Interview: Kimberly Campanello

Rasmus Meldgaard Harboe interviews the poet, Kimberly Campanello.

The oak box is heavy. The poor librarian has carried it out from the depth of the archives and placed it in front of me, here in London Poetry Library’s study area. I’m opening the lid and looking down at a stack of 796 sheets of semi-transparent vellum paper. On the sheets are printed small explosions and intense streams of sentences, words and, not least, names. Because of the transparent paper, I’m able to sense the next three-or-so sheets as I start picking up the sheets and reading the visual poems, one by one.

Each sheet represents one of 796 dead infants and children. All of them died at a mother and baby home in Tuam, Ireland, between the years 1926 and 1961. The home was run by nuns from the Catholic organisation Bon Secours on behalf of the Irish state. It was the local historian Catherine Corless who found the many children’s names when in 2013 she discovered a register listing their deaths, tangible evidence of the children’s existence. According to the register, the children died of illness or malnutrition. The oldest was nine years old.

Following Catherine Corless’ discovery and massive media attention, the Irish government established a commission in 2014. After six years of investigation, the committee was unsuccessful in finding any register of burials of the dead children, but excavations were carried out on the grounds where the mother and baby home had been. In 2019, authorities confirmed that there were remains of dead children discovered in a discontinued underground sewage tank.

While the case was initially circulating in the media, the poet Kimberly Campanello sent an email to Catherine Corless. Campanello explained that she wanted to create a work anchored in the story about the Tuam children. That work is MOTHERBABYHOME, and that’s what’s standing in front of me at London Poetry Library.


RMH: Those 796 names of dead children must have felt like a very tangible thing, there’s so much identity in a name. What was it like to get your hands on that register?

KC: I think I felt similarly to how Catherine Corless and the people in the village feel about those names. The survivors are still reading out those names, and there’s a lot of community and public art that uses the reading of names as a gesture because it’s so powerful, as you say. You know, it’s all we have in a certain way, our names or the names of others. That was why I had them on each page and knew I had to proceed with the full work, a page for each name. I took all the causes of death away from each name. It felt important to me to not associate those names with their cause of death and instead I list those all together in one poem. Most of them were probably entirely avoidable or treatable or were induced by the conditions in the homes. I didn’t want to erase them, but I wanted them to be located differently so the names could ring out on each page. Working this way with poetry allows you to think about the location and placement of language, to judge the position of language.

RMH: Where did the initial idea for MOTHERBABYHOME come from?

KC: I had already tried using found text to what I thought was a strong effect. I wasn’t inflicting my own outrage and point of view on that text, but through using that language, manipulating that language that already existed, I think those feelings are there. It’s not the poet saying, “oh this really terrible bad thing has happened, I’m gonna tell you about it and all the ways in which it’s bad”. Which for me just feels inadequate a lot of the time. I had an idea about the visuality of the poems. The kind of shattered found language that I was messing around with using the found text and then printing it out on tracing paper. I thought that what I needed to do was make 796 visual poems. If I was going to deal with this subject, I needed to deal with it fully. I needed to put my own poetic aims aside, which is a very different artistic move than most poets make when they’re writing about something political. Because otherwise, I wouldn’t really have any business doing it, you know?

RMH: Aside from meeting Catherine Corless and getting your hands on her files, how did you approach the work?

KC: I set up Google Alerts on my Gmail with the words TUAM, MOTHER and BABY. It’s a kind of digital humanities at work. I had all this source material coming into my inbox, and that’s how I found the things that I used as my source material, which was everything from blog posts that are really politically horrible to the news articles to records to survivor groups.

RMH: Talk to me about the practicalities of creating these visual poems. Are you InDesign savvy, or do you swear to scissors and a glue stick?

KC: No, I just use Microsoft Word.

RMH: Really?

KC: Yes! It’s really dumb of me.

RMH: Sounds like a nightmare.

KC: I’m not a visual artist, I have no training and no tech. I’ve had people saying to me, particularly other visual poets or people who are in the art world, that I should really just get InDesign. But if I do that, it’s almost like cheating because the challenge of Word offers creative possibilities. 

RMH: All these poems are printed on transparent vellum paper. Was it ever going to be just on ordinary paper?

KC: No, definitely not. One of the poems, one of the very early poems that becomes iconic throughout, that image just kind of came to me as a sort of visual impression. Then it was like, how do I make that work? I was playing with doing that with little pieces of paper, which is how [the American poet] Susan Howe works with overwriting. A lot of the poets that I really love do those things. The placement of language and the material is just as important as what’s being said. It’s no surprise, right? You just have to go to The British Library’s manuscript exhibition to see historically how that’s just a thing.

RMH: I love that exhibition.

KC: Yeah, I love how the presentation of text just changes everything. So, the vellum idea—it’s not actual vellum, but it’s called vellum—I think it will last longer. They say that our books today will not last very long, the paper is cheap and will degrade. That’s why the MOTHERBABYHOME box is oak, and why the vellum is high-quality paper.

RMH: Which brings me to my next question, what was the idea with the box?

KC: On the one hand, the box is a coffin. The children weren’t buried in coffins, even though there were advertisements for coffins put out to tender, and the nuns had money to buy coffins, but apparently, they didn’t buy them. They were using state funds and not using them for what it was for. So, in contrast, the box was made with a sense of care. But the concept is also that the poems are on A4 because it’s bureaucratic. It’s my alternative report to that which was being produced by the commission. My report is a report on their report because all their interim reports are in there, and all the reactions to the interim report are in there. It’s a report on all the reports. It is, I hope, a subversion of that report which was profoundly rejected by survivors and human rights experts.

RMH: You say that there was only one way that you could create this huge body of work. Have you ever had second thoughts about how it turned out?

KC: I haven’t had concerns about it since finishing it but while I was doing it, obviously I did. During the process, it was important to me to confirm with the people who were affected that this made sense. I have since had a few human rights experts and survivors contact me saying that this is the real report. It’s not because of anything I did, it’s because of what they had already done, which is reflected in the work and which I’m just presenting, which is what I’m trying to do by making poetry from a kind of ritualised bureaucracy. 

RMH: It’s bureaucratic in many ways, isn’t it? Just imagine those mother and baby homes and the power that those nuns would have wielded. The nuns had all the money and power, and then there were the mothers and the babies. That echoes the social divide.

KC: Absolutely. The nuns, the church, religious orders, both Catholic and Protestant, ran a lot of things on behalf of the Irish state and were renumerated for it. And of course, we have the same situation today with private and state providers of support for refugees and asylum seekers or children in care, for example, that are using money but not protecting people’s rights and in fact are treating vulnerable people terribly. Part of why I proceeded with this was that I don’t think this is Irish exceptionalism. Yes, it’s a very specific thing that happened there and it was specific conditions that lead to it. Social, political, ideological, religious. However, the overall shape of it and many of the specifics are similar in other contexts and persist.

Rasmus Meldgaard Harboe is a writer and arts journalist, born in Copenhagen and based in London. He works in the Danish and British publishing industry and is the presenter of a Danish literary podcasts. Rasmus holds a BA degree in Creative Writing from Birkbeck School of Art.

untitled #1. deviation by Declan Wiffen

untitled #1. deviation 


in-between two tall pylons 

forget all that came before

swept under the sofa—

two morning thoughts on monogamy for a provocation into 

‘rusheth rather than runneth’. 

a skate’s heel swallow curve takes me out of the world up to 

constable skies, flat alone, back into promiscuous attention. 

a wish to find someone to die with…a cure for the terrors of aliveness. 

options we can still want despite closing the book. 

this ethics makes for a nervous-talking fuck boy but 

is philosophy enough? 

ecological theory sure won’t save you &

what is the boyfriend experience other than the end of a conversation

the resumption of a subject after deviation? 

swale the risk of abandoned junk—

haven’t seen jesus lately anyway, he was asked to keep god company. 

a big long walk alongside mean-low-water without 

interruption to my interruptions. 

is this really where you’ve been with your time? 

it is all a question of which catastrophe one prefers

varieties of knowing selves, deriving life from handbooks 

& affections echoed in creeky dreams. 

