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Bedbugs and B

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54 days ago
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Rumple. Stilt. And Skin.

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Sabrina Orah Mark’s monthly column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.

“I hope you’re not afraid of mice,” my friend Amy says. I am in her car. She clicks open the glove box and a soft shock of fur and paper and string gently exhales. A mouse nest. “Hello there,” says Amy. The nest is mouse-less for now, but the mice will return to it when it gets cold. Eventually the mice will eat the guts of the car, a mechanic told her. But Amy won’t disturb the nest. “It’s their home,” she says, shutting the glove box back up, but not before petting the little nest that seems so alive I swear it might be breathing.

For years I have kept Rene Magritte’s “The Healer” over my writing desk. The bronze man with an open birdcage for a chest. A cane in one hand, and a suitcase in the other. Limp and flee, limp and flee, limp and flee. He is faceless, and his cloak is open. There’s a hat on his nowhere head, and in place of his heart is a nook for doves to rest. Amy’s car moves me like “The Healer” moves me. Both tell a story of kindness and protection and ruin. Both will give up their guts to keep the vulnerable ones safe. Months later, I am again in Amy’s car. The nest has doubled in size. The car, for now, still runs perfectly.

Fairytales are crowded with saviors: the prince on his horse, fairies, gnomes, godmothers, and witches. They appear out of nowhere. They are hidden, like the subterranean and the aristocratic, and then out of a clearing they arrive to save, or erase, or enchant the day. They are not angels or saints. And they are not without flaws. In German, Rumpelstiltskin (or Rumpelstilzchen) means little rattle ghost. And it is Rumpelstiltslkin who can, unlike the miller’s daughter, spin straw into gold. He saves her, and even adds an escape clause to their contract because he a compassionate gnome: If she guesses his name in three days she can keep her child. He spins like the storyteller spins. And as he spins I wonder if the miller’s daughter ever hears the whir, whir, whir in his empty chest. For his work, he wants what is missing. He wants something alive. No, the miller’s daughter cannot hear the whir. She has cried herself soundly to sleep.

“I prefer a living creature,” says Rumpelstiltskin, “to all the treasures in the world.”

I wonder sometimes what The Healer would do if there were no doves. Would The Healer still exist if he was empty of the thing he was trying to save? Would he stand up and walk home? Would he disappear entirely? Would his ancient face slowly return?

In Italian, Rumpelstiltskin is Tremotino, which means “Little Earthquake.” “All great storytellers,” writes Walter Benjamin, “have in common the freedom with which they move up and down the rungs of their experience as on a ladder. A ladder extending downward to the interior of the earth and disappearing into the clouds…” Gnomes also come from the interior, and can move through solid earth as easily as humans can move through air. When I write I am rumple, and stilt, and skin. Everything is in disarray, and then if I’m lucky there’s an ascension, and then an undress. Lately I have been hurting people I love with my writing. One friend (who is now no longer my friend), whose name I used in a story which was not about her, said to me, “I need to protect myself as a human being,” as if the story I wrote asked for a living part of her. I wasn’t the healer’s chest or the glove box like I had always hoped to be. I had always believed writing kept oblivion at bay, but suddenly I was accused of spinning it into a thicker existence. My fiction punctured my reality, and now I was the rattle ghost that disrupted my friend’s kingdom. “Tomorrow I brew, today I bake, / Soon the child is mine to take.”  Her name is not Rumpelstiltskin, though she did once teach me how to spin straw into gold. She once taught me how to write, and in return I hurt her. Her name means enclosure. Like a nest or a cage.

“The storyteller,” writes Walter Benjamin, “is the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story.”

Once, many years ago, when I was only writing poems, an ex-boyfriend gave me a mannequin head for my birthday. It was rescued, he told me, from a children’s clothing shop that had caught fire. The head was a boy’s head. With singed hair and ash marks across its face. On the night he gave it to me, he told me he had fallen in love with someone else. I remember carrying the head home. I took the subway with it on my lap too sad to realize what a sight we were. For about a year, I tried to keep the head in my apartment. It had already been through so much, and I couldn’t bear the thought of throwing something away with eyes and a mouth. But it ate at me, this boy’s head. It was hungry for something that hurt. It stared at me. I wrapped it in an old, soft blanket, and moved it to the back of my closet. Finally I brought it to the Salvation Army and left it there. “I’m sorry,” I said.  “I just can’t,” I said.

How much of what I try to rescue is not actually the broken thing in my hands, but the broken thing inside myself? The burnt lonely boy, and the girl with no magic, and the doves and the mice. When I write I spin a long, knotted rope. I toss the rope down. And it is me who is climbing up, and it is me who is climbing down.

A miller is also a moth with powdery wings. Moths cannot tell the difference between artificial light and moonlight. It’s not the miller’s daughter’s fault she cannot spin. It’s her father’s fault. He trapped her, “in order to appear as a person of some importance.” And she’s only a moth girl with powdery wings. A nameless moth only two letters away from being a mother. Two letters and a name.

I have a dream in which Amy pulls the whole nest out of the glove box and tells me we should eat it. She holds it up like it’s a soft piece of cake. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I just can’t,” I say. “I have no more room.”  “But it’s your birthday,” says Amy. “And you forgot to blow out all the candles and make a wish. And now nothing will come true.”

My sons play this trick on their friends. It goes like this: “I one my mother.” And then the friend goes, “ I two my mother.” And then back and forth: “I three my mother, I four my mother, I five my mother, I six my mother, I seven my mother, I eight my mother.” And then my sons say, “oh my god you ate your mother!” And everybody laughs. Because the mother inside the body of her child cracks everybody up. A crack like a fault line that shakes the earth. And down, down, down goes the mother into the body of her son. Where finally she can rest. And feel safe. I’d be less afraid of dying if I knew I could one day be buried in the bodies of my sons. I know this sounds grim, but it’s true.

