White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
Sarah Walko is a sculpture/installation/new media artist and writer born in Pittsburgh, PA. She obtained her Master of Fine Arts from Savannah College of Art and Design and her Bachelor of Arts from University of Maryland, College Park, MD. She is currently the Executive Director of Triangle Arts Association. She has participated in numerous artists workshops and residency programs and was the Art Director for the independent film Ever Amado which was shown at the 2007 Berlinale International Film Festival, Berlin, Germany. She is currently working on sculpture and multimedia film/animation projects, in addition to writing. Her essay "Fields" was featured in Issue 1.1 of White Whale Review.

From the Current Issue
Subscribe to RSS     Share


Sarah Walko

you shall above all things be young

For if you're young, whatever life you wear

it will become you; and living will yourself become.

Young, learn from one bird how to sing

Young, teach ten thousand stars how to dance


Part 1: Conduits

John Edward McHugh stomped his foot each evening on the front porch of the house that he built. He was a railroad car inspector serving the Grand Island Nebraska neighborhood and the eldest of nine; Irene, Rose, Harold and Gerald, Kate, Vess, Jim, and Ester. Harold and Gerald were twins. Gerald died instantly young while driving a truck. It was cut off by another truck and careened off the road, rupturing the fuel tank and sparked the explosion. John was sent to identify his body but there was no body, just a gold tooth floating in a room full of ash. He snatched it and carried it in his pocket from that moment until the day he drank himself to death below the silent porch.

He was a skilled carpenter and before he was a railroad car inspector he built houses. When he was in the garage working he didn't stop for anything and the scars on his fingers reflected it. His hands were two-hundred-year-old oaks with rivets that served as holding compartments for his violin strings once the moon rose. He only had a third of his stomach after the age of forty due to ulcers. His worry about strong houses and smooth rails, knuckled him inside and out. He never sang. Unsung words formed the floorboards of the creaking porches of all of his houses. They swayed in unsilence.

His wife out-walked words and wore down sidewalks in the town, indented colorless paths to and from the liquor store for him. Catherine Cecelia Gebhart McHugh was born and raised in Grand Island. When she was a little girl her mother forced her to practice the piano five or six hours a day and constantly permed her hair into tiny, tight curls. Her father died when she was seven and when he did her mother bought a duplex with four units and rented them out. On the ground level she ran a beauty shop, doling out petrified curls to the whole town. Catherine’s hair held those curls until a cold

quiet February evening when she died, the exact day as her husband John twenty-two years later.

John and Catherine met at a dance because neither of them were dancing. They didn't walk home that night, they marched and there they stayed and stomped for over a decade. The stone curls, unquiet floors, and proud crowds of violinists followed them around the house. Catherine’s feet moved back and forth, back and forth, back and forth between three piano pedals, practicing while she slept each night, leaving her sleep-deprived, and parched. One evening she spoke to the simple moon and the next morning she left.

Risk is the word she etched onto the wood of her

bedside table that morning right before she woke her two girls Genie and Rosie and the three of them began their march. It was oak, the bone of trees. She carved into it with a jagged edge of one of her spinal column vertebra, extracted from her small frame. John and his violin both lay sleeping in the corner of the room, the whole thing cantilevered slightly that way with the colors running outside the lines and the lines themselves disconnected so while dreaming he slid off the page. The last thing Catherine took the morning she left was the wooden battery of the violin, the bridge. She replaced her damaged vertebra and closed the door. When he played his music that night the town heard only gurgling and faint desperate gulps. When Catherine silently walked with her two little girls into their new home the walls began to hum.

Part 2: The Observable Qualities of Footsteps

Catherine told her girls We are the size of words, and they whistled as they went, stumbling over themselves. The apartment was on the third floor of a poorly built house in Omaha, twenty-two miles from Grand Island. It was made of dry branches and

dead twigs. Everything snapped, unstrong. Genie was the youngest, twelve years old at the time. The apartment had three rooms; a kitchen, a living room and a bedroom. They shared the bathroom in the hallway with the other tenants, and their landlord went into their apartment when they weren't home.

