A tiger chases a baby impala and knocks it down with one swipe of its paw, then sits to stare at it. The impala stands up and turns to look at the tiger. The impala and the tiger differ in size like a human baby compared to a large adult. The impala has that clueless “cute” look so typical of all mammal babies. But it trembles in fear. In the distance, several adult impalas watch, necks stretched taut, eyes wide with alarm, then move on, realizing they can do nothing against the tiger. The tiger puts its snout next to the baby impala’s. The tiger puts out its tongue, which is almost as long as the baby impala’s whole body, and licks the impala. Is it a slobbering sign of affection? Or is it a sadistic hint to the impala that the tiger will devour it? The impala turns and flees once more. The tiger chases it for a second or two and knocks it down. This time the claw is unleashed and leaves a patch of pink flesh where the hide has been ripped off. The impala rises, turns and stands facing the tiger once more. The tiger clearly enjoys this feline cat-and-mouse game it plays with its intended victim. After ten whole minutes of torturing the impala in this game of “You are in my power, and you know I’m going to eat you when I’m good and ready, and nothing can save you,” the tiger sees the impala turn again. The predator allows its prey a couple of seconds of running before it pursues, and in one pounce seizes the terrified little creature in its large, fang-studded, powerful jaws…
I’m eighty-nine years old but still have this recurring bizarre dream. In my mind it is unmistakably linked to an incident in the vacant lot I think of as the Nether Regions. Just thinking of the place even now makes me uncomfortable. That steep hill sometimes appears to me in dreams as a chasm, an abyss. I have been too close to the crumbling edge, and do not want to repeat that experience.
It was during World War II, and we were vividly aware of that momentous struggle. This was long before our present era of highly organized, adult-supervised play. We played stickball, roller skate hockey, cops and robbers, all kinds of street games. But sometimes we would have war games in the Nether Regions, the vacant lot that stretched from Popham Avenue at the top of a hill, on the east, to the aptly named Undercliff Avenue below, on the west. These games were influenced by war movies we watched at the local movie house. In childhood the line between make-believe and reality easily bends or dissolves altogether. Especially if passions run high. Pretend wars can seem real.
We trained ourselves in martial arts with the help of an illustrated booklet printed for the Marine Corps, which we acquired through the older brother, a Marine, of one of our group. When we had mock wars, we’d use cap guns or in warm weather water pistols or we’d employ narrow wooden boards for swords and the tops of bushel baskets for shields. Naturally, we always returned home happy but with bloody knuckles and knees, filthy and sometimes ripped clothing. Our mothers were not pleased. For us, the blood and dirt were badges of honor.
That vacant lot was the size of a city block and was actually the side of a declivity that to us seemed like a mountainside. Tall grass and lofty trees populated the slope, which stretched from the back of apartment buildings up on Popham down to Undercliff, a quiet residential neighborhood of private houses right by the Harlem River. The lot was a small forest. No adults were ever seen in the lot, so whatever we did there was never observed by parents. It could have been the North Woods or a jungle in the Amazon. Or a place not in this world.
One day, at the age of ten, there were five of us standing by a large outcropping of rock at the upper part of the lot, deciding what to do. We heard voices above us, looked up and saw five boys and a girl in the space between two apartment buildings. One of them threw a small object at us, that hit and cut the back of Mel’s hand. The object was a chunk of green glass that must have been a fragment of a broken bottle. They laughed!
We had an informal, never written or even stated, code of honor that might have stemmed from an innate sense of justice or a code of behavior we had absorbed from films about the Old West. Or both. Because our friend Mel had been wounded –and not by accident—and because they laughed, we all agreed that we had to avenge him. It was a question of honor. We knew those neighborhood kids and had seen which one of them had pitched the projectile: a boy named Harvey. So, we ran through the lot toward the path on the north that took us to the upper street level. We weren’t sure what we would do when we reached them, but we were anxious to catch them, fired up to punish them.
