Ash Wednesday

Looking down at the little lump of ashes in the crease of the sports page, I wet my finger in my mouth, touched it to the ashes and put it on my tongue.[…]

Shedding

Six filaments from my clenched fist end up in the wastebasket. The tease and tug are pushing obsession buttons. I react to phantom touches, swipe, and come away with nothing. Repeat.[…]

Casual Contact

Flying for business, I was sitting in a window seat with earbuds and a book when a young woman next to me reclined her seat. Leaning back to get comfortable, she placed her ankle over mine and proceeded to fall asleep […]

It Happened at 4:32 pm After Daylight Savings

When he relays the story over the phone, he doesn’t repeat what they said to him, but I know enough to know they could also be applied to me, to my family, to my best friends, could be said to any Asian on the street who is or is not Chinese, who does or does not wear a face mask. […]

Thickly Settled / Flight Risk

We drive back behind a sluggish logging truck. The nodule in my neck is bigger this year, crowding my windpipe. The truck takes every turn with us, like it knows where we live. Maybe we could get you some scarves, you say […]

Necessary Shadows / Flowercrackers / Empty Stomach Full Belly

Since Paati died, fireworks were the only thing that could get Thatha up and out of bed, and the goggles were the only thing that let Amma let us keep watching the shows.[…]

Before the Shrine of My Fermentation Cabinet

I crouch before the fermentation cabinet every other morning to check on my scoby, the color of my kraut, to smell the bacterial funk, and each time I am transported.[…]

Two Ways

Doll Code

Hematophogous Creatures

Rowboat

The First One

Everything In Its Right Place

Rainbow’s End

The Habits of Great Predators

Pinned Butterflies

Bread

[fiction]

One morning, there are people in her house.

Caren lives alone. She never married and her last long-term thing ended five years ago. She’s fine. She likes it: those early hours sipping coffee, her cat, Guster, winding through her bare legs. She can wear her rattiest t-shirts, hum off-key while getting ready.

But now as the light slants in the front window of her little city rowhouse, two people are sitting at her kitchen table. She’s never seen them before. Their clothes are formal; the man in a yellowed button down and the woman in a white dress with a lace collar. Their posture is impeccable. They’re not from around here, she’s pretty sure.

The man and woman stare back at her. The woman looks frightened. She turns to the man as if Caren’s the interloper, a pale ghost before them.

Caren thinks about picking up a fork or a butter knife. Calling the police. Her cell phone’s in the bedroom.

Guster threads through the strangers’ legs. The man clears his throat. “Bread,” he says in a strong accent.

Caren wants to ask all the questions. She still wants to pick up a butter knife. But instead, she looks through the fridge.

“It’s low carb.” She’s apologizing to them. She’s lost her mind.

The woman still looks frightened.

*     *     *

Two days later and they’ve fallen into a routine.

The man is Michael, she’s learned; the woman’s name is Bea. Michael speaks English, badly, then translates for Bea. Caren doesn’t recognize their language.

She’s just not sure about the whole thing. They’re so quiet, so dignified. They sleep in the living room, only use the bathroom when she’s at work. They eat modestly, hardly more than Guster. She probably throws out that much in a week.

*     *     *

The next night, she brings home candy from the office. Twizzlers. They each take one and manage to eat them neatly, which seems impossible.

Then Michael brings out a fruit plate. He’s carved her last, neglected apple into thin slices that cover the entire surface. Caren feels like crying. Michael’s a magician, making something out of nothing. A meaningful gesture out of what would otherwise rot.

*     *     *

In her bedroom, she decides she will call the authorities. She’s not in any danger, or not, at least, the usual kind. But she can’t let them break her heart every night.

She won’t be that bourgeois woman whose life is transformed. She refuses to make them her new family. She’ll never truly know them and that is as it should be.

The trouble is, she shouldn’t have waited so long. It would have been easier to call right away.

Two weeks later, the number’s still on the notepad beside her bed.