Rumpelstiltskin dates back to the 16th century, and can be traced back to Johann Fischart’s Affentheurlich Naupengeheurliche Geschichtklitterung (1577), which very roughly translates to Glorious Storytelling. In it Fischart describes a game called Rumpele stilt oder der Poppart (or Noise, Limp, Goblin), which is like Duck, Duck, Goose except instead of a goose there’s a goblin, and instead of a duck there’s a man with a limp. The children take turns chasing after each other like goblins, and scaring each other away with goblinish sounds. The objective of the game, like so many games, is for the children to save themselves.

As a kid in Yeshiva, I remember singing about the messiah. Hundreds of kids jumping and shouting. Our red cheeks glowed with a desire for a desire we were taught to desire: “We want Moshiach now. We want Moshiach now. We want Moshiach now. We don’t want to wait.” But I didn’t want Moshiach now. Even at seven I knew the only thing more traumatic than the Messiah never coming, was the Messiah actually showing up. I had a hunch the coming of the Messiah meant losing something. But I couldn’t imagine what. Now I know what I was afraid to lose was control of the spindle. I was terrified of being saved by a story that wrote me before I could even begin to write it.

George Cruikshank, 1876

There is a drawing of Rumpelstiltskin (by George Cruikshank) where he looks like the 27th letter of the alphabet. A letter that should’ve come after Z, but fell behind. When the miller’s daughter tells Rumpelstiltskin she knows his name, he stomps his right leg so hard so hard it goes into the earth. His lines are sharp like thunderbolts. He looks like a dying letter, or an animal going extinct. The nameless queen and her nameless courtiers are standing around him laughing and laughing. Even the nameless baby appears to be laughing. Half buried, Rumpelstiltskin rips himself in two.

What becomes of Rumpelstiltskin? In Kevin Brockmeier’s “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin,” half of Rumpelstiltskin dreams he unspins himself at the wheel:

“When the last of him whisks from the treadle and into the air, he is gold, through and through. He lies there perfect, glinting, and altogether gone. Half of Rumpelstiltskin is the whole of the picture and nowhere in it. He is beautiful, and remunerative, and he isn’t even there to see it. Half of Rumpelstiltskin has spun himself empty. There is nothing of him left.”

By saving the girl, Rumpelstiltskin fell apart. But what good is his magic if it goes unused?  I sit in the passenger seat of Amy’s car, knowing one day the car will stop running. And the mice will stop nibbling. And these words will fade like the marks on the burnt boy’s head. All of us are the whole of the picture, and all of us are nowhere in it. Our magic is also our undoing.

Rumpelhealskin, Rumpelprayskin, Rumpelpoemskin, Rumpelloveskin, Rumpelsaveskin. Rumpelsonskin, RumpelAmyskin, Rumpelstoryskin, Rumpeltruthskin, Rumpelpainskin. I used to think being a writer meant being a kind of guardian, a good guy. Maybe that was when I had enough of me to spare  Now I know better. It’s about always being torn in half. It’s about being dead and alive. An asylum and a danger. A rattle and a lullaby. Mother and unmother. Saved and forgotten. A feral angel. A wing and a paw. Broken and sutured. I’m sorry. You’re sorry. You hurt me. I fixed you. I lost you. You found me.


Read earlier installments of Sabrina Orah Mark’s monthly column, Happily, here.

Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim TsumWild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. She lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Georgia. 

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67 days ago
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The Crane Wife

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Original illustration © Daniel Gray-Barnett

Ten days after I called off my engagement I was supposed to go on a scientific expedition to study the whooping crane on the gulf coast of Texas. Surely, I will cancel this trip, I thought, as I shopped for nylon hiking pants that zipped off at the knee. Surely, a person who calls off a wedding is meant to be sitting sadly at home, reflecting on the enormity of what has transpired and not doing whatever it is I am about to be doing that requires a pair of plastic clogs with drainage holes. Surely, I thought, as I tried on a very large and floppy hat featuring a pull cord that fastened beneath my chin, it would be wrong to even be wearing a hat that looks like this when something in my life has gone so terribly wrong.

Ten days earlier I had cried and I had yelled and I had packed up my dog and driven away from the upstate New York house with two willow trees I had bought with my fiancé.

Ten days later and I didn’t want to do anything I was supposed to do.


I went to Texas to study the whooping crane because I was researching a novel. In my novel there were biologists doing field research about birds and I had no idea what field research actually looked like and so the scientists in my novel draft did things like shuffle around great stacks of papers and frown. The good people of the Earthwatch organization assured me I was welcome on the trip and would get to participate in “real science” during my time on the gulf. But as I waited to be picked up by my team in Corpus Christi, I was nervous—I imagined everyone else would be a scientist or a birder and have daunting binoculars.

The biologist running the trip rolled up in in a large white van with a boat hitch and the words BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES stenciled across the side. Jeff was forty-ish, and wore sunglasses and a backward baseball cap. He had a winter beard and a neon-green cast on his left arm. He’d broken his arm playing hockey with his sons a week before. The first thing Jeff said was, “We’ll head back to camp, but I hope you don’t mind we run by the liquor store first.” I felt more optimistic about my suitability for science.


Not long before I’d called off my engagement it was Christmas.

The woman who was supposed to be my mother-in-law was a wildly talented quilter and made stockings with Beatrix Potter characters on them for every family member. The previous Christmas she had asked me what character I wanted to be (my fiancé was Benjamin Bunny). I agonized over the decision. It felt important, like whichever character I chose would represent my role in this new family. I chose Squirrel Nutkin, a squirrel with a blazing red tail—an epic, adventuresome figure who ultimately loses his tail as the price for his daring and pride.

I arrived in Ohio that Christmas and looked to the banister to see where my squirrel had found his place. Instead, I found a mouse. A mouse in a pink dress and apron. A mouse holding a broom and dustpan, serious about sweeping. A mouse named Hunca Munca. The woman who was supposed to become my mother-in-law said, “I was going to do the squirrel but then I thought, that just isn’t CJ. This is CJ.”

