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Exquisite CorpseExquisite Corpse
Issue 10 - A Journal of Letters and Life
Clever (Continued from Cybercorpse # 9)
by Andrew Wilson
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Henry & Iris

Henry changed everything when he played it on his blue guitar. His wallpaper had yellow flowers. His maid scrubbed the toilet. Henry lurched through life, glorious moments and dim ones. When he meets Iris he fails to imagine how to reach her across the brutal abyss yawning between their bodies. Henry's body feels to him boy-awkward, yet man-heavy. Iris's glows with secrets. He can imagine her pleasure only as the deepest inwardness, a reflecting that holds light and refolds it, while Henry, boy-Henry, dusky Henry, rich Henry, opens painfully to a crude rush of sensations.
     Iris when he first glimpsed her was holding a glass of white wine. She wore a black sheath that left her long, twisting spine bare. She kept tossing her hair about this way and that, mesmerizingly, before a canvas studded with nails.
     Henry fixed his eyes on her. His mouth opened but would not speak. The world turned to thunder, his skin to wet plaster of Paris.
     Iris stroked her own downy arm as she laughed. Quite to his own surprise, Henry had made a joke. Iris's wet mouth opened as she laughed and her fine straight teeth shone with saliva. He saw Iris' pink tongue as she laughed loud at his joke in the echoing white gallery. He scuffed his shoe soles on the floor and moved closer to Iris, who regarded him with wide-eyed clear expectancy.
     How shocked he was when, in her high rise Manhattan flat, Iris divested her glowing skin of clothing and turned to him wearing only a black garter belt. That dumb, fragrant tuft of auburn hair at her crotch. She darted a tongue across Henry's lips, exploded laughter. He tossed her onto the jouncing bed. Rain hammered at the windows, sluicing the old dark panes.      Iris squealed like a bitch.

The Mother Superior

Lizabeta had always been moved by the Mother Superior's angular, sad, stark frowning face. The Mother Superior floated through the stone hallways of the convent as if rapt. But what was the source of this rapture?
     The Mother's chin was strong but her eyes were bleak and deep as if perpetually fixed upon Jesus hanging pitched high above the altar, writhing on nails, in a thorn-crown upon which blood drops have gathered like dew.
     Jesus's sorrowful gaze piercing the veil of sea-horizon to peer at the sufferings of His martyrs in the faraway Japans, nailed like him to a rude Cross or boiled in kettles of steaming brine by laughing samurai.

Lizabeta Sewing

Lizabeta's fingers pushed a large needle through stiff sailcloth. She was making wings, wings for the nuns to wear to float them aloft so they might stare into the eyes of God.

Henry, the Insomniac

Henry lay on the stiff hotel bed covered by a starched sheet, Iris snoring lightly beside him, and shutting his eyes saw Aitoh Omei, the dark silklike hair swung over her face. He saw the erupting Mt. Etna, its streams of lava shooting up sparks.
     Henry had always been interested in his own mind. When he was half asleep he saw the strangest, clearest images. He wet his lips with his tongue and groped beside the strange bed in odd volumes of shadow for his glass of Italian mineral water. He found it and sat up against the padded headboard and drank it sizzling down in a few gulps. It had a carbolic aftertaste. He wiped his mouth with a bony wrist and stared into the hovering dis-imaged darkness. Iris turned over with a heavy snore.
     Henry lay back pulling the sheet to his chin. He saw Aitoh Omei but then she vanished. He saw the looming red sandstone temple of Segesta. Poppies flowered in the field. Then Henry saw a bicycle wheel spinning so the spokes blurred against a black backdrop. He listened closely to the ticking in his ears, to the thumping in his chest, to Iris snorting air. To water bubbles rising and plipping gently against the side of the mineral water bottle.
     As Henry started to fall asleep, he imagined he was in a vast dark building of stone dampened by sea water and that he heard fervent women's voices praying for divine mercy.

Lisbon Destroyed

Lisbon, one of Europe's most august ancient and civilized cities, was destroyed in a single day by earthquake, fire and a great tidal wave that smashed the cathedrals flat and lifted ships from the harbor and left them drying in peasants' fields and vineyards.
     Lisbon was not Sodom nor was it Gomorrah. The earthquake was not a punishment from God. The city was laid low and awash with flapping monsters by a devastating blind force of nature. Smoke and women's moans and children screaming for lost fathers rose in a column of agony that should have pierced the breast of Jesus.
     Lisbon Destroyed: the first catastrophe of the Age of Enlightenment.

