Beasts Live Where Flowers Grow
I’m in a whitewashed prison of my own design. I sit waiting for a moment of clarity to take me over and possess me. I want it to take hold and latch on like a rabid dog. To shake me around like a rag doll and drag me in a direction. Any direction. The pain isn’t in the bite itself. It’s the waiting for the moment those sharp teeth sink perfectly into my soul. There’s a comfort in the feeling of warm blood pulsating out of me and knowing that it’s mine.
The more time that passes the more I anticipate the bite, and that time is irreplaceable. It’s the most valuable currency we have. Once it’s gone, there’s no getting it back. I think about this obsessively. The ironic part is, as a photographer, I’ve spent most of my time in a job freezing moments for other people, yet my own life is flowing helplessly between my fingers. It doesn’t matter how much I try and take hold of it and squeeze it, it just changes shape, sneaks through the fissures of my hands and flows down my elbow where it drips onto the ground beneath me where the flowers grow.
In the meantime, I let my mind wander into realms of dreams and alternate realities that may or may not exist. I see the permutations crawl their branches across my consciousness like ice freezing to the outside of a pane of glass; they splinter off into seemingly random directions and I follow them. I follow each road as it’s built, stone by stone, off into the distance to entire empires, to entire civilizations that move and grow and vibrate much like the societies we navigate during our waking lives, yet they are hidden from nearly everyone. Sometimes even ourselves. Of course, all of these paths and ultimate designs are built somewhere between reality and fantasy, put together using the cement and cobble stones of past experiences and current fears. However, even with this awareness, I can’t help but be drawn down the paths like flowery sirens pulling and guiding me to my grave. They squirm and weave their way through a countryside of bright iridescent ferns and jungles filled with creatures that stare out from the thick darkness. They are silent but I can feel them watching intently, with their beady eyes that don’t seem to blink, but just stare out radiantly like little moons. I know I must be walking, but my vision doesn’t bob up and down to the cadence of steps. It, instead, floats seamlessly like getting pulled through space by the invisible thread of fate that’s been wrapped around my waist a long time ago. The trees and foliage that frame my vision are blurred and move at a slower pace than the center of my vision. There is a meditative effect to this singular focus that allows my mind to enter a state of hypnosis, where my peripherals become mere abstractions within the context of a greater cause. The crisp, crinkling sounds of creatures scurrying through the jungle’s underbrush do their best to distract me, but I have no time for distractions. I’m on a mission from God.
So now I lay. I lay until the sharp, morning light erodes to a soft glow and reminds me of summers as a child. The scenes glow in and out of my brain, more as feelings than of concrete events. They exist somewhere in that magical place between day and night, where the lightning bugs blink to an unheard rhythm and the sounds of voices yell and echo from some point off in the distance. The sweet smell of chlorophyll hangs in the air and freshly cut grass sticks to the outside of my shoes. I decide to run. I run towards those far-off, feral sounds of laugher and feel the ground pound upwards through my heels.
The soft edges of voices pull into crisp focus until I can see a group of neighborhood boys huddled in the woods by the creek. Next to them is Michelle, a girl with blonde bouncy curly hair and a short blue dress. She was the first girl who haunted my dreams and whose presence first awoke my inner animal. I was five and she was seven. I was possessed and had a near constant desire to look up her skirt. When we played in my room, I’d try to convince her to take her clothes off. She never did. But there was another girl who lived next door who would. She’d take everything off and I would have her stand over my face as my head pressed into the soft blue carpet of my room.
This happened several times until I overheard her explain to my mother about what had transpired, and I knew I was in trouble. I ran and hid in shame behind the wide-open door of my parents’ bathroom, beneath layers of nightgowns and towels, listening as my mom called my name. Searching for me. Once she found me, she scolded me. When my father came home later that evening from work, she told him what had happened. He stared down at me, walked over to the same bathroom where I hid hours earlier, and came back with a thick-bristled hair brush. He told me to pull down my pants and laid me over his lap. He hit me over and over and over again until streams of tears rolled down my cheeks and into my mouth where I could taste the salt and snot that oozed down my upper lip and into my mouth. I yelled at him with a rage that I had never felt before. I screamed insults and shook furiously between gasps of mucus bubbling and dripping down onto the wooden stairs where he sat, only making the beating more personal and he hit me with even more raw vengeance.
I felt horrible and confused and angry. I didn’t understand why something that seemed so natural could be so…bad. There was no explanation given. Simply an equation: curiosity plus sexuality equals shame and guilt and punishment.