                                                                         people do different things with syntax. 

not a river of meaning but a tidal channel where 

prepositions are rapid & liable to deluge. 

a drenched body expressing the relation between 

a mirror-sheen & purple thunder 

in which i listen for what was hoped for yesterday, 

opening your line of shored up defence against saxon sex. 

untitled #2. irrepressibility


we can all want different things & you can’t tell me everything. 

it would strike futile to duck after lightning & still, 

crouched by this sea wall begin singing everything good isn’t pretty. 

bulrushes & jointed waft wind movement seen

rooted irrepressibility. 

show yourself to me in reed formation, cartographer of produced desire—

whisper those who say there’s no lack might be trying too 

hard to be whole. quarter my weaknesses & 

harrier the unsaid, not for bait digging or beach fishing, 

merely ranging the ditches together for a solitary grey heron. 

watch its clap flight & felt each cold rain drop on our backs 

until we merged with air & misty friendship. 

barge all plans & wade up the inlet for a supper we catch & cook, happily ever….

no, a lick of light from up under the edge of a clouded nap. 

my disposition isn’t ready for august’s young magpies. i scream black & white 

with the oyster catchers in a gust, red bills cut jaw, 

not flying but tumbled into dryness. 

who to turn to for ending, turn into tomorrow’s shadow? 

this little hedgehog, lost? 

brent geese won’t arrive till winter. 

                                                         i don’t like any of this, 

                                                         haven’t been able to say anything. 

swim again before the last plan of action—

search for eelgrass, linger if the grazing is good & push on at dusk. 

pray to the flat open for 



to return in flock



declan wiffen is Lecturer in Contemporary Literature and Critical Theory at The University of Kent. As part of Estuary Festival 2021, he was the organiser of Cruising the Estuary, a series of nature writing workshops exploring queer ecologies. He is also the editor of Litmus: the lichen issue, a magazine exploring the intersection of science and poetry. Recent and forthcoming writing can be found in FieldNotes 003, Responses to Derek Jarman’s Blue, A Queer Anthology of Healing, and -algia magazine. his first pamphlet will be published with Invisible Hand Press later in 2022.

Tempo Rising by Alia Halstead

She smokes a rollie whilst blasting hot air up her jumper with a hairdryer. The smell of fresh paint lingers through the smoke. The pangs of pre-menstruation tighten.


She’d been called into Stan, the director’s office, where he hovered over his laptop, and Josh, from human resources, leant against a filing cabinet.

            “What’s this?” Stan said.

Tempo looked at one of the surround-sound speakers, “Lungs”.


            “The sound of life. You said be experimental. Be avant-garde, be ‘what you do best’ – you said that.”

            “You make sound for film. It needs to relate to what’s on the screen.” He puffed on his electronic cigarette. “I can barely hear it.”

            “Sometimes it’s what’s not heard that gives meaning.”

            “You must be joking – you have something else, right?” He forwarded the clip. “How long does this go on for?”

            “Two minutes, thirty – same as the scene.”


            “It’s intimate – there’s a gentle passion to it.”

“What’s a gentle passion? That doesn’t even make sense.” He stared at the James Bond poster on the adjacent wall. “They’re fucking.”

            “No, they are carefully exploring – there’s been a build-up,” Tempo followed his gaze, “You wanted Raindance – no one wants Sean-Connery-rape-scenes anymore.”

            “Redo it – you’ve got two days.”

            “They’re kicking me out of my studio – how am I supposed to work?”

            “Firstly, it’s not your studio – and I know the property manager thinks you’re living in there by the way.”

            “I’m not-”

Josh interrupted, “Well, obviously no one is accusing.”

            “It’s got asbestos,” Stan said, “So, of course, you can’t use it anymore.”

            “They only found asbestos upstairs,” Tempo replied.

Stan turned to Josh, “I can’t have this argument with her.”

            “Tempo,” Josh said, “Let’s talk about this later, yeah.”

            “Secondly, use Studio 4”, Stan said, “it’s got upgraded gear – that’ll cut out all the manual shit that takes you ages.”

            “It takes ages because it’s live performance. I have to physically make the instruments – you know that – if you wanted generic, you’d get one of the techies to

mix something.”

            “Josh – get Lucas to put together two-thirty,” Stan said.

Josh looked at Tempo, “You can get this done, right?”

            “Tempo have a go,” Stan interrupted whilst typing, “but I can’t afford another delay, so we’ll have to have a backup – I’m being more than fucking reasonable here, guys. And get one of the techies to record you.”

            “No, you know I do it alone – it’s in my contract.”

            “Two days. That’s it.” He looked at her, “The studio said don’t get a foley. They’re temperamental. But, I love your work.” His hand gestured her to the door, “You’re a clever girl.”                    






A hasp and padlock securely bolted. She shook the lock and kicked the door.  She

paced the corridor and caught sight of the property manager.

            “David,” she shouted as she ran up to him.

He turned around, with toolkit in hand, “Hey, Tempo.”

            “Did Josh tell you I’d be away from my studio?”

            “No. I -”

            “You can’t just lock me out – I need my things.”

            “I was told you had moved rooms.”

            “That’s bullshit.” She reached for his keychain.

            “You can’t go in – it’s not safe.” He edged away.

            “How is it any less safe than it was twenty minutes ago when I was in there – and how on earth would you have coincidentally known I was away at that precise time?” She was shaking, “They bloody told you didn’t they – they told you.”

            “I’m just doing my job.”

            “Please, can I pop in and get my inhaler?”

            “I suppose you can’t be without that.”

As they walked David turned to her, “I noticed someone had smashed the fire alarm off the ceiling. You can’t do that in the new studio.”




            “Don’t forget you’re coming to mine tomorrow for dinner. Marco’s excited to try out a vegan moussaka recipe.”

            “Oh, I need to finish – ” she looked at him, “Tomorrow. I’ll be there.”

            “Marco was thrilled with the playlist you sent.”

            “I’m glad.” She watched him open the room. “Stay outside, David, in case there’s asbestos.”




Standing in the familiar surroundings of her cluttered studio, she approached her

jade plant and embraced the pot into her chest.

            “You’re a hardy beast,” she whispered into the oval leaves.


She grabbed a flat-packed box from the top of the shelves, punched out the

cardboard flaps, and scanned the studio. The two-seater sofa simultaneously

deflated and puffed, echoing her curves. She pulled off the crocheted blanket and

wrapped it around her shoulders. The skyline of boxes of objects collected

throughout the years: tiny Victorian medicine bottles she’d stolen from the Old

Operating Theatre, a broken hair-straightener that emitted a rusty clang when

the worn plates clasped together. Lost jewellery bells and creations made out of

chicken wire and gypsum plaster.


She’d made a conjoined-twins Jesus sculpture. Running her finger along its dusty form she shuddered as the roughness scoured.


She picked through her box of USBs, tapes and CDs. The recording of her ectopic pregnancy she’d saved from her old phone, labelled, “The Hypothetical”. Her bursting screams tugged onto the fallopian tube just as the egg had. After the argument with the nurse about keeping her phone, the recording was mostly background noise whilst it was shut in a drawer. No sound of the sedation or surgery.

            “Can you see why the nurse thought it was odd to record it?” The grief counsellor asked.

            “I told her I was a sound artist.”


It wasn’t a baby, but an idea travelling into nothingness. A secret until the doctors told her emergency contact.

            “You don’t want to be a single parent,” her grandmother said down the phone the week after.

            “I would have worked it out,” she replied.

            “It was no fun when your grandad left me with two children.”

            “It was different then.”

            “And I had my parents to help. You don’t. I’m far too old to babysit.”

            “I’m sure his family would have helped.”

            “Strangers will always offer but rarely deliver.”

            “I’d better get back to work, Nan.”

            “You’re lucky to be alive.”

            “I know, but it’s still upsetting.”

            “It wasn’t really a pregnancy, darling. I promise, you’re best off without it. Do forget about it.”


She opened the recording booth. The bucket she’d been using to pee in stood in the corner. She found some hand sanitiser gel and poured it in, shoving the bucket it in the cables cupboard. She picked up her stack of notepads and a handful of pens, all of which had snapped lids.


            “Tempo – c’mon now,” David called from behind the door, “I’ll help you carry your stuff.”





She’d spend hours in supermarkets, squeezing Victoria sponge packets, shaking boxes of bran flakes, rubbing kiwi skins; tapping on chandelier crystal and pressing camera buttons to release their shutters at car boots.


