The MFA in Creative Writing Program at Manhattanville College

June 2nd, 2016

The Explorer

Once upon a time there was a great old house on a lonely street set away from the bustle of a busy city. It was a house that seeped magic from every weathered piece of wood, from every sagging eave, from every hanging, rusted nail. Even the weeds blowing in the unkempt yard sang of magic.

The house nestled in the middle of the street, hidden amongst the regular, un-magical houses like a grandfather oak in a forest of rotting trees. As is so often the case when dealing with a strange and possibly dangerous creature, the best means to approach the house was from the rear. For yes, the house was indeed a creature; it was most certainly alive, as all who lived along the block or any nearby environs could attest. And yes, despite its forebodings, the house was often approached: its soft voice calling like the famed sirens upon a distant rock, and with similar sunken outcomes for the curious listener.

Once, after entering the mis-hung door, a man got trapped in a trinket and never escaped. Once a boy played a flute grasped from a window ledge and was never seen again. Once a plumed teen leapt the creaking steps, only to become invisible to the world. These unfortunate tales did not stop the men however, by the dozens, scores of them, teeth clenched, exquisite flashlights strapped to bands around their heads, compasses in weathered hands. They climbed the back stairs, clattered the rusted screen door and entered a world of pink scent and warmth, only to remain too long, to grasp too deep, and never return. The stories said it was the objects that did it, that trapped them; if a man picked up anything from the house’s interior he would disappear forever. To a faraway place, possibly the hell of our fathers, the stories told.

The exterior objects: an ashtray, a flowerpot, did not have the same permanence, but were thought to toss the offending grasper several miles, possibly even into the neighboring state. One brave young boy tried to purloin a yard gnome. His mother thought he had been abducted, abused by perverted men. He was lamented on the six o’ clock news. His face appeared on milk cartons. Some months later he was found in the Utah desert, a dazed expression on his sunburnt face. Though questioned at length by police, he has not spoken of the event, or the gnome, or the house. Most believe he never will. He will hold the secret to his grave, a fate, given his infirm mental state, perhaps all too soon.

One time even a girl was so disappeared. She pulled a dusty dress from a trunk in the house’s foyer, put it on and flew straight to heaven. The neighbors heard her scream as the black wings pushed from her back. The boys and men were thought to go the opposite direction.

On the fateful day in question, a man like the many before him decided he would enter the house, but he would escape the fate of the others, he knew. He had heard the stories yes, had heard them many times. But this man was different. He was too prideful and too courageous to be daunted by fish stories of other failures. The man was a famed treasure hunter and had heard of the great wonders and magics the house possessed. He would enter and return alive and his career would be made. The man was certain he would succeed in his perilous task. He would succeed and live in fame and glory forever.

He would treat the house no differently than the many others he entered in the past. Houses often thrived on their own stories he knew. To disregard the stories was to mute their power. He would have no spelunking helmet, no GPS tracking system or other fancy equipment. He would walk in upon his old boots, fill his burlap sack with myriad booty and return not but an hour or so on, a star and a hero.

Walking up the rickety stairs the man felt tightness in his chest, the clawing embrace of excitement and fear. His foot slipped out from underneath him, the rotting board given away, and he fell to one knee and ripped his pants. There was a collective gasp from the gawking crowd lining the back alley. He touched the new blood now trickling from his cut knee and wiped his hand on his pants. He raised his hand to reassure his fans before continuing. They sighed, again collectively. The man swallowed and spoke a quiet mantra to himself: “I am a man. I am an Explorer. I am a man whose name is written in learned books on the arts and mysteries of exploration. Yet without my name, without my gender or profession, I exist in this world and beyond.” The man took the last few steps quickly and reached for the swinging door. It opened and he entered. The crowd milling in the alley gasped as his back disappeared into the house.