There’s a knock at the door.

A tall, sandy-haired man smiles at her, lines crinkling around his eyes. “I’m looking for someone. Two, as a matter of fact.”

The living room is empty. They must be hiding.

Caren smiles back at the man. How easy it is to be with someone who speaks her language, whose gestures mirror her own.

“Sorry,” she says. “There’s no one here but me.”

 

Genevieve Abravanel is Associate Professor of English at Franklin & Marshall College. Her scholarly writing has appeared in such venues as Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Modernism/modernity, Mosaic, The Journal of Caribbean Literature, Journal of Modern Literature, and Modernist Cultures. She’s held grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Association for University Women, and the Penn Humanities Forum; in 2012, she published a book of academic nonfiction with Oxford University Press. She lives in Lancaster, PA, with her family.

Like the Fourth Finger of My Left Hand

[creative nonfiction]

So damned sick of delicate things.

My co-worker who was raped over and over. I want to time travel,
tell his five-year-old self, Punch your father’s friend in the face the next time he touches you.

Don’t say resilience. Children are breakable.

I’m tired of my toe poking through the sock printed with zebras, and I just bought the socks.
Stupid delicate things. As if they were made of sand.

How my oldest son barely keeps the sarcasm out of his response when the cop studies his license
and is surprised he has an Anglo surname. When he and a friend are pulled over
for an infraction so slight.

Control of the voice, hair trigger.

A sock that should last more than a season.

The brain’s hair-fine bridge between thought and action. Tired of delicate cycles,
how they leave clothes soaking wet.

Bones of the ear like scrimshaw, one’s favorite drinking glass,
the balance of water in semi-arid regions of Kenya.

The part that snaps that they don’t make anymore.

Your shield against inner rage that crumbles like a brittle castle

of drying sand. So fed up with delicate issues in your family, between brothers born too close.
Like who pays for the fiftieth wedding anniversary bash and is thereby king. The fur on Esau’s body.

Sick of the whiskey makers putting it delicately on their labels, Enjoy responsibly. The moment
the bridge is crossed.

The split second I’m no longer your wife but a she-devil. The delicate shift of target.
Dendrites soaking wet with Tullamore Dew, tentacles in a tide pool slammed with waves.

The fractured plastic that keeps the sliding door of the van on its track.

The cheek of our son with autism which the broken piece almost grazes

when you hurl it.

Thin quilts on the bunk beds where I lie with our sons. The vapor of alcohol on your breath
in the next room.

The door that never works again, and the boys

forgetting and standing at it to be let in. The flimsy gate of memory that then admits
a deafening howl, the party gone wrong, fists, Why did Daddy push Rogan?

The soft-spoken man I’m tutoring from Kenya who’s writing a story about a boy collecting every drop of rain. The way the man sets down the glass bottle holding spring water. He’s brought it for me, carrying it in a quilted bag.

The circle of damp
on the library’s table.

* Oh, delicate ring.

 

Laura English posts a daily blog called “Eat More Life,” a healing space for women living with anorexia. On Sunday afternoons, she teaches writing to people from all walks of life. Her work has appeared in dozens of magazines including the minnesota review, The Sow’s Ear, Cider Press Review, Adanna, and Straylight. A chapbook, Graves Too Small to Be Red (Finishing Line Press), was published last year.

A Mountain of Invertebrates

[fiction]

