Anni Liu is the author of Border Vista (Persea Books), which won the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize and was a New York Times Best Poetry Book of 2022. She’s the recipient of an Undocupoets Fellowship, a Gregory Djanikian Scholarship from The Adroit Journal, and residencies at Civitella Ranieri and the Anderson Center. She’s an editor at Graywolf Press.
A Writing Tip by Layla Murphy
WRITE LIKE YOU’RE DYING
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
I never knew what a death doula was until I listened to an episode of NPR’s Life Kit the other day focused on relationship repair. It seemed odd at first that a podcast episode on relationship repair—presumably with other, living, people—would include a segment on death. But the relationship to be repaired by these end-of-life caregivers is our relationship with death itself.
Death is scary. It’s taboo. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s painful. And, I think engaging meaningfully with death would make us all better writers. In arguing that we ought to confront death earlier, more frequently, and more head-on, my take is very similar to that of the death doula who appeared as a guest on this episode of NPR. Her name is Alua Arthur, and she quickly convinced me that the key to a sensually and emotionally full life is a true understanding of what it means to die, and of what becomes important when we know that our life is coming to its end. Arthur’s clients wanted to just taste their favorite souffle, or feel the sun on their face, not, say, go to Machu Picchu. Learning about their lived experiences in dying, and hearing all the beautiful things they felt like doing at the end, seemed very much like a list of the best things to write about.
So my tip is to complete an exercise in perspective-taking to get in touch with the content of a truly full, sensuous life—and then write about that. Think, what exactly would you want to do with your time if you had very little time left? Based on what Arthur shared of her own clients, I have a few thoughts. Perhaps you would want to rewatch your favorite movie. Or listen to all your favorite music. Likely, you’d have a list of foods you would want to taste—maybe after a lifetime of dieting. And I mean really taste them. You’d want to let the dark chocolate melt away on your tongue, and to relish it sensually, and completely. You would want a massage, maybe: The feeling of another’s fingers on your shoulders one last time, or the sensation of a lover stroking their thumb across your hand. You would want to smell a fresh fire, and to smell Christmas. You would want to hear your grandparents tell you they love you. You would want to tell them you love them. In fact, there are so many people you’d want to express your love to—and you would want to do it with abandon. With locked eyes, or faces touching each other, feeling each other’s love. You would want to go swimming in the middle of the night, in the cold, and feel the air get knocked out of your lungs, and the blood rush through you to warm you up in the water. You would want a pint of your favorite beer. You would want a soft blanket around you and you’d want to take a delicious nap. If you doubt that this is what becomes important at the end of life, I encourage you to listen to Alua Arthur speak from experience and expertise.
All that feeling, all that sensation, all that emotion, is what I think we often try to get at with other writing prompts and exercises. We want to share detailed experiences with other people, our readers, so we try going for walks and writing down what we see. We try writing down all we can write about, say, oranges. We try to write by hand, or in the dark without looking. But what are we writing about? What is the good, really good writing, really talking about? In my view, great writing gets at all the things that would feel important to us as we’re dying. Writing about real love, real perception and reaction. How good it feels to get your hands in the soil under a temperate sun, and the smell of rain that just ended, or that’s anxious to begin. The perspective-taking exercise forces us to get really descriptive, which is a hallmark of compelling poetry and prose. What is it about the cherry that is so gratifying? What is the experience of eating it really like? Can you tell me that? Are you able to articulate the sensuousness? Can you make me think about dying, and can you make me love the way I feel when I take that perspective? Can you make me love, truly love, the experience of it, through your writing? Tell me about the peach fuzz on my face touching the peach fuzz on the face of my mother as I kiss her goodnight. Tell me about the juice falling down around my chin when I bite a perfect, cold, crisp, red apple. Tell me about the woozy way I feel when I’ve been sitting out in the sun for too long, next to a gentle ocean and the murmur of other beach-goers just like me. Tell me about how much I love them, and how. That will make for good writing.
My tip, then, is to write like you are dying. I hope it helps you to write well. But more than that, I hope it helps you to live more expansively, more self-indulgently. And to share that life, that full life, with everyone around you—your readers, of course, included.
Cleaver newsletter editor Layla Murphy is an Iranian-American writer—when she’s not being a refugee resettlement case manager, a restaurant host, or a Spanish tutor, that is. While a student at the University of Pennsylvania, she co-founded Quake Magazine, a publication dedicated to exploring sex and sexuality through art. She has also written for 34th Street Magazine and The Daily Pennsylvanian. Read her essays and poetry on a personal blog: aslongastherearepoppies.com. Got a Writing Tipfor our newsletter and feature? Email her at [email protected].
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“The mouth of weeds
marriage.” She shivered. “It’s—it’s a death!” –John Ashbery, “Idaho”
Absence holds rings on our fingers,
bright, until each ring’s syntax is muted
with flash flood weather steaming the windows,
plies of books crushing me like flattened flowers.
Trust the rain. The view of the lake was there.
Pleased to meet you; there are no clouds here.
I gave you misguided orange flowers,
carpet burns from car seats, old sweat, and ache
swarming the depths. Only at the lake
love mis-trusts the rain your body made.
The latex condoms never decompose
in a bed of wild dampened roses.
Does a martyr volunteer on his knees?
Lick salt from all of your sweat glands? Take me.
Lick salt from all of my sweat glands, take me
to your love life (Bishop) on page 45,
bulbs of hyacinth on the microwave,
where clothing is flung, and bees
subdued, wallow in pollen, buzz
around in the brash sun. Take me to your love
life where you page and scratch through books of
skin, my own naked back, suck and feed
on sugar, an emerald humming bird.
I will scatter spliffs of flower petals
like a bloomed dust jacket. The only word
for the curled flowers, scarred nettles
of a love life dried and once crumpled,
my dad’s wedding band on my finger.
My dad’s wedding band on my finger,
prunes it like an irritant band-aid.
Textures, my sisters said, were from chainsaws.
I am not married into polished gold.
I pretend with my left ring finger to
be married like an Irish claddagh ring
with the point of the heart toward my wrist.
I think my finger is swelling into
diabetes like my Dad’s. Handicapped,
peddling with a left hand of just a fist—
how much sugar had he drunk? On a hand-
cart like a frost-bite saint. I never saw his
ring finger-less. My mom’s gift, in gray
velvet, soft as the skin of an aspen.
Velvet, soft as the skin of an aspen
bubbles out amber sap with our joined names.
My father said never carve the skin
of trees, tattoo a love symbol and pain
the tree. Still we ampersand our own promise ring.
The tree will bleed until it yearns to burn.
All in the name of the love of saplings,
pine beetles, ants, termites, skunk urine.
We will be a love of forest fire—
ferocious fire! Matches of passion
that crack open pine cones that cry,
ripe as mating fire bugs this season.
We start to carve J. A. & J. R. P.,
Field guides float in love with wild flowers.
Field guides float in a mud of wild flowers.
