The Cafe Irreal: International Imagination 

Issue Eighteen

Home Again, Home Again by Kris Saknussemm
I Shefam Im, an annotated story by Nancy Graham
The Sad Fate of the Graduate Rocamadour Muskaria by Ignacio Padilla
The Bridge by Brian Biswas
A Tram Ride by Brian E. Turner
Bitches Brew by André Sant'Ánna
Man at Wall, Attempting a Certain Chore by Bob Comenole


irreal (re)views


I Shefam Im, an annotated story
by Nancy Graham

The shefanim are not a strong people,
but they place their home in the rock.
—Proverbs 30:26

creature has tunneled into the room beneath them, from deep in the roots of their family tree, so deep it comes from the other side of the world.

Home for the holidays, her sisters and their husbands lounge on the living room floor. Quite a slumber party. In her sleeping bag wedged among and between them, she jackknifes at the sudden movement, the wriggling under her feet. The brown furry mammal that emerges from a gnawed hole in the floor is not a prairie dog, a groundhog or a woodchuck, but a large rodent she knows from trips to the wildlife center that used to be called a zoo; not a native species, but a desert dweller, a hostile one—a hyrax. She shouts. "Sound the alarm right away!"

"Hyrax removal service, please! Hyrax here, doesn't anyone care?" No one answers. Someone yawns. She unzips the sleeping bag and jumps over bodies, curling her toes, whipping her head to follow the motion of the scurrying rodent.

The angry beast screeches, rushing over and under cocooned legs. She circles the room to rouse her sisters and their parents from sleep, saying, "Hyrax, I tell you!" At every step her foot lands on a brother-in-law, or a sister pinned to the floor by a brother-in-law.

Note: The hyrax is a small, furry mammal that lives in various habitats in Africa and southwest Asia. An herbivore that feeds on grasses, forbs and shrubs, the hyrax is aggressive nonetheless, and uses its sharp incisors for defense against predators. The female rock hyrax, acting as sentry, warns the colony if an enemy approaches. Her mighty, high-pitched screech scatters the others to hiding places in the rock.

"David Bowman! Where is he when you need him? Oh, I forgot." She whispers, "He's so, so sick." She toes the hole in the floor. David lies in a hospital dying of multiple myeloma. Once he ate twelve coneys at a barbecue. A hyrax would have been nothing for him to tackle, he would have sent it back down the hole straightaway. Why hadn't one of her sisters married David? Good thing they didn't. He became a dogmatic Christian, a dispensationalist, quoting the Bible all the time, in a tone of warning.

The coneys that Young David Bowman ate are a type of spicy, white hot dog served in the northeastern United States, unrelated to the Coney Island Hot Dog. A coney is also a type of rabbit (archaic). Some versions of the Bible mention coneys, for example this passage from Leviticus: "And the coney, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you." Scholars note that the animal meant is probably the hyrax, and that European and American translators made the mistake due to a lack of familiarity with the animal.

On the floor, Mike and Margaret lie still in their sleeping bags, talking. Margaret is the second oldest. She so wanted to marry and have children. Mike's questions rise and fall like hills, with the stress at the summit, in the manner of his Pennsylvania Dutch people. "Did you buy? ribs for dinner. Are we out? of whiskey." Soon Mike and Margaret will get up, she thinks, help fight the invader. Or at least Margaret will. Mike gets home late from his job as a bartender, sleeps in. Better not rouse him before he is ready.

She catches sight of the furry devil running the perimeter of the room, chewing through phone lines. Mike chuckles at her pestering. "There's no enemy hyrax here," he says. Mike makes no offer to bundle the thing away. It's like him, to chortle like that, or to appear calm one moment and be pacing in the next, arm flailing with a loaded gun, though the family will only discover this tendency on one occasion, too late to stop him shooting himself in the head. For now, his sons huddle in their sleeping bags trading cards, deaf to the commotion. The time will come when they find bits of their father's brain outside in the grass, near his workshop. They can't see it, she thinks. No one can see the hyrax but me.

The naming and classification of the hyrax have been confounded by mistaken identity. The word hyrax derives from the Greek word for shrew, but the hyrax bears no relation to the shrew. Can you guess the closest relative of the hyrax? If you said capybara or guinea pig, good guess. Because of certain common features, the modern-day hyrax is actually thought to be the closest living relative of the elephant, as in, "There is an elephant in the living room."

