From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Yell Alley

It is a hotel room, a motel room, an inner-city squat, a cot in a hostel where the water won’t run, a hunter’s platform in a pinewood, a forsaken tree house, a root-cellar beneath a ruined country cottage, a hut perched on one hopping chicken foot, a boathouse in a campground, a sheet-tent in a graveyard, a park bench, a phone booth, a tool shed in suburbia, a window seat on a cross-country bus, an aisle seat on a midnight train, the backseat of a station wagon scrapped and dissolving in a junkyard; a lean-to, a storefront, an entryway, a box.

There is no house number, no apartment number, no suite number, no room number. Or, if there is, it is borrowed, not its own, or not only its own: it is shared, it is worn like a skin it can shed in a breath. Room 434, floor 11. Cabin 9. Suite 27 in that condemned office building, plunked down along the interstate like a headstone, with the hills splayed out behind it like some backdrop for some film. The Green Room in the hostel with the sinkholes in the floor. Seats 63 and 64, row J, flight 118 to Chicago, Venice, Montréal, Buenos Aires, Kyoto, Sydney, Berne.

Sometimes in the seats they find old passports, bookmarks, key rings, love letters, manifestos, tabloid clippings, contraceptives, violets pressed to dust between the endpapers of a book. Sometimes in the woods they find skipping-stones, arson-colored leaves, inexplicable seashells, salamanders, breadcrumbs describing vague lines through the undergrowth, stars. Sometimes on old doors, they find the numbers gone but the lighter color of the wood remaining, oak, pine, maple, pressboard, stained synthetics, laminate, pale ghosts of numbers where the numbers used to be.

It has one door, no doors, a cave-mouth hung with teeth of ice, the swished drape of a printed bed sheet, emptiness full of shouting to all sides, emptiness full of whispers to all sides, emptiness full of wind and falling snow, silent emptiness.

It has a few windows, lots of windows, a whole bank of windows, no windows at all.

There is one bed, there are two beds, there is a blanket in a cul-de-sac, there is a little folding cot that smells like being lost in a fallen city, there is a pew in a warm church, there is a nest of leaves.

The walls are eggshell, cobalt, satsuma, chartreuse, terracotta, aubergine, vermilion, taupe, malachite, khaki, thistle, brick-colored, real brick, striped, checkered, sponge-painted, with duct tape holding them together, with ivy crawling up the columns, with a pointillist mural commemorating the insurrection, with flocked Victorian wallpaper in a bruise-colored orchid motif.

There is hot and cold running water, there is only cold running water but a kettle to warm it, there is a well with no bucket, there is a hand cupped to a puddle by a curb, there is a public fountain in the plaza, there is a drought and they’ve been looking for the creek for two days, they’d kill for five seconds alone with that fountain or even with that puddle, it’s fine weather for forest fires and they’re praying for the rain.

If there is a nightstand, a bureau, a battered vanity, an apothecary’s chest, a cardsharp’s table, a drywall, a folding tray, a lap, a tomb, on its surface these things are the ones most likely to appear: reading glasses, chewing gum, a little hotel bottle of shampoo, a road map, half a bar of chocolate (dark), subway tokens, cherry lozenges, a Swiss Army knife, the wrapper from a sandwich, a diner napkin covered with an unintelligible penciled scrawl, a kaleidoscope discovered drifting down the Seine, a rosebud in a paper cup, a rusted ring of keys found in an irrigation ditch that afternoon, two ticket stubs from a Swedish indie film, a pearl-handled derringer, a game of tic-tac-toe autographed by the hero of the Revolution, lacquered Japanese chopsticks (two sets), a jump rope, a sailor’s hat, three nectarines, a plastic compass, a rhinestone wristwatch, a slingshot or perhaps a dowsing rod, a map of the London Underground drawn with felt pen on a leaf, and a hassled-looking volume of Russian folktales from the time of Catherine the Great, leather-bound and fat enough to concuss somebody with, which they found in the drawer where the Bible and phone book ought to by rights have been.