We lay a Levi blanket out to sink
like the dream you had. My hair fills with burrs,
rubs static through to my glazed brain, too drunk
to remember my own face. I can’t bless
this mess, but I prove my love by forest;
brush ants out of your hair with my scratched hand.
A sacred grove where God, Jesus, Man, and
The Holy Ghost are seen. Too beloved
to believe anymore that we too love
crushed lilac breath and closed-off waterfalls.
Bloomington Lake rains black and blue all day,
I read the first poem I showed you. It’s soaked.
“She performs the elementary backstroke. . .”
“She performs the elementary backstroke,
as the wedding stares at a maw of peaks.
I’m afraid this bride might sink like her veil,
I would prefer her in a swimming pool,
blue depth of the lake unknown. The dark maw
reflects off ice water like a giant bear trap;
the bride flew gently from a swing of rope.
Should the party swing to her and follow,
one at a time or wallow in lilies,
on the bank singing, when ya gonna get
mar-ried, mar-ried, when ya’gon get mar-ried,
sweet, little buffalo boy? The soaked bride
yells, the only thing real in me is clouds,
our pelvises decorated with stars.”
Our pelvises decorated with stars,
we sleep too close, and you have night terrors.
You are scared tonight because you remember
whoever wakes in the night must tell the other
I love you. We will both die, sometime.
“I must go first,” but you will have good health.
No bubblegum in your hair from my mouth,
cradled in the bedsheets singing a hymn
that can’t ever smell like me. Fall asleep.
I think about death every night now.
But I pretend I am excited for tomorrow
to wake, see who gets up first to feed
the cat. Callus drool, the way sweat lingers.
Absence will hold rings on our fingers.
Jeff Pearson is a graduate of the University of Idaho’s MFA Program and a past resident of Idaho State Hospital South. In 2017, Jeff Pearson won Permafrost’s New Alchemy Prize for ‘User Review of Medications.’ His chapbooks include Sick Bed and Location Services, which can be found on his website, http://poesyjeffpearson.com. Jeff Pearson works as a mail carrier in Moscow, Idaho.
Cover Design by Karen Rile
A Writing Tip from Isabel Legarda
WRITE LIKE AN ANESTHESIOLOGIST
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
Write like an anesthesiologist.
By this I definitely do not mean intentionally (or unintentionally) put someone to sleep, but rather, approach your writing project as a living, breathing being you put active energy into protecting through dangerous territory.
“Dangerous territory” for writers includes:
- daily challenges like time scarcity, procrastination, distraction, and interruption;
- occupational hazards like exhaustion, multi-tasking, the need for research, and neglect of
other important tasks or life relationships;
- faults to work against, such as pride, complacency, lack of self-awareness, rigidity,
scrupulosity, and resistance to constructive feedback;
- emotional setbacks like anxiety, feeling stuck, artistic jealousy, excessive self criticism,
the need for external validation, loss of motivation or tenacity, and probably our worst enemy, self-doubt.
A few suggestions from my day job might be of help:
Engage in singular focus. Anesthesiologists protect patients by putting intense focus on a single individual at a time. For a writer this might look like knowing a character in a story really well, writing to a single, important, imaginary reader (as one of my earliest mentors, the late Larry Woiwode, suggested) rather than to an “audience” or “market,” and devoting protected time to a given project to the exclusion of other projects.
Prepare for the unexpected. The night before each work day anesthesiologists habitually imagine the what-ifs for every surgery and come up with a Plan A, B, and C for coping with each. As a writer, perhaps you are a plotter and have a detailed, thirty-page outline for your novel in progress. But what if your main characters, because of the traits they have (and that you know intimately), veer into uncharted territory? Bring your toolkit of strong verbs, engaging dialogue, and vivid imagery and follow the energy of the scene. Or, perhaps you’re a pantser with no idea where to go next. Imagine three different contingencies for your characters, ask some what-if questions about them, and come up with a Plan A, B, & C for each possibility.
Optimize brain waves. Anesthesiologists in many places now have the technology to monitor patients’ brain waves, not just their vital signs. Brain waves may matter for creativity, with high levels of alpha waves in the right temporal area possibly associated with the mind forming unusual associations. Ever wonder why you get your best ideas in the shower, while driving, on a long flight, when you’re just about to fall asleep, or when it’s raining out? The mental relaxation promoted by these environments, soundscapes, or physiologic states might be optimizing brain states conducive to creativity. Try meditation or brown noise to encourage “The Muse.”
Finally, keep moving. Anesthesiologists are constantly moving toward “emergence”: the moment an unconscious patient awakens and reconnects with the world. They’re under pressure to make sure surgeries proceed efficiently and can’t get hung up on setbacks, even painful ones. A bad draft, a hurtful rejection, or a piece that has to be put away for a while even after multiple revisions might feel like failure in the moment, but it’s all part of working the clay: work done for the artistic process, valid and valuable whether it “goes well” or not.
Isabel Legarda was born in the Philippines and spent her early childhood there before moving to the United States. She attended New York Medical College and is currently a practicing physician in Boston. Isabel Legarda’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in America, Ruminate, The New York Quarterly, Matter Monthly, Qu, West Trestle Review, and others.
Read more writing tips here.
An Interview with Kathryn Kulpa, author of COOKING TIPS FOR THE DEMON-HAUNTED
I recently had the delightful opportunity to interview Kathryn Kulpa about her latest chapbook Cooking Tips for the Demon-Haunted, winner of the 2022 New Rivers Press Chapbook Contest. Kathryn is an editor and workshop instructor at Cleaver, and I’ve had the good fortune to be a student in a couple of her workshops. So I was especially excited to chat with her and learn more about her process, her ideas, and how she so successfully took 14 captivating yet discrete stories and made them fit so effortlessly and perfectly together.
The stories in Cooking Tips for the Demon-Haunted are full of a spectral kind of splendor, displacing the reader with a mix of the familiar and unfamiliar, as in this opening to “Sororal”:
Sister Sister always takes the front and makes me ride in the back. Sister with her doll that’s a ghost of her, ghost of me, held tight in her hand like she’s never going to let us go, my gaze fixed eternally on the back of her head, O Sister Sister her bunny rabbit ears her bunny rabbit nose. Why is she me if I am not her?
Jessica: I’ll start by saying how amazing this collection is! I reread it when I found out I’d be chatting with you, and I found the stories even more hauntingly beautiful on this second full read-through. In fact, I was struck by the fact that, in my opinion at least, there’s not one story out of place in this collection. So, I’d be interested to know: Did you start with a theme? What was your process for writing, sorting through, and ultimately choosing the stories for this collection? Did you find yourself rearranging, removing, and adding much as you put the collection together? What factors influenced your decisions?