She’d let Collie, her old school friend, set her up on dates. The men would often leave early as she’d exaggerate her crunching and slurping; ding cardamom pods against wine glasses; clap lobster claws together with her irrevocable laugh.


            “Just try to be a bit more… scaled-back maybe,” Collie would say as they’d evaluate the dates.

            “They’re all so heavy-going. It’s bor-Ring.” She’d reply.

            “I know you – you wind people up on purpose.”

            “They always ask me if I DJ.”

            “Because you always wear those big stupid headphones around your neck.”

            “They’re noise-cancelling. Helpful when dating.”

            “They’re trying to make conversation.”

            “Please, no more Canary Wharfers you find at your little work lunches.”

            “They’re not all monsters.” Collie would swirl her glass. “I just want you to be happy.”

            “I am.”

            “I want someone to look after you. Scoop you up and cook for you – you can’t just eat chickpeas.”

            “Ha! You’ve been watching too many rom-coms – y’know they are funded by born-agains, and anyway, I don’t need looking after – they’d bore me to death, and then I’d be dead!’ Tempo would top up their glasses, “Killing someone isn’t very looky aftery.”

            “Or have some fun, for fuck’s sake.”

            “One night reflects all nights in a microcosm.”

            “How profound. Just give them a chance – they’re nervous.”

            “Why should I pretend to be something I’m not to appease their fragile egos?”

            “We’ve all got egos.” Collie would lick residue salsa off her manicured nails. “What about that guy Harry set you up with? You liked him – you said you could be yourself with him.”

            “He died.”

            “I know, but… y’know, it just goes to show – there are people out there.”


Maybe it was the cancer that helped him enjoy her soundscapes in the restaurant. The playful touches, his respectful tone. She’d write about him on post-it notes and stick them in her copy of Frankenstein. They became progressively more influenced by Catullus. 


He gobbles food like a frantic evangelical channeling god.

My auditory canal converts into a chapel.

A thousand mouthfuls, a thousand swallows, a thousand and a thousand, will never be enough.

Let no one speak your name, for it taints your rhythm.


For her birthday he had surprised her with tickets to see a light exhibition.

            “I’m sorry. I hope you can forgive me,” he said, placing his hands on her shoulders, “but light doesn’t really make sound.”

            “Bulbs can buzz when you mess with the voltage.”

            “Of course!” he threw his hands into the air.

            “Season two, episode four of Who Killed My Neighbour,” her voice sped up, “I made the sound of mosquitoes getting electrocuted by not screwing in a bulb properly, and filtering the sound of squishing crisp packets through one of those prize-winning giant courgettes.”

            “A lot to unpack in that.” He said with his low, crisp voice as they walked under flashes of neon.

“I cut off an end, scraped out the insides and shoved my hand up it like I was fisting a cow.”

“Interesting visuals,” he laughed. “Light does vibrate like sound.”

            “You vibrate.” She responded.


            “Ha, you’re dating a weirdo. What does that make you?”

            His eyebrows lifted, “Lucky.”         


Keeping the good memories of him. Pushing away how he shrivelled from Olympian to derelict shell.


Tempo could not bear to think of his last sound evaporate.



Studio 4 is sterile and barren. The newness will take years to break in.


She presses her face against the dark glass of the recording booth. The cold hardness on her cheek made her think of astronauts looking out to Earth; the isolation of a swirling in a mass of time. Waiting for her womb to release.


The creation of lungs had started six months ago. She’d record self-induced asthma attacks and listen back copiously; slowing down, speeding up; clipping the edges of breath.  Nights spent gluing together an array of leaves; creating pockets where she’d insert a straw to puff air through. Browning hornbeam and beech younglings pulsating: too crispy, too sloppy. Tissue-paper bubbles weren’t satisfying. Tightly-knit stitches applied to pig intestines to form balloons: the smell of pain. Faint squeaks and wheezy cranks recorded on her well-worn Scully 28 1/2 4-track. 


The boiling kettle and Deep Heat on her stomach; sifting through her notebook of sounds. You’re a clever girl ricochets. I’m not a girl, she wished she’d said. You squirmy trust-fund prick.


She sorts through the junkyard of props she’d poured onto the floor – toys, boots, stones and microphones – clicking wires into silver machines – drinking up the humming feedback. Pivoting soundboards. Turning the lights down to a soft glow. Standing in front of the big screen, forwarding and rewinding the scene. Kissing the back of her hand. Oohing. Slugging. Bare feet dragging on a scuffed rug, mirroring the dance of fumbling sex. Distributing her body off-balance. Vapid gasps. 


Alia is currently studying an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. Being neurodivergent, it is important for her to weave these elements into her stories. Alia researches, produce and co-hosts a podcast which is aired on an award winning radio station, Radio Reverb 97.2FM.

After the Fall of a Pear Tree Overladen with Fruit by Mark Czanik

After the Fall of a Pear Tree Overladen with Fruit 

The birds that used to gather and sing in our pear tree 

kept coming back that summer after its fall. 

I used to watch them from my window 

swooping down into the back garden, 

little stroboscopic streaks of colour 

that would stop and hover confusedly 

when they found only empty space 

in the pear tree’s place, before darting off 

in search of somewhere else 

to rest their fiery wings. 

How would that feel? I wondered. 

To come home one day and find nothing. 

No passage in which to slip off your shoes, 

no kettle waiting to be filled,

no staircase to take three at a time,   

no records waiting to be played,    

or treasure chest of comics in the secret cave 

under your bed. No bed even.

Just a sudden absence in a row of houses 

where your own once stood. 

Whose door would you knock on first?



Mark Czanik’s recent poems, stories and artwork can be found in Riptide, Ropes, Porridge, Pennine Platform, Morphrog, and 3AM. He was brought up in the sweet borderlands of Herefordshire, and now lives in Bath.

Five Grains Of Wheat by Colin Clark

I arrived in Quito in October 1968. Rolling Stone sent me to write an article on a growing counterculture of freaks and hippies travelling to South America to experience ayahuasca. The hallucinogenic vine had been popularised by William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, who, according to their book The Yage Letters, had tripped their way across the continent in the early fifties. Since then, the political situation had also gone South.

Five days before I landed, President Velasco swept back into power on a tide of left-wing populism. His CIA-backed predecessor was dispatched into exile, but the spy agency maintained an extensive network among the media outlets across Latin America. Velasco’s refusal to disinherit Cuba, or chastise the radical elements of Ecuador’s Communist Party, had left the country isolated and paranoid. There was an unofficial moratorium on government cooperation with Western journalists, and our freedom of movement was heavily restricted.

This left my ayahuasca story dead in the water. I had ceased my daily visits to the travel permit office after I was bully-clubbed by a uniform with a cruel pencil-moustache. I laughed when he cursed me as a gringo – it was my first time – and so he struck me across the shoulder. I fled, hiding in a church near Los Rios for four hours, until a padre told me to leave.

We reporters roamed the capital, stray dogs hungry for political meat. My chance break came at an impromptu lunch with three middlemen who had just been fired from Texaco. After two bottles of Zhumir rum, they agreed to anonymously go on the record. My subsequent article exposed the oil company’s toxification of rivers. They were deliberately poisoning Amazonian waterways to force the local indigenous people from their ancestral lands. The conglomerate viewed the region as their personal, untapped reservoir of black gold.

I arranged a meeting with the sub-editor of El Diario, feeling like Rachel Carson. And like Ms. Carson, my Pulitzer-pretension did not last very long. A security guard met me in the newspaper’s lobby, leading me to an ornate boardroom via the service elevator. I was directed to sit on one side of a substantial mahogany table, across from the sub-editor, editor, and five men in Brioni suits. After four minutes, during which no-one offered me a drink, the paper’s owner arrived looking like he had swallowed poison. He reprimanded both of his editors without looking at me. When he stormed from the room, it became clear that the suits were Texaco’s lawyers. Their lead attorney stood up, smoothing out the folds of his jacket.

“Mr. Marlowe, give us your sources and this all goes away,” he crooned.

“What goes away?” I felt a strong urge to muss his silver bouffant.

He realised I was not going to play ball and promised that I would not live to see a single word in print. I knew what that meant in Ecuador, and so I left, making my way to the bar of the Majestic Hotel on the Plaza Grande.