If there is a bed, beneath it there will be one pair of badly stained canvas tennis shoes and one pair of knee-high green suede shitkickers. Or else, one pair of flip flops and one pair of galoshes. One pair of vintage yellow Converse All-Stars and one pair of glossy pumps. Ballet shoes and Doc Martens. Jellies and stiletto heels. Beaded moccasins and patent leather Mary Janes. Hiking boots and roller skates. Plush slippers: one pair with the heads and tails of angelfish, one pair with the heads and tails of wolverines. Two pairs of sandals cut out from tire rubber with a machete and stapled to some braided twine. No shoes whatsoever.

Always there will be a welcome mat before the door, or where they think the door might once have been or else might like to be, if anyone had asked for its opinion. Always there will be a mailbox sitting on the floor beside the welcome mat. It will be a salvaged shoebox, a paper bag, a bright red plastic bucket abandoned on a beach by some jaded architect of sandcastles, a stomped-in fiddle case, a lunchbox, a grinning pumpkin rescued from a doorstep three days after Halloween, an exquisite Mayan artisanal basket from Chiapas, Mexico.

  1. The welcome mat says YELL ALLEY in big letters. Always that. Only that. Nothing else.
  2. The mailbox is important. Someone might be trying to reach them. (Are you?)
  3. These items ward the door.
  4. When you find them, you will know where you are.
#

In Yell Alley, Anna lives, and Eve. These are not their names. Their names have not been changed in order to preserve their privacy; nor are these names code names or spy names or stage names or noms de plume or guerre. They’re just stopgaps for their real names, which they can’t seem to remember anymore. In any case, it was Anna who made the names they’ve got now. She sewed Anna on to Anna and Eve on to Eve, just like she was reattaching wanderlustish shadows, and she must have stitched them neat and tight, because they stuck.

As for their relationship to each other, they’ve finally whittled down their possibilities to these: they are sisters, lovers, friends, colleagues, archenemies, acquaintances.

Not colleagues, Anna thinks, because as far as she can tell, they aren’t really doing any work to speak of.

Not archenemies, Eve thinks, because if they were she’d probably have suffocated Anna in her sleep by this point, or shoved her in the path of a speeding taxi, or sprinkled rat poison in her organic quinoa flakes, or bartered her for use in scientific experiments in exchange for a new wardrobe or a border collie or a Vespa.

Not lovers, they both know by now, because to settle the question they’d tried kissing once, and both had come away from it indifferent.

Not sisters, they’re both fairly sure, because they look nothing alike. Eve thinks Eve looks a little bit like Joan of Arc, a little bit like a Boston bluestocking, and a little bit like a wicked stepmother, in a mysterious, femme-fatale sort of way. Anna thinks Anna looks like a woman pirate, a flaunting swashbuckler of high seas. Eve thinks Anna looks a little bit like an ostrich, a little bit like Lizzie Borden, and a little bit like a lithograph of Jenny Greenteeth she’d seen once in a Treasury of Monsters. Anna thinks Eve looks like Tristan Tzara’s stunt double, just with longer hair.

Acquaintances or friends, then. Or something altogether else. And for lack of any clue to guide them any farther, they leave it at that.
***

As for what they do all day, there in Yell Alley, ask them and they’ll tell you that they’re questing. Like the knights who quested for the Grail, they’ll say. Like the girl with seven pairs of iron shoes, all rusted through and leaking worse than shipwrecks at the heels. Like any of us who ever lost something, or thought we lost something, or lacked something, and went off wandering to find it. Like that. And on their down time they play games, all sorts of games: chess, crossword puzzles, Twister, fifty-two pickup, go, Russian roulette, I Spy, Truth or Dare, Exquisite Corpse. Strip poker if it’s a warm day. The reverse if it’s cold. They make up jump rope songs. They tell ghost stories. Once they made a fully-functioning Ouija board out of a hospital stretcher, an inkwell, and several hundred breath mints. Once they broke the house at a blackjack table in Atlantic City. Once they had a walk-on appearance as schizophrenic Siamese twins in a second-rate telenovela. Once they found a steamer trunk full of emeralds and gold bullion sunk five fathoms deep in the Louisiana bayou. (Once they found something else with a twenty-dollar metal detector in the desert south of Alexandria, but they won’t speak of this for love or money.) And they have foiled bank heists thrice. But as pastimes go, their favorite is probably television game shows, which they watch on hotel TVs, display screens in shop windows, entertainment centers in department stores. They are self-proclaimed game show gladiatoresses, hurling pillows, snowballs, popcorn, insults, like so many javelins. They holler out answers with their eyes rolled back in their heads like they’re the Oracle of Delphi, clobbering each other with the handbags and lapdogs of bystanders, should any dare venture within reach of the proceedings.

