Pénétrable de Chicago

Jesús Rafael Soto. Pénétrable de Chicago, 1971.

Jesús Rafael Soto. Pénétrable de Chicago, 1971.

By Tylar Brown
Location: Art Institute of Chicago

Dangling low. You are a beauty in some eyes. Long, see
through plastic strings are what attract us. Kids
automatically gravitate towards you
because of your singularity
and ingenuity.

Walking through your strings
feels like swimming, but             with no specific destination.
Being                                            in the presence of your
rectangle with strings                           at every angle,
feel                                                                  at peace, relaxed.

You could be seen as a problem. I am in a jungle.
                     I need to move through strings
to get out. Like in life, you must
fight through.

All of these plastic strands stand
with each other, but they cannot leave
each other, even if they want to. They can
only move if someone else applies force.

Pénétrable de Chicago,
not being afraid to let people in,
you are nothing
like me.

This story was written in Salli Berg Seeley’s Explore Chicago class at DePaul University in collaboration with the Chicago Literary Map.

The Horizon

 Gustave Le Gray. Bring on the Water, 1856

Gustave Le Gray. Bring on the Water, 1856

By Natalie Kirykowicz
Location: Art Institute of Chicago

She stands and closes her eyes. The rocking that had turned her insides for the past few hours has ceased. As she takes a deep breath, she opens her eyes and looks straight ahead. She looks at nothing. The sea is stretched in a straight line across the horizon. She imagines sailing all the way to the edge, where the sea meets the sky. She imagines sailing to the ends of the earth. She would reach the edge where the water tapers off and falls into space. She would stand on the edge and look out, seeing nothing but space and stars and freedom.

She stands on her toes and jumps out over the edge, and she is floating. Tears of joy fill her eyes as she swims through space. Earth gets farther and farther away. As she spins and flips gently through space she is surrounded by stars, and earth gets smaller and smaller in the distance. Everything that has ever weighed her down on earth has been lifted from her shoulders. She is completely at peace.

And then suddenly she stops floating, becoming standstill until she is being pulled forcefully. Earth is reappearing. It grows larger and larger in her field of vision. Before she knows it she is back at the ledge, where her tiny boat waits for her. She takes a step back onto the water, looking for one last time at the edge of space.

When she opens her eyes, she is saddened. She takes a deep breath of ocean air as she admires the horizon in front of her.

This story was written in Salli Berg Seeley’s Explore Chicago class at DePaul University in collaboration with the Chicago Literary Map.

Shattered Tree

Shattered Tree, Otto Dix 1941

Shattered Tree, Otto Dix 1941

The year was 1959. One year before, the Americans and the Soviets finally decided to blow each other up, taking much of the rest of the world with them. Most of the fire, it seems, was concentrated on the USSR and America, though major population centers of allies on both sides were also hit. One of the sides, though nobody was really sure which, decided that they didn’t want to leave Berlin to be taken by any remnants of the enemy who might survive the nuclear apocalypse. As governments broke down, anarchy began to sweep across the European countryside. Global communications were down, but rumor had it that in Switzerland, whose neutrality had saved them from the nuclear fire, law and order still prevailed. In the mountains south of Munich, I sought to escape the anarchy let loose by the war.

In the late afternoon, I stopped to rest for a moment by a shattered tree on the slope of the mountain looking out across the plains. I saw the river like a shining road leading to a town of white buildings, barely visible beyond the forest. Surely I could find food and shelter there. But across the plains, over another range of mountains, the sky was gray. A storm was coming, and the town was so far off, even the steeple of its church looked no larger than a pin. It was too far.

I looked more closely at the tree beside me. It may once have been a great, tall thing, but now the better half of it was missing, broken in last month’s storms, perhaps. The winds had been pretty mild since then. This tree, like all the others still had most of its red leaves, though a fair quantity also coated the ground. They glistened, wet with last night’s rain. When I squinted, they almost looked like splotches of blood splattered across the ground and sky.

In the valley below, between this mountain and the next, I spotted a small house in a forest clearing. It looked to be in good shape, but its windows were dark, and I could not see anyone moving around in the clearing. Was it abandoned?  I wondered. Perhaps there was some food and water left behind. In any case, it would be a place to sleep, and get away from the storm. I began to make my way down the slope.

