Spotlight: Anne Boleyn’s Purple Gown / Anne Boleyn’s Cravings / Anne Boleyn’s Coronation

Anne Boleyn’s Purple Gown

The first time Henry left a purple bruise,
I sent a message to the velvet merchant.
His hands, the king’s, had touched me tenderly
at the start, although his fingers were always rough.
The calluses from riding brushed across
my cheek, my wrists, the hollow of my throat.
He stroked my fingers, called me sweetheart, tugged
my kirtle’s laces, begged to pull them loose
that he might kiss my pair of pretty doves.
I played the maiden, pushed him away with no,
it is a sin, my lord, till we are wed.
I said this between gasps, as my own hands
clutched like hooks at Henry’s doublet and sleeves.
Those early years were full yes and no.

Then Henry grew furious with no.
Impatient with Wolsey, the Pope, and woman’s virtue,
he seized whatever must belong to him,
and his fingers, heavy with jeweled rings, left marks
like violet half-moons on my olive skin.
I studied these new constellations, saw
the shape of Millie Blount in treason’s flames,
and ordered a velvet gown of Tyrian purple.
So expensive was the cloth—dyed
from tiny Byzantine snails, crushed
by thousands to color a foresleeve’s silken trim—
that it was said to be the shade of kings.
And queens. Katherine still lived, and I
was thirty and not yet crowned, but I wore the gown
with bell-shaped sleeves embroidered in golden thread.
Let them grumble. The court and King would learn
to value true purple, its mortal cost.


Anne Boleyn’s Cravings

When Wolsey wanted needling, I sighed
and said how pleasant it would be
to have, at Lent, some fresh carp
or trout from the Cardinal’s famous ponds
at York Place. A fortnight later,
I dined on fishes stuffed with parsley.

Later, when Wolsey was fallen and dead
and I was married to the king,
I cupped my belly and bragged to the court
that I had a terrible craving for apples.

In Whitehall Palace, that once was York Place,
I sat in Henry’s lap and begged
for cherries, grapes, roasted boar
to help our quickening sons grow strong.
I was a hungry woman then.
The world knew my appetites.


Anne Boleyn’s Coronation

Hideous and beautiful, the dragon
reared its copper head above the Thames,
like St. George’s foe breaching the lake
to gobble up the sacrificial maid.
The serpent’s golden scales shone like oil.
Children cried for their mothers, who lay fainting
at its horrid belching flames, its wings that beat
the brimstone-reeking smoke, its ruby eyes
that glittered like the very coals of hell.

Or so they told me. I did not see the dragon,
leading the water procession on its wherry.
My royal barge, that once was Katherine’s,
floated at the rear, behind the engines
and costumed wild men, behind the mayor
and fireworks, slow as dripping honey.
A wind raised gooseflesh on my pale chest,
though it was May, and nearly provoked tears
from blowing smoke. Finally, at the Tower,
the king, swollen with pride, escorted me
to our private rooms. From those lush apartments
he’d watched the pageant, which he described to me
as rich beyond compare, the cheering crowds
overjoyed to welcome their new queen.
There we briefly rested, briefly kissed
before another gout of ceremony—
banquets, dances, dubbing a herd of knights,
more tableaux vivant of gods and muses,
the Virgin Mary cradling her son.
On Whit Sunday, my belly big before me,
I strode barefoot into Westminster.
St. Edward’s crown, overburdened with jewels,
weighed nearly seven pounds upon my head.
Those lovely Tower rooms, done up so well
in tapestries and freshly shining paint,
I occupied again not three years later.
I wept to see again those velvet cushions,
the colored glass, the feather bed that seemed
it had awaited my return, knowing
I would sleep there just a little longer.
I hated each expensive mockery
my eyes fell upon, until I closed them.
And yet, a golden dragon in the Thames.
That miracle, I wish I could have seen.

Litdish: Mohsin Hamid, Author

Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid is the author of three novels: Moth Smoke, a finalist for thePEN/Hemingway Award; The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a New York Times bestseller that was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and adapted for film; and, most recently, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. He is also a columnist for The New York Times Bookends.

 

Zainab Shah: You write in English in a country where most of the population doesn’t speak it. How has your writing, which has garnered critical acclaim globally, been received in Pakistan?

Mohsin Hamid: Pakistani college students read English writing mainly to access the world. I also find they are currently looking for representations of a contemporary alternative reality that is not talked about or written about much, but does exist; this much was clear to me with Moth Smoke, my first novel, and more recently at Lahores’ first Literature Festival, where hundreds of people turned up for my talk. A most telling moment for me was when I received a letter from a religious young man telling me how much he loved reading Moth Smoke—which is about sex, drugs and crime.

ZS: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a short novel written in second person. Why did you chose this form to tell the story of your unnamed protagonist?

MH: What interested me most while I was writing this novel is a changing aesthetic of compression, or how to express big ambitions in a small space. The story of my unnamed protagonist is an age old one, common in lengthy Bollywood films, I wanted to elevate this Bollywood film trope by way of compression. I also drew inspiration from ghazals which again tend to be quite lengthy and about transcendence and longing for an unknown loved one, something you can find in the unnamed protagonist of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Again I was interested in the representation of those same emotions, but in compressing them without diluting their intensity on the page.

[In writing,] there are no rules. And if you want them to be, make your own. Pick your own constraints. Catalyze the imagination of a reader by putting the minimum out there. Leave space for a reader to do their thing and use their imagination.

ZS: Do you have a process? And if so, what is it?

MH: I do and I don’t. It depends really. I almost always throw away the first couple drafts. I tend to write with my eyes and edit with my ears, always reading aloud what I’ve written. It has to sound like somebody is speaking, the character of that somebody should be clear. In that sense sometimes I feel like being an actor is a big part of being a writer. My plan for this novel was originally to assemble a collage of different voices, at least that’s what I was thinking when I wrote ‘Terminator: Attack of the Drone,’ published in The Guardian in 2011.

ZS: What are your recommendations for writers?

MH: There are no rules. And if you want them to be, make your own. Pick your own constraints. Catalyze the imagination of a reader by putting the minimum out there. Leave space for a reader to do their thing and use their imagination.

ZS: What kind of research do you do before or while writing a novel?

MH: No research. I do rely a lot on my powers of observation and the conversations I have with people around me.

ZS: What are you interested in writing about next?

MH: Women. And women’s points of view.

ZS: Why?

MH: I think the oppression of women in the form of honor killings in Pakistan exists ultimately because people are afraid of the potential power of women, an idea I’d like to explore. Also because now I have a three-year-old daughter, Dina.

Perhaps it’ll be a children’s story for her about being a woman. Every night I tell her a bedtime story but she has such an amazing imagination, she’s actually the one that ends up telling me the story she wants to hear by questioning what I’m telling her. She keeps me on my toes. It’s good exercise for any storyteller.

ZS: Is it safe to say that’s what your next novel will be about?

MH: I don’t know. I hate talking about it. There’s something precious in having a secret, and the desperation to share the secret keeps you writing like a long-distance relationship keeps you yearning.

ZS: One book you wish you wrote?

MH: None really… actually, maybe Charlotte’s Web, since it casts death as a natural, cyclical process—it’s sad, but not frightening.

ZS: What’s your unwinding process like?

MH: Can’t say in an interview (with a chuckle). I had a misspent youth, and continue to misspend my leisure time.

ZS: Parting words?

MH: Life is very significantly chance. Love is the only real valuable technique to deal with life and chance.

ZS: Favorite dinosaur?

