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Issue number seven




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Three Fish by Dean Swinford

The dreamer sees the city from a distance. Its many spires rise, clenching domes in dry clay fists. He stands on a train platform, overlooking a dusty plain. A wooden train chatters down the track and stops at the station. The dreamer boards. After he climbs the steps into the cabin, the train begins to move. He looks back at the station. It is empty. The train stirs dust as it moves across the plain. The dreamer nears the city, but he sees only thick brown smudges where the towers used to stand. He sits down and unbuttons his collar. The cabin is empty, but a full wine glass sits on the card table. The liquid is green and cloudy. He drinks it quickly: a taste like licorice burns his throat.

The train passes through a tunnel, or a thick city wall. Inside the city, everything is clear and colorful. The train stops at a bazaar. The dreamer disembarks, surrounded by foreign colors, scents, sounds. The steady susurrus of the train slowly fades. The dreamer looks at the passing windows: they are all empty. Tents and shoppers obscure his view of the train. He weaves through crowds in caftans and gauze. The songs of shopkeepers fill the streets with a dense labyrinth of possibilities. The dreamer follows the sounds, sometimes moving in a single direction, at other times circling randomly from tent to tent. He wants only to remain in the movement of voices. He brushes by the blue and white overhangs of restaurants, steps over winding tobacco hoses, ducks through archways tiled with gold writing. Soon, his movement stops.

He stands at the edge of a crowd gathered in a large burgundy tent. A murmur passes through the crowd; the dreamer is forcefully pushed to its center, until the tips of his boots hang over the edge of a submerged limestone pool. He stares at the rocks: the imprints of nautilus shells and trilobites speak of even older desert cities. A splash, accompanied by a clatter of teeth and tongue against his boot sole, rouses the dreamer. He jumps back, his movement halted by the crowd. The tent fills with laughter; the dreamer sees fins speeding across the water. A trickle of blood spills from the torn toe of his boot. Old men dangle their beards over the edge of the water, pulling away as the dog-sized fish slap the water with frustrated leaps. The dreamer backs against the crowd, his heels digging into fossilized recessions. Clumps of grey hair float over the water like sea foam.

Others try to grab the clumps, laughing as the fish nip their long fingernails. One holds a severed beard from a well-creased smirk, and hangs the hair over the water. Another kneels by the dreamer's feet, whistles, and links both hands together, forming a loop. Three fish clear the hoop, their scales gleaming like prisms, and slide through the crowd. The dreamer squints, watching as the fish flop to a stop by a wooden table. A butcher cleans a knife of Damascus steel. His assistant heaves one of the fish onto the table. A scrap of leather flaps from its gasping jaws. The dreamer follows the fish-slick trail to the table. The crowd closes behind him.

The butcher raises the knife over the fish; he bludgeons and gnaws through the dense scales. The crowd watches in silence. He turns to the dreamer, his hands hidden in the fish. In broken English, he says, "For a sip of absinth, I will tell you your fortune."

Dean Swinford neither condemns or condones the consumption of absinth. His essay, "Defining irrealism: scientific development and allegorical possibility," appeared in Irreal (Re)views #1.

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