Kathryn: Thanks, Jessica! I began with a theme of hauntings when I was putting this collection together, but that was more a retrospective process: I didn’t start out with an idea for a collection and then write a bunch of stories to fit. The stories were written at different times, and published individually, but I’ve noticed a dark, gothic quality in my work coming more to the forefront over, say, the last five or six years. Which makes sense—I’ve always loved reading weird fiction, and when other kids were playing tag, I was the one running around with a broom and starting a witch club—but it didn’t really come through in my writing as much until recently. The title story came from an ekphrastic writing workshop I took with Lorette Luzajic, editor of The Ekphrastic Review, and it was inspired by a surreal painting by Rosa Rolanda. It occurred to me that it would be the perfect title for a flash collection, and then I started thinking about another story I’d published recently, “A Vocabulary for the Haunted,” and it all came together pretty quickly after that. Those two stories set the tone for the collection. Other stories that I considered for this collection had elements of magical realism or fairy tales or something dark or supernatural, but if they didn’t feel “haunted” they didn’t make the final cut.
Jessica: Something else that struck me about Cooking Tips for the Demon-Haunted is the level of emotion packed into each piece, as well as the powerful and exciting mix of reality and un-reality. Some stories are startlingly real, like “Knock” and “Happy Meal.” And “Boy, Dog,” too, which I found myself holding my breath through each time I read it. But other stories have more clearly spectral elements, like “Layover,” one of my favorites, which delicately displaces the reader, creating a subtle but growing sense of gentle foreboding. Could you talk a bit about how you get your ideas, where they come from, and what influences whether you might use more surreal elements in a story or not?
Kathryn: I’m glad you mentioned “Layover.” There are a few stories I’ve written that are taken almost directly from dreams, and that’s one of them. The images of the shower, the strange clothes, the anonymous hotel room and the TV that only played loops of old Star Treks—all from the dream. I woke up and started scribbling down images frantically so I wouldn’t lose anything. Later, I realized the parallels with Greek mythology, and that gave me a way to shape it beyond random dream imagery, but I was hoping it would retain that disorienting nightmare feeling. The surreal elements came naturally! “Happy Meal” was a story that surprised me; it was just going to be a humorous piece about a kid driving a mom crazy in the car and then it went in a very different direction. One of those happy accidents (happy for the writer, not the characters) where you just start writing without a plan. It started with an image of the interior of this car, which was my grandfather’s old car, and I had such a vivid memory of the blue upholstery and the smell of coffee and French fries.
“Knock” was inspired by some passages and descriptions I ran across doing genealogy research; I’ve always been fascinated by that mid-century, post-World War II period and the gap between how life was portrayed in media and advertising and the understories that weren’t told. And “Boy, Dog”: I think that came from a lot of things that had been in my head for a long time. When I was a kid I wanted a dog desperately but it took years to wear my parents down to actually letting me get one, and in the meantime I read all the dog books I could find, these anthologies of “best loved dog stories,” and they’d always have these tales of hero dogs who’d save their masters from falling into the old well; I also would always notice these overpasses along the highway, where people had spray-painted messages or hung class banners, and I’d always think how dangerous that would be; and, finally, the story of Matthew Shepard always haunted me, and all of those things came together in that story, but I also wanted something magical about it. Something that would make it more than a story where the bad guys win.
Jessica: Because I’ve been in a couple of your Cleaver flash workshops, I know that your focus is short and very short fiction. Could you talk a bit about how you started writing flash and what its draw is for you.
Kathryn: Someone in my writing group introduced me to flash fiction, and initially I was kind of skeptical—shouldn’t we know more about these characters? Shouldn’t we have more backstory?—but I got converted pretty quickly. I went to a writing workshop where the leader was following the practice of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and having us do these short timed writings. You’d have a prompt and then she’d set a timer for 15 or 20 minutes, and the idea was to get through the internal editor and censor and just get it all down on paper. I can be a procrastinator, so I found that having a limited time really worked for me! (It may not for all writers, and that’s fine.) I started writing these really brief pieces at the same time that I was writing longer stories. I think this was also around the time that I read the original flash fiction anthologies Flash Fiction and Sudden Fiction and started looking at the form as its own form, not an abbreviated version of something else. I know when my first short story collection came out, in 2005, I was already writing and publishing flash, and I included two flash pieces in the collection, but some reviewer clearly had no clue and complained that one of them was “only two pages, barely a story at all!” I think that’s less likely to happen now, but I’ve still taught flash workshops in libraries and had people who’ve never heard of it. Some of them end up writing great flash stories, though!
Jessica: It feels like flash is becoming a more popular, or more recognized, individual form. I notice much more attention being given to it, but I don’t know if that’s just because it’s my own genre of choice and so I just seem to notice it more. What are your thoughts on the form and/or the future and/or popularity of the form?
Kathryn: I think you’re right: flash is having a moment. I don’t think it’s quite in the mainstream yet (and that’s all right with me), but it’s definitely not as far out as it was; well-known writers are coming out with flash stories and collections, it’s being published in glossies like the New Yorker and not just in university journals or obscure lit mags, and there are more awards and recognition out there for flash writers. There are a lot more online journals providing space for flash and micro writing. I’ve also seen a lot more how-to books on writing flash. I don’t know what this is going to mean for flash ultimately. It will probably all shake out in the end. I do think the current popularity could have some downsides, people who come to flash because they think it’s “easy” compared to writing “real” stories, and that you just have to follow a formula or have a twist ending or take a piece out of a longer story and call it flash. As we know, no such luck! Writing good flash is hard.
Jessica: You were previously a winner of the Vella Chapbook Contest (2015). Was your process/experience with New Rivers Press similar to your process/experience with Vella? Specifically, was there anything that you learned from the Vella contest that helped you when you were preparing to submit to the New Rivers Chapbook Contest?
Kathryn: Vella was a micro-press with one person, Lisa Mangini, in the lead as editor and publisher, so it was very small and personal. One thing I liked about that contest was she sent me a selection of their other chapbooks, so I could see what they’d published and look at the book designs. I was able to choose my own cover design and I asked an artist friend to create a photograph for me. With New Rivers, the press was part of a university publishing program at Minnesota State University Moorhead. It was still a small press, but I did deal with a few different editors as well as the head of the program. One difference was that I couldn’t choose my own cover image because creating a design was part of the publishing program for the students. But they were good about consulting me and getting my ideas, and, in both cases, I had final approval on edits.
Unfortunately, as of this spring, New Rivers Press is no longer associated with Minnesota State University, so that has made it difficult as far as distribution. One local Rhode Island bookstore was able to get copies before the program was shut down, and I got some for myself and I’m selling them on my website and Etsy shop, but of course it’s not the same as having books available through Amazon or Small Press Distribution. And it would be nice to have a press that did more of the work on publicity, but I know even writers with bigger publishers end up having to take on that job themselves, or hire an independent publicist to do it.
Jessica: Lastly, what advice would you have for someone putting together a chapbook collection and preparing to submit it to either contests or open submission periods for publishers?
Kathryn: If you win the contest or get your manuscript accepted, you’re going to have to answer a lot of questions about the ‘what’ of your collection, so it’s important to have that clear in your own head first. Imagine you’re a bookseller or a librarian, and someone picks up your book and says “What’s this all about?” How do you describe it? What’s the mood? What’s the vibe? How do the stories work with each other, how does one lead into the next, is there a larger story you’re telling through these individual pieces? Find the stories that are the heart of your collection and think about where they will fit, and remember that you need a strong beginning and ending to capture the first readers at these contests or publishers, who are probably reading so many manuscripts. Print out all your essential stories and all your maybes, live with them for a while, shuffle them around, and be ruthless about cutting stories that don’t fit. There will always be another collection! Most important: make sure you love it.