What she was offering was so nice. She was so nice. I thanked her and felt ungrateful for having wanted a stocking, but not this stocking. Who was I to be choosy? To say that this nice thing she was offering wasn’t a thing I wanted?

When I looked at that mouse with her broom, I wondered which one of us was wrong about who I was.


The whooping crane is one of the oldest living bird species on earth. Our expedition was housed at an old fish camp on the Gulf Coast next to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where three hundred of the only six hundred whooping cranes left in the world spend their winters. Our trip was a data-collecting expedition to study behavior and gather data about the resources available to the cranes at Aransas.

The ladies bunkhouse was small and smelled woody and the rows of single beds were made up with quilts. Lindsay, the only other scientist, was a grad student in her early twenties from Wisconsin who loved birds so much that when she told you about them she made the shapes of their necks and beaks with her hands—a pantomime of bird life. Jan, another participant, was a retired geophysicist who had worked for oil companies and now taught high school chemistry. Jan was extremely fit and extremely tan and extremely competent. Jan was not a lifelong birder. She was a woman who had spent two years nursing her mother and her best friend through cancer. They had both recently died and she had lost herself in caring for them, she said. She wanted a week to be herself. Not a teacher or a mother or a wife. This trip was the thing she was giving herself after their passing.

At five o’clock there was a knock on the bunk door and a very old man walked in, followed by Jeff.

“Is it time for cocktail hour?” Warren asked.

Warren was an eighty-four-year-old bachelor from Minnesota. He could not do most of the physical activities required by the trip, but had been on ninety-five Earthwatch expeditions, including this one once before.Warren liked birds okay. What Warren really loved was cocktail hour.

When he came for cocktail hour that first night, his thin, silver hair was damp from the shower and he smelled of shampoo. He was wearing a fresh collared shirt and carrying a bottle of impossibly good scotch.

Jeff took in Warren and Jan and me. “This is a weird group,” Jeff said.

“I like it,” Lindsay said.


In the year leading up to calling off my wedding, I often cried or yelled or reasoned or pleaded with my fiancé to tell me that he loved me. To be nice to me. To notice things about how I was living.

One particular time, I had put on a favorite red dress for a wedding. I exploded from the bathroom to show him. He stared at his phone. I wanted him to tell me I looked nice, so I shimmied and squeezed his shoulders and said, “You look nice! Tell me I look nice!” He said, “I told you that you looked nice when you wore that dress last summer. It’s reasonable to assume I still think you look nice in it now.”

Another time he gave me a birthday card with a sticky note inside that said BIRTHDAY. After giving it to me, he explained that because he hadn’t written in it, the card was still in good condition. He took off the sticky and put the unblemished card into our filing cabinet.

I need you to know: I hated that I needed more than this from him. There is nothing more humiliating to me than my own desires. Nothing that makes me hate myself more than being burdensome and less than self-sufficient. I did not want to feel like the kind of nagging woman who might exist in a sit-com.

These were small things, and I told myself it was stupid to feel disappointed by them. I had arrived in my thirties believing that to need things from others made you weak. I think this is true for lots of people but I think it is especially true for women. When men desire things they are “passionate.” When they feel they have not received something they need they are “deprived,” or even “emasculated,” and given permission for all sorts of behavior. But when a woman needs she is needy. She is meant to contain within her own self everything necessary to be happy.

That I wanted someone to articulate that they loved me, that they saw me, was a personal failing and I tried to overcome it.

When I found out that he’d slept with our mutual friend a few weeks after we’d first started seeing each other, he told me we hadn’t officially been dating yet so I shouldn’t mind. I decided he was right. When I found out that he’d kissed another girl on New Year’s Eve months after that, he said that we hadn’t officially discussed monogamy yet, and so I shouldn’t mind. I decided he was right.

I asked to discuss monogamy and, in an effort to be the sort of cool girl who does not have so many inconvenient needs, I said that I didn’t need it. He said he thought we should be monogamous.


Here is what I learned once I began studying whooping cranes: only a small part of studying them has anything to do with the birds. Instead we counted berries. Counted crabs. Measured water salinity. Stood in the mud. Measured the speed of the wind.

It turns out, if you want to save a species, you don’t spend your time staring at the bird you want to save. You look at the things it relies on to live instead. You ask if there is enough to eat and drink. You ask if there is a safe place to sleep. Is there enough here to survive?

Wading through the muck of the Aransas Reserve I understood that every chance for food matters. Every pool of drinkable water matters. Every wolfberry dangling from a twig, in Texas, in January, matters. The difference between sustaining life and not having enough was that small.

If there were a kind of rehab for people ashamed to have needs, maybe this was it. You will go to the gulf. You will count every wolfberry. You will measure the depth of each puddle.


More than once I’d said to my fiancé, How am I supposed to know you love me if you’re never affectionate or say nice things or say that you love me.

He reminded me that he’d said “I love you” once or twice before. Why couldn’t I just know that he did in perpetuity?

I told him this was like us going on a hiking trip and him telling me he had water in his backpack but not ever giving it to me and then wondering why I was still thirsty.

He told me water wasn’t like love, and he was right.

There are worse things than not receiving love. There are sadder stories than this. There are species going extinct, and a planet warming. I told myself: who are you to complain, you with these frivolous extracurricular needs?


On the gulf, I lost myself in the work. I watched the cranes through binoculars and recorded their behavior patterns and I loved their long necks and splashes of red. The cranes looked elegant and ferocious as they contorted their bodies to preen themselves. From the outside, they did not look like a species fighting to survive.

In the mornings we made each other sandwiches and in the evenings we laughed and lent each other fresh socks. We gave each other space in the bathroom. Forgave each other for telling the same stories over and over again. We helped Warren when he had trouble walking. What I am saying is that we took care of each other. What I am saying is we took pleasure in doing so. It’s hard to confess, but the week after I called off my wedding, the week I spent dirty and tired on the gulf, I was happy.