The barman settled my third bandido onto a felt placemat. I gazed out across the cobbled square, at vendors squatting next to hessian sacks of fresh coca leaves. The colonnades and façade of the Palacio de Carondelet were grubby. I was wondering if Valesco was there in his office, when a courier arrived and handed me a Western Union envelope. I stubbed out my Chesterfield and opened the telegram.


Joseph Marlowe 3 de enero 1969

Majestic Hotel,

García Moreno N5,

16 y Chile Esq,









I read the cable twice. I lit another Chesterfield and ordered one more bandido. “What the fuck is the Missionary Aviation Fellowship?” I asked the barman. He shrugged. And how do they know who I am and where to find me, I thought. My eyes rescanned the text, settling on the phrase, “ALL EXPENSES PAID”.

“Put this on my tab,” I said, slipping on my sunglasses and hurrying to the hotel’s reception desk.


The Cessna Caravan 206 banked down towards the jungle outpost. Beyond the ridges that sliced out of the canopy to the West, the Andean massif threatened to engulf the land like a tsunami of mud-stained rock and ice. Through the window of the airplane the forest was formidable, stretching out for two thousand miles towards the Atlantic. We had navigated over scattered swamplands, flying low over the blackwater tributaries that comprise the Amazon Basin.

“That’s the Curaray,” said my headset.

“Impressive,” I muttered. I could see three rivers from my vantage point. “Which one, Tom?”

The pilot nodded in the direction of Arajuno. Before leaving Quito, I had pumped my local contact for information about the evangelical mission. The Shell Oil Company had abandoned the town in 1948 when three of their prospectors were speared to death by a group of indigenous hunters. It had since become a thriving community of crusading Americans, whose aim was to convert the region’s Quichua and Waorani tribespeople. Access to the site was only possible by air; there were no roads, and taking a boat was arduous and risky. The missionaries maintained an aerial network called the Missionary Aviation Fellowship, operating between their stations across the Oriente and Quito. The organisation was the brainchild of Nate Saint, late husband of Marj Saint – the sender of my telegram.

My pilot had joined the Fellowship five months earlier. An ex-college football player from Cedar Rapids, Tom had been taught to fly by his dust-cropper father. He had graduated from Wheaton, a scriptural college based in Illinois, and when I asked him why he had chosen to come to Ecuador, he told me that he was an idealist. “But now I just like to fly,” he said. I settled back for the rest of the flight, sipping guarapo from my hipflask. Tom pointed us windward, following a broad stream towards Arajuno. Thatched huts were dotted along the riverbank where children waved at the plane as we passed. We took a final turn and landed on a thin red-earth runway; a gash that had been cut through the bush on the outskirts of the settlement.

The air was close as I climbed through the stiff Cesna door. I was greeted by a woman in khaki overalls.

“Mr. Marlowe, welcome to Arajuno. I’m Marj Saint.”

She flashed me a dimpled smile as we shook hands. She was in her forties, and her Lucile Ball haircut was streaked with grey. She was cheery and reminded me of a television homebody.

“I trust Tom looked after you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.

“Everyone calls me Marj. We’ll bring your things to your billet.” She wiped her hands with a linen cloth. “Tom, billet five please.”

We walked into town along a short trail through the dense woodland. Marj stopped to point out tiny, colourful orchids, and the splayed red fingers of heliconias. She knew the Quichua word for every bird that trilled from the canopy above.

“This is chonta,” she said, pointing at a medium-sized palm with fanned leaves. “The Quichua consider this their most sacred tree. They eat the fruit, and the leaves are dried in the sun, and used as rooves for their longhouses. It’s a hard wood,” she tapped her fist on the thick trunk. “They used to make spears from this.”

“Is that something they still do?” I enquired.

“Not our Quichua,” she quickly replied, “but the Auca who live in the jungle, they still do it.”

“The Auca?”

“Yes. That’s what we call the people who live in darkness. The uncontacted tribes. It’s the Auca who we’re all here for.”

“You mean, to convert?”

Marj smiled. “The Auca are dying. There are reports of cannibalism. They’ll wipe each other out without the Lord’s intervention. They have no word for peace in their language.”

We proceeded to the commune, entering from the North. Outlying huts and corrugated lean-tos gave way to brick buildings containing workshops and storehouses. We passed several men who were performing maintenance on a church roof.

“Howdy Marj,” said a crew cut with dark glasses. He was armed with a Browning rifle. “Rachel is back, she brought the supplies.”

“Thank you, Mike.” Marj turned towards me. “We take security seriously here. There’ll be a briefing after dinner.”

I was shown to my lodgings, a well-constructed wooden prefab that had been freshly painted yellow. I showered and lay down on the bed underneath the whirr of the overhead fan.


I was woken by a knock on the door.

“Mr. Marlowe, dinner is ready.” Tom had changed into fresh clothes and brought my bags from the plane. He wore cut shorts, a Wheaton college t-shirt, and a holstered sidearm. I nodded at it.

“I guess dinner is mandatory, huh?”

He grinned a mouthful of corn-fed teeth. “You good to go?”

I threw my bags into the room and closed the door. A group of brawny, brown-skinned men watched from the portico of the opposite building. Most of them wore pants and shirts, but one elderly man stood out, wearing only a thin cotton loincloth.

“Who are they?” I asked.

“Waorani. The old man is new, he arrived four days ago.”

“Can I speak with them?”

The mission was funded in large part by the Dallas-based Summer Institute of Linguistics, whose goal was to translate the bible into all languages. It was mandatory for every missionary to complete an intensive course before being allowed in the field; Tom had spent three months in Quito learning Wao, the language spoken by the Waorani. I was interested to see how much he had picked up in such a short space of time.

As we approached, the old man picked up his belongings and strode out to meet us. His black hair was cut into bangs, flowing long down his back and shaved at the sides. He wore a large balsa-wood disc in each earlobe. A blowgun was slung over his shoulder and a delicate lizard skull dangled from a cord around his neck. He spoke to me directly whilst Tom translated.

“He has named you after his son, who was killed a few weeks ago in a raid. The Auca kill strangers on site, so he has given you a family member’s name so that you are known to him, and will not be his enemy,” he said.

“That’s good,” I said. The man’s fingers and knuckles were thick knotted vines.

“With great power comes great responsibility, Luke 12:48,” Tom countered. “You are now known to this man, so you’re part of his tribe. He expects you to give him gifts when you return to this place, especially because you’re white.”

“Can you ask him about his son? What happened to him?”

“No, it’s best we don’t. The Auca believe the souls of children are eaten by worms. Marj doesn’t allow that kind of thing, not in front of the Waorani who live here.”

The old man soon lost interest, melting away from his companions. I learnt that the others had all converted; they wore silver crosses and carried New Testament bibles. They lived in the community on a semi-permanent basis.

“Where do they live for the rest of the time?” I asked.

Tom sighed. “They return to their tribes. It’s a revolving door, no hellos, no goodbyes. One day they just decide to undress, and off they go. They go back to their old way of life, back to the darkness of the jungle.”

We left and made our way to the commissary. As we approached the dining hall, Tom said, “you should speak to Gimade. She’s a Waorani.” Before I could respond, he had slipped through the door.

Inside, Buddy Holly crackled from a hidden speaker whilst people clustered in groups, gossiping and clinking beer glasses. Marj approached, accompanied by a woman with wide shoulders and a full-moon face.

“Mr. Marlowe, I’d like to introduce my sister-in-law, Rachel Saint,” she said, handing me a cup of red punch. “She’s the one who heard about your Texaco article. She’s the reason you’re here.”

I frowned. “And just why am I here, Ms. Saint?”

They exchanged smiles.

“Tomorrow you will witness a miracle. I believe God put you in Ecuador to tell the story of this miracle,” Rachel’s voice had a soft Pennsylvanian lilt.

I paused. “And what miracle might that be, Ms. Saint?”

“Tomorrow we travel by boat along the Curaray. We are going to Palm Beach to rendezvous with a tribe of Auca. It is perfectly safe; I can assure you. We are even bringing our children.”

“Palm Beach?” I mumbled.

“A sand bar on the river. We call it Palm Beach,” interjected Marj.