Jessica Klimesh (she/her) is a writer and technical editor whose creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cleaver, Atticus Review, trampset, Bending Genres, Ghost Parachute, Does It Have Pockets, and Whale Road Review, among others. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfiction, and Best Small Fictions, and she recently won 3rd Prize in the South Shore Review Flash Fiction Contest. Learn more at jessicaklimesh.com.
Read more interviews here.
Estimated reading time: 2 minutes
I know. I know. So grotesquely obvious. Except for the essential sequitur: Be inspired by what?
The metronome flick of your puppy’s tail?
The mellifluous hum of the antique AC?
The letter m, lowercase, written, for the first time, by a child?
The problem is, the possible sources of inspiration can be measured by infinitudes, and to write we need some curb or cramp, a boundary or horizon, a wall against which to toss our nouns or a pocket into which to tuck our thoughts.
We need a place to start; we need some traction.
Here’s the first page of Autoportrait, by the author Jesse Ball:
I read Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait and found I admire its approach to biography. It is an approach that does not raise one fact above another, but lets the facts stand together in a fruitless clump, like a life. He wrote it in his thirty-ninth year. In my thirty-ninth year, this book follows his.
And there it is—the place where Ball’s book starts, the borderlines the author gives himself. He will write in a way that does not create a hierarchy of facts. He will pursue a “fruitless clump.”
Go to your shelves. Pull down a favorite book. Study its first lines. Write down the constraints that the author suggests and then make them your own. Maybe you’ll end up writing toward color (Bluets). Maybe you’ll pursue the chemistry of tears (The Crying Book). Maybe you’ll write to reach someone (On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous). Maybe you’ll start to think very hard about “how much we pad our lives with … stuff.” (Index Cards).
Let another writer’s structure or obsession shelter your thoughts. Then exhale and free yourself to take a good long look around.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of three-dozen books in multiple genres, an award-winning teacher, co-founder of Juncture Workshops (now running the Story of You lecture series), and a book artist. Her new books are Wife | Daughter | Self: A Memoir in Essays and We Are the Words: The Master Memoir Class. More at bethkephartbooks.com and etsy.com/shop/BINDbyBIND.
It had been a month since my miscarriage, two weeks since I decided to take my maternity leave anyway. I justify it like this—I’m not leaving the office for maternity, maternity had left me instead.
Davis leaves for work in the morning, tie tied, hair slicked back, a pitiful look at me as I lay in bed with my eyes open.
“Feel better, hon.”
Davis does yoga and reads books about “Somatics”—a mind-body connective healing theory or practice. His books are full of primary colors and energy, loopy illustrations and listening. They make me want to judge him. At night he does yoga and practices meditation, which I used to think was good for him and good for us. One of us should be balanced. But now it feels aggressive and in my face. Davis is centered, I’m not. Davis is healthy, I’m not. Davis can be happy without our daughter. I can’t.
I listen to his footsteps travel from room to room, the click-clack of his shoelaces hitting the wood floors. He is opening the doors to all the rooms in our home as he does every morning, for feng shui, for airiness, for the idea that my surroundings and I are in harmony. Slamming them closed after I hear his car peel out of our driveway is a nice little release—maybe he intends it that way.
Today, his tires spit gravel. Sweat drips in a single bead into the small of my back, and I try to go back to comfortable darkness.
Feet in socks, I take silent steps to every door. Slam to the shower curtain and the toilet and my bottles of creams and toners that lined the counter like potions. Slam to the empty mason jars on the kitchen table, catching moonbeams for Davis. Slam to the rows of twisted faces and inhuman coloring of the little Sunbonnet Sue figurines Mom had given us, to start a cabinet, a collection. I put my hand on the doorknob to the nursery, cold with her absence, and try to close this door too. But today, clouds and gray sky from the window draw me into the belly of this lost room, a swirl of color like a threat.
The view from the window is nice. It frames a park we had hoped she could play in. I saw her in the swings with Davis and I, in the fields and hills, exploring. Davis and I had bought her a little denim bucket hat that tied on the bottom, the strings new and uncreased. It is tossed on the crib, hanging on a bed knob.
The denim feels soft in my fingers; it still has the new smell of plastic and chain stores. I hold it to my cheek and look out, feeling the stillness of a morning turning afternoon. The world is growing into something I can recognize. I spin the little hat on one finger.
As the hat loops, orbiting my unclean aura (Davis would say my gravitational pull was affecting it or something), I hear her. It must be her. I spin the hat faster and close my eyes, thinking I am somehow summoning the spirit of my lost daughter. Irrational thoughts haven’t been scaring me, lately. When I open them, crust dotting the corners of my eyes, I see I have not summoned her. I have summoned them instead.
They are a little troupe of girls who look to be on the edge of preteen gawkiness. They burst like light—darting from one parking space to the other like electrons outside a nucleus. Their messes of hair propel them forward and around, over and under, living, breathing, alive.
I ball up the hat in a fist and feel pressed out to observe. Fresh air could blot clear what I am seeing. As I step out onto the porch, the sun streaks through the threatening sky, dappling the parking lot in spots of sun and heat. I settle into the plastic Adirondack chair, zoom in on these creatures the nursery window had brought me. They seem unbothered that my porch is close enough for me to hear their conversations. The group is also uninterested in what I am interested in, which is one of them, flat on her stomach, in a parking space.
As the girls chase each other and pay the facedown one no mind, the sun reveals itself in little patches of light. Soon, the empty parking spaces radiate heat in little waves, like music. I understand the one that was already there, in a space. She has to listen. She felt the heat through her sneakers, pulling her down, to a sun bed, a sun blanket, a sun pillow.
“What are you doing?” This speaker has a frizzy halo of red curls and stands tall above the rest, which made her Best, to me. She draws the attention of the others.
The parking space sun-soaker looks up, her lips dotted with gravel bits. She grins, then returns to the asphalt. Sun seeps into her forehead. She turns her arms so her elbows face up, so her palms can fill up with heat like sponges. Heat washes her clean.
One says something like, “Is she ok?” and is quick to the parking space’s side. Fast.
Fast lays in the adjoining parking space, and the sun-drenched one turns her cheek to face her. She smiles. Because she has a secret, I think.
“Ohhh, it’s warm,” Fast purrs.
“It’s more than that.” She answers like it is gospel, like they are in the hush-hush of church where people are talking to higher powers in their head.
“It’s sun power!” She lifts her face to the sky, a girl seal in a parking spot ocean rock.
The heat and light ignite her skin, and I know she will burn anyone she touches. Suddenly, she is fire and she has no choice but to run the flames off of her back. She springs up, a phoenix, a dragon, and runs. I catch her flaming eyes. She is Wild.
