Under the Grass
William T. Vollmann


Hanover, New Hampshire, U.S.A. (1968)

Your little skull’s a light-globe to help my shadow lead me as you did when I was your brother, older than you but small like you, afraid of the toilet’s cool skull-gape at night. You always held my hand. Now please take me down the slippery dark path, down between the crowds of palms to the lava-walled, frond-curtained river of broad and rapid water-falls. Until now I’ve scrubbed at the stain of your face on my brain’s floor, your sky, your headstone—I never wanted you to come back! But whenever you did (your ghost some ignored dog to raise itself hopefully at every word), I convinced myself that you loved me most, because when I thought of you I thought of you alone. Can’t you understand that I’m afraid of you? (You’re only caput mortuum.) Now take me to you.

(Thus my briefless brevet, blotted, illegally disquisitive, which must be sealed with a crimson spider.)
Under your moldy stone, you radicate where the lava’s tapes-tried with mossy crotches, ferns, leaves (dark and pale) so sub-divided into heart-leaflets as to baffle my eyes. Within all this fineness, almost as fine as the humid air, I find something finer still, a spiderweb on whose lattices hangs a huge yellow-bodied spider, vertical, legs wide and strong, waiting. Closing my screams with phosphorite consolations of words that hiss out like hollow jets of flame, I uncrumble your chamber’s riddled copper to reach you lying in the black dirt’s guts. I sweep back your hair, breach your skullhelm in the muggish air. From behind your hinges and bismite yellow pivots the crimson spider scuttles out. He rushes on his sister with a bravery as bitter as camphor, determined to gnaw her as 1 once effaced you with my exclusionary conceit. But the golden one snaps him up. His legs fibrillate. A single crimson droplet tumbles from strand to strand, is drunk by my warrant now validated.

They told me to take care because you were littler, but I forgot. Brawny ropes of water captured you. The fishes asked to drink your gurgling breaths. The mud asked to kiss your eyes. The sand asked to fill your mouth. The weeds asked to sprout inside your ears. Outside the night skull, a tunnel of blue light led you to India. Inside the night skull, your blood became cold brown water.

They said: Where’s your sister?

They said: Where’s your sister?

When the sea draws away from lava-islands, a thousand rills of white run down, like Grandfather’s hair-roots. When the water dribbled out of you as the desperate divers breathed into your mouth, each drop was whitish blue with the lymph of your death.

That night I had not yet drunk the ginger of sunlight that made my soul walk widdershins: My little sister was dead! No one had liked me, but now everyone would be nice to me because you were dead. I had not yet drunk the perfervid ginger of sunlight because our mother and father came to my bed with the minister to say to my night skull: Julie is dead. Choking. I turned to the wall until they left. Fat white tears rolled like pure light behind bam-boo. In the morning my tears became a waterfall partially and temporarily catching itself on ledges. —I heard your sister died, they said. —I nodded with tinsel rectitude. I had the passkey to peachworms. Your death was a great gift you gave me.

Your coffin, that closed vacuole, went bitch-hunting for the blackest dog of all, the black and rotting bitch called earth, whose nipples feed leeches, rats, worms and moles, her ill-assorted blind sucking whelps. —Suck the blackest opium-tinctured drop, said the minister as they lowered you down the ropes.

Immensely long skinny leaves of fear (spider lily, Crinum asiaticum) grew around my throat every night like thick sad trees over a lava hole where the sea comes sadly in. You rushed as a yellow skeleton into every dream. If I screamed myself awake, you waited until the long skinny leaves of sleep choked me back to you again. You came clacking and scuttling like a yellow spider until I screamed crimson tears. A package arrived from the post office of dreams and you skittered out to punish me. Something smelled bad in my closet and everyone knew that you were rotting there. I walked a hotly endless course of graves that suddenly whirled like marble trapdoors beneath my feet to pitch me down to black liquescent corpses whose stench screamed through my dreams.

