Paintings by Ahmed Alsoudani
If you claim to like books and reading and don't know who William T. Vollmann is by now, there is even less hope for this thing we call humanity than what can be gleaned from his prose. The National Book Award winner's copious fiction and nonfiction works (both of which VICE has been fortunate to publish in the past) explore the oftentimes filthy but enlightening undercarriage of history, empathize with individuals and actions others might consider to be scourges of society, and consider the justifications (or lack thereof) for violence and war. Appropriately, Bill is also interested in ghosts and supernatural occurrences, exemplified by the fact that he sent us the story below about an amnesiac spirit which is perfect for Halloween-time and will be included in his forthcoming collection of spooky tales, Last Stories and Other Stories, due out in 2014 on Viking. We've coupled the story with new paintings by Iraqi artist Ahmed Alsoudani, whose work, like Bill's, explores brutality and its aftermath in multitudinous ways. An exhibition of Ahmed's artwork is currently on display at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.
Untitled, 2012, charcoal and acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 in. Private collection, Switzerland. Image courtesy Haunch of Venison, New York. © Ahmed Alsoudani
After my father died, I began to wonder whether my turn might come sooner rather than later. What a pity! Later would have been so much more convenient! And what if my time might be even sooner than soon? Before I knew it, I would recognize death by its cold shining as of brass. Hence in those days, I do confess, I felt sometimes angry that the treasures of sunlight escaped my hands no matter how tightly I clenched them. I loved life so perfectly, at least in my own estimation, that it seemed I deserved to live forever, or at least until later rather than sooner. But just in case death disregarded my all-important judgments, I decided to seek out a ghost, in order to gain expert advice about being dead. The living learn to weigh the merits of preparation against those of spontaneity, which is why they hire investment counselors and other fortune-tellers. And since I had been born an American, I naturally believed myself entitled to any destiny I could pay for. Why shouldn't my postmortem years stretch on like a lovely procession of stone lamps?
If you believe, as H.P. Lovecraft asserted, that all cemeteries are subterraneously connected, then it scarcely matters which one you visit; so I put one foot before the other, and within a half-hour found myself allured by the bright green moss on the pointed tops of those ancient stone columns of the third Shogun's loyally suicided retainers. Next I found, glowing brighter than the daylight, more green moss upon the stone railings and torii enclosing these square plots whose tombstones strained upward like trees, each stone engraved with its undertenant's postmortem Buddhist name.
The smell of moss consists of new and old together. Dead matter having decayed into clean dirt, the dirt now freshens into green. It is this becoming-alive that one smells. I remember how when my parents got old, they used to like to walk with me in a certain quiet marsh. The mud there smelled clean and chocolate-bitter. I now stood breathing this same mossy odor, and fallen cryptomeria-needles darkened their shades of green and orange while a cloud slid over the sun. Have you ever seen a lizard's eyelid close over his yellow orb? If so, then you have entered ghostly regions, which is where I found myself upon the sun's darkening. All the same, I had not gone perilously far: On the other side of the wall, tiny cars buzzed sweetly, bearing living skeletons to any number of premortem destinations. Reassured by the shallowness of my commitment, I approached the nearest grave.
The instant I touched the wet moss on the railing, I fell into communication with the stern occupant, upon whose wet dark hearthstone lay so many dead cryptomeria-tips. To say he declined to come out would be less than an understatement. It was enough to make a fellow spurn the afterlife! I experienced his anger as an electric shock. To him I was nothing, a rootless alien who lacked a lord to die for. Why should he teach me?
Humiliated, I turned away, and let myself into the lower courtyard behind the temple. Here grew the more diminutive ovoid and phallic tombs of priests. Some were incised with lotus wave-patterns. One resembled a mirror or hairbrush stood on end. I considered inviting myself in, but then I thought: If that lord up there was so cross, wouldn't a priest have even less use for me?
So I pulled myself up to the temple's narrow porch and sat there with my feet dangling over, watching cherry blossoms raining down on the tombs. The gnarled arms of that tree pointed toward every grave, and afternoon fell almost into dusk.
A single white blossom sped down like a spider parachuting down his newest thread. Then my ears began to ring—death's call.
So I ran away. I sat down in my room and hid. Looking out my window, I spied death up boards and pouring vinegar on nails. Death killed a dog. What if I were next?
Not daring to lose time, I decided to seek a humbler grave. And right down the superhighway, past the darkly muddy rectangles of rice fields scratched with light, I discovered a wet, gray necropolis upon a ridge crowded around with shabby houses. At first I wondered what it would be like to live in that neighborhood, with death right above everybody. And then I remembered that all of us do live there.
The sky had cleared well before twilight. I killed time, so to speak, in a narrow little eel restaurant. Within the lacquered box which the old man served to me, wormlike nut-brown segments lay side by side on their bed of snow-white rice. They were delicious. I felt as if I were getting advance revenge on the night crawlers which would eat me someday. And I cried out to the old man: Aren't you glad we're still alive?
Sometimes, he replied, I forget about everything but paying my taxes.
By now the moon had risen. Ascending the steep path, I arrived at the thicket of gravestones and found a meager one with just a few lichen-specks on it. The name on it was nearly effaced, and three neighboring steles shaded it so effectively that I had reason to hope that this soul might not be proud. Thank goodness!
I bowed twice from the bottom of my heart, clapped my hands, and knocked upon the tomb. Right away the ghost swam out. He had a wide, pallidly smiling face, and was serenely rigid, glowing like a spray of cherry blossoms in the sun. His eyes were mirrors in which I did not see myself.
