By, Sharmon Gazaway, Jon Black, A. A. Rubin, Polly Alice McCann, and Renee Cronley
Intro: The following piece was composed by the authors as a surrealist cadavre exquis. The cadavre exquis is an exercise practiced by surrealist artists where an artist began by drawing something at the top of a folded piece of paper, and then refolded the paper so that only the bottom lines of their drawing were visible. They would then mail the paper to the next artists, and the process would repeat again, over and over, until the piece was complete. We have attempted to adapt the exercise for writers. The first writer composed a paragraph and then sent their final line to the next writer, who continued the piece using that line as their first line. The process continued until each writer had composed their paragraph. Each writer wrote with no knowledge of the content or style of the previous paragraph, save for the last line.
For more information about the Cadavre Exquis exercise, click here:
Stop. I beg you. Don’t do this. It’s not what you think it will be. Yes, you’ve made this great discovery, and all you’ve wanted your whole small, dull life was to make a great discovery, or a great anything. You know this is your chance. Probably your only chance. Naturally, you can’t let it pass. And how will you know if the discovery is truly great if you never try it out? You can risk only yourself. That’s good. That’s admirable. But don’t. Don’t do it. It’s unlike anything you are imagining. It won’t bring you any kind of happiness. Maybe recognition, but even that can’t be guaranteed. That tingle you’re feeling—it’s not the mere excitement of nerves and thrill of the unknown. Trust me. It’s the electric charge of curiosity mingled with the twist in the gut that accompanies foreboding. It’s inside you telling you what I’m pleading from here. Listen to it. Even if you’ve never heeded another’s advice in your life, heed me now. We all send our direst warnings. Everything you’ve known will be lost, everything you’ve hoped for will be…different. Remember Eve. Remember Pandora. Recall the handwriting on the wall, and the curious cat. It did not end well. No, not death. That’s not the fear here. At least, not now. This is different, worse. Yes, worse. At the risk of repetition, it’s beyond all you have imagined, or can. I would tell you if I was able. I’m not. None of us are. But don’t. Just don’t do it, it’s not what you think it will be.
Just don’t do it, it’s not what you think it will be. Would it be worth it? Could it be worth it? Guillaume barely heard his thoughts over the hissing steam, boiling water, and crackling fire. Regrettably, he had no problem hearing the church bells outside, their peels like the cadence presaging a firing squad. Drinking deeply from the bottle, his face wrinkled. He pulled his under-linens and shirt from the porcelain bleaching pot filled with onion juice. In the days of his grandfather’s grandfather, launderers had used their own urine. People today didn’t want that. But, truthfully, urine worked better. Most days, a small army toiled in the laundry to meet the village’s needs. Today, it was operated by, and for, one man. The bleached clothes went into the copper boiler where the rest of his outfit already soaked alongside a chunk of lye. Snatching up the baton, he turned his clothes within the water. Guillaume considered the two images on the wall above the boiler. The icon of Joan d’Arc still shone brightly with the colors of passion and pain. The woodcut of Louis XV, so-called “the beloved,” had wrinkled, faded, and stained with generations of steam and smoke. A relic from a world which no longer was. Grimacing, he again swigged from the bottle. The vintage, from Chantal’s father’s vineyard, should have aged at least two years before uncorking. Guillaume didn’t have that kind of time. Better early than never. When at last the bottle was empty, and the clothes in the boiler as heavily churned as the virgin wine in his belly, he removed the garments. He placed them in the soaking basin and then laid them beneath the box mangle. Working its iron crank, the heavy wooden block rolled across the fabric, forcing out the water. Finally, he placed the garments on a table, covered them with thin linen, and took up a heavy iron from the fire. Today’s outfit would be immaculate. Guillaume wondered, had anyone ever so lovingly laundered the very clothes in which they would be buried that day? Outside, the bell tolled once more.
Outside, the bell tolled once more. She tried to focus on the sound, like a Zen monk practicing meditation, and let the monotony drive away her problems. But she had never been much good at meditation: Instead of driving away her troubles, each gong seemed to magnify them. Gong, the mortgage; Gong, the kids; Gong, the pandemic; Gong, another workout skipped; Gong, the number on the scale, ever growing. A loud gong, but in a low register, insufficient to break the glass ceiling against which she kept bumping at work. With each chime, her world grew smaller. With each toll, the walls closed in a bit more. A wave of claustrophobia washed over her. Soon, she would be trapped in a small, glass box, like a mime, unable to speak. It was more than she could take, She got up from her desk and rushed through the house, cringing at each toll of the incessant bell. (Were the intervals getting shorter? They definitely felt shorter.) She fumbled through the neglected Tibetan prayer bowl for her keys, and burst out into the open air of the suburban streets hoping to escape the sound. But the bell continued to toll. Outside, it was even louder. It seemed to follow her, somehow amplifying whichever direction she ran. She doubled back to the house, got in the car, and turned up the radio as loud as it would go. She drove for miles, far past the limits of where the sound could possibly carry, but the bell tolled, nonetheless, if not in the outside world, distinctly in her mind. It echoed through her head, and reverberated off the walls of her skull. There was no escape. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, she thought, it tolls for me.
