I. you are going to a Danish pastry down on Jung-gu road to sell your soul to the devil itself no one’s seen you will clutch your handbag once filled with perfumes and lotions full of cards of queens kings you do not recognize how upset you would be when the royalties can not accept your only gift as it withered and is wearing the helm of Hades that you wish existed
II. it is everywhere the steel-colored smoke you are afraid feel it yet you can sense the heat from its strong arms grasping you it weaves you through the silken thread of your mother’s hanbok lying in the cold basement floor you are a puppet body controlled by the gods above performing a dance arms flowing timelessly a nightgown hollowing into a ghostly figure as the wind’s talon digs its life out you do not know until your hand meets the ghost dissipating from your touch
III. you are suspended in the bowl you call time one minute you are moving next you are plunging endlessly on the rotting wood below your pupils will dilate remain unblinking a clear sky on your scicera you are not crying you are not for your tears are gone and your mouth is burning in the air conditioned room
IV. when you first hear the news you will laugh for its absurdity but then frown upon saying it is not a matter you should joke about while praising the rather authentic cries you will hear the heavy silence a weight tied to your neck dragging you down as voices are not spoken as you will not hear the “how did you know” and the “that was pretty good, right?” only the unspoken words dead on the phone
V. your eyes will be bloodshot but hands pale you can not breathe as your mouth lets out a coarse melody without notes or a beat an alarm to the graves — to the tombstones down below your vision is distorted and your hands are shaking are they
VI. you are stuck in bed because the blankets have imprisoned you embodied you they have made you a mansion without a door to leave thirty-six hours in bed and you have not yet slept for the dreams will reflect the pain in the eyes framed in your sunken mask as though one scooped ice cream off your cheeks for there will be no one to wake you up the next morning only a shadow of the urn on your desk
did you know that when you are bitten by a snake a drop of that yellow tinted liquid can clot your blood before you speak let you fall onto the floor eyes wide open Staring at the blood leaking from the bite you’ll be helpless alright your group of empty-headed friends will do you no good so you will need this cure
Remedy for a non-venomous snake bite
1. Pick the greenest of all herbs straight from your garden: yerba buena, echinacea angustifolia, tanacetum parthenium, echinacea and feverfew
2. One although flower discarded leaves shaped like petals with a layer of translucent over the clover-colored film
3. Mash them up until it is now a dark green, much like when eyeshadow your only friend scribbled on her eyelid before running off to the girl she fell in love with 4. Slice the limb of the aloe plant growing next to the woven welcome! mat now hidden under the coffee colored dirt 5. Remove the slimy substance inside 6. And crush it until it is merely a slightly transparent liquid, color of her tears running through the thick layer of foundation when her mother told her of her disgrace 7. Mix the two substances until you hands are sore, like her legs when her parents dragged her up the mountain so she could confess her sins to the metal statue
You will end up with a green paste You will not use it For with or without the paste You will be left with a scar you will hide
Juheon (Julie) Rhee is a 14-year-old student and is currently attending International School Manila. During her free time, she enjoys reading Agatha Christie’s mysteries and hanging out with her friends. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in K’in Literary Journal, Indolent Books, Heritage Review, 580 Split, deLuge Literary and Arts Journal, and has been recognized by Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.
Adrienne lay on the floor of her apartment, thinking that her life had become what she wanted it to be, when her phone began to ring. Sophia sat next to her, cross-legged, with a glass of wine, flipping flashcards and nodding when Adrienne said the right answer. Grassy late-April air drifted through the open window and the sound of crickets came to a swell outside. Neither Adrienne nor Sophia reached for the phone, letting the sound of fluttering bells continue. ……. As she put down the last card in the stack, Sophia said, “Crazy that you’re studying for this.” ……. “Maybe,” Adrienne laughed, picking up her phone. She didn’t recognize the caller, but it was an area number, so she answered it, still laughing. ……. “Hello?” ……. “Hi, is this Adrienne Perry?” It was a man’s voice. ……. “Yeah?” ……. “This is Emmanuel Barnett, the chair of the English department.” ……. “Professor Barnett, hi,” Adrienne said. “I’m sorry, is there something wrong? I wasn’t expecting a phone call.” Sophia looked at Adrienne, head cocked to one side. Adrienne opened her mouth and shook her head. ……. “I apologize for calling so late—I hope I’m not bothering you.” ……. “No—not at all.” Adrienne’s mind shuffled through a catalogue of possibilities. She didn’t complete all the proper credits, she plagiarized, she couldn’t graduate, she accidentally sent her nudes to the listserv, someone died and it was her fault. ……. “There’s a situation that has recently arisen regarding Professor Avery, who I understand is your thesis advisor.” ……. “Oh,” she said. ……. “The department has received a complaint about unprofessional behavior.” ……. After a few seconds Adrienne realized that he was waiting for her to say something. ……
.“Okay.” ……. “We’re taking this allegation seriously. We’d like to speak with you. Off the record, if you prefer. We’re just trying to understand the situation.” ……. “The situation?” ……. “We’ll explain more in person. I think that’s best.” ……. Adrienne ran her tongue across her top teeth. ……. “Sure,” she said. “I could come in tomorrow morning. To your office?” ……. “That would be great. How is ten?” ……. “Okay.” ……. “Okay, Adrienne. Then we’ll speak tomorrow. I’ll see you then.” ……. “Alright, bye.” Adrienne wished he hadn’t said her name. She hung up the phone and looked at it, then up at Sophia. ……. “What was that?” Sophia said. ……. Adrienne tried to explain. ……. “Unprofessional behavior? That’s what he called it?” Sophia asked. ……. Adrienne nodded. ……. “Well, it’s definitely sexual harassment,” Sophia said. “I mean, right? What else would it be?” ……. “I don’t know.” ……. “But—well, this is going to sound really stupid. But you didn’t, like, suspect anything, right?” ……. “No. Not at all. I mean, I asked him to be my advisor. He was always appropriate. In every way. Don’t you think I would have said something if he hadn’t been?” ……. “Yeah, no. Of course. I don’t doubt you.” ……. “And we’re speculating. We don’t even know what the allegation is, let alone whether it’s credible at all.” Adrienne stared at Sophia, who held her gaze for a second before looking at her hands. ……. They decided to watch television. Sitting on the couch, her knees pulled up, Adrienne cleaned under her fingernails until the ends were pristine and white and, inspecting her thumb, she bit at the stray skin of a hangnail. When she finished, she held up her hand and admired her work. ……. The next morning Adrienne showered. When the fog on the mirror cleared, she put on makeup and watched herself in the mirror, turning her face to its best and sharpest angle and practicing mild reactions. She wore her hair in a ponytail that flicked across her shoulders when she turned her head. On the walk across campus, she smiled at people she knew because she had her big sunglasses on, the ones that Sophia said made her look intimidating. On the ground were the pink petals of cherry blossoms, crushed little tongues lining the curb. ……. It was the Friday of reading week, and so there weren’t many people around. Most students wouldn’t start filling the libraries until Sunday. There were a few people on the lawn playing frisbee, looking like paid actors. Adrienne watched them, and as she did she realized her time in college felt like a discrete event in her life, something that had happened some time ago. ……. Adrienne pulled open the wooden doors of the English building and thought for a second that she should compose herself in the bathroom but then realized she didn’t really need to. Inside, Adrienne’s shoes on the tile were the only sound in the hallway, which made things feel unnecessarily ominous. ……. Professor Barnett’s office had high ceilings and windows that looked over a memorial garden for a student who had died in a car accident a few years earlier. Adrienne had been in the office before, when Barnett had called her in to congratulate her for receiving a prestigious research grant. When Adrienne knocked he came to the door, stepped aside and motioned for her to sit on the green velvet sofa. He smiled like he was sorry. He probably was. There was a woman sitting in one of the armchairs, frowning. She held her phone in one hand and dragged her pointer finger across the screen. On her chest sat a large necklace. Barnett shut the door behind Adrienne. ……. “Thank you for coming,” he said. “This is Maura Rollins, from the Title IX Affairs Office, which deals with these sorts of situations.” ……. The woman looked up and put her phone in her purse. Adrienne smiled at both of them as she sat opposite on the sofa. “It’s no problem,” she said. ……. “This is obviously not an easy conversation to have,” Barnett continued. “And we want you to feel comfortable and safe telling us anything. Obviously, you are not in any kind of trouble.” ……. “Okay.” ……. “Professor Avery, who I understand you know quite well, having had him as your advisor this past semester and having conducted research for him throughout your time here—several students have come to us expressing discomfort—that his conduct with them was inappropriate.” ……. Adrienne nodded. ……. “And as you might have heard by now—I know how information can spread around here—we wanted to give students the opportunity to come to us. We reached out to you because we know your relationship with Professor Avery was particularly close.” ……. “I understand.” Adrienne crossed her legs. Maura Rollins did too, and Adrienne wondered if this was a tactic. Adrienne bit her lip—thoughtful, like someone in a screenplay—and inhaled.
