About the Book
Ruth, a brilliant zoologist and geologist, has just retired with her lover, Katia, to her family home in the southern tip of Argentinean Patagonia. Ruth conceives a unique way of dealing with her grief over Katia’s sudden suicide with the creation of an outdoor art garden made of cast-off objects and garbage. Sylvie, a young French artist, is drawn to the art garden and she and Ruth discover that they are kindred spirits. They travel to Spain’s Costa Brava and then on to Barcelona—Ruth filtering the world through her feminist political and zoological/environmental perspective, and Sylvie capturing the world around her with a vivid, penetrating artist eye. Together they discover a new vision of liberated women: sacred beasts.
“Pushcart Prize finalist Bev Jafek’s The Sacred Beasts is a fiercely feminist novel that makes space for women’s stories and art in the midst of macho arenas . . . All the characters are forceful presences in this atmospheric novel that is all about valuing women’s ideas, stories, art, and bodies.” — Rebecca Foster, Foreword Reviews
“In the eponymous metaphor of sacred beasts, the novel presents an affirmative vision of the potential of LGBT people that is romantic yet subtle, and on several levels, intellectually provocative. As we learn in the Afterward section, its vision is scientifically-based, drawing on developing research in biology, anthropology, socioeconomics, and psychology. But even more than cultural speculation, the book feels like a lived experience, as it explores–sometimes with visceral eroticism–how egalitarian relationships can lead to greater intimacy and love, and how that can help revive a moribund society. Formally, the novel is adventurous, with a structure that begins at the story’s ending and concludes with its center; yet it is always compelling because of the richness of its fully-human characters. We experience the action and emotion through two complex, mature women, Ruth and Monserrat. Also notable is its strong sense of place, from Patagonian Argentina to Spain, that exist not just as backgrounds but as sensory worlds, visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile. The story is also empowering, as it builds to a conclusion showing how its memorable protagonists become engaged in revolutionary activity, to change themselves and, by extension, us readers and society.” — Jim Clark, GLBT Literature
Praise for Bev Jafek’s first book, The Man Who Took a Bite Out of His Wife.
“Bev Jafek drives a sharp tongue through the conventions of science, marriage and literature. You know you’re in the presence of a brainy woman who has taken a look at the world, shuddered and laughed.” — Grace Paley
“Bev Jafek’s bustling semi-toxic comedy has a severe intellectual basis, like Ionesco’s, and I relish the outrageous confidence of her work.” — Paul West
“Jafek spins tales of grand guignol that soar with unanticipated lushness.” — The Village Voice
“Reality takes it on the chin in this collection of surreal stories, some of which have earner their author inclusion in Best American Short Stories.” — The Washington Post
“Surrealism and the absurd–infused with feminist concerns and science fiction themes–mark this debut short story collection by a Pushcart Prize winner.” — Publishers Weekly
One alcoholically black night, I held my seventh glass of whiskey up to my eye, saw the walls of my living room and its amber lamps jiggling absurdly in a horrible greenish-brown ooze that inundated the world, drowning all but me, alone upon my ark. Then I shouted: “You want to know what killed her? Mediocrity! She was meant to be a marvel, a monster, to roar at all the idiots on this earth!” The sound of my voice shocked me back into sanity.
I was very drunk, alone, shouting the answer to the question that had haunted me from the moment I read her maddeningly ambiguous note (“Swimming to Cape Horn. Don’t wait. Love.”) and then found her body dead from drowning, hypothermia or both on the ocean shore. I began shouting on the second night after her funeral, the woman who had been my lover for nearly forty years, Katia, the loved one I always nicknamed, simply, Bear. When the morning light—bald, blank, insomniac—sank into my marrow, I realized that I had found a purpose: to create an immense, outdoor sculpture revealing the omnipresence of mediocrity, that all-powerful aspect of human beings, a work of art suggesting both suffocation and infinity, made entirely of cast-off metal, plastic and glass from the city dump. Nothing less would do. That was how my garbage art garden and my unique form of psychotherapy began.
I had plenty of room for mad projects—several acres of land and an old, roomy house in Ushuaia, the southern tip of Argentinean Patagonia, closest city to Cape Horn and the beginning of Antarctica. My house is an international white elephant, like everything else here, previously owned by an old Welsh sheep rancher who styled it in the architecture of Wales and the Welsh towns further north in Chubat Valley: thick bricks, windows sashes and the inevitable grandfather clock stopped forever in its tock. Just call Ushuaia the end of the world. All the Patagonians do. Old Pat always has plenty to say about the beginning and end of the world. It’s only the present that so bewilders her. But in that respect, I’ve always been different. As a retired university professor, a zoologist, geologist, naturalist, science journalist, and a woman on top of that, I am a total deviant who is rarely bewildered by the present. No, I am absolutely infuriated by it!
“So Little Bear’s shouting to herself at five am now?” The door of my house, which I rarely lock during our December summer, opened and the full-cheeked, beguiling Hungarian face of Mariska, my closest friend and neighbor, looked into my living room and saw the chaotic, disgusting heap that was myself.
