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The Elephants

Voss, Bree, Fend, Light

Leni Zumas

I want to shove a knife into the neck of Betsy DeVos.

is not what I meant to say, but

A creature who wants to destroy the American public school system has been put in charge of the American public school system. The creature thinks people (by which she means Christians) should be free to get educated at church, in a field of sunflowers, or perhaps not at all. She thinks girls should quit whining about sexual assault. Kids who learn in less typical ways should quit disrupting the so-called normal classrooms. Kids who are poor should quit expecting free lunch.

The government, says DeVos, “sucks.”

I want to be arrested for typing into my surveilled phone I want to shove a knife into the neck of Betsy DeVos.

I did not mean to start talking about this creature, but here, unsummoned, she comes.

The tanning creams she rubs into her neck by day. The retinol creams by night. The tendons standing out. Her spine a stack of brittle little Michigan bones. The knife would plow neatly into the hollow between carotid artery and jugular vein.

Because I learned early, as a little daughter, the safety of softening language,

I justThanks so much forI wonder if
Maybe you could try(I see what you mean, but)Not doing
That, maybe?

my preoccupation with Betsy’s neck feels coarse and shameful.

And because I hate images (which are everywhere) of women’s bodies being harmed, I can’t understand why this neck, this knife.

What’s wrong with you?

Shame debris.

The Latin name for neck is cervix, though this word is used most often to describe the neck of the uterus.

My mother wants to kiss the gardener of the nursing home next door. He is a dirty hippie. He squats in the beds near our fence in his tight torn jean-shorts and his hair is long.
There’s Wade, she says.
His hair hangs stinking gold. He pounds dirt with his hatchet.
That’s not a hatchet, says my mother, it’s a trowel.

Hatchet or trowel, he fills every window: pounding, squatting, bulging. He throws black compost at the beds, his shoulders hard shining swells of muscle.

I am eight, in a ghost costume, watching.

Why did Wade come into the house?
To get some water.
But why else?
What’s wrong with you?

Betsy DeVos, a plastic skin stuffed with money, smiles at the senators.

I am forty-four, in a mother costume, watching.

Rare mushrooms grow from shit. Flowers bloom on graves. “To a chemist,” says Anton Chekhov, “there is nothing impure on earth. The writer should be just as objective as the chemist; he should … acknowledge that manure plays a highly respectable role in the landscape.”i

I am not objective, but I acknowledge.

I am not violent

(am I not violent?)

but I would like to cut the throat of Betsy DeVos. Watch the money fall out.

Art, says William Gass, “dare not be pure. It must be able to invite the dogs. It must furnish bones for the understanding.”ii

Life’s ingredients, ruptured and festering. Look at the mess.

Of debris, the Internet names at least fourteen kinds: behind-armor, culinary, demolition, disaster, foreign object, geological, glacial, marine, meteorological, road, space, surgical, war, woody.

To these I would add shame.

When I was young, the nursing home next door employed a gardener who I believed was having sex with my mother. Or if not having sex with her, then vigorously wanting to. Throughout childhood I hated this man. His denim shorts were too small, he crouched grinning in the flowerbeds under our windows, he made me afraid that my parents wouldn’t stay married. I spent much energy, as a kid, trying to hide from him. To not see him. I have blurred, scratchy memories of that nursing home & those boxwood bushes & that wet warm air. Sexual embarrassment, dread of my parents’ divorcing, distrust of a mother I also adored.

Residue, sediment, remains.

In an essay on writing, Noy Holland asks:

But what of the elements one stumbles upon which are at once revelatory and displeasing? Disruptive? Tempting to ignore? … Look away, and you stop the mess happening. … Let it pass; give it time, and things feel normal again. You can let the story proceed in keeping with your expectations. You can, in other words, pursue the way away from the trouble that is in you.”iii

Such trouble lives in wounds of history & psyche & vulnerable flesh; and in language itself, in the words you find yourself choosing and arranging—mis-arranging, deranging—into sentences that say what you weren’t expecting.

My mother wants to kiss the garbonzo. He is a dirty His Majesty. He squatches in the becket in his tight torn shopping and his hail-smiling-morn hangs stinking gold. That’s not a hatchway, says my mother, it is a trouser trumpet.

Wade brings his sweaty legs into our house. His shorts are almost nothing and can’t cover the bulge. He’s never come into the house before. Next stop might be bedroom. Look at the bulge bulging.

Hi there, he says in his hippie voice. No school today?
It’s Saturday, I say.
He drinks a glass of water provided by my mother.

The dogs are invited.

Meteorologists speak of “debris balls”: bright spots on weather radar that mean a tornado has touched down, blown wreckage into the air. Matter born of rupture. A writer snatches at the matter, eyes it, fingers it, pins the torn wings to paper.