Austin orders an entire seafood boil for himself. He ignores the crawfish and halved cobs of corn, focusing instead on the crab legs, which he cracks open with such force the buttery juices mist Jorge’s face. Jorge’s plate is nearly empty now. He had devoured his crispy-fried cod sandwich in five minutes and spends the rest of their meal together picking at coleslaw, catching only two or three strands of wet cabbage at a time on his fork. Austin finishes a fourth crab leg and leans back in his chair. He drapes a napkin over his lap. That was delightful, he says, but I can’t eat another bite. Austin smiles at Jorge, his teeth flecked with parsley. You should try some, he says. But seafood is not Jorge’s thing. The ocean, he believes, is swarming with aliens. No need to search for them in outer space when they lurk in the darkest depths of the earth. And certainly no reason to eat them. To roll the aquatic flesh around in his mouth would be an act against God. Hard pass, he thinks. But there was still so much shrimp and sausage and crawfish and potatoes cooling out on the newspapered tabletop. He imagines biting into the untouched crawfish now: some uneasy chewing to start, then a rough swallow. Then, he suspects, the dead little fucker would be revived by the bath of his stomach acid. Reborn, it would swim down, deeper into his gut, burrowing itself within him forever. Jorge, you really must try some, Austin says again. Just one bite, please. He grabs a lobster from the pile, twists its body, and pulls until the tail separates from its torso. They could get a to-go container. There is still time. It’s what other couples might do: wrap up the remains and tote the bounty back to Jorge’s apartment, to be later consumed in a post-sex haze. But that never happens, does it? Jorge sees into next morning, and he knows Austin would leave the bag in his fridge, as he had done with a slice of vodka pizza from their first date, and the stuffed cabbage from date two, and the Thai food from the third. The chocolate cake from date four never made it home. But for all those other leftovers, Jorge made sure to eat them. He was raised to be a garbage disposal. No waste, ever. He picks over whatever Austin leaves in the mornings, shortly after Austin vanishes into the backseat of a Lyft. Off to class or work, Austin says. Alone in his kitchen, scraping his fork against the aluminum takeout container, Jorge watches the Lyft app every time, notes how the driver passes Austin’s job, and the school, and even his apartment. Jorge watches Austin slip away, upstream. Austin is squeezing the lobster’s torso now, and the red shell compresses under his fingers, cracking. Juice rains down over the newspaper. From the carnage, Austin presents Jorge with a lump of yellowish-green meat pulp, balanced delicately on his fingertips. That’s it? Jorge laughs, he has to, everything feels too wild. So much effort and mess? All of that for so little? He’s serious. He’s confused. You’ll see what all the fuss is about, Austin says. He swears it, raises the mass to Jorge’s face. Jorge thinks about the bag of seafood, how it will surely sag, the paper thinning out over time, long after tonight, eventually breaking open all over his bottom shelf. Rancid garlic butter everywhere, and a mountain of invertebrates left to rot. Jorge opens his mouth, welcomes Austin’s fingers. He rolls the meat on his tongue, fights against the stinging in his eyes and rising bile in his throat, tries to push through. Austin is a wide smile and two celebratory balled fists. So good, right? he gasps. I knew you’d love it. But Jorge is still chewing the lobster, nodding his head over and over again. The hope is the movement will guide the sea bug down his throat and he can will himself into saying this thing is good. The hope is it won’t be a lie.

 

Christopher Gonzalez serves as a fiction editor at Barrelhouse and a contributing editor at Split Lip Magazine. His stories appear or are forthcoming in a number of journals, including Third Point Press, Cosmonauts Avenue, Pithead Chapel, and The Acentos Review. He was the recipient of the 2015 Ann E. Imbrie Prize for Excellence in Fiction Writing from Vassar College. Cleveland-raised, he now lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY. You can find him online at www.chris-gonzalez.com or Twitter: @livesinpages.

Patty Cakes

[fiction]

I awoke from an exquisite dream. That pissed me off right there, cause in my dream, I was being devoured by love. When I flip the switch, a billion fucking cockroaches scatter. Naturally, I go batshit crazy, careening around the room, stomping and cursing. Now the neighbors are up. “Hey, cut that shit out!” this lady’s yelling. Downstairs, a guy’s shouting, “I have to come up there, I’ll break your fucking bones. I swear.” I recognize that guy. Big, fat Hungarian dude from the second floor. I don’t know his name. Same guy who busted my balls that time I was practicing my scales on the sax.