They deserve the sun, these girls. The porch is shaded, and I have no shoes on. Chill creeps into my skin and nudges me. If I lean over the porch rail, the sun could kiss me too. But I don’t want them to notice me, to take away any of the sun power.
That evening they leave with arms slung around each other, faces flecked with dirt and blooming red with sunburn. I watch them speed away on their bikes, chasing the sun, chasing each other. My heart breaks a little, and I chide myself for my fresh attachment to them. I stand and stretch and feel the hat drop off of my lap. It lays flat on the porch planks. A day in my hands has weathered it. It looks rougher than before, worn. I shake it out, the crinkles and creases in the strings making my heart seize.
By these crinkled strings, I carry it to Wild’s parking space. My legs pump, arms swing, stomach aches—I am being moved to deposit this for them. It feels like I don’t really have a say. I understand that they should have this piece of me. Of her.
On the third day my daughter’s hat is ignored, I decide to start evening meditation, to think of nothing. For me, it is straight to the nursery to sit and hum and become blank—Davis says that’s a “site of trauma,” the nursery. When I am nothing I think of the Parking Lot girls. I feel a pulse in my fingertips. When I think of them, I can think of her. I think of what they will do with my baby’s little hat. I think whatever they do will teach me about her.
Davis calls the meditation practice “sequencing.” We are supposed to notice the order in which tension leaves our bodies. I notice pain in my squint because I can’t quite close my eyes. The park is best when the darkness creeps into the edges of the sky, when the clouds show the last of their color. Orange. Pink. Purple. I notice my ears ringing as the bugs drone, and the girls grow louder, more boisterous. Bubbles on a roiling boil.
They have been visiting me every evening–wild girls with wild eyes and wild hair and wild hearts. They run until their legs run out of blood to pump them. They slam their sneakers into the pavement, atom zips. Their knees are skinned. Their lips are blue. Their ears are tinted with sunburn or goosebumps. Knees, lips, ears.
I unwind my legs and leave the meditation me—my pouty lips and furrowed brow and empty, empty silence. I hear their laughter.
Tonight, a New little creature with braids and red cheeks is their shadow. I watch her—she holds herself a little too straight. She purses her lips. She blinks back watery eyes or tears.
The meditation pulse is back in my fingertips, and I wonder if they feel it too. The connection, our connection, a bumblebee buzz on the surface of our skin. They are chasing Fast, and it seems like nothing will pull them away from the game. I walk my fingers over my bare arm, trying to mirror their steps.
The hat sits in the parking space that held so much power just a mere week ago, blackened with tire tracks. They have no use for it.
I watch the New one, different from the others, more polished. She trails Best, arms crossed to keep herself warm. It is getting chilly, but they never wear jackets. Best seems oblivious to New, as she hollers at the others to give Fast no way out of their game. New is moving her lips, but no sound seems to emanate from them. Fast laughs with her head tilted back, her mouth open wide as if she is collecting raindrops. Suddenly, Best corners Fast and she takes off into the parking lot, leading the girls in a squealing frenzy. New trails them, trying her best to giggle along with them.
I consider going inside.
I tell myself they are annoying and too loud and I have better things to do. The truth is that I can’t bear another night of them ignoring the hat, the piece of her I had offered. I try to listen to my goose-pimpled legs humming with pins and needles, telling me that I really don’t feel like standing up. That is a part of meditation and body awareness—noticing what your body was trying to tell you.
The chase continues. Through the bike rack. Through the parking lot. Onto each dusted, fading paint line that bordered each space. I sit forward and push my palms together, thinking that Davis would find me insane. A reason he had married me, he said one night over frozen pizza. With a tap on my nose, “You’re just a little insane, you.”
Best leads them into a cluster around the parking space, Wild’s parking space, to make a plan of attack. They don’t treat it differently from any other space in the lot. It is as if they forgot the power of the sun, the thing that had brought Wild into their sisterhood. I am not hurt, no I’m not. That would be insane.
They huddle, hands on shoulders and loud whispers. The hat is just a piece of scenery, absolutely nothing special. My eyes are wet. My chest deflates. Until, until, the New one. Special. Perfect. She leaves the huddle and reaches down to it, squatting to investigate, letting the chase continue and leave her behind.
Her braids fall forward like two arrows to my hat. The hat is upside down, waiting for her head to snuggle into it. She squats as if she were looking at her reflection in a puddle, as if my hat could show her who she could be. She isn’t Wild or Best, but she is there, looking at what I left.
Instead of placing it on her head, she picks it up by the rim. I don’t know what made me think she would put it on. The hat would fit a cat or a teddy bear. The hat, my daughter’s hat, is being walked to them like a birthday present, like an open treasure chest. She is a little beggar girl asking for crumbs, from those she wanted to be sister to. My baby’s hat, her prize.
Best sees that she has something and stops her. I sit on the edge of my plastic chair, chill dotting my arms. The girls grow quiet, the game forgotten. They say something to one another that I can’t hear. Heads bowed and hands clasped and one clump of sisters talking about me. Or my daughter. Dusk softens the sky to a dark denim blue. On soft feet, I patter to the screen door, reach an arm inside to turn on my porch light.
I blink hard, seeing shadow spots from my new light. Blink. They’re giggling and chattering. Blink. The hat is gone, at the core of their huddle, I hope. Blink. The girls scatter, digging in the grass like dogs.
They claw at the dirt with stubby nails, pulling up clumps of grass and soil. The sky is growing darker. Their arms and hands and nails are full of earth. The hat sits upside down under a streetlight. They are filling it with their dirt. My body hums with a warning buzz, like a wrong note. Like a crescendo.
New beams, the guardian of the dirt hat. She stands over it and directs the girls to different corners of the park. Under the streetlamp, the shadows give her length and stretch, as if she is suddenly all of them.
I listen to this ringing in my ears, thinking they are trying to tell me something about my baby. To teach me, like I wanted. It is like they had some secret knowledge of where she really is, buried somewhere. They are reuniting her with her things. I didn’t need them to remind me of that, I needed them. To be with me. To let me in. I sigh, loudly, pitifully. Not one ponytail or pigtail flips in my direction.
Then, again they are gone—through the bushes and up the hill, never even a look in my direction. What is it about me? What kept the distance between us, really?
I lean against the porch rail, pressure on my abdomen, wetness on my abdomen. Dew and heft pushing me to do something. Maybe her hat isn’t really enough for them, for me. Maybe the hat isn’t special.
I see two headlights reaching for me from the driveway. When they light my face, Davis honks as if he’s home from war and not his office job. He hops out of the driver’s seat, checks the edges of his reflection in the side mirrors, and jogs to me with open arms. He slows his happy steps and puts two flat hands out toward me.
“Oh, are you grounding right now, babe?”
Grounding is the somatic way to stand still. I think how I must look, empty glazed eyes rooted on this porch, astounded by the Parking Lot Girls and their digging.
“I…” I’m not sure how to answer him, my mind is playing me scenes of the Parking Lot girls piling dirt and rocks and maybe wriggling worms into what was supposed to cradle my daughter’s skull.
