Lincoln Michel

October 28, 2015 
The following is from Lincoln Michel’s collection, Upright Beasts. Michel is the online editor of Electric Literature and the coeditor of Gigantic. His work has appeared in Tin House, NOON, the Believer, American Short Fiction, Pushcart Prize XXXIX, and elsewhere. He was born in Virginia and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

I received my acceptance to the colony in the mail. Or rather my husband had laid it out for me when I got home. The letter said I should be proud of my acceptance, and that almost no one, or at any rate very few, was chosen.

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The letter suggested I get my life in order so that I could come to the colony as soon as possible. I suppose it was just an odd way of phrasing, “get your life in order,” perhaps a phrasing that showed the artistic leanings of the colony.

“Good,” my husband said. “It will be good to have some time apart.” My husband was in the process of becoming my ex-husband. He was very eager to affix that prefix.

“But I haven’t worked on anything in a long time.”

“And now you will,” my husband said. He reminded me that I had that project I always talked about, the project I had applied with.

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He stood up and extended his arms so that his hands alighted on my shoulders. “I’m glad. I’m glad for you.”

* * * *

I arrived at the colony by taxi. It was fall, and the trees were either bare or covered in yellow and red leaves. The colony consisted of two barns, one white and one gray. The barns and much of the woods had been owned by an artist famous in these parts. She had thrown, I read in the acceptance letter, a large number of scandalous parties in the field down through the woods. I was allowed to visit the field, as long as I remembered to carry a pass.

I was late, and the director of the colony met me in the driveway. She had her car door already open.

“The first barn is where you sleep and eat,” the director of the colony told me, pointing at the large white barn. Then she pivoted and pointed at an equally large gray barn. “The second barn is where you work.”

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In addition to myself, there were five other residents at the colony. According to the director, we had all been selected from a large pool by a rigorous process.

“We encourage you to spend your time working, not socializing,” the director said. “You don’t have to interact with any of the other residents unless both you and they want to. And I won’t be around.”

“I understand,” I said. “Where are the other residents now?”

“Everyone else is already working on their projects. Everyone else got here on time.”

* * * *

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The windows in my work space had screens between them and the glass. In that space there were several trapped hornets. They were moving around very slowly. Every once in a while, they would buzz into the glass, trying to escape.

I didn’t know if the other residents had the same problem with insects. All the other doors were closed when I came in.

When I opened my laptop, I had an e-mail from my husband. It said: “According to this article, the key to a successful colony experience is getting into a routine. Try to set daily goals for yourself, so that you can complete your project in the alloted residency time.”

* * * *

I’d been struggling on a project for some time, or at least I liked to say I was struggling on it. Mostly I worked on it only a few minutes or maybe an hour each week. That way, I could at least tell other people that I was working on the project and not be entirely untruthful.

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Since I was now at the colony, I felt a great deal of pressure to be truly working on it, working on it to the point of struggling. To facilitate the struggle, I took my husband’s advice and set goals for myself. A certain percentage of the project completed per day.

Because the building was a barn, the sides of one wall sloped over my head. The walls were all white, and the way the light was reflected through the room made me feel as if the curved wall was going to collapse on me. I told myself that the wall was my project, and that if I didn’t push it up straight soon, I would be crushed.

* * * *

Although the colony only accepted a few residents at a time, both barns were very large. It was easy to work and not see the other residents. Mostly I heard them at night. When I was lying in bed and trying to read, they would be talking softly and the walls would muffle their voices into unintelligible words. Their voices sounded like wind breezing through wet leaves.

Sometimes, when I was pacing around my studio by a window, I would see a pale form out of the corner of my eye moving down the path between the two barns. By the time I paced back, they would be gone.

* * * *

The only residents I saw up close were the insects. In addition
to the hornets flying into the windows, there were a large number of furry caterpillars crawling on the first floor of the sleeping barn. I saw them squirming in and out of the doors of the
other residents. I couldn’t remember if they were the poisonous
kind or even if caterpillars were ever poisonous. If I woke up in the middle of the night, I made sure to shine a flashlight on the floor as I walked.

* * * *

There was a schedule of the moon printed on the wall of the first barn. It showed when the full moon was coming, and someone had circled the moon with a red marker and written “gathering!” under it.

I figured the gathering would be at the field where the famous artist had thrown parties. I marked the day on my own calendar.

My work on the project was going slower than I had counted on. I was unsure if I was struggling or merely struggling to struggle. Every time I sat down to work, a great fatigue came over me. It was as if the project was attempting to drain my life force. Each hour of struggle was causing me to fade away a little more.

Yet I told myself that a gathering with the other members of the colony might stimulate me in the necessary ways.

* * * *

When the full moon came, I took out a scarf and a flashlight and looked for the other residents’ lights swaying on the path. I didn’t see any, and when I stepped outside I felt foolish. The moon was so bright there was no need for flashlights. I slid mine into my pocket and headed to the field.

