Four Short Prose Pieces

Jefferson Navicky

Theme for a Tapestry

The general is generally not an angry man, not the type of man to cut off ears and collect them for future dinner parties. And yet something will have to inspire him to inspire his troops. Rumors have the general’s men at eighty-one and the enemy’s at one thousand two hundred. A massacre sometimes sounds like an extremely dark country night full of ripple and stir.

On the night before the battle, the general wakes from a dream he cannot remember, suddenly as if emerging from water. The sensation left him is of a tunnel through which he hears occasional gun music, but cannot sense any light. It feels like his soul has been pick pocketed for a prolonged moment, not without a certain uncomfortable pleasure. Years later, when the craftsmen and weavers work on the depiction of the historic event, the tapestry will bear an uncanny resemblance to the dark tunnel of the general’s dream, as if the maker had been present in the general’s mind for his stunning tactical vanguard. They will decide it is too large an event in the history of the world to be contained within one tableau and they will decide to divide up the final work, but should it be a triptych, should it be more?

Catapult

The last student walks into the room. We sit in a circle. The harbor is waiting. A catapult sits in the center of the classroom, spring loaded in plywood and leather. Fully functioning, just as the facilities staff promised when they found it in the basement of Facilities. We discuss the construction and engineering of the catapult, its long sordid history, some of its mechanical intricacies. One student asks if she can put her weed in it. Others laugh. We start with the student closest to the door. When he is hurled out through the window and vanishes somewhere into the outlying harbor, the mood of the room becomes like the line to ride the Turbinator at the State Fair. Will this count for our final grade, someone asks. If you can find your way back, I say, and strap the next round of human fodder onto the machine. I pull the leather straps tight. Someone’s elbow cracks. Students fly through the mid afternoon sky in rapid succession like singular raindrops, the weight of their lives amassing into speeding convexities. Someone should keep track of where they land.

Map of the Provinces: An Exposition of Plot

Escaping Flatland

The map is riddled with shapes, many unmarked rivers and provinces, lettering so fine it is at times impossible to decipher. The coherence of land is in jeopardy. Rivers, tributaries, estuaries, lakes: a continent defined by water. But to escape the flatland of the map, to transcend its lines, one must pass through the map, through its grid and elevation, into its netherland where one ceases to hold to identity. In the abstract, before the introduction of character and space and time, everything exists in its entirety, complete, unproblematic.

Micro/Macro Reading

In the smallest sense, the Priest travels from North to South, from Mountains to Ocean, where he expects to find passage. To where, he does not know, but a safe passage somehow, a divine map. The Jesuits pursue the Priest, men on horseback, clamps and edicts meant to purify Mexico, to cleanse her of a priest aswill in moonshine, the clandestine figure taken to the road from his small parish amidst the higher elevations of the St. Leone Mountains.

In the larger sense, it is a story from high elevations to low, a fleeing, a descent, a persecution. The Priest’s exact route is undecipherable, but yet there exists a map, somewhere, of his route. There is always a map. He travels at night, stays in the shacks of those who have heard of his story and pity him, or know him personally and respect his taciturnity. The Jesuits know they are not far behind the Priest; they know they are never far away. Their trail through the provinces is a map marked by dust and a coldness to which the region is unaccustomed.

Layering & Separation

The Priest in his efforts to flee. The Jesuits in their efforts to capture the Priest. Between the two of them, they create a layering of experience, layers of escape merged with those of pursuit. Out of their desperation another map arises: a desperate attempt to continue life as he knows it, and an equally desperate attempt to end a strand of life, to enact retribution and reckoning for perceived folly. These dialogic efforts continue until one party realizes the presence of form. And then it becomes a race for separation. As the Priest recognizes the form, he realizes he must disappear, must separate himself from the Jesuits’ cartography. Once the Priest ceases to actively layer, and separates from the map, he is free. The Jesuits’ separation is a giving up; if they realize the layering only exists because of their engagement with the map, and if they’re able to realize this futility, then the separation occurs and the plot loses its tension. But power does not concede unless forced, and so the Priest must be the one to enact the separation. He must be the one to disappear.

