to a fire, or, to a truth, and it was all he could do to prevent himself from drowning in the heat, from simply slipping away into steam, but the tomatoes articulated for him better than anything else what was happening, and each morning he would check to see if the tomatoes had ripened and it was his conviction in the hopelessness of the situation, the hope within the despair, that kept him going, after all, he felt no need to try to explain his own actions to himself but he had made mistakes and he chosen a certain trajectory that couldn’t be undone, and wasn’t this the kind of waiting that could lead to something quite extraordinary?

He knew the facts: The tomatoes were not ripening, though day after day he offered his eyes and pruned them and watered them and watched the sun. It was too hot. In these extreme temperatures, the tomatoes wouldn’t begin the process of senescence and therefore wouldn’t ripen. Senescence was, essentially, the process of getting old. The natural process of aging in plants includes the ripening of fruits, which is often induced by ethylene. The old man was now old, getting older, and he too, like the plants, was sessile and barely left his apartment. Tomatoes, when ripening, give off ethylene, which induces other nearby fruits to ripen. Smoke also gives off ethylene. Almonds burning gives off ethylene. If one were to pick the unripened tomatoes and bring them into the apartment where it was cooler, and expose them to the smoke of burning almonds, senescence could be artificially induced. This is the same process that gives color to autumn foliage, whereby the leaves become bright red or orange or yellow, and then, at their peak of beauty, fall to the ground. It is possible for anosmic plants that are mutants to lose their ability to sense ethylene, anosmia being the loss of the sense of smell, and the old man, after his accident, was now anosmic, and had therefore lost the ability to smell, which also meant that he had lost the abilities to taste, and to maintain balance, and though he couldn’t ride a bike anymore, found pleasure in other activities like roasting almonds, letting them burn, watching the smoke, and simply, waiting.

The old man didn’t want to be led astray by the facts though, because as he knew, facts often betrayed and deceived and oversimplified things, and he had learned his lesson in the oversimplification and overcontrol of life; he had reached a point where a collective self might strip himself of all of his masks, to show his nakedness and be free of any tethers to the past, but he was not haunted by his past—he had longed to be haunted by her ghost, he would have been less alone—yet he had managed to survive, without the desire to survive he had gone to great lengths to ensure his continuance, and when a man loses his love or the obsession that drives him, and when a man is unable to taste the tomatoes which he grows and eats, there is a slow careening down the side of the mountain, the tumultuous crash that happens in slow-motion, and the arrival at the base of the mountain where a ship has been torn apart by the rocks and there lies the single survivor of the shipwreck, and this is when one understands that no map can show a man his fate, that it his tether to the unknowable and inexplicable that becomes more important even than love, and when one dead man meets a survivor, not even the narrator can tell the difference which is which.

.

.

THE DREAM
.

In a dream there is a girl who encounters a large bear in the woods, and the bear, in its insistence at being a bear, stands tall and growls menacingly to warn the girl to turn back and go home, and the girl, in its insistence at being a girl who still falls asleep gripping her teddy bear tightly moves closer, wondering how soft the bear’s fur might be, and the bear, though confused but gripped with his own intentions and narrative, bears his teeth and the girl runs forward squealing and giggling and wraps her arms around one of the bear’s legs and feels the rough fur on her cheek and a strange but not unfamiliar odor emanating from his body and the bear slowly leans down and strikes the girl—who is still hugging him tightly—with his claws and discards the little body into the river where it stains the surrounding water red and redder and what the girl had thought to herself just before she was killed was how much coarser the fur had felt than she had expected but still the warmth was comforting and that she could have fallen asleep right then and there—

Janice Lee is a Korean-American writer, editor, publisher, and shamanic healer. She is the author of 7 books of fiction, creative nonfiction & poetry: KEROTAKIS (Dog Horn Press, 2010), Daughter (Jaded Ibis, 2011), Damnation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013), Reconsolidation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2015), The Sky Isn’t Blue (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016), Imagine a Death (The Operating System, 2021), and Separation Anxiety (CLASH Books, 2022). She writes about interspecies communication, plants & personhood, the filmic long take, slowness, the apocalypse, architectural spaces, inherited trauma, and the concept of han in Korean culture, and asks the question, how do we hold space open while maintaining intimacy? She combines shamanic and energetic healing with plant & animal medicine and teaches workshops on inherited trauma, healing, and writing. She is Founder & Executive Editor of Entropy, Co-Publisher at Civil Coping Mechanisms, Contributing Editor at Fanzine, and Co-Founder of The Accomplices LLC. She currently lives in Portland, OR where she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Portland State University.