“Siege Perilous,” says Anna.

“Skriker,” says Eve.

“Remedios Varo,” says Anna.

“Gooseberries,” says Eve.

“Lord of Misrule,” says Anna.

“Drake Equation,” says Eve.

“Lemuria,” says Anna.

“Keelhaul,” says Eve.

“Heliolatry,” says Anna.

“Quincunx,” says Eve.

“Nemesis Theory,” says Anna.

“Legerdemain,” says Eve.

“Firewalkers,” says Anna.

“Orrery,” says Eve.

“Hoodwink,” says Anna.

“Absinthe,” says Eve.

“Philistine,” says Anna.

But she doesn’t mean it as an answer. She means Eve.
***

It’s Anna that’s the quester, really. It’s Anna that gave them both their names. It’s Anna that gave their home its name, as well, and it’s Anna that went to the hardware store and bought the welcome mat and the paint remainders and the twenty-five-cent sponge brush and painted YELL ALLEY on top of where it said WELCOME on the mat. When they’re traveling, it’s in Anna’s ancient suitcase that the welcome mat resides, and it’s Anna who sets it out before the door wherever and whenever they stop. Where Anna is, the welcome mat is, and where the welcome mat is, Yell Alley is. It’s Anna that carries their house on her person, like a snail.

If you allow for the shift in the space between words, Yell Alley backwards is, of course, Yell Alley. Anna backwards is Anna. Eve backwards is Eve. Once, long ago, Anna saw a drawing somewhere of a narrow twisty street with leaning houses on both sides, and people leaning out the doorways and the upstairs windows, all their mouths stretched wide over some silent noise. The street sign, though tilted at an oblique angle to the viewer, could be read if you squinted right: Yell Alley. For years Anna’s tried to recall where she saw it. She’s narrowed down her choices to: a children’s magazine, a travel magazine, a storybook, a hymnal, graffiti on a crumbling wall, a stick-sketch in wet sand at low tide, a postcard in a gutter, a billboard on the interstate, a newspaper article, a dream.

She told Eve about it once, shortly after they set off into the world, told her about Yell Alley and the faces in the windows. She sketched it for Eve’s benefit from memory in liquid eyeliner on a serviette. Eve took one look at it and was disturbed. She thought the people with their wide eyes and their gaping mouths and their grasping outstretched arms looked eerily like zombies, sniffing out the juiciness of Eve and readying to lurch right out of the drawing straight at her. That, or they were ordinary people, shouting and gesturing wildly at her to Stay Away. She wondered why. Contagion, maybe. A raiding party. A witch’s malison. A trap. Zombies, heading from the far end of the twisty little street, the one Eve couldn’t see. She shuddered, imagining them climbing up the walls, into the little windows.

But Anna was gazing at the sketch as well, was training her eyes against the vanishing point beyond the tilted houses, where the image sucked in on itself and lost all resolution in the suggestion of great distance. When she looked, her eyes were sad. She was thinking that the people in the houses were waving at her, welcoming her in, calling her to hurry up and join them there. She was thinking that it looked like a safe place, a friendly place, a place where she might feel that she belonged. And she was thinking that if she kept her painted welcome mat with her at all times, and she went all over the world with it, and set it out before her everywhere she went, like planting a flag, it would serve as her R.S.V.P. to the invitation posed by the drawing, and sooner or later they would find her, the people of Yell Alley, and they would note the address on her welcome mat, Anna’s address, and they would see that it would match their own. Then they’d have no choice but to accept her there among them. Then she’d be assimilated, drawn in, held.