MH: Pterodactyl.

_____________

From How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia:

Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author. This is true of the whole self-help genre. It’s true of how-to books, for example. And it’s true of personal improvement books too. Some might even say it’s true of religion books. But some others might say that those who say that should be pinned to the ground and bled dry with the slow slice of a blade across their throats. So it’s wisest simply to note a divergence of views on that subcategory and move swiftly on.

None of the foregoing means self-help books are useless. On the contrary, they can be useful indeed. But it does mean that the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one. And slippery can be good. Slippery can be pleasurable. Slippery can provide access to what would chafe if entered dry.

This book is a self-help book. Its objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia. And to do that it has to find you, huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning. Your anguish is the anguish of a boy whose chocolate has been thrown away, whose remote controls are out of batteries, whose scooter is busted, whose new sneakers have been stolen. This is all the more remarkable since you’ve never in your life seen any of these things.

The whites of your eyes are yellow, a consequence of spiking bilirubin levels in your blood. The virus afflicting you is called hepatitis E. Its typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral. Yum. It kills only about one in fifty, so you’re likely to recover. But right now you feel like you’re going to die.

Your mother has encountered this condition many times, or conditions like it anyway. So maybe she doesn’t think you’re going to die. Then again, maybe she does. Maybe she fears it. Everyone is going to die, and when a mother like yours sees in a third-born child like you the pain that makes you whimper under her cot the way you do, maybe she feels your death push forward a few decades, take off its dark, dusty headscarf, and settle with open-haired familiarity and a lascivious smile into this, the single mud-walled room she shares with all of her surviving offspring.

What she says is, “Don’t leave us here.”

Zainab Shah is a Pakistani writer completing her MFA at Antioch. She lives in New York and can most often be found in parks.

Support indie bookstores and find a copy of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia near you with IndieBound, or order it through The Independent Online Booksellers Association!

Click here to buy Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia on Amazon!

Litdish: Kate Maruyama, Author

Kate Maruyama

Kate Maruyama’s Harrowgate is a novel that is finding ways to intrigue audiences across multiple genres in that the novel takes a different direction in horror than has been the dominant trend in the genre over the past decade. Harrowgate holds a unique advantage in modern genre fiction by Maruyama’s re-modernization of a classic sub-genre, the Gothic horror novel, a form that many writers within the genre have abandoned of late, in that the driving market trends have favored urban horror, paranormal romance, and splatterpunk.

The horror label is a genre distinction that’s at once all-encompassing and a bit misleading. Harrowgate, like many other literary works of horror, relies more on terror than horror—the psychological element over the physically graphic, to the effect that the suspense of the narrative’s terror is there to delight the reader, rather than shock them—Ann Radcliffe famously summarized this distinction as: “Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.”

Maruyama’s Harrowgate—a classic Gothic horror story, written in a post-Twilight world—is in the rare position of having an audience that is receptive to the novel’s narrative, and an audience who is willing to expand their horizons in terms of expectation—Harrowgate is a decided break from the dominant genre trends, and as such, Maruyama is modernizing a classic form and re-introducing it to a whole new generation of horror readers. Maruyama has stated that Harrowgate was not originally conceived of as a horror novel; rather, when Harrowgate began, Maruyama believed that the finished novel would be more akin to a Romantic tragedy—which, understandably, makes Harrowgate’s transition to Gothic horror one that seems natural. Harrowgate, a novel that seems at home amongst titles such as Wuthering Heights, The Turn of the Screw, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches sagas, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and fellow AULA alumna Lara Parker’s Dark Shadows novels, feels poised to take the horror genre in a new direction, by modernizing a classic form.

Lunch Ticket’s Miriam González-Poe sat down with Kate Maruyama in the weeks before Harrowgate’s official release, to discuss the origins, evolution, and future of Harrowgate, which Maruyama has excerpted for Lunch Ticket readers to enjoy.

Miriam González-Poe: Where did you come up with the idea for Harrowgate?

Kate Maruyama: I don’t exactly know when things start from a compulsion of writing, but I’d written a screenplay several years ago and at the end of it, the punch line was: ‘His wife and kids are really dead.’ It was a terrible screenplay, and I put it down; but, the one thing that wouldn’t leave me was about five pages in the end. ‘Cause the thing is: Your wife and kid are dead. What do you do now?

MGP: Do you believe in ghosts?

KM: I actually have a site, Harrowgatebook.tumblr.com where people can go and share their haunted stories, because everybody I know has one… Growing up, we never talked about ghosts at my house, but even my very practical mother posted a story on the site about being visited by an apparition that floated over her bed in an inn in Scotland. When she went downstairs and asked, ‘Have you been having trouble with the room, because last night it suddenly got very cold,’ they responded, ‘Oh I see you’ve met the vicar!’ My favorite kinds of ghost stories are those, the ones that are very matter-of-fact.

As for me, it’s one of those thingsI was talking about this with my son recentlywhere I don’t believe, but I don’t disbelieve. This is the area of life where damn creepy shit happens because there are those things that are unexplained.

I don’t think that any book knows what it is when you start it out, though. I think it has to be written; the story has to be all the way told, and then you can start classifying it as one thing or another.

MGP: Did you always know that you wanted to write horror?

KM: No, and I actually never thought of myself as a genre writer. It’s funny, when 47North, my publishing company, bought the book, I was actually kind of surprised. They’re all horror and science fiction, and I’d always thought of Harrowgate as a literary novel with spooky elements, a love story, but there’s actually a lot of evil creepy stuff that happens in it. It turns out that it’s definitely a horror book.

I don’t think that any book knows what it is when you start it out, though. I think it has to be written; the story has to be all the way told, and then you can start classifying it as one thing or another.

MGP: How did Harrowgate evolve from Romantic tragedy into a classic form of the horror genre?

KM: It started with a basic romantic tragedy problem: She’s dead, he’s alive, and it’ll never work. But as I started to ask questions about their worldwhy is Sarah here? How does her being dead affect the day to day? How does a kid who was never living grow? The horror emerged. I had questions for Greta, the meddling doula as well. Why is she here? How is she involved in Sarah being here? As I started answering those, it became a bit more apparent. And once I recognized where I wasdancing around in this horror worldI could play with it. That also became a challenge. How to avoid the usual tropes, to keep things terrifying without having scenes we’d read or seen a thousand times before. I had to avoid, “Dr. James explains it all to you.” and I had to avoid, “Supernatural battle with the bad guy.” Not only because I wanted to avoid redundancies, but because they didn’t serve the story. But I had room to play with some horror conventions as welldefine this supernatural world in which my characters exist and explore with how it messes with time, how the living are affecting the dead and vice versa.

MGP: You mentioned earlier that you had first qualified Harrowgate as a love story. Love and the loss of love are dominant themes in both Romantic tragedy and Gothic horror—how did your previous work as a writer influence how Harrowgate evolved?

KM: I wrote romantic comedies for a long time. I think I am always looking at different natures of love; when it works and when it doesn’t work. Love is sort of my favorite thing to poke at. And I’ve done it in a lot of different ways. That’s always the constant.

I can say that through the course of telling this story, I was able to touch on stuff that came up personally for me, too, because I was very much coming from a place of just having had a newborn. All the things a woman goes through; all the things that a couple goes through. The alienation a father feels at seeing the bond between a mother and a newborn. How a family just completely changes when a baby comes on the scene. It’s very isolating and weird. So in getting to know my characters, I was able to channel a career woman and how life completely changes when she has an infantexcept that in Sarah’s case she’s dead.

