A swamp, a burial suit, and an ashtray walk into a bar.
They didn't walk in simultaneously but as the joke starts this way it will have to do.
The burial suit walked in about 9 years ago and has taken up a spot near the far right corner, mostly standing there and occasionally whistling a tune at a slower rate than it's supposed to go which makes it sound like a horror lullaby instead of a country song. It's not Jolene by Dolly Parton.
Ashtray: “Did you ever play Dolly Parton's Jolene at 33 rpm instead of 45? It's a lot better slow. Can't imagine her feeling good about herself now the world's discovering this fact. I'd be crying to the heavens if I were to make a colossal mistake like that. Would've made tons more money if she'd sang it slow. Hey swamp, put on the record at 33 rpm won't you?"
The swamp mumbles something about empty heavens and takes up the only place at the bar. As there was no one tending the bar when the swamp walked in, it took on this task itself, at least until someone comes along who would take over the job. Being the bartender and customer simultaneously means having the great luck of being able to tend yourself, switch places whenever you wish and feeling at ease talking out loud when no one else can hear that.
The swamp is done thinking about the heavens. It shifts a bit on the barstool, points lazily to the record player.
Swamp (with a drool): "Go and put it on yourself! You've seen how it works and I'm not your maid if anything."
Burial suit: "Ha ha ha ho-hum, you know the fucking ashtray hasn't moved in a year, what a thing to ask.."
Swamp: "It was worth a try. Anything beats getting up and doing the work yourself."
Ashtray: "You’re doing most of the work around here as it is, stay there; I'll get the record, it'll just take me a while if that doesn’t matter to you guys."
Two months pass. The beer is stale and the burial suit has developed a slight odor.
Ashtray: "Hey suit, are you wearing anything underneath?"
The burial suit twitches slightly and realizes the thought of what may be lurking under the suit had never occurred to him. He had always thought he was an empty suit. Could there be something there? Someone? What is the difference between a soul and the spirit of man? The thoughts are hard and tire the suit, and he eases his mind by concluding that being a suit means just that: to possibly be the enclosure, the gorgeous wrapping, or safe encasing of something, but not necessarily. He might serve no purpose and if he does, he need not be aware of it. With that thought, he tries to rid himself of any further thinking. The days are busy enough, singing very slow songs takes up time, and the ashtray and swamp don't entertain themselves.
Swamp: "Drink, anyone?"
The ashtray returns to the table near the wall. She finds a lot of pride in this spot, being a round ashtray on a round table, sitting on a crocheted white cloth. Not as white as it used to be when she came in, but nevertheless somehow reminiscent of something fresh and crisp. The ashtray herself is not as round as she'd like to be, molded by hands and made of a coarse river clay that had not been sieved well enough to lose all its hard pieces of rock and sand. Still, she tries to be grateful. The hands that made her had done their best, and even though she would do a much better job herself (if it weren't for the fact that she does not have hands), she thinks this must be fate.. having to deal with what you have ended up being, even if it makes you a miserable sour -
Let's not go there.
She looks up to meet the empty eyes of the burial suit.
Swamp: "Why so quiet all of a sudden?"
Ashtray: "Just beating a dead horse. Never mind, I'll have an Old Fashioned if you can spare one."
The swamp moves to the other side of the bar and takes out a glass.
Swamp: “Anything for you, Suit?”
The burial suit's discommoding curiosity has taken the better of him, and he's at this point trying to feel whether there is something inside, instead of thinking about it. When the swamp interrupts his process, he hazily looks up and figures a drink might help to take his mind off of things.
Burial suit: “Sure, make me a Negroni.”
Swamp: “Why you like that stuff is beyond me, but whatever you want Suit, each to their own…”
The swamp doesn't understand why the burial suit has a thing for Italian drinks. He (the suit) is of Chinese origin, made for Chinese purposes, to serve Chinese rituals. Standing there he obviously did not end up serving these purposes - or does a pretty good job hiding it. Come to think of it, the swamp had never asked the suit why he ended up here, in this bar, taking up that spot near the corner.