“Tomorrow is the anniversary of my brother’s murder,” said Rachel, “Marj’s husband, Nate. We are going to baptise the men who murdered him.”

The dinner hall fell silent and I swallowed the cup of punch.


Nate Saint was the leader of Operation Auca. His young team consisted of five missionaries: himself, Peter Fleming, Jim Elliot, Ed McCully and Roger Youderian. Like Tom, the five men were zealous idealists yearning to battle against the forces of ignorance. They would have looked at home at a NASA press conference – chiselled Americans with flare and a thirst for adventure.

In October 1955, they assembled at Arajuno to prepare for first contact with an Auca tribe. The men knew the dangers. They had heard about the slaughtered missionaries in Bolivia, twelve years prior. This time would be different though, because Saint had a plan.

He had devised an ingenious method of using his Piper PA-14 to deliver gifts to the tribespeople. By lowering a canvas basket attached to a long piece of rope, and then putting the plane into a steep turn, the drag of the rope would eventually leave the basket motionless below the aircraft. This meant that Saint could lower provisions – tokens of goodwill – to the indigenous people on the ground.

Saint, Elliott, and Fleming had discovered a collection of Auca dwellings a short flight from town, which they nicknamed Terminal City. The strategy was to make friendly, aerial overtures until the team felt safe enough to make ground contact. A landing strip was cleared on a sandbar on the Curaray, which they dubbed Palm Beach. It was a ten-mile trek from Terminal City. The next thirteen weeks was spent making deliveries to the tribal community. Saint had rigged a one-way radio to the basket through which he repeated the Wao word for friendship. The tribe reciprocated with their own offerings, including a talking parrot and a macaw-feathered crown.

The missionaries’ confidence peaked, and at 8:02am, on January 3rd, 1956, the team flew the first of five supply runs to Palm Beach. Time was limited, the oncoming rainy season meant the river would soon rise and flood the area. Youderian constructed a tree house for shelter, whilst Eliot walked the beach, sermonizing to the forest. Saint checked the camp’s equipment, documenting the mission with his journal and camera. He hid his disappointment during radio calls back to base, announcing daily, “all’s quiet at Palm Beach.” Meanwhile, Fleming flew the plane over Terminal City, dropping gospel-pamphlets into the clearing, and shouting the Wao word for river through a loudspeaker.

On Friday 6th, the team had gathered for morning prayers. Yelling emanated from the treeline. Three Auca appeared, a young man and girl accompanied by an older tribeswoman. The man wore a thin strip of cloth that tied his penis to his belly. The missionaries called the man George and the girl Delilah; the Auca spent the whole day at the beach. They showed no understanding or acknowledgment that the white men could not understand their language. George was gifted a shirt but refused Fleming’s attempts to clothe him. Later that afternoon, Saint flew George over Terminal City. George, leaned far out of the plane, waving and hooting at his kinsmen below. When they returned, the missionaries led afternoon prayers, but George and Delilah drifted off down the beach and back into the forest. Youderian remained with the older woman by the fire. She chattered at him all evening until he retired to the treehouse. She sat by herself, continuing her conversation alone. By morning she was gone.

Considering first contact a resounding success, Saint and Fleming returned to Arajuno to celebrate. All was quiet at Palm Beach once more. During a flight over Terminal City later that day, Saint spotted George, who gesticulated wildly at the plane with his companions. On Sunday morning, January 8th, the Auca village seemed empty. Certain the tribe were making their way to the river, Saint made his final broadcast, “Looks like they’ll be in time for afternoon service. Pray that this is the day! We’ll contact at four-thirty.”


I stood on the white sands of Palm Beach and watched the ceremony. It was January 8th, thirteen years to the day when Nate Saint and his team were massacred. Five Waorani men, dressed in formal Western attire, were baptised in the shallows of the Curaray River. Nate and Marj’s son, Steve Saint, performed the ceremony, immersing his father’s killers, one after another.

When the ritual was over, Marj invited me to walk with her along the riverbank. “Life magazine covered the story of the ambush, just after it happened,” she said. “But this is the real story. Redemption.”

“And forgiveness?” I asked.

“Only God forgives those who are redeemed,” she replied.

We clambered above the ragged waterline. The skeleton of Youderian’s treehouse clung to the trunk of an enormous ceibo tree. Fifteen metres away, Marj pointed out the common grave of the five missionaries.

“The rescue party were armed,” she said, “but they couldn’t bring the bodies with them.”

“How do you feel about leaving them here in the jungle?” I asked.

“Rachel said it best. She wrote back home to her and Nate’s folks, ‘the unmarked graves are five grains of wheat planted in Auca soil.’ That’s how I feel. We’re all proud that the blood of our husbands and brothers became the seed of the Auca church.”

I was shown where the bodies were located. Saint’s wristwatch had stopped at 3.12pm. A gospel-pamphlet had been found, wrapped around the spear that protruded from his torso. It had taken three days for help to arrive. By that time, the plane had been stripped of its canvas and the corpses were bloated and grey.

I scanned the beach. A group of missionaries knelt in a circle with the Waorani who had been baptised. Another group were throwing around a frisbee. I turned away. Tom was behind me, accompanied by a Waorani woman. She was dressed in a brilliant-white shirt with bright floral piping.

“Mr. Marlowe, this is Gimade. I think you should hear what she has to say,” he said.

“Why? What’s going on, Tom?”

“Gimade. She’s Delilah,” he said, “she was here on that day.”

We returned to the narrow motorboat. Tom translated Gimade’s story to me as she spoke.

The missionaries had learnt their rudimentary Wao from Gimade’s older sister, Dayuma. She had fled the forest when her father and brother were speared in a raid. Gimade was searching for her long-lost sister when she happened upon the encampment at Palm Beach. Accompanying her was a man called Nenkiwi. He was a noted troublemaker, who had drowned his second wife and pretended that she had been taken by an anaconda. Nenkiwi followed Gimade everywhere.

When the two Waorani left the beach, they sealed the fate of the missionaries. For an unmarried man and woman to travel without a chaperone was unthinkable. They were discovered, and Nenkiwi had to think fast. He blamed the missionaries, telling the tribe that Gimade had been kidnapped and assaulted. It worked – it was decided that the white men were devils upon the discovery of photographs in the bucket. Gimade went along with the pretence to save her own life, and a raiding party was assembled.


Flying back to Quito, I flicked through the dog-eared copy of Life which Marj had given me.

“This is the story of darkness,” she had said. “Now you can tell the story of light.”

The article led with a photo of the missionaries’ widows and their children. The reporter had done his research well, including detailed information on the men and their families. I noticed a picture of a young Gimade – the caption referred to her as Delilah. It had been pulled from Saint’s camera which they found at the bottom of the Curaray. The last photograph he had taken had been stripped of emulsion by water-damage – the image of Gimade had been replaced by a patch of blackness.

I tossed the magazine into my knapsack and pulled out my hipflask. Looking out of the window, I imagined the jungle as a vast wheatfield, ears of corn bent by the wind.

“Marj was wrong,” said my headset.


“About the article,” Tom replied, “Marj was wrong. It’s not a story about darkness, it’s a story about sacrifice.”

I thought about Gimade. I had asked Tom why she had wanted to tell me her story. She had answered directly, in clear English: “perhaps you are here to tell our story, not theirs.

I sat back and took a slug of guarapo.

“Tom, do you know where I can get some ayahuasca?” I asked.



Colin Clark is a creative writing and English literature student at Birkbeck University. His favourite writers range from New Journalism’s Tom Woolfe, Joan Didion, and Truman Capote, to postcolonial writers such as Sam Selvdon and Chinua Achebe.

Building a City with No Heart by Emma Lee

Building a City with No Heart


He dreams of architecture: brutalist

streets designed for efficient

movement of waves of people, funnelled

through insomniac streets of narrow culture.

He needs to find a way to represent it

in a stream of fluid machine code

stripped back to green on a black screen.

But how to make it look like a city

that never sleeps? Ones and zeros

trickle like rivers but have no visual depth.

He shuffles to the kitchen, assembles 

udon noodles, wakame seaweed, bonito flakes.

Picks up his wife’s recipe book

to check an amount. The text swims,

comes into focus. He cooks, eats, sees

the book on the counter when he clears dishes.

Tired eyes turn the kanji green. It flickers.

He slips the book into his messenger bag.