Small Multitudes

The Priest, as the protagonist, finds peace and love from the small multitudes who shelter him. Burned out from exhaustion and trampled on his trail, the small multitudes take him in, feed him, clothe him, and bathe him. He sleeps in basements beneath a half dozen blankets, in chicken coops beneath the hens, beneath a boy’s bed. He reads them scripture in return, an impromptu service, a clandestine confessional. At night, he reads by candle to the small multitudes’ young girl as she falls asleep, prays for a sick uncle and does the work for which he lives. And it’s from the small multitudes that the priest takes the strength to know how he must separate from the layering. The Jesuits are closing in. They are many, mounted on horseback; he is only one and weary. At some point, he knows.

Color & Information

The color of his robes was brown, his hair brown, almost like fur. A man whose hair defined him, its prevalence and thickness. His body, which was perpetually concealed beneath his robes, seemed to match his exterior — squat torso and full fingers like dull spades, a broad nose, quiet dark eyes.

One afternoon, he walked to the river, careful to keep to the tree line. Once there, he removed his robes and underclothing. Holding the pile of clothing over his head, he waded naked to the middle of the river. The water wasn’t cold, nor swift; the water wasn’t anything but brown with mud. He dunked his clothes in the current, held them under, watched them fill and saturate, and when they had drunk enough, he let them go and swam back to the shore. As he waded dripping from the water, he glanced downstream to see the last piece of his former self round a bend in the slow river and disappear. The priest walked back to the village. Water dripped from him. He moved with a plowman’s volition. The man in whose house the priest was staying for the night gave him a shirt, a pair of overalls and other articles to wear. The Priest moved off to the fields to work, for that’s what men did in this region. Little children kicked up dust; a woman made tortillas for the evening meal.

Narrative of Space & Time

All narratives stop. Work ends. Maps reach their borders. A Jesuit in the hunting party, as they stop along the riverbank for water, spies a brown robe and under garments caught in the river weeds. He extracts them and shows them to his captain. They are unmistakably a priest’s habit. The river continues to the ocean. The end of space and time is in the folds of the habit found in the riverweeds. To be more explicit, it contains the end of this narrative, such a small encapsulated space able to hold, along with the futilities of identity, so much meandering. Once the Jesuit soldier touches this fold of wet cloth, the story ceases. The borders are drawn. The ink begins to dry, subsequent aging, a gain of history, a loss of subjectivity.

Epilogue

The map was given to me as a parting gift from a friend who was moving across the country to attend seminary. She told me this map had been waiting for me. It was, she said, a map the Jesuits used in their early days in Mexico to further their missionaries. She pressed the square block of wood into my hand, saying, make your own story.

The Gatherer

It stands in the courtyard of an adobe longhouse next to the well. The white orb sits atop a three-foot high stone pedestal that tapers out near the ground like an evening gown.

The Gatherer is used on Sundays, around four o’clock, when the afternoon begins to thin. People in sandals are drawn to the Gatherer and convene around it, murmuring expectantly as if before a fireworks display or a séance.

Everyone knows what the Gatherer will do.

No one knows what the Gatherer does.

The white orb hurtles through the arid landscape of red clay, high plateaus and dust. It travels like a comet, dodging in and out of the stone traffic of the mesa.

The Gatherer emits a high-pitched whining noise like a distant but weak motorbike. There is a slightly acrid burning smell. Some people consider this sound and smell a form of prayer. But this is not the truth; it is only the Gatherer doing its work.

All those present when the Gatherer departs have dreams that night of flying through the landscape as if on the back of the white orb. In the morning, on a topographical map that stretches an entire wall of the longhouse, they cover with white paint the land they traversed the previous night in their dreams, and together they forget.

Jefferson Navicky was born in Chicago and grew up in Southeast Ohio. He earned degrees from Denison University and Naropa University. Recent work has appeared in Horse Less Review, Off the Coast, Smokelong Quarterly, and The Boston Theater Marathon. “Map of the Provinces” originally appeared in The Tangled Bank Anthology.