A Painting Hanging in a Gift Shop, St. Ansgar, Iowa

Russell Helms

Born into a typical trilingual Russian aristocratic household in Leningrad with a large library then orphaned into the world at large during our little artist Hitler’s lengthy siege, Apollo grew into a young man staring out over, but never into, the cornfields of St. Ansgar, Iowa. He was too young to remember the crisp rye breads and fried Baltic herrings of his toddling days, yet when he heard the Iowa corn rubbing itself crispy and raw in the dead of August, susurrating like a cat with the never-ending breeze, the sounds he actually heard were distinctly those of Secale cereale swishy swishing in some very real wind in Belarus, and shoals, flashing shoals, of silvery Clupea harengus membras (very real ones, too) rushing through water so cold that he pulled his thin wool blanket of blue and bronze tight to his ears.

By his sixteenth year, his fourteenth in St. Ansgar, Apollo knew that statues of St. Ansgar loitered in Hamburg and Copenhagen, but not a single one in St. Ansgar itself. There was a statue of St. Peter, though, in St. Ansgar (and on and on ad infinitum) and it belonged to Apollo’s mother Tacha who watched over the Kountry Kottage gift shop on Saturdays during the summer. Apollo wasn’t sure what to do with himself after high school, but he did have a knack for electronics. There was a GPS manufacturer in Kansas he’d heard good things about and would it not be smart to travel? He’d tried wrestling for college scholarships but as fate would have it he was too strong, crippling the other wrestlers, too single-minded, and perhaps too taken with dialectic instead of logic.

Staring out over the corn (not into the corn) a question came to him when he was 13. It came to him like an infant in a basket floating in the reeds, but instead of an infant there was a mirror. With the mirror of St. Ansgar before him, Apollo’s Will came up rather flat, so flat that neither Will nor World knew what to do about the other. Apollo’s road to despair had nowhere to go, except over the cornfields, the great fault, the great water, the great steppe, and bright and shiny like a new bayonet (or laser beam) plunge into some bare spot of the Nevsky Prospect, into that very spot where the ghost of Akaky awaits his next overcoat.

At a young age, Apollo was drawn to the classics, yes, Goldilocks and Hansel and Gretel, but then tumbling down after came Kant and Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Hegel (and Sartre on weekends?). Apollo’s eristic father Dag drove combines wider than their white house but his line of sight was narrowed to the space between his eyes. It was with every glance that his adopted son Apollo seemed to become thinner and thinner. And one night he conferred with Tacha and she called him foolish but she too saw this progression, this march, but not so much Apollo becoming thinner so much as a flattening. She ceased to make eye contact with him.

Looking out over the corn, or rather posing his Will to the World, the weight of his existence drew down some thickness as the laser beam (or the bayonet) crossed the corn to the ghost. Overcoat after overcoat pressed to his frame thinly but precious as gold flake, supplying his premises necessary weight, layering his Will with that which is different regarding history and silence, that darkness (Have I mentioned that yet?), not the Will to Power but the Will to Despair, to move from flat to solid. And again, where is Apollo in all of this? He is looking out over the corn and not into it. The basket is in the reeds and he never hears the cries of an infant, only the sound of a mirror.

The unmet desire! Apollo discovered at the age of eight that he could do a standing back flip, just like that. Once, inside the Kountry Kottage, on a Saturday, he perfected his landing but the reverberations of his impact on the wooden floor sent half a dozen holiday ornaments of Danish crystal crashing to the floor. Tacha was furious of course but could not beat him because of the siege, the flatness, the corn. “Apollo,” she said as if saying his name aloud while writing a postcard. “No.” Her only son, adopted, plucked from the wasteland.

A bun perhaps, a crumb bun, and the coffee is hot! What’s mine is yours, of course. We work well together, You and I, and Apollo. And what of Dag? A good fellow. Dag thinks the job in Kansas assembling GPS units is a grand idea for his son. Dag uses GPS when plowing his fields. The rows of corn have coordinates. Via—although he would say from—satellites, he can see his corn, can see the residue of Atrazine, can see the wavy lines, can see thirst in August, the stubble of November. And without the GPS the corn maze would have been impossible!

Dag is a nice man. He is as light as a feather as he pushes through the corn, a shadow really, and shadows are flat but he is solid, no mistaking it. Unlike poor Apollo, Dag’s Will creates his World anew with every glance. Yes, to him it does. The jets at 35,000 feet will see something different, of course. But who are they? They are jets full of people flying over corn. Or are they darkness? That which makes it all so heavy and solid and pressing, and real! They are flying over the corn and some no doubt are looking down, down into the corn.


The morning of his leaving for Kansas, Apollo sits before a mirror in his room, which looks out over the corn. The mirror in the basket in the reeds is shouting an interrogative, not emanating the cry of an infant as one would expect. In the mirror he sees the corn, out over the corn (not into it), and he stares and sees the great water, and mountains and plains, and he raises the pistol to his head, the land rushing with him, below him, and falling, and now somehow up to his neck in sidewalk, a ghost of a man with a great overcoat places a mirror before him. The ghost, a persistent but gentle ghost, who is not frightening in the least, places the gun to the forehead in the mirror and pulls the trigger.

We hear the sound of a combine wider than a house. A mirror exploding, but no gunshot. Corn whispering, tongues of loose glassine rasping in the wind. We feel despair looking at this small painting of a field of corn hanging in a gift shop in St. Ansgar, Iowa.

Russell Helms
Russell Helms

Russell Helms has stories in Litro, Versal, Bewildering Stories, Assembly Journal, The Moth, Soliloquies Anthology, antiTHESIS, Qarrtsiluni, a la carte from Main Street Rag, and other journals. The managing editor of Jelly Bucket would be him. When he's not writing, editing, or reading, he designs and produces journals and books (47journals.com). He lives in Kentucky, is from Alabama, was born in Georgia, has been around the block a few times, Ethiopia, Haiti, Germany. Kicked out of the Peace Corps a few years back, Bangkok. That's what his first novel (just about ready), "The Ground Catches Everything," is all about.