Ask not for whom the bell tolls, she thought, it tolls for me. The words jangled in her head like a bronze clapper. The reverberations seemed to go from the base of her neck down to her toes. She covered her ears and squeezed her eyes closed. When the sounds stopped. She opened her eyes and she didn’t know where she was. A warm chamber with a shell-like ceiling enveloped her with white light. Where was she? She looked at her hands, they seemed different somehow. Why didn’t she feel panicked? Waiting seemed easy, almost weightless until a small port window she hadn’t noticed grew dim and someone entered. That someone swam in, with a long lush green tail, her hair swinging like so many live anemones, her eyes yellow and cool. That’s when it became clear, she was underwater but breathing without any problem.
That’s when it became clear, she was underwater but breathing without any problem. For a moment, it was overwhelming.
She was used to shallow living, so the depths were frightening and she was worried she might drown in her emotions.
Liquid calm spread throughout her body as a myriad of memories surfaced in her mind.
All those nights of her running out of the beach house, her tear-stained cheeks stinging with an angry hand imprint.
It was walking along the beach that soothed her. The ocean had a voice, and the sound of her name seemed to roll off whitecaps like a soothing lullaby.
She would write save me in the sand with a stick.
Throughout her life, she felt like a piece of property—a ship that one man had commandeered after the other. She was nothing but a vessel to steer on their own course. She had no control over her life.
But they could never conquer the sea and so she admired it. Some days, it was like she was stuck in a prison staring out into the azure through a window of blurred tears, wishing she could dive in and swim away.
But this was better.
The warm water cradled her like the amniotic fluid that once protected her long ago while she was in utero.
She was born of the sea.
And she was free.
The knots that lived inside her unraveled. She embraced her repressed untamed nature that always existed below the surface.
She made skirts of bright red kelp and decorated her hair with hibiscus flowers. A flounder took her under his wing, and told her legends and showed her lost treasures.
Sometimes ships full of men would linger near them, casting their nets so they could blindly catch whatever they could reel in and watch gasp for air on the deck.
She taught her friends to sabotage nets and hulls using the knowledge she gained on land. They would use the weather to their advantage. Once the men were overboard, flailing their arms for someone to save them, she would pull them under and fill their lungs with the sea.
The more men gone, the better for her survival.
She knew the life that awaited her on shore.
And she would never allow herself to be caught again.
The paragraphs were composed in the order indicated in the byline.
Sharmon Gazaway writes from the Deep South where she lives beside a historic cemetery haunted by the wild cries of pileated woodpeckers. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Forge Literary Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Enchanted Conversation, New Myths, Metaphorosis, Breath and Shadow, Ghost Orchid Press, and elsewhere. You can find her work in the anthologies, Love Letters to Poe Volume 1, Dark Waters, Orpheus + Eurydice Rewoven, and Wayward and Upward. You can contact her on Instagram at sharmongazaway.
Jon Black is an award-winning writer of historical fiction with pulp, supernatural, or Mythos twists. He is best known for his Bel Nemeton series, combining 6th century Arthurian historical fantasy with brainy 21st century pulp as well as the Jazz Age supernatural mystery Gabriel’s Trumpet. Jon is obsessed with the Parisian avant-garde, on full display in his short story “The Green Muse,” a mythos tale revolving around the Montmartre Cubist scene and featured in the anthology The Chromatic Court. He dabbles in creating Dadaist and Surrealist visual and performance art. In 2016, Jon hosted the Austin, Texas celebrations honoring Dada’s 100th anniversary. Find out more about him at https://jonblackwrites.com/.
A. A. Rubin surfs the cosmos on winds of dark energy. He writes in many style, ranging from literary fiction to comics, formal poetry to science fiction and fantasy, and (almost) everything in between. His work has appeared recently in Love Letters to Poe, Ahoy! Comics, and The Deronda Review. He can be reached on social media as @TheSurrealAri, or right here on the website which you are now reading.
Polly Alice McCann, poet, artist, says that poetry saved her life. She began writing after a night sleeping under desert stars with only a book for a pillow. Her work explores faith, loss, and the search for the true heartland: “I will not forget,” she writes. “I am woman, all things began in me.” Her first books, “Kinlight,” and “Puss ’N Boötes” published in 2019, 2020. She has been published internationally in Naugatuck River Review, Arc 24 and elsewhere. She credits her narrative free verse style from studying under poets Julia Kasdorf and Ron Koertge, and her degree from Hamline University MFAC. Her art has been published in several publications including Rattle Magazine. She is the founder of Ketchupedia Poetry Radio and the managing editor of Flying Ketchup Press.
Renee Cronley is a poet, writer, and nurse from Brandon, Manitoba. She studied Psychology and English at Brandon University, and Nursing at Assiniboine Community College. Her work has appeared in NewMyths.com, Love Letters to Poe, Black Hare Press, SmashBear Publishing, Canadian Stories, Panoply, and Discretionary Love and is forthcoming with Dark Dispatch, Dark Rose Press, and Off Topic. Social Media Links: https://www.instagram.com/reneecronley/, https://twitter.com/ReneeCronley, https://www.facebook.com/renees.writing.page