Miranda Mellis Divination from None of This is Real

from None of This is Real

Miranda Mellis

Headache after headache. What else to call the tormenting sensation of a forced point? Likethe peak of a broken crown, the cephalalgy stabbed upward from the center of his ... mind? Brain? He felt the mysterious hurt bore him a message. But he was not photophobic or phonophobic. He did not have auras or nauseas. The pain was easily localized, but not easily remediated. He tried sleeping with the pillow Sonia had made him. He woke up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat. The pillow smelled of Sonia— pharmaceuticals,mold, smoke, and sachets. He heard his downstairs neighbor, Crescent, moving around inher apartment, also sleepless apparently. She was a fortune-teller, a lover of the fickle moonin its guises, especially its sickle form when it was nascent, or conversely dying away. Outsideher door hung a sign, Cartomancy With Handmade Lunar Deck by Crescent Moon. She wore cateyeglasses, the kind worn by schoolteachers to frighten their pupils. She was one of those young ladies whose fashion is an homage to old ladies. Her own grandmother had neverneeded to change her feline look. Much of Crescent’s various cat-themed accoutrementswere acquired from her. O had seen them together walking down the street, like two memories of one lifetime. It was just like them to be similar. Confused images merged in O’s mind of the two Crescents, young and old, lightly treading an earthen road arm in arm; Sonia and Aletria quarreling; the messenger wearing the Hermes patch; the metallic taste of TiaraScuro; shelf after shelf piled high to the sky with books; the sludgy sincerity of his mind. Suddenly the sound of Crescent singing and playing a guitar broke his reverie. He could hear every word:

The world’s oldest leather shoe
a woman’s size 7 lace-up
Was discovered in a cave, cold as a refrigerator
between Iran and Armenia
Along with wine-making apparatus,
and three human heads preserved
In jars
Radiocarbon dating
Confirms the shoe is from the Copper Age,
when metal tools first appeared 5,600 years ago
It’s 1,000 years older than the pyramids
400 years older than Stonehenge
Though even older footwear was found—a sandal 6,900 years old
In Missouri

She played the song continuously, altering the tune. By the third time she’d sung it through, O was penetrated with longing. How had he failed to notice there was a singing clairvoyantarchaeology enthusiast right downstairs? It seemed like an omen. He poked his head out of his door, wrote down the number on her sign, and called to make an appointment.

The reading took place in the front room of Crescent’s two-room studio, which had thesame layout as O’s but was sparser. There was a single bed, neatly made, a hot plate, a smallrefrigerator, and in the corner by a large, open picture window, a black rocking chair and her instrument on a stand. Above the chair hung a print of a Magritte painting, Collective Invention, in which a woman with a fish’s head lies on the shore of the sea. Crescent unfolded the legs of a black card table that had been leaning against the wall across from the large picture window, with a view to a hundred tarmac rooftops, a world of pigeons, seagulls, roofers, lookers, and smokers. She snapped each leg into place. She spread the legs of two matching folding chairs, and she and O sat facing each other. Mounted on the walls were many tiny chairs of various materials — cans, walnuts, cane, porcelain; spirit chairs, she called them.

When Crescent asked him why he had come to see her, his throat closed and his chest ached. With difficulty he told her about his headaches and his book. He thought of saying something about her singing, but he did not. Crescent’s face was neutral as she listened. She shuffled the cards in a matter-of-fact way, handed him the deck and politely requested that he cut it three times. She laid out ten cards face down in a spiral across the rickety card table. Not feeling well, she said, book aches, headaches; what does pain want? What are the meanings? She turned over the cards. The first three cards were so-so-moon, so-like-themoon, and moon-fool. Next she pulled shy- moon, moon-wolverine, moon-o-logue, moondaycare-center, moon-milk, moon-pie, and shark-moon. She shuffled and pulled one more card: moon- corpse. O suddenly became aware of an antler lamp, swaying above, its thick black electrical cord emerging from behind Crescent, bisecting her head. Crescent studied the cards and then spoke at length; O tried to follow. He caught some of it ... scorn mask ...cornhusks ... incorporeal ... bundles on fire ... corpus ... burning pages ... frozen sea ... O mega ...reincarnation ... train station .