“Oh I’m so sorry, you’re still in it.” He puts his hands on my shoulders gingerly as if his touch could bring me to my knees. He kisses my cheek and I notice his lips are chapped. For someone so conscious of his body’s needs, I’m surprised he isn’t drinking enough water.
He turns on the light in her nursery and my eyes follow his shape as he pulls boxes off of the shelves in her closet. He’s humming. My head is throbbing.
That night, sleepless and furious that Davis lay still and quiet like a corpse, I go to the park. I sit on my knees, face the memorial we had made for my daughter—me and them. Looking at my half-baked girl in a mound of soil, I am glad she wasn’t born. I don’t understand girls like I thought I did. I don’t understand myself like I thought I did either. My head pounds, and I think that maybe this is a good revelation.
I lay back in the grass, like I had seen them do when they ran out of things to talk about. Tracing my finger in the dirt, dew seeping into the curves of my shoulders, I feel a heat, like anger. I imagine them around me, digging into me like they had this grass.
Watching New cradle my daughter’s hat felt like releasing tension from my jaw. Maybe it should. A somatic sensation—my mind instructing my body to feel better. Yes, each piece of her was a piece of me that could be given to them. Maybe I should be Teacher. I could show them how it hurts.
Davis doesn’t know I did this: offered a token of our baby to this little pack of creatures, thinking of it like therapy. He would tell me that children, not young women just children, behaved irrationally all the time. They didn’t mean to hurt me. They were just playing. They were being them.
I sit up, dust grass and wet dirt off my shoulders. My fingers dark with soil, I put them to my nose, trying to understand.
New still dressed cleanly. I close my eyes, seeing her rosy cheeks and braids. She doesn’t seem to be like them, not really. She is more of the mermaid princess fairy sprite that I expect from little girls.
I pull my father’s Swiss army knife from my pocket. I remember thinking it was an odd gift, especially for my sixteenth birthday. He hadn’t even bothered to wrap it, just yanked it from his back pocket, pressed it into my palm.
“It’s tradition,” he had said, like it was an embarrassing thing to say. “You’re the firstborn, you get the knife.” Like most tradition, I got to accept it without question.
My firstborn was never going to take a breath. The obligation of it had been released from me now. The knife is red and reflecting my thumbprints and screaming at me that now I am being irrational.
I want to understand them, to be right about this. I want New to see who they really are, turn her cheek to my porch and run into my arms. My mind, her body—connection.
Davis leaves for work this morning and says, “You’re looking better these days.” I smile and have a cup of coffee and think all day about what they will do.
They come later than usual, the new one radiating joy. A decision has been made, something has been said. They are an ink blot spreading, opening, widening to let her in. Thank God, I think. Thank God she’ll be able to see them truly, tonight. Thank God I will too.
They sit in a circle on the grass, their hearts beating the same beat. I feel it too, a thumping in my neck. Darkness settles over them in a purple-blue haze, and the first stars pierce the air with chill. They fall into a hush.
Best walks over to the hat, still full of dirt. She sees my knife, like a little red tombstone, and gingerly picks it up, turning it around in her fingers. I wonder if she knows what she is holding, if she is mapping together this knife and the bucket hat, conjuring my daughter.
My heart beats. I listen to it and think of Davis. He’d say, “Isn’t it exhilarating that your heart can beat like that? What is your body trying to tell you?”
She brings the knife back to the circle and talk swells. They open all the little compartments, trying the corkscrew in the dirt, the nail file pressed on Wild’s tongue. The moon lights them up as if they are sacrificing someone, something. Best had brought each of them a flashlight. They click the lights on and hold them under their chins, their faces contorting in shadow.
Best opens the compartment with the longest, thickest, most intimidating knife. The girls whisper and giggle.
Best sticks out her fat thumb and stares at them through the veil of dark. They see the flash of metal, but Best makes no sound as it cuts her skin. I inhale, night air filling me, gleeful to have anticipated something. I hope she doesn’t cut too deep.
But then, she touches her thumb to her forehead. Then, to each of the girls’. I thought they would hurt each other. I thought they would hurt themselves. When Best touches her sticky thumb to New’s forehead, I see her cheeks lift.
“Me next! Me next!” Fast kneels next to Best and eagerly offers her thumb. The blood thumb ritual repeats and for once, the girls seem to have nothing to say. Nothing at all. This is New’s chance to run. But she is cross-legged and wide-eyed. Anchored.
Wild, with her loud cry, makes a racket at her turn. Breaking the silence. While she is hooting and using the one curse word they know, New’s smile grows and grows. She must love to be a part of something, even if this something is chaos and wildness. Would my daughter have been a part of something? Was she a part of this? Was I? It was my knife. It was her knife.
Wild touches her thumb to each sister with such clarity and such force that I feel she must have done it before. I wonder what it feels like to have a sister’s heartbeat sink into your temples.
Wild takes the little knife from Best and approaches the new one, breaking their circle to kneel in front of her. I close my eyes, darkness and nothingness giving me the clarity to hear their small voices.
“Ready?” she asks her as if New would ever dare to say no.
Her little face must have ogled Wild’s blood-smeared forehead. She takes quick, loud breaths.
“Does it hurt?” she asks.
Wild’s cackle makes me open my eyes.
New sticks her thumb out to Wild, her soft, lily-white thumb like a tiny moon in the dark. Wild tips the blade into her skin and it splits open in a thin curtain. As the blood forms little droplets, she smiles and touches the line to Wild’s brow. Her touch is delicate.
I watch as she presses the skin of her thumb to each of her sisters with a tenderness they can’t replicate. It quiets their pulses. It makes them giggle, like they are much younger than they look. Best rocks in place, in a knowing way. Their ritual doesn’t have to be so carnal, so serious. This new one has become Mother, the last to share her blood, the last step to connect all their dots. My stomach aches. She has made them beautiful.
When New finishes pressing her skin to each of them, she looks across their circle. She looks at me.
“We howl!” Best instructs.
And each of them howls to the empty darkness, their voices a blend of all that they are. New, now Tender, her voice sweet. She needs them and they need her, but God, I need Tender too. I tip my head back, my neck creaking and craning.
I howl for my Olivia. I howl for who I am without her.
Gillian Perry is a writer originally from California, currently in Greensboro, North Carolina. She is a fiction MFA graduate of UNC Greensboro. You can find other work of hers in the Carolina Quarterly and Heavy Feather Review.
Cover Design by Karen Rile
Lillian Lowenthal is a recent graduate of Vassar College, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in Asian Studies. Lillian currently lives in Baltimore and is working to complete the first draft of a novel. In her free time, she swims, rides horses, and is teaching herself to sew.
FROM DRAWER TO BOOKSTORE IN JUST TWENTY-FOUR YEARS:
The Long and Worthy Journey to Publication
by Ona Gritz
The oldest version of my forthcoming middle-grade novel that I can access on my computer is dated 2010, though I know the drafts go back much farther. For one thing, these pages have equal signs where apostrophes should be, indicating that it was wonkily converted to Microsoft Word from WordPerfect. Anyone remember WordPerfect? I recall that the initial glimmer of the idea came to me soon after the release of my first book—and only other children’s novel—when my now twenty-six-year-old son was two.