As I approached the house, I began to feel uneasy. The house was still dark. There were no signs of life in the clearing. This should have reassured me, but the shadows on the empty porch seemed somehow ominous, and the line of the roof seemed to take on the appearance of a sinister brow, furrowed in hostility.

It was true that the house looked lifeless, but I had heard stories of bandits who staked out such abandoned buildings, hoping to lure in unsuspecting scavengers. Could this be one of those deathtraps? I then recalled rumors I had heard back north, of creatures horrifically mutated by the radiation in the nuclear wastes of Russia, so twisted that no one could even tell whether they had been born human or animal. Could such creatures have wandered this far west? With doubts and fears gnawing at my mind, I stopped and crouched in the shadows at the edge of the clearing.

The rustle of leaves filled my ears along with the creaking of trees, as the wind whistled all around. Even this close, I wouldn’t have been able to hear anyone or anything moving around in the house. The creaking floorboards would be indistinguishable from that of the surrounding trees. Still, I needed a place to sleep. Twilight was setting in, and though ominous, the continued darkness of the house was convincing. Deciding to take my chances, I walked out into the clearing toward the house.

The second step up to the porch groaned as I put my weight on it. I paused for a moment, and when nothing leapt from the shadows, I kept going. The door opened without a sound. It was well oiled; if this house really was abandoned, it hadn’t been for long. I entered the house and walked directly into a hat stand, knocking it over with an apocalyptic clatter. Once again, I froze. My eyes, slowly adjusted to the darkness, and I could dimly make out the hallway beyond this little entryway. A staircase on the left led up to the second floor. A door on the right stood slightly open, though beyond it, I could only see inky blackness. After what felt like ages, hearing nothing but my own ragged breath, I finally stood up. It seemed there was nothing here to maul me, no one here to shoot me for my meager supply of food.

I walked through the door on the right into what looked like a kitchen. Finding a candle on the counter, I lit it and began to search the room. It was a nice little place. The cabinets, table, and chairs appeared to all have been made by hand from the same sturdy oak. They were plain but even and smoothly finished. The light of the candle gleamed off of the woodwork like the ghost of the brass fittings that might have been found in an expensive restaurant in the city. Though I was disappointed to find the cabinets empty, the water was still running. I set the candle on the counter and refilled my canteen, then brought some spare bottles out of my pack and began to fill those as well, when just about three feet behind me I heard the distinctive double-click of a shotgun pump.

The sound came so suddenly, with so little warning, that at first I doubted my own hearing. For just a couple of seconds, I wondered if the wind had simply blown the door closed or if I had really heard anything at all. The voice that hissed, “Keep your hands where I can see them, you filthy bandit,” was deep, but shook ever so slightly with fear. As I raised my hands above my head and began to slowly turn around, I felt a sharp pain on the back of my head before I blacked out.

I woke to find myself sitting in a basement closet with my hands tied behind my back. I had been captured, not by bandits, as I had feared might happen, but by a small farming family. I know this because it was explained to me by the eldest son of the family, who seemed to believe me when I said that I was a simple traveler who meant them no harm. In fact, when I mentioned my destination, his face lit up. It seemed he and his family had not heard that Switzerland still had a functioning government. The boy stepped out of the room and began to argue with his father about my intentions. I began to drift off again, hoping they wouldn’t kill me in my sleep.

They did not, in fact, kill me in my sleep. Indeed, the family began talking about coming with me to Switzerland and invited me to stay with them as they debated whether or not to leave their home. What transpired during those days and the family’s final decision, however, are stories for another time.

Writer: Ian Maeshima
Location: Art Institute of Chicago

This story was written in Salli Berg Seeley’s Explore Chicago class at DePaul University in collaboration with the Chicago Literary Map.

Forest and Sun

Chicago Literary Map, Explore Chicago

Forest and Sun, Max Ernst 1927

Fire is truly the great equalizer. Both the massive redwood and the lowly dandelion find fire inescapable. I find myself standing in southern Oregon resting my eyes on the charred remains of a once vibrant part of the preserve. A place that very well could have been considered my home as a child. When my parents divorced I never ended up seeing much of my mom. A strange feeling arises when such a large part of your life leaves to become only a memory. With my dad always working to support what remained of the family, I suppose I would always run to the forest to fill some sort of void that I felt at home.

