Kevin McIlvoy—who went by “Mc” (pronounced Mac)—was one of the most extraordinary writers, teachers, and human beings I’ve ever known, and I was crushed to hear about his death in September 2022. Like so many of his technically former (but truly continual) students—and there are a lot of us—there is no universe in which I am where I am as a writer and a teacher without him. There are things Mc said to me, years ago, and ways in which Mc listened to the things that other people said to him, years ago, that continue to root and bloom in me. His generosity, his brilliance, his attunement to wildness and surprise and play and humanity and mystery, how he was The Example of how to be the very best kind of forever-student—wow. Mc was a sing-thinker. Mc was an artist committed to the wildly emergent and deeply felt will of the work. And for an uncountable number of incredibly fortunate students, Mc was a long-term teacher devoted to the present.
With the permission of Christine Hale, his wife, we are grateful and honored to posthumously publish his short story “Tarturus.”
His eyes hooded by drooping eyelids, he wonders if the blue-glass cast of the three-story building is blue. Seems like underside blue or inside-out-blue. Seems like the boundless blue from which comes all the sky hues he could perceive before his compromised eyesight reoriented his brain into seeing blood-red thrips feasting upon the world’s moist pigments.
In the elevator, Yew shakes herself out before pawing the middle button for Tartarus Surgical. She nudges his left pants pocket because petting him there reduces his anxiety.
She is not a comfort animal, not a trained guide dog. Yew is not Master. He is not Master.
He thinks of her as the creature who thinks of herself as the burly companion his brain has made to drive with him where he should not be driving, to help him pick humanfoods and delicious crunchy dogfoods from the grocery shelves, to place the blurry items on the conveyor belt, to feel the belt carry him and her through the world’s automatic double-openings, to the car lots, the slight and steep hills, shoulders, and sidewalk sinkholes.
When he thinks how much he owes Yew for his safety, he wonders how she will regard their partnership post-surgery.
In the Intake, the blepharoplasty metemenhancement patients are greeted by a friendly Intaker in a room filled with companion creatures and their sight-challenged elderly humans. He is asked if he has followed fasting guidelines. Hair, teeth, general hygiene taken care of? Yes. There is a form Yew’s man must sign that indicates who will transport him after the procedure. He lies, three times: Yew’s last name is also his, it says so on her collar, it does.
He slyly signs the form, nodding his thanks, receiving a no-prob nudge from Yew. The rest has been pre-arranged by phone: the disclaimer statement, the insurance coverage, medical background information including relevant familial history, allergies, anesthetic responses, psychiatric anomalies; the copy of the living will; the past experiences, if any, of surgery.
The Intaker, Iris or Ares or Eris, a person formed by an almost-cohesive swarm of professional manners, asks, “Companion will keep copies of intake materials? Companion will remain in Waiting?”
Yew lightly nose-nudges his belly.
“Yes,” he answers the Intaker, his head aching from caffeine withdrawal. “Yes.”
“You may be seated until we call you.”
He’s aware that Yew has heard the first “you” and the second “you.” Yew always responds when her name or name-approximate is invoked: the cue is something she does with her forehead, to which he is newly sensitive.
His badly unbalanced chair is not the one toward which Yew guided him. Yew’s forbearing smile is his favorite of her smiles: how much it would mean if he could see that again. There are, of course, greater pleasures in life.
Are there greater pleasures in life?
The two are in the Ring of Waiting under the giant three lamps hanging like clappers inside the domical tetrahedron overhead. The dome’s electronic wallpaper fades in and fades out images of a tidal lagoon filling and flooding at silent dusk and darkening the sullen liquid surface and emptying forcefully and emptying utterly at silentest daylight.
Entertaining riddles and postponed answers move clockwise in the chyron under the lagoon projections. The letters are ludicrously giant.
Why is a boxing match like a ballroom? Why is a night sky like a movie actress?
Why is a biscuit like a gardener? Why is a staircase like a death mask?
Made of flooring. Starring. Made of flower. Staring.
His father had blepharoplasty metemenhancement surgery at about the same age as he. He told his son that much worse things could happen to your features and your outlook, and recalled that his own father, too poor for even essential surgical correction, held up his eyelids with his fingertips when he wanted to see, and when he did not wish to, he remained lidded. Before he could ask how long grandfather was like that, his father said, “Eleven years.”
He repeated a phrase his father commonly used: “A round number of years,” though he was not sure he had said it aloud. No one under the dome —that is, no one in the lagoon— seemed to hear. The most memorable words his father said to him: the most memorable his mother said: the most memorable words from everyone he outlived: with no understanding of why, he brought the words with him to this day. He brought them with him to the Red Paper Lower Level where he was first evaluated. He would bring them with him for his post-surgery evaluation on the Paradise Upper Level. He had the particular words of his father with him now at the Tartarus Ground Floor.
When a person gets old enough to conjecture how long he and his spirit-companion (his sole companion) might live, he rounds down. Or up.
He rounds and rounds.
He schedules a blepharoplasty metemenhancement.