Anna, she’s read about red shoes and glass shoes and iron shoes, shoes full of snowflakes and spiders and stones, and no shoes at all over rusty nails and burning coals and frozen oceans and serpents whose least bite is death, even new shoes on new feet that make the downiest grass feel like cutlery. She knows every stripe of daunted wanderer there is, and every hazard ranged against them, and every battery of ghouls that drags their ankles, and every cause for their eventual defeat. She’s got a pretty good idea what she’s up against.
***

If it’s Anna who’s the quester, it’s still both of them who run. Sometimes, in their nightmares, they remember what it is they’re running from; it is evidenced by what dark shapes chase them in slow motion through the wasteland. Families that took advantage of their kindnesses, their strengths. Jobs that ground the life out of their bones. Husbands or lovers who were unfaithful or oblivious or indifferent. Friends who betrayed them. Parasitic acquaintances. Feelings of estrangement from a culture hellbent on blind consumption. Thwarted expectations. An aching inner emptiness, born of an awful loss, or an equally awful lack.

By day, though, they mostly forget.
***

They were eating dinner in the restaurant of the Blue Phoenix Hotel when Eve resolved to ask the question that had been chewing on her all week. She’d kept it in all through the drinks and appetizers, but when the waitress came back asking about their meal, Anna answered her without so much as a token glance at the menu and Eve felt something twitch by her eye.

Anna had ordered soup. Alphabet soup. She always, always got alphabet soup. And Eve knew by now that when it came, she wouldn’t eat it right away, she’d leave it till it was stone cold and Eve had long since finished eating her own meal. She also knew that meantime, despite whatever glares Eve might fire at her, Anna would be busy, in fact absorbed to the exclusion of all else, in squinting down into the bowl and picking letters out one by one with the tip of her spoon and nudging other letters together until all that would be left was a few drifting lines of text spelled out across the bowl’s diameter.

Just as Eve suspected, as soon as the soup arrived, out came Anna’s reading glasses. Down went her nose toward the bowl. Eve nibbled at her fettuccine and watched Anna from under one raised eyebrow. After Anna was through rearranging her soup, Eve leaned over the table as politely as she could and sneaked a furtive peek, though she knew full well what she’d see.

Reading upside down, mentally adding punctuation, Eve deciphered:

Step on no pets.

Never odd or even.

Madam, I’m Adam.

A man, a plan, a canal: Panama.

And then she couldn’t keep it in any longer.

“Anna,” she said, “for the love of all that’s holy, whatever it is with the palindromes, you’d better spill it now.”

Anna echoed, “Palindromes?” All innocence.

“Yell Alley,” Eve hissed. “Anna. Eve. What you’re spelling right this minute in your godforsaken soup.”

“So?”

“So whatever this idiotic obsession of yours is, you’re not dragging me along with it anymore. Not unless you tell me why.”

Anna sighed. She pushed back in her chair. Her eyes had that same look they’d had when she’d gazed off into the intimation of the distance past Yell Alley in the sketch. Some minutes passed while Anna stared at space and Eve annihilated napkins in annoyance, and then Anna came back to herself and said, “Okay.”
***

When Eve went to bed that night, she couldn’t sleep for reviewing in her head all the ridiculousness Anna had dumped on her by way of answer. It all seemed pretty stupid to her, certainly nothing worth fixating over the way Anna clearly was fixating, certainly nothing worth the basis of a quest. It all seemed like a wild goose chase in Eve’s eyes, a path that was all journey and no destination; worse: a path down which Eve herself, for some reason that she couldn’t figure, was also being dragged.

She lay back with her arms crossed behind her head and rewound, played, paused, rewound, until she’d remembered the whole discussion in its near entirety, if only in disjointed scatterings. She panned and gleaned, shaking her head every so often out of sheer pity or contempt or disbelief or all these things at once.

“I made sure our names were palindromes,” Anna had said, “because I thought maybe in Yell Alley, everybody’s names were palindromes, seeing as the place they live is one as well. I thought maybe, I don’t know, it might help us to fit in. Like the welcome mat.”

“If everybody’s names were palindromes,” Eve had snapped at her, “all the women would be named Eve and Anna. All the men would be named Bob. And while we’re at it, everyone would drive a racecar. There aren’t exactly tons of names that happen to be palindromes, Anna you ass.”

“Sure there are,” said Anna, with more glee in her voice than Eve thought she deserved. “In other languages there’re plenty. Besides, maybe in Yell Alley, they only speak in palindromes. Maybe their own language is unique. How can we know?”

“You’re impossible,” said Eve. “Eat your damned soup.”