“The truth is I never experienced anything I would call inappropriate,” she said. “I don’t know exactly what the allegations are. I suppose you can’t tell me?” ……. “Unfortunately, no. It’s confidential. Out of respect—for the accusers.” The meeting wasn’t long because Adrienne didn’t have much to say. She talked about Professor Avery, who she accidentally called by just his last name a few times, as she normally would. She had taken his class on British Poetry her sophomore year. He called her essays “profound” and her comments “astute,” and she relished the praise, and began going to office hours without much reason at all. He told her department gossip that he shouldn’t have, and she knew she was his favorite. He talked about his wife, who was a professor in the biology department, and Adrienne would often imagine their dinnertime conversations and what type of wine they drank, or wonder whether they had satisfying sex. Adrienne didn’t say all of this. She wasn’t groomed one way or the other. She said that Avery was impressed with her writing, and that he asked if she would be interested in helping him with his forthcoming book. Then, at the beginning of her senior year, she asked him to advise her thesis, which he had called “ambitious.” ……. While Adrienne spoke, Maura Rollins wrote things down in a notebook. She wrote in a tight, quick scrawl and periodically shifted her hand across the paper like a machine on an assembly line. Her pen ran out of ink at some point and she made a few frustrated scribbles on the paper before reaching into her purse for a replacement. Barnett asked questions in euphemisms. He seemed to be pressing for something, but eventually he knew he had wrung Adrienne dry. Adrienne looked out the window and then back at him, and that was all. ……. When she got home Sophia was spreading peanut butter on a bagel. Sophia looked up and took out her headphones. “How did it go?” ……. Adrienne opened a drawer to grab a spoon. She dug it into the jar of peanut butter and pried it out, and the spoon bent a little at its neck. “Fine. I didn’t have much to say.” ……. “Who was there?” ……. “Professor Barnett and some woman from the Title IX office.” Adrienne sat on one of the kitchen stools. ……. “What did they ask?” ……. “They just wanted to know if I knew anything,” Adrienne said, licking the peanut butter off the spoon, coating her tongue smooth. ……. Sophia nodded. She washed her dishes, singing bits of songs and making a little sound of annoyance when the water got too hot. Adrienne took out her phone and read Twitter for a few minutes. Once she tasted only the spoon’s slick metal, she held it in her mouth suctioned to her tongue. ……. “Did you tell them about me?” Sophia said, breaking off her hum. ……. Adrienne took the spoon out of her mouth. “About you?” ……. “Yeah.” ……. “No,” Adrienne said. “Why would I?” Sophia had never met Avery. ……. “Maybe it makes sense that whatever Avery was doing he wouldn’t do to you.” ……. “I didn’t think it was relevant.” ……. “I just mean that you wouldn’t be, like, an outlier. If you’re the student he was closest with, and you never suspected anything. Maybe he didn’t try anything because he knew you were gay.” ……. Adrienne looked at Sophia for a moment. ……. “Or maybe he didn’t try anything because he never did with anyone.” ……. Sophia jumped. “I knew it. You’re taking his side.” ……. “God, Sophia. I’m not taking sides. I only know what I know.” ……. “You’re an Avery apologist.” ……. “Did you just coin that term?” Adrienne stood and dropped her spoon in the sink. ……. “It’ll be a thing.” ……. “Fuck you.” ……. “You don’t get to abandon all your principles just because someone you like was accused of something.” …… “You understand how the real world works, right? Life isn’t one big political statement.” ……. “You sound like a Republican.” ……. Adrienne walked out of the kitchen and into her bedroom, closing the door behind her. She knew she had some time before Sophia would decide to either apologize or demand an apology. Alone, Adrienne looked around her room to calm herself down. Stuck to the walls around her, propped on her dresser, arranged on her desk, was the paraphernalia of her life. She collected things from the world: triangular rocks in a line on her windowsill, four leaf clovers pressed flat inside act three, scene two in her paperback Othello. She kept bird feathers in a plastic bag in her desk drawer. When Adrienne noticed things, plucked them from obscurity, and ordered them, she gave them value. ……. Avery was forty-three. He had gone to Brown, and when he talked about it Adrienne could tell he had done a bunch of drugs there. He had had his fun. Now he was reformed, an intellectual. Wore thin ties and Doc Martens, assigned Audre Lorde, referred to his wife as his partner. ……. Adrienne was proud of how articulate she was around him. Words fell out of her mouth and once they were in the air she listened to them and thought, okay, that’s what I sound like. Okay. She liked the way Avery squinted at her and nodded, and sometimes opened his mouth to say something but was so taken by the twists in her conversational logic that he would just sit back in his leather chair and nod, and when she was finally finished he would tell her she was really quite something. ……. They talked about graduation sometimes, what real life would be like. Avery said he was happiest when he was thirty-one. When he was thirty-two he got married, but that wasn’t why he wasn’t as happy, he had said. Avery had succeeded in the way that Adrienne knew people didn’t anymore. Things fell into his lap. He was a staff writer at a print magazine at twenty-four. The world had pushed and pulled him into the right station, where he could be wild then tame, drifting then settled, just as people like him were meant to be, and everyone loved him for it. Now there were too many people funneling for the same thing, you couldn’t count on anything to get you anywhere, it was all a game of strings to pull and cards to flip. ……. Last fall, in his office. The tree outside was the yellowest on campus and in the wind its wet leaves stuck and unstuck to the window. Books stacked horizontally and vertically on the bookshelf, more on the desk. Adrienne’s umbrella leaned against the wall by the door, dripping into a small puddle on the wooden floor. She wore a turtleneck. ……. “There’s not enough time for anything,” she had said. “If we’re hurtling toward environmental disaster, how are we supposed to try for anything? Or want things? None of it’s worthwhile. And it’s all really selfish, too. Who am I to feel like this? When have I ever suffered? You know? And the absolute worst thing about all my problems is that none of them even matter, like, at all.” …… Adrienne wondered where Avery was right now and if he was afraid his career was over. Maybe it was. She thought about the plants on the windowsill of his office. Two small cacti in glass pots, prickly bodies, a visible web of white roots. A fiddle leaf fig tree, waxy, beaming. Was someone watering them? It seemed unfair that they should die too. Not that any of it mattered. But she still wondered. …….s In her bedroom Adrienne could hear music coming from the outside, periodic shouts. She looked out at a girl laughing so hard she leaned on her friend like she might melt. They were having a barbecue, celebrating not having to care for a day. Adrienne really didn’t have anything to do, but she didn’t want to leave her room and run into Sophia so she propped up her pillows on her bed and typed up some notes for her exam next week. …….s She was copying lecture outlines when she received a text from her mom, asking about lunch reservations on the day before graduation. Adrienne had planned everything. Her parents were going to meet Sophia’s parents for the first time at a restaurant downtown and pretend to have things in common over plates of hummus. But now Adrienne’s uncle wanted to bring his new girlfriend, so she called the restaurant and changed the reservation for one more person. …….s Her focus lost in open tabs on her computer, Adrienne checked her email. There was one new message in her inbox sent a few hours before. Subject line: Interview Inquiry, from a name she knew in a friend-of-a-friend kind of way. The little skip her brain did at any notification died as her mind computed pixels into words into semantics into the understanding that the school newspaper knew about Avery and her name was inevitably attached to his. She opened the email and saw what she expected: the tired polite words of student journalism, the assurance that victims could stay anonymous. …….s She didn’t reply to the email. Adrienne knew that anything she said would calcify into search-engine results later on, and she also knew that anonymity was impossible, laughable. She sat on the edge of her bed and looked around. She stood up and looked at her reflection in the mirror, not because she cared how she looked, but because she wanted to understand what people saw when they looked at her. Up close, looking into her own eyes, she noticed a few zits and she squeezed them. …….s The concept of outside was overwhelming, but staying inside felt pathetic, so Adrienne decided to go for a run. She put on a sports bra and shorts and running shoes and wore headphones and listened to music she knew she liked. This would be good, she thought. A healthy thing to do. But when she had run just two blocks she saw a classmate from Avery’s class sophomore year. She didn’t have time to turn around so she just nodded at him and he gave her a pretty normal reaction but she couldn’t be sure. After she passed him she grew anxious and each person she passed after she felt like was whispering or thinking about her, or was on their phone to text their friend, hey guess who i just saw? Everyone knew and was in on the same joke, winking at each other in the blind carbon copy thread. Or at least they would be soon. Adrienne turned around and ran home. …….s When she got back to the apartment, Sophia was sitting on the couch painting her toenails orange. …….s “Hi,” Sophia said, without looking up. …….s “Hi.” Adrienne was out of breath and sweating. …….s “Can we talk?” Sophia said, screwing the cap back on the bottle. …….s “I was about to shower.” …….s Sophia got up from the couch and walked over to Adrienne’s doorway, her toes lifted from the carpet. “I’m sorry that this happened to you,” she said. ……. “Nothing happened to me.” …… “I’m just saying, I know he meant a lot to you. That this can’t be easy.” ……. “He’s not dead,” Adrienne said. “You make it sound like he’s dead.” ……. “Adrienne, he took advantage of his students. It was wrong.” ……. “I need to shower.” ……. “Can I kiss you, at least?” ……. “No. Sorry. It’s just that I’m gross right now.” ……. Adrienne didn’t linger. She walked to the bathroom to shower and opened Facebook while the water was heating up. Once the page loaded, her first thought was that the algorithm had worked, because at the top of her feed was the article. They must have wanted to publish as soon as they could. They really didn’t need Adrienne, anyway. ……. Avery’s professional face smiled up at Adrienne from her phone. He looked smug, she thought, for the first time. He just had that sort of face. She didn’t click the article yet. She scrolled down to see what the comments said. Most were negative, from former students expressing disappointment in the university administration. She scrolled further and saw that a few friends had shared the article. She saw Sophia’s name there, without any additional comment. Adrienne wished she would cry but her mind went back to the graduation lunch. ……. The shower ran hot for a while and Adrienne stepped in without testing the temperature. She washed and rinsed, then turned the shower off and twisted her hair until it didn’t drip anymore. When she toweled off she realized she was still overheated and sweating from her run. She walked naked to her room, shut the door, sat on her bed, and skimmed the article on her laptop. In it, there was a link to another article on Avery’s research on nineteenth-century novel manuscripts, in which Adrienne’s name was mentioned. ……. She was quoted in that article: “It was really rewarding to work with Professor Avery. I’ve learned so much, and I feel prepared to take these skills and apply them to my own research.” ……. Adrienne looked up from her laptop. In the dim afternoon, and with her shades drawn, her room was dark. In the mirror hanging from her door she saw herself illuminated by the computer’s bluish light. Her hair was tangled and messy and her skin still blotchy pink. ……. Adrienne knew that this blip in her life would eventually be fine and forgotten. She was barely a witness to something barely exceptional. But it would always be there. Even once she graduated and moved to a new city and walked new routes and talked to new strangers, she would still think about this one thing sometimes and each time she did she would feel a thin fire of shame just beneath her skin. She wanted clean, deliberate lines. She wanted to trace in ink and erase the pencil underneath and hold her work in the light and nod, thinking: Yes, this is exactly how I wanted it.
Caroline Curran is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying English and creative writing. She is from Alexandria, Virginia and plans to move to Los Angeles after graduation. She’s currently working on a collection of short stories and a screenplay.
I have a mother who once said car, lake, who said, I couldn’t stand holding your sticky hands any longer, who said, I found a lake deep enough.
I am blessing myself on the phone
with the life insurance company.
I am blessing myself listening
to Muzak. I am blessing myself
because I have a mother who
bought a life insurance policy on my
wee head, because I have a mother
who made herself beneficiary.
She told me the ways she thought
I could die: top of stairs, quick fling
of small body. The road, how easy
to leave me behind.
And I am blessing myself speaking
to the customer service representative,
blessing myself at the notary public,
faxing over documents. And I am blessing
myself at the post office, licking
the stamp. Bless me. Bless my white matter,
my skull not cracked. My neck never broke,
my lung sacs full of air. I am blessing myself
because she has not. I am blessing
myself because who else will? I am blessing
myself because, most nights, I still want to be held
by a mother, and that never goes away.
Sherine Elise Gilmour graduated with an MFA in Poetry from New York University. She was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming from Glass: A Journal of Poetry, So To Speak, SWWIM, Third Coast, Tinderbox, and other publications.
After we order the chicken for two, I run a theory by my friend Lois: certain professions are more conducive to being good spouses than others. I’m not referring to practical considerations here, like the wear and tear a surgeon’s hours (both long and unpredictable) will inflict on her marriage. Rather, the same qualities that make people good at certain jobs make them decent spouses. “Architects, for instance,” I say, “like me. We need to be meticulous, we need imagination and long-range vision. Looking at a building pared to drywall and studs, we picture the pristine home it will become. We gravitate to the fixer-upper.”