The swamp stops wondering and mixes the drinks.
A strange feeling often creeps on the back of the burial suit. An entitative crawling moves upwards and decides this is a good spot to stay a while. It grips or claws around the shoulders and diaphragm of the suit, and stays there until the suit starts noticing a familiar but unwanted sensation and is unable to get rid of it. The suit is cold. His back feels cold.
Ashtray: “You know what? I’ve been thinking, and I’d love to have a pavilion. Not too small, not too big, freestanding. White stone, maybe marble. Three tables in it, one rectangular and two round ones. I’m on one of them. There is an old man sitting at my table. He brought today’s paper and drinks a cup of coffee. The cookie-"
Swamp: "Always cookies."
Ashtray: "Yes, please stop interrupting, darling. He keeps the cookie in the palm of his hand, so with every bite he takes, he kind of sucks it up as if it’s a cup of crumbles. But it’s not, it’s a cookie in one piece, and each time he brings his palm to his mouth -and his mouth also a bit to his palm- he breaks a bit off using his lips and teeth and gobbles it up. It’s almost horse-like, you know what I mean? I’ve never had fingers so if I did I’d be very happy to use them, but this guy has, by the looks of it, a good set of hands and slurps up his cookie like he’s a 2-year-old.”
Swamp: “Where did he get the coffee?”
Ashtray: “What do I care?”
Swamp: “A man can’t get a coffee if he’s in a freestanding pavilion.”
Suit: “What if he brought his own?”
Swamp: “Well that’s what I’m asking, where did he get it?”
Suit: “Maybe there is a coffee bar next to the pavilion and a barista just brought it over. The pavilion could be the outside part of the bar.”
Swamp: “Why would it be free standing if it’s part of the bar, it makes no sense at all. Everyone would have to walk further from table to bar, from toilet to table, no sense.”
Suit: “It could be a monumental pavilion, in terms of age I mean, not grandeur, and the municipality could have put building or development restrictions on it, so the bar must be built at a minimal distance of 50 feet.”
Swamp: “See what I mean, it’s too far, no one in their right mind would build a bar next to such a pavilion.”
Ashtray: “Look, all I’m saying is I’d like to have a pavilion to stay in. And a man at my table.”
Swamp: “Get off your high horse. You’ve been sitting here for about three years and 7 months now. No need to dream about other things, if you want other things just go.”
It is a quiet day.
The swamp stands behind the bar and thinks to itself: "I have been running from my soul with the ferocity of a high-speed train with a mad driver."
"There is something inside, someone, somewhat I need to keep at bay. God knows I've tried to come to terms with myself."
It has seen many places, and barely remembers them all. The swamp is as old as time. At the time of writing this, the swamp is relatively large but not as large as it had been a few times before. Wherever it goes, it grows or shrinks according to the conditions around him. What determines whether a condition is good or bad is naturally a very subjective affair, related to the circumstances, the goals and means at hand. The swamp never had many goals, and it doesn't prize itself on recognizing the means. After being in a certain place for a while, it starts to notice a growth or shrinkage in itself and moves away when it becomes unbearable. The swamp is an unhappy opportunist. Most of the time, it can’t help but hoard and gulp and belch. It doesn’t have to go far, things often come its way. It doesn’t matter if the matter is positive or not, it gobbles it all up. Sometimes fast and raging, at other times it behaves like a gooey crawling substance slowly collecting and growing unnoticeably. All the while rotting and digesting at the core.
It looks at the right end of the bar. A plant. Pile of papers and mail. Pot without a plant. Dirty plate. Napkins. It tries to arrange the stack of napkins so it looks a little tidier. The one on top sticks to the swamp. It absorbs it a bit. Depressing bar. Maybe it will leave soon and find somewhere else to rot.
