Valerie Coulton

El Madrugador

The Count of Monte Cristo’s incarceration comes to pass primarily through a single letter, which names him as part of a conspiracy to overthrow Louis XVIII and restore Napoleon to power. After many years imprisoned, the young man befriends a fellow prisoner, Abb&eacute Faria, who educates him and bequeaths him the fortune which provides the instrument of his revenge. Faria also reveals the secret of the letter: the writer has written it with his left hand. I had difficulty learning to write. I held my pencil at an odd angle and I was confounded by the letter A, which seemed to me to be upside down compared with my own letter V, the first one I learned to make. My left-handed father arched his wrist around the page and swept across it with a graceful, steady script. My mother’s hand seemed cramped and halting by comparison. At a certain age I decided to differentiate my writing from theirs, to make my letters architectural and modern, to render my signature a distinctive, indecipherable scribble. My mother objected. My father seemed pleased. It’s difficult, now, to stop reading The Count of Monte Cristo. The weight and thickness of the book give me a comforting sense of continuation and longevity. In addition, it seems that the pleasure Dumas took in writing the book is constantly present. I would read late into the night, sometimes until dawn, often one of the books left over from my parents’ English teaching days. The world of books seemed inexhaustible then, even though I realize now that our library was quite small. I would fall asleep at last, replete with the populous solitude of reading. Meanwhile, in another part of the house, my father would be waking in the chalky, promising light.

Plaça del Diamant

There are many places I never go and it would be pointless to name them, perhaps even wrong to do so. These are sentences I formed earlier, before the loud celebration began somewhere nearby. To name a place is to imply some familiarity with it, a subjective relation. This neighborhood is full of streets and plazas which once had other names. Soon their names will change again, like this wind which keeps shifting directions. Who am I to say? The man across the way has stopped yelling. Clouds hover. A woman yells, she snarls. This is what we call the simple present, used to describe permanent or habitual states and actions. Also used for effect in writing, especially when suspense is desirable. It is already darker earlier now. I’m forgetting what I wanted to write. Something to do with nouns and emotional states, the absurdity (immorality?) of supposing that a noun such as “happiness” means anything at all, much less something communicable in language, something specific. The present continuous has come into the piece, keeps coming in. People are opening doors and walking into plazas. Televisions are flickering. The bell tower with its zodiac design is about to strike.

Retrato Imaginario

In the few days left before my untimely demise, I find myself making lists. My categories are simple: things I will have time to do and should do (burn certain papers) and things I will now never do (learn Catalan, make a soufflé, travel to Istanbul ). The second list seems nearly endless; at some point it will have to list itself as one more unattainable desire, formed earlier by a consciousness which will soon cease to exist. The first list is quite short; after all I haven’t lost my reason. Three days’ time (less, actually) is hardly enough to do more than re-read Archilochos, The Pleasures of C, Funes the Memorious, and a few choice pages of Anna Karenina; to eat ice cream (fortunately it’s summer), walk about the neighborhood, and sort through the detritus of my (unfortunately short) life. And of course, sleep. If only I can sleep very well, and visit the theater of dreams a few more times. My sleep was a source of conflict throughout childhood; my parents were unable to accord it an appropriate value. Did they know how I would lie awake, counting to infinity, unable to float freely into dreams until the morning hours? I read somewhere that inefficient sleep-parenting creates insomniacs. These details, like most everything psychoanalysis considers significant to the formation of the self, are forever buried in the (preservative?) amnesia of infancy. Now I will never perfect the art of sleeping, for death is no sleep as far as I can tell. The dead I’ve encountered have lacked everything save a mysterious cellular activity of decay. No, my sleeping days will soon be over and the cities I visited in my dreams will pass to others, or die with me in a single exhalation. Also my ability to fly and my happy meetings with those long dead. Will I be asleep when it happens? The hour hasn’t been predicted. Would I prefer to be at home or in the park? Would certain streets be preferable to others? I want to add some item to the list, such as “plan last day,” but even as I write this, surrounded by children and people not much younger than myself, the hopelessness of such a task is overwhelming. My last day will surely be like any other. The world will continue, completely indifferent to me. I’m inclined to stay at home, so as not to trouble anyone. List 2: visit the sea one last time, travel through France by train, read Homer in Greek. The sun has sunk behind the roofs that form the western edge of the square. The cafes are filling up. Soon I’ll ask for the check in the language I’ve started to learn. I’ll pay my bill and start for home. The wind is cooler now. I’ll open all the windows.


A change of address. Meaning the previous you is not the current you. The you who makes the coffee and administers spoonfuls of extra Sunday sleep. You who spoke of mushrooms as magical, mysterious in their nocturnal appearance in the forest. The word forest plush with childhood fur and the glitter of spider webs. Here the prized mushrooms are sturdy little tables dappled with green. Are they similar to the ones you hunted with your grandmother? Mushrooms and the words for mushrooms, the earth that clings to each. Were you the one who taught me speech and ink? I can’t remember now.

Retrato de Carmina con manitas

I was a bit lost, as usual in those days, walking south along the outside wall of the park looking for a way in. It was one of those holidays I didn’t truly understand. I’d passed through the station into the milk-lit neighborhood–the young man I’d thought suspicious finally stopped at a corner and let himself into a shop in order to open it, to push the ice cream freezer out near the street, to take the money from the safe and put it into the cash register. I’d asked another where to find the park, even though I’d been there before. My difficulty in speaking Spanish had erased the route she’d led me along. His syllables were thick and vague; I hurried along, sweating a little now. The first gate was locked and I imagined the park closed, and her waiting hidden somewhere, on another street probably, wondering. At last I came to an opening. She could see me from her table near the back as I scuffed along. Her hands with their rings were quiet in her lap, and beside her in a chair were two enormous dictionaries: the whole language, which she had somehow carried.

Valerie Coulton is the author of The Cellar Dreamer (Apogee Press, 2007), passing world pictures (Apogee Press), and The Lily Book ( San Francisco State University ). Recent work has appeared in Big Ugly Review, New American Writing and Parthenon West Review. She lives in Barcelona where her front porch is a balcony overlooking the street; in writing, she seeks “a porch without a house.”