What I don’t say—but Lois knows what I am thinking, because I intend her to—is that I am married to the converse: someone whose job primes him to be a crappy husband. Curt is a food critic. A good food critic, like my husband, is the ideological opposite to the architect. Instead of seeing things through the rosy glow of potential, Curt sees flaws. He’s like the boy Kay in the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Snow Queen,” who gets a splinter of cursed glass stuck in his eye that makes everything grotesque. When Kay looks at a rose, he sees the slick, black bug crawling on the stem.
Also: a food critic is motivated to discover the next shiny thing. The new restaurant is the one suffused with a honey glow.
I used to imagine myself as Curt’s favorite restaurant, where we still go once a year and always order the same thing, where Lois and I are eating now. More specifically, I would imagine myself as a particular dish at his favorite restaurant: roast chicken, served with bread salad, black currants, and pine nuts. You have to order the chicken as soon as you sit down—there’s a note about this on the menu—because it takes fifty minutes to cook. It roasts at 500 degrees in a cast iron skillet. I know this because I bought their cookbook this summer, so I could make the chicken myself. I burned my hand lifting the skillet from the oven.
But it’s Lois here with me today, not Curt, because Curt is in Bologna. Bologna has the best food in Italy. Married to a food critic, I thought this was a universally known fact, though Lois is clearly surprised to hear it, after she asks, so casually, “Why Bologna?”
This makes me consider which other facts I consider universally known are not, and then which facts other people know that I would be equally surprised to learn. For instance, Lois just told me, assuming this is something that everyone knows, that only 15% of used clothes are donated to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. The rest become landfill. “Didn’t you know?” she says, perfect eyebrows arched. I’m at a loss to explain my horror is not just about the waste. Suddenly the world is full of knowledge that I am not privy to, and learning this knowledge will only make my world darker.
This feeling is so oppressive that I almost lose my appetite for the roast chicken and bread salad that I once believed represented me, the dish my husband would always rank first.
I’ve bullied Lois into ordering the chicken and bread salad, since the restaurant will only serve it to two people or more. Lois mostly avoids meat. I watch her pick at her chicken thigh and feel guilty, despite having every right to manipulate her.
Lois writes grants for nonprofits. She thinks this makes her a good person.
“So, what are you going to do all week while Curt’s in Bologna?” Lois asks.
“Work. See my friends,” I say. “And,” I hesitate, because I didn’t plan to say this next part. I consider reasons to disclose, reasons to withhold. It’s like an imaginary house I am building and dismantling. I hesitate for so long Lois repeats, “And?”
“And, I’m going to get my eggs frozen.” Lois’s eyes are her most beautiful feature, black and moist as olives. They widen. “I thought you didn’t want children?”
I’m almost certain Lois is having an affair with Curt. But I am willing to see Lois with an architect’s eye, and imagine as I look at her, her plum-colored lipstick mostly rubbed off, her lips shiny from the chicken skin that she only reluctantly eats, that Lois is having regrets. She feels guilty for betraying me. She suspects Curt is a pain in the ass, finicky and difficult to satisfy, and she could find a better man who would cause considerably less trouble and stress.
“Curt doesn’t want children,” I say. Lois bites her greasy lip. I watch her set down her fork with its chunk of bread salad, its dainty, impaled currant.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source (2019) was published by 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her story “Madlib” was selected for Best Small Fictions 2019 (Sonder Press). Her story “Surfaces” was selected for Wigleaf‘s Top 50 2019. She is the Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. See more at www.kimmagowan.com.
UMBRELLAS COULD HAVE BRAINS
Paintings by Serge Lecomte
The real world for me is a mix of images where two realities or more cross. Take two known objects and connect them in some other way. As a teen I saw the paintings by Hieronymus Bosch and was taken by the surreal world he envisioned. The world was never the same for me after that. Images were no longer meant to stagnate in their inert state. Rocks weren’t simply rocks. They could become loaves of bread. And fish could turn into young maidens. Leaves on a tree could turn into birds and vice versa. And umbrellas could have brains. After all, they have to open and close.
Words have always inspired images to me. I began my career as a poet and novelist. Then one day, I quit writing because I thought painting would be a better way of expressing ideas. But the words I paint become transformed into images that may not represent a definition for the words. It’s all about connections in my mind, although I hope I can connect with my viewer.
I love loud colors and adore the Fauvists because of their use of bright and pure (unmixed) colors. Color, shape and space are very important for me.
I don’t see myself repeating what others have done. I don’t believe in smearing paint and calling it abstract art. That movement is gone. I paint because I am addicted to painting and enjoy the creative process, even in gardening or making jam. Ever had papaya preserves with walnuts? Pretty surreal. Enjoy.
[click any image to enlarge]
Balancing Act I recalled Charlie Chaplin in the movie The Circus where he was on a high wire while several monkeys are jumping on him. I imagined him flipping upside down. The picture stuck in my mind. And so, I painted a man walking upside down helped in the air by butterflies.
Barrier This picture is the story of war about to begin. Barriers, walls, frontiers prevent people from coming together.
Free as a Bird Everything in this painting is free, except the man’s head in the cage. But I’m sure he thinks he’s as free as a bird in spite of the cage.
Gott mit uns (God is on our side) It was originally inspired by a WWI belt buckle I saw when I met a German soldier in Philadelphia in 1960. The inscription “Gott mit uns” also appears on Nazi belt buckles. The words make no sense to me, but neither did the Crusades. And then there’s Mark Twain’s short story, “The War Prayer.” My painting came into being from words.
Little Man This painting was born from Alfonsina Storni’s poem, Hombre pequeñito.
Hombre pequeñito, hombre pequeñito, Suelta a tu canario que quiere volar… Yo soy el canario, hombre pequeñito, déjame saltar.
Estuve en tu jaula, hombre pequeñito, hombre pequeñito que jaula me das. Digo pequeñito porque no me entiendes, ni me entenderás.
Tampoco te entiendo, pero mientras tanto ábreme la jaula que quiero escapar; hombre pequeñito, te amé media hora, no me pidas más.
Little little man, little little man, set free your canary that wants to fly. I am that canary, little little man, leave me to fly.
I was in your cage, little little man, little little man who gave me my cage. I say “little little” because you don’t understand me, nor will you understand.
Nor do I understand you, but meanwhile, open for me the cage from which I want to escape. Little little man, I loved you half an hour, don’t ask me again.
It’s Raining Salmon Having lived in Alaska for almost 40 years, salmon was on my table on a daily basis. The image recurs in my works in different fashions, sometimes as a head on a human body. Painting salmon in different poses is as if I were changing recipes. In Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore there is a downpour of fish.
Salt of the Earth This picture was inspired by Toni Morisson’s The Beloved in which Sethe murders her child so that it would not know slavery. I embedded the face on the shore of the river.
The Waiting Room The coffin is a waiting room, perhaps a place where the soul will one day awaken or not. In spite of death as a theme, there is also life in the tree fed by our decay. I remember Madame Bovary in which Lestiboudois, the cemetery caretaker, plants potatoes in the graveyard. Nothing like having fresh compost to nourish the spuds.
Zizi et Kiki au Café (Cute names for male and female sexual appendages in French) First date over coffee isn’t about a cup of Java. Zizi obviously has the hots for Kiki, but her mouth is a Venus flytrap. I leave that one to your imagination.
I was born in Belgium. We came to the States where I spent my teens in South Philly. I went to Wagner Jr. High and attended Olney and Roxborough High Schools. I then moved to Brooklyn. After graduating from Tilden High School I worked for New York Life Insurance Company, then joined the Medical Corps in the Air Force and was sent to Selma, AL, during the Civil Rights Movement. There I was a crew member on helicopter rescue. I earned a BA in Russian Studies from the University of Alabama and an MA and PhD from Vanderbilt University in Russian Literature with a minor in French Literature. I worked as a Green Beret language instructor at Fort Bragg, NC, from 1975-78. In 1988 I earned a BA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in Spanish Literature and went on to work as a language teacher at the University of Alaska (1978-1997).
I was the poetry editor for Paper Radio for several years. I have worked as a house builder, pipe-fitter, orderly in a hospital, gardener, landscaper, driller for an assaying company, bartender in one of Fairbanks’ worst bars, and other jobs. I resided on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska for 15 years and recently moved to Bellingham, WA.
The fiery fist above slowly loses its hold ………….and the musky lungs of autumn grow dry.
At last, fall staggers and drops upon the rattling grass ………….breaking the arched back of summer.
Charms tumble from its pockets like loose change ………….and glisten on yellowing fields of dew.
Now there’s lead in the leaves, and the birds ………….reconcile their wings with hostile winds.
As nights grow longer, between the sheets ………….the nearing cold grips and turns us inward.
And there—inside the gray bones of morning— ………….we tally things most dear.
John Middlebrook lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he manages a consulting firm focused on non-profit organizations. John has been writing since he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, where he served on the staff of Chicago Review. His poetry has appeared in publications including the Tidal Basin Review, Cleaver Magazine, and the Wilderness House Literary Review. John’s home on the web is here.
When I come home from school, Papa is pruning the roses. His back hunched, an oval of sweat creasing his white shirt that la Señora Francisca had pressed this morning. He isn’t wearing the gardening gloves that Mama bought him because he insists that it doesn’t let him talk to the roses. They can only hear him through his skin and the rough canvas of the gloves offends their delicate temperament.
I watch him as he goes from stem to stem, and snaps up the flowers. Even the buds, shy against the noon-day sun go tumbling into his hands and are tucked into his basket. I frown. “Papi, what are you doing?”
He scowls. “It’s them,” he says and he jerks his chin to the concrete wall blocking us from the facility next door. It’s a home, the only one in the province, for the viejitos whose children are too selfish to keep them in their houses. “They keep taking them.”
I follow his gaze to the wall. His roses have a mind of their own—they always have—and they’ve pushed through the concrete, their thorns cutting ribbons into the gray scrape of the wall and the buds blooming out of the holes their stems created like bubbles bursting. When Papa cuts them at the base of the head, they weep golden sap onto your palms. If you drink it, Papa says, you can extend your life by months. But it’s an empty promise. Time that can’t be spent except in sadness, your tears sticky like the sap of the flower.
I leave Papa to his task and take myself inside. La Señora Francisca is in the kitchen with a bag of shrimp. She has two bowls in front of her and, one by one, she takes the shrimp from the bag, rips off its tiny head, slides a thumb under its shell and pushes off the hard exterior into one bowl, and puts its frail shrimp torso in the other. I offer to help her and she looks up from her task, a smile on her lips, before waving me off to watch TV or do homework.