I had a shrink friend say, “This is actually about boundaries.” And I said, Yes, it is! Because the bad guy is a very intrusive doula named Greta and everybody is always stepping over each other’s boundaries. The main character, Michael, is setting up something to keep borders up between himself and the outside world to preserve them; trying to see how long they can stay together.

MGP: What obstacles did you encounter with regards to the market trending towards paranormal romance, and how did you finally place Harrowgate with an agent/publisher who saw the merit in publishing a horror novel that went against the market trend?

KM: I’m no market expert, but I can say that this book took a while to sell and I’m deeply grateful for my tireless agent, John Silbersack, who believed in the book itself all along. I got my agent through a dear friend who knew the pitch would be up his alleyhe asked for the MS immediately and read it and responded over the weekend. I realize that is an insane kind of luck, speed and kismet and I feel for my friends who are in the submission process for agents. It can be endless. When the book went to market, we got a lot of positive responses from editors who just couldn’t get it past the brass. This book is an odd bird: it’s a romantic story that has a male protagonist. It’s a horror novel, but doesn’t necessarily follow the same tropes as other horror novels. It’s a book that might have needed to spoil itself to sell itself. But John stuck with it. It had been out there for a year and had several passes and I met with him, terrified he was going to say, “Well, I tried, that’s it.” But what he said was, “I really like this book, I think it’s a good book and I think we will eventually find a home for it.” I am deeply grateful that Alex Carr from 47North took a shine to it in such an enthusiastic, whole-hearted way and here we are.

MGP: Harrowgate relies more or terror than horror to build suspense, keep the reader engaged, and to reveal Michael’s character throughout the narrative. How did not setting out to write a horror novel help or hinder you as the story progressed and you realized that you had a different story to tell than the one you’d initially envisioned?

KM: Ah! I didn’t really envision this as not a horror novel, so much as I was in the middle of writing the story as more and more horror elements came into play. So it wasn’t a hindrance as the horror elements emerged organically.  This is a normal, loving couple, but something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. When I was close to draft, I read, The Time Traveller’s Wife and I was thrilled because I thought, “Here’s a book that’s done well that’s in my genre.” I hadn’t been able to define the genre yet.

I think of the horror elements as magical realism in a way. People in their ordinary lives, but as two of those people are dead, some weird-ass shit happens. Sarah and Michael have to be practicalthey have to try to make things work as best they can, so they are going on trying to be normal. I mean, what would you do? But it soon becomes clear they can’t be normal as their situation is extraordinarythings don’t work right in this world. Michael’s in hot water and things around him get more and more uncomfortable and weirdI’m hoping this makes the reader increasingly uncomfortable as well. The absurdity of his situation, the crazy stuff that runs through his mind is what kept me moving through his story.

When I’m in the middle of the book, I’m asking more questions about story and character, What would they do? How does this work? than my duty to a particular genre. We have to serve the story first and the story is its own animal.

MGP: Did not setting out to write a horror novel play a part in allowing you more room to explore the genre the way you wanted to, by removing the genre’s set of expectations from the back of your mind? Or was it intimidating, once you realized that you were writing a work of literary horror?

KM: When I’m in the middle of the book, I’m asking more questions about story and character, What would they do? How does this work? than my duty to a particular genre. We have to serve the story first and the story is its own animal. I like how Steven King in his craft book On Writing, compared writing a novel to excavating a dinosaur skeleton. It’s already there beneath the surface; it’s up to us to get it out of the ground whole. That belief that the story is already there, that you need to ask it questions and find its length and breadth is exactly how I proceed. While I was working on this novel, Rob Roberge, a brilliant writer and an amazing mentor told me, “If you sit quietly, and work hard enough, the book will make itself apparent to you.” That struck me and that blind faith is what keeps me sitting down at the table even on shitty writing days. So I imagine that maybe this was always a literary horror, I just didn’t have the words to define it yet.

I think that all of us are world building, from sci-fi to horror to urban fantasy to literary fiction. Even if you’re in the midst of a realistic family drama, you have to think of how their world workshow each character affects another, how events in their past and future inform everything that happens. There are rules in a family, such as the father would never do this, as he served in WWIIor the mother would not be able to react in a certain way because of…or the kid couldn’t possibly have this piece of information. There are rules in the society of a town that will also affect what happens in this family. Sarah and Michael’s rules just worked a little differently.

MGP: Do you think you’ll re-visit writing in horror again? How did the process of writing Harrowgate differ from writing traditional literary fiction?

KM: My next novelnow at marketis a literary novel. I didn’t sit down and say, “Enough of this horror stuff! I need to write something literary,” it just happened to be the next thing I got to. And it came from one moment in a breakfast nook with my friend Toni Ann Johnson in which she said, “You love classic movies so much. You should write about that.” And I was off to the races. If you can call three years a race. And the book I’m working on now, it’s too soon to talk about. To go back to Steven King’s simile, I know there’s a dinosaur in that rock anywhere and I might have a piece of a tailbone…

But yes, I’d love to re-visit horror. I have to wait for the right story to make itself apparent.

MGP: So, what does a typical day of writing look like for you?

KM: Well, I have two kids. I write any time I can, because again, having two kids, the time gets small, and I also teach writing at a few places and do editing work.

So, schedule is everything. And schedule can also mean just that time you find around the edges. Leonard Chang says that if you sit down for an hour a day and you write only one page a day, you will have 365 pages by the end of the year. That’s a good thing to remember. As long as you are chipping away and moving forward it’s a good thing.

MGP: What was the writing & revision process like for Harrowgate?

KM: Every book can always use a re-write! When I was in my last semester at Antioch University Los Angeles, what I most wanted to do was a revision of the entire manuscript of Harrowgate. That was the second draft, out of what ended up being 12 or 13 drafts. I got an agent in November of that year and he made me re-write the book three times.

MGP: How did you know when Harrowgate was finished?

KM: Well, my Dad is a painter and he says, ‘You’ve got to know when it’s done. Just take your paintbrush off, because you’ll ruin it.’ I don’t think that’s always true with prose. Sometimes I’ve had students who take out good stuff because they are just panicked and are constantly changing. I do think you have to know when to put down the computer and stop for the day, but I think that you can always find other things that you would like to change. That always goes on. You have to come to a balance. I know many writers who aren’t writing because they get stuck by that inner critic. Their inner critic says Why are you writing this? This is stupid. Those are the demons you have to put aside for that first draft. You have to let that go. You have to be content to know that it may be a pile of shit at the end of the day but it’s through the revision process that you’re going to turn it into something worthwhile. I know so many professional writers now who are doing quite well, who are still contending with the same demons as first year graduates. They still have these voices in their heads, but the difference is they sit down and work anyway. And that’s the difference between the successful writers and those that aren’tthat daily conquest.

You have to come to a balance. I know many writers who aren’t writing because they get stuck by that inner critic. Their inner critic says Why are you writing this? This is stupid. Those are the demons you have to put aside for that first draft. You have to let that go.

MGP: I’m going to do a little James Lipton here and end by asking you what your favorite swear word is?

KM: Fuck. I would say the most overused one for me would be fuck. But, I swear so much I can’t even keep track.

_____________

The following is an excerpt from Kate Murayama’s Harrowgate. Enjoy!

 

Michael’s wife Sarah and child Tim are dead, but living with him in his apartment as ghosts. The family is trying to make things work, but time is slippery and a creepy doula named Greta has wormed her way into their existence, claiming to be the key to keeping them together. Every time anyone comes over, Sarah disappears to a dark place where time slips for her. A few hours of Michael’s time can mean weeks for her. His mother is coming to visit, which is unavoidable as he is meant to be grieving.

