• A Short Story for a Community Arts Parade & Festival

    Over the past year, a bunch of artists in the small town where I live have been working to create the first ever Wheaton Arts Parade and Festival, which was held on September 24. 

    As my contribution to the festivities, I wrote a short tale called "Pisces," based on this artwork by Sandra Pérez-Ramos


     Keith Donohue


               Nobody knows how we came to live on the big fish. Long ago, our Adam or Eve crawled out of the sea, uncertain whether they had landed on a floating island, not realizing that they were atop a living creature. Fish. And nobody remembers how or why this fish graciously decided to swim along the water’s surface, never submerging through all kinds of weather. Perhaps it knew the shipwrecked sailor or the mermaid refugee would drown if it went back under. Perhaps Fish has a kind and generous soul, if a fish can be said to have a soul.

                But as I have mentioned that was long ago. Generations have passed. That first pilgrim must have met another stranger, fell in love out of random necessity, and soon enough a baby arrived, and others later. And in time, more newcomers showed up as Fish swam the seven seas. Voyagers from the Caribbean Sea, a lovelorn fisherman from the Aran Islands, a fleeing couple from Sicily, a beautiful young woman from what was then called Ceylon. Over the decades they swam or rowed a makeshift raft or canoes as Fish passed their shore from Thailand to the Ivory Coast, from Iceland to New South Wales, Tahiti to the Sargasso Sea.

                Everyone welcomed and embraced the pilgrims, for they added to the genetic soup, bringing their own customs and culture, their language and philosophies. But to a person, they washed up stunned to find themselves alive on the back of a giant fish. Yet they made the most of the circumstances and joined in the life the pioneers had created.

                The art of living on Fish requires a high tolerance for a seafood diet, a taste for seaweed, and the egg or two accidentally left behind by some migratory bird. The flocks are great fertilizers as well, and trade winds blew seeds to the moss that grew on Fish’s back, coconuts float by, sometimes a crate of oranges or pineapples. In time the island proved suitable for trees to root. Harvest trees and collected driftwood allowed for the citizens to build a few crude huts to weather the storms, and big waves convinced the early settlers to place our homes on stilts to offer more protection. We learned by misfortune how to survive, but the real problem was how to live. How to bear the loneliness of such a transitory existence. How to overcome the boredom of the endless waves and vast oceans stretching out everywhere and nowhere at all. We learned to swim, to fish, to tend our garden, to be satisfied by the sight of an albatross sailing over the waves or a pod of dolphins leaping for joy as they raced the oceans.

                And we found other ways to occupy our imaginations. From Idris we learned how singing becomes a way to make our ears and throats instruments of memory. A seamstress from Ecuador made the first needles from the scales Fish shed from time to time. An abandoned whaling skiff bumped into us, and Murphy took the harpoon to fashion a trumpet, a tuba, and a brace of tin whistles.

                To fill our days we made art. Whittled seabirds. Painted shells and coral with dyes drawn from berries and the blue blood of horseshoe crabs. A pair of comely twins from Molokai taught us the hula. Listened as a bronze-skinned poet recited Shakespeare memorized in his youth. Twice each year, when daylight and nightdark were equal, we threw a small parade and festival to celebrate what we made, what others had made or taught themselves, and when the sun went down we began to imagine what we would next create.

                Nights under the swell of stars and endless cradling of the waves, we would crawl into our beds and hammocks for love, for sleep, for dreams. This Little Eden of ours continued thus for hundreds of years. Oh, that’s not to say we had no problems, no petty squabbles, none of life’s tragedies. Every birth is balanced by a departure. Those who passed away on Fish were given back to the sea. And some of the people were not suited to life on Fish. They would cast off at the nearest port after six or eight months, goodbye, hasta la vista, adieu. It was sad to see them go, but only natural. There’s only so much room on Fish.

                One hundred years ago, we reached the crisis point. The population had grown to 29 souls, many babies, many elders. We caught each other’s colds, were constantly bumping into one another, grumbling, and worse. Two young men—Edgar and Deji—were both in love with the same girl. Drunk on palm wine, Edgar crept into Deji’s hut with an abalone shell sharpened to a lethal point. Luckily, Deji woke before the blade could pierce his heart, and the two young men rained blows on each other, the fight rolling like an avalanche, men and boys tumbling down ladders, all the babies awakened and crying like the Sirens. Even Fish slapped its great tail in the waters, as if to warn us of our transgressions.

                The following morning the elders called a meeting, and after great debate and a secret ballot, we decided that we had reached the population limit on Fish. By consensus we agreed to accept no more strangers, though nobody would be forced to leave. Further, we were instructed that no families were allowed to have more children. Some, as expected, balked at the rules. The Hendersons chose to leave right away, debarking at the nearest port. But most of the well-established couples felt, well, enough was enough.

                But the young people on Fish, they had a different point of view. Some had already been sorely tempted by the modern world. News of the radio and automobile had already reached us. And later, the aeroplanes overhead, the rumors of the cinema and the glitter of bright cities lured some of our finest youth to leave. Sometimes in tearful goodbyes, sometimes streaking away while the rest of the people slept. One by one or two by two, they left us.