It is a silly offer, a private joke between us, because I cannot touch the food. My fingers carry poison like the spindle in Sleeping Beauty’s loom. When I was little, I fed the canaries my father kept in a cage in our backyard. It was a Sunday and I had watched my father pull their feed out from the laundry room to fill their bowl. I buried my hand in the same sack of grain and pulled out a handful, carried it to the canaries singing in chorus. By morning the next day, they were all dead. My father had to burn the feed.
Papa comes in at dinner time to the smell of fried shrimp and yellow rice. La Señora Francisca is just pulling the sweet plantains off the skillet and placing them on a paper towel-covered plate to soak up the oil when Papa takes off his boots by the door and changes into his house slippers. He smells like soil and sweat-tainted cologne. “Did you get all the roses?” I ask.
His brows come down, make a V on his forehead. “For now.”
The roses grow fast. They have the conviction of a much less delicate flower. Tomorrow, Papa will have to cut them all over again after he gets home from work, but by then the viejitos could have taken them.
The next morning, I am walking out the front door when I see a woman bent over one of Papa’s rose bushes. She has white hair and a long blue dress that covers her like a sack. Her arms tremble as she tugs on the head of one of the roses and, when it snaps and the syrupy ichor starts to spill, she bends her body down slowly to lick it up.
“Señora!” I call, “Get out!” I feel strange, having never said those words to an older person. My tone sounds wrong and I can’t figure out what to do with my hands besides wrap them around my backpack straps.
She turns back to me and gives me a smile, her teeth dripping gold. “You have so many,” she says and holds up the bloom she tore. “Why can’t you just spare one?”
I don’t know how to tell her that it isn’t worth the effort. That she’s better off with the time she has left and that borrowed time will only make the end that much worse.
But I don’t have the authority to make it sound real so I clench my fists instead. “I’m going to tell my Papa.” Papa is a towering man with an empty holster at his belt that does most of the job that his gun—tucked away in a locked toolbox in his truck—would do. I wish he were standing beside me so the woman could understand my threat.
I don’t have to worry. Her face falls and a drip of sap leaks from the side of her mouth as she hustles out of our yard, to the front gate, and out onto the sidewalk. I watch her backside swish under her dress, her age bearing down on her like a thickly woven blanket.
Mama has only pins and needles on her tongue for me when I come in the house. “Put your backpack away, Aniscia! Y tu tarea? Ay, niña, look at those shoes. Have you been tramping through mud?” She is a flurry around me, yanking off one thing after the next and shooing me off into the shower. When I spot a bowl of pear slices on the kitchen table, I reach for one and she slaps my hand away. “Toma,” she says and pops the pieces in my mouth, her manicured nails scraping my skin.
At dinner, Papa is a tempest. He blows in the front door and slams into his chair, rattling the tea cup with his espresso. “They’ve done it again.” Mama purses her lips and sips at her water. “They rip them, tear at them, their blood soaks the thorns,” he shakes and I can hear the grind of his teeth. “No me respetan.”
I sit up straighter in my seat, look at Papa with an anger I hope matches his. “I saw one of them this morning. She came into the yard.”
He slams a fist onto the table and it sets off his place mat. “That’s it. Ven, Aniscia,” Papa stands up and wraps a hand around my wrist. I scurry to keep up with his pace and tumble out of my seat, my feet skipping under me to stop me from falling.
Outside, the sun is sitting low in the sky and the mosquitoes pounce on me as soon as I’m out the door. Papa swats at them as he leads me to the tea roses—his favorites—and points. “Touch them. All of them.”
I shake my head. It doesn’t count, it’s not food, but Papa reads my mind because he crosses his arms. “If they want to eat, let them eat.”
I don’t want to argue with Papa. I don’t want to think of the viejitos falling to the ground like the canaries. I run across the yard as fast as I can with my hands outstretched. By the end of it, I’m covered in beads of red where the thorns have pricked my skin, a bite reminding me they don’t want this any more than I do.
The next morning I wake to the sound of hushed voices in the kitchen. Papa’s baritone and Mama’s alto toying a line between a quiet song and the hiss of a snake. “It’s their own fault. I’m not responsible for an old woman trying to cheat death and failing,” Papa says.
Mama’s anger, cutting crisp in her consonants. “El veneno fue tuyo.”
“And what am I supposed to do?”
“End this madness.”
I hear the click of her heels and huff of air that sounds like Papa’s, then the door to the house, with its distinct, heavy kuTUM, slams shut.
I see Papa when I’m heading off to school later, the knees of his slacks sunk deep into the grass and his back in a hunch that I recognize as something like defeat. The yard is empty, brown circles of solemn soil where creeping stems once flowed into nature’s vainest beauty. Piles of uprooted roses lay in Papa’s basket. “Where are you putting them?” I ask.
A twitch in my chest and I think about the part of me that lives in them now, the small bit of venom I passed into each of them that they carry like a shield. Would it waste away as they sat at the bottom of the trashcan? Or would it poison everything they touched like a plague?
I think about taking them from the trash in the night, after Papa has gone to bed, and replanting them. I could claim that he left some part of the root and they fought to come back to the surface. But I don’t have Papa’s hands. The roses would never grow the same—or worse, they would wilt in plain sight without the dignity of privacy. They would be bodies buried upright. Papa’s garden would be a graveyard.
I squeeze Papa’s shoulder instead. He places a hand atop mine, his callouses rough against the baby hairs of my fingers. Tomorrow he will plant bougainvilleas, he says, and he will let them crest and trough as they please and they will be less headstrong, he thinks. More temperate.
I picture them now. They lie low to the ground like a hound and blanket the concrete wall in a tuft of color, shades of pinks and purples glinting off the sun, eagerly crowding each other. They have that vague, lovely scent of flower that fades as soon as you’ve smelled it and, underneath it all, the near-distant memory of roses.
Andrea Ellis-Perez is lots of things, but mostly she is a writer of several published stories, an MFA student at Stetson University, and a lifelong lover of the stories her mother told her of her childhood in Venezuela. She lives in Florida with her wife and cat and works at the library, where she takes advantage of her proximity to books to read constantly.
He knew how it would be—should have.
Forgetting the keys on the table, ………….doors locked, window’s open, returning ……………………..on a loop of memories ……………………..to finding and un-find ……………………..the forgotten un-begotten.
There was something to be done.
Pilgrimage or errands . . .
Doors and windows.
Roads and stars.
Here in the foyer is the overflow, the detritus ………….from the wedding, birthday, wake.
He wouldn’t know what to say ………….even if he knew these people.
He turns on the lights.
Tries the back yard.
The key fits the road like a feather.
Something. There is to do.
A bird has fallen smoothly …………out of the inconsequential sky, …………begins thrashing in the underbrush.
There he was . . .
……………always unexpected and the rush ……………to apologize, to do something.
And then ………….he let each of us ………………………shake his hand.
Marc Harshman’s Woman in Red Anorak, won the Blue Lynx Poetry Prize and was published in 2018 by Lynx House Press. His fourteenth children’s book, Fallingwater, co-authored with Anna Smucker, was published by Roaring Brook/Macmillan in 2017. He is also co-winner of the 2019 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award. Poems have been anthologized by Kent State University, the University of Iowa, the University of Georgia, and the University of Arizona. Appointed in 2012, he is the seventh poet laureate of West Virginia.
the first step is to love someone who will let you touch their hair. this is very important and cannot be avoided. next, to find them one day in their kitchen, shoulders so tense you think of cliffsides taut with stone—so you take them by the hand, pull them to their living room and sit them on the floor in front of their couch. the couch is soft with love, easy and giving as water. you go to their bathroom and fetch their comb from the coffee mug by the sink. you take a seat. place the comb under your right thigh. then, you tuck their shoulders between your knees, take out hair pins if they’re wearing any, gently tug out rubber bands or hair ties or anything else pulling their hair tight from their skull. don’t start yet with the comb. first you must run your fingers through their hair, careful, so careful not to catch painfully on any snag or tangle. you whisper your fingers through, flicker them softly when you encounter a knot, do your best to pull it apart without yanking at the root. it is not always possible. if you must cause some pain, as sometimes you must, give them warning. a soft, murmured sorry will suffice. consider coconut oil, warmed between your palms, soaked into the roots of their hair like fresh rainfall, pulled lovingly through each strand. when their hair seems softer, their shoulders slacker, the muscles of their neck less prominent and stiff like a royal guard, it is time to take out the comb. here, too, you must be gentle. work slowly, methodically. right to left or left to right. starting always at the root. move slow and sure when there is a tangle, brace the comb against your hand whenever possible so as to spare their scalp. do this for some time. silence is like fresh snow settling on the lonely earth, the shuffle of snowflakes as you work through another snare, the thick, dappled comb glinting with lamplight. even so, they might speak, and you must listen, responding in a low, warm voice whenever appropriate. this is love, you know. this is how you must learn to love. with the patience to sit for however long it takes, the bones in your seat going blunt and numb, your muscles filling with restless thrum. pull the comb through the same section of their hair until it travels smooth and easy and shines with your still effort. you will do this again. you will do this for every section, every strand, you will sit until the work is done. and then, you will press a kiss to the top of their head, you will squeeze their shoulders, and let them walk away.
Uma Dwivedi is a sophomore at Yale University. They’ve been nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Black Warrior Review. Their other publications include Picaroon Poetry, Right Hand Pointing, Broad Recognition, and Third Wednesday. They are a prose editor for Persephone’s Daughters and a poetry reader for Winter Tangerine. Previously, they’ve been a finalist in Write Bloody‘s 2017 manuscript competition, an editorial intern with Scribner, and a poetry mentee with The Adroit Journal. Dancing Girl Press released their first chapbook, They Named Her Goddess (we called her girl), in January of 2019. Catch them watching Winnie the Pooh or the Paddington movies.
AT NIGHT THE WOMAN’S DOORBELL RINGS. IN HER DOORWAY, THE MAN HOLDS HIS DOG IN HIS ARMS.
Is that a dead dog, she says, moving so the man can puncture her otherwise quiet house.
In her living room, the man lowers his dog towards her couch cushion.
Squinting at his whimpering dog, he says, Sartre might die.
The man tucks a nylon blanket under Sartre’s chin. Sartre pants. Sartre ate too much chocolate cake, he says, shifting towards the woman, Thank you for being here. She says, I’m glad you came over. Sorry he got poisoned. His steps pace oddly around her living room. Are you alright, she says. Hugging her bathrobe to her waist, she wanders to the window, where her reflection is foliage, gargled vines.
Pacing in her hallway, he says, It makes me fucking sick, how we all eat, eat until we burst, and I can’t do anything to change it…
THE WOMAN AND THE MAN LIE ON THE MAN’S BED, WATCHING TELEVISION, WHEN SUDDENLY THE MAN LEAPS OFF.