Her interpretations eluded O’s grasp. She may as well have been talking to a bird, he thought. What’s a hierophant? he asked. A teacher figure, she said. The cards are saying that you have been burned by a teacher, is that true? But O’s mind was blank. Doesn’t ring a bell, he said. Crescent shuffled the deck once more, cut it, and laid down shark-moon and mooncorpse.Shark-moon depicted a shark shadow swimming through a moonlit ocean of corn. Moon-corpse depicted a skeleton rider thrown high from a bucking bull at a night rodeo. He was startled: moon-corpse again? Crescent frowned. She shuffled the deck three more times and turned over a last card: moon-corpse for the third time. O was frightened.He stood up to leave. Hold on, she said, as she scribbled in a notepad, I have referrals for you. She tore out the page and handed it to him with a look of concern. He glanced at itunseeing, thanked her and left. In the hallway O saw a dusty print he hadn’t noticed before,of a yellow bird with one canny eye dressed in circus garb, Le Jongleur. As he looked into the eye of the bird, he felt lonely. He had to admit, it seemed he had a disorder of some kind. And yet, he considered, everyone he had ever known had one, be it attention-deficit disorder, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder. Sometimes even disorders seemed to exhibit signs of order, coming in waves. O knew all complex systems to be inherently disorderly. Sonia had had bunions, shingles, amnesia, and depression.

When O got home he looked at the notepaper. Crescent had written down three names and phone numbers. The first was for a free clinic; the second was for a doctor who charged on a sliding scale; the third was for Crescent’s teacher Skye, a past and future life reader.O called the free clinic and left a message. The following week they called back and he was given a number to call in order to make an appointment to make an appointment. Eventually he made an appointment to make an appointment, but his appointment to make an appointment was months away. He had hoped to see someone sooner. He ended by calling the doctor Crescent had recommended in her note. The doctor herself answered immediately and said she could see him right away.

It seemed to O that the doctor’s office concealed something. Paradoxically so, as the devices, implements, and charts all had but one purpose, which was to expose—but without revealing. He whistled into mindless space as he waited. Whatever is told to me in this room about the future of my body, he thought, can I believe it?

The doctor came in and examined him, rotating O slowly on a spinning chair. Did you wear  tight caps as a child? she asked. No, he said, but I did wear a headgear. Aha! she exclaimed. Why did you have a headgear? Because I had fangs, he responded. Ah! But you still have fangs, she said. Yes, he replied simply. I had four fangs. She peered into his mouth. She palpated his skull. You need to get an MRI, she said. O’s heart exfoliated. It pounded in his ears like an oil rig. His hands and feet were encased in ice. I don’t have insurance, he said. In that case I’ll do a telepathic MRI, she said. She handed him a laminated article she had written, faded and yellowed, and left the room telling him she’d be right back. He tried to read the article, but it was written in another language. Maybe static, he thought, which he could not decipher. The words looked like stunned mice to him, sliding around in snow.

When she returned a half hour later, the doctor told O that his brain had mutated, or torn. She held up a piece of paper. On it was a detailed line drawing, a representation of his brain with a leaf shape curving out of the hippocampus. You have developed a growth, she said. O thought it looked like a kite or a feather. No, the doctor replied, it’s nothing like a kite or a feather. It’s rigid, cartilaginous, more like a fin. He was faint. He should get a second opinion, came the thought, blowing by like a plastic bag. He suppressed a secondary despair: from whom would he get another opinion? He gingerly touched the top of his skull. There was something protruding under his hair, a little cone.

Ignoring him, the doctor got out her pendulum. Was he born with the errant flap or not? Where did it come from? Was it an organism, a mutation? The pendulum reading was indeterminate. O held the laminated page in both hands. The doctor paced. She opened a drawer and took out a bag of runes. She shook it and pulled out a little white stone. Gateway,she thought. She was at a threshold? She realized suddenly that the small pyramid was something very unusual. She abruptly left the room again to consult her library.
O stared at her laminated article written in static but he still couldn’t make it out. Feeling vaporous he looked around the room. There were a series of prints the doctor must have torn out of an old calendar. Robert Mapplethorpe (July), Kandinsky (April), Georgia O’Keeffe (January). When the doctor returned, O was standing in front of Rothko (October). I’ve discovered a new form of cross-species parasitism, she exclaimed, a “jumping species”; this may be an evolutionary—or metaphysical, if you like—response to extinctions.