The chyron recycles the riddles and solutions. The lagoon fills with the sighing and resettling sounds of pre-surgery patients and creatures seated under the Ring of Waiting. He and Yew glimpse nothing actual in the resonances of the little crowd’s undefined faces. Some have books they ignore. Some, hats and purses.
Some dab their eyes with tissues. Some, with sleeves. With the back of their bare wrists.
A cloud that looms over the lagoon enshadows this henge, a sound of wavelets pawing shore, a smell of old humans almost sloughing off their wet old-human bark: in response to it all, Yew glows a deeper aril-red.
He feels the glowing of her.
He thinks, at first, he hears a chew-toy exorcise its suffering through brief squeaks.
With greater keenness than ever before, he senses that waiting—until and waiting—for are stages of re-forming. Until he met Yew he was fairly sure he had concluded with the need to answer another and yet another confusing ailment by addressing them in the order of the most pressing (eyesight, earsight, high blood pressure) to the least (foresight, gum deterioration, hemorrhoids, dyskinesia, crossover toe), to the very least (scaley scalp, dysphagia, dyspanegyria, dyspepsia, hindsight).
A tide of night stars jitters in the dome, burnishes Yew’s head and back, spreads nebulously through the stove-coil-red of her tail. Yew does not like to be touched. Not anywhere. He knows this, yet the Oh! But! of yearning-denying comes to him reflexively, and, as ever, the But…Oh… of denying-yearning.
Sensing his condition, she touches his right foot with her left paw.
He likes to be touched. Anywhere is fine with him.
At this particular moment, the signal from Yew is clear: Don’t. Don’t touch back. Don’t whimper, “Yew! Yew!” and dry-cry in response to my beauty hurting your parched, vexed eyes.
Don’t. Don’t nervously blubber-laugh and hold your hand over me in some kind of air-pet.
Don’t change your mind. Get cut, get the cool eyepatches, the eyedrops, the aftercare instruction, the beacon, the elevator ride. Move on, move on, old human.
Fixed for irreal minutes in the group’s dozing, he says out loud to Yew, “Okay already.”
The draining lagoon sounds like the dozing people in its thrall.
Why are bitter lovers like bodily humors? Why are false testimonies like broken church bells? Why are full wallets like flocks of ducks?
Biles. Libels. Bills.
Dr. Koalemos Dr. Koalemos Dr. Koalemos
His surgeon. His surgeon. His surgeon.
The Intaker’s Assistant touches his shoulder, guides her hand to his elbow, lifts him, a light and willing man now, an unaccented word, the middle number that is one less than the next number though one more than the previous.
As he is taken away, he hears sea birds singing somewhere in the shifting sky above and, impossibly, behind him. Two. Two. Two.
He hears a little Do-this-Get-er-done grumble. “Bye, Yew,” he says.
Yew lifts her head, feeling that she is almost rising into the chyron.
Does he matter to Yew? He matters. Why does he matter?
Why is a comb-over like a hangover? Why is a jumping frog like an alcoholic? Why is cremation day like payday? Why is a climbing plant like a penalty?
Dogged by the hair that bit you. Distilled. Urnings. Vine.
Swoony is how he feels post-surgery, seated again in the lagoon, Yew at his side. The Assistant has put into his hands a device the size of a deck of cards. “Your beacon,” he is told, “indicates when you can go. Your post-op appointment is tomorrow morning: Paradise Upper Level.”
Yew is pleased that he is pleased with himself. Yew smells the fear-sweat on him, the off-gassing of doubt. The human goo, seepage, drool.
Seems the inflow and outflow of the lagoon is one hour of ticking sound. Seems the appearing and reappearing cycle of the chyron is one hour. The traffic in the Ring of Waiting drains down and fills in the temporally predictable pattern of fairy tales.
The beacon shivers to life, the circle of red beads shines. Reading his thoughts, Yew opens her mouth to carry the alarm away.
Two days after the surgery returned his sight to him, Lagan asked Yew, “You want to go to church today?”
Her answer was Yes—yes, of course. But she did not bark yes at all like a churchgoer. In their time together, neither of them entered the broad white doors of Mary the Dawn Catholic Church, though they walked together every day along the wall of the churchyard.
In the days when he lived without Yew’s company, the crumbling brick cap of the wall had provided Lagan with a guide during the critical period that his collapsed eyelids had at last degenerated to the point of leaving him almost blind. In the two-acre churchyard he could rest his right hand there, shoulder-height, and walk until he returned to his starting place at the churchyard gate, a one-hour journey when he strode fast and, strangely, a one-hour journey no matter his pace. According to the season, the church-yard’s mercy-light had trembled in particular sections of the curved wall and had warmed his forearms, neck and shoulders, his eyelids.
He felt soothed by the scraping sound his palm made, the sound of spreading salt over a cutting board.
When she had joined him at the gate one evening and walked by his side for the whole walk, he asked, “You from around here?”
The creature had appeared as if from tree shade. He thought she would surely leave when he left.
He asked, “You Catholic?”
He told her he had been raised Catholic for a round number of years, but that was seven decades ago.
He wanted to know had she ever sung, “Mary the Dawn, Christ the perfect day, Mary the gate, Christ the heav’nly way.”