 

Michael

He tries to cheat bedtime. Around five, he takes advantage of Sarah’s hazy grasp on time. He starts yawning and stretching. He could let her disappear when his mother comes, but he hopes that if he can get her to sleep, she won’t go. If she doesn’t go, Tim won’t go, and there won’t be any danger of time slipping.

In the living room, Tim’s in the Pack ‘n Play, which is the modern version of a playpen, with padded edges and mesh sides. Sarah got tired of chasing him and the boy seems to be content sitting and playing with stacking cups. He can’t stack them yet, but the brightly colored plastic cups make a great noise when clacked together.

Michael watches him for a moment before interfering. He’s such a big boy already. Michael smiles grimly, remembering that parents always say time slips away when you have children. His case is the extreme version. One year in a week.

Michael crouches near the Pack ‘n Play and gets his face down near Tim. He says, “Hey, buddy.”

Tim shrieks happily when he sees his father’s face. Michael moves his chin to rest on top of the playpen and Tim gets up to meet him. “Dada. Dadadadadadadada.”

Second word. Michael sees a look of unadulterated joy in Tim’s eyes as he squeals and pats his father’s face with his soggy paws. “Dada. Dada. Dada!” He starts bobbing up and down with little grunts and his diaper ruckles as he does so. He knows Michael. By name now. The love that wells up in Michael for this little slobbery creature of intelligence is too much for him.

His voice cracks. “Hey, buddy. Dada.” He grins, pointing to himself. “Dada.” He points to Tim. “Timmy. Timmy.”

Sarah says, “Hey, when did he become Timmy?” She’s looking at them, smiling that smile, the one that came with the baby.

Michael reaches into the playpen and picks the boy up, raising him high in the air. He feels dizzy from the motion and brings him quickly down to his chest again. He breathes deeply, but tries to sound normal for Sarah. “Timmy. Don’t you see it?”

“Dada. Dada. Mama. Mamamamamama.” Tim looks from Sarah to Michael. He grabs his father’s face in both hands, looking him soberly in the eyes, making a declaration, with gravity, “Dada.” Michael stirs with pride as if he’s been named or knighted or blessed, and he pulls Tim to him and hugs him, rocking him back and forth. If he could hug him into his chest, fill his body with the boy, he would. He struggles to remember that he had another agenda.

He says, “Time for your bath, little man.”

Sarah says, “Already? He’s only just eaten.”

“Time slides by when your baby is talking and playing and, how did he get so big?”

Sarah smiles proudly, but a look of worry flickers across her face. Michael knows that when these thoughts come, it’s best to have a change of scene. He hands the baby to Sarah, saying, “I’ll run the bath. You get a towel and some jammies.”

________________

Michael and Sarah are in the bedroom, propped up on the bed reading books, when there’s a knock on the door. All the yawning and stretching he could muster would not persuade Sarah to turn off the light. Tim’s sleeping, safe in his room. Sarah looks up, alarmed. The temperature drops. Michael has to try.

He says, “You…I don’t know how much control you have over it. But you don’t have to go. It’s only my mom. I couldn’t send her away. She’s brought dinner. Then she’ll leave. Please don’t go. Whenever you do…” He should stay away from details. But he doesn’t want Tim to age, Sarah to feel lost. The tea was supposed to help. Maybe if he’d given her another cup before bed.

She’s gone. The room is empty. Like that. The air becomes warm again. This should be comforting, but Michael sees the book, the frost thawing off its cover where Sarah’s hands held it. The rumpled sheets. The dent in the stack of pillows where she was leaning is rising back into place, filling the void.

She was reading Wallace Stevens. In life, she always read poetry when she was troubled. It calmed her.

It takes all of his strength not to open the nursery door to check on the boy. He tells himself that it doesn’t matter if Tim is there or not. If anything, opening the door might make Tim vanish, if he’s there at all. And it’s not something he can control.

 

Sarah

Sarah didn’t want to go, she tried not to. When he said, “Don’t go,” she looked at her Wallace Stevens and repeated to herself, “Kiss, cats: for the deer and the dachshund are one. Kiss, cats: for the deer and the dachshund are…”

It wasn’t enough. She was gone. The Dark isn’t as scary as last time. She doesn’t know what brought her here, but she feels that she’s here in a more concrete way. She scrapes her feet along the stone–like floor and they make noise. This is hopeful. She holds her breath, listening in the dark and hears a sleepy mumble. She senses Tim is here. It’ll be okay.

The tree is oddly in an autumn phase, its gold and red and orange leaves blowing in a breeze she can neither feel nor hear. Something else is off and it takes her a moment to see that the leaves are falling up. Back onto the tree. She cannot think about what it might mean. It makes as much sense as her not being able to see Tim. Or the existence of this place at all.

Kiss, cats: for the deer and the dachshund are one. She wishes she’d memorized the rest. It would be something to do. She gets down on her knees and, listening for Tim, makes her way toward him.

 

Michael

When his mother leaves, Michael can’t find Sarah. Or Tim. And all the fears come back and the certainty that he doesn’t know anything about this world. Should he go see Dr. James since she’s gone anyway? Last time it didn’t affect time that much. He opens the door and looks down the hall at the doctor’s door. Last time. But the time before, it had taken months away.

He remembers the promise he made himself, to stay in the apartment until the funeral. He closes the door. It’s eleven; too late to call, anyway. He wishes the doctor hadn’t taken his books with him. At least he could read. He could read until she returned, and at least feel like he was doing something for her, or about her.

He goes to the fridge; it’s still full of food and, thanks to Mom being Mom, he now has about three days’ worth of leftovers. He doesn’t need to order groceries. He finished paying the bills and chucked them down the mail chute earlier. He has a pile of paperwork to get through in his office, but it seems that any time he even thinks about going over the statistics from his last trip, he goes back to the last trip, and missing her call, and coming home, and the fact that he wasn’t here. He can’t face it now. It’s late, he should go to bed.

He checks the nursery. Twice. He paces the hall for ten minutes in a fevered vertigo and catches himself on a wall before he realizes that he isn’t helping anyone. Finally, he does go to bed, curling himself around Sarah’s pillow that no longer smells like her. Maybe there’s time for a little grief.

 

It’s been too long in the Dark. Maybe Sarah’s being punished because she tried to cut Greta out.

Tim has started talking. Simple nursery rhymes. Small sentences.

It’s been too long in this place. She knows from watching the tree. All of its autumn leaves re-stuck to its branches, turned dark green, then light, then shrunk to a bare froth of green fuzz before shrinking to red buds. Time in reverse seems longer. Only clearly it is moving forward at the same rate for Tim.

They sit in the Dark. Sleep in the Dark. Sometimes Tim toddles off, but he finds his way back to her. She’s beginning to think he can see in this place, where she cannot.

Tim likes games of repetition. This is supposed to be typical for a two-year-old.

He says, “Dark, Mommy, Mommy, dark, Mommy, dark.”

She says, “Yes, Tim, it is dark.”

They’ve been here too long. Maybe Greta’s punishing her.

