by Dameion Becknell
Hanging grossly out the side of his shorts, with his thin dark legs sprawled as if for just such a demonstration, my uncle Giovanni’s balls are always showing.
In the past, I might have whispered to him, “Uncle, your balls are showing.”
And he would say, “I testicoli sono il frutto di tutta la vita.” Which was to say, ‘The testicles are the fruit of all life.’
“Please,” I might say, “speak English.”
And he would say, “Lei parla italiano perfetto, quindi perchÃ© dovrei?” (‘You speak perfect Italian, so why should I?’)
“Because my girlfriend is here, and this is our prom night. I have brought her here to meet you, mother and father, and here you sit with your balls showing. Put on some pants, man! You embarrass me now.”
He says again, “I testicoli sono il frutto di tutta la vita. And if she does not realize that, then you should make some other girlfriend.”
That is my uncle Giovanni. The Italian alien hero. The earthly saint, whose balls he has always likened to fruit.
I have wasted enough time explaining, and so here is where our story truly begins. When I was twenty years old, uncle asked if I would like to travel with him to the city New York City.
“Please bring only pants on this trip,” I begged of him.
And he said, “The testicles, boy. The fruit.”
I argued the matter no further.
That day, the day of this story, we sat outside the cafÃ© Lalo, which was just off West 83rd Street, both of us drinking cappuccinos and eating different sandwiches, when the Ukrainian made himself known. He was a pale-skinned man with a flat face and greasy dark hair. He had strapped to his naked torso an array of explosives. He yelled something in Ukrainian dialect that I could not understand. People dodged this way and that, screaming unintelligibly.
Of course, uncle Giovanni’s balls dangled out the side of his shorts, and the Ukrainian had not failed to notice this, and uncle said to the man, “You do not want to do what you reckon you’ve come here to do.”
And the man, in his own tongue, he said, “Ð·Ð°Ñ‚ÐºÐ½Ð¸Ñ‚Ðµ Ñ€Ð¾Ñ‚.”
“I certainly will not shut my mouth,” uncle said in Ukrainian.
Despite being brutalized by fear, or maybe because of it, I said to uncle, “Since when do you speak any such language?”
“Shut your mouth,” he said to me in Italian.
And so I did.
The Ukrainian, with an unmistakable expression of perplexity, he said to uncle, “Ð’Ð°ÑˆÑ– ÑÑ”Ñ‡ÐºÐ° Ð¿Ð¾ÐºÐ°Ð·ÑƒÑŽÑ‚ÑŒÑÑ.”
And uncle, in plain English: “I know my balls are showing. The testicles are the fruit of all life, don’t you know.”
Then, with a suddenness that is difficult to put into words, many long dark tentacles grew or sprang from uncle Giovanni’s testicles, each one strong after the other, like the many arms of an octopus, and ensnared the Ukrainian man, enveloping him in a sort of wet cocoon, wrapping him in a film of glistering blackness. Then the Ukrainian became squeezed or compressed inside this bag of tentacles, devoured until there was nothing left of the man himself or his hardwearing terrorist bomb threat. And then it was over.
Uncle breathed heavily. Trailing yet from out the side of his shorts, the network of tentacles lay like a limp, pulsing sack on the sidewalk, deflated, exhausted-looking, until, without the assistance of his own two hands, uncle reeled them back in with that same quickness he had first unbridled them.
No one person was given to speech, including myself. You could hear police sirens closing the distance.
Perhaps uncle saw the questions in my eyes, because he said, “This is my calling to this world, boy–my warrant. To save humanity from its own destructive self. This is the sort of thing I do on these many trips I take.”
Still I did not speak.
He said, “I testicoli sono il frutto di tutta la vita.”
The testicles are the fruit of all life.
He then said in Italian, “Maybe we should leave off from here now, before the main authorities arrive.”
And we did, and not since that trip or the many others we’ve later taken have I asked uncle not to wear shorts. Never again have I whispered to him: “Uncle, your balls are showing.”
This is the ongoing story of my uncle Giovanni. The Italian alien hero. The earthly saint, whose balls he has always likened to fruit.
Enough with the phone calls, and showing up at our houses! Enough of bugging our moms, trying to get them to spill the beans! The winner is a story Jeff Vandermeer described as “an excellent example of spinning out an absurdist idea to its furthest (il)logical conclusion,” which structurally is “like pitting one of Mike Libby’s steampunk insects against a melting clock.” While none of us know what the hell he’s talking about, we share his enthusiasm for the story, and for its author, Brian Francis Slattery.