As we chased them, they ran in the opposite direction along the ridge. Good sign; they were not anxious to engage us. They came down the concrete steps on the south edge of the lot, so that we all moved in a counterclockwise maneuver, with the enemy ending where we had been, while we stood at the spot from which they had thrown the chunk of glass. We reversed course, and by the time we reached our “fortress” –the rock outcropping that measured about twenty-five feet from base to top– they were at the south end of the lot putting up a low fence of tree branches and small logs in a circle as a sort of fort. I was elected General by my “men” and decided that we would use this rock as our castle from which we would raid the enemy’s encampment. We hadn’t thought about exactly what we would do with them after our conquest.
On two occasions the enemy came to the bottom of our fortress and threw stones at us; we responded in kind. We had our wooden swords and shields stored in a space behind us, the underbelly of the apartment building. I ordered my boys to get their equipment, planning to march right up to their encampment to fight and defeat them. We set out twice but were repulsed halfway there by the hail of stones.
I devised a plan based on what I had seen in a war movie about the Pacific Theater; all four of my men would appear to be retreating through the lot, then up the concrete path to the sidewalk above, but I would drop down in the tall grass and wait for the enemy to give chase, which they did. Just as I had thought, our feigned retreat would seem to signal weakness on our part; this encouraged the foe. They advanced and passed on all sides of me, without noticing my presence. When the last one of them passed me, I leaped to my feet, put my right arm across his throat and my left hand over his mouth, pulled him down in the tall grass, and held him till my boys made the complete loop and returned to our rock.
I was surprised to feel a fleeting but powerful urge to tighten my arm around his throat as hard as I could, squeeze the life out of him, but fought that urge down. By a stroke of luck, my prisoner was Harvey, the one who threw the sharp chunk of glass. We tied his hands behind his back and told him to stay in the space under the apartment building.
Their “nurse” (gender roles were clear-cut in those days) disappeared for a while and then returned. Apparently, she must have told our prisoner’s mother about her son’s captivity, because the woman opened her third-floor window and yelled to us to untie his hands and let him go. I hollered back, trying to explain to her that this was a war and he was a prisoner who couldn’t be released until the war was over. She insisted, screaming, “Let him go right away, or I’ll call the police!”
We untied Harvey but told him that if he rejoined his buddies in this war, we would be very rough on him the next time around. He muttered agreement and left. We saw him enter his building. Twenty minutes later, he rejoined his comrades.
“That son of a bitch!” muttered Julius. Others, including myself, cursed that kid. We were seething with anger because Harvey had gone back on his word. This was an important breach of our unspoken code of ethics. He had no sense of honor. This, to our minds, was unforgivable.
At one point, the enemy came marching toward our rock carrying a flag of truce or perhaps surrender: a white handkerchief at the end of broken branch. I left my men on the rock and climbed down to parlay. When I got within two feet of the flag bearer, and asked him what he wanted to discuss, he flung a fistful of gravel in my face. It was insulting more than painful, having my face dirtied that way. They turned and ran back to their camp. I was outraged and wanted revenge. On top of punishment for the glass attack.
Back on the rock, I cleared my face of the gravel, and said to my men, “Okay, enough of this back and forth. Let’s use our swords and shields and charge right up to their encampment and destroy it and shove them around a bit. Use your shields to fend off the stones. Two of you have army helmets; put them on and all of you, keep your heads down till we get there.” I led the charge, stones whizzing by our heads, some of them knocking against our shields with a dull clump. I felt as though we were marines in the jungle of a Pacific island, charging against the enemy, bullets zipping by our heads as we bravely pushed on.
I heard Julius yell, “Ow, my knee, dammit!” I glanced in his direction and saw a bloody spot on his knee, but he kept going. I was boiling. We jumped over their low log fence and thwacked a few of them on the shoulders and knees with our swords, and then just shoved them around.
“Do you surrender?” I barked.
“No, we don’t!” It was treacherous Harvey, the sneak, the breaker of solemn promises.
