Variables by Nora Bonner

Somebody posted a video about this: a small boy cuddles a bunny and releases it to the yard. At the thirty-second mark, the child screams when a hawk shows up and sweeps the adorable offering off-screen. That’s the whole video, terrible or terrific1, depending on your ancestry and by ancestry I mean language of origin, and when I say origin I mean depending on your blood or perspective, I mean depending on the variable.

P’Nui’s mother is cancer-dead, but her father still won’t put rice clumps on the dollhouse foyer. These spirit houses2, perched on a pole in Thai front yards, P’Nui’s father regards them as variables to complicate what we know: Some of us live and some of us die. A variable from my place of origin: Someday God’s gonna tell us why3. P’Nui’s cousin told me she refused to feed the spirits on rainy days; if she must suffer discomfort, the spirits must suffer hunger.

Matthew’s beatitude, blessed are the hungry4, appears before its counterpart in Luke: woe to the full, for they shall hunger. We shall hunger and then we shall eat and then we shall fill and then we shall hunger.

God needs blood, our teacher said while handing out crayons and plants don’t bleed. We toddlers knelt at coffee table in somebody’s Westside basement with the last of Detroit’s white folks, smothering Xeroxed lines for smoke. From Abel’s dead lamb it rose. From Cain’s limp crops it sank flat and straight and gray as Grand River Avenue from the RenCen to Lahser: another object of God’s rejection. Thousands of Bible pages later, according to Jeremiah, God warned and warned and warned against oppression but drew the line at baby sacrifice. And hello Babylonian wrath-puppets5. They vandalized Hastings Street, busted up Black Bottom and dragged us down the Chrysler Freeway to other neighborhoods where a few remain waiting for God to cut the streetlights on. I am too young for joy Detroit but Grandma gifted me the variable of her warped version of history when she told me, sitting at her kitchen table, that the city was once so nice before the blacks got ahold of it. I have another variable in Lamentations: O my city, once so nice. O look what God has done. I am too young to remember Detroit before the “shit” in “Gratiot6,” but I watched when the blood from our severed necks dripped down the major roads stretched out like spokes.

I saw my first spirit house in Ayutthaya7, where spirit houses are huge with plastic jasmine garlands dangling from teakwood roofs. I asked P’Nui to explain what I was looking at and she said there was no way to explain. I agree about a half a percent. I agree that Thai spirits aren’t in the Bible and so they didn’t come up in Sunday school, which baptized me in its epistemic waters polluted with other variables. Even so, I recognize the offerings we make when we sacrifice without mercy. I learned to spot the rice clumps, the apple slices rotting in spirit houses along Bangkok’s restaurant walls. I learned how to say, the spirits have eaten and are satisfied, when I know the stray dog came by and lapped up my offering.

Nora Bonner is a PhD student at Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA, where she lives with her husband and her dog named after Woody Guthrie. She has published short stories in places like the North American Review, the Indiana Review, Shenandoah, and Best American Non-Required Reading. She is originally from Detroit.

Back to Issue #26

  1. In Thailand, my friend Chirasak, amid his attempts to learn English, sent me a text message that read: terrible, terrifying, terrific. Your ancestors is complicate.
  2. The Thai word for these is sam pra pum.
  3. Lyrics from Bruce Cockburn’s song, “Festival of Friends,“ which my uncle, Paul, covers with a perfect, smooth belt, which I too, cover, after my father asked me to sing it at his party when he retired from the Detroit Fire Department in 2005. That’s when I learned that Bruce Cockburn, not my uncle, wrote it in 1975.
  4. Matt 6:5
  5. After the Israelites don’t listen, God send them in to exile via the Babylonians. Sacrificing babies to the gods was the last straw.
  6. To properly butcher this French word for a street in the way of true-Detroiter, use the “a” from “apple” for the first syllable and make the second syllable rhyme with shit: Grae-shit.
  7. This is Thailand’s (western) 16th century Burmese-burned-it-out capitol before Bangkok, which consists mostly of chupa ruins, and a fair amount of Buddha statues hacked to pieces, since apparently that is where the monks once hid their treasures.

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