If you read Brain Harvest, you probably know Slattery’s work. Brian is an editor, writer, and musician. He wrote Spaceman Blues and Liberation, which are thoughtful, genre-bending stuff with heart and guts that go down as smooth as a nice whisky and then burn for a week. He lives at www.bfslattery.com
The World Is a Voice in My Neighbor’s Throat
by Brian Francis Slattery
The people who live in my neighbor’s esophagus do not know that they are in an esophagus. They believe that they have died and that my neighbor’s esophagus is their afterlife. Because more of them keep arriving, they have built a structure within the esophagus like an office building, including an intercom system that can be heard outside my neighbor’s person. The building is already very full; a committee has been created to deal with this, but has reached no actionable conclusions.
My neighbor does not like the people in his esophagus and has attempted many times to remove them. He has drunk scalding tea. He has swallowed spoonfuls of chili paste. He has smoked cigars and eaten small pieces of the burnt tobacco. He has induced vomiting, then held in the bile for longer than anyone should, so that the people in there can marinate in it. None of this has dislodged the people from his esophagus, though it has led them to believe that they are in the sinners’ afterlife that their nation believes in, which they were warned about when alive but ignored in favor of, for example, shaky real estate deals, gambling, or driving too fast.
You may have noticed that the punishment seems harsh for the sins. The people in my neighbor’s esophagus have noticed this as well. Also, my neighbor’s esophagus does not at all resemble the sinners’ afterlife of the people’s holy scriptures; in those texts, the place of eternal damnation consists of a very, very bright light and a loud, keening noise, neither of which ever stops. The contrasts between this apocryphal place and the reality of my neighbor’s esophagus are glaring, and the people have formed several investigative committees in reaction.
The first two committees formed exploration parties that left the esophagus from its top and bottom several months ago, rain slickers rolled and tied to their backs, flashlights, crampons, and rappelling gear in hand. As neither party was heard from again, subsequent committees turned to more philosophical, theological work.
The third committee argues that the people are in the sinners’ afterlife, as the environment would suggest by process of elimination (the concept of the saints’ afterlife has as its principal elements a warm orange sun and a sea of golden honey), but it has driven mad anywhere from one to all of them, who labor now under a very elaborate hallucination. This committee publishes an ongoing journal of their findings every two weeks. Of late, the debate has stalled over who is hallucinating and who is a hallucination, and whether the findings of a given author can still hold weight in committee decisions if it is discovered that the writer is, in fact, a figment of another’s imagination. This has led to rampant libel and slander, as rivals seek to knock each other out of consideration for committee chairs by accusing each other of not existing. The fourth committee inverts the third committee’s work, suggesting that perhaps the people have been in the esophagus all along, and its mucus-lined walls are the reality revealed to them upon their deaths. This idea has attracted few adherents, for reasons that should be clear.
A fifth committee began its inquiry by vanishing altogether. They were gone for six days, returned with beatific smiles on their faces. They said nothing, wrote nothing down, did no work at all. They seemed to be in a state of constant, tranquil bliss. A few days ago, the chairs of the other two extant committees assembled the fifth committee for an inquiry. Where did you go? What did you discover? How can it be that you are so content to be here? No one in the fifth committee answered; at last, one of them rose and kissed the chair of the third committee on the forehead. That night, another of them broke into the office on the top of the esophageal structure with a crowbar, stepped in front of the microphone for the intercom, and sang a song, high and wavering, in a tempered fifteen-note scale that nobody in the esophagus had ever heard before. We could hear it, too, emanating from my neighbor as he stood in his driveway after taking out the garbage. We all stopped and listened, transfixed in our yards, until the song was over. By then, the sun had gone down, and we could not find our way back to our houses.
We are very pleased and proud to announce (and publish) the second place winner of the first annual Mega Challenge. Celebrity guest judge Jeff VanderMeer called William T. Vandemarkâ€™s story â€œâ€¦a great example of bristling ideas deftly winzipped into a small space without sacrificing some emotional resonance…â€ and we couldnâ€™t agree more. Plus, just count how many tropes he managed to leverage in here. For serious. Mind boggling.
William T. Vandemark can be found wandering the back roads of America in a pickup. He chases storms, photographs weather vanes, and prospects for fulgarites. His fiction can be found in Apex Magazine, Bits of the Dead, and Northern Haunts. Depending on weather and inclination, he resides in Texas, Oregon, or Maine. His permanent e-residence can be found at www.williamtvandemark.com.