The ashtray is watching the swamp from her table. She mildly fears the swamp, in a controllable manner. This is the only way she can fear it. A larger amount of fear would prohibit her from staying in the same bar with it for so long, and also be fruitless considering she could never outrun it. However, a smaller amount would lower her guard, which would be foolish. She has seen the swamp slowly making things disappear. One moment it's holding an old newspaper, the next moment the paper is halfway sucked in its side. It doesn't look as if the swamp is consciously collecting things, and looking at the size of it, it doesn't seem to be starving. All the more reason to stay alert. The ashtray still holds plans for the future, dreams to be made reality, the last thing she needs is to be unknowingly absorbed by the swamp's muddy surface.
The burial suit stands in his corner and watches the closed curtain near him. It doesn't move. He closely examines the woven material; made from fuzzy fibrous brown threads, it leaves just enough room between warp and weft for a little light to come through. The bar is located on a side street, with very few passersby. Those who pass rarely notice the bar, those who do don't seem to think of it as an inviting place.
He hurts from fighting gravity, he desperately wants to stay upright but wishes it would not be this tiring. He wasn't made to stand up. Maybe a quick lie-down...
Ahhh. That's better.
The suit imagines all his muscles relaxing, sinking into the dusty wooden floor.
What's that noise... Distant scratching and clunking. More scratching. It's a very faint sound, maybe nothing to worry about.
His mind drops back in silence. It is a familiar state, yet now slightly unnerving too. Nothingness can be bliss but once there has been Somethingness there is always some kind of anticipation.
There it is again, and it goes on and on. Is it nearer now?
Then, once more. It is very difficult for the suit to locate where these sounds are coming from or how long they are being made. Being a burial suit he conveniently has a pretty bad sense of time. Imagine, being a burial suit knowing full well how long your eternal state of buriedness is taking. That would be torment.
A point of light appears. It is very bright. It becomes a line. Then a contour of a square. More sound.
Is this the start of the universe? Surely it did not start with lines and squares?
He tries to recall everything he knows about the start of things but it was all silent for so long, how is he supposed to remember? A slight panic starts to take a hold of him. The jade pieces which make up his body are rattling.
More light, the square inside the line is falling away and the suit is bathed in brightness. Then flashes. He is lifted up by numerous hands and carried through the bright light.
The swamp had become a sticky, slimy mess with digestion problems. All intake and no secretion.
It needed time away. After finding a suitable ship in the harbor it waited until nighttime to set sail. The swamp had no particular nautical experience, but as it had no particular goal this did not matter so much. Once out in the open sea, the swamp would figure out a new destination or let the wind decide where to take it.
The sea is calm. Boring almost. Or let’s say it would be boring if it weren’t such a vast surface of unstable wet matter.
The swamp hums a tune that seems appropriate for a sailor.
Seagulls swoop over its head, trying to pick off twigs and edible bits. A dead herring floats in the water close to the boat, and the gulls are fighting loudly over who can eat the fish.
The swamp starts to relax, the birds don’t fear it. They land on its body and polish their feathers. They pull out its weeds and parts of old newspaper. It is among equals here; rats of the sea grooming the dreg pile of the earth.
‘What if they ate me?’, the swamp thinks to itself, ‘would they eat all of me or leave something behind? Maybe they will tear me apart and I will be left in pieces all over the ocean. Parts of me will drown, parts will dry up on a small piece of land. I would be a divided swamp, left to the mercies of the elements and taking a chance in dying or multiplying.
It is a hot day at sea. The ship is drifting since the swamp ate its sails. Of course, that’s not a smart thing to do. We might wonder whether the swamp is out of its mind. Whether it had gone mad with hunger or maybe got rid of the only way to make it back to land alive on purpose. Would a swamp try to commit suicide? Is it even possible for a swamp to kill itself?
Oh listen here my darling dear
Those waves are still but th’end is near
I cannot tell
Mm mmmm mm well
Mmm mm mmmmm
The rest is fear—
The suit wakes up. Had he been sleeping? All the chaos must have knocked him out. Such bright lights.
He looks around and finds himself in a big space, lying on top of a pedestal. Over to his right is a glass box with jewelry on red fabric. Strangely familiar. Far left a collection of cabinets against the wall. In the middle of the space, he could see a stone arch, leading nowhere. What is this place?