Genie and Rosie began skipping school the moment the others began to sneer at Genie's lazy left eye and the patch she wore over her right. They stayed in the apartment and when they heard his footsteps they hid under the bed. He entered and they watched his feet for almost an hour as he went through their drawers, sifting through nightgowns, broomsticks, Brahms, tin cans, fruit, and extra faucets for their sinks. His giant grassy shoes led the clash of choirs and the snapping amplified, underwater noise. Genie could see everything because her patch allowed her to see clearly in the dark.

They hid in the hall closet when Catherine came home, unmoving, side by side in the bottom compartment. After she passed and closed the door, they would wait, barely breathing. Then they

would squeeze out, creep down the stairs, turn around, and stomp up. When it was raining they put on their galoshes, ran outside to soak, and then in again, panting. Genie was named after Gene Tierney and Rosie always told her if she was born into an actors name and a pirate’s eye, she should know how to put on a show when summoned.

Their first apartment was smaller than a drawer, so at night they lay their heads on pillows of stacked books. Catherine's head was so heavy they gave way. They would harden again once she woke each morning she would place the melted books on the floor as a doorstop. Blurred words in three volume dreams drifted from that third floor drawer. Wax and plaster geometry, loose feathers, different styles of doorknob marched around the room. One of the doorknobs asked her what would you do if you did not clean the rooms in the motel on South Locust Street? She did not reply. She hummed while she cleaned and her fingers moved fast, twiddling over folds and dust keys.

Other nights in the drawer, Catherine, Genie and Rosie would share the same dream. In that small space the books spoke to them. They asked the

three of them how to breathe. No one answered. They all fished around the drawer and found crumpled up sheets of music in the corners, formerly employed as book marks for books half read by their former husband and father. They showed the books the breath mark in musical notation, the comma in language, the pause. Genie's dream had an alternate ending. The books asked her alone who invented questions. She replied by holding up the sheet music and pointing to the notes.

That first winter blew gusts of wind trapped in war-galleys and snow that overtook everything like mothers set in their ways. They watched out the window in late December as it played without them and were unable to hear the roar, two rows of organs of the senses and deafs brought to the symphony to judge the talent of winter. One cold evening when she got home from work, Catherine told Genie and Rosie with a hesitant nod to get into the car.

Where're we goin’?

She looked out the window, squinting through

the dark cold.

We need a tree.

When she pulled the car into the parking lot Catherine told them to wait. She left the car running, but the heat was broken.

I'm cold.

Shhhh. She'll be right back.

Genie began to hum.

Quiet Genie!!

But I'm cold. I gotta do something so I don't think of it.

Shut up or…. just wiggle around.

Genie giggled. Wiggle?


So she began to wiggle as best she could while sitting in the cramped back seat until Rosie began to laugh.

Where's Mom, Rosie?

Dunno. Can't see anything from here, why we parked so far away?

Then they saw her, running toward them, a tree in her hands, the bottom of the trunk dragging slightly, leaving a line in the snow behind her.

Open the door Genie.

Genie reached across and swung it open. The moment she did she was buried beneath falling needles and gangly branches, the tree slung across her horizontal on the back seat. Rosie's eyes got wide, then she pressed her lips together for a moment and then burst out laughing. Her laughter shook the car more than the wiggling and ignited a forgotten furnace. Genie scrambled from behind the small tree in the back to see if the laughter was directed toward her. When she saw Catherine, she also began to laugh. Catherine lurched the car backwards, almost hitting more slain trees and peeled away, her pants soaked with urine.

That night they decorated the tree, singing Christmas songs the roar of the wind couldn't hear. It stared in through their windows, curious. Genie found old clothes of her father’s that Catherine

brought with the intention to cut for cleaning rags, and put them on and pretended to be him, drunkenly playing a violin of a trimmed tree branch and a closed umbrella. Their laughter shook the drawer. Everything stirred and tilted. In the darkness that night Genie said she was sorry to her father and meant it because she took the patch off of her right eye when she said it.

Nothin' against you or strong houses.

Then she held both eyes open with her fingers so she could see the exact moment her dreams entered. When they did Genie asked the books what color they thought breath was, if it was a color. They told her:

Orange, like the sun.

But the sun is yellow?

One book fell off of the stack, its title When It Sets. Large orange clouds began to drift in and float around the drawer, breath beads as the questions and commas if we were the size of words.

Catherine came home from work one evening at the end of the winter and sat down with Genie.