On our way out of the reserve, we often saw wild pigs, black and pink bristly mothers and their young, scurrying through the scrub and rolling in the dust among the cacti. In the van each night, we made bets on how many wild pigs we might see on our drive home.

One night, halfway through the trip, I bet reasonably. We usually saw four, I hoped for five, but I bet three because I figured it was the most that could be expected.

Warren bet wildly, optimistically, too high.

“Twenty pigs,” Warren said. He rested his interlaced fingers on his soft chest.

We laughed and slapped the vinyl van seats at this boldness.

But the thing is, we saw twenty pigs on the drive home that night. And in the thick of our celebrations, I realized how sad it was that I’d bet so low. That I wouldn’t even let myself imagine receiving as much as I’d hoped for.


What I learned to do, in my relationship with my fiancé, was to survive on less. At what should have been the breaking point but wasn’t, I learned that he had cheated on me. The woman he’d been sleeping with was a friend of his I’d initially wanted to be friends with, too, but who did not seem to like me, and who he’d gaslit me into being jealous of, and then gaslit me into feeling crazy for being jealous of.

The full course of the gaslighting took a year, so by the time I truly found out what had happened, the infidelity was already a year in the past.

It was new news to me but old news to my fiancé.

Logically, he said, it doesn’t matter anymore.

It had happened a year ago. Why was I getting worked up over ancient history?

I did the mental gymnastics required.

I convinced myself that I was a logical woman who could consider this information about having been cheated on, about his not wearing a condom, and I could separate it from the current reality of our life together.

Why did I need to know that we’d been monogamous? Why did I need to have and discuss inconvenient feelings about this ancient history?

I would not be a woman who needed these things, I decided.

I would need less. And less.

I got very good at this.


“The Crane Wife” is a story from Japanese folklore. I found a copy in the reserve’s gift shop among the baseball caps and bumper stickers that said GIVE A WHOOP. In the story, there is a crane who tricks a man into thinking she is a woman so she can marry him. She loves him, but knows that he will not love her if she is a crane so she spends every night plucking out all of her feathers with her beak. She hopes that he will not see what she really is: a bird who must be cared for, a bird capable of flight, a creature, with creature needs. Every morning, the crane-wife is exhausted, but she is a woman again. To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work. She never sleeps. She plucks out all her feathers, one by one.


One night on the gulf, we bought a sack of oysters off a passing fishing boat. We’d spent so long on the water that day I felt like I was still bobbing up and down in the current as I sat in my camp chair. We ate the oysters and drank. Jan took the shucking knife away from me because it kept slipping into my palm. Feral cats trolled the shucked shells and pleaded with us for scraps.

Jeff was playing with the sighting scope we used to watch the birds, and I asked, “What are you looking for in the middle of the night?” He gestured me over and when I looked through the sight the moon swam up close.

I think I was afraid that if I called off my wedding I was going to ruin myself. That doing it would disfigure the story of my life in some irredeemable way. I had experienced worse things than this, but none threatened my American understanding of a life as much as a called-off wedding did. What I understood on the other side of my decision, on the gulf, was that there was no such thing as ruining yourself. There are ways to be wounded and ways to survive those wounds, but no one can survive denying their own needs. To be a crane-wife is unsustainable.

I had never seen the moon so up-close before. What struck me most was how battered she looked. How textured and pocked by impacts. There was a whole story written on her face—her face, which from a distance looked perfect.


It’s easy to say that I left my fiancé because he cheated on me. It’s harder to explain the truth. The truth is that I didn’t leave him when I found out. Not even for one night.

I found out about the cheating before we got engaged and I still said yes when he proposed in the park on a day we were meant to be celebrating a job I’d just gotten that morning. Said yes even though I’d told him I was politically opposed to the diamonds he’d convinced me were necessary. Said yes even though he turned our proposal into a joke by making a Bachelor reference and giving me a rose. I am ashamed of all of this.

He hadn’t said one specific thing about me or us during the proposal, and on the long trail walk out of the park I felt robbed of the kind of special declaration I’d hoped a proposal would entail, and, in spite of hating myself for wanting this, hating myself more for fishing for it, I asked him, “Why do you love me? Why do you think we should get married? Really?”

He said he wanted to be with me because I wasn’t annoying or needy. Because I liked beer. Because I was low-maintenance.

I didn’t say anything. A little further down the road he added that he thought I’d make a good mother.

This wasn’t what I hoped he would say. But it was what was being offered. And who was I to want more?

I didn’t leave when he said that the woman he had cheated on me with had told him over the phone that she thought it was unfair that I didn’t want them to be friends anymore, and could they still?

I didn’t leave when he wanted to invite her to our wedding. Or when, after I said she could not come to our wedding, he got frustrated and asked what he was supposed to do when his mother and his friends asked why she wasn’t there.

Reader, I almost married him.


Even now I hear the words as shameful: Thirsty. Needy. The worst things a woman can be. Some days I still tell myself to take what is offered, because if it isn’t enough, it is I who wants too much. I am ashamed to be writing about this instead of writing about the whooping cranes, or literal famines, or any of the truer needs of the world.

But what I want to tell you is that I left my fiancé when it was almost too late. And I tell people the story of being cheated on because that story is simple. People know how it goes. But it’s harder to tell the story of how I convinced myself I didn’t need what was necessary to survive. How I convinced myself it was my lack of needs that made me worthy of love.


After cocktail hour one night, in the cabin’s kitchen, I told Lindsay about how I’d blown up my life the week before. I told her because I’d just received a voice mail saying I could get a partial refund for my high-necked wedding gown. The refund would be partial because they had already made the base of the dress but had not done any of the beadwork yet. They said the pieces of the dress could still be unstitched and used for something else. I had caught them just in time.

I told Lindsay because she was beautiful and kind and patient and loved good things like birds and I wondered what she would say back to me. What would every good person I knew say to me when I told them that the wedding to which they’d RSVP’d was off and that the life I’d been building for three years was going to be unstitched and repurposed?