The others in his group sullenly looked at the ground and mumbled something about never giving up. This was frustrating. What were we supposed to do to achieve satisfaction? We couldn’t kill them; it was illegal. We didn’t even want to kill them. Not really. We tore their fence apart and shoved them around some more. We didn’t touch the girl, however, as she stood
there glaring defiantly at us. We knew she had to be the one who left the Nether Regions to bring Harvey’s mother into our adult-free world. I was angry with her for such dishonorable behavior. And now here she was seeming to dare me to punish her. My friends and I had been brought up not to fight with girls. I felt the heat of my face burning with indignation. I looked away from her and ordered her and her men, “Okay, you idiots, get the hell out of this lot!”
“Or what?” This kid Harvey was really pushing his luck.
Our largest “soldier,” who was about a year older than we were, Tiger–a name he gave himself– rumbled, “How about we pants you and give you twenty bashes with a wooden sword on your rear end? Would you enjoy that? And in front of your nurse or whatever the hell she is.” Tiger’s hands were on his hips, feet far apart, a big toothy smile on his face. That smile was not the kind people exhibit when they’re happy; it looked to me more like a smile –if you could call it that—that the wolf shows when he bares his teeth to the lamb.
Harvey said nothing. Tiger continued, “On second thought, maybe I’ll shove my sword so far up your wazoo the point of it’ll show up at the back of your mouth. And you’ll have splinters from bottom to top.” He laughed uproariously at his last statement. It was funny, I have to admit. We all laughed. We all knew he would never do anything like that. Or would he? I wondered. Because there was something different about this big kid. He was a little strange.
Harvey said, “Okay, I’m leaving.” His dejected buddies had already started to shamble away.
Tiger grabbed his arm and twisted it behind his back, saying, “No, I think you should stay a little longer. We want to talk to you about not throwing sharp objects at people.” Tiger turned toward us and added, “Hey, guys, let’s bring Harvey and their nurse to our prison under the apartment building.” Then he told Julius to bring the girl. I had been the strategist, the General, the wartime leader, but now that the battle was over, Tiger was taking over as Chief Intelligence Officer, or Interrogator, or something along those lines.
Tiger said, “Look, this kid is a liar and a sneak. He needs to be taught a lesson.”
Harvey yelled, “My father will kill you!”
“No, he won’t. I’ve heard him tell you more than once, ‘You have to fight your own battles.’ He’ll think you’re a little coward if you complain to him.” He paused, then, “Besides, my dad’s a lot bigger than yours.”
Tiger thought for a moment and added, “And don’t forget, you’re the one who threw the piece of glass at us, and Mel’s got the wound to prove it.” Tiger punched Harvey in the gut, forcing him to double over and gasp. Tiger grinned at us and said, “That won’t even leave a mark on him.” Turning to Harvey, he added, “Hell, I could do that all day long, and you couldn’t prove I laid a hand on you.” He laughed. I started to say, “Hey, that’s enough…”, but Tiger’s attention turned to the girl. He withdrew his hand from Harvey’s arm, reached for the girl’s arm and pulled her to him. He held her in a bear hug and forced a kiss on her. I did not like the way this was going, and I could tell the other kids didn’t either. The girl’s face flushed, and tears welled up in her eyes.
“You dirty bastard,” she cried.
“Okay, we’ve had enough. This is over,” I said. I shoved Harvey and told him to go home. He started walking but looked over his shoulder a couple of times. Turning to Tiger, I said, “Let her go, too.”
“Sure, sure, I will. But first… He lifted the hem of her dress and dragged her panties down to her ankles. “See guys, this is what girls look like. Bet you didn’t know that.” He laughed a disgusting, filthy laugh, as the girl, face redder than ever, tears streaming down her cheeks, sobbed.
I felt as though a black cloud suddenly covered the sun, casting the whole lot into an ominous gloom. “That’s enough, Tiger!” I yelled. “Leave her alone.”
His fist still clamped on to her arm, Tiger glared at me and quietly muttered, “You gonna make me?”
The rest of the guys began crowding around us, moving closer. For a moment I wondered if they were going to join Tiger and take part in whatever this crazy hulking idiot had planned.