Yes? he said. Who are you? Have we met before?
I don't think so, I replied.
Well, said he, in that case I'm at a loss. I wasn't sure if I remembered you.
At first I thought him sprightly as well as spritely; his movements were as crisp as the golden characters of the Lotus Sutra marching down blue-blackness, each column ruled off with gold, each letter even both horizontally and vertically with all the others.
I asked his name, and he said: Well, I used to be—actually, what does that matter? By the way, this moonlight is almost too bright. Doesn't it hurt you?
Oh. I wish I could be as strong as you.
He liked to interrupt me as eagerly as raindrops leap up from stones. In his words and flights he made flashy starts, but soon began to amble uncertainly. He was an entirely friendly ghost; I can't say I disliked him.
I inquired how to avoid suffering after my death, and he flittered about like an immense carp, smiling so widely that for an instant I took alarm and wondered if he meant to eat me. I asked if I were tiring him; I offered to run away, but he said it wouldn't do any good.
What's your aspiration? I wondered, and he told me it was to lick the sweat from a young girl's leg just one more time—he had grown too uncertain of himself to aspire higher than that.
I tried to learn whether life without consciousness might be preferable to consciousness without life; but to calculate the answers he needed to count several secret variables simultaneously upon his misty fingers, and soon lost track of where he had started. Of course he could not inscribe the sand with anyone's memorial stick, nor borrow pen and paper from me, being utterly permeable in relation to objects.
Well, then, you wouldn't be able to lick anyone's leg, I reminded him. My satisfaction, in which I could not help but bask, consisted of the fact that this ghost was dead and I alive. I was safer, more superior, less likely ever to be dead!
His eyes kept goggling. I asked if I would die soon.
—Prune? the ghost echoed in bewilderment.
We continued to discuss the matter of suffering, and he suddenly cried out: But just now I can't quite remember what "suffering" means. So sorry! How do you spell it?
Beg your pardon? F?
Are you quite sure?
He had forgotten just enough to make a conversation exasperating, but not enough for him to give up hope of communicating his thoughts, such as they were, and of listening to me, in an effort to remind himself of what life was, and perhaps even to escape, however momentarily, into some pretense of life of his own. And how I longed to escape from him! I would have done nearly anything to avoid becoming his younger brother. Unfortunately, it wasn't up to me. As for him, was it his fault that he wasn't alive? Many times I have seen old men go through the motions of picking up the young girls who would joyfully have let themselves be carried away in ancient days; it's as if one needs to learn over and over the lesson of loss, and even then one hopes that since the rules altered before, they might change back again. But they never do, at least not for the better; and although I sought to be as patient as I could, I increasingly resembled the ignorant, bustling child who grows annoyed when its grandfather fails to accompany its lunges to and fro.
He wanted to know the current prices of everything—How many golden ryo-? he asked. How many silver kwan? He imagined himself to be au courant, since he had not yet forgotten those two bygone coins.
Well, I finally said, I was thinking—
Are you always thinking? interrupted the ghost with extreme interest.
Sometimes I don't think about anything, the ghost confided.
And is that relaxing? Would you rather not think than think?
Is relaxing a pattern or a sound?
And what was it you were trying to ask me?
Oh, you forgot? That makes me feel better. I sometimes forget things also. Do you know why?
Untitled, 2012, charcoal and acrylic on canvas, 72 x 108 in. Image courtesy Haunch of Venison, New York. © Ahmed Alsoudani
I was hoping you could tell me why.
I'd wanted to learn to die, but instead was condemned to try unavailingly to teach a ghost to live. Did it follow that perhaps I could help him forget that he was dead if he in turn taught me to forget that I lived? No matter; I found myself ever less ambitious to ride to death in a palanquin shrine. I'd rather keep hold of my flesh, at least until rain falls in Tokyo and people run away with newspapers over their heads.
The ghost would not stop asking me questions. I finally said: Ask the grass. Ask why it lives.
What an intelligent idea! he said. He bent shyly down over a tuft, and I sneaked away. Perhaps I'd return to the cemetery where the third Shogun's lieutenants dwelled. I'd dwell again in the shade of the tall cryptomerias. From the spreading cherry tree, there'd come a pale pink rain. Didn't I possess places to go? Wasn't I a fellow who once might have been slightly in the know?
But without the ghost I quickly remembered my helplessness in this alien environment and repented of my cruelty. I had lost myself among the crowds of tombstones. Bumping accidentally against them, I discovered myself hounded by marching ghosts in laced red corset-armor, their legs wound up in white like mummy-worms, their faces phosphorescent blotches of horror. They could not really strangle me, but their touches chilled me; my bones ached with cold. Ahead of me loomed an immense black whirling wheel—my death, no doubt. Well, well; it was going to be sooner! Somehow I reached the edge of the cemetery and leaped into the darkness. I fell and fell. When I came to earth, there was scarcely any pain, which made me wonder whether I had died.
Overhead hovered a familiar pallid, plump-cheeked shrine figure. The ghost had fluttered off to wait for me. He was very good at that.
What was I supposed to ask the grass? he inquired.
Ask which one of us is dead.
Dead? Is that spelled with an x or a z?
Just a moment. I'll go find out. Actually, I was wondering the same thing.
He flew slowly away, but when he returned his flight was as long and straight as one of the bolts on a sanctuary door. He reported: The grass said, just forget you're dead and then you can go on. Let's both do it.
But last time didn't you say that it's spelled with an x?
I demanded to know what he meant. The ghost sighed: Don't you remember how often you've been here?
More by William T. Vollmann: