catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 22 :: 2009.11.13 — 2009.11.26


Clutching Dust and Stars

Chapter One: Food Not Bombs

This is the first chapter of Laryn Kragt Bakker’s new novel, Clutching Dust and Stars, published by *culture is not optional and available for pre-order now.  We’ll be serializing the first part of the novel on catapult for the next several weeks.  Enjoy!

She pushed the bag of groceries up against the wall to flip the light switch, holding the door open with her leg. The bulb flickered with a staccato burst of light and went dark again.

“Damn it.”

Light bulbs in this house were dying. They had been swapping bulbs from room to room in an attempt to maintain an even distribution of light: where there were two bulbs one was taken. By now they were spread thin like twilight. She could forsee a time when she would be huddled in a room with her housemates, gathered at night around the last remaining light as though for warmth. She had forgotten to buy bulbs again.

She remembered this moment months later as she looked down at a mound of loose earth, freshly dug. Her fingernails were caked with mud, her hands dirty. How exactly had all of the events between here and there worked out as they did? The fact that a light bulb has burned out is generally considered insignificant in the grand scheme of an entire life. But it is the insignificant events of the past that nourish the present as they decompose beneath us and behind us. The genealogies of events, like those of people, are built on anonymous ancestors.

She set the paper bag on the table and wandered from room to room testing switches. There were no more pairs to separate, so she stole the last bulb from the bathroom. She stood on a chair in the entryway to remove the old light and tighten the new one into place.

Shawn and Tinker were probably already at the coffee house-they liked to be early for Philosophy Night. She was late today, but didn’t care much. One of Tink’s friends was leading tonight and she always wanted to talk about her latest attempt at profundity. Last time it was a short story about a Buddhist cockroach. It was awful. If someone was late on the nights that this particular person was leading, and they happened to miss the first half of the evening…so be it.

She hoped that this was not what people felt like when she brought out her paintings, or talked about the thought process that went into them, but she feared that it was. She rarely showed them to anyone.

The light bulb reduced only slightly the gloom of an evening on the verge of dusk. Welcome to the Pacific Northwest in autumn. She left most of the food inside her canvas grocery bag, moving a few items into the fridge.

She set a saucepan on the stove and broke dry spaghetti noodles into the water, turning the burner to high, lacking the patience to wait for the water to boil first. She opened the door to her room and walked over towards the desk against the far wall. She needed a candle to light the bathroom.

Most of what was visible on her desk was wax, running down to the desktop in various colors. It was years in the making-she always took home the nubs and butt-ends of candles that came into the store and melted them down into this shrine. There were bronze candlesticks on either side of it like pillars, and a dozen other candles welded on top at various angles. Underneath and within the wax were items that held special meaning to her: photographs of important people in her life, a well-used paintbrush, part of a chicken’s leg bone from the last piece of meat she had eaten, the key to the house she had grown up in, a page torn from a Bible. Everything was hidden, buried in wax. In Memoriam.

It was relatively enormous. Its basic shape and a good part of its bulk was given by a set of wooden boxes nested one inside the other, like Russian dolls. They had been sealed shut with wax as the other items were added and now formed the core of the shrine, deep inside, surrounded by wax and other artifacts. She didn’t even remember everything that was in there. If this shrine were excavated, archaeologists would find layers of information from different time periods in her life.

She pulled the candlestick pillars from the wax that anchored them in place and carried them over to the bathroom. She set them on the tank of the toilet and lit them. They cast shadows on the walls around her which intensified when she closed the door. Sitting on the toilet, she could see her silhouette at different angles, overlapping on the wall beside her. Her hairbrush was on the counter beside her, and the bristles cast a long shadow, as though bowing down. The silent flickering of the flames from behind her reminded her of votive candles. It is not often that a bathroom feels like a holy place, or that urination becomes a sacred act; she tried to meditate for a moment.

When she emerged, the smell of burning hung in the air. The water had boiled dry and the noodles had begun to scorch. She blew at the smoke and thrust the pot under the faucet. The water hissed on contact with the pan and she left it in the bottom of the sink with the water running so she could open the front door for circulation.

The pasta was charred and the pan discolored. It reminded her of what her mother had said more than once when Natalie was in high school and her father was working late: burnt offerings for dinner.

But she didn’t eat burnt offerings anymore. Maybe she could get something at the coffee shop. She wished she hadn’t decided to stay and work in the studio today. She left the pan in the sink to soak and walked out on the porch to unlock her bike. The ride was mostly downhill, so the way there would be easy. She coasted down to Holly Street and turned left on a yellow, making it through three sets of lights before she hit opposing traffic. On her right was a small Mexican restaurant and her stomach lurched. She debated for a moment, then pulled her bike onto the sidewalk and ran in, nearly slipping on the wet floor.

She needed to make time at work for lunch. In the last five months she’d been working through lunch more regularly. Dorrie had put her in charge of the day shift and was out of the store more often, and Natalie found herself working through lunch accidentally without another person to remind her. There was so much work to do-Dorrie was a disaster in terms of organization, especially after the stroke.

Natalie’s friends were always amazed at how ordered she seemed for an artist. It wasn’t really fair, and it bothered her. They had this idea that in order to be a true artist you had to first be a slob. She sometimes felt that she didn’t fit into any of the standard categories, but rather lay sprawled out across them all. But part of the reason the comment bothered her was that she was scared it might have a grain of truth to it, that maybe all the clocks and bells and alarms that whip each day into a structured submission had shackled her thoughts as well.

Dorrie had cleared out a space in the back room at the store for Natalie to use as a studio, and there she painted and sketched, surrounded by Gut Busters and jigsaw puzzles. She felt as though she were working in a little nest that had been hollowed out of the debris and sometimes it felt like the one safe place in the world. Some days, though, spending so much time in and around items that had been used and discarded made her feel used up, too.

“It’s okay, I got it.”

The voice behind her reminded her vaguely of Rob, a guy she used to date-the longest relationship she’d had. She turned her head just enough to look toward the voice with her peripheral vision. It wasn’t him-someone in a wheelchair was talking to a restaurant employee.

She still found herself thinking about him, despite the fact that it was almost two years since she’d seen him. They had broken up after they returned from a trip around the world-or rather, they had begun to break up during the trip and upon their return things fell apart completely. When he moved down to Seattle she had let the bitterness and anger fester. His photograph was still face down on her desk. An accidental wax spill had fastened it to the desk and the shrine had evolved on top of it. She hadn’t even talked to him since he had left, but he still came to mind occasionally. Less often now than in the beginning. Some days she thought she hated him, some days she wondered if she still loved him. Mostly she just tried not to think about him.

The cashier handed her a small bag, warm and folded over on top.

“Thanks.” She began to move away from the counter before she had turned around and she collided with an empty wheelchair.

“Sorry,” she said, grabbing the chair so it didn’t roll away.


It was as though she had birthed him from synapses and gray matter onto the slick tiles in front of the condiments and napkins counter. He was on his hands and knees, looking up at her from five feet away. A ground beef burrito lay spread out in front of him like a placenta, and he was paused in the act of gathering it up in handfuls of napkins. He pushed himself up and leaned forward to pull the wheelchair towards himself, the right wheel severing the tortilla into two parts. He was smiling a great, toothy smile and his eyes were fastened on her face. He lowered himself into the chair and wheeled it closer.

“It is you! Something about your voice clicked; it took a second to make sure, but damn! I guess you’re still up here.” He tapped his index finger against the side of his head and then lifted his arms, requesting a hug.

“Rob?” She bent over and gave back a half-hearted grip, asking his name as though it were a question.

He looked largely the same: short cropped black hair with a hint of a widow’s peak (slightly more pronounced than she remembered), thick eyebrows and enormous brown eyes. His goatee was shorter and the mustache was gone. The major difference was that he was crammed into a wheelchair. She resisted the urge to ask him about it.

“Yeah, wow; don’t get too excited, though. It’s only been what, two years?” He was still smiling but she could tell he thought he deserved a warmer reception.

“Sorry, but you were about the last person I’d expect to see. You know? I’m still getting used to the idea. Rob’s in front of me.”

It was strange how nearly every time she’d thought of him over the past two years she had first remembered their last big fight, but now here he was in front of her smiling like they were the best of friends again.

He sat there, watching her with his earnest smile and letting the awkward silence continue. She looked down at him and sorted the most basic question out from the flurry of thoughts in her mind. “Why are you here?”

He looked behind him at the burrito which was being scraped up by one of the restaurant workers. “I’m thinking of moving back.” He turned toward her. “To Bellingham. What do you think?”

She wasn’t sure-her body was giving mixed signals. It was either fear or excitement.

“Really?” The word felt about as complete as shrapnel but she wasn’t sure how the next part should go. 

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