Our parents gave me a toy of yours to totemize you by and told me to keep it forever because you were never coming back. When they were gone, I buried it in the garbage so that it couldn’t hurt me with its horrifying screams.

Outside the night skull, you looked for me to hold your hand but I only screamed.

Sometimes we used to visit your headstone, under which your bones lunged muffled in black dirt. Our mother would cry but I tried not to cry because then you would hear me and get me.

I made your birthday gutter out like wax-light and scumbled the slime-slaked anniversary of your death. I forgot every word you ever said and the sound of your voice and how we played like salamanders, but Mother mothballed your dresses in a cedarwood chest where every year they went smaller and yellower (although I never looked) as your face grew along with mine. Now you’re my white witch.

Suppose I’d never done what they never said I did, my executioneering I mean, would I still have been brazed to ferocity year by year by the memory of your blue face? My blood-writing has quarried you, but I wish that you were still my sister, dancing above the grass.

Mahebourg, Mauritius (1993)

If the waiting room of a train station is a windblown world, an airport’s waiting room subdivides itself more neatly into nations. Gate One was the Hong Kong flight, and in the seats of that country sat ever so many Chinese, some with broad coarse--pored faces like old woks, others delicate and meager, the ladies in flower dresses, smoking cigarettes. At the next gate was the Paris flight, and there sat the white people speaking French. The loud-speaker called them, and they were gone forever like a convoy to Auschwitz.

There was a Chinese with gold tie-clasp, bearing loaves of brown-wrapped boxes, and I asked him how to get to the important place.

We stay here for transit only, he replied.

Boarding closing now at gate number three, the loudspeaker said. Boarding closing now at gate number three.

At once the passengers went rushing down the long air-conditioned hallway with airplanes and jungle mountains painted into every window, and the people were carrying guitars, luminescent duffle bags, and long cardboard tubes, and began moving faster and faster, like ants being pulled into a vacuum cleaner. Evening was coming. The purple-gray clouds raced.

I wanted to talk to my sister, I said. She’s dead.

For this kind of thing you need to contact the Authority, said the Chinese, the Highest Ministry of the Authority. The Authority, they can try to do something. But you may not be welcome, as you may be aware.

I think she was called to the wrong gate. I think she went to the gate too early.

Ah, this will pose some problems for the Authority.

A Chinese with a shaved head and skinny glasses aimed his cigarette at the man’s head. A black-eyed old lady hunched her shoulders. I realized that they were fellow petitioners.

I don’t mean to trouble you, I said. It shouldn’t cost you much time because I know where her skeleton is.
The man lifted the cheeks of his yellow face so that his glasses became very vulnerable.

It’s never easy, he said benevolently. It’s sometimes difficult. You must do something of your own choice. There is a center for this. There is an organization.

I’ve been to so many organizations, I told him. I’ve sung at all the graves. But they never answer.

So, vanity is one of those characters of Eastern people, Oriental people. But you must make mistakes.

And she never answers me. Except that sometimes when the wind blows I hear something that almost sounds like words—

The man had sat down by now. He ducked his face backward until his eyeglasses became wells of disaster. He began jigging his knees and snapping his fingers. He said: They are speaking some quite old ancient language which is quite strange to the younger generation of Chinese. To be exact, it is half a language, half a dialect. If you are not well trained you cannot catch a word. So it is like half and half.

And you, sir, aren’t you yourself connected with the Highest Authority?

Thank you very much, cried the man in alarm. Thank you very much.

Then do I have any chance?

I think the situation will remain more or less the same. By more or less, I mean more or less the same.

And if I behave better or become better in my heart?

That is a range of uncertain territory. It is not easy to be realistic. That is not compatible with the status of your life.

There was a little Chinese girl in a white dress and white shoes who was beckoned by a grinning Indian into the place where they awaited the flight to Bombay. I wondered if she had died, too, or if she really somehow belonged in India.

Maybe I could petition them differently—

It is not a complicated process. It is simply a long-term process.