Rosie came over too, with the serious eyes.

Genie, I need you to write a letter to your father to ask him for money, Catherine told her.

We’ll help you write it! Rosie chimed in.

He will listen to you. He will listen to you. Catherine repeated.

So together they composed a short letter from Genie, asking for money and saying hello.

A day later the letter replied, brought by a crow from twenty-two miles away and deposited in Genie’s blanket, the first thing she saw when she woke. It contained money and four words without a question mark, Will you come back. Catherine smiled silently then used the note as a bookmark and the money for fresh fruit in the weeks that followed.

They stayed in the first apartment for six months. The second apartment was two blocks away on the second floor, and they had their own bathroom. The landlord and his daughter lived on the 1st floor. She was crippled young in an auto accident which left her bedridden, and she cried out

during the night. Across the alley, the neighbors had a caged spider monkey. Three days after they moved in, it got out of its cage, and they watched it jump out and rip open the left leg of their neighbor who was trying to chase it. Genie would lie awake in the dark with her patch off and listened to the spider monkey in the cage below, the crippled daughter crying out in the room below, the neighbor across the alleyway rebandaging his leg, a symphony of all things snatched.

Part 3: Piles of Eyelashes in Korea

In June of 1967 Genie married a John. John Thomas Walko. He died young gradually. His lung cancer left with him and she stood on the sidewalk in front of their home in Pittsburgh with four children, a high school diploma and a piano. John Thomas Walko was also a skilled carpenter building floorboards and strong houses. He also built sidewalks and spaces, which we didn't know until the morning we moved. He built himself a space on the sidewalk right there with us. Then, the five of us together with one diploma, one piano and one space; we went on an adventure.

When we left the house the day the adventure

began Genie told us We are the size of words. And we whistled as we went, stumbling over ourselves. As we rode inside the moving truck on our way to the new house we passed a field that stretched for miles next to the highway. Rays of white light filtered up from underground and we saw women walking, counting the dead, losing track and beginning again. Some were stepping over anything in front of them, eyes focused on the horizon, feet playing from muscle memory. In the middle of the field were mattresses stacked on top of each other and the pea at the bottom was a portal, ship window, and on the glass were light water stains, signs of splashing.

Genie's husband's father was also a John. John Thomas Walko Sr., born February 7th, 1924. He committed suicide on his front porch after everyone said he left half of his mind in Korea and the other half in World War II. He spent most of his time on his front porch, wooden battlefield, carving tally marks in the banisters. He spent one afternoon before That afternoon plucking every single hair out of his entire body with tweezers. He pulled his eyelashes out last, leaving more family piles of

petrified curls. He stood on the porch hairless and naked except for his six war medals.

When Genie arrived at the new house, she remembered what Rosie had told her on a day long ago, when they had arrived with their mother to their first apartment in Omaha. She had taken her outside and said she had a secret about crying.

Lean forward.

Lean forward?

Yep, so you can see the tears roll off the end of your eyelashes, then they never touch your cheeks, going straight from eye to sky.

She pointed up, even though tears roll down.

Together, they stood in the gray afternoon on the new front porch of that apartment, while everyone in Omaha was at work and they watched them roll, note after note, even, lean, form, fall. Other unleashed tears without lashes to roll from began to swerve like inebriated water, notes without a staff to rest upon with too many voices singing different songs, unclear, everything got blurry.

When John Thomas Sr. shot himself on the front porch of his home, Genie's future husband John Jr. had to go identify the body. This was 1955 and John Jr. was twelve years old at the time. Genie and her John both walked away from theirs fathers' still bodies at the same age at the same moment, half a continent apart. There was no gold or ash on the porch that afternoon in Pittsburgh where John Jr. was sent to identify the body, as Genie’s father had found. There was only the infinite quiet of stunned that permeates the ears of ones who view the aftermath of an explosion. There was nothing there at all except for a small left over pile of eyelashes in the corner scattered a bit in one direction by the blow. From far away it looked like a horseshoe, or the letter U or a jaw, deflated.