Lindsay said it was brave not to do a thing just because everyone expected you to do it.

Jeff was sitting outside in front of the cabin with Warren as Lindsay and I talked, tilting the sighting scope so it pointed toward the moon. The screen door was open and I knew he’d heard me, but he never said anything about my confession.

What he did do was let me drive the boat.

The next day it was just him and me and Lindsay on the water. We were cruising fast and loud. “You drive,” Jeff shouted over the motor. Lindsay grinned and nodded. I had never driven a boat before. “What do I do?” I shouted. Jeff shrugged. I took the wheel. We cruised past small islands, families of pink roseate spoonbills, garbage tankers swarmed by seagulls, fields of grass and wolfberries, and I realized it was not that remarkable for a person to understand what another person needed.


CJ Hauser teaches creative writing at Colgate University. Her novel, Family of Origin, is published by Doubleday.

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97 days ago
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Stuck in Limbo

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John Buckley, Untitled 1986. Photo: Henry Flower at the English Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 (

One August morning in 1986, a twenty-five-foot shark became stuck in the attic of a terraced house in Headington, a suburb of Oxford. The fish appeared to have plunged headfirst from the clouds, although there had been no reports of a freak deluge of cats, dogs, and chondrichthyes the previous night. Like all sharks, it snuck up without asking first. Jammed inside the slate-tiled roof, tail cursing the sky, this new addition to Oxford’s dreaming spires divided local residents. “Ooh it makes me mad, I think it’s a damn monstrosity,” said one neighbor. “I mean, sharks don’t fly, do they?” She was right. No sharknado witnesses stepped forward.

Oxford City Council tried to have the predator removed. First they cited public safety concerns, then changed tack and accused the shark of violating planning regulations. The shark refused to budge. A lengthy battle ensued. The fate of the fish was eventually placed in the hands of central government, and in 1992 the Department of the Environment, encouraged surprisingly by Conservative minister Michael Heseltine, ruled that it could stay. “The Council is understandably concerned about precedent here,” wrote government inspector Peter Macdonald. “The first concern is simple: proliferation with sharks (and Heaven knows what else) crashing through roofs all over the City. This fear is exaggerated. In the five years since the shark was erected, no other examples have occurred. Only very recently has there been a proposal for twin baby sharks in the Iffley Road. But any system of control must make some small place for the dynamic, the unexpected, the downright quirky. I therefore recommend that the Headington Shark be allowed to remain.”

The monster—genus Untitled 1986—had been built from fiberglass by the local artist John Buckley. He installed his sculpture under cover of night to mark forty-one years since the detonation of the Fat Man atomic bomb over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. For Buckley it was an oblique gesture of outrage at the existential threat of nuclear annihilation. Untitled 1986 arrived the year Gorbachev first mentioned Glasnost. This was the era of Chernobyl, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. That spring, USAF Ravens dispatched from nearby Upper Heyford airbase had been seen in the skies over Oxfordshire on their way to bomb Tripoli. “One question only comes to the lips: Why?” asked a puzzled BBC reporter at the scene. Bill Heine, a local radio personality and the owner of the house, explained: “The shark was to express someone feeling totally impotent and ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation.” Heine, a U.S. expatriate, had a reputation for rubbing Oxford residents the wrong way. As proprietor of two local independent cinemas he had previous form, commissioning large sculptures for his theater facades: a pair of high-kicking cancan dancer legs at Not the Moulin Rouge, a few hundred meters from the shark, and, unfortunately, Al Jolson’s minstrel hands over the entrance to the Penultimate Picture Palace in nearby Cowley. For one middle-aged man interviewed by the BBC about Untitled 1986, Heine could go sling his hook: “I grew up in this town, and in my view the majority of people in this town are sick and tired of the publicity stunts of this crazy Canadian [sic] nutcase and if any of the Great British Public wants him on a free transfer they can have him today.”

I grew up in the nearby village of Wheatley, a few miles east of Oxford. The number 280 bus drove through Headington on its route to and from town, passing the shark in both directions. The shark marked distance. It signaled when to think about getting up to press the request-stop bell on the way into the city center, and on Friday night’s last bus home measured how much longer you’d have to spend hoping the drunks wouldn’t notice you before escaping at Wheatley. I turned ten when Buckley’s artwork appeared. I found it funny, and believed that more people should have giant fish installed in their roofs. Into my teens, I would pass this small-town Jaws so many times that it became unremarkable, practically invisible. By my early twenties I was working professionally as an art critic. Snotty and of firmly held opinions, on the rare occasions I registered the shark I dismissed it as a one-liner, sculptural slapstick. I thought no more of it for years.

Visiting Mum and Dad early in 2018, I took the 280 from Wheatley into Oxford. As I entered Headington, a sudden impulse told me to get off and take a closer look at the shark, then walk the remaining two miles into the city. It was as though I were responding to a mysterious signal generated by the sculpture. Like the superintelligent monoliths in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—if they had resolved that the most persuasive technique for shepherding humanity to the next evolutionary level was to take to the suburbs in the form of surrealist fish. Trying my best to act casual and avoid looking like a creep, I stood outside the house staring at Buckley’s work for some time. This Headington skyscraper was about to mark its thirty-second year wedged between the chimney pots, and I was fast approaching forty-two. A decade spent living in New York had defamiliarized the sight of it. Buckley’s symbol of frustration became visible again. I thought of another untitled sculpture I had seen, by an artist who was curious why images and objects lose our attention the longer we spend with them. In 2007, Simon Martin made a bronze figurine that he considered “activated” only if a fresh organic lemon was placed next to it. If there was no lemon, or if the citrus had rotted, Martin ruled the artwork incomplete. The act of replacing the fruit every week or two was analogous to watering the plants, a reminder not to let the familiar turn invisible, neglected. In 2018, the specter of nuclear conflict, tensions with Russia, a resurgent Right, and women leading protests in the streets were back in the news. Fresh lemons for Buckley’s sculpture.