Then he gets into the rhythm of the words for the fun of saying them: “Dark, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, dark, Mommy, dark, Mommy…”

It’s maddening. She thinks of every nursery rhyme she can to entertain him. Pease Porridge Hot. Roses are Red. Pat-a-cake. But after fifteen rounds of Three Little Kittens, Sarah’s ready to scream. Only she can’t. It would scare Tim. She tries to tell him stories, but he’s not old enough to understand and he grows impatient and interrupts or wanders off. She loves him so dearly, but he’s no conversationalist. She misses Michael. She misses grown-up conversation.

Greta’s definitely punishing her. Sarah’s beginning to hate her, but Greta is human contact and she has the power to pull Sarah out of this place.

This place. Is this worse than death? Could she and Tim be happy together in some sort of heaven now?

“Dark, Mommy. Dark.”

What has she done to her boy?

Miriam A. González-Poe was born in Key Biscayne and raised in Miami Springs, Florida. She studied Telecommunications and Photography at FIU, and has been a copywriter for radio and television, and a creative in the marketing field. She lives in West Hills, California, with her twin 14 year-old daughters, three amazing felines and a handsome, slightly eccentric Significant Other. She is currently working on her MFA in Creative Non-fiction at Antioch University. Her likes include wine, music and metaphysics.

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Annotation Nation

Spotlight: Closing the Bar / Enough to Stand On / Letter to Youngstown

Closing the Bar

Backed up to our favorite piece of wall, we’re at Cedars the week before it closes and my friend says she’s been coming down since her bartender boyfriend snuck her in. So many Saturday nights of garage bands and traveling shows, lights and that sound that rattles the ribcage. Blues, grizzled harmonica player stepping up from the floor for a few numbers. Acoustic guitar by himself on the patio. Halloween costumes that took weeks to construct. All those conversations and cocktails. It’s going to reopen somewhere else in a month but everyone’s there, I haven’t seen you in years, cell phone cameras flashing. This was more than just a bar written on the wall. We danced here.

The patio is decked out in little white lights, my friends lovely in their jeans and boots and the music’s telling us to fall in love. I have a few memories here, a fundraiser for Sonny’s heart. One night my friend made me prove I could drive home so I walked the line in the parking lot singing Mull Of Kintyre O mist rolling in from the sea, even though Youngstown, Ohio, is landlocked, just a skinny river easing through the valley. And one Halloween I came down dressed as Flannery O’Connor. All night I said, A good man is hard to find, even though that isn’t true.


Enough to Stand On

Mud and streamers of dry grass
and candy wrappers dripped down
the porch columns, second and third attempt
at a robin’s nest. I watched her while
listening to you from Wisconsin,
your boss screaming. We’ve had rain and wind
every day, maybe the mud was too wet,
the ledge too slim, or open to storms.
When my boyfriend saw the scraps,
so much work by these small feet,
he cut plywood and widened the ledge,
said we’d fill the drilled holes later.
The robin’s been back and we’re waiting for
a glimpse of blue, little fluffs
with origami mouths. I guess
I’m telling you that sometimes much
is against us, and then here comes
a good thing we don’t even understand.
It’s luck, sure, and work, but
it’s not like we can overcome anything,
nor that we’re always sunk. If she stays,
the robin, I’ll send pictures.


Letter to Youngstown

Dear Youngstown, dear Mahoning River
Valley, dear Mill Creek, Brier Hill,
Cornersburg, North Heights, Austintown,
dear Poland and Liberty,
dear urban artists, suburban teenagers,
rural farmers, frackers, ichthyologists,
snappers, eagles, accidental brown bear
wandering in from Pennsylvania, dear deer
leaping into traffic, fawning surprise.

Dear kids of Connecticut Yankees,
Italians, Slovaks, Lebanese, Greeks,
Puerto Ricans, Russians, Southern Blacks,
Welsh, Indians, Appalachians, Hungarians,
Irish, eat your corned beef, pierogis,
latkes, meatballs, baklava, gyros,
falafel, greens, fish fry, tamales,
eat your wings, your ribs, your foot
long, pickled knuckles, blood
sausages, pasties, poppadums, gelato.

Let’s face it, dear, embrace it: rust+belt =
Rust Belt Brewery in the empty B&O station,
Rust Belt Artists sculpting scrap steel,
old bakery-turned-studios,
mirrors framed with wood
from fallen houses, dear potters,
your slip is showing.
Up the hill, Youngstown State U.,
dear old You Screwed Up, the dream’s
still for sale, at millennial prices.

Dear finance majors, musicians, physicists,
nurses, writers, political scientists, actors,
philosophers, first-in-the-family diploma
seekers, drop-outs, drop-ins, commuters,
scholars–forget knowing
where you came from. You know.
Remember the world is full
of places like Youngstown,
and places nothing like Youngstown.

Dear race, dear card-carrying hatred,
dear kids of the 1500 brought up
from the South to break the steel strike,
dear kids of the KKK elected to office,
black and white City Council, Wall Street
crash, demolitions list, gang symbols,
dear legal handguns, you’re killing us.

Dear urban farmer selling greens
from beds raised above the lead,
dear hoop houses, heaps of mulch
and compost, gladiolas spiking up
where there was scruff from an abandoned
lawn, wheelbarrows of urbanite off to
the landfill. Dear skinny kid packing
bags of Iron Roots spinach, you grew that,
you got your GED.

Dear Occupy Youngstown with your
OY sign in Christmas tree lights, Defend
Youngstown, Youngstown Neighborhood
Development Corporation painting curtains
on window boards to look like
someone’s home, Friends of the Mahoning,
Grow Youngstown filling my car
with organic apples and muddy potatoes,
Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative,
it ain’t over. The fat lady
isn’t even warming up. She isn’t even
on the census–walked away from that
nice house. Let’s buy it and fix it up.

 Karen Schubert is recipient of a 2012 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award and 2013 residency at Headlands Center for the Arts. Her third chapbook, I Left My Wings on a Chair (Kent State Press 2014) is a Wick Poetry Center selection. Her work appears or is forthcoming in terrain.org, Best American Poetry blog, MiPOesias, quickly, and Ohio Poetry Anthology. She received an MFA from the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts.

Spotlight: The Mason Jar

I thought of my mother as I waited for the museum’s copier to do its work. I watched the green light scan across my retinas and remembered leaning into her, folding myself small into the space between her chin and her lap, feeling the raspy rumble of her voice as I stared into the fire until my eyes swam with spots.

The stories she told. I can remember how they felt when they wrapped around me. I sat as she told folk tales, her rhythmic Spanish becoming the chant of a sorcerer, conjuring worlds and plucking each word out of the air as easily as song. She even told me of La Llorona in her husky whisper, not barring the scariest of stories from my ears.

Pero, no te preocupes, mija,” she always added. “Te tengo.” She had me.

The copier beeped and I collected the papers wearily. I was underemployed. Studies showed that most recent graduates were, that very few got jobs in their fields, and that life was tough. It’s all about experience, they said. To get into grad school, you had to have experience working in a museum. To get experience working in a museum, you needed a degree from grad school. The paradox.

In the winter, I worked at a ski shop, too. In the summer, I tried to spend as little as possible.

The good thing about being less challenged was the noticing. In a city like Santa Fe, there’s plenty to see. Even the buildings have personalities, which says something about the people themselves. I noticed the Navajo woman who came to the museum every single week on the free admission days. She didn’t wander through like the tourists did. Every time, she would pick a single room, going around and reading every word on the placards. Then she’d sit in the middle and just look.

In the days, I thought of friendship and firelight. In the nights, I dreamt of coyote howls and La Llorona, coming to devour my soul.

