Before we had any idea how dangerous it was to bolt human beings to exploding tubes and launch them into space, when inventions like the lightbulb and airplane and telephone were warping the planet at a ferocious pace and escaping the earth’s gravity well suddenly seemed possible —we imagined that exploring the Universe would be a lot like the famous expeditions we had seen before.
This issue’s Fictionist features a short story by James McGirk, a writer who moved to India in the early days of Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms. The Godling of Greater Kailash is an intriguing story, loosely based on McGirk’s experience as a photographer’s assistant during a particularly long and hot Indian summer, when New Delhi’s expatriate community was flooded with Burmese refugees.
We vet families and can bar them from joining the Op – but once they leave our sphere of influence, the Op must seize control and wield kin as clandestine cover. But the pliant, detached creatures we select for foreign assignment are not householders by nature. Much as we suffer the consequences, and much as it might be humane to do so, we simply cannot execute our children without risking accusations of profound hypocrisy and international outcry.
So horrid and bright to open his eyes. So much better to stay enshrouded in ruddy dark. But other signals were… penetrating too. His gullet came unfastened, pulsing and melting, and a sour bulge of liquid rose and – oh fuck, he sat up too late – popped and disgorged into his cupped hands. He cradled this liquid inch; it had weight and mass, and the gluey but slippery consistency of watered cornstarch. Sweet artificial scents of partially digested alcohol rose from its glistening surface. How much like an offering this was, with its bobbing rice grains and bilious yellow tint (he was bent on his knees in the sand). The smell intensified. A nostril twitched. Revulsion clenched him, and he flung his slop into the fire pit.
The rocket had failed. Kim Jong-un snapped off his the monitor and turned to face his advisors. What could they possibly tell him? This was total failure. Five ashen men in uniform glittered in the gloom. They groveled and made excuses. Kim lifted a hand and batted the air as if to shoo a fly, and the men backed away slowly, heads bowed deeply in shame. He waited for them to leave and left the control room for his private chambers. The hallway smelled of sandalwood and cognac.
“James McGirk’s short story “The Tramp Steamer” presents a side of Richard M. Nixon we’ve never seen before. McGirk imagines the young lawyer and his new bride traveling on a tramp steamer of the United Fruit Company to celebrate their first anniversary. Seasick, angry, jealous, Nixon reveals his inelegance to his wife who yearns for more glamour and glitz. McGirk takes the facts of the Nixons’ actual 1941 trip and spins out an incisive and compelling story of bitterness and dreams.” LINK
A bunny slope version of India was within walking distance from our compound. Each proper Delhi enclave had an Indian antecedent to the American strip-mall lurking along its fringe; the enclaves were roughly circular and the better, quieter properties were clustered around a grassy interior park filled with grass for cricket and shade trees; the marketplace was ugly and crude in comparison, shunned by decent folk and patronized only by domestics or school boys buying liquor from the government package store. A blighted patch barely tolerated as if a horrid thing had been caught in a fence and was kept tame with scraps. I did not bring my gun. All I had was my folding scout knife. Lifting the blade from its hinged cradle distracted me enough to maintain composure.
I took a service road, or servants’ road, one of the thorn-clogged alleyways that ran behind the row of walled houses and the domestics walk to and from the main-road without spoiling our view. A mottled orange cat, with slim limbs and a bulbous head eyed me as he picked his way between the glinting glass lining the alleyway walls.
The market appeared to be a group of shabby municipal buildings. A post-office logo hung above an overhang, and I walked in and realized the and realized the institutional tile was only a façade. A crowd milled around a tea vendor; there weren’t so many of them, there was no jostling. The men wore collared white shirts and wool pants. There were no women except for a lone police constable who followed me around discretely. The others eyed me but no one approached. Beyond the teashops were rows of stalls leading down winding narrow roads. Each stall was a three-quarter cube of concrete, its opening facing the street, dim bulbs coiled around its rim, blinking, attached to bits of rebar, the dealers hawking, or crouched over stoves that reeked of kerosene and frying dough. Wares ranged from gleaming bare metal pots and pans, to live chickens clucking in cages. I chose the one that looked the cleanest and the walls closed in. Clothes, rogue television lines, and frayed flags flapped overhead, casting everything into permanent gloom. Even the walls were marred almost black with soot. The sky was very far away and I felt very alone no matter how much I thumbed my blade.
I became comfortable with the market, and as the days passed I went deeper. In the deepest recesses I found a row of booksellers. Stolen periodicals were the bulk of their trade, other offerings were mostly limited to political tracts, conspiracy, books of bawdy humor, business, self-help manuals and astrology and superstition. Their bind was of a uniformly atrocious quality, the glue contained no gelatin and pages fell out as you read. I bought them by the armload. Hungry to acquire secret knowledge. I planned elaborate seductions using books of body language interpretation, learned how airports function and the way to escape a maze was to always turn right. One day I bought Collier’s Encyclopedia of Omens. A syntax of mind-bending toxin for a sensitive young brain to intake. An index articulating mystical interpretations of any event: how tinnitus signaled news that was either sinister or good, depending on the ear in which it rang; how an odd number of crows was bad, and even number was good. That uncrushed eggshells provoked stormy seas; that spilled salt drained your luck away unless preventative rituals were performed.
One morning I staked out an open section of the marketplace, clutching a notebook and a pencil, loitering in the dusty concrete plaza noting who entered and left. A useless exercise, certainly, I even I knew it at the time, but I needed a tether to reality – or something like that. I was about to leave when three men arrived, a much different group than the predominantly middle class Indians who had been walking to and from the stalls. They were grubby and obviously close to destitution. Not quite peddlers but tinkers of the lowest sort. They spread out mats and squatted, smoking sharp clove cigarettes. Identical kits lay before them, a single candle lit and burning, a long metal spike, and a photo album filled with postcards from all over the world. WHAT A DIFFERENCE THE EARMEN HAVE MADE. Read one. I HEAR CLEARER THAN I EVER HAVE BEFORE. One man menaced me with a spike. I refused his services, but he kept advancing on me, pleading for me to become his lucky first customer of the day; I stood and left, but lingered on the periphery to watch.
A customer arrived, an elderly Indian woman in a lime green sari and white stripe braided into her black hair. She strolled across the plaza toward them, stooping to examine each book of cards, querying and commanding, until she finally chose an appropriate ear man. She squatted on the mat. The earman perched behind her holding the spike. He was about to insert when she slapped the spike down and I heard a haughty gust of Hindi. He nodded and plunged the needle into the candle for a few seconds then twisted it in his grimy shirt. There was a metallic flash and he jabbed it in and twisted and twisted, pulling her head into the needle and grinding it in.
He removed the spike. A gooey black ball hung from the tip, he waggled it in front of his customer who paid and walked away rubbing her ear. He wiped the wax onto his candle. My ears ached in sympathy.