Walking together, they did not collide, though colliding had more or less become his habit. A good mirroring rhythm came to Yew and him, a four-legged and two-legged groove of locomotion.
She had simply picked up Lagan, a stray in the churchyard.
“I liked that song. A beautiful song.” He almost sang the words; instead, he said, “Your tail is red as a flame azalea, even I can see that,” and reached down to touch the place he thought her head might be.
She growled, Don’t touch.
“Me,” he said, “I like to touch. Like to be touched. You can brush—see there, that’s what I mean—you can brush yourself against me. Don’t trip me up though, I’ll wander off and then—who knows?”
No answer came. “Who knows?” he said.
Had he imagined this walking companion? If he had not, why the silent treatment?
He had talked too much, that was it. He lifted his hand from the wall. He fearfully put it back and brushed his palm twice over the surface, which whoosh-kissed like tumbling beach sand. He did talk overmuch: the price of long periods of solitude was that his self-talk escaped: he didn’t have to be told that he tolled and tolled like an alarm bell in an empty school.
“You there?” he asked.
A goldenness brushed the wall. “You,” he said, tears pouring from his broken curtains and down his face. The ring his life was fitted to: the habits inside the ring: he heard no congregation singing there, though he could retrieve a few phrases of music; he felt he could not walk the miles and miles of Time to meet the singers, to hear the whole hymn lifting them into another condition.
Her friendly growl, coming from deep within her, reached so far inside him the locked-away word, miracle, came and, of course, spilled out: “You’re a miracle.”
His companion barked. Her bark-phrase was exactly in his own tone: Okay, already.
He named her Yew. They were, after all, in the company of the churchyard trees, some over seven-hundred years old, guarding the graves with faces rubbed clean, their features worn down to riddle letters and riddle spaces. In some of the Yews small creatures rustled, resettled. In some of the Yews the heartwood, hollow for three-hundred years, drummed sympathetically to percussion in their own roots and the roots of others: Whom. Whom. Whom.
He had known Yew for three weeks before the day of the surgery. She stayed with him. She cared for him. Without her, he knew he would have cancelled the procedure and never rescheduled.
Three days after the surgery, when Lagan was free of the eyepatches, he and Yew walked close to the wall.
Lagan said, “Remember the lagoon?”
Yew coughed quietly but agitatedly. The lagoon. The chyron. The Intaker, a thin creature wearing socklettes that left the appealing marrow of her hocks exposed. So hard to look away from the skin barely covering the bone.
“Remember the place?”
“Me neither,” he said.
Lagan floated his hand over the crumbling cap of the wall, but did not touch. He looked like humans look with one wing tucked and the other flying. A human like that would roam a parking lot, one hand on a cart, and be all right. A human like that would suffer less in the abyss of any new ailment of the present and ache of the past. A human like that would delight more than ever at being touched by other humans. Lagan—healed up good, for now—was in readiness to leave the first of the rings of waiting, and the next and next.
At a particular place in their circular journey, Yew always paused. A good place to smell the air, the ground, to crouch and relieve herself.
Lagan, an old human, liked this rest. Time curved here, and here he found dark peace with his losses.
A small female, more toddler than pygmy, fell out of one of the trees and landed directly in front of them.
This surprised Yew not at all. Calmly, she left Lagan’s side.
The jumper held before her a yew-spear tipped with a merlin-beak formed from aluminum foil. She hovered the spear-tip over Yew’s eyes: each eye.
“Miss you,” she said.
Yew pushed her whole face into the blue sweatshirt over the little person’s belly, turned her head to the left and to the right, pressed more deeply into that sky. Seemed like the water-bowl blue of a clear day. Seemed like the pulsing blue that birds suppose they alone possess.
“And you are?” asked Lagan.
Ignoring his question, she said, “I was here—up there—when Em chose you. She never did that before. Never. Saw you, chose you—”
Now he understood completely, now he understood not at all. “How?”
“Went off with you. I was eating the red berries I never ate before. They looked good. Em said, Don’t, please, poison, please don’t. I did though. Then Em, well, she couldn’t make me not eat.
“She doesn’t beg. Ever.
“She stood under the tree.
“Well, after Em went with you, I fell out. When I fell out of the tree I went right in. Into the dark where I could eat all the everything I wanted.”
She touched her wand to Em’s tail.
Lagan said, “She doesn’t like to be—”
But Em did.
Em liked to be touched by the magic in the little person’s hand. Lagan saw her hand so clearly. He saw Em’s whole body reach up to receive the spell of the red-stained palm, of the small, pale fingers.
He heard the trees drum the way they drum in fairytales to call us from this side of our wall to the other.
And the child and Em went away.
And they have never been seen again.
Kevin McIlvoy published six novels and two collections of short fiction. His poems have appeared in LEON, The Georgia Review, and many other magazines. He taught in the MFA programs at New Mexico State University and Warren Wilson College and for twenty-seven years was editor in chief of Puerto del Sol. “Tartarus” is part of a forthcoming collection of short-short fictions, Is It So?: Glimpses, Glyphs & Found Novels (WTAW Press). .