It still feels etched into me, as though all of those years ago I had my little hands pushed into the wet cement of my subconsciousness. Now, as an adult, I struggle to hold onto the reigns of the same excitement when that girl undressed before me. I chase it like a drug. It’s the same road that pulls me through the pulsating late nights of cigarettes and sex in strangers’ beds. Where the light streams through in bright orange arcs and wraps themselves around a red sweaty swollen silken lust. She says no more. But there is no more until she shakes and squirms uncontrollably in a feverish slippery seizure. Like an animal. Until then, we are not done. And afterwards we sit on a park bench in the nighttime shadows of Bowery as I smoke a Chinese cigarette I bummed from the stranger sitting at the bench next to us. She tells me I look sexy amongst the shadows with the glowing cigarette dangling from my mouth and I smile and say nothing.
It’s these moments I clench to, because it reminds me of the animal that still lurks inside me and of the huge chunks of life restrained by violence and chemical straight-jackets utilized to break. To control. Little blue pills in small white paper cups that were slipped down my throat and took hold in a very different way than the bites that now comfort me. Those medications, as well as the pressed pills of shame and guilt that were force-fed in equal measure. They were molded using lists of rules unraveled from ancient scrolls that no one knew any better but to follow for fear of eternal damnation; the same texts read aloud and taught by emotionally castrated men, who secretly fed on the naivety of their young worshippers to nourish their own internal hidden desires. Fear breeds fear. Broken men breed broken men. These two worlds clash every day. Every waking moment. When I look back, I wish I could catch that time that’s trickled down my arm and keep it in a jar that I can place in a cabinet and, every so often, raise up to the sky in a silent communion; a solemn toast to the remembrance of filthy beasts and wild animals.
My parents had a large, crudely-carved, wooden crucifix hanging on the wall in their bedroom. It had a pewter statue of Jesus, its granular surface darkened from years of oxidation, nailed to it. His furrowed brow peaked out from behind a crown of thorns that wrapped tightly around his head. He was looking up and to the right with a terribly pained expression on his face. This crucifix followed us from house to house as we moved to different towns; first in Thousand Oaks, California, a suburb on the outskirts of Los Angeles, to New York City for a brief moment, and then later to smaller suburbs throughout northern New Jersey. Despite the locale, it was always nailed to the wall in my parents’ bedroom above my father’s armoire.
My father wore a gold chain with a delicate golden cross at the end that swung around his neck and would occasionally get caught in his chest hair. This happened most noticeably in the summers when he would pace back and forth, shirtless, as he mowed the lawn. He would put me in a sort of papoose that looked more like a hiking backpack that held toddlers. The thin golden chain that wrapped around the back of his sweaty neck became my landscape for the next hour, as I bounced up and down, and he continued walking circles in the lawn.
Every Sunday we would go to mass. I would get dressed up in a little sport coat with a button-down shirt and khaki pants, my hair slicked and parted to the side. In the car ride to church my mom would tell me of the horrors she faced at the hands of the nuns and priests during Catholic school; how they would beat her with rulers and smack my father into walls with the back of their hands.
Hours before receiving the sacrament of penance, my mom required me to repetitively recite the Hail Mary from a piece of blue xeroxed paper in order to memorize it. She insisted this was necessary as it was an obligatory part of penance. By the time we got to church and I had reluctantly inched my way into the confessional room, my stomach and head were already spinning. The room itself was dark and echoey. Its floors looked like a laminated collage of maroon and beige confetti and the walls were lined with pews of dark mahogany covered in deep red leather. I took a seat on the hard wooden chair in front of the priest, his body draped in an oversized ivory-colored robe and purple scarf decorated in ornate golden stitching. I began to recite the words I had memorized earlier:
“Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and…”
My mind went blank.
I struggled to find the words that came next. They kept slipping from my memory like a weight that was slightly too heavy for my grip. What are they? Come on, what are they? Nothing appeared. My mind and heart raced. I felt my expression crack and then finally break. Warm tears rolled down my cheeks and I began to sob. The priest put his hand on my shoulders.
“It’s okay my child” he said softly. “It’s okay.”
My crying subsided as I wiped away the tears on my sleeve-wrapped thumbs. I looked up at him through blurry eyes. He looked back at me compassionately.
“Now what would you like to confess?”
Writing has become my penance. My mistress. But I need to hold her tight while the spark remains hot. Nothing is worse than an affair gone tepid. It breeds jealousy and contempt. But for now, she is something new. New gazes. New conversations. New touches. New tastes. I just hope the magical potion of lust and free-love will endure before I break into a million little pieces. Because I need someone to sweep me up and put me back together again.