“Look,” I said, “If you go too far –and maybe you just did, I don’t know—she’ll tell her folks, and if her father doesn’t break your neck first, they’ll have the police on you.”
Julius added, “Yeah, and we’ll tell the truth in court.”
The others nodded and mumbled their assent. It was a relief to see I didn’t need to worry about them. They were my friends, and good kids. I don’t know why I doubted them. But in circumstances that were totally new to us, you never could tell. I should have had more faith in them. In the case of Tiger, we never knew what stupid idea would come into his thick head.
“Great bunch of friends you guys are,” he grumbled. His tone was heavily ironic.
He turned to the girl. They were face to face. He reached around her, grabbed her buttocks in his big hands and squeezed them, then told her to pull her pants up and go home.
That night I dreamed: I am wandering down a country road under a blue sky, happy and free, as I hear the birds singing, feel the comforting warmth of the sun on my back, when I come upon a fork in the road. The branch to my right is straight, though mostly uphill with some ups and downs visible in the distance. The other one is mostly downhill, with twists and turns among thick dark forests that cloak the road ahead from view. This second road promises an easy walk, but I can’t clearly see what lurks around bends in the road or on the other side of hills or in the shadows cast by gnarly old trees along the roadside. I like the idea of shade in case the day turns too hot. Besides, the hike downhill will be less tiring.
I choose the comfortable downhill road, but when I’ve gone thirty paces, a chill wind arises. I look up. Grey clouds have moved in to mar the blue sky. I now notice many of the trees have branches on which hang beautiful, luscious fruit. I move to the side of the road to reach for a golden globe, but I look down in time to see a deep ditch between me and the tree. I step back just in time. The clouds thicken and turn black, covering the entire sky, while the wind increases in intensity, making it hard to walk against. I hear the excited voices of children in what I believe must be a playground around a bend in the road or deep in the forest. It sounds like they’re having a lot of fun there. I want to join them. And I still crave the mouth-watering fruits hanging so temptingly from branches. A beautiful girl steps out of the woods to stand in the road. She smiles and beckons to me. I want to go to her, but I look down at her bare feet and see her toenails are like the claws of eagles. She sees that I notice this. Her smile becomes a frown as she strides toward me.
I turn, filled with fear, and run back to the fork, breathing heavily. When I get to the fork, I look back and see the girl throw a golden fruit at me, not to me, but at me. I sidestep it and watch it smash against the ground. As it splatters, I see maggots wriggling over and under each other. They crawl toward me and when they reach me, clamber up my legs. I awaken with a shudder.
# # #
After that incident we went back to playing stick ball or roller skate hockey, cops and robbers, games like that up on our street, the Uplands or Civilization,
as I thought of it. We never mentioned that war in the vacant lot again. In fact, we never wanted to go back down to those nether regions. There was something about that vacant lot… From the time of that incident with Tiger, the place felt wrong. As a grown man –an old man–, looking back, the fact that there were no adults present made us feel grown up, in the sense that we were in our own world where no adults told us what to do. We made the rules and enforced them.
As I look back, going down into that physical space was a descent into the dark recesses of the soul, to our lowest, most basic animal instincts. I must admit, when Tiger raised the girl’s skirt and pulled her panties down, it gave me a kind of charge, a feeling of power. I felt that what
he did was dirty, yet at the same time I felt a stirring, a powerful force in my whole body, a force that seemed to want to break out. It made me feel like doing something to her, I wasn’t sure exactly what, but something. I fought myself, my baser instincts, even my curiosity. I felt as though I were restraining an excited dog on a leash. Probably seeing the girl’s tears, sensing her fear, is what most held me back. At any rate, I had escaped those Nether Regions.