As is often the case with fiction, the idea was born out of an image from my own life: me, as a little girl, staring at a childhood photo of my much older half-sister and noting the similarities in our faces, along with something else I recognized, something beyond appearances yet somehow there, even in a black and white snapshot. This wasn’t a sister I was close to. In fact, I barely knew her. For most of my childhood, my parents had passed her off as a distant cousin. Still, our resemblance was unmistakable and that fascinated me. Meanwhile, the sister I lived with and loved fought with our mother constantly and, the year she was twelve and I was six, she ran away. Back then, running away and general “incorrigibility” were illegal offenses for minors. My parents brought her to court and she was sent to reform school, a situation both heartbreaking and complicated.
Even in my thirties, when I saw that glint of a novel in the memory of a small, lonely girl holding a photograph, I barely understood the fraught dynamics of the house I’d grown up in and had no intention or desire to try to capture them on the page. What I was interested in was much simpler and more universal: a younger sister’s longing for an older one who is out of reach.
I named my fictional half-sisters Molly and Alison and separated them, not by the kind of family secrets and strife that kept me from my own sisters, but by mere distance and logistics. Ten-year-old Molly lives with her parents in upstate New York, while twenty-year-old Alison lives with her mother in London. I began a first draft in 1998 when email was still a rarity in homes and video calls were far in our future. Without these luxuries of communication, the sisters write letters on slender sheets of airmail paper. But technology wasn’t the only thing missing from my earliest manuscript drafts: so was a plot. If I had to sum up that original story in an elevator pitch, it would have sounded like this: Ten-year-old Molly begins to worry that she’ll ruin her older half-sister Allison’s long-awaited visit after Molly’s best friend complains that she finds her own little sister clingy and annoying.
A friend who is a literary agent read my first less-than-fifty-page draft and gently told me that more had to happen, and that without trouble there was no story. Fine, I thought, and threw in a necklace that Molly had stolen from Alison the one other time they saw each other, back when Molly was five and Alison fifteen. The truth was I didn’t really buy that such strife was necessary. While reading, I tend to wade through conflict the way I wait out chase scenes in movies, anxious to get back to the good stuff: beautifully rendered scenes and sentences, characters whose inner lives reflect and inform my own.
I should mention that my background is in poetry, which may be why my focus, as both reader and writer, has never been on action and tension, but on sound, resonance, and well-drawn moments. I say may because it occurs to me now—and perhaps you’re ahead of me here—that the very thing I became a reader to escape was the tension in my childhood home and the devastating actions of the adults around me.
That 2010 draft—the oldest salvageable attempt at my novel—ends abruptly in the midst of its one tense passage: Molly returns Alison’s necklace, meaning it as a kind of welcome gift, but is met with her sister’s hurt and fury that Molly had taken it in the first place. It’s an overblown response and a completely unbelievable scene, which I’m sure is why I stopped there and went back to poems and personal essays, genres where I felt sure of myself.
Yet I pulled that fragment of manuscript out of the drawer periodically through the years. I can see why. Molly has a captivating voice, even in her earliest iteration, and the pages contain lovely moments. And there was something necessary in that undeveloped story. While there was no lack of children’s books about divorce or newly blended families—the young protagonists living through the trauma of unexpected, unwanted, and often colossal change—I hadn’t found any that explored the unique but also common experience of being a child of a parent’s second or third family. I still haven’t, and I get why that situation is overlooked. Place a story years after the painful decision to divorce or the dramatic reshaping of a family, and you miss out on some good plot-driving, page-turning material. But what I know from the inside is that, if the children of those latter marriages have siblings they don’t live with or fully know, it’s likely they long to have them in their lives. And one thing that propels a more internally focused story is desire.
“What does your character want?” the gurus of story structure ask in the many books I read as I oh-so-slowly taught myself how to write this novel.
It’s hard to explain why in retrospect, since I had my desire line from the start, it took me so long to find Molly and Alison’s story. Especially given that I’d already written one middle grade novel and sold it to a big five publisher. But my first book, inspired by the quiet lyrical children’s novels I loved—Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, Cynthia Rylant’s Missing May—made it in just under the wire before most agents and editors would only consider books, especially for kids, that had Plot with a capital P.
Here are some notes from my agent friend after reading one of my many revisions: “Give Alison an inheritable disease, or let Molly discover Alison is a drug addict…Don’t just give Molly one big thing to contend with, make it five.”
I held the phone to my ear and wrote this all down, disheartened but not entirely surprised. In my day job as a librarian, I watched children’s fiction, by then frequently set in fantastical worlds, growing busier and more action-packed. Though I knew my novel needed higher stakes, when I thought of throwing one dramatic event after another at Molly, my mind grew cloudy, and I put the manuscript away yet again. What kept drawing me back were the exceptions to this trend— beautifully written, realistic, and compelling books by Jacqueline Woodson, Rebecca Stead, Rita Williams-Garcia. I read and reread them, trying to understand how they were made. I also continued to read craft books, including Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, where I found this:
“Plot can be as intricate as a whodunit, or as simple as a character experiencing a small but significant shift in perspective. But invariably it comes from the people we create on the page.”
By this time, I had inserted the Internet into my manuscript, not simply to bring the story up-to-date, but I had begun to see how its use could deepen the sisters’ long-distance connection. With video calls a regular part of their lives, their relationship can already be in place when the novel begins. Alison is no longer just an idea to Molly, but a person. As Molly puts it, “…what I am is worse than being an only child. Only children don’t have someone in particular to miss.”
Someone in particular. Plot comes from the people we create on the page. What does your character want?
Molly wants her sister. She wants her the way I wanted my own after she left our troubled family, the way I still want her (though she’s no longer alive). But after you ask what a character wants, the next question is: What is she willing to do to get it?
That’s where I was stuck. Alison lives thousands of miles away. She’s twice Molly’s age and has her own life. Molly could do no more about that than I could have done about what kept either of my sisters from me. This was the wall between me and my plot. Molly needed agency where she had none.
Unless…she thinks she has agency? Buried in my notes from that long-ago call with the agent is this: “Show Molly moving forward and fouling up.”
Make Molly foul up. That, at long last, was it.
I changed the opening so that when we meet Molly she’s operating under a misconception. Having learned that Alison is finally coming to visit, she assumes that Alison is moving in with the family. This makes sense to her because, in every other family she knows, siblings live together. Upon learning this isn’t the plan, Molly does everything in her meager power to try to make it so. As she attempts to bend things to her will and fit them into her deeply felt belief about what a family should look like, conflicts arise, along with enough twists and surprises that I found myself excited to know what would happen next. Also, because Molly comes to us flawed, she’s able to grow. Over the course of the story, she develops a fuller understanding of who Alison is and what she’s been through and finds her way to a compromise that serves everyone. Molly also comes to the realization that there are many ways to be a family.
By taking my time and uncovering my novel’s plot in my own way, I’d discovered its theme.