“I am eating it,” said Anna. “While I’m answering your question. And I’m studying the language. I’m learning, Eve, I’m really learning. See?” She pointed in the direction of her bowl. Before Eve could comment, she continued, brandishing her spoon: “Listen. There are palindromes everywhere. Palindromes of words and numbers, but also of images, of things. Take mirrors. You reach out and touch a mirror, and in that moment you become a palindrome. The mirror’s palindrome is at its simplest this: form, glass, form, and endlessly repeating. You ricochet between two planes. You’re Siamese twinned to yourself, joined by where you touch the glass. You follow?”

“No.”

“Just picture it. You’re standing back, one arm reached out, your finger touches the reflection of your finger. Right?”

“Sure.”

“So. Starting with you, there’s your body, your arm, your hand, your finger, the mirror, your finger, your hand, your arm, your body. Starting with the you that’s in the mirror, just the same. Your basic perfect palindrome. So what’s that say about you?”

“You aren’t serious,” said Eve.

“It says that a whole other one of you is living in your mirror, just as complete as the you that’s here. What’s to keep me from saying that where we are now’s the mirror, the reflection that begins from where we’re touched? We’re only palindromes, so we’re identical both ways. Forwards and backwards we’re the same. None of us, as we are, are more than halfway whole. Did you know that in Chinese mythology, they’ve got a bird that’s born only in halves? They’ve got to find the bird that matches them, and only when they’re matched and fit together can they fly. Maybe Yell Alley is just that: the place where halves can join. Where people become whole.”

“You are serious,” said Eve.

Anna smiled.

“You know you’ll never find any proof to say you’re right.”

“You’ll never find any proof to say I’m wrong.”

Eve muttered something Anna couldn’t catch.

“Well,” said Anna, “when we find it, then we’ll see.”

“Oh,” said Eve, “I’m all anticipation.” She rolled her eyes, but Anna didn’t notice. She’d gone back to her soup.
***

And when Eve was done remembering, she shook her head once more in mourning for Anna’s sanity, fell asleep, and found at once that she’d been ambushed by a nightmare.

First she was being chased. The things that chased her in her dream were like real animals or people, except that they were all made wrong, they had a second tail where their head should be, or a second head where their tail should be, and their bodies were symmetrical, their front legs and hind legs the same, like she remembered making inkblot butterflies in kindergarten with tempera paint and posterboard ─ but these were worse. They flopped and lurched and limped. They followed her.

Beside her, there was Anna, pointing at the creatures, wearing her best bespectacled I-told-you-so face. “Palindromes,” she said. “Go on, you go tell them they’re not real.”

“Fine,” Eve said, and turned, and stood her ground. Up came a little girl who branched legs on both ends, with arms that stuck straight out from the exact median of her height, perpendicular to her body, with thumbs on each side of her hands. Half of her legs waved in the air. Trailing her there was a jet-black kitten with two white-tipped tails and no head whatsoever, having difficulty walking straight with two back-facing paws.

“What’re you looking at?” the kitten said. Eve couldn’t quite figure just where its voice came out.

“Sure, walking’s hard at first, but you get used to it.”

Eve forgot what happened next.

Then there was Anna again, standing right beside her, smiling with a great show of camaraderie, and leaning on an axe. “Worms,” Anna informed her, “can be chopped in half, and each half grows back again. Further palindromes. I tell you they’re everywhere.”

“I don’t think that’s strictly a case of palindromes ─ ” Eve tried to say, but Anna was upon her with the axe. On the upswing the breeze whistled past Eve’s head, like the axe was whispering secrets in her ear, and on the downswing Anna cleaved her clean in half, from scalp to crotch, and the two pieces of Eve were symmetrical, and fell. “Anna you bitch,” she said out of one half of her mouth, while the other half said, “What happens now?”

“Now you wait,” said Anna. “Now you both wait.”

And while she said it, the palindromes gathered round the Eves in a wide circle, the two-headed and no-tailed, the no-headed and two-tailed, and the people with four legs or none. They ringed her round and sat and in the darkness their tails swished back and forth and their eyes shone out like headlights. “You get used to it,” somebody said. After some time the sun came up and warmed them, Eve and Eve, and the palindromes all crept away, and Anna went and got a watering can and watered both the Eves, the open sides of them, and tilted up their oozing places toward the light, and soon enough new shoots came up from out of them, shoots that opened and turned Eve-color and stretched and filled and knit until there were two Eves, two complete Eves, both lying naked, side by side, there in the grass. One of them said, “Anna you bitch,” and the other one said, “What happens now?”

