MEET OUR GUEST EDITORS FOR ISSUE 163, oct-dec 2019
(Submissions are open April 1 through June 30 at Submittable)
Josh Woods is an author, editor, professor, and podcaster. He loves monsters, myth, storytelling, comedy, combat, and crafts. In addition to his novel, The Black Palace, he has edited three anthologies of fiction and has published genre and literary short stories, creative non-fiction, and craft essays in numerous journals, magazines, and collections. His most recent publication is O Monstrous World!, a story collection from Press 53. His awards include Outstanding Full-Time Faculty Member of the Year, Press 53 Open Awards for Genre Fiction, and multiple nominations for the Pushcart Prize. He teaches in Illinois and hails from Kentucky.
Marilyn Annucci’s poetry and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Prairie Schooner, Rattle, North American Review and Indiana Review. She is the author of Luck, a chapbook from Parallel Press, and Waiting Room, winner of the 2012 Sunken Garden Poetry Prize. Her poetry collection The Arrows That Choose Us won the 2018 Press 53 Award for Poetry. Originally from Worcester, Massachusetts, Marilyn worked for years as an editor and writer before earning an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and is a professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
House of My Disillusions
by Marilyn Annucci
My last makeshift apartment appears in my dreams
as if I still live there. The sunny bedroom
with the green shades rolled crookedly on their cord,
the futon couch, the white ceramic sink
that broke my plates when I wasn’t gentle enough,
and the old Underwood No. 5 typewriter
on the bare table in the otherwise empty study.
Pine crate with painted apples on the side.
Smell of smoke wafting up the air vents.
Squirrels tumbling down the walls from the attic,
and my landlord clanking in with cages to carry them off
to some far-away field. My landlord sitting heavily
at my kitchen table one day in the half light, drinking a beer,
surprised I was home early. He was going to paint, he said,
but in truth I didn’t care. I needed places to go, too, sometimes,
away from Kim who lived behind me, her pink light
burning half the night, jazz always on, and her easy,
too easy, words once in bed: tell me what you like in a lover,
so I knew I couldn’t trust her. Her step on my stairs.
Then there was the one who hooked her thumb
in my belt loop, hung on like that. Then didn’t.
She’ll always be married to her art, the visiting cartoonist told Kim
after meeting me at the feminist bookstore.
Her art will always come first.
I read about the cartoonist’s death in the Bay Area years later.
The landlord’s gone, too, a heart attack. I drive past the place
some days—it’s not green anymore. It’s somebody else’s house
without squirrels between the floors. Dreamer, wake up. You’re not
even paying the rent. Still, there’s always a moment when the door
opens, and I look into the night air.
He Who Fights with Monsters
“. . .should be careful, lest he thereby become a monster.”
—Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
He sits studying his hands front and back, those limbs wrapped and taped as solidly as casts from fingers to forearms, the wrapwork bulging grotesquely from the brass knuckles underneath, an advantage that doesn’t really bother anyone in the crowd, or anyone in the promotion, or even anyone in the other corner for that matter, being that he fights living, breathing monsters in this underground circuit, and that his own human figure squared off against such beasts makes a thing like using brass knuckles seem excusable, even expected, yet his hands seem distant somehow, not doing any good in his effort to remember just how it was he got himself to this point in life.
These days, the fighting is just for the cash. These monster fights have been big money so far, and tonight’s fight against a thing they brought in from Germany will be the biggest purse so far. They billed it as, “Man VS Monster, Real UFC Vet Ivan Troupes Fights Terror of the Black Forest—The Doppelganger!” His handlers, who have been saving up his money for him, tell him that this fight tonight will be against a very familiar body-type—in other words, it’ll be a fight against a creature with a mostly human anatomy. And a win tonight should be enough cash to get him far away from all this, away from this concrete fight-pit, away from this burnt-out bourbon distillery and its foul crowd of cash-waiving hillbillies and gun-toting bookies, far away from eastern Kentucky. It’ll get him off of this canvas cot, where he has recurring nightmares of what seem to be formless terrors from the deep past, and it’ll get him out of this dark, dank cell of a room. It’ll be a chance to become a completely different person, which he wants so badly that he sits, a pugilist at rest, searching the weird sight of his hands for some reminder of who he really is and must have been.
