Bad Book Reports: Jane Eyre by Jon Wesick

Orphan Jane Eyre lives a depressing life at Gateshead Hall under the care of her relatives. Her time as a student at the Lowood Institution is even more dismal. 

MEANWHILE: The Marquis de Sade and his companion Kwai Chang Yang arrive at the village of La Chemise as the townsfolk are about to burn a woman as a witch. De Sade’s reputation as a libertine is only a cover. In reality, he is a superhuman vampire hunter whose scientist father sent him to Earth in a rocket ship after planet Lypton’s destruction. A kindly family of wine growers raised him as their own on a vineyard in the Loire Valley until he entered the service of Louis XIV. Yang is a Buddhist monk who trained in the martial arts at the Shaolin Temple. He fled China with a price on his head after killing the emperor’s nephew in a duel. De Sade tells the townsfolk to leave the woman alone but they refuse so he sends Yang to defeat them with his martial arts knowledge of backflips, somersaults, and kicks to the face. After seeing three-dozen citizens bruised and unconscious, the mayor apologizes for the misunderstanding and takes de Sade to a brothel. De Sade has sex with dozens of women while Yang drinks tea and discusses philosophy. Belle de Jour is the only courtesan who can keep up with the marquis. Not only is she smokin’ hot but she’s the sister of the woman de Sade saved. 

The following night, de Sade goes to visit Belle but the brothel is closed. As he and Yang walk back to the inn under the light of a full moon, a dozen wolves attack. De Sade and Yang defeat them using laser vision and kicks to the face, which are much easier since wolves’ heads are closer to the ground than people’s. The wolves turn back to humans when the sun rises. One of the attackers is the mayor. Under questioning, he reveals that the town is composed of two feuding clans of werewolves. The mayor leads the clan that turns into wild animals that attack humans and livestock. Belle leads the clan that turns into Great Pyrenees dogs who want nothing more than to lie in front of the fireplace and occasionally bark at the mailman. De Sade and Yang help Belle de Jour defeat the bad werewolves and the remaining townsfolk elect her mayor.  

BACK IN ENGLAND: After a slog through a series of dreary events, Jane Eyre gets married and has a baby who will no doubt work in a coal mine and die broke and alone from black lung disease while the owners have orgies like those in D.H. Lawrence novels.

Jon Wesick is a regional editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual. He’s published hundreds of poems and stories in journals such as the Atlanta Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, BOMBFIRE, New Verse News, Paterson Literary Review, Pearl, Pirene’s Fountain, Slipstream, Space and Time, and Tales of the Talisman.  Jon is the author of the poetry collections Words of Power, Dances of Freedom and A Foreigner Wherever I Go as well as several novels and short story collections. His most recent novel is The Prague Deception

Old Women by Tim Frank

The old women’s skin was dry as cigarette ash and yet their eyes glowed like rolling ocean waves. When they spoke they whispered, but this was rare. They preferred silence. As they moved from street to street, fighting against the slanted rain in woollen trench coats and bucket hats, dogs snarled at them through wrought iron gates. 

They lived on the streets, under polluted skies, and when they slept it was with their eyes open, standing like guards protecting ancient remains.

In a housing estate on the edge of town, the old women lurked in a stairwell picking at their bloody cuticles, waiting. And then when they sensed the presence of a lonely child on the rooftop, they dragged themselves up the steps like wounded animals. 

The women moved in formation and swarmed around a boy who was leaning into the wind, relishing the sight of the vibrant city. The women pawed at his cheeks and bare arms as his energy was drained from his body. He turned pale, and as his lungs filled with blood, he fell to his knees.

Energised by their conquest, the women were consumed by childhood memories. They recalled the sun as it gleamed through hospital windows just after they were born, and the time they first saw their mirror image – lively figures, full of hope. But this was the past. Now their bodies were failing, sickly and frail, so every other thought was of the grave. They trekked from one cemetery to the next, sat on the earth beside tombstones, and dreamed of being buried alongside forgotten souls. Sometimes in an effort to end it all they starved themselves of children’s energy, strangled each other with extension cords, or suffocated each other with shopping bags. But death still eluded them.

Most people ignored the women with their matted hair dangling over their vacant faces, their torn stockings, their stench of fish guts. But there was one teenage girl, with a delicate withered hand, and a penetrating mind, who was spellbound by the women. She’d seen them in the park near her building, capturing a child and sweeping him into the shadows, and she had to know more. So, with every free moment she followed the women around town skulking in the shadows, shielding her weak hand from the frosty weather.

The teen was friendless and spent longs hours alone in her room playing chess online, eating ramen noodles, feeding her dog soft boiled eggs. 

One day she saw the women huddled together beneath an overpass feeding each other stale bread and taking turns to hyperventilate.

The teen became tearful, wanted to stop the suffering, but when she saw the women pull out a blunt razor-blade and take turns to slash their own wrists, she realised they weren’t to be pitied – they were just monsters trapped in their own bodies.

In a park on a winter’s day, the trees crooked and frail, the old women had found a three-year-old girl – no parents in sight – and they salivated at the thought of grabbing her in a cruel embrace, hoping to be sustained by the child’s purity until they could find a way to kill themselves once and for all. That’s when the teenage girl intervened. She erupted into a horrendous cry, scaring away the child and the sparrows pecking away by the lake.“I’ve seen you feed off the weak, set each other on fire, and pray to be struck by lightning in stormy weather. God knows why, but you leave a trail of destruction wherever you go. How can you live with yourselves?”