That day, we had started our war with what we conceived of as a noble duty toward one of our friends. A righting of a wrong. A matter of honor, as well. Even of Justice. But as our resentment built because of the enemies’ treachery –the breach of a flag of truce, bringing Harvey’s mother into our war– it started to devolve into a need for revenge. It also stirred a will to dominate. And, what haunts me most of all was the impulse I had to strangle Harvey. And when Tiger harassed the girl, I felt a burning anger toward him. I had the urge to strike him on the head with my wooden sword. I don’t know if this impulse was spurred by righteousness or by jealousy. Perhaps I felt if anyone should be doing that to the girl, I should have been the one, not he. At this remove, I really cannot tell.
After that incident, when I stood at the top of the stairs that led down to Undercliff Avenue, I could see a part of the lot. The sky was blue, not a cloud in sight, but the Nether Regions looked dark, shadowy, as though it were in a different dimension. There was nothing strange about it; leafy trees shaded the area from the sun. In the afternoon, the apartment buildings themselves cast long shadows. Yet, after that day, the gloom looked ominous to me. It seemed to tell me, “Enter at your peril.”
Clark Zlotchew is the author of 18 published books, only four of which consist of his fiction: Two espionage/thriller novels and an award-winning collection of his short stories. Newer work of his has appeared in Crossways Literary Magazine, Baily’s Beads, Scrutiny Journal, The Fictional Café and many other literary journals in the U.S., Australia, U.K., Germany, South Africa, Sweden, India, and Ireland from 2016 through 2021. Zlotchew’s Spanish versions of his stories had been published in Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico and the state of Colorado in the 1980s and 1990s. A collection of newer short fiction plus several memoirs is scheduled to be published this year (2021). Over 70 scholarly articles of his have appeared in Spanish and in English in learned journals on five continents.
SHORT STORY COLLECTION
Once Upon a Decade: Tales of the Fifties, Comfort Publishing (paper, 2011); Kindle Edition, 2014. Next Generation Finalist in the Indie Book Awards, 2011.
Eccentric Narrations: Stories True and False, Cyberwit, 2021.
TALON Force: Dire Straits, under pseudonym Cliff Garnett (Military/Action) (Signet, 2001)
The Caucasian Menace, Espionage/Thriller, (PublishAmerica, paper, 2010). Kindle, 2014).
A Presence of Absence: Poetry Kindle 12-31-2020. Paperback 1-1-2021.
LITERARY INTERVIEWS WITH WRITERS
Voices of the River Plate: Interviews with Writers of Argentina and Uruguay, Borgo Press,1995; Second Edition, iUniverse, An Authors Guild Backinprint.com Edition, 2011.
Varieties of Magic Realism. Academic Press ENE (Ediciones Nuevo Espacio), 2007.
Libido into Literature: The “Primera Epoca” of Benito Pérez Galdós, Borgo Press, 1993. Second Edition, iUniverse, An Authors Guild Backinprint.com Edition, 2011.
SPANISH LANGUAGE INSTRUCTION
Spanish at Your Fingertips, Alpha, Penguin/Putnam,2007.
Alpha Teach Yourself Spanish in 24 Hours 2nd Edition, Alpha, Penguin/Putnam, 2004.
Estilo literario: Análisis y creación, Dumont, Snyder & Kocin, 1990.
Fernando Sorrentino, Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, New Edition: translation, greatly expanded notes, appendix of short biographies, and foreword by Clark M. Zlotchew (2010)
Isla Negra: Poems by Pablo Neruda, trans. Zlotchew, Maloney and Jacketti (2001)
Neruda at Isla Negra: Poems, trans. Zlotchew, Maloney and Jacketti (1998)
The House in the Sand: Prose Poems by Pablo Neruda, translated by Clark M. Zlotchew and Dennis Maloney (1990)
Falling Through the Cracks: Stories by Julio Ricci, selected, translated and with introduction by Clark M. Zlotchew (1989)
Pablo Neruda, The House at Isla Negra, translated by Clark M. Zlotchew and Dennis Maloney, photographs by Milton Rogovin, foreword by Marjorie Agosin, afterword by Ariel Dorfman (1988)
Light and Shadows: Selected Poems and Prose of Juan Ramón Jiménez, ed. Dennis Maloney. Translated by Robert Bly, Dennis Maloney, Antonio T. de Nicolas, James Wright and Clark Zlotchew (1987)
(The translations listed above are of works by Nobel Laureates, Pablo Neruda and by Juan Ramón Jiménez.) The two other authors (Julio Ricci, and Fernando Sorrentino) are NOT Nobel Laureates.