Where love is frowned on, food will do.



Emma Lee’s publications include “The Significance of a Dress” (Arachne, 2020) and “Ghosts in the Desert” (IDP, 2015). She co-edited “Over Land, Over Sea,” (Five Leaves, 2015), was Reviews Editor for The Blue Nib, reviews for magazines and blogs here.

Have You Heard What’s Under the River? or The Life and Times of Genghis Khan by Okala Elesia

“Genghis Khan? Never heard of her.” – Diana Ross


When Genghis Khan died, they buried him in lowland shrub beside a river and then re-directed the river over his remains as per his wishes, so that he may lay undisturbed in the afterlife, if there was an afterlife; which he didn’t think there was. Better to hedge your bets though, he figured. In order that his resting place remain unknown, the men who diverted the river were slaughtered by the men who dug the first pit. This final group of men were themselves then instructed to commit suicide, or instead take jobs as estate agents. It was a shitty deal but Genghis knew best.

  The tomb they buried Temujin –or Genghis as he came to be known- measured seven feet by ten. There were no fancy adornments, no inscriptions of any kind. An oak cask in a stone shell, and that was it. To look, you wouldn’t have guessed that here lay the great Khan, conqueror of worlds. That is, but for one small detail; Temujin’s final wish.

  The Steppe Book of the Dead, a weighty tome containing the unabridged – albeit empirical – account of Mongolian conquest speaks of a family burial with his younger brothers, while the Mongolian Book of Motown tells a different story: that instead of his brothers, Khan was interred with the surviving members of the Supremes. With hindsight, we now know that the truth was actually much less extravagant: Genghis Khan was interred with a vending machine and a personal computer.  

It is common knowledge that Temujin, first of his name, had become towards the end of his life a fan of video games. It’s just never been certain quite when or how this interest took hold. Contemporary historical opinion now points towards the early 12th century and a battle that would shape history.


It’s important we set the scene. In 1201, war appeared in the sky clutching a guitar. It had been building for some time. R&B was on its way out, the philosophers said. Here is this new sound, this “motown”, with its multi-layered arrangements and memorable hooks. Change too, could be felt on the grasslands of the steppe. One tribe above all had begun to expand rapidly. Finally, and then suddenly, against this backdrop of strings and dynamic three-piece harmonies, thirteen sides found themselves drawn into an unavoidable fight. For several months, the Khanate waged war with those steppe-tribes yet to pledge allegiance to their cause. Genghis was trying to mobilise the many different Mongol groups within the steppe –a temperate grassland stretching thousands of miles from Romania to Manchuria- into a single centralised machine. By unifying this stretch of land under a single ruler, he hoped to flex dominion over much of east Asia, and perhaps the world. This struggle and counter-struggle has become known as  The Battle of the Thirteen Sides, though at the time it had a more unassuming name: The Years Before Disco. Khan’s men rolled through village after village, town after town, gathering momentum. Those who pleaded for their lives were sometimes granted clemency, but needless to say, those who remained defiant were cut down and fed to the earth. Genghis, as ever, fought from the front.

At some point during the battle, the great Khan took an arrow to the neck, necessitating his withdrawal from the fighting. With the Khanate close to victory, however, Genghis instructed his two foremost favoured generals, the fearsome Guyuk and Subutai, to command in his absence, and returned home to recover.

Camp, in those days at least, was different. Khan found himself surrounded by some of the worst people in society: weak men, angry children, and the elderly (in his autobiography, Khan’t Slow Down: the Life and Times of Genghis Khan, he speaks of a fear rooted in the “weakness of growing old”). Khan slipped into a diet of comfort food and soft drinks. Apart from the odd update from his generals, the days were long. And this is where our story picks up.


One day, while out looking for apples, Genghis Khan came across an arcade. It was not uncommon; early Mongolia was full of craft workshops, creative spaces, and, of course, places for those who needed their video game fix. Khan missed the thrill of war; the relationship of command. He’d heard about the arcades through his soldiers, and he was curious. And so it was that Genghis Khan found himself standing before a virtual recreation of ancient Egypt, stoning runaway slaves with the swipe of a stick, the push of a button. Slaver 7 had been a huge hit in China before finding success in the outer fringes of Asia, thanks in part to intrepid traders brave enough to smuggle it out along the Silk Road. With time on his hands, Khan soon set five of Slaver7’s top ten highest scores. These would come up on the screen in a bold white font as the game loaded up. Those with scores higher than his own were summoned to the national palace –a square tent attached to wooden columns in the ground –  where each then denounced their own scores as the works of fortune, fiction, or myth.   

There was no coming back now. Khan had a computer installed in his tent and commanded local designers to develop something more challenging to meet his needs.  He wrote in a WordPad document later recovered from a flash drive: “a love which burns brighter than Diana Ross, brighter, even, than conquest, burns for…

 an accurate hospital resource management simulation, the likes of which the world can barely imagine.” 

Speculating, as any historian must when trying to piece together events from so long ago, it is not difficult to see why Genghis may have found satisfaction in this genre above all others. The ‘management resource’ sim is a classic video game staple that requires mastery of the multi-tiered aspect of empire management; from overseeing a business day-to-day, to developing systems that might speak to its future; it is a genre that will test your ability to manage both people and linear time. 

Before long, the game, titled Hospital Makeover: Mongolia!, was complete, and installed in his tent. This period seems have been, broadly speaking, one of great satisfaction for Khan. He drank, ate well, and set new high scores. During this time, his advisors patented the catchphrase, “those bastards!”, so regularly was it heard to ring out from his tent. Guards, fearing the worst, would rush in, only to find Genghis sat on the bed in a state of agitation because his in-game hospital had sprung an in-game curveball; unannounced inspectors, a virus running rife; that kind of thing. “Trying to fool me like the Shah of the Khwarazmian empire, is it!” Khan shouted at the screen the first time this happened, before winking at his red-faced guard. 

  Unlike his cousins, who found short-term amusement in the comical ailments of the game’s virtual patients, Genghis played in a state of alert seriousness, and always with furrowed brow. The emergencies and the accidents, the sprite of a ghost as it departed the body of one lost; everything was a challenge to be met head-on. After a time, we might ask why so serious? But perhaps that in itself is to miss the point. If we’re all just agents of the waking world, what’s the one absolute waiting for us in the wings? Well, perhaps in the early days of 1200, Temujin saw that too.


On the day they buried Genghis Khan, the people of the Steppe were told that the immortal Khan had ascended to Heaven, where he waited, bow in hand, for his people to join him. The river atop his grave ran with a new-found vitality. In time, on either side of its banks, flowers bloomed and lush reeds grew fat. The area became a place of great beauty and tranquillity. Roe deer and elk were drawn downstream to the pools of turquoise that would gather in unnumbered basins, as dragonfly skimmed across the surface drunk on the wind. Gobi bears bathed with their reflections in the cool waters, watched in turn by the solitary sand leopard waiting her turn. Truly, it was serenity; a cool slice of heaven under the baking sun.  


It was in this place of serenity that the first shouts went unheard. Genghis, embalmed within an inch of his life, skin finally flawless in death, stood upright in the tomb He stared open-mouthed at the disc sitting in the Hospital Makeover: Mongolia! case – the greatest hits of Leo Sayer vol. 2.

Who could visit such vengeance upon him? 

Vol. 2 – even that irked him somehow. Where was the first? He tore out the card inlay before pulling apart the case itself. Nothing.

He thought back to his final weeks above ground in the office. Everyone had said how well he looked, even though he knew they were just saying it.  Who could have done this? His instructions were crystal clear. Maybe, he supposed, an intern from one of the conquered kingdoms was at fault. They took on so many at a time, in part to beat child labour legislation, that it was sometimes difficult to keep track of who was useful and who wasn’t. He checked the hard drive of his computer to see if there was already an install of Hospital Makeover hoping that maybe someone had had the good sense to foresee an occurrence like this, but there wasn’t and they hadn’t.