As he begins to kneel on the carpet, the woman says, What are you doing.
The man says, kneeling, I have a question to ask you. She stands, and he stays on his knee.
The man says, Will you move with me to High Plains, Nevada.
A hot pause.
The man says, I’vebeen offered a position at the world famous All-Elvis enclave.
The woman says, Elvis.
The man says, It’s been a life dream to mimic the king.I’m moving to High Plains, where my face will be plastered on television sets across the nation. I want you to come with me.
The woman says, Let me google it.
THE NEXT DAY THE WOMAN MEETS HER AUNT IN A COFFEE SHOP WITH OCHRE STAINS ON THE CEILING. MAKING A FACE AS SHE SIPS HER WATERY COFFEE, HER AUNT ASKS:
So you’re dating that guy who writes perverted love songs about birds. The woman says, I guess you could say that. The TV attached to the wall displays an image of a female’s headless body, oiled, positioned on a dinner plate. An advertisement jingle plays. Her aunt says, Don’t you think it’s a little funny you’re dating an activist. The woman says, I guess so.
The waitress approaches them to ask if they would like anything else; her aunt looks at the woman and says no.
I’m sure you know what you’re doing, her aunt continues, By the way, it looks like I’m about to go through another divorce. Do you have any money I could borrow.A man in a suit enters the coffee shop with blood on his shoes, tracking it as he bumbles over to the register. The woman says, I don’t have access to my university stipend anymore. Plus, I’m moving to High Plains.He got a job at one of those Elvis enclaves.
Her aunt’s face goes slack and she hesitates,You should probably follow him there.She sniffs. Well anyways I’ve got to get going. These lawyer checks won’t write themselves, and unlike you I don’t have an Elvis Impersonator for a boyfriend.She tosses a crumpled five-dollar bill on the table, adjusting her faux-fur vest and prancing around the blood tracks in her soiled-cream stilettos.
BEFORE BOARDING THE TRAIN TO HIGH PLAINS, NEVADA, THE WOMAN AND HER PURSE ARE SEARCHED. HANDS GROPE BENEATH HER BREASTS. AN EXTRA SECOND.
She sleeps during the ride and wakes to the slur of wheels slowing.
From the window her eyes stare at High Plains, Nevada. Black tall buildings, a sky tinged with smoke.
At the arrivals platform, the man waits behind a barrier. His shoulders clumped. Moving towards him. A haze of stubble over his forehead, chin. She’s clutching her potted plant from Pinecoast against her hip.
At the edge of the throng, their bodies sizzle. As she collapses into him, she says, Home at last.
Careening through the emptied station, he offers her a white handkerchief. To protect your lips from the ash, he says, forehead glossed with sweat.
Luggage in tow, they sprint towards the yellow cab gunning in the shade. Heat throttles in her lungs.
Yellow cab smashing through strange cool streets. A graffiti-phrase on the side of a concrete building reads, HIGH PLAINS, CITY OF HOMELESS COWS. She says aloud, Homeless cows. Cab driver says, In High Plains, cows run free in the city. There is nowhere for them to graze. All the nearby pastures have caught fire.
He says, Look.
In the street, a herd of cows exposing their slack pink tongues. Ribs poke out from their skin. The woman licks her lips. This is us here, the man says, dispensing a wad of cash into the cab driver’s palm. In front of their new apartment complex, the woman widens her step to evade a cow snacking on the innards of a vulture.
Vanessa Saunders is a writer living in New Orleans, Louisiana. She teaches writing at Loyola University, New Orleans. Her cross-genre manuscript, The Flat Woman, was a finalist for the Seneca Review‘s 2019 Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Contest. That manuscript was also longlisted for the 2018 Tarpaulin Sky Press Book Award. Her poems and cross-genre work have been published in PANK, Entropy, Nat. Brut, Stockholm Literary Review, Poor Claudia, Passages North, Heavy Feather Review, and other journals; her nonfiction has been published in Redivider. She studied at the University of East Anglia and San Francisco State University for her BA in creative writing and received her MFA from LSU. She is presently at work on a novel of eco-fiction.
The first of my brother’s birthdays that he wasn’t there for was three months and two days after he passed. He would have been twenty-two on the 22nd day of June, but he wasn’t. We let twenty-two lanterns go over Shanksville School. We lived a minute from the school. It has this big parking lot, it’s small compared to other schools, but so damn big when no one’s in it. Big enough. All of our immediate family and friends came and parked and stood and let go of the burning pieces of paper that are supposed to work like tiny hot air balloons.
It was windy. We lived on a hill. The school lived on that hill. The burning paper lanterns couldn’t get off the damn hill. Some of them did, about eighteen, made it over the pine trees.
I spent eight hours of that day at work, thinking about how much I wanted to stay there and not go home to spend time with my family in a lot of burning paper.
Three of them wouldn’t take off. One got stuck in a tree. Aunt Betsy, who bought the lanterns for her first nephew, said she’d have to call the fire department. That the little fire would burn the whole tree down, and then the school. I hoped it would. Burn down everything so we could start new, fresh, the soil fertile from flames and mistakes and misjudged wind.
We laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and laughed. My grandfather sat in a lawn chair on the pavement with his oxygen tank and laughed. My uncle kicked the pebbles left behind by winter snowplows and laughed. Betsy picked up smoking again and shook smoke out from the belly. My grandmother talked to my cousins on the other side of the family, told them it’s okay to cry. His best friend showed up late, but that made sense when nothing else did. We laughed when his wouldn’t take off the ground, wanting to stay in his hands. No one cried externally. I think we all cried on the way home. All 98.6 degrees of us helped to burn down the bad of the day, but we had to wake up the next day and do it all over again, without each other.
Matthew Tyler Boyer is a writer from Western Pennsylvania. He is a student in the Creative and Professional Writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. He is the author of the self published book Due to an Underwhelming Sex Education System in America. He is a fan of cats and oversized sweaters.
“This closet can hold many dead bodies. At least fifty.”
That was the first thing I told my roommate when I first met her.
The closets in our bedrooms really are huge. They are wide. They are tall. You could stack corpses up in there like sacks of rice. One on top of the other, rows of stacks. Many tall stacks. Not moving, not breathing.
My roommate uses her closet to line up faux fur coats and scarves. They’re lined up like a small army of foxes. I like to run my fingers on the soft furry surface and pretend that I am raising obediently still pets in her closet space.
But me, I keep mine simple. I walk past all the clothes, mounds of clothes strewn on my bedroom floor like defeated soldiers at the end of a long-fought battle. I slide the heavy wooden door open, get under my warm sheets, slide the door back closed, and lie still, until I fall asleep in the perfect dark.
Neeru Nagarajan is a writer from Chennai, India. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Forge Literary Magazine, Hypertext, Kitaab, The Adirondack Review, Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Bowling Green, Ohio, where she is at work on a novel.
The children make a ball the size of a cantaloupe out of looseleaf paper and book tape. They throw it across the classroom, not listening to my adult cries of “Stop it!” All I want is quiet. These children don’t know how to behave. They are boisterous and loud, and I wonder what their parents would do if they were left alone with them for five minutes. I don’t even want to be here with these children. I am substituting, a thing I do when I am only left with ramen and frozen corn in my larder. Substituting is the emergency brake of my life, the ripcord on the parachute. It keeps me from crashing harder, falling farther than I otherwise would.
These children are wild and out of control. They are not doing the work their teacher left for them, but instead some are playing poker in the corner. Others are using the rest of the roll of book tape to encase the left sneaker of the smallest kid in the class. These children toss the ball across the room, the object whizzing toward my head. I lift my hand in the air and grasp it. It was in motion, and now it’s not. The children gasp. I am too old and worn to participate in their homemade games. I am of the adult world, I am the one who is asking them to grow up, to take things seriously, yet they don’t want to. I am falling hard and fast. I might not be the best role model for these children. They look at me and roll their eyes. I roll my eyes back at them. They are not nonplussed. They’ve seen this look in adults before.
But I hold the ball in my hand for a moment. I keep it in the air, holding it before them, a jerry-rigged, disappointing, cobbled-together world in my hand. They expect me to throw it back to them because I am the sub. I have a light bill that was due last week. I am tired of their shenanigans, and other things, as well. I already ate the last bit of pretzel dust in my lunch bag. There are no more snacks at home. They are wearing me down. I have nothing to lose. I hold the ball for a moment too long, and then, with great deliberation, I throw it at the loudest of them all.
Amy Kiger-Williams holds an MFA in Fiction from Rutgers Newark. Her work has appeared in Yale Review Online, X-R-A-Y, Ghost Parachute, and Juked, among others. She is at work on a novel and a short story collection. You can read more of her work at amykigerwilliams.com and follow her on Twitter at @amykw.