What an odd sight it must have been for people seeing it in 1986—five years before Damien Hirst turned a taxidermied shark into an artwork iconic of the nineties, decades before pop-comical works like this became more common, the kind of spectacle you might find sitting on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London, or helping a New York plaza art-wash its private ownership. I was reminded of a question a student once asked me: “When does a work of art happen?” Firstly, in the moment of its production—in the mind, then studio, then display, when its constituent parts lock into context. Secondly, when the art meets its audience and gaps, productive or otherwise, between the creative intent and its reception emerge. After that, a work of art might continue to resonate, or it can stop happening, instead drifting into aesthetic and intellectual obsolescence for years, left to gather dust on the shelf until the times change and it slips back into fashion or serious conversation again (stopped clocks twice a day, and all that). If the artwork is lucky, something catches the eye of a younger generation, who blow off the cobwebs and in doing so find something altogether new to appreciate in it.

I wanted to understand why my focus on Buckley’s monster had crispened. No claims for it as Great Art came to mind. It didn’t need my advocacy. The power of Untitled 1986 was in its obduracy. A cosmic joke about political agency and death that had survived enough news cycles to start being perversely funny again as history repeated itself.

The signals I was responding to were more personal.


The Headington Shark marked another milestone in addition to the distance to and from Wheatley. It got stuck on dry land almost a year to the day after my eldest brother, Karl, went to sea. Sixteen years older than me—my other brother, Mark, is thirteen years ahead—Karl began working on boats in the early eighties, following a four-year stint in the Royal Navy. He saved money from jobs in the village, enough to get him down to the south of France, where he found work crewing yachts in the Mediterranean, then couriering sailboats across the Atlantic. In 1985, when I was nine, he joined the team of Norsk Data GB, one of the British entries in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race (now the Volvo Ocean Race). There is a photograph of me taken the day Karl sailed from Portsmouth on the first leg of the competition. After goodbyes hugged on the quayside, my family had jumped in the car to speed over to a nearby beach to watch the start of race. In the photo I’m dressed in a T-shirt and a pair of shorts, waving at the horizon. The photograph is taken from behind my back. The coast is sun-bleached in hazy white. Mainsails and spinnakers can be seen out on the water. That view of myself at one remove became my primary memory of the last time Karl was in British waters.

Our family was already accustomed to my brother being away for long stretches. In the early eighties we would not always know where he was from month to month, save for the occasional postcard sent. A colorful map of Antigua and Barbuda. A whale in the Atlantic, postmarked “Azores.” He’d telephone from somewhere in the Med, but run out of change for the payphone. “Hey it’s Karl, I’m in Spai–BEEP-BEEP-CLUNK.” We lived by the old maxim that “no news is good news” and our parents led from experience. Tireless and supportive, they encouraged Karl to see the world because they did not want him, nor any of us, to be subject to the control of institutions and social expectations as they had been. For Dad it was the Catholic priesthood he’d left to marry Mum in the midseventies. For Mum, the rural farming communities of Methodist North Wales. Life in small-town Oxfordshire was not for Karl.

In the Chiltern Hills, on the Buckinghamshire side of the border with Oxfordshire, is a three-hundred-forty-meter tall telecommunications mast. Built in the early sixties, the Stokenchurch BT Tower is a brown concrete column crowned with antennae, satellite dishes, and transmission drums. It stands eleven miles east of Wheatley, commanding an escarpment a few hundred yards off the M40 motorway that links Oxford to London. Our family nicknamed the tower “Karl’s Rocket.” Space flight, rocketry, and aerodynamics were among my brother’s enthusiasms as a teenager who was otherwise alienated by school. I listened repeatedly to Karl’s souvenir seven-inch record of the first lunar landing, and as a preteen science fiction fan, I found enjoyment imagining the spaceways. Karl’s Rocket worked to explain his absence. It stood for elsewhere, a relay-station transponding messages to and from the Headington Shark. The Earth orbits the Sun at a distance that astronomers nickname the “Goldilocks Zone”—neither too hot nor too cold. I have wondered if this is Karl’s preferred range of orbit from home: far enough to know what deep space held, yet still warmed by family care and concern. I pictured Karl inside the nest of antennae, piloting it to distant planets and sending us reports from the Goldilocks Zone. I considered the sea to be his domain but for a child in landlocked Oxfordshire it might as well have been outer space.


The month the Headington Shark flagged me off the bus I was meant to be writing this book. And this book was meant to be another book. (Don’t all writing projects careen off course and digress themselves toward new destinations? Possible exceptions: car user manuals, medical texts, protocol for deploying nuclear missiles. Best to stay on topic in those genres.) Originally, this was intended to be a collection of travel essays designed to shed collective light on Important Topics to be divined later. Touring China with my band, six weeks on a container ship sailing from the Thames Estuary to Shanghai, visiting a commune in northern California, and a clutch of other postcards. The book even had a working title, but I had made the mistake of naming the baby before looking into its eyes. A Lisa better suited to Luisa. A Benny who should’ve been a Lenny. Writing began, and it soon became clear that I was unable to add new territory to the literature of travel other than gravel for landfill. Then came a lurch of personal crises. Significant derailments, but too commonplace to warrant slinging ink at. The urgency of recounting my travels shrank to a tiny amplitude.

Writing limped. Writing crawled. Writing stopped. Words became gummed-up and gear-seized. For a period, text messaging a close friend in Los Angeles and an exchange of postcards with a writer who lived half a mile away amounted to the only writing I produced. If only I could write myself out of my funk, like Anthony Trollope, who claimed to start each day at five thirty in the morning and write two hundred fifty words every fifteen minutes, for three hours. I was too old for the live-fast methodology of Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote sixty thousand words of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a six-day cocaine binge. Eventually I decided to cannibalize the travel book for small parts and abandon the rest to rust at the side of the road.