And Eve woke up in a cold sweat, and furious, and confused. And Anna, she was gone.
***

Even after all this time, Eve still has that dream every so often, and also other dreams that seem to go along with it, parts of a series, sections of a whole. There’s another one she gets a lot, where Anna cuts herself in half longways and lies in pieces on the ground, just like she’d done to Eve before; but when Eve looks at her, she doesn’t see Anna the person, just Anna the name. And lying there, just naked letters in the grass, one half is an indefinite article and one half is the symbol for sodium. And each one gets up on its single foot and hops off wandering. “Anna,” Eve calls after them. “Anna!” But neither one will answer to that name.

Eve leaves Anna messages. She rolls up looseleaf paper and pokes it down the necks of bottles, then corks them up and throws them into rushing creeks, wide rivers, off the cliffs beyond the breakers of the sea. She folds hotel stationery into paper airplanes, which she launches from the rooftops when a wind is up. Wherever she sees wet sand, fresh concrete, mud roads, unmarked snow, she scrawls a few lines with a stick. She chalks brick walls, spray-paints train cars, flies kites that trail long banners, asks after Anna’s description everywhere she goes. She draws Anna’s face, draws Yell Alley, points to both, and watches people shrug and eye her sidelong, like she’s mad.

She doesn’t know where Anna is, only that she’s somewhere, and that wherever she went, she took the suitcase and the welcome mat along. Maybe she finally gave up on Eve with all her cynicism and went out to quest alone; or maybe the people of Yell Alley came and got her in the night, came and spirited her away. Eve wanders, wondering. By now she can’t even remember where she lived before she lived wherever that welcome mat was laid before the door. It was her address too, her home. She feels evicted, orphaned, tossed aside. She’s got nowhere else to go. All she can think to do now is go searching for her missing half, for Anna, for the little twisty street of shouting faces warning, or else beckoning, ridiculing or congratulating her for having come so far.

She walks and sleeps and dreams and wakes and dreams and sleeps and walks. In her sleep she walks and dreams. In her dreams she wakes, and Anna’s there, then wakes, and Anna’s gone. She walks.

In between she lays down her own welcome mat, like throwing down a glove in challenge to a duel. Hers looks just like Anna’s. It says YELL ALLEY too, in the same color of paint. She’s got a crazy hope that like those birds in Anna’s story, it will keep on seeking till it finds its match.

In between she pokes gingerly at mirrors in hotel rooms, clear puddles, dark windows on the train.

The other Eve pokes back.

In between she leaves her messages. She entrusts them to the water and the wind, she entrusts them to their finders, to their scribes, their messengers, their addressees, their journeys and, perhaps, at last, their destinations.

In between she dreams of endless Eves and endless Annas, bound hand by hand and foot by foot like paper dolls, and marching only sidewise across vast expanses. She ponders all the vanishing point conceals. At least a refugee’s got roots to pine towards, she thinks. All I’ve got’s a made-up name and half-forgotten, oddbegotten dreams.

And in between, she walks.

You can track her, map her path, can plot her skirmishes with the unreached, by how often in your own wanderings ─ on a matchbook tucked behind a bus seat, spelled out with pebbles in a meadow, written longhand on a wind-tossed leaf, in a secret overheard, a tale ─ you come upon these words:

Anna you bitch. We miss you both. Come back, and take us home.

Nicole Kornher-Stace was born in Philadelphia in 1983, moved from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again by the time she was five, and currently lives in New Paltz, NY, with one husband, three ferrets, the cutest baby in the universe, and many many books. Her short fiction and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in several magazines and anthologies, including Best American Fantasy, Fantasy Magazine, Ideomancer, GUD, Goblin Fruit, and Idylls in the Shadows, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her first novel, Desideria, is due out in December 2008 from Prime. She can be found online at www.nicolekornherstace.com or wirewalking.livejournal.com.

This story originally appeared in Rhapsoidia 12, November 2006, and is reprinted with permission by the author.

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