Even though she sometimes wanders off on her own, which is strictly forbidden, of course, especially now that she is pregnant and about to pop, the Good Samaritans need people like Jillian. Well, they need all the help they can get, but especially from people like Jillian—those who have a second sense about where they can find the nearly-dying-from-thirst even if they are hiding. They want to find them or provide them with water before they become “human remains”—way before that, way before their muscles start cramping from heat stroke and dehydration, before the nausea, before the dizziness and delirium, before their brains start to sizzle in their skulls, before they try to drink sand, before. . . and, here, Jillian always stops herself from thinking, for no one likes to think about what happens to the human body in such heat. The Samaritans want to find them before they become bones. Pure and simple. …… There are places to hide, Jillian knows, especially when a person is afraid of coyotes, both human and animal. This desert is not barren. It can be as beautiful as it is dangerous. There is the occasional mesquite tree, its leaves velvety green in spring; only a mesquite might provide enough shade. There are fields of ocotillo, their skinny fingers orange-tipped and reaching to the sky, thickets of cholla whose thorny joints will fish-hook in the skin, the ubiquitous acacia, the spiked pads of the prickly pear, and the tall dry grasses rustling. There are, Jillian has been told, over 2,000 miles of unmapped trails and that’s just in the tiny area the Samaritans call the tip of the pinky finger, trails that have been used, probably, for thousands of years and that wind down into and through steep, rocky canyons. There are giant boulders in whose shade a snake might sleep and arroyos filled with sand but that rage like rivers after the monsoons. …… But the sun. The sun, in summer, is so bright. Relentless. It bleaches the sky of color, it bakes the skin, makes heat radiate from the ground as if from an open oven. It is a dry heat that sears the nasal passages and parches the tongue, dries even the tissues of the throat and lungs. And most of the time, there is no water. As quickly as it falls from the sky, it evaporates or seeps through sand to ancient aquifers. Even someone who has a gift for hearing water will hear only the faintest of whispers far, far below. There are reasons the snakes hunt at night. Reasons this land was not inhabited, not even by those, like the Apache, whose warriors, they say, could run through the desert all day without carrying water. Maybe they carried a miracle stone in their mouths, Jillian had always thought, and from it sprang trickles of cool water. …… Jillian knows she makes the Samaritans nervous, and she hates to do that to them, especially her friend who has taught her to dance, but she needs silence if she’s going to hear lost or escaping souls. On this day, a cool day in early November, while the other Samaritans are leaving bottles of water and flats of cans of beans, she finds a man squatting in a tiny circle of shade. He is a small man—when he stands as if to run, she sees how small—his clothes are torn, his shoes, they have been taped together. …… She holds her hand up, wait, and then puts the palms of her hands together as if to pray. Really, she thinks, she must seem strange to him, this very tall, very pregnant woman wearing a cowboy hat, appearing from nowhere, especially since she is saying nothing. She must look like an apparition, she thinks, but surely she does not look dangerous. She takes off her backpack. Offers him a jug of water and the sandwich she had packed for her own lunch. They share an orange because she thinks maybe his blood sugar—and maybe hers, too, now that she thinks of it—might be low. …… His skin is much darker than hers and when he speaks it is a language that is not Spanish or English. She shakes her head and shrugs, holding her hands out to indicate she doesn’t understand. Then she holds her fingers over her lips to indicate that she cannot speak, is mute. He says Guatemala. She nods. He gives her a piece of paper with an address in Salt Lake City. ¿Donde? he asks. Where? So he does know at least a little Spanish. …… She holds her hand up again, wait, to indicate that he should watch. She draws a line in the dirt with a stick. ¿La linea? he asks. The border? She nods. She points with her stick in the dirt. ¿México? She nods and then walks about six paces in the direction from which he has come and makes another line and an X and points at him. ¿Guatemala? She nods. Then she walks back to the Mexican border and makes another X just above it and looks pointedly at him. ¿Aqui? She nods. Yes, this is where we are. She takes two more large paces to the north and makes another X. She points at the paper with the address. ¿Utah? She nods again. …… He is about three-quarters of the way there, she guesses. One long quarter to go. He retreats back into his puddle of shade and crouches on his haunches again. She can see his face has fallen. He takes another sip of water, but a very small one. She gives him his piece of paper. If she could speak, she would say, It is still so far, yo sé, muy lejos. Lo siento. Lo siento mucho. But she isn’t sure he would understand or that her sentiments would help. Her heart feels as if it is resting right on top of the shelf the babies make. …… By then, two of the Samaritans have found them. They put extra tape on his shoes and give him two pairs of fresh cotton socks—because the feet are so important—and a sweatshirt because it is starting to get cold at night. They give him a bag with food and a medical kit and more water. One of them gives him some cash. Jillian eats the second sandwich she had packed for herself, feeling with each bite, piggish, although she is suddenly ravenous. The babies, she thinks, must be hungry. She watches as the Samaritans try to explain to him how to get to Tucson, where the Border Patrol Stop on the highway is and how to avoid it. Maybe hop a train in Tucson, they say, but even though they are speaking in Spanish, the man seems to understand very little. …… Plus, Jillian sees, he is dazed. He is so alone. She knows, in the same way she knows how to find people—it comes to her maybe in the memories that are escaping them as they begin to let go of this life—she knows he has not always been on this journey alone, many of them started together, but then, suddenly, men with guns came. Long guns. Masks. Maybe los zetas. Who can tell? Maybe the Mexican police. Somehow, for some reason, he is not in the group when the men come, he is off in the trees, maybe taking a piss, and so he sees everything through green and as if from a distance. He wants to cry out, to run towards his friends to help them, to stop the men from tying their hands behind their backs, from loading them into the backs of trucks, but he must be very quiet. Even his memory is like a nightmare that awakens him, his heart pounding, then that momentary disorientation when the fabric between sleep and waking, this world and that, is tissue thin. And yet here he is, in this even newer world, still disoriented. He feels at once grateful he escaped—his head is still on his body, after all—but guilty, guilty to have left them behind. He has been so alone since then, so alone in his grief, so weary, for even when he joined small groups of other travelers, even when they were kind and shared what little they had, they did not speak his language. Like with these large white people, their mouths moved until here and there a word would come into focus. La migra. El tren. La bestia. Riding on top of la bestia at night. The woman who fell off and lost her leg. Another thing he does not want to remember. …… Jillian takes out her small notebook and tries to draw a future for him, a way to the people in Utah who are waiting. She draws their faces, their welcoming arms. She draws tamales and tortillas. Water. She draws plenty of water. Roads for him to avoid and smaller roads to follow. A train. Yes, a train might be good. A kind person in a car once he is well past the Border Patrol point, she draws that, too. Finally, maybe most importantly—how could she have forgotten?—a tiny angel up in the corner to watch over him. Before they leave him, she folds up her map and tucks it into his hand. At this point, the point of leave-taking, she feels the sadness wash over her. This? This is all the help they are allowed to give? What about loving the stranger as you love yourself? But, yes, by law, she knows this is all they can do, and staying with him or walking with him might only draw attention. She puts her hand over her heart in parting. She gives him another orange.
“La Linea” is excerpted from Jillian in the Borderlands: A Cycle of Rather Dark Tales, by Beth Alvarado, forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in September 2020. Alvarado is the author of three earlier books: Anxious Attachments (finalist, Oregon Book Awards, and long-listed for the PEN Art of the Essay Award), Anthropologies: A Family Memoir, and Not a Matter of Love.
The infection needs ten hours at most to take your life, the doctors tell you. Nothing will buy you more time: not pills, not potions, not prayers, not even amputation. The fungus forms a second body under your skin, shadowing your veins, wrapping around your bones. Its spongy mass smells like roses, if you slice a bit free of the host and hold it up to your nose. ……. If you want to live, never hold any part of it to your nose. One stray spore in your lungs is all it needs to colonize your meat. In our homes, we keep the windows shut at all times, even in the moist-blanket heat of deep June. When we step outside, most of us wear surgical masks and goggles. How did Ron and I ever think we could bring a child into a world that’s rotting like this? ……. We didn’t think about it. We just loved, and that was gone too soon. Two hours after we said, “I do” in our living room and exchanged our plastic panda-bear rings, someone rang the bell at the top of the hill. Ron left our reception with a couple guys from his guard shift. “There’s just one down in the culvert,” he said, picking up a plastic can of gasoline and his favorite machete as he headed out the door. “You’ll see the fire when we’re done.” ……. Swamp Things, Ron always called them. My mom, when she was still alive, preferred the term Flower Heads, because she thought it sounded funny. Sometimes all you can do when confronted with grinding horror is laugh. I refuse to give anything related to this fungus the dignity of a name, even if it has the power to kill everyone I love, or transform them into something awful. ……. The patrol in the culvert went wrong, because more than one of those things had found their way up from the basin, drawn as always by our lights. They crept from the humming night and wrapped their hands around Ron’s friend Billy and tore him apart like overcooked chicken. We burned what was left of him the next day. Before Ron could retreat up the incline with the rest of the crew, one of the creatures swiped his forearm, leaving three shallow scratches from elbow to wrist. Barely broke the skin, but it was enough. ……. At first, everyone smiled and said everything would be okay. And every time they did, I bit my lip to stop myself from screaming in their faces. Nothing is okay. Not anymore.
When the infection first swept the city, a military platoon turned our sleepy neighborhood into a fortress, boxed by high fences topped with barbed wire. When the troops pulled out, following new orders, they left behind enough weapons and supplies to keep us self-sufficient while the power died and the surrounding hills burned. We learned how to use the rifles, and took turns at the gate that bisected our main avenue. We set up a field hospital in a ranch house beside the fence, after clearing out the furniture and draping every inch of the rooms in plastic. ……. Following the bloodshed in the culvert, the other guards took Ron to the hospital and burned his clothes and strapped him naked to a bed in one of the rooms. (Two years into this mess, we all know what to do when anyone’s wounded.) He was already feverish, his body slippery with sweat. When I arrived, the nurses on shift refused to let me through the plastic sheeting that covered the doorway. So I struck a bargain with Jill, the nurse in charge: three gallons of fresh water—a small fortune that hot summer—in exchange for two hours in her Hazmat suit. ……. “Take it from someone who’s lost someone,” she said as I suited up. “Getting closer won’t make it any better for you.” ……. “We’ve all lost someone,” I told her, my voice muffled through the filter-mask, and unzipped the plastic that kept me from my husband. The hospital bed stood against the far wall; the only other furniture was a folding chair for visitors, a propane lantern for light, and a five-gallon plastic bucket for vomit. On a tray beneath the bed sat a long blade in a scuffed plastic scabbard, in case things went bad, because a gun might send a bullet through the plastic or a wall. ……. I took a seat and reached for Ron’s hand. My heart thundering with panic. My throat tight. ……. “Don’t touch him,” Jill called out, as she zipped the room back up. “He’s highly infectious, he’s about to start bleeding everywhere. We might have to burn that suit, and it’s not your suit, it’s mine.” ……. “Got it,” I said, letting my hands dangle between my thighs. The suit was too big for my body, loose as a tent around my thighs and belly, and cooling sweat pooled at my waistband. The filter, cobbled together from cardboard and melted plastic and other spare bits, made my rushing breath taste like a charcoal grill. ……. “Sweetie?” I asked Ron. ……. “I hear you,” he said, and swallowed hard. His face pale, eyes wide and black, his cheeks shiny. I kept remembering the first week after the electrical grid failed, when we spent nights in our enormous claw-foot bathtub because it was the coldest place in the house, keeping the fear at bay by dredging up our grade-school jokes about farts and diarrhea and death. I remembered the way we held hands as we walked the neighborhood’s empty streets in daylight, squeezing in code. I love you. I’m here for you. We’ll get through this together. ……. “Good, because this thing makes me sound like Darth Vader,” I said, before deepening my voice into the world’s least-convincing James Earl Jones impersonation: “Luke, I am your father.” ……. “That was horrible,” he said, grinning now. His front teeth flecked with blood. ……. “Oh, I know. But at least it made you smile.” ……. “It did,” he said, and his eyes closed.
