Gone Lawn
a journal of literature
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Gone Lawn 12
Autumn, 2013

Featured Excerpt

Jason Hrivnak

Excerpt from The Plight House

14. You awaken in a cramped one-room apartment under the rafters of The Plight House. The bed in which you lie smells of dampness and sweat. Stretched out on the floor beside you is the examiner, who, fourteen years ago, expelled you from the facility. He sits up slowly from a stiffnecked sleep and apologizes for the cramped accommodations. Over a simple meal of porridge and coffee, the examiner warns you that the hardships you will face in the chambers ahead will be crueler and more protracted than the ones you remember, since the facility will take full advantage of your established vulnerabilities. After breakfast, as he prepares to go to work, the examiner ventures to ask if you feel ready to resume your place in the battery of tests. "Not quite yet," you reply. You spend the day alone in the examiner's room, drinking tea and dozing and pacing the meagre floorspace. Is it possible to gain some insight into the methods of The Plight House by studying the examiner's papers and personal effects? Are you shocked by the squalor in which the examiner lives and what, by contrast, did you expect?

15. Over the weeks to follow, you constantly put off your return to the battery, complaining of fatigue and headache. Gradually, you and the examiner fall into a lukewarm domesticity. The two of you make smalltalk over meals and chores and even share the narrow bed. Not that there is a romantic component. At night you sleep side by side like things unsexed, muttering apologies when you touch. Whenever you so much as remove a sweater, the examiner turns away as if struck. From this and other clues, you build a picture of a man who has acquiesced to the cancer of celibacy. At times you find his manner unaccountably frustrating. He acts like an old man though your conversations have revealed that he is but four years your senior. He repeats himself. He carps and he cavils. Every second or third evening, he lectures you about the need to reclaim your original ardour and throw yourself back into the battery. Sometimes you respond with a half-hearted promise. Other times you abandon him outright, leaving the room without fanfare and going for a stroll through the barracks. The examiners whom you meet on the gangways and stairs observe you with knowing smiles, your bedmate not the first among them to have plucked a mistress from the flock. What field or fields must the prospective examiner study in order to secure employment at The Plight House? Or is qualification a matter of rejecting established fields and how, then, is the force of that rejection gauged?

16. One day the examiner fails to come home from work. His clothes and belongings still lie scattered around the room, so you presume that he will still return. As his absence extends to a second and third day, however, you begin to fear for his well-being. On the eleventh day after his disappearance, you receive a letter. In it, the examiner explains that he has resigned his post and departed The Plight House forever. He apologizes for having tried to hasten your return to the battery, admitting that he was wrong to have done so. The entire purpose of The Plight House is to inflict upon test subjects the exact ordeals they lack the fortitude to inflict upon themselves. His exhortations were therefore the very height of absurdity and he asks your forgiveness for having uttered them. He informs you that, by way of recompense, he has secured your permanent release from testing and that you may stay in his room for as long as you like. He bids you farewell. Over the years to follow, you receive a number of such letters from the examiner, each one postmarked from a different far-flung locale. His anecdotes leave you with the distinct impression that he leads something of an itinerant life. He writes about hitchhiking and odd forms of day-labour, about nights spent at fireside with his fellow wayfarers. In his final letter, written more than five years after his original disappearance, he shares with you his longheld dream of fleeing to the distant mountains and becoming a solitary woodsman. By the simple rhythm of cutting wood and burning it, sleeping and waking, he will lull his life through to an unthrilling close. What compensation was the examiner obligated to offer in exchange for your removal from the battery? How does this compensation relate to his desire to live a life of utter solitude?