"Dad!" she cries. "Isn't this your job? Doesn't 'the Man'"—she crooks her fingers into quotation marks—"take out 'the Hyrax?'" Her father says not a word but stands in a corner, chewing his thumb knuckle. The hyrax rears up and hisses, but skirts him. He edges himself to a doorway and disappears. His youngest daughter shrieks. She has been called hysterical and oversensitive by family members. Words fail her, but still she feels she should blow the whistle.

In front of the fireplace, Harry sleeps one off, car-greased fingers to his cheek. Under him, Gwen, the oldest sister, hums Ten Minutes Ago in a minor key, reading a travel guide. Harry, her second and third husband. Gwen is planning another vacation to Madrid, even though Harry spent their first and second honeymoons there drinking fino and watching bullfights, refusing to visit even one museum.

She turns away from Gwen and Harry, shuts her eyes. Eyes closed she becomes a girl with braces. She stands outside in a field, where metal contracts in the cold during the gym class soccer game. Her mouth hurts, pounding in her head as she runs back and forth, forever out of range of the ball. How can she speak, with her teeth groaning in her head, the roof of her mouth parting to make a new fontanel? For a moment, distracted by the pain, baby sister says nothing about the hyrax.

The word hyrax also refers to a brand of metal palate expander used by orthodontists to create more space in a patient's jaw for permanent teeth. The metal wiring of the Hyrax anchors to bicuspids and molars, joining at the roof of the mouth. Forces exerted by the Hyrax produce deep changes to the head, stresses felt by the patient as pain or discomfort. The Hyrax is said to be activated when a screw on the device is turned, using a special key, by a parent of the patient. That's when it hurts most.

Eyes open again she returns to thirty years of age, her teeth worn by grinding, her body not as lithe as it felt a moment ago. Her feet fall on calves, on soft biceps. No one is getting up. She has lost track of how long the hyrax has been among them, or is it one of them?

Laura and David surface from the blankets to watch her leap and spin. "Hyrax?" she asks them. "Do you speak hyrax?" They look away, fuss with sheets and pillows. They talk about a Jaguar, a new neighborhood in the desert with swimming pools, parties with champagne. Listening to them she feels shrewish and judgmental. She interrogates, insinuates. "Have you worked with or for the hyrax?" Laura discreetly removes a bottle from under a pillow and leaves to empty it into the toilet.

Somewhere, behind a closed door, a television is on and a man is shouting, "I said on the rocks! I wanted it on the rocks!" There is a slap and a woman's scream. She knows without looking that the movie is in black and white, that the woman is wearing a shirtwaist dress and her head has just whipped at the slap, tousling her hair.

Thousands of years ago, Phoenician sailors came upon a coast populated by familiar, rodent-like animals. They named the place "I Shefam Im," or "Land of the Hyrax." In truth, they had mistaken rabbits for hyraxes. Romans, arriving later, mispronounced it "Hispania." They later shortened their word to "Spain." Thus, Spain is a garbled synonym for hyrax, though the species is not a native of that land. Do all roads lead home, to Rome, or to the hyrax?

She wanders into the kitchen and drinks three full glasses of water, her feet relaxing against warm linoleum. Mother appears. The hyrax follows, skittering into the room to bite their toes. She puts her ring finger to her mouth to bite a hangnail and Mother cuffs it, huffs and clamps her lips, insulted.

"It's the hyrax, not you," she tells her mother. "I really don't like this thing. It hurts when it bites. Can't you make it go away?"

"No," Mother says. "Go ask your father." She hasn't seen her father since he disappeared. He has ways of hiding.

She kicks at the hyrax and feels seven molars loosen. The vicious thing scares easily, runs back toward the other room. She traces its smear, black footprints along the baseboard.

The brothers-in-law appear to be leaving. "Were you drinking a lot in preparation for driving?" she asks them. They stand there dumbly like suits on a rack, suits on a rack, suits on a rack. A rock. They take them on the rocks. They take to the rocks, hiding. They are not strong people. They are the elephants in our rooms.

Nancy Graham's poetry and prose have appeared in Aught, BlazeVOX, Chronogram, Prima Materia, Listening in Dreams: A Compendium of Sound Dreams, Meditations and Rituals for Deep Dreamers and Eratio (forthcoming). Her chapbook, Somniloquies, is available through Pudding House Publications.

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