I, Muzhduk (prologue of The Ugly)

The River Lena

Reprinted from Transition Magazine, issue #96, where it was published as The River Lena. Official representative of Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference to Best New American Voices Anthology.

Muzhduk stepped left to put himself in the path of the flying boulder. It was the size and shape of a small woman curled up in a ball, but much heavier, and it came at him like a cannon shot. Muzhduk leaned forward to meet the boulder, knees bent, hoping to absorb the impact with his legs. He staggered backward with the force of the blow, but did not drop the big rock.

The audience erupted with clapping, cheering, and mumbling, and a cloud of yellow butterflies scattered from the noise. His opponent was Hulagu, arguably the strongest Slovak in the tribe, and all six villages were present for the Dull-Boulder Throw. All the Slovaks who lived in the mountains of northeastern Siberia were there, lined up along the edges of the saddle-shaped mountain ridge. Even those so old or sick they knew the trip would kill them. Two had died on the way.

The audience looked at Muzhduk intently. He knew that some of them were wondering whether he would disqualify himself. He hadn’t ducked or moved out of the way, of course, but no one had ever tried to absorb the shock with his legs before. Arms and chest were normal, and he could see Hulagu bite his fat lips wanting to make a charge of dishonor, which would itself be dishonorable.

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Before the Law: a Rebuttal

Before the Law: a Rebuttal

Reprinted from the Chicago Quarterly Review, winter 2007. It’s a modified excerpt from The Ugly.

Muzhduk walked to the centre of the Quad. Everything was stately, romanesque, the buildings buttressed, cloistered, but varied: three hundred years of red brick architecture around one long rectangle of green grass criss-crossed with narrow, straight asphalt paths, spotted with American Elms someone had sat and calculated the optimal location of each tree, though many were now suffering the yellow wilt of Dutch Elm fungus — and the whole Yard felt carefully spaced and defined, even the sky above marked and divided by branches.

He walked north, past dormitories, libraries, halls, and chapels, past a statue of a man sitting in a large chair (the statue said, “John Harvard, Founder, 1638”), past an old wooden water-pump shaped like the hunched Russian babushkas he’d seen in Anadyr, Yakutsk, and Omyaykon.

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Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy

Reprinted from Literary Imagination: The Review of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, Vol.7, No.3, Oxford Journals. It is an excerpt of The Ugly.

I stood in the back of a pickup truck. It was a 32, distinguished from a 13 or a 17, although some large mini-vans are also 32s. Thirty-two people arranged with precision into the back of a Toyota pickup, we were on our way from one sandy part of the Sahara to another. The Sahara desert has things other than sand, but the part where we started, the part we traversed, and the part where we hoped to arrive were all sand, a beige, nondescript sort of sand which did not always stay on the ground.

A mother sat on my feet, nursing her daughter, while we bounced over soft little dunes and exposed rock. With her weight as ballast, and with the sharp metal bar corralling the edge of the pickup, I could sleep while standing. In those parts where the acacia was sparse, where I didn’t have to duck.

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