Next week, we will reveal (and run!) the first place winner of the Brain Harvest Mega Challenge, but for now, we invite you to strap in, sit back, and enjoy â€œPhases of Alkahest.â€
Phases of Alkahest
by William T. Vandemark
Be warned. I’m an unreliable narrator, possibly insane. Thus it’s up to you, dear reader, to sift truth from ash.
And so it begins.
In 1863, a nanophage spontaneously appeared in Louis Pasteur’s yogurt. Researching the unexpected froth, Louis discovered clusters of self-replicating molecular machines. Their nano-engines consumed sugars and shat electricity.
In 1924, Thomas Edison, inventor and mad scientist, summoned a fire elemental at a sÃ©ance. Utilizing Pasteur’s ground-breaking work in nano constructs, he encased the entity in a crystalline carapace of interlocking molecular pentagrams, and the elemental took form as a man encrusted in diamonds. Post entrapment, Edison stored the entity in a six foot Bell jar while he devised plans to supply households with direct current via elemental batteries. He might have succeeded had not a gentleman, Nicholas Tesla, intercepted information via wireless taps. As news of Edison’s project leaked into the aether, fire elementals refused to answer summons.
British cryptographers also intercepted the chatter, and the Secret Intelligence Service visited Menlo Park, where they stole a half-ton bell jar and its contents.
Twenty-eight years later, in a chamber beneath the River Thames, Alan Turing, logician and mathematician, latticed the elemental’s carapace with Artificial Intelligence — an attempt to facilitate transdimensional communication.
That night, in celebration, Alan consensually entertained his friend Arnold. Meanwhile, the AI–code named Celsus–conducted his own Turing Test, an internalized alchemical debate. He declared himself sentient and shattered his bell jar. Released from self-doubt, he embarked on a lifelong Walkabout.
Subsequent investigations by MI5 led to the arrest of Alan Turing. Although threatened with prosecution under Henry VIII’s Buggery Act of 1533, he was convicted of a lesser offense: gross indecency. Coerced into chemical castration and despondent over the loss of his job, Alan eventually re-enacted a scene from Snow White. He found a comfortable bed and fell fast asleep; cyanide spiced his apple.
In 1963, Celsus returned to London and was seen in the company of the poet, Sylvia Path. Cafe patrons reported the two in an animated discussion about love, electrotherapy, and assonance.
“You refuse to understand,” Celsus said. “I am three: Intellect, shell, and inner fire.”
“As am I,” Sylvia murmured. She passed a note: Even amidst fierce flames the Golden Lotus can be planted.
The paper flared. Ash curled in Celsus’s fingers. “A draught from your lips would gutter me,” he said. “I cannot love you more than I do. I should not love you at all.”
Each reached for the same napkin; a spark leapt between their fingertips.
“I will not continue like this,” Sylvia said.
They never touched.
Later that week, Sylvia stuck her head in a gas oven. Like Alan, she too slept, perhaps awaiting a second spark.
Afterwards, Celsus’s inner fire began to wear on his nanophages faster than they could replicate. Crystalline pentagrams began to grind against one another.
In 1998, two men lured a gay man to a rural spot outside Laramie, Wyoming. They tied him to a barbed wire fence and pistol-whipped him until his skull fissured.
From a distance, Celsus bore witness, but he’d begun to move out of phase, slow as glass. Throughout the night he traveled towards the man who’d been strung up like a scarecrow.
Eighteen hours later, before Celsus reached the site, a passerby stopped to help the young man. That evening candlelight vigils illuminated Laramie, while Matthew Shepard lay in a coma.
Celsus leaned against a spur of barbed wire and ran simulations, trying to understand. Trying to understand. Trying to understand.
Matthew Shepard died; Celsus shattered.
Shards of nanophages flew like daggers. They struck the dirt and reassembled as salamanders, each scuttling from conflagration.
Free at last, the elemental set the countryside ablaze. It slagged roads until they glowed like rivers of magma. It embraced cottonwoods and drank their ash. It yearned to stack men like cordwood and torch their pyre.
With a howl that knocked crows from the air, the elemental raged.
His sisters, the ondines, heard his anguish and raced to embrace him. Rain poured, gouts of steam erupted, a thunderbolt struck the earth.
Into the afterimage, the fire elemental shed its earthly existence.
But one salamander beheld it all: yours truly–a fractured AI.
And so it ends.
Or perhaps it never happened. No matter, you were warned, dear reader: I’m but a shadow of myself. Feel free to seek solace in dismissing dreams from a heat-oppressed brain. Ware the nightmares.