He remembers, surely, his fighting in the UFC in the early days, before they had the phrase “mixed martial arts,” before they had the cable channel deals and the reality shows and the preponderance of rules such as being forced to wear gloves or being penalized for striking the groin. Well, he remembers at least watching the videos of himself fighting. His tale-of-the-tape read, “Ivan Troupes, 6 feet 3 inches, 218 pounds, 77.5-inch reach.” Thick-shouldered yet slim-chested, a bearded face but a hairless body, he could have hailed from the Bronze Age. He studied the fight videos of himself skipping sideways around the cage and then switching his trajectory as swift as some airborne thing, shooting in for the clinch, locking up the other fighter despite wild struggles, like Menelaus to Proteus, and then lifting for a skull-first slam into the mat. He was good. His current handler says that if the UFC hadn’t cut him over his refusal to take a dive for the sake of the bracket setup and for pay-per-view overrun time, if he hadn’t been forced to fight in the even shadier promotions in Japan where he finally got blacklisted, the once-great Ivan Troupes could have been a legitimate belt-holder. His name could have been in the Hall of Fame with Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn and the rest of the old-schoolers. Instead, he has ended up in an illegal racket fighting all manner of unnatural beasts, which he needs no videos to recall clearly. His first fight here, as he remembers well, had been against a troll from Wales.
~ ~ ~
The Welshmen had kept the troll covered with an army-green tarp, which must have functioned like some sort of hawk hood because the troll seemed to be doing nothing under there except breathing calmly, despite all the noise. The crowd roared and spit and cursed; the announcer bellowed from his bullhorn, something about this troll hailing from under the second oldest bridge in Britain, something about its steady diet of children. Ivan just bounced on his toes, side to side, thinking only of a quick, sharp knockout so he wouldn’t have to grapple with that monster. It wasn’t until the other men cleared out of the concrete pit and yelled “fight,” not until they yanked a rope to withdraw the tarp, did Ivan worry about what the troll looked like.
It crouched on its haunches like some primitive old-worlder telling stories by a fire, and its features were impossibly swollen. It could have been some exaggerated primate, fur-covered, with a mane at its neck and liver spots on its bald patches, were it not for its head-to-feet, odobenine slickness. The troll’s fingers dripped with its own spit and snot. Its eyes glowed blue, but they weren’t enlarged or piercing like he would have expected of a monster, not wicked or searching. They were close and small, too much so.
Ivan decided to wait on his side of the concrete pit and to keep hopping, to stay loose, so that the troll would have to move first and reveal how it went about attacking things. Soon it slouched forward, helping itself walk every few steps with its hands. It seemed to approach Ivan as if he were a passive meal set out for easy consumption, a steak for a gator, and when it reached out slowly to take Ivan by the skull, he slid out, circled the troll before it could lumber around, and launched a flying knee into its spine. The troll fell forward and lay there hacking and wheezing.
The crowd cheered. Ivan raised his arms. Even if he hadn’t ended the fight just yet, he knew at least that a win was inevitable. He was simply too fast for it, and he wondered for an instant if monsters like this one had aided in the evolution of the human body millennia ago, requiring it to become the fastest of the apes.
The troll, still coughing and hacking, turned toward Ivan. It had its arm down its own throat, elbow deep. Bile leaked down its fur and spilled on the floor. It kept hacking and reaching deep into its own guts; then it withdrew its arm and, in its hand, held out the severed head of a young girl. Her face had been wrenched in a perpetual cry, silent yet full of pain, her skin having been turned a weird gray from digestive juices, her long, curled hair soaked but otherwise golden blond. The troll threw the head at Ivan, who was so shocked by the sight of it that he stood unmoving and was hit in his mouth.
He fell. The little dead girl’s skull had hit him like a bowling ball, busting his jaw and cracking his teeth. The taste of its fluids twisted his guts. The stench was yellow. He rolled on the ground wiping his mouth, and spat, and shook his head to regain his wits.
Then the troll was upon him.
It lay heavily on him and tried to corral Ivan’s arms and legs, perhaps in an effort to roll him up into a shape that would fit easily down its throat. It made the huffing sounds of a pervert, a rapist, and it grabbed at him just as eagerly. Ivan writhed and kicked. On his back, he managed the semblance of an open guard, jiu-jitsu style, and he arm-dragged the troll off-center just enough to create an escape for himself. He slid away and scrambled up to all fours, his hand clutching a mess of golden curls. Then he stood with it and felt the weight of the little girl’s head hanging at the end of its hair like a medieval ball on a chain. He grinned.
The troll roared and turned slowly to him, ready to pounce now, ready now to attack full-on.
Ivan rolled his grip and twisted the hair one turn tighter; then he began swinging it, bringing it faster and faster into a deadly swirl. He stepped carefully, checked his distance with the other hand outstretched, then whipped the little girl’s head down onto the troll’s face.
Something split. Blood sprayed centrifugally. Ivan twirled the girl’s head back to full velocity and struck again.
The troll curled up now, and Ivan stood one foot on the beast, beating it over and over. When it was no longer clear which flying chips of bone belonged to the dead girl and which to the troll, when the head at the end of its hair no longer looked human, when the troll had ceased twitching with each hit, Ivan stopped. The crowd wailed with delight. Both sets of cornermen and handlers and equipment shufflers and managers rushed in and lifted Ivan aloft, men’s hands reaching up to him in apotheosis. Someone cried, “I can’t wait to see what they make him fight next!”