A few days after the electrical grid collapsed for good, we saw the first Flower Heads. They came only at night, slinking on the roads toward the brightest lights. Beneath their mossy veils, sprinkled with bright petals, we sometimes recognized the eye or lip or tattoo of a lost relative. They weren’t zombies, at least not in the George Romero sense. When they bit us, we realized they still felt hunger. When we shot or cut them down, and they bled over the pavement, we realized their hearts still beat. ……. “This fungus, or whatever it is, I bet it gets in their brains,” Ron said, after we killed a herd of them at the gate. “Plays them like a joystick. I remember watching this nature show a couple years back, it said some insect parasites can do that, control the host neurologically.” ……. “But most of the people who get infected by this stuff,” I said, “they die. Why do some of them keep moving around?” ……. He shrugged. “I don’t know, genetics? Who knows anything anymore?” ……. “Any more beer in the cooler? I could use about three.” ……. Around that time we had started drinking heavily, breaking into empty houses and grabbing every bottle we could find. Can you blame us? Sometimes we would fall asleep so drunk Ron pissed the bed, and neither of us noticed until the next morning. We spiked our orange juice with vodka at breakfast and filled our water bottles with bourbon before we headed out on patrol. ……. After too many nasty hangovers we decided to quit, but with sobriety came insomnia, and as I lay in bed at night, my traitorous brain kept imagining its own hijacking. Did it hurt, as the fungus wormed its way inside the house of your skull, or did you just get delirious and sort of fade away? And after the takeover, did a part of you continue to exist, deep within some buzzing void? Could that part of you still see out your eyes, as you shuffled and moaned? ……. Curled against Ron’s sleeping back, I wondered again and again if I could drive a blade through his infected head. Or would I hesitate, as so many people did? Could I keep living after taking steel to flesh I loved, stopping it for good?
When I turned to the doorway again, Jill stood on the other side of the plastic, making a show of staring at her watch. I rose from the chair, shaking the numbness from my legs, and walked over. “I need a new suit, one I can touch him in, because I’m going to treat him,” I said, struggling to keep my voice level. “And also painkillers, bandages, bottled water, whatever you have.” ……. “There’s nothing we can do. You know what’s happening here.” Jill spoke so loudly I worried Ron would hear. “You need to stop thinking about this like a fixable situation.” ……. “Just get me a suit and supplies,” I said. “I know you got crates of that stuff.” ……. “I’m not handing anything over for a helpless case. Not when I have to treat all sorts of injuries, curable illness.” ……. “But the rest of this hospital is empty.” ……. The demon part of me wanted to tear through the partition and grip her by the throat. “Let’s make a deal. What do you want?” ……. It was impossible to read her expression through the shimmering barrier. “You live in that white house on Marigold? The one with the blue shutters?” ……. “Uh, yeah?” ……. “It’s a big house,” she said. “It’d be nice to move away from the fence a bit.” ……. “You’re not moving in. Not for any length of time.” ……. “Well, it didn’t hurt to ask. You got sugar, coffee, preserves, anything sweet?” ……. “Yeah, canned preserves in our pantry, made them myself.” ……. “And let me guess: your pantry’s locked, right?” ……. Who didn’t keep their supplies secure, or hidden? “The lock’s a keypad. Code is one-oh-five-five,” I said. Doesn’t really matter, I told myself. It’s not like I had much left in there, anyway. ……. Jill nodded and disappeared from the doorway. Beneath the rustle of plastic and the hiss of Ron’s breathing I could hear her speaking to the other nurse in hushed tones, probably explaining why she had to leave for a bit. ……. While I waited, I turned to check on Ron. His eyes closed, arms and legs trembling slightly. I wondered if the red petals would burst from his skin before he died. Do I have what it takes to kill you, baby? Do I kill myself afterwards? ……. Jill reappeared, snapping off her gloves as she angled for the decontamination shower bolted to the ceiling of the foyer. “I promise I won’t take more than my fair share,” she called out as white liquid gushed from the showerhead, soaking her suit on its way to the drain-hole cut in the floor. “And don’t leave that room. The supply closet is locked, and Sarah won’t let you in until I’m back.” ……. Her sterilizing complete, Jill stripped off her protective gear, changed into a pair of cargo pants and a long-sleeved shirt, snapped on a respirator and swimming goggles, and left. I took a seat again, wondering if she would keep her word about not taking too much of our stuff. Maybe it was an illusion, but I swear I could feel the heat of Ron’s fever baking through the thin plastic of my suit.
Over the next eight hours my husband alternated between sweaty dozing and calling my name over and over again. His fingers and toes turned white and waxy, the skin cracking. The paleness crept up his forearms and shins like a creeping ice floe, the hair falling out along its path. At one point his back arched, rising high off the bed, and I saw the topsheet coated with hair and bits of skin. The cracks followed the paleness into the deep meat of his arms and legs and he began to bleed, little spots that quickly became black rivulets in the flickering light from the lamp on the floor. ……. I would have given anything to heal him, but all I could do was daub at the bloody cracks with my rolled-up cloth. When the cotton soaked through I tossed it in the nearby bucket and fetched a fresh one. I thought about us walking along hot roads, our sweaty fingers entwined. Squeezing messages. I love you. I need you. ……. By the ninth hour, Ron began to cough up his insides. His lips bloody. His face had the telltale patches now, faint webs on his cheeks and neck that gleamed against the paleness before shading into pink. I waited for them to deepen into red. At that point, my husband would start sprouting flora like a damn terrarium. He would have laughed at that comparison. ……. Whether or not I had to put him down, I knew what would happen after he died. Our burial brigade always moved with the grace of a well-rehearsed chorus line: four men in Hazmat suits stripping the corpse, wrapping it in a large plastic bag like a piece of dry cleaning, stuffing it into a scorched metal box. The brigade carried every boxed body to the ash-pit beside the highway off-ramp, where they set it to burn atop a pyre of gasoline-soaked wood. It took six or seven hours to reduce an infected body to sterile ash. ……. I had no idea if Ron wanted us to burn him in his two-piece black suit, or one of his favorite t-shirts. We had never talked about funeral plans. Maybe we thought it would jinx our chances at living. What did it matter what we dressed him in, anyway? I would never get to touch him again, and that was the worst part. The thought of forgetting the smell of his skin made my stomach cramp, hard and fast, as if someone had punched me. ……. As I bent over, sucking air through my miserable filter, I noted that my new Hazmat suit was spattered with blood from Ron’s dying. For the first time I hoped Jill had taken whatever she wanted from our home, because I had wrecked this precious outfit. Sorry, Jill. ……. Ron stopped coughing. His breathing hitched. I sat up and willed my quaking knees to hold steady. I kept my eyes locked on his face, telling myself that it was my duty to bear witness. That after he passed, I would become the sole keeper of our shared memories, all the quiet moments that formed us. ……. I leaned close to his leaking ear and said: “I’ll keep the ring on.” ……. “You’d better,” he whispered back. Or maybe I imagined it. The eldritch light had cast his mouth in deep shadow. ……. I glanced toward the doorway, which framed darkness. I hoped the nurses on the other side had dozed off. ……. As quietly as I could, I peeled away the tape that covered the seam between my right glove and the sleeve. ……. All that matters in this life is what we give each other. That I felt your presence in the dark, and that you felt mine in return. ……. Pulling off my right glove, I reached over and took my husband’s cold, slick hand. “I love you,” I said, and squeezed. ……. Ron squeezed back.
Nick Kolakowski is the author of the thriller novels Maxine. Unleashes Doomsday and Boise Longpig Hunting Club (both from Down & Out Books). His poetry and fiction have appeared in Cleaver Magazine, North American Review, McSweeney’s, Shotgun Honey, 7×7.la, Carrier Pigeon, and other venues. He lives and works in New York City.
You cannot cross train tracks without holding your breath, nor can you drive over a bridge without a lungful of air. Your children witness your fears, think it’s a game, and they, too, hold their breath going over tracks or bridges. You would like to tell them it’s not a game, like Duck Duck Goose or Red Rover, but you decide that the universe will drop its own bomb of terror on them, and what possible good would come of your own unburdening?
At the playground you circle the swings, hoping to find an old wooden seater, but no such luck, so stop living in the past, please. These days everything is built for safety—full buckets for babies who can barely hold their heads up, half-buckets for toddlers with wobbly balance, swing and slide seats for the brave and daring under-tens, because no one wants to get caught dead on a swing after that. Your five-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter screech as they run to the blue rubber swings, kick off, and hit high velocity. You did this when you were their age. There was a time when you believed you could fly if only you pumped high enough. You still believe this, but it has nothing to do with swings. You aren’t sure if you need wings or stronger legs.
Although she has been dead for a very long time, Donna peers down at you from the blue and green hard plastic climbing structure topped by a fort big enough for four and no more. You tell your kids to keep swinging as you climb up the ramps and ladders toward Donna. What are you doing here, you ask, and you’ve got one eye on her and one eye on your kids. You’re a little happy and a little unnerved—she’s still following you around, but you’re as used to it now as you were in first grade.