O was rigid, hardly hearing, caught up in the word discovered. Discovery—he had learned in his  auto-didactic pursuits—often connoted an exploitative enterprise: the discovery of the socalled New World, for example. Or the discovery, by three men, of the gene responsible for the dilation of a woman’s cervix in labor, a gene to which they now owned the patent. What is the nature of such a patent? O wondered. He had an image of a paper gate around a woman’s waist, a kind of chastity belt made of law. The “discovery” of something that is already actively, widely, and freely in use or commonplace, and its subsequent patenting went hand in hand.

I need tissue samples tested, the doctor said distractedly as she wrote on her clipboard, in order to properly diagnose you. O hesitated. He didn’t care for the word diagnosis; he preferred, simply, gnosis. He did not want his life to be called by the name of an illness. And I’ll need a complete work-up and a full family history, the doctor was saying, as this could be heritable. History itself is like an inherited illness, O thought. History was like being born telling a lie: you were trapped in a lie that you had not told. Fear was one legacy; grief was another; longing, too. Intertwined crimes seeped in and out of the pores like the radiating wake of a distant explosion, saturating by degrees, mutagenic, stupefying. Depression was a catchall. Sonia had been diagnosed clinically depressed after the dog Violet Ray’s demise. She couldn’t bear to clean her apartment of the traces of her closest companion. Two days after Violet Ray died, Sonia was startled awake one night by three thumps on her bed, the source of which she could not detect. The experience made her incredibly nervous. She went on medication and only then felt able to vacuum up the hair and the oily residues. As a result of her medication, however, Sonia began to have vivid nightmares of death and waking fantasies of suicide. She experienced several convincing versions of the afterworld while walking around her apartment. The afterworld, she told O, is not exactly a planet, but isn’t not one either. Sonia encountered her deceased mother Aletria in the afterworld, where she had asked for help with a crossword puzzle.

At that time Sonia couldn’t separate being suicidal from being a mother. She moaned on the couch, Just let me die. O tried to cheer her up. He bought her an oversize button that said Best Mother In The World. She asked him how much it cost. He begged her, Mom, please don’t kill yourself ... because you’re a wonderful person. She looked at him sadly. When you were a baby, she said suddenly, your shit smelled like walnuts.

Visibly expanding her rib cage, the doctor exhaled loudly, interrupting O’s reminiscences.For the first time O noticed that her torso and upper body were massive in proportion to her tiny legs. She looked as though she could float off the ground. The doctor took off her glasses and cleaned the lenses on the hem of her frock, leaning against the door. Well? She asked. O said that he would call her but that he had another appointment. She warned him not to wait on the tests. O saw himself reflected twice, oblong in the lenses of her green-tinted glasses. He walked home, pausing once to look at a stand of quaking aspen in the parking lot of a bank. A gaunt man in a trench coat and no shoes stood in front with a sign, You don’t have to be a Rockefeller to help out a poor feller.

When he got home, O decided to take control. Of what? He would clean, get organized. He found himself thinking of his father as he sorted through and rearranged his few possessions. He had unrolled an old map of Augusta, Georgia, circa 1864, which had belonged to his great-great-grandfather who had died during the civil war. Powder Mill, the map remarked, mouth of Savannah River. Water Works across from Canal. Factories, it went on,Commons adjacent to train tracks and Reservoir. Negro Graveyard, it delineated casually,bordering the racially unmarked Cemetery. O thought of his own father’s unmarked grave—the lack of a mark for his father neither masked nor inferred presumptive power. He was,simply, obscure. For O’s ninth birthdayhis mother had surprised him by saying, We’re going somewhere special. Thinking of amusement parks and playgrounds, O looked eagerly out the window for signs. They rolled through acre after acre of country. Finally they debarked and walked through a meadow by the train tracks. Eventually they came to a crabapple tree under which, Sonia claimed, O’s father was buried. The meadow had a soporific effect, or maybe it was the long ride. She spread out her coat and they lay down to nap. In the late afternoon sun O woke up. He wondered how to distinguish this tree from any other and how to feel in the ostensible presence of his father’s spirit. He tied a shoelace around one of the branches.