Everything was tinted blue. It was like walking through deep ocean water. I even had the sensation I was drowning as the leaves swirled around my feet. Perhaps it was a result of anxiety over my work, or rather lack of work, on the project.

When I got down to the bottom of the path, there was a large, square field. The field had not been in use for some time and was covered in waist-high grass. On the far side of the field, a few hundred feet away, was the rest of the forest. Somehow, the way the moon was shining made it look as if the forest was two-dimensional. The black outlines of trees were pasted like construction paper against the dark blue sky.

I didn’t see any of the other residents, but then there hadn’t been a specified time.

I lay down on the short grass at the edge of the overgrown field. The sky was even bluer, and the small stars seemed to be sinking away from me.

Watching the dwindling points of light, I started to think, again, about my project. I believe I started the project around the time I met my soon-to-be ex-husband, although he was, of course, not even my husband at that time. I had been working on the project for so long that the beginning was as hard to make out as the end.

* * * *

My anxiety about the project was overcoming the peacefulness of the night sky. I stood up and brushed off the dirt, hoping no ticks had crawled on me. I could hear a faint noise, like cans rattling in the distance. Then I noticed that on top of the flattened trees sat a group of pale figures. Their faces were smooth and thin, like old bars of soap. They were allowing their elongated limbs to blow in the breeze. Against the black trees and blue skies, it looked almost as if they were emitting light. I wondered how long they had been there, watching me.

Their legs were hanging over the trees in a way that should be impossible unless the trees were only two-dimensional. A few of them got up and walked around. Perhaps it was the distance, but it looked as if their features had faded way.

They seemed to be gesturing for me to come toward them. They were making long, swooping motions with their arms and hands, or what I took for hands. It seemed their arms ended in flat paddles with no discernible fingers.

I wanted to go across to them, to be part of the group.

When I turned on my flashlight to find a path through the high grass, they scattered and fell back behind the tree line where I couldn’t see them.

“Wait,” I said, but only loudly enough for myself to hear.

I started to walk through the field. There were thorny bushes hiding in the grass that cut at my clothes. I couldn’t see the figures anymore. I stopped and turned back.

All of the doors in the barn were open when I went to bed.

* * * *

The next day I moved my desk to the window. The hornets had died and collected at the bottom of the screen in a clump. I opened the screen and dumped their bodies into a coffee mug.

I tried to work on the project and watch at the same time. I thought I saw one of the tall, pale figures sprint along the path in a blur between the two barns.

When the sun set, I got my flashlight and scarf and went down to the field again. If the figures had been there the one night, it stood to reason they might be there another.

Although the moon was still engorged, there were dark clouds rolling across the sky. I had to use my flashlight most of the way down. I tried turning it off before I got to the field, but the pale figures had seen it and climbed down behind the trees before I could call them.

* * * *

My husband e-mailed me and asked if I was “settling into the necessary routine.” Those were his words: “settle” and “necessary.” I wrote back that I had settled on a routine, which was true.

Each day, I was hitting my daily goal on the project, but each day it seemed that the scope of the project elongated. Each finished part necessitated two new parts, to be completed down the line. I kept reaching what I thought would be the end of the project, which now was merely another middle point. These middles stretched endlessly.

* * * *

I tried knocking on the doors, politely of course. The other residents never answered. When I pressed my ear to their doors, I thought I could make out the sounds of people trying to hold their breath.

* * * *

Going down to the field became part of my routine. There was never anybody else there, but I sat in the grass and listened to the distant noises that I took to be coyotes and owls. The moon was not nearly as bright anymore, and everything was in shades of gray.

One night, after a particularly draining day of work on the project, I kicked off my shoes. I dropped my jacket and shirt and pants on the ground. Naked, I was as pale as they had been in the dark. I thought if they were gathering somewhere in the trees, maybe their eyes were better than mine and would spot me and think of me as one of their own.

I waded into the tall grass.

* * * *

The next day, my work routine was interrupted by the colony phone. The phone had not rung the entire time I was there. I waited with my ear pressed against the door, hoping I’d catch someone answering. On the tenth ring, I went into the hall.

“Hello?” I said.

“Good. It’s you. I was hoping you’d be the one to answer.” The voice sounded exactly like my husband’s, but soon I realized it was actually the director of the colony.

The director said that she was very sorry, but that she was going to have to ask me to leave. There had been, in her words, “many complaints” about my “disruptive behavior” at the colony.

I started to apologize, saying that I hadn’t tried to disrupt anything. The director of the colony sighed. She said she was sorry, and that this never, or at any rate almost never, happened. Yet her hands were tied.

“I hope you got some work in, for your sake,” she said.

“But my project,” I said. “I’m only just getting into a routine.”

“I can give you a few hours,” the director said, “to get your things in order.”

* * * *

A few hours later, a taxi appeared on the colony driveway. I got inside.


From UPRIGHT BEASTS. Used with permission of Coffee House Press. Copyright © 2015 by Lincoln Michel.

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