A Gate Around the Bell

Leslie Schwartz

 

Cannibalism

  1. The eating of human flesh by a human being.
  2. The eating of the flesh of an animal by another animal of its own kind.
  3. The solution to the human overpopulation problem.
  4. The acquisition and absorption of the smaller, more delicate, and possibly more beautiful, by the larger, more aggressive, and quite likely, more corrupt.

 

Us

You drink vodka and you take those drugs in order to disguise yourself. With them you can mimic fearlessness. You don’t care about anyone. You drink until the police come. You drink until they beat you and throw you away. You drink until you are violent with your mouth. Name-calling the people you love and the people you detest. Addiction destroys all. You drink till they are forced to leave. All the people who love you, the same people you love, run from you in disgust and terror. You wake in the pool of darkness, night after night after night; you wake alone. The dog is also afraid and sleeps under the bed. All you can do in that shard of life is wait till the 6 a.m. liquor store opens. You wake in cold jail cells. You are locked down in institutions. You nearly die. There is no white light. You grasp for obliteration and take everyone down with you. You are cannibal. You are hideous. You can’t even impersonate the humanity you believed substances could give you. All you ever wanted was to not be afraid. But your fear almost killed you. Those secrets, too; all lies are murderers. There is no hope in the eyes of your family. They are desperate. They are dying too. You consume them alive with addiction.

Years later, your lives refold into a new place. Your near death cannibalism has almost killed them all. But day-by-day, you and they draw nearer. Is forgiveness only a human trait? You learn to listen to each other. Stories are crucial. Their stories must be heard. You must listen; your life depends on it. Garbage cans are emptied, hearts and minds emptied out, so new places can refill the spillage. Flowers in the bed, water in the well. Did you have to destroy everything in order to live? Your daughter says she is better for it. But your husband is still on the fence. He is the one you nearly killed. The resiliency of children is an evolutionary bonus in a human world that relies more on mental courage than killing predators and gathering wood. Your husband still stands on the cornice, peering over the edge at all that has passed in the river below. The question he must ask (though you can’t know this for sure) is this: If she has destroyed us and me, and in the process grown stronger, why have I become a shadow? In the light of her predation, how can I repurpose myself as husband and father?

Daughter and wife watch, their hands in prayer.

 

Orchid Mantis

The praying mantis camouflages herself to look like the pink orchid where she lies in wait. Insects land on her, thinking they have found nirvana, and she eviscerates her prey in seconds, eating them as they writhe, desperate for escape. They won’t escape. She will cannibalize her mate after sex too, beginning with his head, and moving down. The meal makes up most of the food needs for the entire mating season. She is beautiful, this orchid mantis, her hands in prayer as she waits. When she eats her mate, his body tissue is being used to produce eggs. Cannibalistic mantises produce 88 eggs. Those who don’t feast on their mate, produce only 37 eggs; proof that eating your partner can perpetuate life. But look what happens to him.

A century ago, an Australian travel writer named James Hingston, upon seeing a red orchid in the garden of the host he’d visited in the Orient, thinks it is this orchid that catches and feeds on the flies. “It seized on a butterfly while I was present, and enclosed it in its pretty but deadly leaves,” he wrote. He did not realize that orchids don’t eat insects. But an Orchid Mantis does. How clever that there are mantises that nature has disguised as a flower. James, don’t you know, you just see what you need to see? Believe what you need to believe? Some might grapple with the metaphor of a man-killing mantis—too played, too obvious—but the male, even in death, is necessary for the species. What is one’s predatory bitch, is another’s pretty flower, is another’s species perpetuator. There is selfishness in all survival and regeneration in all death. The addict, the travel writer, the scientist, the father, the cannibal mantis, dressed in her orchid tutu, all know that you have to be, in some regard, selfish to survive.

The Orchid Mantis lives a year. Then she dies too.

 

Honey Bee

It is not surprising that up until the 1600s, men believed the queen bee was a king bee. Maybe because she is so big. Not just men—women too—equate size with power. A hive is all about the female. The not-queens, hundreds of females to a hive; devotees to the cause, are like nuns. Divine work is ordinary and quotidian. Worker bees gather nectar and pollen, their lifespan is seven months, they have the ability to sting, they live and die for the hive. The drone does, too, in so far as his entire role is to fight off his competitor males and impregnate the queen. But he has no stinger, he sits around and does nothing. His only purpose is to mate with the queen and when he does, his genitals remain dangling from her body, while he falls to the ground, paralyzed. Then he dies.