On the one hand, his father had made sovereign albeit somewhat arbitrary wagers in an arbitrary universe. On the other hand, there was a definite, non-arbitrary design: life was a loan you had to pay back in full. Sometimes your body was taken back from you all at once; sometimes slowly, part by part. Cartographers might map your last resting place, all unknowing, as the site of their own unseeing. Or your bones could lie anonymously, perhaps even fictively in a field. Had his father really died or just changed form, changed direction? O touched the protrusion on top of his head, like an arrow pointing.

He began to reorganize his files. Among his unbearable correspondence, he found a few astrology columns he had saved. He reread an old horoscope. He had circled it at the time: It is a good time to complete a project you’ve been putting off. He read another: Forgive yourself for every mistake except one—you know the one. Which mistake? He couldn’t say. On the one hand, he told himself, he had no faith in astrology, no understanding of its premises. On the other hand, he was a sign, somehow. On the one hand, just as he had four fangs, he was also a Capricorn. On the other hand, to describe himself as a four-fanged Capricorn was to lose touch with something ineffable. His privacy. Or maybe his freedom. His solitude—crawling thoughts in the dark, patterns and portions of light. Suddenly he thought of what the “one mistake” could be: Bundles on fire ... burning pages. He had burned his first manuscript, the only copy, besieged by doubt. Doubt, his undoing. How had it come to be that there was such a breakdown between the commonplace way in which one acted and spoke, and the insistent doubt one felt? Doubt was like a shark that constantly circled on the surface of his mind, ready to puncture his thoughts as they glided by. In the same way that he spoke with enthusiasm about astrological signs while what he habitually felt was a droning confusion punctuated by political despair, so too did O seek hypoallergenic pillows when he meant to be writing his encyclopedic, world-historical novel. Was he even more foolish, more hopeless than he had ever suspected? Even as a question mark hung constantly over the idea of astrology, or any such system, O found himself resorting aloud to occult typologies as if he were a committed acolyte, all the while doubting in secret and secretly hoping to arrive at something he could not doubt. By this method, he arrived at doubt. He secreted doubt. Doubt was his rudder.

With it, he steered in circles, inadvertently menacing himself.He supposed the sincerity with which contemporary divinations were discussed—compared to more archaic practices, such as reading the irregular, continent-shaped organs of slain animals—allowed him to indulge in their tautologies (because you are a Capricorn, you are like this; you are like this, therefore a Capricorn) with noncommittal credulity, an indulgence that relieved him of the burden and responsibility of outrage (for if one’s problems were a matter of vaporous predestination and not, say, miseducation, well, one could not rage at vaporous fate).

But it would have been false to say that he simply didn’t believe in astrology, especially when there seemed to be something genuine in it, in the same way there was sometimes something genuine about a poem. Certain poems, certain horoscopes, certain philosophical texts seemed to recognize their readers. Thus one could be read by what one read. He shuddered.Suddenly he began to cry. To undo the doctor’s and Crescent’s readings he reached forsomething else to occupy his thoughts. He closed his wet lashes together and chose from his books arbitrarily, soliciting both chance and providence. His unsteady hands landed on a tattered copy of Black Skin, White Masks. In it, Frantz Fanon described the oppressiveness of the white gaze. Colonizing eyes projected violently onto those they lit upon. O thought about his mother’s descriptions of childhood, of being hated by strangers, beaten an bullied. Since they did not know her they must have seen evil in her. What was she made of? She wasn’t sure. But it was there, or why would they hate her? Why would they possess everything, and she, nothing? As a child she developed a fear of having her brain sliced out, inspected, maybe even eaten. Where did she get that idea?

O, the fiction of inevitability on the “face” of things. What would people be like, if they had never been imaginary?

Miranda Mellis is the author of three books of fiction, None of This Real (Sidebrow Press), The Spokes (Forthcoming, Solid Objects), and The Revisionist (Calamari Press), and a chapbook of documentary poetics, Materialisms (Portable Press at Yo Yo Labs). The Revisionist, illustrated by Derek White, has been translated into Italian and Croatian and was the subject of a 90-foot mural by Megan Vossler. Mellis is an editor at The Encyclopedia Project. She teaches at Mills College, the California College of the Arts, and the Language & Thinking Program at Bard College. You can learn more about her here.

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