The preserve was about a 30-minute walk from my home, and let me tell you, it was always worth the walk. As the mowed lawns and trimmed shrubs transformed into unkempt bushes and prehistoric looking ferns, I found myself shedding the weight of civilization. In the forest you could be whoever you wanted. Never being told to ‘write this’ or ‘do that’ is very freeing. I would spend countless hours staring in wonder up at the great redwoods. It seems as if people often forget how small everything is, how meaningless most of what we have done as humans is in the grand scheme of things. The redwoods are a perfect example of existence outside of the human world. Stock markets will rise and fall, presidents will come and go, civilizations will rise and fall, yet the redwoods still stand and will continue standing.

I often imagined climbing up the redwoods and being able to leave the world, perhaps even touch the stars. However, there was one tree in particular that I was sure would at least reach the moon. Its trunk was so large it seemed that an entire town of people could not surround it. Its height was unmatched by any other tree in the forest, with its branches stretching over its neighbors, as if it was laying claim to the preserve. I imagined that you could take an axe to this tree for weeks and it would stand on as if nothing had happened. Naturally I was drawn to this tree. I had spent countless hours making memories in its shadow. It was under this tree that I learned I love peanut butter and fluff sandwiches; it was on the tree that I learned it was impossible to climb a redwood; it was in this tree that I carved my initials with my first love; and I was sure that it was under this tree where I would forever lie.

Usually whenever I found an amazing place like this I would immediately tell my friends so that I could enjoy it with them. However, I am glad that I realized that this was not like the antique candy shop or a new water park; this was a place to be alone. The day that I would find other people at my tree would be the day that it began losing value for me. There was one exception, though. I had deemed it okay to show my first girlfriend the tree, because obviously we were going to be together for the rest of our lives. Just like we had seen in all of those romantic movies, we carved our initials into the tree. She did not enjoy the walk nor the dense wilderness and almost immediately wanted to return to civilization. Knowing that my tree was not an ideal place for everyone, made it all the more special for me. I vowed never to break the oath of secrecy again. This place alone was perfect for me, and I, alone, was perfect for it.

Everyone grows up. I was bogged down by more and more homework, visiting my tree less and less, eventually torn away from it entirely by college. I wanted to become an environmental scientist. Perhaps it was the combination of spending so much time in the preserve, surrounded by nature, and loving science, facts, and the big picture. Unfortunately my college did not take place under my tree and a 30-minute walk turned into a 12-hour drive. A strange feeling arises when such a large part of your life leaves to become only a memory. I went from thinking about my tree on a daily basis, to weekly, to never when I graduated college. I had getting a job, paying a mortgage, and covering taxes on my mind. I was too embedded in civilization to simply shrug it off.

My life had become monotonous. 7 A.M. hit the alarm. 7:30, shower and get dressed. 7:45, coffee and newspaper. 8 A.M. leave for work. 6 P.M. get home. 8 P.M. dinner and prepare for the next day. 10 P.M. sleep. Only to start it all over again the next day. However, my meaningless life was interrupted by a familiar picture in the newspaper one morning. A forest fire. Fallen trees and blackened ground in the Oregonian preserve of my childhood. They say it was the biggest fire of the century. Memories came flooding back to me. Sandwiches, carved initials, and peaceful solitude of a time long since passed. Had the impossible happened? I needed to know.

While driving back I relived everything. The cars passing me were only figments of my imagination as I experienced my parents’ divorce, my first love, and having to leave and forget the only place that meant something to me. Regret accompanied worry in my veins as I questioned if leaving home was worth it. All the while I nurtured the glimmer of hope that I would return to the preserve to find that the fire had stopped before my tree.

It was gone. Charred, blackened, glowing embers took its place. I was incomplete. My memories were not supposed to last even a fraction as long as this tree. I may have been an only child, yet I know now how it feels to lose an older brother. The tree had always watched over me, keeping me out of trouble. Yet looking upon its current form, I already found myself questioning if it really did go all the way to the moon. While the tree that held up the moon was impressive in life, I came to the realization that it was twice as impressive in death.

An eerie beauty surrounded the dark and smoking remains as it released its final pops and clicks of life. There was a light at the center of this dark beauty. I know that saplings will arise from the strong remains of the tree that held up the moon. My panic lifts and my heart and soul ease into a sense of relief. My memories will only be able to pay my brother respect for a lifetime, but the forest will grow again.

Writer: Collin Schmitz
Location: Art Institute of Chicago, Gallery 395C

This story was written in Salli Berg Seeley’s Explore Chicago class at DePaul University in collaboration with the Chicago Literary Map.