Debris is idle and unproductive. It has been left behind. The logic of duh voss duh fines persons as valuable only if they succeed. By which she means: win. Her logic says immigrants are okay as long as they launch profitable tech companies. But what of the immigrants who won’t launch profitable tech companies? The girls who won’t earn gold medals on their floor routines?

My little son, age four, is going to need extra help in school. He will need teachers who understand how he learns, which is different from how a so-called typical child learns. I am so scared for him when I look at the face of that creature. I see the knives of white Christian capitalism pointed at my boy. I want to re-point them at duh voss—slash her plastic face, then her throat. Defend my son and all other sons and daughters, every last beautiful one.

A problem, though: there are bigger blades aimed at us. Disastrous as she is, she is only the tip of one knife.

Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I opens on the act of gathering crop-scraps from fields, then catalogues a range of ways to glean (from dumpsters, classrooms, streets) and to survive, sometimes literally, on what others don’t want. The film regards leftovers as a “cluster of possibilities” rather than as In probing the value of derelict, forsaken things, Varda maps a method of staying alive that is also a practice of radical curiosity. To stretch to touch what’s scattered or hidden on the margins. To train in a sharp-eyed compassion that draws us closer to the outside, the unwelcome, the left behind.

Our sentences emerge, says Caroline Bergvall, from “surprising varietals of soil, ancient yet compilable language bones, pressed word-fossils, collapsed layers, mineral toil, friable clays, dried pigments, decomposed stretches, discontinuous tracings...”v

Vos is Dutch for fox. Vulpine stereotypes would obviously apply—“cunning,” “trickster,” “thieving,” “cruel”—but on behalf of foxes everywhere, I won’t lend the plastic creature their name.

It’s just Wade, says my mother.

Just wait.

Wait & see. Wait, you can bet on it. Bet & see.

Duh voss.Duh fend.Duh bree.

Look away, and you stop the mess happening—except it’s still happening.

In an essay on teaching, Grace Paley suggests: “Write a first-person narrative in the voice of someone you’re in conflict with. Someone who disturbs you, worries you, someone you don’t understand. Use a situation you don’t understand.”vi

Duh light.

I want to kiss no one, says Wade the gardener. I make six-fifty an hour. I trowel the beds and disinfect the lawn. There is the little girl dressed as a ghost. There is the hovering mother. Rain soon, smells like. Fungus on the tree. Please take those dirty pillows away from me.vii

And Bet-see?

Don’t want to!

But she is still happening.

Okay, will try:

I don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology, don’t know much about a science book,viii don’t know much about the job I took. But I do know that soft money talks. And I do expect some things in return. I plan to use America’s schools to advance God’s kingdom.

I is an other.ix The thing feared and enraging. I can’t bear to inhabit this I—can, at most, overhear it. Pin its torn wings to the page. A song, a quote, a vile ambition.

I was an outsider in our particular neighborhood … My family spoke Russian, but the street spoke Yiddish. There were families of experience I was cut off from. You know, it seemed to me that an entire world was whispering in the other room. In order to get to the core of it all, I used all those sibilant clues. I made fiction.x

Grace Paley was a gleaner.

The real-life Wade left his gardening job and married a cellist.

The real-life girl dressed as a ghost grew up to see melting & flooding & deporting & shooting & shouts of you aren’t welcome here.

A blade in the neck. Torn plastic.

Debris, oh!

When I apologize for using too many !’s in an email, my friend says: “These are terrifying times, so use as many exclamation points as you need. We should all just keep getting louder.”

Shout the trouble. Collect the whispers. Gather the left-behind close to your body. Debris—in two small breaths, a survival practice. Torn wings of language. Matter born of rupture. Humans in human costumes, watching for clues.


i Anton Chekhov, letter (1887)
ii William Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970)
iii Noy Holland, “The Cricket Sings with Its Knees: on Writing Fiction,” Electric Literature (2015)
iv Agnès Varda, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I) (2000)
v Caroline Bergvall, Meddle English: New and Selected Texts (2011)
vi Grace Paley, “Some Notes on Teaching: Probably Spoken,” Writers as Teachers: Teachers as Writers, ed. Jonathan Baumbach (1970)
vii PJ Harvey, “Sheela-Na-Gig,” Dry (1992)
viii Sam Cooke, “Wonderful World” (1960)
ixJe est un autre”: Arthur Rimbaud, letter to Georges Izambard (1871)
x Grace Paley, “The Value of Not Understanding Everything,” Just As I Thought (1998)

Leni Zumas's novel Red Clocks is forthcoming from Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown. She is also the author of the story collection Farewell Navigator (Open City) and the novel The Listeners (Tin House), which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. She teaches in the MFA Program at Portland State University.

This originally appeared on March 5, 2017