The women were shocked and took a second to respond. Then after spine-tingling sighs they said, “All we crave is freedom from this world, and we’re not ashamed of what we do.Everything is suffering and we’ll find comfort wherever we can, be it through the force of children, or the promise of suicide.”

Strangely moved, grief spread through the girl’s body like electricity, and then it hit her: one day she would end up like these women – desperate for the warmth of a noose around her neck, with the urge to die, even craving the essence of a child.

She fingered her bulging veins that lined her withered hand, felt the pulse in her neck, and then as the movements of her chest became shallow and slow, she realised old age, and her own demise, were nearer than she could ever imagine.

Tim Frank’s short stories have been published in Bourbon Penn, Eunoia Review, The Metaworker, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Menacing Hedge, Maudlin House and elsewhere. 

THE AMPUTATIONS by Salvatore Difalco

It took time to grow accustomed to the amputations. I wasn’t permitted prosthetics, so at first I found it difficult to imagine how I’d get by without my arms. Tasks I’d normally need my hands to complete now had to be negotiated with my mouth, my forehead, or my feet. I dropped ten pounds after a month; one of the most difficult tasks, even more so than bathing and dressing, was the preparation and consumption of food. Something as simple as opening a can of beans with your mouth and feet presents insurmountable challenges. In time I learned to toss together simple, easily edible meals. As I couldn’t safely handle a knife and fork with my feet, even after hours of painstaking practice, steaks and chops and large pieces of chicken were off the table. More often than not, I prepared porridges and ground meat dishes that required little manipulation and finesse. After three or so months, I could whip together a meal in minutes, although, admittedly, not something I’d offer to anyone else, not even my neighbour Moe, who’d only recently lost his arms and was showing the telltale signs of malnourishment as he adjusted to his new life.

I ran into Moe one morning in the hallway. Bloodstained bandages still covered his shoulders; his clothes were wrinkled and filthy; misery twisted his face. Though the answer was abundantly clear, I asked how he was doing. The painkillers they prescribed are shit, he said. How the hell am I supposed to adjust with this kind of pain? He was right; initially the pain was as debilitating as the missing appendages. But that would pass in time. What wouldn’t pass was the disquieting phenomenon of phantom limbs, particularly at night. Sometimes I’d awaken from a deep sleep and rub my eyes with phantom hands—actually feeling the roughened knuckles scraping my eyelids— only to realize with horror after a moment that I had no hands. It was too early to ask Moe if he’d experienced such a thing, though I’d heard it happened to most amputees. The pain will pass eventually, I said. And you’ll get used to doing things you used to do, maybe not as well, but look at me. I’m managing. Not the best life, but it’s a life. Moe stared at me with his lidded eyes and said, I’ve thought of killing myself. Have you?

I let a moment pass before I answered the question. I didn’t want to tell him that as recently as that morning I had contemplated swallowing a bottle of Tylenol, which if taken in enough quantity will shut down your organs, and kill you, albeit slowly and painfully. My ex-brother-in-law, Duncan, tried to kill himself with Tylenol, after he lost his arms, but only managed to damage his liver. Last time I saw him his eyeballs were yellow and he said he only had months to live. That was two months ago. I have thought of killing myself, I told Moe, and he almost looked relieved. I think all the guys experience thoughts of suicide, I said, it’s understandable. Losing your arms because of a law passed by psychopaths is hard to swallow. This idea of equalization is positively evil and ridiculous. How are we supposed to be equal without our fucking arms? Moe’s chin dropped to his chest. My words weren’t helping. I tried to think of a bright side, but nothing came to mind. There was no bright side. When wiping your ass after a dump becomes a logistical nightmare, something is wrong. 

I left Moe in the hallway, struggling to unlock his door with his mouth. In time he’d learn a few teeth-saving shortcuts, or submit to his suicidal urges, something witnessed across the board since the equalization law came into effect a year ago. Not all men could adjust. Boys had it easier; they adapted quickly, learning to do everything nimbly with their feet and of course their mouths. And while prosthetics were taboo, mouth extensions were not, and the youths learned to wield a wide variety of these appendages with dexterity and panache, able to punch computer keys and handle small objects, and some masterful enough to pluck stringed instruments or paint pictures. A form of ice hockey had been invented by an armless ex-NHLer in Minnesota to replace the old game, where young players learned to stickhandle and shoot with ergonomically engineered mouth-attachments. Still in its infancy, the sport continued to iron out some kinks and install safeguards for inherent hazards, but the very effort to adapt received effusive media coverage, though some complained the sport was ugly and dangerous, and a waste of time and money that could have been spent promoting and funding worthier causes.    

Life is complicated, a given. Why complicate it further? An unanswered question. A small but overzealous lobby persuaded the world that equalization via amputation was our best way forward as a species, not pragmatically, but emotionally, for emotions are what define our humanity. Perhaps the lobby was right, after all. Gun violence has plummeted. Violence and crime on the whole is trending downward. Given all the competing arguments and counterarguments, we’re starting to adapt. I must report that even I’m adapting well—though the same can’t be said for poor old Moe, who’s become a shambling shell of himself. My wounds have all but healed, and my dark moods lighten day by day as I learn to care for myself almost as well as I did before the amputations. Granted, self-defense presented a problem. But I joined a new savate club in my neighbourhood and after repeated drilling can throw a roundhouse kick like Jean-Claude Van Damme in his heyday. While sadness and self-pity are the easy roads to take, overcoming obstacles satisfies the soul and validates one’s self-worth. Am I a gentler, more loving man because of the amputations? Is any man? That remains to be seen.

Salvatore Difalco lives in Toronto. Recently completed the surreal novella THE MANNEQUINS, due out in 2023.