So I lay here writing. Purging. Drifting into different realms. When my eyes open, I see the sunlight sneaking its warmth around the curtains. I arch my body and open them. Light blossoms into the room creating a sharp, white highlight on my body. It feels pleasant. I lift myself up from the bed and stumble to the bathroom where I flip on a light that’s colder and more clinical than the sunlight I had previously been basking under. I turn on the faucet and feel the water flow through my fingers. I let it pool into my clasped hands, as though I am receiving a sacrament, and throw it upwards onto my face. I look at myself in the mirror. I’ve seen your face before. I’ve seen it in the hollow halls and broken mirrors. I’ve seen you peaking around corners, walking by yourself through the linoleum-lined tunnels where your shoes slap and drunkenly echo like reflections in a funhouse. A water droplet slides down the bridge of my nose to the tip, where it rests for a second and then plummets into the sink. You have always been there, but now the chisel of time has reduced your face like shrink wrap, tightly-wound against a gaunt wire frame. You have always been there, but no one had ever bothered to look. My cheeks and nose are freckled. My thick eyebrows look like two black caterpillars crawling parallel to the worry lines that run across my forehead. No one had thought to remove that thin layer of plastic because it means too much and what does it mean when it’s not there? When we are forced to stare directly into that space between the obvious. That unexplainable hallowed space where we visit a thousand times a day, yet still cannot describe it. Where the great thinkers and artists have gone. Where some have come back to share their discoveries while others have gotten lost forever. But you’re not a great thinker. You’re not even a great artist. Who the fuck are you?
I dry my face and walk back into the bedroom where a pile of dirty clothes sits next to my bed. I sift through them and put on a pair of worn black jeans, a wrinkled sweatshirt and a pair of socks I sniff before pulling over my feet. I look out the window. It’s spring, but it could just as easily be fall without the trees outside to mark the passage of time. It reminds me of the crisp September mornings as a child where my mom would drag me out of bed and I would sit in my blue and white GI Joe pajamas eating Eggo waffles while watching cartoons. The last spongy days of summer had disappeared and the early mornings were now brittle. I would press my face against the window and feel it’s coldness on my forehead. Small droplets of condensation formed halos over the lawns that lined the perimeter of the streets. What happened to those warm, bruised nights that seemed to go on forever? The ones where we would run feral, wielding sticks and cap guns; climbing trees and rubbing the gummed sap between our fingers. Or go to the stream that ran behind our house and sneak up behind frogs and catch them; only to have them wiggle and pop their slimy bodies out of our hands. By the end of those days, I would lay on top of my bed in an oversized t-shirt and let the electric fan sweep back and forth over me and would feel used up. Not in the same way I feel used up now; not in the empty I can’t do this anymore kind of way, but a wholesome tiredness that felt like it had resonated to the core of my being.
But all of that has disappeared. Now I lay in bed, fully dressed, with sheets tangled about my legs. I’m on a combination of pain-killers, anti-depressants and vodka. I’ll sit and ruminate, or attempt in vain to do something productive, but just wind up jerking off and falling asleep in a cognitive stupor. I feel like I’m in the hull of a ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The air is stale and moldy. I walk up to the deck and look over the bow: nothing but black, menacing water as far as the eye can see. This is no longer novel; it’s torturous. How long can I go on without seeing land? How long can I drift aimlessly without a map or compass or beacon of light to guide me? At what point does faith and hope run dry and I’m left with nothing but despair? I want to climb over the hull, latch myself onto the anchor and let her plunge me into that eerie void. I’ll hold on with all of my strength and sink like a madman riding an iron bronco down into the eternal abyss.
It’s okay. I am here right now. But someday I will not be. That is okay too. But I feel stuck in some form of purgatory. My existence flickers like a lightbulb that’s not quite been screwed-in all the way. I just know things don’t feel right. As though I’m a fish and the water I live in can no longer sustain me. Now it clogs my gills and the silt that’s been stirred-up has created an environment that is no longer transparent, but opaque. And I’m lost. I can’t tell if I’m going forwards or backwards. I can’t tell if I am even, in fact, moving. And if I am, whether or not that momentum just leads me in some infinite circle of madness that’s inescapable.
I’ve seen and felt what humans are capable of. We are capable of great creations of beauty and empathy and light. But we are also capable of great creations of ugliness and apathy and darkness. We are both the punishers and the punished. We are all at once everything and nothing. I look back at how I thought things would have unfolded in my life and realize I didn’t have a clue. I mindlessly jumped from one stone to the next, never thinking the leap would be too far. But what if I looked down to that space between the stones only to see a murky darkness and abruptly realized that one misstep would send me plunging to my death? Like a tightrope walker balancing between two skyscrapers. A man whose potential relies on his ability to compartmentalize the fact that he’s fifteen hundred feet above the world. And then the compartment opens.
Christaan Felber was born in Los Angeles, California and raised in New Jersey. He currently lives and works in New York City.