This seems harsh and cruel. But so does this: the queen lives in darkness most of her life; her eyesight is no match for the eyesight of her sister bees or sons, she is not as smart either. Yet without her, the hive will die, and every bee in it goes, too.

Even though it will kill her to sting an attacker, the honey bee will do it anyway to save the hive.

 

Altruism

  1. The belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.
  2. The lifeblood of all that is good in society. The ability to live in fear fearlessly.
  3. Not removing from the gene-pool all the assholes who have hurt you.
  4. An action that lowers depression, increases a sense of well-being, lowers blood pressure and mortality, the fills you perhaps with the sense of having won.

 

Us Again

Years pass by. There are flowers in the planter boxes, a gate has been erected to protect the family within. But the gate has no lock. The gate was built around a bell. A single, small, very old bell from a church in a Latin American country. No drop of alcohol has passed the threshold of this house, no opiate, no downer, no sleeper, no cannibalistic substance has passed the lips, the cells. The layers of your womanly labyrinth are clean. Your uterus is the golden ratio, 0, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 and so on, the shape of the shell and the hurricane, too. Sometimes sun dashes in through the windows. When it rains a fire in the hearth. You can only do what you can do. Listen quietly, wait patiently. Some people heal faster than others.

You and your daughter continue to pray and sometimes he forgives himself and others; this is when he is surrounded in the golden light of also having survived. Light shines only where the darkness is most impenetrable, but only if you change the fucking batteries. Grief is the thing that happens before it changes. Maybe there will never be joy but who promised you that to begin with? Wisdom tells you this: you are more like the queen bee and the orchid mantis than you can admit. Darkness comes easily. Just yesterday, you wished a man dead.

But they can never know what you’re thinking if you keep your pie hole shut. Pathological altruism can manifest as animal hording. Not so altruism. The social exchange theory says that people always do good things for selfish reasons. Did you decide to quit so you could stay alive? In light of the child, can that be called selfish or necessary? The will to live is the strongest instinct in all of life. It was, evidently, stronger than your will to die. 95 percent of all those like you out there in the world don’t make it. (This is a true fact, you remind yourself.) Don’t turn your cheek. Kind acts serving selfish gains can also benefit others.

You watch your girl. She has strong legs, a flat belly, long hair. She jumps and slams the ball over the net. She slaps her teammates hands. They are not nuns fulfilling the quotidian drudgery. They are hard and strong. They work together to kill it, to win, to laugh, to cry. She breaks her toe and they all show up at the hospital. She survives because you did. She thrives because you insist on thriving. It is in your DNA. You have taught her that there is no shame in failure, as long as you eventually peal yourself off the floor, then talk about it. Tell everyone what you did and how you did it. Don’t soft pedal the truth. Shout louder when it hurts. Women should never fucking whisper.

Your survival makes you a 5-percenter. The only thing that will kill you, you learn, are your secrets; rape, abuse, police brutality—his boot mark on your back, the forever scar of handcuffs. Abandonment comes early in the home of a bottle, hard living to stave off the truth…the truth, the truth; that we are born alone and die alone. These are the don’t-tells that want you dead. You are the cool mother because you speak the truth even when it is hideous. This is your act of altruism. You will wrap yourself in the guise of a flower and kill anyone who tries to hurt her. You will pray doing it. She, not he, will carry the future. You will also not sit alone in the dark, your eyes dead to the world. You will give to her because it gives to you.

The world is a circle. A zero can mean forever or nothing.

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Leslie Schwartz (www.leslieschwartz.com), has written two award-winning novels, Jumping the Green and Angels Crest and most recently (July 2018), published a memoir, The Lost Chapters; Finding Recovery and Renewal One Book at a Time. She won the James Jones Award for best first novel for Jumping the Green and was named Kalliope Magazine’s Woman Writer of the Year. She has also been the recipient of many grants including three artist-in-residence grants from the LA Department of Cultural Affairs, the West Hollywood/Algonquin Award for Public Service in the Arts, and a California Council for the Humanities Fellowship. Her two novels have been published in 13 languages. Angels Crest was also adapted for the screen and premiered in theaters in 2013. Her essays and articles have most recently appeared in Salon, LitHub, The Rumpus, Brevity, The Washington Post and Narratively Speaking. She has taught writing at various universities and creative institutions, and currently offers private mentoring and editing services. Schwartz has an MFA in Writing and is writing her fourth book, a novel.