He sits up, stretches his arms a bit. He doesn’t remember ever having had this much space. The dark always seemed very confined. Now that he was Somewhere Else, he suddenly had space to move. He slides off the pedestal and takes a few steps. Not too bad. He walks over to the cabinets.
“Hello, would you mind telling me where I am?”
“The cabinets don’t talk, Sleepy”, said the arch.
The burial suit pretends to understand and turns to the arch. “Can you tell me where I am?”
“No, the only thing I could tell you is whether you’re in or out.”
“3000 years of sleeping messed with your ears, huh, Sleepy? I could only tell if you’re in or out. But I can’t now, because I don’t know my back to my front anymore.”
That is one strange fellow.
“Listen Sleepy, I need you to do me a favor. Step inside me, would you? Maybe I’ll know what side is right and what is wrong. See, the humans come and visit but they’re not allowed past the little fence over here. Nobody will do me the pleasure of stepping through. I haven’t felt the shudder of an entrance or exit in years! I need to feel alive!”
The suit doesn’t know what to do.
“Oh come on Sleepy, please!”
The arch is making him uncomfortable. He backs away towards the cabinets, where he saw a doorway to a different space.
“Don’t go Sleepy, I’ve been watching you for so long and now you’re up. Please stay!”
The suit walks out. He needs to know why he is here. Screaming arches won’t provide him with answers. In the next space is a large staircase to a lower floor. He slowly descends and sees light. He turns a corner, crosses a hallway, opens a door and there it is. The Outside.
Let me tell you how the swamp and I met. It was a hot summer’s day, mid-June. I was still a young kid and after school, my mother would be waiting at home, with a bag full of towels and snacks sitting packed and ready in the hallway. We would be spending the afternoon on the beach. Growing up in a seaside town, you can imagine we spent a lot of time there. She would first pour me a glass of milk if I was thirsty, then we would leave the house, I was picked up and put on the small seat on the back of her bicycle, and off we went.
After a short ride we arrived at the boulevard, I would kick off my sandals and walk through the first bit of sloping dune towards the part of the beach where we would usually sit. Here, often, my aunt and cousins, sometimes my grandmother and even great-grandmother, would join us and enjoy tea and biscuits and spiced cake with butter. The elderly would keep their clothes on, as they were stricter Christians than we were, not yet worn out by religions ambiguous rules and guidelines. Our mothers would take off their clothes to reveal dotted or striped bathing suits and bikinis. Our fathers, who would usually arrive after work, wore skimpy swimming briefs or wide trunks. Underneath my dress I wore an orange bathing suit, which I would transform into bikini bottoms halfway through the day by taking the straps off my shoulders and rolling the whole thing down towards my bellybutton until it looked as if I was wearing briefs with a bulging waistband. I would do this after swimming because the wet sticky fabric of the swimsuit would cool my body down, and when playing on the beach after a dip in the sea it would only be covered in sand. I did not mind the sand at all though, I rather rolled down the bathing suit to be able to feel the warm sand on as much skin as I could. Something I can miss dearly as I have been living far from the sea for years now.
I loved being in the water, the salt dirty taste of the North Sea, the sting in my eyes, the difference between the cold deeper water and the warmed up surface. Being underwater was wonderful. I often wished I could breathe underwater, so I wouldn’t have to come up for air so often. I would try to swim distances as close to the sandy floor as I could. So this sunny day in mid-June, I was gliding along, pretending to be a seal and scouring the bottom of the sea for shrimp, when suddenly I noticed it.
I was puzzled.
Why was there a hole in the floor under water? A perfectly round opening, big enough for a grown man to swim through.
I had dug many holes on the beach and all of them would wash away when the high tide came along. This one seemed untouched. My parents had often warned me to pay attention to the pull of the sea currents and not venture too far, so I would be able to swim back to shore when the tide came in. I figured a hole could not possibly be as dangerous as the pulling water, and reasoned they would have told me about it if I was not allowed to investigate. So my finger grasped the edges of the hole, and fighting the strange sensation of being held back (because there is more water pushing you up than gravity pressing you down), I kicked my legs hard and pulled myself through.