Next day, I call this fumigator I know. “Cut me a deal, Frankie,” I say. “No can do, Jimmy. Roaches, they got no respect for boundaries, see? You wanna solve your issue, you got to fumigate the entire goddamn building. Otherwise, you’re just playing whack a mole.”

So I go see Yorgi, the super. “Yorgi, we gotta fumigate this shithole.” I say. “Buy a fogguh.” Yorgi says. I think he and the landlord are cousins or something.

Next day, I run into Patty. Patty and I were kids together. I was walking around midtown, minding my business. There she was, demonstrating, marching around in circles, yelling and screaming with a bunch of fucking losers. I hadn’t seen her in forever. Patty with her buck teeth. I always had this crazy crush on her.

“Serendipity,” she says.

“Patty Cakes,” I say.

“Jimmy, you still playing the sax?” she asks.

I was really flattered she remembered. I didn’t wanna confess I pawned it.

“Nah,” I say. “I quit that business.”

“Too bad,” she says. “I’m singing in a band. We could use some more brass.”

She hands me a matchbook: Fergie’s Supper Club out in Queens.

“Come see me,” she says.

You ask me, there’s nothing sexier than buck teeth. The guys, they used to call her “Bucky.” Not me. I called her “Patty Cakes.” Back in the day, she’d watch us playing stickball in the street, dodging taxis and delivery trucks. Outta the blue, she appoints herself cheerleader. She starts doing cartwheels on the sidewalk. Then one time, this cop tells her to move cause she’s blocking the way. He was new on the beat.

“You got a bad case of stupid,” she says to him.

“Freeze right there, honey,” he says, like he’s gonna cuff her.

“Bite my crank,” she says and takes off laughing.

After that, everybody started saying it. Every time the guys got together, somebody’d say, “Bite my crank.”

So I took the train out to Queens to see Patty.

In the parking lot, a guy says to me, “You gotta move your car, buster.”

“I don’t own a car.” I say.

“Whadda you, a smartass?”

“Nah. I’m a pedestrian.”

This guy, he don’t like that remark, so at this juncture, I’m getting invisible quick. I got no ax to grind with this asshole. You can’t be channeling Jackie Chan every time some jerkoff starts feeling his oats. A guy could get messed up pretty bad going down that road.

Anyhow, some supper club this was. Buncha hooligans chowing down buffalo wings and fried cheese. Loud and rude, too. I felt like standing up and telling these clowns to shut the fuck up, but what am I gonna do? Start a brawl? Some people are just ignorant. I elbowed my way up front so I could hear. Patty sounded sweet, like an angel.

Sometimes I wonder if things might have turned out different. Like if this hadn’t happened, or that hadn’t happened, or the phone hadn’t rung that one time…or it had. Or I didn’t decide to do what I did that one night or decided not to do. Maybe I wouldn’t be living in a shithole. Maybe me and Patty coulda been a team. We coulda played at classy places. She crooning all torchy and heartbreaky. Me on the sax, hitting those soft notes; the one’s that purr like a cat when you stroke its belly.

After the show, we went out to a diner.

“You want a coffee?” I say.

“I’m caffeine free,” she says.

I ordered her a lime Rickey and let her talk. I’m watching her teeth. She was so sexy.

She stirred the glass with her finger while she gabbed. That was sexy, too.

“Patty, be my girl,” I say.

“Bite my crank, Jimmy.”

 

Richard Graddis began his career as an attorney on the East Coast, but later moved to Los Angeles, where he became a private investigator, engaged in the business of tracking down missing heirs. He is now retired. He lives with his wife in Laurel Canyon. He has dabbled in writing over the years, but only recently took it up seriously. He spends his time writing, playing tennis, and worrying about the future of the human race.