The City

In 1755, Lisbon was the jewel of Europe, renowned for its intricate Moorish architecture and for the radiance of its churches and for the civilized behavior of its inhabitants, as well as for the voluptuous beauty and rich finery of its women. With an estimated population of 275,000, it was nearly as large as Paris. Its coffeehouses buzzed with radical ideas. Clerics and anti-clerics rubbed shoulders at the opera.

First Signs

Fountains dried up suddenly or emitted only a sluggish flow, leaving one eerily aware of the gaping darkness of the green-rimmed mouths of carven gargoyles and sea serpents. Wells refused to yield water. Cats grew restive and slunk away from houses into the fields and gardens. Birds ceased to twirp and twitter.

A Brutal Tremor

At 9:30 AM on November 1st, the ocean floor shook and split open. The tremor was centered at sea about 200 kilometers West South West of Cape St. Vincent. The earthquake, of unequalled savagery, lasted in all only ten minutes. There were three distinct jolts and many minor shocks.
     This groaning concussion of the earth was felt as far north as Switzerland. But in Lisbon the catastrophe was extreme. Towers crumbled; opera house domes caved in; cathedrals sagged and their walls burst asunder.

A Catastrophic Tidal Wave

About twenty minutes after the end of the shaking, a big wave swelled up on the horizon. It rolled towards the coast, shining with blue and green tints in the unearthly dusk. It flattened Lisbon's Custom House and smashed the ships in the harbor. At the moment it hit, the tidal wave was over six meters high.
     Two waves of the same size hit moments later. The undertow was immense, dragging people and ships far out to sea and leaving vast reaches of bare muddy sea bottom exposed to view.
     All up and down Portugal's coast entire towns were wiped off the map by rushing seas. At Algarve, where the destruction was most profound, a Moorish fortress was smashed to pieces. In Largos, the sea rushed over the city walls.
     Morocco also suffered greatly from loss of life. Fez was nearly wiped from the map. The surging seas came to the top of Tangier's fortified walls. Many mosques were destroyed and poor neighborhoods smashed to kindling.

An Extravagantly Destructive Blaze

It is perhaps not surprising that the inhabitants of Lisbon, rich and poor alike, fled from their homes in the shock of the first tremors, leaving candles and cooking fires untended. Hundreds of fires, having started almost simultaneously in this way, spread from house to house, finally joining in a single conflagration. The vast public squares filled with refugees from the fire. But soon a wall of flames was rushing toward the squares, and so the frenzied Lisboners fled to boats in the harbor or waded into the river to escape.
     The fire burned for five days, darkening the sky with pillars of smoke and floating ash.
     Sins of the Angels

The Fallen Crucifix

In the morning after Lizabeta's dream, the fountain in the garden of the Convent dried up. There was an eerie silence as birds ceased to sing. Lizabeta noticed a cat scampering over a wall.
     She had been sewing linens by a window. She felt her body shake. Then she realized it was the building itself, shaking like a pudding. She put down her sewing as a shock sent thimbles springing from the table. Lizabeta rolled from her chair and crawled under the table as bits of the ceiling clattered down. The building was rocking back and forth and Lizabeta's body seemed to be floating free of the stone floor. She heard awful rendings and explosions.
     Jesus, Jesus, sweet Jesus, she prayed, clutching at the cracks in the floor as the shaking of the earth went on and on. She thought she would be shaken into the sky where she would become a bird. If it is your will, Oh sweet Lord, that I become a bird, I am happy, but I am heartily sorry I have sinned against you-
     When the shaking stopped Lizabeta was aware of the terrible silence, and then the moans of other sisters and the screams of children from the orphanage across the Convent wall. She crawled from the sewing room into the passageway and down the passageway to the chapel, where Christ's Cross lay face down on the stone floor before the altar. All the stained glass windows had been smashed and the glass lay in kaleidoscopic shards on the floor.
     Lizabeta tried to pick up the Cross, putting her shoulder into the effort, but it was too heavy. She could not budge it, though she panted and streamed with sweat.

