NEA Literature Fellowships

Martin Pousson

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(2014 - Prose)

Excerpt from "The Revelator"

When I turned thirteen, the red marks began to appear on my skin. At first, they looked like a rash. A thick line of twisting purple blossoms, like a rose vine, went creeping over my arms as if the nerves beneath were flowering. One tiny bud opened first on my hand, in the crook where a pen would go. Others burst open in radiating zig-zag lines. A little cluster of blooms, each a shade darker than the next. Not blood, not wine, not even crimson, the petals grew blurry at the edges with an anxious pink, the cherry glow of a cigarette. Then a larger mark burst out on my neck, just below the ear. Violet, like a hive.

By then, there was talk about the damage of the oil derricks, all the sulfur and minerals drilled out of the ground and into the air. Industrial silos rose up all around us, issuing smoky gray clouds like uneasy brain lobes that hung in the sky longer than any thunderstorm. The bayou water, too, took on a sick look, with a bilious green that oozed like a running sore. Water needs to breathe, everyone said, through tight lips. Over a long stretch of bayou country, in a crescent-shaped alley, cancer blossomed like kudzu in lungs, in stomachs and colons, in glands and tissues with names no one could pronounce. Tumors, seizures, fits that got chalked up to the nerves, and odd skin rashes.

But mine wasn’t a rash. Instead, like my outlaw papère, I was a vein-hunting warrior, only I wanted to let the juice out not in, let it burn not cool. I wanted to flick my finger in the air too, gnash teeth, crunch bones. After leaping from a second floor railing, though, I only crunched my own bone—a fractured femur. Still, the pain shook me into relief, and I soon started running a finger across the sharp edge of a tin can, walking my feet across a spilled box of brass tacks, and slapping my head with my hands. Something wanted out, so I held a lighter to a steak knife and punctured a vein. I lit another cigarette, pressed it to my flesh. I grabbed another knife, touched it to my tongue. No matter how hard I tried, I never shifted shape, never stopped lisping, never became the hairy man in the stories Mama spun. My own wild thoughts were not aimed at anyone else, not aimed outside at all. No, the revelation I wanted to avoid stirred in my pants and sat like a tongue of fire in my forehead.

With the wrong side of a curling iron, I straightened my hair into the look of a California surfer. With strips of electrical tape, I pulled my jug ears back and looked nearly like a boy on a family TV show. But no amount of pressing or pulling could keep my tongue from hissing into a lisp or my hands from flapping like a bird. The hidden face I feared stared back in the mirror. Sooner or later, he’d want out of the mask.

When I met my papère, he’d lost all speech, French or otherwise. He grunted, and his wife brought him a can of soda with a bent straw. He groaned, and one of the boys smacked his good leg with a flat palm while the other seemed to shiver. He had no words, but—unlike me—he got his meaning out. If he could’ve spoken, what would the outlaw have said to his grandson? Would he have greeted him as a fellow rebel, a renegade fairy? If he had both legs, would he have raised the sissy-boy onto his shoulders and paraded him through town, shouting his pride in French? Or would he have slipped off his belt and delivered the first blessing?

In my own version of the Sabine story, my werewolf papère stands at the mouth of the den, fending off higher predators. We may be hungry, our tongues may be white, but when a basket of food appears, he lifts a leg over it, sprays, and kicks it away. He stands his ground and keeps constant watch for any change in the air, any sudden noise or movement. At night, with his long tongue, he licks the wounds on my skin until they suture and form gray scabs. In the morning, he clicks them each with his toe, and the scabs fall off. A shock goes through me, and my face breaks into a troubled smile. All around, the smell of roses.

Martin Pousson was born and raised in the bayou land of Acadiana. His novel, No Place, Louisiana, was published by Riverhead Books and was a finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Award. His collection of poetry, Sugar, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. His writing has appeared in numerous journals and reviews including Antioch Review, Epoch, StoryQuarterly, Parnassus, The Rattling Wall, Cimarron Review, and New Orleans Review. He lives in Los Angeles, teaches at California State University, Northridge, and is working on a story collection called Black Sheep Boy.

Photo courtesy of Martin Pousson

Author's Statement

“We become the stories we tell ourselves,” Michael Cunningham wrote in A Home at the End of the World. We also become the stories no one tells, the ones we must read in secret. For 47 years, the NEA has awarded renegades in fiction, risk-takers and rule-breakers like Cunningham. Along the way those writers have imagined us into an open closet of selves. What once was hidden shows its face in the tattoo of a story. What once was forbidden lifts its skirt in the graffiti of a novel. The news of this NEA fellowship reminds me to dare more, to risk more, to peer deeper into the dark of the closet. Or else, to lift my skirt a little higher. For all that and more, thank you to the NEA.