A Compendium of Earthquakes

[creative nonfiction]

  1. The first one was in the egg shop. I was a baby, strapped to my mother’s back in a blue nylon carrier while she wandered Kotwali bazaar. Shelves of eggs, a single room with three walls and a pull-over aluminum door. All of the eggs broke. After the shaking stopped, the street dogs rushed in, thrilled, lapping the floor and shelves.
  2. They happened all the time in Dharamsala, my dad says. My brother remembers the one that broke the cottage above Macleod Ganj where the other ex-pats lived; he was in school reciting square root tables. My sister remembers, too; she had been on the roof, sweeping off monsoon rainwater.
  3. Halloween when I was 11: Katie and I went out—her witch hat, my face stamped with moon and stars—and got candy one last time. What are you? mothers asked, scowling at us. We were old now. In the morning, it was in the papers. They were rare in New England, after all. None of us had felt it, and we all wished we had.
  4. The train was too far from Matt’s house in Kent, Ohio, to hear the horn, but the vibrations woke me up at 4 a.m., 6 a.m., 8 a.m. I didn’t know yet that this is what an earthquake feels like. I slowed my breathing, one breath for every two of his, until I fell asleep again.
  5. In my lab in La Jolla, I was always worried I’d be working with radiation when one happened. I’d be closed in what we called the hot room, and the radioisotopes would spill over the bench, the floor, burn through my gloves and shoes and fry my ovaries. When one did come, I only had a bottle of saline solution. It went on so long that we all looked around at each other, wondering if we should get under the desks and hold their legs like the video said. We just stood there, eyebrows up, flasks and pipettes in our frozen hands, shaking. It passed and we got back to work.
  6. I felt one in the apartment in San Diego, too: rumble, pause, rumble. Max came back from his run, dripping, a half hour later. He hadn’t felt it: it turns out that in motion, you can’t feel the earth move under you. Oh man, he said, I missed it!
  7. In Berkeley, I sometimes startle awake at 2 a.m., bed shaking. I always wait, but when another movement doesn’t come, I know it’s just the subway shaking the ground.
  8. None of us are prepared. I have some dust masks, a hand-crank radio, but only a gallon of water stored under the bed. No canned food, no can opener, no crowbar to hack out of a collapsed building when The Big One comes. And my building will collapse: my walls already show cracks; my ceiling is already starting to buckle. No one I love has the money to live somewhere safe. Maybe this is why no one I love has bothered to get the recommended welding gloves, or waterproof matches. In the shape we’ll be in, we don’t want to survive.
  9. The last time, you were there with me. My bed was our bed for the evening; my body your body for the night. I was over you, my hands braced on your shoulders, hearts thumping. And then the bed shook. The headboard rattled. We stopped moving, eyes locked. A framed photograph fell from the wall. The ground kept shaking the building, and the building kept shaking the bed, and the bed kept shaking us, until my heart fell out of my chest and onto yours. It lay on you, throbbing, wet, ruby-red and oversized like a cartoon steak. I bled over you. The blood ran off your sides, pooled under your ribs, your belly button. You tried to place, and then shove, my heart back in my ribcage, but it wouldn’t fit. Well, you said, I think this is The Big One. You put your fist where my heart had been and stopped the bleeding.

 

Hope is a science writer in Berkeley, California. Her work has most recently been published in Lost Balloon, Pidgeonholes, and The Rumpus. You can find her at hoperhenderson.com, and on twitter @hoperhenderson.

Upward Snow

[creative nonfiction]

She is sitting in an arm chair next to a broad window that overlooks Fairbanks Avenue and Lake Michigan. She ignores me as I walk from the doorway, across her hospital room, then perch on the broad windowsill. I welcome the cold of metal as the sensation seeps through my white coat, then my scrubs, to the back of my thighs. I should inquire about her postpartum body—the new wound on her abdomen, vaginal bleeding, pain, her fevers, engorged breasts, swollen legs, bruised skin, distended belly. Instead, we watch the wind push snowflakes back toward the sky. “Look. Upward snow,” she says. “Sounds like a band name,” I reply. Then we settle into silence.

Yesterday, her baby died.