My Lord, Your Cross Is Too Heavy

She staggered outside and found a group of other novice-sisters cowering in the garden, their robes white with plaster dust. The fountain was dry. They were all staring at the sky through the branches of the eucalyptus tree. Some of the branches had snapped from the trunk and lay scattered on the flagstones amidst a rubble of broken tiles.
     Lizabeta strode slowly through the courtyard and dreamily climbed a spiral staircase into the tower. She stopped at a window facing the sea. It was dark blue-green with whitecaps rushing on it. The horizon seemed to have dissolved into a white haze. Gulls were circling crazily. As she stared into the whiteness, she saw it ripple and turn blue-black. Then she saw the sea rise up, up, up, like a wall of black glass-
     She shut her eyes and the heart throbbed in her breast and she waited for the unimaginable onslaught, the erupting torrent, to swirl her away from her life. When she again opened her eyes the wave was still there, rising and rising, blue-black and white-green and horrendous, the swooping seagulls profiled against its surging mass. The air chilled. A wall of sea-air hit her, suffocating. She sank to her knees. From below she heard the Mother Superior leading the sisters in a chant of prayer to the Almighty Father. Was he mightier than this wave? Lizabeta strained her mind. She saw a figure wreathed in gray beard, naked shoulders roped with muscle. Father. She reached out her dream hand to touch his fingers but he rushed backwards into a pointlike poignancy of endless darkness. The cosmos shrank. The wave hit with a roar like a thousand voices and Lizabeta tasted salt. Moon and sun churned and lost their light in the surf. She bit her lip. Lizabeta thought she would surely be dragged out by the vast undertow of this wave to the deepest ocean where she and the other sisters would float among the ghostly sunken galleons and islands of seaweed where monstrous fish fluttered and swam and mermaids strummed on coral-encrusted guitars and sang sweet melodies never heard by the ears of the godly. There was water rushing around the window of the tower but it did not flow upwards and in. She reached out her slender arm and dipped her hand to the wrist in the powerful rush. Then it swept back and was gone and she could see another wave rising up blue-black and scattering gulls and she could hear no more prayers. It hit with a thunder-smack and slimy water surged up the staircase over her rope soled sandals and rose to her knees and flooded over the window ledge.

Holy Father, Holy Father, and Your Son Jesus, and His Mother the Blessed Mary, Save Us--

Lizabeta thinks for a heartstopping instant she can hear God answer her cries but no, it is the voice of the outrushing sea.
     She descends slowly the slimy spiral staircase of the tower, her robe clinging to her from the hips down. Fish are leaping and slapping on the steps. The sea is now withdrawn, leaving bare reaches of muddy beach exposed below the cliff. The Convent is coated with slime and mud, pools of water on the floors at every turn. Mother Superior sits with her arms embracing the peeling eucalyptus trunk, coughing salt-water. Girls in soaked robes are scattered like tenpins around the courtyard, sobbing and retching sea.
     No screams from the orphanage now, the majority of the children having been carried away by the tsunami which roared in upon them as they cowered in terror below the Convent walls in their crude chapel. Instead, a majestic and sun-drenched silence.

Father Pietro's Braying Donkey Saved; Jesus Ascends

In the days following the earthquake and inundation by seas, refugees began to trickle through the gates of the Convent from other parts of Portugal, including devastated Lisbon. The sisters gave them round loaves of stale bread and fish they had collected in baskets and smoked over a charcoal fire. The Convent of the Sacred Wounds of the Excruciating Passion was transformed into a hive of buzzing charity.
     Father Pietro, said one of the few surviving orphans, had been carried out to sea trapped in his confession box. The Father's little donkey was deposited, heeing and hawing, in the upper limbs of a gigantic oak tree outside the walls. The sisters, acting under the tight direction of Mother Superior, were able to bring him down with the aid of a fisherman's net and an improvised rope and pulley system.
     Mother Superior put the same rope and pulley to work raising the Crucified Jesus from the stone floor of the main chapel. The sisters, Lizabeta among them, pulled on the rope as if ringing a great bell and the Cross rose slowly and Jesus' face-stained by salt as if by dried tears-once again shone with agony in the dimness.
     Mother Superior fell to her knees, clutching a rosary to her breast, and sobbed out an Our Father.