And what if I just went and dragged her back?

In the first place, if there is a conflict, both sides will keep their small islands. That will not affect the Hong Kong area. But we reserve the right of military use.

After that he would not talk to me any further, perhaps regretting that he had divulged so much, so I went through the Hong Kong gate when the loudspeaker called me. Hong Kong was the next world. As soon as I got into the taxi, the driver said: I think you look for girl. You want girl?

Yes, yes! I cried in excitement. Has she come here?

He showed me a binder comprising color glossies of Chinese prostitutes mounted on ivory cardboard. I looked at every page, but my sister was not there.

No, I said.

I big uncle but you only big boy! You want girl? Look girl! Police a colosatopoli! What! What! Police a close a door! What! Please close a door! You wear low face, I no talk you! I hate you, ’cause Negroes make big problem in your country! You want girl? Look! Photo girl! Many, many! She standing by taxi! Good smile! Look, look, big little boy!

Bangkok, Thailand (1993)

On the night that the photographer and I returned from Burma, we went to Soi Cowboy to pick up whores. Long swaying arms, black breastcups, lights slowly pulsing across the mirrored tiles—these things both excited and refreshed me, but only at first. Something bad might happen. I felt this like a cancer’s tenderness in my throat, not yet knowing that I felt it. I thought that I was happy. Breasts rose and fell, thrusting in and out. Ladies slowly raised and lowered their legs, smoothing their briefs down out of buttock-cracks. The girls who were not dancing slipped on their terrycloth robes and served drinks. The photographer ordered a beer and I had a soda water. The two of us were, as I have said, quite satisfied with ourselves. Last week we’d rescued a child-prostitute from a nightmarish brothel in the south (no matter that she didn’t like us); and in Rangoon just now we’d made a contact who could take one or two Burmese girls back home if we could break them loose on the Thai side. We figured that since we were heroes we deserved what heroes get.

As always, I picked the first woman who approached me in the bar. I had not even seen her ascend to that platform ringed by a cold black railing around which white men grinned (a girl in terrycloth looked at the floor when a man put his arm around her), the altar of bikinied bottoms, bobbing heads, pale oval faces that blossomed with long cigarettes, long legs, and wriggling black triangles between soft brown thighs, and I did not care. I was simply lonely. I wanted a human being that I could touch.

She said she was twenty-six, but she looked ten years older. She was plump and brown with steel earrings and large black eyes. —Sure, I said. I’ll buy you out if you want me to. —That made her very happy. Possibly she could see that I was the type who overpaid. I was being a hero again.
When we got to the hotel room I said: If you want to stay, okay. If you want to go, no problem. You stay, you go, I pay you the same, okay?

I want you make love me, she said. Me no man, nobody, very lonely, please.

Afterward I had a dream that my mother said: You mean you really don’t remember the box? and I said no, already terrified, at which my father began to tell me. He said that you had not drowned at all. You had disappeared. After several days they fi-nally thought to look in a large wooden box that I had left in the yard—a coffin, of course, in which you lay rotting. I woke up either screaming or thinking I was screaming.
That was when I realized that everything I had done was for nothing, that no matter how many young girls I saved I could never undo or appease, that my meeting with your ghost could never be friendly because you waited to send my panic dreams whenever you could; and when I died at last, then the true punishment would begin.

The Soi Cowboy woman’s eyes were open. She looked at me.

I had a bad dream. I said. My sister is dead. You understand?

She nodded and touched my head. —You hurt here?

I nodded.

All through the next morning the Thai woman shied away, coughing tired garlicky breath and watching me unsmilingly with big eyes. Every few minutes she’d ask: You no good here? gingerly touching my forehead.

No problem, I said to her. My sister is dead, you understand?

She nodded.

So I have bad dreams about her. No problem. Never mind.

But she would not trust me anymore, and so once again, sister, you’d had your revenge as easily and purely as an antler of sunlight slitting a woman’s throat on a passing bus.