Part 4: Faint Humming in the Water and Werewolves Howling to Maria

John Thomas Jr. had one and one quarter of his lungs removed before he died. Between the two Johns, one with a removed lung, the other a removed stomach, absent family organs were released into the water like malformed paper ships. They were found floating in a shallow pool near the

beach, muffled noises coming from them. Two curious boys found them, and they held out sticks and poked the pouches, creating two holes. It was then that they heard a howl. The howl didn't scare them, it just made them grow younger. They squinted their eyes into the watery holes to try to see the wolves and they grew small. Small enough that they could crawl in, launch from shore and set sail again.

Catherine died instantly old, from a puncture wound to her heart that her doctor accidentally poked. There was no howling, just buzz and static, the sound stars make. But the doctor grew smaller. Genie had all of the organs petrified and placed them on the mantel of our new home in Pittsburgh. She placed a small flower in the holes of each of the still organs and the vases docked, rocks on the Moon with sprout life. Next to them was a small framed sentence which read Wolves Howl at Maria. Before Catherine died, she remarried. Her second husband was a kind man with only one thumb. The missing one had been loped off in a tractor accident on the Nebraska plains. He took her dancing every Saturday night.

Genie told us that the dark plains we can see when the Moon is full are named Maria. Maria is Latin for seas, and they are found almost exclusively on the near side. When the Moon figures in mythology, it is with the contrast of the Solar deities. This was also the presentation on the mantel in our new home. Across from the petrified organs, the rocks of the moon were three spools of yellow thread and a leaning, unframed mirror.

She told us about female lunar deities, such as the Greek goddesses Selene and Phoebe and their Olympian successor Artemis, and their Roman equivalents Luna and Diana. These cultures also feature a male sun god and male lunar gods. She told us about Nanna or Sin of the Mesopotamians, Mani of the Germanic tribes, Thoth of the Egyptians, and the Japanese god Tsukuyomi. She told us about cults, including one that appeared in medieval Milan at the end of the 14th century which led to two women of higher society, Sibillia Zanni and Pietrina de' Bugatis, to be brought before the Inquisition twice for having claimed that, together with others living and dead, they worshipped the goddess Madonna Oriente. Madonna Oriente is the Italian translation of the Latin words Domina

Oriens, the name used to denote the Moon. Those who worshipped her were the first female Inquisition victims to be burned as witches, although not the first victims of persecution as alleged witches. We asked her if pirates believe in witches.

I believe pirates could not get anywhere without the moon, she told us.

When Genie tucked us in at night in the new house, she did not say prayers. She disclosed a secret ingredient of the universe. We chanted in the name of the sun, moon, stars, shoulder-to-shoulder, hmmmm, in unison. Then we were told a new ingredient every night. One night she told us the access code of the crescent moon. 37, 29, 12, 44. She explained that when they are said with an equal pause between each one so they sound like notes or knocking, the door made of bullhorns will open and there is the water, hiding in the darkness during much of the month. 37 is the percent of the moon visible during quarters. The time between two full moons is 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes. Maria is still a woman and is in her dressing room and dressing gown and her eyes are glowing yellow

gold with specks of black inside. When you look closely, you can see the specks are sunspots and ancient bees petrified in amber.

One night she told us the words lunacy, lunatic, and loony are derived from Luna because of the folk belief in the moon as a cause of periodic insanity, and that in modern belief, shape-shifters, such as werewolves, drew their power from the full moon and would change into their bestial form. She said the purported influence of the moon in human affairs remains a curious feature of astrology. We asked if the purported influence of the moon in the lives of Catherine and all the Johns remains a curious feature of familial history. She sat quiet for a long time. Then she told us that there are two types of fear and too often people spend their lives at one end, at the other, or somewhere in between.

What are the two types?

The fear of dying and the fear of living, she said and then looked out the window for a long time. Then she walked out of the room, closed the door and held the steel banister in the hallway as she leaned forward and let her eyelashes take their places as dozens of tiny conductors to her

orchestra of salty organs.

Genie had to explain multiple nights in a row about the little woman inside our heads who organizes. The brain librarian. She watches all information that enters,

compartmentalizes and labels,

discards and archives,

buries and shelves.

Sometimes, in extreme circumstances, she pulls out a pencil and erases. In some libraries there is a large Horror section. The Sad sections are lined with fish tanks overflowing with ancient cloudy water, the glass dotted with light water stains, signs of splashing. There are other shelves with golden antagonists, heaving speech, blue guitars, finches, the fundamentals of harmony, the elements of illustration, whistles and chamber ensembles. The Stunned and Awed sections are lined with peacocks, indice eyes. She also told us about the section that holds only one memory on one small shelf. It is labeled Blessed. This is the section everyone has when they are born.

