Pony Castle by Sofia Banzhaf
Metatron Press, 2015
48 pages – Megatron
I have been having the kind of dreams recently where everything is almost real enough, even the rugs are the right rugs, so the bad parts feel true. It actually stresses me out until I wake up and realize it was just a dream. But when I go back to sleep, the dream is still there, it hasn’t moved, the dream-dad is asking the dream-boyfriend uncomfortable questions and the boyfriend is yelling STOP right into my ear and then running away to the toilet. I am talking to the boyfriend and he is saying he has to get something from upstairs and he’ll be back and when after five hours (I check the clock) he is still not back, I go upstairs and he is having a nap. I wake up again and it’s just a dream-world, but the real-boyfriend moves away from me in the bed.
There is a kind of twinning in Pony Castle that digs under your nails, that speaks directly to the real versus unreal—the waking versus dreaming—hallucination of life. The unnamed narrator has an unnamed boyfriend, but she also has a Kurt. The unnamed narrator has an unnamed roommate, but she also has an Anita. And maybe Anita is her, and maybe this is Anita’s story, but also it’s not. Because she and Anita have shared issues—drugs, body insecurities, men—but the narrator also has things of her own, like clogged drains and hair stuck down her throat, like an Omi in Niagara, like a Larry at the butcher’s.
But no, wait. The Omi is Anita’s and she tells the narrator about her while the two of them are captive in the narrator’s room, hemmed in due to an unexpected bout of cleaning by the roommate. No one is there to hear Anita except the narrator, so does it really happen this way? Is this Anita’s story after all, or is it a trick, a twinning, as inexplicable as “painting our nails and draw[ing] little pandas with ice cream spluttered on their tiny bellies”?
From the first paragraph of Pony Castle, Sofia Banzhaf is building a latticework of complex sentences. The book begins: “We drown a dozen oysters in Kir Royales and sweet Chardonnay and I can tell by the rose colour of Kurt’s cheeks that he is about to say something mean.”
She detours, reveals their drinking began mid-afternoon, circles back around:
Kurt is looking at me with this flush in his cheeks and he is about to say something mean and sometimes I wonder whether I’ve successfully drained the affection out of him because I do that, I have a talent for these kinds of things, draining things, sucking things dry, and I know Kurt is about to tell me something because I asked him to, in my own quiet way.
And so instead of staying to find out, the narrator goes to the bar and watches him from afar. She is choosing her own narrative distance, and in this moment, she becomes totally self-aware.
This self-awareness is elusive. It is an illusion sometimes heightened to hyper-awareness, often dampened down to almost nothing. Often both, as in:
What happens later is this: I am in this man’s bed. Or should I say: This man puts me in his bed. Or should I say: We are high and he throws me on the bed. Or should I say: I take my dress off as soon as I am on the bed. Or should I say: I am told to take my dress off when he throws me on the bed.
It is an experiment in language, in what we dream and what we wake up to, what we wish for and what has really happened. The scene is laid out, then modified by a series of slight changes until it looks nothing like the scene, still every bit the scene. The scene is painful.
Pony Castle is a prism. It is a cut crystal. Whichever way you turn it, it reflects the light differently. You can hold the thing in your hand but the thing is inconstant, it is always changing. If you hold the crystal still, you can watch the captured light as it is projected onto your blank wall, and in that moment, its precision is startling. You are with them—the narrator and Anita—in a mall cafeteria eating fried chicken, and you’re people-watching along with them, until the perspective shifts into a future dream where they “spend the rest of the weekend behind heavy drapes, playing Yahtzee with opiate eyes and listening to The Jungle Book in Hebrew on repeat.”
Because the language of Pony Castle is its fire. It is a shifting, twisting beast, in which the pink walls of yard sales and crack-addicted neighbors expand like dragons’ stomachs into child-like fantasy:
Nobody else comes by for several hours, so Anita and I make up a game. It’s called ‘Swamp in the Belly’ and it involves walking very slowly from one side of the street to the other. Whoever walks the slowest wins. It isn’t easy. If you think it’s easy, it isn’t. It requires focus. It requires stamina, both physical and spiritual. What fucks you up is your wretched gut, making you lose your temper. It isn’t easy.
We are inside the mind of someone losing control—of her own body, of her own head. “My period doesn’t announce itself anymore. My body is living the life of a stranger’s,” she says, and we are there with her, when she begins to blend, we are with her when the lens becomes unfocussed, when she asks, Who is me, and who is she? The unnamed roommate notices it, “Can anyone help you, she asks,” and in that way—from the distance afforded by her perspective—she makes it real.
Here at the end, the Barbie pony Banzhaf sets up on the narrator’s broken TV in the first pages has returned. Contrary to what the narrator might have expected—what you might have expected—the unnamed roommate is the one doing the leaving and she is the one doing the bargaining. She is the one asking for the plastic pony, she’s the one who wants to hold on a little longer, and she’s not naïve, she’s just caught between two universes. The last page of Pony Castle, where the relationship between the narrator and Anita is fully turned on its head, reveals the dream. And here, for once, it is best to end with the end: “It wasn’t that we didn’t try. It was just that we wanted to feel more like water lilies. It was just that we wanted to feel more like water lilies on a Chinese lagoon.”
Carolyn DeCarlo is an American writer whose heart resides in New Zealand. She is the author of Strawberry Hill (Pangur Ban Party 2013) and Green Place (Enjoy Journal 2015), and co-author of Twilight Zone (NAP 2013) and Bound: An Ode to Falling in Love (Compound Press 2014), with Jackson Nieuwland. Recent work appears in or is forthcoming from Deluge, Turbine, LEFT, Sweet Mammalian, PANK, Heavy Feather Review, The Fanzine, and West Wind Review.