I am sometimes frustrated with myself and embarrassed that it took me nearly a quarter century to complete a hundred-page novel. But all along, I worked on writing projects in other genres, each informing the other: my ear for poetry evolving into an ear for dialogue, attempts at plotting the novel teaching me to add more movement to my essays.
“Things take the time they take,” as Mary Oliver says. Still, I’m startled to realize that the children I originally imagined reading August Or Forever are now all grown up. My hope is that they’ll pick it up anyway, to share with their own kids.
Ona Gritz’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Ploughshares, Brevity, River Teeth, One Art, and elsewhere. Recent honors include two Notable mentions in The Best American Essays, and a winning entry in The Poetry Archive Now: Wordview 2020 project. Her new middle-grade novel, August Or Forever, will be out from Fitzroy Books on February 14th. Find her at onagritz.com
Michael McCarthy‘s work has appeared in Beyond Queer Words, The Adroit Journal, and Prairie Schooner, among others. His debut poetry chapbook Steve: An Unexpected Gift is forthcoming from the Moonstone Arts Center in Philadelphia in early 2023. Originally from Massachusetts, he currently studies at the University of Carlos III in Madrid, Spain.
THE PRIZE FIGHTER
She would go to Paris.
When this was all over, this is how she would start again.
But today she would go back to caring for him, undo the hook and eye they’d put on the outside of his bedroom door so she wouldn’t find him in the middle of the night peeing into the kitchen sink or looking for the knives she’d stashed in her car.
When she unlatched the hook in the morning—she wasn’t sure how much longer it would hold, it was already loose—she would find him dazed, poised like a prize fighter in the middle of a ring, hands clenched in ready fists, feet in a “come get me” stance, his eyes wild and frightened.
He didn’t recognize her until he did.
Sometimes, she felt noble and kind.
On good days—hers, that is—she became the person she wanted to be. Stoic. Sacrificial. Indifferent to the melted ice cream pint in the oven and the television remote he thought was his phone, a leg into the arm hole of his t-shirt, the car keys, his, gone.
Days of rage and calling out. But to whom?
When he could still remember that the trash was Tuesdays, that the blue bin was for recycling, the green for everything else, she was hopeful. The neurologist called it “executive function.” Blue means this. Green means that.
Until the morning she found him kneeling on the front lawn, sorting through chicken bones, rank paper towels, rusty apple cores and frayed orange rinds, crusted yogurt cups, and greasy crumpled tin foil, staring at the array that lay all around him.
As children, they had fished for minnows on the Farm Creek bridge. String tied around the mouths of brown Borden’s milk bottles. Wonder Bread for bait. They threw crabapples at passing cars. He ran away before the car could stop.
He liked to confess things to her mother at the white formica table in that split-level Connecticut ranch with the sunken living room, next door and identical to his, after school.
Her mother drank Scotch and made him baloney sandwiches. She hadn’t known that.
These were the stories he could remember. As if she didn’t. Again and again.
Someday she would forgive herself for not loving him better. Wasn’t that what love was, really? Spoons didn’t have to be with spoons. So what if she had to tie his shoes?
Him. An empty bottle. Staring at the water as it seeped into the rug. As if it wasn’t too late to get it all back in.
Lyn Chamberlin is a writer and consultant living in Connecticut whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Potomac Review, and elsewhere across the web. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Lyn’s flash nonfiction piece “The Prize Fighter” was a finalist in Cleaver’s 2022 Flash Contest.
Cover Design by Karen Rile
WINNERS & FINALISTS
CLEAVER’S 2022 FLASH CONTEST
Winners, Honorable Mentions, and finalists will be published in Cleaver’s Issue No. 40, our 10th-anniversary issue
Judge: Meg Pokrass
We writers know how this goes… We submit our work to a literary contest. We wait. We wonder if the readers felt moved in all the right places; if they were engaged, intrigued, enlivened… We know how many fine talents are out there, and the process of waiting to hear back is not fun. As a contest judge who is also a devoted writer of the form, I take it strongly to heart.
The strength and integrity of the stories I read blew me away. As in any high-level literary contest, there were vastly different approaches to telling a story: There were flashes where the narrative lived right on the surface and others which offered skilful clues, and where the author trusted the reader implicitly. There were stories that showed the reader everything and stories that gave away nothing. Some characters were minimally drawn; others were created in microscopic detail. Some held me tightly in their grip all the way through yet lost me as late as the final sentence. There were some powerful themes including relationship breakdowns, racism, homelessness, strained parent and child connections.
It was only after rereading the stories for a number of weeks that my favorites became clear. Ultimately the winners were the ones that inexplicably moved me emotionally above everything else, and that I kept re-engaging with, trying to figure out how the writer worked their magic. It became a matter of recognizing that certain pieces had chosen me, not the other way around.
—Meg Pokrass, October, 2022
First Place: Sabrina Hicks
“When We Knew How to Get Lost”
Sabrina Hicks lives in Arizona with her family. Her work has appeared in Five South Journal, Flash Frog, Pidgeonholes, Trampset, Monkeybicycle, Reckon Review, Split Lip, Milk Candy Review, with stories included in Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf’s Top 50. More of her work can be found at sabrinahicks.com.
Second Place: Janet Burroway
“The Tale of Molly Grimm”
Janet Burroway is the author of nine novels including The Buzzards; Raw Silk, Opening Nights, and Cutting Stone (all Notable Books of The New York Times Book Review). Her Writing Fiction is now in its tenth edition, and Imaginative Writing is soon to be published in its fifth edition. She is the author of the memoir Losing Tim and the winner of the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award in Writing from the Florida Humanities Council. She is Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Emerita at the Florida State University.
Third Place: Dawn Miller
Dawn Miller’s most recent work appears or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Fractured Lit, Typehouse, Jellyfish Review, Guernica Edition’s This Will Only Take a Minute anthology, and The Maine Review, among others. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives and writes in Picton, Ontario, Canada. Connect at www.dawnmillerwriter.com and on Twitter @DawnFMiller1
Fannie H. Gray
Flash Contest Judge MEG POKRASS is the founding editor of Best Microfiction and the author of nine collections. Her work has appeared in over a thousand literary journals. Her flash fiction, “Back on the Chain Gang” will appear in The Best Small Fictions 2022, and another flash fiction story, “Pounds Across America” will appear in a new Norton anthology Flash Fiction America, edited by James Thomas, Sherrie Flick and John Dufresne, in 2023.
VISUAL NARRATIVES ARCHIVE
FROM THE HEART OF OLD MAGAZINES: Collages
Feeling shipwrecked in 2020, I began ripping words from the heart of old magazines. My scissors were like me, rusty and dull. The glue, too thick. My collages resembled drawings found in a kindergarten classroom. I like that about them; it frees me from ideas of what art should be. Decades ago I approached photography much the same way. I rarely considered myself a professional even after my photos appeared in national magazines and newspapers. My collages seem to spill into two categories: those that pick at the scabs of humanity and those that reflect promise and possibility. Both styles express my purpose, passion, and personal truths.
—Sherry Shahan, September 2021