I noticed the old couple who still kept up with the latest fashions who ate at my typical lunch spot, a Mexican restaurant (a fusion of cultures! they boasted) with bright colors, round tables, and low ceilings. I noticed the young man who ate there almost every day–the way he always loosened his tie and rolled up his sleeves to the elbows, the fact that he read Dostoevsky while he waited for his food, the way he joked with the waiters. I was eighty percent sure that he lived in my apartment building, but I never asked.

Noticing wasn’t enough, though, to atone for the stifling pressure of ritual and monotony. My life was a sparse collection of nights and days, of repetition and missed connections. Sometimes I thought about buying a dog. We used to have one when I was younger, a terrier named Lucita. She ran away.

In the days, I thought of friendship and firelight. In the nights, I dreamt of coyote howls and La Llorona, coming to devour my soul.

I left work with a desire to wander. I walked along the shaded streets in the direction of downtown Santa Fe, down Canyon Road, peeking into the galleries of artwork I would never afford. I wound my way toward the city’s center, past “Trading Posts” and sculpture gardens, squat, rounded Adobe buildings and restaurants, and found myself at El Portal—The Palace of the Governors. It’d been there since the 1600s and looked like something out of an old Western. As usual, the Navajos sat beneath the colonnade, leaning back in their lawn chairs and Yankees caps with their blankets stretched out before them. Each handmade treasure occupied a specific, organized space. Silver, copper, turquoise, coral. Hand-hammered, shaped into pendants, guitar picks, bookmarks. The sun winked off it all, making it look like a heavenly city, ethereal and alive.

I picked my way in silence through the colonnade. It was congested with tourists who crawled around, bargaining, holding up jewelry, a humming chatter of accents, laughter, and crinkling cash. Somewhere nearby, a crow squawked at me. I paused to look down at a few belt buckles–hammered silver, set with turquoise.

“It represents the sun,” came a deliberate voice. “Fours. New life.”

“I know,” I said, quiet, flickering my gaze to hers. “The Zia.” You couldn’t be a proper New Mexican if you didn’t recognize the Zia symbol–it’s on the flag.

“Where are you from?” she asked politely. I now recognized her as my chronic museum-goer. As I met her eyes, I wondered that she hadn’t already recognized me.

“I’m from here. I know you,” I said, tilting my head. “You come to the museum every week. I always see you there.”

She smiled. “So you do. Here, take a closer look.” She rubbed the silver with a cloth and I squatted down, balancing shakily, resting my forearms on my jeans.

I studied her. She pretended to be busy with the belt buckle, but I could tell she felt me watching. She was at least fifty or sixty, but it was hard to tell. Her eyes were startlingly lucid, lambent with an odd sort of light. Wrinkles crossed her brown skin, scrunching the corners of her eyes and mouth. Her nose curved down at the end in a question. She wore her hair loose. It fell nearly to her waist and had almost been claimed by white, a few stubborn strands of black still holding their ground.

“Do you like art?” I asked.

Her eyes flicked up, dark and warm. “Not particularly,” she replied. I didn’t know what to say to that. “Do you?”

“I…” my lips pursed. “Of course I do. I love it. That’s why I’m working there. I mean, it’s not ideal, but I’m around the thing that I love.”

“Good. You can never be too sure,” she returned. “Too many people are cornered into being what they are not. And there’s great tragedy in being what you are not.” She handed me the buckle.

I ran my thumb along the hammered indentations, each dip a tiny fingerprint. “So what do you come to the museum for, if it’s not for the art?”

“I like to learn, and I like to watch the people there.” She quirked a smile. “Have you ever had the pleasure of seeing someone look at something they love?” she asked. I nodded. “There’s nothing like seeing a person’s face in awe. Most people will give something a cursory glance and nod, already focused on the next thing. But it’s worth it for the few who are truly moved. It’s lovely, watching someone love.”

I grinned. “How much for the belt buckle?”

“Thirty,” she replied, matter-of-fact.

“Twenty-five?” I asked.

She gave me a look. “This stuff isn’t easy to make…”

“I’m a starving recent graduate?” I tried.

She considered. “Twenty-five, if you come back and see me.”

I was surprised. “I’ll take it,” I said, doling out the cash. I offered a hand. “Julia.”

“Alice,” she said.

I returned often. I didn’t really mind that my only friend was an old Navajo woman. We chatted about a lot of things, and although I sometimes felt that I should tell her about my odd dreams, I didn’t want to bring them up. She told me some about herself but usually turned the questions back on me. It was a kind gesture, but I continued to brush off her more serious inquiries, and so we continued in this sort of dance.

My apartment complex splayed itself out like a fat, pale lizard in a dingy part of Santa Fe. It was hidden enough that the builders had forgotten to style the building into something “authentic” and tourist-pleasing and simply covered the squat, concrete building with washed-out adobe. My location was nice, though, because past the muddy streets and chain link fences, a sea of desert awaited.

I pulled on my boots and hauled my garbage outside one night, dumping it out front. None of my far-off friends believed me when I told them how cold the desert got at night, flipping quickly to a darker extreme. That night was especially cold, and the dark air seemed to cling wetly to my skin. I was heading back inside when I felt a shiver run up my back. I turned.

A coyote huddled a few feet away, shuddering. A car drove by on the road, and instead of reflecting the light, its eyes seemed to suck it in, cavernous and deadened. It shrank away from the beams. I took a step back and it met my eyes directly. I froze. It took a step closer, onto the pavement, and I couldn’t move or look away. Its form seemed to grow, and for a moment it shrieked into a human shape. I blinked, too paralyzed to scream, and it was a coyote again.

I heard a bark and the coyote hesitated. A dog trotted up, leash trailing behind, growling low in its throat. When I looked back the coyote was gone, and a single crow croaked off into the desert. I let myself breathe, slouching down and wondering if I’d dreamt once too often of La Llorona.

The dog’s demeanor changed immediately and it grinned good-naturedly at me, floppy ears twitching. I scratched behind them and its tail began to thwack against my shins.

“Max! What are you doing?” I heard a man shout. The aforementioned Max looked up at me, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth.

“He’s just saying hello,” I said, glancing up to see my neighbor. He was the one who ate lunch at my restaurant, who read Russian novels as he loosened his ties. He was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt now, bouncing up on the balls of his feet. Now that we were face to face, I noticed a smattering of freckles across his upturned nose and a scar that spanned his cheek. He smiled at me, tilting his head. “Do you…?”

“Do you have lunch at The Shed?” I asked.

“Yes!” he grinned. “You sit in the corner booth.”

I nodded, smiling, and introduced myself. I didn’t think he’d noticed.

“Well, you’ve already met Maxwell.” He grinned, thrusting a hand out. “I’m Gabe. Well, Gabriel, but you know.” He paused, looking at me. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I said. “I thought…well, there was a coyote over there—you know, forget it.”

He frowned. “What happened?”

“It’s really nothing,” I returned. “It’s just an old story, it isn’t even real.”

His eyebrow shot up, and I tried not to laugh at his expression. “There isn’t anything more real than a story,” he said.

“Really,” I said. “What if I punched you in the face?”

He laughed. “Then I’d have a fantastic story to tell! And I bet you’d pack one hell of a punch.”

I smiled. “Forget art history, I should take up boxing. Redecorate your face and such.”

He raised his eyebrows and pointed. “Artistically.”

“Always,” I laughed.

He snorted. “I like you. You know, I should have introduced myself a long time ago,” he said. “Max! Get back here!” he retrieved the dog’s leash from the heap of garbage that the dog had started to root around in.