Gene Fowler—journalist and screenwriter, and prolific at both—said: “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Between days spent hoping the head wounds might open, but too squeamish to accelerate the process through self-trepanation, I started playing the piano. I practiced scales, and revisited pieces of music I’d learned as a teenager. A simple Claude Debussy composition, two or three old Bowie hits. I tried massacring a couple of numbers from a Kurt Weill songbook, but stopped before the ghost of Lotte Lenya could take revenge, and took up painting instead. I’d done little since leaving art school in ’98. My chops were rusty, and I kept the daubs behind doors, a strictly private activity. Painting offered oxygen when the 1:1-scale reproduction of words from mind to page was suffocating. It encouraged chance operations between the hand and eye. Sweet relief. I made images of plant foliage and rough portraits from iPhone photographs. The disconsolate mind finds comfort in odd-shaped corners.

I felt adrift. But wasn’t blocked the term for this paralysis? “The term itself is grandiose,” Joan Acocella tells us, “with its implication that writers contain within them great wells of creativity to which their access is merely impeded.” Geoff Dyer calls writer’s block a lazy cliché, lavatorial even. He prefers the term “writer’s dread.” “Now there’s a subject for an essay—if one could face writing it.” I thought of Everett, the protagonist in Jonathan Lethem’s novel Amnesia Moon, who travels across a post-apocalypse America in which nobody can agree on how the eschatological catastrophe has played out. Lawless towns terrorized by petrolhead warlords. A landscape covered in dense green fog. A community governed by luck. Take your pick. I felt I was in No-Man’s Land, the Twilight Zone, the Upside Down, the wasteland, the badlands, and the boonies. On the sidelines, on the bench, on hold, on standby, out-of-sync, in the wings, up the creek, in a ditch, in a fix, in a funk, in stasis, in suspended animation. Muddled and moribund, mudbound in muddy waters. Clogged, congested, confounded, choked-off, jammed, stumped, stonewalled and stymied. Flummoxed, bamboozled, and blocked. Frog in the throat. Bone in the gullet. Crashed into a wall. Also: dithering, floating, unanchored, unmoored, untethered, blown on the breeze. Caught between a rocky trope and a hard cliché. Stuck in limbo.


I imagine limbo as an extraterritoriality without walls, without corners, windows, entrances, or exits. I can also cast it as ocean and desert wilderness. Or a blind-black void that has swallowed all light and matter and threatens a sublime death. ”’Tis a strange place, this Limbo!” Samuel Taylor Coleridge imagines. “Time and weary Space / Fettered from flight, with nightmare sense of fleeing / Strive for their last crepuscular half-being.” (As Ridley Scott’s Alien warned audiences: “In space no one can hear you scream.”) Limbo might bring to mind a zone of white nothingness. A space of minimalist perfection that looks like a giant in infinity curve or the interior of a contemporary art museum. In his essay ‘“Inside the White Cube,” the artist and critic Brian O’Doherty describes the effects of the “unshadowed, white, clean, artificial” spaces of the art gallery, in which art “exists in a kind of eternity of display, and though there is lots of ‘period’ (late modern), there is no time. This eternity gives the gallery a limbo-like status: one has to have died already to be there.” Limbo is at the apex of visual sophistication: an extra-dimensional loft done out in luxury-plain Jil Sander grey. Empty and placid, with not even a reproduction Eames chair to interrupt the anodyne tastefulness. No mess, no color, no life. No hint of recidivist ornament—Adolf Loos would have loved limbo. In Harold Pinter’s words, a “No man’s land, which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, which remains forever icy and silent.” (And full of dread: “Nomaneslond” was the fourteenth-century name for execution sites to the north of London’s city walls.) No day, no night, no seasons. “Lank space,” Coleridge called it. Or is it? By definition it stands for an in-between space. Limbo appears at the edge of daybreak and at dusk. It’s a cusp word used for conversations held in the golden hour.


The Headington Shark made the most of its circumstances. Its head was positioned beneath the level of the roof tiles, giving only Heine the privilege of one-on-ones with the beast. The shark had to rely on body language to communicate with the public. Unable to see 280 buses and unaware of older brothers out at sea, indifferent to Oxford’s ivy-clad gothic architecture, it ate planning violation notices for breakfast. Stuck inland, the shark started conversations about art and meaning. It provoked arguments about whether one person had the right to make personal political statements by changing the shared landscape, and threw into relief the aesthetic anxieties of heritage-minded Oxford. The shark was not going anywhere and so it tried to make its intransigence productive.

Buckley and Heine had glued together two things that rarely shared company: a house and a shark. (An old creative trick bringing to mind the Comte de Lautréamont’s line about “the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table,” which always struck me as less of a surrealist dream image than a Post-It note reminder to stay open-minded.) This collision of meaning—aside from the grating flamboyance of it—upset the public. A house should be fixed in one place and ideally represent the stability of home. Sharks keep moving and they eat people. Buckley’s sculpture disturbed an idea of domestic stability, but also represented a living thing stripped of its agency to roam and live where it wants.

The shark contradicted a cliché we are told about life, that it is a “journey.” That your project is progress. What was once a religious metaphor has turned managerial, better suited to a capitalist model of life that demands perpetual motion. Go forward. Hit the ground running with actionables and deliverables. Grow through teachable moments. But why? The fallow field is as necessary to the farmer as the the one filled with crops. For an artist, an unforeseen accident that stops them working, such as a studio fire, might clear the psychological brush and leave ashes that provide nutrients for the soil. Patience brings the unexpected: “I wait not for time to finish my work,” wrote the artist Ray Johnson, “but for time to indicate something one would not have expected to occur.”


Dan Fox is a writer, musician, and coeditor of frieze magazine, Europe’s foremost magazine of art and culture. He is based in New York.

Limbo, Dan Fox, Fitzcarraldo Editions, London, 2018. Copyright © Dan Fox, 2018. Reproduced by permission of Fitzcarraldo Editions.