The Mongolians, like many before and after them, believe in manifest destiny, a destiny that was… manifest. At the heart of that idea was death, which instead of being an end, rather represented a beginning: a short prologue tacked on to the business of eternity. In this moment now, Genghis saw the rest of his end stretching out before him. He wandered into the one other space in the tomb, a pokey utility room containing a mop, sink, and the vending machine. They hadn’t done a bad job on the interiors, though there were thin flecks of white paint dried onto the sink bowl. He turned towards the vending and machine pressed the button marked Cherry Onion. In fact, it was the only button – as he had requested. The machine’s unseen gut rumbled behind its logo of cherries superimposed on a waterfall and dispensed a can. Khan reached down, sighing. He had decided he would sigh for the rest of his life.

Sitting in the otherwise empty drop chute was a blue can. Khan gasped in horror. He already knew what it was. He grabbed at it all the same, squinting at the lettering. 

Seabass Shandy:

Mongolia’s favourite shandy…

With a hint of sea bass

– read the tag line beneath the picture of an anthropomorphic cartoon fish with an eye patch supping from a can. Mongolians loved the stuff, but not Khan.

He could feel his breath now coming and going with ragged velocity. It didn’t help that the vending machine bathed the room in a sickly cherry light. It also didn’t help, he realised, that he’d be wearing the same underwear for the rest of his afterlife, but that was less important. He looked down at the machine again. One button. A total failure of imagination.   

So, of course, he pushed it again.

Once, twice. Two more cans of Seabass Shandy. He pushed again –

another can.

Another push; another can.

The automated engine of the heartless machine seemed to roar back louder each time, challenging the great Khan to a fight he couldn’t win. 

“What in the fuck is this?” he thundered.

All this activity had the effect of tiring Genghis. He reached down into the machine’s chute and grabbed one of the cans, flipping it open with a single flick of the thumb, sucking from the hole ‘til blue foam ran down his mouth. He threw the can to the ground, reached down, and cracked open another, draining it in the same way.

It tasted like sea bass; it really did.

Just then, a low, barely audible moan seemed to very gently shake the room. Khan gripped the vending machine with the alertness of old. When it had gone, he chuckled. A distant earthquake they will never feel on the surface, he thought. How quaint to be closer to the earth’s core. And yet… the noise had seemed like it was in the tomb. Puzzled, Khan poked his head out of the utility room and performed one of his famous – he called them – “360 degree scans”. He felt giddy on the shandy. Had he imagined it? Was the trauma of the last ten minutes finally catching up with him? He leaned against the illuminated monster that had been the vending machine. No sooner had he calmed that the sound returned, shaking the utility room more than before, so that his teeth chattered. Genghis, frightened, unsure, looked down and saw the source of the violence: the noise was coming from him, from the volcano of his gut. In that moment, the volcano erupted again, firing out thick reams of bubbling molten lava. A fizzy phosphorescent blue. It was the Seabass shandy. Khan fell to the floor, sliding down the vending machine, into a fit of giggles. He was roaring. He was vomiting. He was roaring some more. He reached back into the chute, grabbed a third can.  

Time stopped.

Khan drank, Khan vomited. Khan wandered into the main room and slumped in his solitary fold-out chair.

One god-damn chair, he thought. There would have been more – three to be exact – but the Supremes had declined his offer. He looked at the empty can, then the CD, back to the can, now to his computer.  

He placed Leo Sayer in the optical drive and sighed. 


Genghis Khan’s final resting place remains unknown. In 2004, a Japanese and Mongolian research team located what they believed to be the site of his tented palace. Piecing together the calcified records of court officials from the time, it is thought his tomb lies nearby, though to this day it has refused every effort to yield its secrets.

Okala Elesia is a British-Nigerian writer living in London. His stories can be found in Extra Teeth Magazine, Necessary Fiction, and a few other places. He is currently studying for his MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck.

Human Error by Yanita Georgieva

human error

the details here 

are not important


maybe there was 

a washing machine

on the roof 


a cracked pot 

of blue jasmine

teetering over 

the parapet 


I was there

with my big


holding up 

my clown suit


the rain 

poured down

in ladles which 

is not important

unless there was hope

for a spotless exit


I see them now

the things I should have done


locked the roof garden 

twisted and pulled out

each tooth like a tick 

yelled about women
and cockpits and pecking

for worms


I should have

said something

better but

if you are wondering

if I waited



with the wilt 

of an abandoned 

tulip I waited

and waited

to be plucked out

of the mulch


for a swamp mouth

to open and call me

a good green thing

worthy of light



Yanita Georgieva is a poet and journalist. She was born in Bulgaria, raised in Lebanon, and is currently based in London, where she is pursuing a Creative Writing MA at Royal Holloway University. She is the recipient of the 2022 Out-Spoken Prize for Page Poetry. You can find her work in Poetry Wales, bath magg, Gutter Magazine, and elsewhere. 

Immersed by Everett Vander Horst

Church is, I’m sorry to say, a mixed blessing.  I wish I could testify that it’s been all fellowship and edification, but in truth God’s people come with a steady stream of frustrated tears and angry words as well.  Over the years, Kees and I too have earned a few scars, which of course are wounds that have found healing—though they’ve certainly left their mark.  

The latest struggle has centered around our dear friend Linda.  Mina and I befriended her when we while we were a part of a women’s self defense class back almost two years ago.  Well, with a few starts and stops, God’s really been to work in her life, for the good.  Late last spring she concluded a whirlwind romance, marrying a fine man a few years older than herself, a fellow named Danny Grable.  They have been awfully good for one another and have become an active part of the church.  

Lo and behold, as a mirror match to their whirlwind romance, within a few months Linda was expecting, and she delivered a healthy baby girl at the beginning of February.  They named her Olivia, after Linda’s mother.  How wonderful it was to see the ladies of the church fawning over her and piling up the gifts of sleepers, homemade blankets and crafty knickknacks with the baby’s name and birthday painted, embroidered and stamped on them.   We may not do music as well as the big Pentecostal church up the highway, but we sure do know how to welcome a little one.

Little Olivia was baptized now two Sundays past, and the service was one like I’d surely never seen before.  But the journey to the baptismal font was long and painful, and it is a story that bears retelling.

Of course, soon after Olivia was born, Pastor Morton went to visit with Linda and Danny, and amidst the congratulations and oohing and aahing, he asked them about baptism.  They talked over the meaning of baptism, and different dates that would work best for members of their families, and then Linda surprised Pastor Morton with a request he’d never received before.  She said they wanted Olivia baptized by immersion.  When he told me about it later, Pastor Morton said at first, he thought Linda had her baptism terminology mixed up, what with her being a new Christian and all.  But no, it soon was clear to him that she meant what she said:  they wanted little Olivia baptized by dunking her completely under the water.  Linda explained that after she had come into the church, and she learned about baptism, she was really struck by what it said about the sacrament being not only a sign of cleansing from guilt, but also dying to sin.  Because of the symbolism, she wished she had been baptized in our church by immersion.  Then, a few months before the baby was born, her cousin told her about attending a service in a church in Saskatchewan, where the baby was dipped under the waters, head to toe!  Right then, Linda decided, she wanted her child baptized in the same way.

Well, Pastor Morton said he wasn’t about ready then and there to sign on to dunking a baby in church.  Who knows what odd cult her cousin might have stumbled into!  He told them he’d give it some thought, do some checking, and talk it over with the elders.  Linda and Danny said they understood, as this was not something that the pastor or our church had ever done before.    

Over the following days, he checked around and soon discovered that although the practice of infant baptism by immersion was not real common, it certainly was a legitimate practice.  It had a long history in some branches of both the Anglican and Eastern Orthodox churches.  Through the internet he contacted a priest who performed such baptisms on a regular basis and found out how to do it.  It turns out, the trick is to blow quickly into the baby’s face, just before the dunking.  The baby is so startled by the blowing that he will gasp; he’ll quickly breathe in and hold his breath for a moment, just long enough to dip him under the water and then quickly lift him out again.  The priest said if the water is warm, and your timing is right, it goes very well.  If your timing is off, well, then there’s a lot of choking, coughing and screaming.  But either way, the deed is done.  

Armed with this knowledge, Pastor Morton decided to seek the elders’ go ahead to baptize Olivia via immersion.  He explained the reasons why Linda and Danny had made the request, the symbolism they saw so visible in immersion instead of sprinkling, and the matter of technique as explained to him by the priest.  He had also already made the arrangements to borrow a brand-new livestock watering trough from the Seed and Feed Store over in Dempsey.  Kees and the other elders gave him the green light to go ahead, but they asked him to please try a practice run with Olivia in Linda and Danny’s bathtub.