“I’ll let you go,” I said. Gabe was still outside when I reached my apartment, throwing a stick for Max. He waved his arms at me and shouted, “Goodnight, Julia!” I shook my head. Maybe sometime soon, I could ask him about the story behind his scar. I counted the cracks in my ceiling as I drifted off to sleep that night, and despite the scratching at my window, I did not think of La Llorona.

*     *     *

I did not see Alice for several days. I wandered over to El Portal after working late one day. The sky looked different. The clouds hung low, elongating, scattered across the deep, deep blue, foam on the surface of a never-ending ocean. Heaven and earth seemed closer, the warm orange of the dust against the cool blue of the sky. I was afraid they would close in, crash down, and smother the city that reached to meet them. But the sun was relentless, and I let the soft light trickle down, touch my face, and melt into my skin.

Without all the vendors, the colonnade looked abandoned and ancient. Alice sat in her fold-up chair, with her white hair, silver jewelry, and long skirt. She was the last one there, and she’d started to pack up her things.

“Where’s everyone else?” I asked.

“Good to see you, dear,” she said. “It’s been a while. I think they’re waiting for me in the parking lot.”

“I’m sorry. Let me help you.” I bent down to put the jewelry into the boxes and fold up the blankets. Alice only objected when I put something in the wrong spot. I heaved one of the boxes, and she took the other and her folding chair. Her bracelets jingled as she set off, and I followed. When we arrived in the parking lot, it was empty. A plastic bag blew past, filling and emptying, tumbling over itself as it breathed in and out. Alice looked up at me and shrugged. “I suppose they’ve left. Would you like to go on an adventure with me?”

“By adventure, do you mean me driving you back home?” Alice only smiled at me. I sighed. “How far is your house?”

We walked to my apartment, lugging Alice’s wares. We must have looked an odd pair. “Thank you,” Alice said. I told her not to worry about it. “This happened once before, when my daughter came up here with me. We’d sold most of the jewelry already that day, so we decided to spend the money on a night in the hotel. Instead of bringing the boxes, we decided to wear as much of the jewelry as we could, and by the time we walked in through those doors, we were positively jangling.” I grinned at the image of Alice and her daughter, gypsy-like, dragging their feet with each metal-laden step.

“You remind me of my girl,” Alice said with a sidelong glance.

“Do I look like her?” I asked.

Alice laughed. “Hardly. But you’re very much like her.”

“Where is she now?” I asked.

Alice paused, collecting herself. “She’s not on this earth anymore, dear. She hasn’t been for a very long time.” My understanding of Alice shifted a little bit, thinking of her coming to El Portal every day by herself. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered, swallowing hard.

“Thank you,” Alice said, smiling thinly. “Don’t think I’m alone. But I do miss her.”

The car was locked when we got to the lot of my apartment. I offered to run up to get my keys, but Alice wanted to see my “home.” We hauled the boxes up the stairs. The chair, we left.

I watched from the threshold as Alice bustled in. It was strange seeing her there amidst all my personal belongings. It could not yet be called a home, but everything I owned lay in that tiny space. I looked for something in the fridge to give my visitor, pushing aside a few empty glass jars, but she clucked her tongue. “Just the mason jars, Julia. Sit down, dear, and tell me about your family.”

I didn’t ask why she wanted the jars. They had long been scrubbed clean of my mother’s leftovers, her hogao and, more often, the ajiaco that she would carefully ladle out, reheated until the potatoes burned my tongue and the broth trickled down my throat, warming me from the inside. I sat down at the old, knotty table, clinking down the containers and meeting Alice’s gaze.

“My parents are from Colombia,” I said. “They came here years before I was born. Papá was an engineer back there, but he had to take a job as a waiter because he didn’t know English. ‘I know math,’ he told me. ‘Las matemáticas, la lengua universal!’ But he still had trouble finding a job here. And my mother, ah…” I bit my lip. “She did odd jobs.”

Alice waited for me to continue. “She…she’s dead. She died, ah, very recently, actually.” I wedged my feet between the rungs of the chair and cleared my throat, trying to will my hair out of my braid to cover my face. Alice didn’t say anything, but she held my hand. That was almost worse. “Anyway, that’s about it. My grandparents are still in Colombia, and I don’t get to see them very often.”

“Ah,” Alice said gently, letting me change the subject. “So the blood of conquerors runs in your veins.”

I shifted. “And of the conquered. I’m a strange mix. I don’t quite fit.”

“Neither do I,” she said. “It seems we’re both between cultures here.”

“Belonging to neither.”

“Belonging to both,” she said. “And we both come from storytellers. I’m sure we’ll have plenty to talk about as we drive.”

My mind flashed to firelight and phantoms, and I reached for my keys. On my way to the parking lot, I nearly dropped the case before someone reached out and caught it. “Let me help you with that.”

“Gabe!” I accepted, and he loaded the boxes into my trunk. “This is my friend, Alice.”

He laughed as he shook her hand. “We’ve met, actually. I bought earrings from her.”

“Did you?” I teased.

“For my sister!” he exclaimed. I noticed that his tie hung slack now, swung to one side, and one of his sleeves was rolled up farther than the other. “Where are you headed?”

“Taking Alice home,” I said. “She lives thirty minutes from here.”

“Do you want to come?” Alice cut in. She squinted. “Yes. Julia, Gabriel needs to come.”

Gabe shrugged. “Why not? I had a feeling something important would happen today. This has to be it!” he grinned, bringing his hands together in a single, dramatic clap. “A prophecy!”

I looked between Gabe and Alice. “Well,” I chuckled. “Get in, then.” The three of us piled into my Jeep Cherokee and drove.

And then the first drop of light fell.

The sun was just beginning to set. Once we got outside the city, it was straight desert, deep yellow-brown scrub dotted with green, gold, and rust sprinkling the earth in every direction. Alice peered at the horizon, murmuring something beneath her breath. She let out a tiny gasp, and a smile spread across her face.

“Turn right!” Alice yelled.

“There’s no road!”

“Turn anyway!” I met Gabe’s eyes in the rearview mirror and he raised his pale eyebrows at me. I yanked the wheel around. Gabe clung to the handhold above the window. “Alice!” I yelled.

She swapped my panicked gaze with an even one. “I have to show you something.”

We rolled to a stop well off the road, the car crushing a cluster of Indian Paintbrushes. Alice got out, put on her backpack, and began to trek through the brush, glancing over her shoulder at us. “Well?” Gabe and I stared at each other for a moment before following.

Neither of us asked where we were going because it didn’t matter. We just followed Alice over the uneven ground. My boots kicked up little puffs of dust with every step I took, and Gabe’s black work shoes transformed into a ruddy brown. As we walked, we told stories. I traded a fable of two children in a magical boat for Gabe’s fairytale of the Little Mermaid, where she turns into an air spirit. Alice told us of the creation of the worlds, of a Holy Wind and a Holy People. Of twins and monsters, floods, stars, and mountains, creation and death.

And we were there. We had reached the top of a low plateau, not the tallest in the area by any means. Alice pulled the two mason jars out of her backpack and handed them to me and Gabe.

“What—” I tried to ask. Alice hushed me with a gaze and we waited silently for the sunset.

The sun sank closer, closer, the sky awash with oranges and pinks. The clouds swirled down, and it seemed as though the sun was coming toward us, faster, going to run into us.

And then the first drop of light fell.

It was slow at first, lazy, moving like white hot glass poured into a mold at a glassblower’s studio. It landed on the ground and the dust clouded it, dappling the light as it sank into the rocky earth.