The Arrival of a Gaunt, Taciturn Stranger

One morning soon after the catastrophe a gaunt, sunburnt middle-aged man appeared at the Convent gate.
     He wore straw sandals, a straw peasant's hat, and a robe streaked with white road dust. He took his round loaf of bread with a murmur of thanks and, squatting in the shade of the eucalyptus tree in the courtyard, bowed his head in prayer over it before tearing off part of the loaf and putting it into his mouth. He chewed slowly, squinting into the sun-dazzle.
     Lizabeta approached him with her hands clasped at the wrists and, kneeling to stare into his face, said:
     Are you a priest?
     He gazed into her eyes for a moment-they were azure, flecked with bottle-green-and dipped his chin in a nod.
     Father Piquón, he said.
     She bent forward and kissed his hand and remained kneeling, breathless, until he withdrew the hand and placed his palm on her head, on the flagrant blonde curls.
     Are you of this country? he asked in a peasant dialect.
     Yes, Father. From Oporto.
      A freak of nature. A beautiful freak.
     You have the sun in your hair, he said. And the sea in your eyes.
     She glanced up. How strange that a priest should speak in poetry.
     Thank you, Father.
     Lizabeta's eyes shone with tears-of shame. She had allowed herself a sensation of pleasure at the priest's touch and had even felt a surge of pride when he spoke of her body! After all the devastation by earth and sea!
How did you know I was a man of the cloth? he murmured.
     Lizabeta lowered her eyes.
     I saw how you handled the loaf of bread. Like Christ's body.
     We have been waiting for a priest. A funeral Mass must be said for the twenty sisters swept away by the sea. The Mother Superior will wish to see you at once.
     Don't you already have a priest?
     Father Pietro was taken by the sea in his confessional. We have his donkey, that's all.
     Father Piquón laughed, his eyes riveted on hers. But she had not been joking. Her face remained poignantly sad, the rose petal lips drawn into a pout. Finally, he glanced from Lizabeta's shining face to the dark archway of the convent. He sighed and rose to his feet, his knees cracking.
Lead on, bright angel, he said.


Father Piquón was not pleased by his first glimpse of the Mother Superior-a death's head perched on a broomstick. The skeletal body was draped in a wide blue robe that scraped along the floor as she approached him to kneel at his feet.
     She seized his right hand in her bony fingers and fastened her dry, feverish lips onto the ring finger.
     I am no bishop, he said, struggling to keep his voice free of disgust.      Rise.
     She was weeping as she rose to her feet. She kept her tight grip on his hand, squeezing until it throbbed.
     I beg your forgiveness, dear Father. We have had no spiritual solace since Father Pietro was carried off by the waves-
     I know. The angelic one told me. I am sorry for your misery.
     She glanced up. It was then that Father Piquón realized what a beautiful woman the Mother Superior must have been before starving herself in the Convent for the love of Christ. She had high cheekbones and a smooth, round forehead and her eyes were coal-black.
     The angelic one? she asked
     He gestured with his broad hand toward Lizabeta, who was standing in the doorway with her head bowed.
     Ah, Mother Superior said, her voice cold. Lizabeta. Yes, the girl is as adorable as she is passionately devout. But God sees the heart, not lightning eyes and a wild mass of hair.
     The last, harsh comment was directed at Lizabeta herself, who bowed her head even more deeply.
     Father Piquón pursed his lips together and tut-tutted.
     God sees everything, he said.
     Mother Superior, staring into the priest's eyes, let out a burst of wild mermaid-like laughter.

The Sea's Tears

That night, Father Piquón sat at a writing desk in his cramped room in the depths of the convent, scribbing rapidly on parchment with a goose quill pen. He covered the scrap of paper with the palm of his hand when the door opened, and Lizabeta appeared out of the darkness, framed in the doorway like a Piero della Francesca Madonna. The flame of his candle flattened in the clammy draft.
     Father, she said. I have a question.
     Shut the door.
     Lizabeta did. The flame of the candle grew again, its glow bringing out the rich straw-gold of her hair. Father Piquón felt a lump grow in his throat. A single glance at this girl was worth a year in the fleshpots.
     Father, bless me. For I have sinned. And I believe I have brought misery upon my sisters in this holy place.
     She began to sob. Father Piquón reached out from where he sat-the room was the size of a closet-and gathered one of her tears on the tip of his little finger. She lowered her head.
     Father Piquón licked the finger. Yes, the sea is salty.
     Tell me, he said. I long to know the sins of angels.

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