While descending through the seabed the strangest thing had happened; it was as though I punctured a membrane, fell through and was now standing upright in a dark space. Air filled my lungs. The silt under my feet was slippery. I looked up, I could see the faint shimmering of sunlight through the hole. It seemed very far away.
I jumped. I couldn’t see where the voice was coming from.
“Listen, I came here for peace and quiet and now you come rolling in like some catapulted human mess. Please leave.”
I crunched my toes and doubted. I was a shy child and felt very uncomfortable trespassing someone’s private space. But I felt I was not completely at fault by being curious. So I gathered my nerve:
“You left the door open.”
“Don’t be silly, there’s no door.”
“Well... If you don’t want people rolling in, you should consider buying a door. To make it less inviting.”
I was shy, but smart.
“You could also cover it with seaweed so no one knows there is a hole.”
“Well well, aren’t you the wise one..”
I heard slithering sounds. Slowly, a messy bunch consisting of weeds, dead corals and fishing nets moved into the light. There was no face, but a piece of ripped waxed sail where a mouth would be. I took a small step back.
“Do you live here?”
“I have been staying here for a while now, but I wouldn’t say I live here. I hide.”
“What are you hiding from?”
“Seagulls, sunlight, rain, starry nights, companions, events.”
I couldn’t see why someone would hide from all of these things. Sure, things could be a little chaotic and sometimes things would happen that are not so nice as other things, but I never saw a problem in seagulls.
“They eat me.”
“I’m sorry about that. I don’t know what that’s like, seagulls only want to eat my ice cream or steal my bag of crisps.”
“You’re still a tiny human, they wait until you are a big human and then they will mess with you more. Having your food ruined is only the beginning. The stars will become too bright or not bright enough, your friends will laugh in your face or behind your back, there will always be Something Else and every sound will be one too many.”
I didn’t understand. The grown-ups in my life did not seem bothered by starlight. And I didn’t know what Something Else was. Maybe I was too tiny for Something Else.
“You have to go, you have been here for too long now, your big humans will wonder where you are. I have seen your kind. Always looking for each other.”
“Are you always alone?”
“No, but everyone who is with me is always alone. I am very bad company. So I stay away as much as I can.”
I felt very sorry for this heap of tangly material. Maybe if I would give it a hug it would feel better? I stepped a little closer but it just moved back into the dark. Shivering weeds.
“Don’t come near me, you will get stuck and I’ll accidentally swallow you or worse.”
“What is worse than you eating me?”
“Eating you half and leaving us both dissatisfied.”
I did not want to be eaten. Half nor whole. I thought of the jam sandwiches in my mother's bag up on the beach. Maybe my father was there by now. Would they be looking for me? Who would my father play with if I wasn’t there?
“How do I get back? The hole is very high up.”
“I suppose you have to turn into a big human very quick, or climb the walls.”
The walls were sticky with silt, and if I tried to grab hold of the sand it would fall off and be replaced with other wet sand.
“Can you pick me up and lift me up to the hole? Then I can climb out.”
“We cannot touch, what have I just told your tiny brain? You have to figure out a way to leave and let me sit here in peace. Maybe I will think about putting up a door, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea.”
It grumbled and moved into the dark. I panicked a little but told myself to stay calm, and started feeling around the wall for ways to climb out. Just sand, shells and the occasional lugworm. Suddenly I stepped on something. I pulled a long stick out of the sand and without any thought punched it through the hole above my head. Seawater came flooding in, and in a split second I realized I had probably just destroyed someone’s hiding spot. Before I could worry about it, I was swept away by the amount of water coming in, and tumbled through the small space. I opened my eyes and saw the creature flash before me, also spinning through the water, unable to control the force of it.
Then I did what I was used to doing when a big wave would take hold of me; I relaxed my limbs and let the water drag me on until I felt I was able to swim again. When it calmed down, I swam upwards to the surface and took a big gulp of fresh air. The sunlight hurt my eyes. I saw the shore was close and I swam until I was able to stand.