“Don’t call me that ridiculous name again, or I’ll throttle you against the wall!” I shouted. At least, I was now shouting at someone else. Some of our friends observed the ridiculous custom of calling us Big and Little Bear, which revolted me. Katia was unique, another species, as astonishing as the giant marsupial monsters that lived in ancient Patagonia. More than legend, they had lumbered over the steppes and deserts during the Neolithic and been made extinct by early humans. Now enormous, awkward limbs stretched and shook the ground before my eyes: the elephant-sized mylodon sloth covered with vividly orange fur, an herbivore so gentle it was brutally penned in caves by humans until it died for the sole reason that such cruelty met no obstacle. The equally immense glyptodon armadillo, whose amazing skin was a cross between armor and fur, reduced to roofing over huts in which fires perpetually burned and vicious human eyes pooled orange and red demonically before them. Thus the name of our largest island of archipelagos, Tierra del Fuego, Land of Fire, courtesy of Magellan who, like all the exploiters, merely feared he might have found creatures so magically powerful he could not kill them. My species, my fellows, even then capable of such exorbitant, uncanny greed and destruction for the sole imperative of fools: that they could do it!
How I would love to have shown Bear the sweet, shy monsters, gentle as doves. What could they have told us of the consequences of being larger than life? I can nearly see Bear walking beside them in the sunlight, caressing the sloth’s long orange fur. Could they have saved her?
For I could not. No, I am no smaller, mirror image of Katia. She was intrinsically other: greater and truer than life, like all the women I have loved. She was a literature professor and a brilliant writer of fiction and poetry, and we lived in the US for most of our time together. We had only been in Ushuaia, the home of my childhood, for a year in our mutual retirement. We left the States in 2004 because we could not bear what the country had become: a greed and corruption-tainted, dictatorial corporation of the wealthy, united to steal from the middle and lower classes; a war machine attacking pathetically weak nations to sell business contracts to millionaires; an oblivious killer and defiler of the planet; led by the least intelligent and competent, most immoral government the country had ever known. We felt a visceral disgust and horror of our nation, but I was the lucky one, citizen of two lands and, since we were retiring, I brought her to my ancient home. I thought it would be perfect for her—a wind, snow and light-leavened, open-air cathedral for worship of nature’s extremity, and the land, flora and fauna that so perfectly embodied its spiritual value. We had spent months traveling over the regions I visited many times in my professional life as an expert in the zoology and geology of Patagonia. I thought she loved it as I did: how fatally wrong.
My mind turned inevitably to the last moments of her life. This imaginary scene had been playing in my thoughts, over and over, for two days. Knowing her so well, I thought I saw the only way she could have ended her life. She was one who could never stop fighting; she had the perfect hair-trigger response to enshrined human injustice and blindness. So, she would have picked a place she could never reach, that ugly black rock, Cape Horn. She entered the churning sea and began swimming toward it. Then she fought and swam and fought the water, the cold, the inevitability as the day, the light, fled the sky and still she went on fighting and drowning in the dark of her own exhaustion, escaping at last the fierce, demanding purity of her life, becoming the body that had washed back on the shore where I found it. The tears I myself was fighting began to fall uncontrollably from her dead eyes, which were closed. The camera only rewound itself. It would play again.
“I suppose I’ll just pretend I’m not here,” said Mariska, who had been sitting for some time on the sofa opposite me, greeted by nothing but my black silence, her still-startling blue eyes, short, whitish-blonde hair and lovely smile a reminder of normalcy.
“Do that. I’ll help,” I said, my hands with sudden, inexplicable need covering my face.
“Ruth, you can’t help anyone now,” she said, her voice very tender.
“I couldn’t help her. That’s what matters.”
“No, now you matter. A great deal to me,” she said, again very softly. What a gentle, lovely thing she seemed. I wanted terribly to be less coarse and brutal but somehow, I could not, though my hands came down to rest on my lap.
Looking away, I said, “Just tell me this: Do you think there’s a chance it was anything but suicide? Could it have been . . . any other thing at all? I thought I knew everything about her.”
Now I could look her in the face, however nakedly my weakness and agony were revealed. She held me with the piercing clarity of her blue eyes. “Yes,” she said at last, “she might actually have believed she could do it. She was like that. The words impossible and dangerous were not in her vocabulary.”
“Oh my god!” I said and slumped over again. “I knew that! I’ve been thinking it all along and just letting it go. I told her the water could freeze even in summer down here. I told her the waves reached fifty feet . . .” Mariska was silent, though I looked at her in great agitation.
“It could surely have been suicide, of course,” she said reasonably and in a carefully measured tone. “But . . .”
Again I slumped into my sorrow. “But she could have decided that such things only applied to others, not to her. Yes, then I knew her. At least I have that.”
We were silent for a long time, though now we looked freely at one another. “She was wonderful and terrible,” I said. “I lived with it and loved it every moment, even when I also hated it.”
“She was all that,” Mariska said. “Will you come to hate Nadia and me for being, so to speak, merely normal?”
At last, I could muster a ghost of a smile. “No, I intended for us to be like you. We would grow very old together, and our love would deepen and darken like amber and somehow we would find that remote island of peace or just a small, unexpected mirror that reflects a beauty in the world. I only wish I knew whether she intended to die or to live with abnormal magnificence.”