Donna’s wearing a plaid skirt, a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar, frilly socks, and scuffed saddle shoes. Her black barrette is askew and she’s sucking on a dark strand of her hair. You’re not supposed to do that, you tell her, and she spits the hair out of her mouth. ……. Oh, grow up, she says. ……. Yes, you say wearily. I’ve done that. ……. Aren’t you the lucky one, she says, licking her finger and rubbing at a scuff mark on her shoe. ……. You think so? ……. Nyet, she says. ……. Your son and daughter run up the ramp and ask who you’re talking to. Your ripped jeans and baggy sweater make you look like an itinerant, and you’re pretty sure you haven’t washed your hair in a few days. You make googly eyes at your kids. ……. Myself, you say. ……. You’re crazy, says your son. ……. You are crazy, Donna says. ……. Maybe, you say, and your son laughs. Donna looks mad, like the time your first-grade teacher told her she’d never get to second grade if she didn’t learn to read. Mrs. Piasecka paired you with Donna for reading time that day and every day thereafter until spring dropped by for a seasonal hello, and you all went outside to eat lunch, and Donna announced she could read, and everyone clapped, because everyone loved Donna, especially you. Then you all sat on the warm green grass pulling food from your lunchboxes (yours had a tractor on it), and when you’d all eaten, Mrs. Piasecka passed around homemade molasses cookies because you were wonderful children. ……. You never hated molasses cookies before, but you sure do now. ……. When the playground loses its thrill, you and your children walk to the supermarket to buy milk and Smiley Face Fries. Donna sits in the frozen food aisle, eating cookie dough ice cream. Now what? you ask. Your son turns to you and says, I want ice cream. Donna grins. It’s really good, she says. You ought to buy some. You never know, do you? ……. You put your arm around your son and walk away. How about a candy bar? you ask, and your daughter wants one, too, so you let them pick and they get big chocolate bars and they eat them on the way home, and then you have to wash their dirty little faces, but you don’t mind so much. You serve them hot dogs and fries and big glasses of milk, and your daughter spills her milk, and you sop it up, telling her not to cry. It’s just milk you say. Your daughter asks if there are enough cows in the world so that everyone gets milk. It’s not that simple, you tell her. Milk can be expensive. Some people can’t buy it. ……. Your son announces he wants a cow. That way he will always have milk. You tell him he has to learn to milk a cow first, and you promise him a trip to a dairy farm. When you were in first grade a local farmer brought a cow to the playground, and everyone in class learned to milk a cow, but Donna was the only one who squirted milk right into her mouth. Mrs. Piasecka gave Donna three gold stars on her pink construction paper balloon that was taped to the Look At Me wall. Your balloon was blue and you had just as many stars as Donna, mostly from getting high marks on class handouts and clapping dusty erasers. If you’d known you could have earned stars for drinking milk straight from the cow you would have done it, even though the cow smelled like shit and hay. Even then you knew the value of awards, especially public commendation. ……. Donna never had milk money, so you shared your milk with her. The two of you sat in the cafeteria with two straws stuck into one carton and counted the number of slurps it took to drink all the milk. Now you can’t remember how many, but you do remember Mrs. Piasecka telling you how nice it was to share, and she stuck a gold star on your blue balloon. Your mother let you give your old play clothes—overalls and t-shirts from Sears—to Donna, who was a size smaller than you—that was a kind of sharing. Your mother was big on charitable causes, but not so big that you were allowed to go to Donna’s house. When you wanted to play with Donna, your mother insisted Donna visit your house. Your father just shrugged. Your mom rules the roost, he said. Now you get it—your mom was a chicken. Or a cow. Probably a sheep. ……. Donna sits in the rocking chair by the kitchen’s bay window, watching your children eat. Your mother was a product of her time, she says. ……. What time? you ask, and your daughter says, Daddy? Dadeeee? ……. You remember your mother looking at Donna and telling you she was just off the boat, which you were sure was not a good thing in your mother’s eyes. Your father was right, your mother ruled with an erratic iron fist, which is something Donna, had she grown up, would have told you is exactly what she and her family were fleeing from when they left the USSR or Russia or whatever it was then. Donna always whispered U-S-S-R in your ear and then looked around to see who was watching. You thought the USSR was a battleship like the USS Wisconsin or something, but your father, home on leave, said it used to be a country, more or less, and not a great one at that. ……. Every country has its ups and downs. ……. That night as you’re reading to your children, Donna sits beneath the window and clutches your son’s red and white striped monkey. Let me read to them, she demands, but you shake your head. When the story is finished you tuck the children in and kiss them goodnight, leaving the nightlight on. ……. They should say their prayers, Donna says as you walk out of the room and shut the door, and you say, Look where it got me. The two of you sit down in the hallway and she starts in on what she tells you every time she shows up, that she was in the back seat of the car next to the picnic basket, her father was driving and the train hit the car hard like a Batman punch Pow! Blam! Her mother called Jesus Save Us, and then the car spun off the road, hit the arch of the bridge and nosedived into the water, and was it ever black, Donna says, but we hit the river bottom and the water came in and you grabbed my hand and we went out the window. ……. Donna, you say. She stands up and shakes her head, already denying you. ……. You know I wasn’t in the car, you say. ……. I have to go now, she says. ……. Jesus, you say. I wasn’t there. ……. Eleven, she says. That’s how many sips it took to empty the milk carton. And she’s gone. ……. You wanted to go on the picnic with Donna’s family, but your mother said No. Your father said the world was a big place and you’d better get used to it, so go have some fun. But there was no answer when you telephoned Donna to say you were allowed to go. When news of the accident spread your mother took you straight to church and told you to pray for Donna’s poor soul, so you bowed your head and asked God to bring Donna back, and he did, and now you are stuck with her and her stories, which have grown old and maybe even a little boring, but it would be a lie to say that you wished Donna would go away. She is the last time God answered your prayers, and he has a lot to answer for, not that you’re asking. So you hold your breath when you go over train tracks and bridges, and you let your kids think it’s a game instead of telling them to get ready for a world full of sad stories that don’t mean a thing unless they happen to you.
Catherine Parnell teaches at Southern New Hampshire University in the MFA program and at Grub Street in Boston. She is the editor for Consequence Magazine, and her work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, The Rumpus, Tenderly, TSR: The Southampton Review, Post Road, Baltimore Review, Redivider, and other publications. Parnell also works as an independent consultant in communications, writing, and the arts, and is the author of The Kingdom of His Will.
Today has dawned a nude beginning. The male truck idles
at the curfew and the bruisepaper waits on the porch. Already
children climb the pill to their elementary scheme. Today
has dreamed a new pretending. I rub my sighs and put coffins
on to brew. If only I were yogurt! Gazing out my chicken window,
I watch a flock of wretches necking in the trees. Somewhere
a lawnmower begins to whore. Today has donned a blue
bikini. Goblins scream and squeals scamper across the dawn.
If it weren’t for the chills, I’d quit my throb. Sometimes
I wonder if I’ll have enough ink to carry on. So many sweats!
I cheat my toast and rush to worry, drinking 65, 70, 82. Today
has spawned another sinning. Lions flash in my mirror
and everywhere I turn, white helmets. Raised pistils.
Scowling faces of two dozen—peonies?
Jackie Craven is the author of Secret Formulas & Techniques of the Masters (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2018) and a chapbook, Our Lives Became Unmanageable (Omnidawn, 2016). Recent poems appear or are forthcoming in Agni, The Massachusetts Review, Pleiades, Poet Lore, River Styx, and Salamander. She’s worked for many years as a journalist covering architecture, design, and cultural travel for various publications.
It starts with a ring you buy at an antique shop in your neighborhood which you hadn’t noticed before—a dusty little place of creaky floorboards and a name to match: Gaslight and Shadows.
When you see it, gleaming at you from behind a pane of glass covered in fingerprints long left behind, you’re not sure why it feels familiar. Something about the tarnished silver and the large pink stone haloed by small green gems reminds you of a lily pad on a cool still lake.
The shopkeeper sees you looking. She sidles up and offers to open the display, to which you’d normally object. I’m just looking around, you’d say. Passing time while I wait to meet a friend, you wouldn’t add because you’d want to create the illusion that you might possibly buy something, that you’re not just looking for a place to stay out of the chill for fifteen minutes.
But your lily pad sparkles from its stand, a slim halved finger of blue velvet.
You point to it—so unlike you to be so direct, your husband would say—and with a jingle of keys, the shopkeeper leans in and pulls out your ring, your lilypad.
You’re not sure why it would fit. You’ve noted with some shame that your fingers are of above-average girth. It’s not flesh, you told your husband when you went to try on wedding bands, it’s the bones. The knuckles are wide and knobby, inelegant. A washer woman’s hands, you joked and he laughed and you stared at the things with distaste.
But you slip it on now and your lily pad glides over bone to settle firmly against your skin, its band nestled in the soft pad of your ring finger.
The shopkeeper unpacks her array of compliments and backstory, Rare piece, 18th century engagement ring, you won’t find a better price, it looks like it was made for you, but you hold out your blossomed hand before you, twisting it a little to watch the light bounce off the stone.
When you meet Sonia, you are cradling a cup of English breakfast tea in your hands, peeking every now and then at the gem that has temporarily displaced your engagement and wedding rings to the opposite hand. You watch it scintillate—catch the light and echo it—on the cup’s dull grey porcelain.
Sonia seems nervous, fidgeting with her phone lying face down on the table. You’d noticed she’d been swimming religiously but now that she appears in a tight new athletic ensemble, you appreciate how thin she’s gotten, how slim and light. How the bones in her face push at taut skin.
She talks about the usual: the office intrigues you’ve missed out on, the questionable parenting choices of mutual childed friends, and men. She hasn’t been dating much lately. Nothing juicy to report, she laughs, a peculiar note in her voice, her mouth strange with secrets.
She asks, How are you doing? and her eyes finally cease flitting about to focus on yours.
When she asks about the ring, your lips curl into a smile, and you tell her, It’s new, kind of. And when she asks, New to you? you just laugh and grip your cup tighter until your tea grows cold.
When you return, Dave is sitting on the couch but the TV is off and you are surprised to find him home at dinnertime because his meetings with Japan (or was it Australia?) now take him later and later into the night.
He asks, Had a good lunch? And when you don’t reply he follows up with, We need to talk, his eyes still focused on the dark screen, a window onto a black moonless night, and all you can think about is how he still prefers to be called Dave. How he’d introduced himself that way in college and how it had been fine then, if a little conventional, and how you’d imagined the man he’d become, the David he’d grow into: strong, proud, fertile.
There’s something you should know, he says, as you pull the long cool needles out of your bag, relishing the way your lily pad gleams even in the gloom of your twilit living room. Taking a seat on your favorite armchair, the one you tell yourself you’ll use to breastfeed, you begin to knit—something tiny and blue, for the someday future—because that’s always helped you focus in the past and he says, Since when do you knit, and Look at me, trying to find your eyes with his, but you are elsewhere now, fixated, watching the gleaming needles respond to every move of your wrists.
How undignified to take a name like David—a king’s name, a warrior’s—and break its legs, turn it into the sound of groveling.
The needles click, sharp and efficient, and your lily pad flashes as your hands move deftly, of their own accord now, perfectly synchronized, transforming blue yarn into something real. Turning nothing into a form, a shape of your intent.
I didn’t mean for this to happen, but it’s gotten serious, he says, as though he believes it, as though it could’ve been anything but deliberate, as though a heart can beat by accident.
Still looking down, your eyes shift out of focus as you settle into the pattern, the needles working at the speed of muscle memory.
But you were wrong then, in college. He is no David and never will be, and she is no Bathsheba, and as your needle sinks in, meeting soft flesh, your laugh is not your own, but familiar. Your hands rest, the needles warm where the grip is tightest, the stone somehow still gleaming in the dimness of the room and you remember something the jeweler said when you were choosing an engagement ring, how light can pass through a diamond in two ways, either as white light or as fire and you wonder is that what this is? Is this fire?
Tatyana Sundeyeva, originally from Chisinau, Moldova, is a Russian-American writer and novelist living in San Francisco. She has just completed her first novel. Find her online at TatyanaWrites.com and on Twitter @TeaOnSundey. This is her first published fiction.
Shouldn’t it let me buy everything
and pay with negative interest?
All those swirling golden stars
teeming, unbalanced in the sky
Since I was Vincent in a past life
I told the collector on the phone
A measured man. Had he dealt
with my unlikely work before?
I did the masterpieces everyone loves
now worth billions in museums
then shot myself dead in the heart
before I made a single cent
So I had unlimited credit—I
reasoned—with the starry dynamo
The nauseating spinning started
when Mr. Money didn’t buy it
He sympathized. I was unmoored
lost in a cosmos of pure color
I’d eat cadmium yellow orange
wash it down with turpentine
I threatened, before hanging up
I walked to the local park
scissoring the starry sky
into a million irrevocable
pieces, and in the dark
dug a hole and buried it
along with the bill
in the ultramarine
shadow of the Cypress
and went about my art
J Pascutazz is a non-binary writer with Asperger’s syndrome, a graduate of Bennington College, and was raised in rural Ohio. J is a resident of Brooklyn. J’s work has been published by Right Hand Pointing, Dime Show Review, Miracle Monocle, and others, and is forthcoming in The Fabulist Words & Art.