Walking back on the beach, I realized my feet were covered in seaweed. My mother came running towards me, she was fussing over me and worrying whether I was alright.
“Where were you all this time? Were you alone?”
“I was Somewhere Else,” I explained. But I was alone, I said. I did not know how to tell her who I met. At that time, I did not even know its name.
I should have asked, to be polite. Later on, I learned it was the swamp. But this is a story that will be told another time.
This is the first time I have written a short story, or any story for that matter, that was, from the start, supposed to be printed at some point. I used to write many poems, years ago, which I published online. A few storylines survived the years in my notebooks, some ideas for essays, but none of them ended up to be longer than a few sentences. So you may well understand
I wondered why I would start writing now. Why include yet another medium in my already cluttered practice? I guess I get bored easily.
It was very enjoyable to create a world using words and sentences, as it provides me with a lot of different opportunities to approach a situation, as opposed to visual translations. While a visual work and text both give certain parameters to the viewer, a text seems much more able to broaden the possibilities within those parameters.
Visual work has a certain measurement, a certain physicality, a type of identity to which the viewer can relate, or to which they can choose to shut themselves off. When I’m not interested in a piece of art I’m looking at, it can just exist like the person waiting next to me in a bus stop. When I’m reading a piece of text I’m not interested in, I can choose to stop reading, but the things I have read, the words I have passed, have already created an image in my mind. Unwillingly my brain realizes images and feelings based on words in a certain order. I feel words often do this in a more efficient way than a visual work can. That does not mean I prefer using words to evoke or provide something. I feel they both have their uses, and there are situations where images work better than words, and vice versa. Within my practice, I feel this is an interesting thing to explore.
In this text, I have used words to describe characteristics of a few beings that have inhabited my thoughts for a while now. These characters are somehow parts of my own identity, specifically the depressed part of me. It’s been interesting to me to grasp certain aspects of depression by pouring them into fictional beings. Giving them a voice and thoughts seemed like a logical thing to do, as the state itself can feel so alien-like. I feel the same way about a lot of my visual works: after a long time of swimming around in my own thoughts, or lying in my studio as unfinished sketches, I pay them a bit more attention, and they become a being. At a certain point, they grow their own identity and it becomes more difficult to make choices for them. I try to create a fertile environment for my ideas and be an attentive listener. Sometimes it’s very quiet, and I’m very alone. This I call depression. Sometimes everything is fighting for attention, which can also be depression. The best time is when I can have a certain conversation with my ideas and give them space to develop.
The characters I have described in this story have developed from seeing images or thinking about certain environments. I subscribed them traits and personalities that seemed very logical to me, when I would take their being out of their original context. A swamp for example is to me the perfect metaphor of a nearly immovable sluggish mental state, unhappy with itself but unable to do something about it. At the same time one can think about the delicate ecosystem a swamp is, in itself, and wonder whether it is not so rotten after all.
I try not to force an opinion into my work (textual or visual). I may have certain thoughts about a state of being, an event or something someone tells me. But often I feel so small in the amount of possibilities this world offers, that I rarely feel comfortable expressing a very outspoken point of view. I have my own opinions, but am often able (some say too often) to understand other people’s views. Instead of calling someone out, I’m more interested in understanding how certain feelings came to be.
This is the way I work in my studio as well. In recent work I have been exploring a story about 13 fishermen from Katwijk, who boarded a herringlogger around 100 years ago. One of them started having religious visions after 4 weeks at sea, telling the others how the world was coming to an end and that they had to set sail to Jerusalem. Not everyone believed him, and soon some of the crew were seen as being possessed by demons, and murdered on board. What I try to do with this story, is figure out in what ways it has influenced myself, as part of my family was on board and no one in my home town ever really spoke about it. The fear, isolation, trust and anger that may have all been felt on board are things that I can only guess at.
One never knows what goes on in someone else’s head. We are all alone. This idea gives me great comfort somehow. And I think it is art, in whatever shape or form, that can translate certain things into recognizable feelings. It can make us touch the swamp, without being swallowed.