Simon Jacobs had an idea for a recurring series: flash fiction pieces in which the characters reenact famous works of art. Being a home for art and lit to meet and clash and mix, Paper Darts couldn't say no.
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I asked you once if you’d ever considered having children—not because I wanted to have them, but because there was a silence I was either trying to fill or stretch endlessly into infinity. You were standing at the window with your hands on your hips as if surveying your kingdom, and there was something in the dismal, squat, slowly emptying buildings beneath us that reminded me of posterity. I was barefoot, which was unusual.
It worked. I’d barely gotten the words out when you broke into a peal of crackly laughter. “Have you ever seen a baby in a medieval fresco? They look like fucking monsters.”
It involved a cat that I fitted with feathery wings and a harness. We named him Peter, after the fact, and like most cats, he was a breaking point.
We were living in an empty theatre in a once-central part of town. Beneath the spotlight, you, as Oedipus, draped a patterned tablecloth over your otherwise-naked form in a tasteful way fitting the conventions of nineteenth-century French oils (no bush), I adjusted the pulley system so the hook dangled at just about chest level, and then I retrieved our sphinx. The cat—who often roamed the neighborhood in absence of its people—was lean and feisty and the color of beach sand, but once I latched his harness he went limp, hanging dejectedly in the air like the pendulum of a grandfather clock.
The classical 1936 Samuel Barber composition—widely regarded to be among the saddest ever—wasn’t something we did just once; in our best days, it was an entire epoch between us, a work we returned to time and time again. We’d put the record on and turn the volume up so loud that it filled the entire building, chins rising and falling as if in accordance with our very own hearts (as Mr. Barber intended), and then we’d drag out the props to recreate whatever dramatic scene from one of the twelve dozen movies that used this song.
My favorite sequence comes, of course, from Platoon, when Willem Dafoe, abandoned by his company on the jungle floor, bursts from the trees with swarms of VC at his heels, theatrical explosions rending the background, gets shot about a dozen times in slow motion, and then finally, falling to his knees, reaches his arms up, Christ-like, at the passing helicopters of his squadmates. I’ve always had a bit of a jungle fetish and a knack for pyrotechnics . . .
Alone again, I set a sheet of plate glass about my length against the bare, whitewashed wall at a 45-degree angle. I set a clock to midnight. I scoot into the triangle-shaped opening between the glass and the wall and lie flat on my back, a new home. I close my eyes. It’s like the version of a structure you make in the woods for the night by draping a tarp over a wayward branch.
“A lean-to,” I say to myself, momentarily contented with my knowledge of this terminology, as if, in some entirely separate life, I might be a woodsman or a gatherer, someone who uses his hands and wits as a replacement for technology, with full body hair and shapely calves.
I build the baby octopus first—the mouth-kissing one—as a test of my construction methods.
Literally, the Japanese title of the 1814 Hokusai print translates to “octopi and shell diver”; the woodcut design—each strand of hair, suction cup, and cresting wave meticulously detailed—is beautifully tender. Its principles engage in an amorous, onomatopoeia-laden dialogue printed in the background, cramped and ecstatic, the whole work a testament to an era of floating world pleasures and higher lung capacity.