Well, of course word of the plans for the upcoming baptism soon spread through the church like dandelions across a spring lawn.  Pastor Morton had talked to the chair of the Worship Committee about decorating the water trough with greenery or ribbons or some such thing, and of course the elders could hardly wait to tell their wives what was in the works.  And that’s when the squabbling started.  Reactions to the news ranged from delighted to curious to downright ornery.  A number of my friends in the knitting circle told me they thought it was the worst idea they’d ever heard of.  Edna Walsh told me I’d better get over to Linda’s and talk her out of it to save the church from the embarrassment of it all, before we were written up in the Gazette in the same section where you read about people’s vegetables that looked like movie stars or that lamb that had been born last spring with six legs.  

Now, I have to admit, when Kees first told me what was in the works, I had my doubts as well.  But to hear some of the members of the church talk, it was as if Pastor Morton would be doing the baptism dressed as Bozo the clown!  What really got my apron in a knot was the way many people didn’t bother to find out the truth of what was planned, and all manner of rumors and wild stories were being circulated.  And, because other members thought the immersion baptism was a great idea, the arguments and the fighting broke out all over.  

But it was one person in particular who made a crusade of the movement to get Pastor Morton and the elders to change their minds: Henk Blystra.  Henk called up the pastor and surprised him with an earful of opinions over the phone, and demanded to meet with the elders to, as he put it, ‘talk some Scriptural sense into them.’  Given the way conversations were spinning out of control in the congregation, Pastor Morton thought it best to give an opportunity for Henk to express his objections.  Thus, a special elders’ meeting was called, and Kees and the others made time to come together again to hear him out.  

At the meeting, Henk made his case, or perhaps I should say, Henk launched his attack.  He said that the plans for baptizing Olivia were not Reformed, because the emphasis in the Heidelberg Catechism is on washing, and no one washes babies by pushing them underwater.  He went on to say that baptism by immersion was not Biblical, because the Apostle Paul himself was baptized in someone’s house, back when no one had a bathtub or any other way of completely dunking an adult believer.  So, he said, Paul must have been sprinkled, just as real Bible believing Christians are baptized today.  He quoted Genesis 18:4: “Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree.”  He also read John 13:5: Jesus “poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”  If washing by sprinkling was good enough for Jesus, it ought also be good enough for us, Henk said.  He then went on to criticize Linda’s character, and question her faith, suggesting that the elders had been taken in by the foolish request of a baby Christian who was herself, in reality, barely beyond paganism.

Well, of course Kees was fit to be tied.  But he wasn’t the first one to speak up.  Karl Schneider said that he’d been thinking about their decision too, especially with all the talk going on, and he thought that perhaps the church would be best served by a regular baptism, as he called it.  Too many people were getting upset by the decision to dunk the baby.   But then Kees lit into him, saying that the gossiping of a few busybodies ought not be listened to by the elders of the church, let alone blessed by their giving in.  Of course old Henk didn’t appreciate being called a gossiping busybody, and he started up again.  The whole thing apparently got fairly ugly before Pastor Morton put a stop to it by ending the meeting with prayer and sending everyone home to cool their jets for a while.   

Neither Kees nor I slept well that night, because of course he told me everything that was said in the meeting as soon as he got home.  We knew Linda would be devastated if she knew what was being said about her.  She already was upset enough at some of the comments people had made.  And that’s when Kees and I talked about leaving the church.

Understand, what I mean is leaving the Annora congregation, not leaving the church as a whole.  The conversation’s twists and turns that night surprised us, we’ve been part of that little church for so long.  My parents were among the first families to launch the church soon after the wave of immigration after the war.  Kees and I were married in the old sanctuary, before we put on the addition.  And yet, on top of all the ways we’d been blessed by the Annora church through the years, there were also a whole heap of hurts as well.  We’d put up with criticism about some of the ministry we did, there was the teasing that our Andrea underwent from the other kids at the church, and the gossip that went on after our prodigal son Martin disappeared and then later came home.  Church can be a wonderful source of blessing when it is healthy, but when church goes bad there’s nothing quite as painful in all the world, I’m sure.  How could we stay on in a congregation that didn’t know what it means to be the church to each other?  

It was a couple days later that I ran into Henk at the hardware store.  I’d been stewing for all that time about the things he’d been saying, not only at the meeting with the elders, but what others had passed on to me.  And so right there between the plumbing supplies and the power tools, I let him have it.  I told him the church and the kingdom of God would be better off if he minded his own business and started searching the Scriptures for verses to apply in his own life rather than preaching to everyone else.  And before he could say a word, I left.  It was a bit awkward, because I took a bag of birdseed with me, and the cashier had to chase me down in the parking lot, but I felt I’d made my point.  

Right that afternoon we got a call from Jenny, Henk’s wife.  She was short and to the point, saying both Kees and I needed to come over and clear the air.  It was a bit late by the time Kees got home, but we double checked with the Blystra’s and yes, they still wanted us to come to talk.  When we arrived, there was none of the usual niceties, though Janny did serve us tea before telling there was more to this story, and she looked over to Henk, expectantly.  He cleared his throat, and his story came tumbling out.  

It was right after the war, back in the Netherlands, that he had been left to watch his younger brother Arie, who was only a few months old.  His mother had needed to supplement the family income by doing some housekeeping for a wealthy family in a nearby town.  Henk’s aunt was supposed to come over to watch him and his brother, but she hadn’t shown up and his mother had little choice but to leave him in charge, though he had only just turned five.  His memory of what happened was foggy, but Henk did remember that little Arie started crying, and though he was supposed to leave him in his cradle, Henk picked the baby up and realized that he was wet.  Wanting to be a big helper to his mother, he decided to give his brother a bath.  He pulled up a chair to the sink, filled it with water from the pump, and put Arie in.  

At this point in the telling, Henk stopped speaking, and he buried his face in his hands.  Janny started to say something, but Henk cut her short, holding up his hand.  He composed himself and continued.  

Arie drowned.  Henk didn’t even realize it, not until his aunt finally arrived and found them in the kitchen.  When his aunt started screaming, he ran and hid in his bed.  No one got him out until the next day.  And it was right after the funeral, while everyone was eating soup and buns, that the minister’s son, who was a couple years older, told him that his dad had said that Henk was a murderer, and he needed to repent of his sin.  

Henk stopped speaking.  He sat with his face again in his hands.  And Janny said, “Henk has always had trouble with the church, with ministers, and with babies.  He could not be around when I would bathe the kids.  I had to always do it when he was out in the barn.”

I could not speak.  The tears were trickling down my face and into my lap.  Kees, however, was not without words.  He reached out to Henk.  He moved next to Henk on the sofa, reached out and put his hand on his shoulder.  He reached out as a fellow sinner, as an elder of the church, and as a brother in Jesus Christ.  He put his hand on Henk and recited the words of Isaiah 42: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”  Only he recited it in Dutch, from the version they’d both grown up with.  

Kees and I did not say much to each other as we drove home.  When we went to bed, Kees fell almost immediately to sleep, according to his unique giftedness.  I could not sleep.  I was a mess of tears and grief and guilt.  

The next day, Pastor Morton called and left a message for Kees.  Henk was withdrawing his objections to the baptism, and he asked that Kees would explain matters to the elders.  In the end it was decided that Olivia would be baptized by immersion, not because it would please the congregation, but because it would please the Lord.  

And so, two Sundays back, Olivia was baptized.  She responded appropriately to her dying to sin and resurrection to new life, with confusion and wailing.  Pastor Morton’s timing may have been just a little bit off.  Of course, Henk did not attend that Sunday, but Jenny did.  And in the fellowship hall afterwards I watched her as she held Olivia, cooing away at her even as the tears fell on her baptismal gown.  

It was a great celebration for we were all reminded that God reaches out and embraces in grace his undeserving and unknowing children.  A wide-eyed baby.  A young couple in love.  An old man haunted by memories.  A foolish young preacher’s son.  And a repentant old housewife, whom he is trying to teach patience and wisdom.

Everett Vander Horst is a pastor living, working, writing and serving with his family in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. For many years he has been experimenting with reading original short stories as preaching. You can watch the telling of these sermonic tales here.