Short Fiction in Literary Journals
“Shaving Grandpa” in Taj Mahal Review Vol. 21, No. 1, June 2021.
“Beating a Dead Horse” in The Abstract Elephant Magazine 6-30-2021.
“Stirred, Not Shaken” in The Abstract Elephant Magazine 5-28-2021.
“Chastity Jones” in Literary Yard (India) 5-10-2021.
“Music Hath Charms” in Lothlorien Poetry Journal (U.K.) 5-9-2021.
“A Merry Trencherman” in The Abstract Elephant Magazine 4-28-2021.
“Epiphany” in Lothlorien Poetry Journal April 2021 Issue 4-15-2021.
“Kismet” in Jewish Affairs. Vol. 76, No. 2 (Autumn-Winter 2021.)
“Kismet” in Mediterranean Poetry (Sweden) 2-26-2021.
“Forks in the Road” in The Abstract Elephant Magazine, 2-26-2021.
“A Tale of Two Dictatorships” in The Abstract Elephant Magazine, 2-8-2021.
“The Cat Lady” in Vote Early, Read Often: Scars Publications 2020 Short Story/Art Collection Anthology, 11-8-2020.
“The Cat Lady” in Foundations, 4-19-2020.
“The Cat Lady” in Down in the Dirt, Vol. 170, April 2020 Issue. PRINT 4-1-2020,
“The Cat Lady” in Down in the Dirt ONLINE 6-28-2019.
“The Cat Lady” First Published in Soft Cartel. 6-16-2018.
“A Man of the World” in Literary Yard (India) 10-8-2020.
“A Drop of Milk” in Jewish Affairs (South Africa) Spring 2020, 10-6-2020.
“Genghis Khan, Humanitarian” in The Satirist: America’s Most Critical Journal, 9-27-2020.
“Merrow” Part 2, in The World of Myth, October Issue (Issue #89) 10-24-2020.
“Merrow” Part I, in The World of Myth, September Issue (Issue #88) 9-24-2020.
“Borges, Joe Sims and I” in The Decadent Review, 7-10-2020.
“An Exotic Banquet” in The Satirist, America’s Most Critical Journal, 6-30-2020.
“Reality” in Jewish Affairs (South Africa) Fall 2020 Issue, 5-21-2020.
“My Friend Joey” in Jewish Affairs (South Africa) 11-15-2019.
“Lorelei” in Fishbowl Press (Germany) Print, 9-5-2019.
“Lorelei” in Fishbowl Press (Germany) Online, 8-30-2020.
“Voyage to Fulfillment” in Crossways Literary Magazine, #5 (Ireland) February 2019.
“The Face in the Portrait” in Inwood Indiana, Empty Silos issue 12-9-2018.
“Cuba on the Brink: 1957-1958,” in Soft Cartel, 5-15-2018.
“The Nicaraguan Dagger,” in Inwood Indiana, (“Unwanted Visitors” issue) 1-24-2018.
“A Haunting Bolero” in Sick Lit Magazine, 4-12-2017.
“Privacy Through Technology” in Obra/Artifact 4-6-2017.
“Man of Adventure” in Baily’s Beads 1-25-2017.
“The Old Salt” in Scrutiny Journal: A Journal of Magical Realism, 1-1-2016.
“Shame,” Writers Post Journal, May 2006.
“Getting the Message,” Lake Effects, 1996, 9-14.
“The Unexamined Life,” The New Review: A National Magazine of Contemporary Literature, No. 5 (Fall 1993), 53-56.
“Circle Dance,” Tier Drops (1993), 19-23.
Books on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=zlotchew&i=stripbooks&s=review-count-rank&qid=1631133714&ref=sr_st_review-count-rank
Image from Free-Photos on Pixabay
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