Genie and the four of us had the same dream once as well, passing it from one to the other

through the space of the room. In that dream, there were no books, there were no more words left. Anywhere, anymore. An empty space walked up to us after walking a long way and looked at us, eyes tired. It asked us the same question several times without waiting for the answer:

Does the wind move?

We didn't answer. We just stood up and held out our arms and pigeons fluttered through the window and landed on them. We placed the pigeons, along with a bucket full of eye patches and a telescope in the space. Genie’s alabaster knuckles shone, when she handed over her birds and each breath we took belonged to all of those patchless eyes. Genie told us the next morning that one reason that pirates

wore a patch on their eyes was so that one eye could always be adjusted to darkness: therefore, they always had both night and day vision. Sun up or sun down, they could see clearly.

Part 5: The Invention of Old

Genie brought us a chambered nautilus shell one night as an ingredient to catalog. The shell, when cut, reveals a lining of nacre, and displays a nearly perfect equiangular spiral, the example of the golden ratio. She told us the golden ratio can be found in the branches along the stems of plants, or the veins in leaves, in the skeletons of animals, veins and nerves, and even the geometry of crystals. She said it is a universal law. We asked if a universal law is different from an ingredient of the universe. She said that yes it was different but the ingredients were a part of them, they are ground principles, all formative striving for beauty and completeness in nature and art, all structures, forms and proportions, whether cosmic or individual, organic or inorganic, acoustic or optical. It is the spirit, she told us, and its fullest realization is in the human form.

When Genie and I drove away from the second

house seventeen years later, we saw the field again as the car bumped along the road. It was evening. The sky was still light blue but fading. One of the women pointed to the moon and all of the others looked up. Their heads are tilted back and their eyes launched thin beams, like strings, upward and latched on. They contained every color of the spectrum in perfectly placed compartments of nacre. Rising, spinning, branches, DNA wands, elongated stretched sight, stretched light. I asked her aloud this time if she saw the women in the field.

She replied What field?

When I pointed, she was quiet for a long time. Then she told a story about the third apartment she, Rosie and Catherine lived in. It was next to a funeral home. She and Rosie began to fear of every creak and hum, every snap and whip that had brought them comfort in all of their other chattering houses, the cacophonous box leaving them sleepless for seven days. Catherine saw this, and after seven nights she rolled over inside the drawer and told them she had something to say to them. They leaned in, shuffling around, knocking

against handles and strings and translucent bricks. Paper flowers spilled onto the floor and the drawer grew smaller. They waited for her words.

Be more afraid of the living than the dead, she told them. The dead help make the music.

Everything shifted and sleep drifted immediately into the drawer as they heard for the first time one lone drum beat holding together all the slats and moss.

We still have dreams of dwarfed words, blown down drawers and log cabins, which are sturdier than sticks. Floorboards still hum. In the field, birds spell out phrases as they touch ground to reach for worms through the grass, between the life-size dead. Nets lifts from landscapes, holding dark clouds, centuries, weather satellites, fish, shells, birds, bees, twigs and drums. They seep with song, humming, buzzing, howling, static, silence heresy. They float around the room. But, nets are the opposite of snatch.

This may have some sort of foundation in history, or only some small foundation in our familial history. The story was old when we heard it

young. We didn’t ask, it came to our ears. We were told there is no need to worry if it occurred in your part of the world, or here, or twenty two miles east of Babylon. Unraveled, we are stretched still further, and some lives are not any longer than the lines we drew in our sketchbook or one sentence on the page. Some lines are just blurred words, brickwork, tree height. The trees grow inventors, and they invent the ability to transform wishbones into stone. They use the stone slingshots, loaded with sand and ash, pieces of orange peels and red ink and shoot upwards, so the line of flight floats down, tethering together everything on the ground with dyed dust and specks of orange inside, sunspots and future bees for paper flowers. They connect the dots so that we, and the books, can see that everything's composition is the same.




Copyright© Sarah Walko. White Whale Review, issue 1.2

Previous Author Prev Next Author