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People with Down Syndrome Changing the World by Mel Darbon

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People With Down Syndrome Changing the World by Mel Darbon

I realised as I sat down today to think about this next blog that it was exactly six months to the day that my debut book Rosie Loves Jack was published. It tells the story of a teenage girl with Down syndrome who fights for the freedoms that we often take for granted.

I have been inspired by many young people I have worked with who have Down syndrome, but in the writing of this book I came across some young celebrities who are determined to break down the stereotypes about their genetic condition. At this juncture I thought it would be lovely to share their achievements.

Tommy Jessop.

Tommy Jessop is a British actor, who its determined not to let his Down syndrome prevent him from achieveing great success. His career spans theatre, television, film and radio and has lead to him being nominated for  many different awards.

I first heard about Tommy when I watched a documentary called Growing Up Down's, a documentary
made by his brother William Jessop that follows the Blue Apple Theatre Company's  touring production of Hamlet, in which Tommy played the starring role of Hamlet. It won the Creative Diversity network Award for Most Groundbreaking Programme. Tommy made history, as the first professional actor with Down syndrome to play Hamlet in a mainstream theatre tour.

Tommy broke into drama playing one of the leads in Mark Haddon's BBC Drama, Coming Down the Mountain. Tommy was the first actor with Down syndrome to play a lead role in a television production. Mark Haddon was inspired by Tommy to write the drama, which was nominated for 'Best Single Drama' for a television Bafta.  

Many productions followed on from this and Tommy was lucky enough to work with Mark Rylance at The Globe Theatre and gained a big fan in Mark who described Tommy's performance in Hamlet as 'phenomenal'.

Not content with taking the drama world by storm, Tommy now works for the Culture Device Dance Project in London, proving that having a genetic condition doesn't have to hold you back. His abilities far out-weigh any disability he might have.

Isabella Springmühl.


Isabella Springmühl is a nineteen-year-old fashion designer from Guatemala. She is the first designer with Down syndrome to be featured at London Fashion Week and is the most recognised designer in her country of Guatemala  and has showcased her work in Rome and Mexico, as well. 

Isabella always wanted to be a fashion designer and from the age of six used to make clothes for her dolls. So, it was a natural progression to want to study fashion design at university when she graduated from school. But the university refused to take her because of her condition and it looked like Isabella's dreams of following in her grandmother's footsteps were to be dashed before she'd even begun. Determined not to let this stop her, Isabella applied to other universities - all who turned her down because she had Down syndrome.

Isabella was not going to let this get in the way of her dream. She decided to teach herself, and with the help of her family created her own company called, Down to Xjabelle, which does a range of clothes especially designed to fit the body shape of someone with Down syndrome, as well as clothes for  all women. Her designs reflect her Guatemalan heritage and use colourful textiles woven by indigenous Mayan women.  Her latest venture has been to set up her online shop.

Isabella is a truly inspiring person who strongly advocates her message of inclusivity to her ever-growing audience. Last year the BBC named her as one of their 100 Influential Women.

"I wish that every garment I so lovingly work on warms the dreams of other youngsters who have different abilities...we can do it!"

Pablo Pineda.

Pablo Pineda is the first person in Europe with Down syndrome to complete a university degree in 2004. He now works as a teacher, a role he took on in 2009 but still fights to be accepted as.

" The families are still scared of it, that people with Down syndrome become teachers, or that they are partners of their daughters...I am tired of it, being the perpetual student, the child forever. Now my time has come to teach."

At one point Pablo became an actor in a film about his life called, "Me Too",  but his sole purpose in doing this was to, "empower other people with Down syndrome. And naturally to change awareness in society in regards to people with Down syndrome. To offer a different perspective on us."  

Pablo is determined to help society see the world through new eyes and passionately advocates that people with Down syndrome can achieve anything that they want to if they are given the opportunities.

""My message to the parents, teachers, society is: Here is a person and he can learn. Not every person with Down syndrome can study, but he can learn. And the individual limits in this regard should not be set by society but by the person themselves. I got to where I am today because I wanted to get there."

Madeline Stuart.

Madeline Stuart is an Australian  fashion model who became the second model in the world with Down syndrome, and one of very few Australian models, to work at new York Fashion Week. This opened up huge debate about disability inclusion in the modelling industry. Diversity is hugely lacking in the fashion industry as a whole, so Madeline has become an inspiration to not only disabled people but anyone who dares to dream.

Alongside her achievements as a model Madeline has set up a dance school (dance being another passion of hers) with her mother and a friend. The idea of the school is to nurture talent within a non-competitive environment.

Most importantly Madeline's success and fame -she has over 127,000 followers on Instagram, has made her a role-model to so many people because of her refusal to put any limitations on what she can achieve. She has shown people how to believe in themselves and proved that disability doesn't prevent you dreaming.

"I hope through modelling I can change society's view of people with disabilities, exposure is creating awareness, acceptance and inclusion."

Sarah Gordy.

     Sarah Gordy is a British actress who has been in many television and theatre productions; Upstairs Downstairs, Call theMidwife, Holby City, Doctors, Strike, Jelly Fish at The Bush Theatre.  She spoke at the UN for World Down syndrome Day and has also been awarded an Honorary Degree from Nottingham University. 

"Hopefully it will inspire other young people to believe in themselves too... We worked hard to get here. It means much more than a degree in our hand, and a cap and a gown. Each of us has had a different journey to get here. And...We...Are...Here."

 Perhaps her greatest achievement to date is when she was awarded the MBE for services to the arts and people with disabilities.

This was a very significant achievement because Sarah was the first woman with Down syndrome to be awarded an MBE. " Can you imagine?...It meant a lot to us because it's for services to the arts and  people with disabilities, and it's such an inspiration for the little ones coming up."

Sarah strongly advocates that, "It's not about the disabilities but the person behind it as well, and the same with Down syndrome."

 I am humbled by what these young people have achieved against all the odds stacked against them. They not only are a huge inspiration to those with a disability, but to everyone else as well. It's not about the disabilities but the people behind them and each and everyone of them deserve to be heard.

Mel Darbon


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