I dropped my mason jar and it bounced in the dirt. I stared up at the sun as the light fell faster, harder. It was coming down all around me now, and I couldn’t do anything but watch. It trickled over my bare arms, gentle, less heavy than it looked. It nosed around me, danced in front of my eyes, and giggled away. Through the spots that swam in front of my eyes, I looked at Gabriel, with his arms spread wide, white shirt untucked and flapping, laughing into the rain of sunlight. It swirled around him, fell onto his skin, and sank into his body. Every detail of his face was illumined, shining in the light, and his blonde hair had transmuted into a gold purer than an alchemist’s. He was angelic.

I tried to keep looking at the light, but my vision wavered. I squinted at the light puddling on the ground instead, swirling, dripping. I kicked it and it flew into the air, a thousand glittering specks, motes dancing in the evening air. It sprinkled down around us, dusting our skin. Gabe looked at me with the biggest smile I’d ever seen, reached into my hair, and dusted off the light that had embedded there.

I cupped my hands and the light poured in, dribbling out around the crevices in my fingers and pouring out onto the ground. It flowed through my fingers like honey. Gabe did the same, trying to catch it, pack it into a ball of consolidated, blazing energy. He lobbed it in my direction and it slowly broke apart, globs of molten sunshine touching my face and showering down around me.

As the storm continued, the world outside darkened, making the light brighter and its drumming on my skin warmer and more comforting.

And Alice. Alice stared straight at the source of the light unblinded. Unhindered emotion played across her face, and tears rolled down her cheeks, mingling with the light and evaporating into the air. The light made its way through her skin, taking hold somewhere in her chest, in her core, radiating out through her pores. She glowed, and the light whirled her around, faster, lifting her off the ground until I couldn’t tell what was light and what was Alice.

The light began to lessen, fat drops gliding to the ground. I remembered the mason jar and fumbled for it, holding it above my head and letting the light fall into its wide mouth. Gabe did the same, and we stood like that until the light slowed to a sprinkling.

And then it was dark, and we three stood, facing each other, bathed in light. I dusted a few drops from Gabe’s collar and he rubbed my shoulder. Alice pulled us close, whispering, “That was only the surface, dears. Only the start.”

We laughed breathlessly at one another, because what could we say?

We walked back in the darkness, Gabe and I clutching our mason jars. The light swirled around inside, whispering, pulsing. I shook the jar and the light sloshed around inside, slow-moving, bringing out the harsh lines of our faces.

Alice guided us back, a beacon herself. She still glowed with traces of the light, the brightness gently permeating her clothing.

I felt the shift in the air before I heard something, from cool to darkly clammy A scream ripped through the comfort that the lightstorm had left us with, and I halted, trembling. Alice looked at me in alarm. It came again, echoing off the rocks, half coyote, half woman, a thousand screams, screeches, and croaks in a single voice. I drew close to Alice, a child again in the presence of the Weeping Woman.

La Llorona,” I whispered. The light in my jar swirled faster, pressing against the lid.

Alice looked at me, serious. “We call them yee naaldlooshii–skinwalkers. They have to do unspeakable things to get the power to shift like this.”

My heart felt like it would beat out of my chest. “Like drowning their children?”

“That would do,” Alice returned. “She wouldn’t come here, though, not unless…” She looked at me. “Julia! Have you seen her before?”

“I don’t know, I…” My breathing was shaky. “Yes.”

“That night we met, this is what you saw, isn’t it?” Gabe let out in a rush.

“Does she want my soul?” I breathed. Gabe was wide-eyed, fearful.

Alice regarded me sorrowfully. “It already belongs to her.”

I stumbled back. Another screech came, closer, echoing death. “I didn’t know…” Alice breathed, shaken. Then I saw her.

I could make her out in the darkness. She was shrouded, once beautiful, wet, stringy hair hanging over her dead eyes. They glowed a sickly yellow, pupil-less, not at all the way the light had glowed moments before. Her form flickered, suddenly feral, shuddering between woman and coyote. She growled at me, and I froze. The light screamed at me.

Gabe hurled his mason jar down in a sudden crash, glass and light exploding outward. The light reflected off the pieces a thousand times, casting prisms on the dusty earth. Gabriel was thrown to the ground. The light spiraled into the air, consolidated, and flew at his prostrate figure, soaking into his skin as it had Alice’s. He shuddered, rose to his knees, and flung his arms out. Light leaked out from his skin, and I feared for an awful moment that it would break him into pieces from the inside out. He put his face in his hands, wavered, and lifted his head, a lazy beam of light threading out his mouth.

La Llorona lunged at him with a hissing, Stygian screech, but she could not hold him. She reached her hand into his chest and pulled it back, shrieking, burned by the light within him. I sighed relief, and she turned her lifeless eyes on me.

I screamed, scrambling away, but she caught hold of my throat. In that moment I dissolved into darkness, terror’s freezing hands reaching inside to still my heart. I could feel her reaching inside, occupying my soul, groping around in the depths of my being, violating me. Her demonic face flickered into a thousand terrors, finally resting on the dead, waxy face of my mother. No, I thought, no, no eres ella, no eres mi madre, you aren’t la mujer que me crió, llena de amor, llena de cuentos, you are despair, desesperanza, desesperación de salvación, death por siempre, por eternidad…

Gabriel tried to throw her off, but she tossed him back. I met Alice’s radiant eyes, and as she looked at me with resolution, I suddenly realized what she planned to do. “No,” I croaked, trying to dissuade her. Tears muddied my face as I filled with darkness again, drowning in it.

“I have to,” she whispered. “I love you, mija,” she said clumsily. The Spanish word didn’t fit right in her mouth, and that made me cry even harder. “Don’t fear the light,” she said.

She glowed, brighter and brighter, and threw herself at La Llorona. I fell to the ground, gasping for air as the light exploded before my eyes, too bright for me to look upon. It intensified, and I shielded my eyes with my arm. The screams of the skinwalker pitched higher and higher until they were gone, and the light snuffed out.

I looked at Gabriel struggling to his feet. I could still make out a light flickering within him, shining out a heartbeat. His white, button-up shirt was torn and dirty, turned orange with dust and sweat. I don’t know how I must have looked. But none of that mattered now. Because Alice was gone, and Gabe and I were alone in the middle of the dark New Mexican desert with nothing but a mason jar.

*     *     *

I went to work. Now, I ate lunch with Gabriel, and we talked of stories of light and darkness. There were moments of heavy silence when we’d just look at each other and carry the other’s burden, if only for a moment. I still hadn’t opened Alice’s crates. I didn’t know what to do with all of the jewelry she’d so carefully made. I passed the Palace of the Governors every day, scanning for Alice, but I knew I would not find her there. Between that and the museum, all I could see were empty spaces.

The mason jar sat in my bedroom. I would wake up some nights to find the light playing through my hair, nuzzling my shoulder, nosing itself under my arm. I would push it away and it would return to the mason jar, swirling, pulsing, waiting.

It would take time. Months, years. But one day, I would creep out of bed, take the lid gently off the jar, and watch the light stretch, curl outward, and wait. I would breathe deeply, tremble, and whisper, “Confío en ti.

Kristen O'NealKristen O’Neal was dropped into a family of transplanted Northerners in the great state of Texas, nurtured by heat, story, and the grace of God. She attends Washington University in St. Louis and will be spending her upcoming junior year at Oxford. She writes with the knowledge that true things must be spoken. You can visit her at her blog, http://theparadigmshifts.wordpress.com/