~ ~ ~
And he did continue to fight. He fought a chupacabra, a giant Chinese caterpillar, a were-cow from India that they billed as a minotaur, and, the worst of them all, a goblin. That goblin, the furry little sucker, was supposed to be a cushion fight, something to get folks feeling safe enough with putting money on the winner that they would gamble on the length of the fight, or on the manner in which Ivan would finish it. Instead, as soon as they opened the goblin’s cage, it climbed out of the pit and took off into the crowd, attacking the onlookers, lacerating their skin, slicing achilles tendons, leaping from one set of shoulders to the next and biting plugs out of their scalps, latching onto their crotches and chomping away. The crowd had torn loose. It was pandemonium. The bookies fumbled with their decommissioned assault rifles and took pot-shots at the goblin, but they wounded only the people who ran and swarmed in every direction, arms flailing, unable to find a working exit.
Ivan climbed into the crowd and shoved his way toward the ever-moving sprays of blood until he caught up with the nasty little thing. It was busy cleaning its way through some guy’s shoulder, its teeth digging as fast as a bandsaw, the guy screaming and dancing in a helpless circle. Ivan loaded up for a heavy right hand, waited for the victim to swing around one more time, and he knocked the goblin senseless. Then he pulled it down to the ground by its leg, stepped on its neck, and gave that leg a sharp tug. He felt it snap. He lifted the lifeless goblin up like wild game and yelled to the crowd that he got it.
All those who were free of serious injury cheered wildly for him. Even some of the wounded uttered cursing thanks. They had paid him to be an entertainment, and he had done that. They had wanted him to be ruthless and fearless, and he had been. When, in need of a hero, they wanted him to save them from their own monster, he had. He could be anything they wanted him to be.
~ ~ ~
So Ivan stops searching the strange sight of his own wrapped hands because the men tell him it’s fight-time. He stands, shakes out the tension in his limbs, pops his neck, and follows his handlers through the corridor. They lead him between the crowd held back by sawhorses, and down into the fight pit through a hatch opening in the newly constructed cage dome—a creaking, metalwork, web-like structure which the promoters understood now, after the goblin incident, to be necessary. As awkward and as makeshift as that cage dome looked, it seemed strong enough to keep out all but the most unimaginable terrors, those of his nightmares, which would never be put in the fight-pit in the first place.
Ivan doesn’t want to bother looking toward his opponent, the monster, because he’s seasoned, because he now knows that first impressions don’t end up affecting the fight, because if it’s going to be a surprise no matter what—as it always is—then anticipating nothing will make him invulnerable to surprise. He doesn’t even want to bother listening to the announcer or to his own cornermen or to the opposing cornermen. But their noise gets in his ears anyway.
“In this corner, what you’ve all been waiting for.” The announcer screams through his bullhorn. “Real-life UFC veteran Ivan Troupes!”
Ivan bounces on his toes side-to-side as he always does, looking down at the filthy concrete beneath him, trying hard to think nothing, to hear nothing, to see nothing.
The crowd’s cacophony is all static.
“And his opponent, the terror of the Black Forest, the mirror of fears, the monster you all know too well: The Doppelganger!”
Ivan can’t help it. He looks up to the far side of the fight pit to see the monster. And he sees himself. It is him. It’s exactly himself in every way: the build, the face, the side-to-side bounce. Its face looks just as shaken by the uncanny sight as his own must, the only difference, a slight one, being that it looks older, not the younger face so familiar from his old fight videos.
And that’s when the realization hits him, and it sends his head reeling, a flash of a thousand lost thoughts, a sudden upside-down feeling, like the snag of a net in a dark forest.
The men clear the pit and call a start to the fight, but he stands inert in shock. The other Ivan Troupes rushes to him and batters him with immediate hooks and overhands and looping kicks. He covers up and crumples. He receives the blows despite his attempt to shield himself from them, and they hurt, but a deeper anguish overwhelms him. He feels betrayed and, in that instant, indignant. He can hear the humans screaming for Ivan to kill The Doppelganger, and he knows now that they mean him, and he knows now that it is true.
And he can feel his suffering—this revelation—taking hold of his body, changing him. He feels the real Ivan Troupes halt his attack for a moment. He feels himself growing larger, his back pressing against the cage-dome ceiling, straining the chain links and popping the welded pipe joints loose. He stretches his proportions out from the confines of the man he was mocking, his limbs unwinding and multiplying, his face unhinging. Men in the crowd are scattering with nowhere to go. He looks down with spreading eyes to see the real Ivan Troupes reset himself for battle, chin down, hands up, as bold as he was ever mimicked to be, but he will not let these men see another victory for an Ivan Troupes against some hapless beast. No, he will reflect something else for them now, transforming into something far worse than any here have ever seen, into something from the recesses of history, from the old abyss, giving shape to an ancient terror these men have forgotten.