17. After the examiner's departure, you live a quiet, near-invisible life in your room beneath the rafters. The examiner has diverted to you his pension and uncollected backpay so that you are able to purchase goods from the commissary. You while away the days. You take long, aimless walks through the depths of The Plight House and spend entire afternoons hibernating in bed. One day, in the course of your wanderings, you see that the door to the third chamber has been left open. You step inside. The chamber looks exactly the way you remember it—the cast-iron cradle, the circular trapdoor—even if the baby in the cradle is now a different one. Looking around the room with older, jaded eyes, you find the test to be almost preposterously simple. And you laugh at yourself for having missed the answer before. You leave the baby in its cradle—for it is, you now understand, nothing but a distraction—and walk up to the edge of the trapdoor. You peer down once into the lightless depths, then allow yourself to fall. The darkness accepts you like an old lover. In the thrill of your descent, you recall your long-forgotten childhood vow that you would always be a voluptuary, that you would cherish above all other things that which is pure and extreme. Now indeed is the time to reclaim old hungers. With this fall, you have cast off the rags of sobriety and pledged your body a repository for rare and overwhelming sensations. At what point in your life did you lose your hunger for pure and extreme sensations? How will its return help you to prevail in ordeals where the will to self-peservation is a guarantor of failure?

18. On my first night away from The Plight House, I have a dream in which you figure prominently. In the dream, we hold a long and intimate conversation while wandering down the halls of a crumbling, labyrinthine mansion. We talk about music and childhood and highways and the sea. We talk about our shared fear of growing old and rotting away in solitude. Eventually, we become separated and you find yourself alone in the attic, surrounded by old brushes and half-used cans of paint. Like all dreamers, I have a terrible memory. What could you write or draw upon the walls to recall to me our conversation and the bewitching interlocutrix that you are?

19. I join a travelling sideshow. I specialize in performing auto-impalement with icepicks and needles and knives. After travelling with the sideshow for three consecutive seasons, I become bored with the life of the performer. I grow ashamed of my poverty. And I come to despise, more than I had ever thought possible, the nightly throngs of awestruck simpletons whose distraction is my livelihood. One day I receive an invitation to a seminar by a local doctor of the healing arts. The doctor bears numerous esoteric credentials and claims that he can awaken even the most jaded senses, the deadest of dreams. To me, this seems an unlikely prospect. Describe an act that the doctor could perform which would indeed restore to me my old sense of wonder.

20. I construct a sensory deprivation chamber. I fill the chamber with heated salt water and seal myself inside. Even after eight hours of immersion, however, I experience none of the chamber's purported effects: no sense of disembodiment, no visual or auditory hallucinations. Frustrated, I cut short the session. I open the lid of the chamber and sit upright, only to find that I am no longer in my home. My contraption sits like a matchbox in the middle of a vast and featureless room. The room has no doors and no windows, the only light coming from a circular hatch in the ceiling, some eight or nine metres overhead. Where am I? How did I transport myself to this place and what must I do in order to return home?

21. My mother has fallen ill. Her condition is deteriorating rapidly and her doctors have told me to abandon all hope that she will recover. Whilst attending to her needs, I find beneath her bed a cast-iron statuette depicting a pig with seven eyes. I ask my mother how this object came to be in her bedroom, but she has no explanation. I remove the statuette from the house and throw it in the garbage. Upon my next visit, however, I find beneath her bed either the very same object or some new and identical facsimile. What is the statuette's connection to my mother's illness and why can I not dispose of it in the conventional manner? What is the occult significance of the seven-eyed pig?

22. I find work in a slaughterhouse. I perfect the technique of killing with blade and boltgun alike and soon I can dress a fresh carcass faster than any of my peers. In a bid to outmanoeuvre the slaughterhouse's competition, management begins to purchase a new kind of livestock. The animals in question are small, doglike creatures with tawny hair and wide, nocturnal eyes. Management warns us to wear earplugs whilst slaughtering them, as their song has been known to unhinge the human mind. From the moment that I start practicing my trade upon these creatures, I begin to suffer from terrible nightmares. My nights become a hell of strange and vivid horrors and within three weeks' time I am legless with fatigue. One day, acting on a sudden and uncharacteristic impulse, I rescue one of the creatures from the killing-room floor and hide it in my coveralls. I bring it home. Sitting on my kitchen table, scanning the room with its dark eyes, the creature looks innocuous and unafraid. I remove my earplugs. What does the creature say to me?

Jason Hrivnak lives and works in Toronto. The Plight House is his first novel.

Gone Lawn is grateful to Pedlar Press and Mr. Hrivnak for permission to publish this excerpt from The Plight House. (Copyright © 2009 Jason Hrivnak)