The man felt the absence in the sense of presence. Could sense the myriad people who had once set foot in the house but were never seen again. “This house is empty because it is full,” he whispered, wary of disturbing the ghosts that lingered in the corners. “Its emptiness is the precondition of its fullness. The same in fact. Because it is full it is empty and because it is empty it is full. Ghosts exist only in the absence of ghosts.”

He picked through the kitchen muttering softly, “I am a child, I am a son, I am a father, I am the father of sons (and daughters too) beyond count. I have lain with many women and even the occasional man. I am a queer, I am a philanderer, I am a deadbeat, I am a darling sweet child. I am none of these things and I am them all.”

His brow creased, trying to understand the train of thoughts he spoke aloud. “My nature is my nature and all natures and no natures. I have none and am nothing. In this void I do not exist, yet I am here, walking in this place, searching for the moment that will define my life.” He grimaced and stood still. The house unbalanced him, confused him in a way that no house had before; its strange consciousness a riddle he could not solve. He looked at the calendar hanging on the wall, July 1963; there was a picture of windsurfers. A spice rack. Dusty cobwebs swayed in in the space between the fridge and the stove.

The Explorer turned the corner into the living area and saw it immediately. The largest Diamond he, or anyone, had ever seen. It was the size of a pomelo, shimmering gently on the streaked coffee table in front of the stained couch. He took a deep breath to calm himself, to prevent him from rushing over and grabbing it immediately. There would be traps, there always were. He searched the room for pressure plates, for tripwires and saw nothing. He bent to one knee, exploring the ground with his eyes. “Perhaps the mechanism is attached to the coffee table with intricate weights and measures,” he spoke, thinking of a long ago time in the Peruvian jungle. He frowned recalling the story.

His eyes scanned the bookshelves, looking for fake fronts or openings where a blowgun might wait, hidden until the moment it was too late. He saw dusty encyclopedias alongside rows and rows of old National Geographic magazines. His mind recalled his youth, laying on the floor in the attic under a bare bulb, looking through his grandfather’s copies of National Geographic, his nativity as an Explorer. Before he was even aware of the motion his hand was reaching out to grasp a magazine off the shelf. With a start, he pulled his hand back quickly before it reached its quarry. “Heh heh,” his wariness turned to mirth and he smiled. “You are a crafty house indeed. More so than any I have ever faced. I tip my hat to you stranger.”

He sat cross-legged and placed his hands on his knees – that they might not wander. “These books are not books, therefore they are books. The bookshelf on which they do not rest is not a bookshelf at all, therefore it is a bookshelf. This room is empty, therefore it is full. In its fullness, it is empty.” His closed eyes opened and went immediately to the Diamond he tried to ignore.

“This cup is not a cup. Therefore it is a cup,” he continued. “This plate is not a plate. Therefore it is a plate. I am not a famous Explorer. Famous Explorer is a mask I take up that I can just as easily put down. I am not a famous Explorer. Therefore I am a famous Explorer. The Diamond though – it’s like a softball – seems all too real. Unlike the plate or the spoon or me, the famous Explorer, it has a tangible (high) value to those on the street outside, those who see me as the famous Explorer, the image cast back by the looking glass. The image they place above their own false image; they do not know they are not what they see. They say ‘I am a shopkeeper,’ but they are not shopkeepers, or cobblers, or seamstresses, or exterminators. Were they only to say, ‘I am not an exterminator, therefore I am an exterminator.’ They look at me and say, ‘He is the famous Explorer,’ they say, ‘I too would like to be the famous Explorer.’ But they are not and I am not… This Diamond though, appears real to me. The Smithsonian would no doubt agree…”

The Explorer’s mind flitted between images of the beachfront hideaway he would buy with his proceeds from selling the diamond, the beautiful women who would worship his bravery, laying their sex before him, and the fat succulent pig he would roast at his beachfront property in the company of the beautiful women, as arguments of the Diamond’s veracity circled through his head. His eyes glazed over at the parade of images in his mind as he blankly stared down in the direction of the Diamond – for unbeknownst to him, he had in fact stood and crossed the room to stand above the gem, glittering softly in the reddening light. A trickle of drool escaped the creased corner of his mouth. He shuddered and awoke again to presence. “Are you reality?” he asked aloud, speaking to the rock. “Am I? What is this ‘I’ and ‘you’ I speak of, are we not one? What do I call you, what do I call myself?” The explorer grimaced, then chuckled, “These are esoteric concerns. Those outside know my name. Your name rings across time. Our names will chime together in a sonorous choir of delight.”