                Now and then, the zero population growth rule was broken. Men will be men, and women will be women. That is the way of life on Fish as it is on the land. The guilt made a few women try to hide the news, but where can you go on Fish. At first, the elders showed leniency, but that only emboldened the lovers. A spurt of pregnancies sixty years ago forced a change in the rules. Mothers-to-be must go. And harsh as that seems, the law had its intended effect. The very last child—Abram—was born over fifty years ago (to one of the elders and his young love, may I add). By then, there were just ten souls living in two houses. The grand dame passed away the next autumn, and then we were nine. And soon seven, six, and now just the five of us left, the oldest near 99. We still sing our songs and make our art and fight to survive, but nothing is the same without the children.

                We have decided to leave when Fish next comes close to some shore, though we have been these several months in open waters far from any land. The latest plan underway is to take the boats, load them with three months’ supplies, and just go. I will miss the feel on scales against the bottoms of my bare feet, the constant taste of salt on my tongue, the sighing of the waters through gills. Under the weight of our leave-taking, Fish began to ride lower in the water, as if aware that of the change to come.

                Or hard to accept, it is asking us to leave. Old Fish has been circling, searching, though for months the floating island was inscrutable as ever. A week ago, on the far horizon, we spotted another Fish, who Abram named Pisces. Perhaps our Fish has been looking for love all this time. I like to think that they have found each other, the only two of their kind in the seven seas, and it is indeed time for us to go, time to relieve Fish of the world upon its back.

                The time for goodbye has crystallized in my imagination. We will have deconstructed the houses, removed the coconut trees, scrubbed and clean the scales till they glisten. Picture the five of us watching from our boat under a crescent moon as we row away, rocking on the waves. How strange solid ground will be, how different the people, but I am looking forward in my old age to a new adventure. Fish will do what all fish were meant to do: swim away.

  • What They're (I'm) Reading

    BookPage calls The Motion of Puppets "eerie yet poignant" and calls it "the perfect novel to read as Halloween creeps up." (Thanks, BookPage!) They asked me to list three books that I've read, am reading, or will soon read.  And I chose Ruth Franklin's biography of Shirley Jackson, Emma Donoghue's The Wonder, and Sjón's novel Moonstone.

    To find out why, check out BookPage.

  • Politics & Prose

    The reading at Politics & Prose was lots of fun. They do a great job hosting events, and it was a delight to see family and friends and to chat about puppets, Muybridge, and Eurydice.

  • Five Books About Living Dolls and Puppets

    I hate puppets. Uncanny, scary, they are too much like us, especially when they have a life of their own. Dolls are just as bad. Ventriloquist dummies give me the creeps. Basically, any homunculus or simulacrum of the human unsettles and delights the soul.

    Perhaps that’s a strange thing to admit, given that my new novel The Motion of Puppets is, in part, about a strange troupe of puppets that come to life every evening in the back of toy shop in Quebec. When I was a young boy, I saw an old “Merrie Melodies” cartoon that showed how the toys would have a party after midnight and return to their places before the next dawn. That cartoon was one of those fantasias that left a lifelong impression on me.

    Puppet shows are also weird and eerie. I grew up on the Muppets and the other creatures from Jim Henson’s imagination, and lately enjoyed the work of the Bread and Puppet Theatre, Basil Twist, and the Old Trout Puppet Company—among others—that take the stuff of childhood and torque them into adult puppet shows that breathe and hum and tug at the psyche. Two wonderfully strange books about the history and culture of puppets are Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets and Kevin Gross’s Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life.

    Living dolls and puppets are the subject of a number of novels and stories, some of which came into play when I concocted my story that takes the Orpheus and Eurydice myth and sets the underworld in puppetland. The puppet characters kind of grew on me, to the point where I love them as well. They pulled my strings, so to speak. So it is a love-hate kind of thing on my part. I have no idea how they feel about me.

    You can read the rest of the essay at:

  • What kind of novels do you write?

    To that oft-posed question, I never know what to say. Some people are expecting a conventional answer--western, thriller, horror, historical, sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, and so on. Despite the fact that some of my novels have been categorized in one genre or another (or sometimes more than one at a time), I don't really think of them as anything but stories. With a twist.

    My interests are myth, folklore, and archetypes, and how these old stories are ways of looking at the realities of life. Thus, The Stolen Child uses the folklore of the faery changeling, and Angels of Destruction, the idea of the uncertain angel. A dark comedy told by a dead man about to be re-born, Centuries of June revolves around eight well-known stories and legends from America, and The Boy Who Drew Monsters is, in part, about the legend of the haunted house and the fear of monsters under the bed. Or in our heads.

    The Motion of Puppets relies on the ancient Greek love story of Orpheus and Eurydice with a dash of the uncanny life of puppets, who sometimes act as provocateurs of the unconscious.

    All of them take elements of the mythical or fabulous to combine with very real human struggles. Without prejudice between the real and the imaginary, between life and the dream of life.