The Explorer turned his head to the dimming sky behind the dirty window. It would soon be dark and he must hurry, Diamond or no. He could hear the faint murmur of the crowds increasing too; they likewise knew he was running out of time. The Explorer felt the carpet under his feet through the rubber soles of his boots. He felt his gingham shirt on his skin. He felt the dried sweat under his three-day-old beard.

*

The crowd outside milled anxiously in the darkening gloom. Streetlights flicked on and moths danced in the hot summer air. “What do you think happened to him?” someone asked. Another replied, “He’s gone for sure.” Others agreed or disagreed in turn. A young boy sitting beside his bicycle started to cry. Older boys on skateboards mocked him without commitment before lapsing into quiet distress. Suddenly one of the boys jumped up, pointing to the back porch of the old house. “Look!” he shouted. A hundred heads raised in unison, searching for the Explorer. The screen door opened slowly and out stepped the Explorer, alive, here, of this world. The throng exploded in applause.

The Explorer, shoulders hunched, looked tired. His pants were torn, streaks of dirt on his face. His hooded eyes bemused and weary.

“What’s he got?” someone asked. “Doesn’t look like he’s got anything,” someone else shouted, noting the burlap sack hanging limp from his belt. The Explorer raised his hands sheepishly and shrugged, before slowly marching down the stairs.

The assembled crowd parted before the silent Explorer as he walked back to his Chevy SUV. Some wanted to speak, to ask him, “How could you fail? You the most famous and special of us all, how could you possibly not succeed?” but the solemnity of the moment held their tongues. It was as if the Explorer was walking in his own one-man funeral procession. The dead man and dying mourner joined to one figure, trudging through the night’s heat. The Chevy his ferry to the next life. The silence was broken only when the Explorer swung the door closed and drove away and one of the skateboarding teens yelled “Sucker!” and the others laughed. The younger children were confused, the older folks saddened, disabused of heroism and the righteousness of fame. They joined in huddling pairs or trios and began the journey home to a late dinner and the ten o’ clock mystery hour, a chapter or two from the bedside novel, the sleep of a saddened heart.

The newspaper articles in the following days were measured if unequivocal in their estimation of the Explorer’s failures. He was a middle-aged man in a young man’s game. He had done many good things, explored many dark and dangerous places, but his best years were surely behind him. Perhaps, most agreed, it was time for the Explorer to retire. For his part, the Explorer paid no attention to the articles, did not read a one of them in fact. Nor did he see the morning news special or the recaps of his career on the late-night chat shows. Since returning from the old house, the Explorer had sat unmoving in the leather chair in his study; he had not eaten for days and taken only small sips of water; he urinated but once where he sat. His focus was solely on his hands, tenderly cupped and resting in his lap, his face reflecting the glitter of the softball-sized Diamond.

*

Erik Wennermark has been living and writing in Asia for the last 5 years. Next stop: Tokyo. His work is available in Guernica, Talking Book, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @erikwmark.

What motivates him to create?
The genesis of “The Explorer” was basically that I was trying to write about meditation, which is sort of difficult as it wouldn’t make for a particularly interesting story: someone sitting still and breathing for 45 minutes. I was also reading the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentaries on the Buddhist Diamond Sutra – quite a complex text – and I suppose I was trying to make sense of it. The house is based off an ex-girlfriend’s in Chicago. So yeah, from the particular, the general: I am motivated to create by trying to make holistic sense of the disparate encounters in my life.

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