 

Whitney Lee is a Maternal Fetal Medicine physician, an assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University, former OpEd Public Voices fellow, and a veteran. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Booth, Typehouse, The Rumpus, Crack the Spine, Gravel, Numéro Cinq, Huffington Post, and Women’s eNews. She lives in Chicago with her husband and four children. Currently, she is working on a collection of themed essays about a physician’s experience with death.

Camellias in Black and Gray

[fiction]

I know I want Lea the way I do long before she pulls me into her room, but the way she shrugs the button-up off her shoulders still undoes me. She closes the door, reaching up and over her head to tear a wad of gauze off her back. She makes the white pad dance between two fingers before turning on her heel. “Do you like it?”

When I see “it,” sparks skitter across my skin. I stare for too long and the misstep makes her voice hike up one nervous tick.

“Bri?”

“I love it,” I rush to say. That’s the safe, expected response to the camellias—three blossoms total—bursting from the angry skin on her shoulder. It’s easier to say than “that’s sexy” or to gush that the piece sits so perfectly on her flesh and bone.

I know nothing about tattoos, but I decide the detail is exquisite anyway. The lines in the folds of each petal are clear and steady. There are tiny puffs of pollen peeping out from each flower’s heart. The leaves are veiled gray to help the flowers pop. It works.

Aside from a bit of shading in the slope of each petal, the flowers are filled only with the color of Lea, the kind of brown so lush that makeup companies can only describe it with awkward and ambiguously edible clichés. Mahogany Caramel. Sienna Truffle. Sycamore Espresso, Roasted Medium Dark.

It’s the kind of skin that inspires my mother to ask if “the morena” is still there long after Lea leaves for the night; to brush off my indignation with a laugh. It’s just a joke, she says. Don’t be so sensitive, she adds. Later she’ll hand me a bar of papaya soap and cluck her tongue and wonder if Lea’s mom wants some. We have extra. Doesn’t she know she can always ask?

These are the matters that haunt my mother: our various shades, our modest accomplishments, the bleach in our soap. I despise her obsessions, but I’m just as grateful that they distract her from a daughter whose only interest is spending hours on the couch with that morena, legs tangled for no other reason than for my body to touch hers. I don’t know what Lea’s distracted by, but as far as I can tell, she’s just as blind.

We’ve known each other forever, from kindergarten class to chatrooms. We’ve pantomimed heartbreak for boys who didn’t matter; cackled as we bared our budding chests to strange men online, shimmying side to side. It should be enough to have those moments, those precious bits of girlhood no one else could reach. But I want more. I want to consume her melancholy, audacity, and joy. I want to strip the petals off her back and let them sit on my tongue until they dissolve. I don’t want anyone else to ever have a taste.

I think mom would be livid if I followed Lea’s lead and pierced my skin with ink. What would she think if I let myself tip forward to drink my morena in?

“Where’d you get it?” I say. She says something about some old classmate of ours apprenticing in Lower Haight, and I have so many more questions. When? Why couldn’t I come along? Why haven’t I met her? It is a ‘her?’ I bite them back.

There are days when I think Lea’s noticed when I’ve laughed too loudly at something she’s said, or how goosebumps prickle along my arms when her shoulder brushes against mine. But in the end, I’m good at staying hidden. Invisible. A rebellion as quiet as the camellias on her back, fierce but hidden from view.

Lea looks over her shoulder and hands me the gauze. “Put it back on?”

I nod and place it back on her shoulder, adding a kiss of pressure as I run my fingers down the tape. Lea’s wearing a strapless bra to keep the pinch of elastic away from the tender canvas. I’m ashamed I noticed, embarrassed that I didn’t notice sooner.

“What does it mean?” I ask.

Lea scoffs as she shuffles her shirt back on. “It just a bunch of flowers.” Her fingers fasten the buttons. “Does it have to mean anything else?”

“No.” I watch inch by inch as tan toffee Lea disappears from view. When I look up, she’s wearing a smile that makes me wonder if I’m as invisible as I thought. “I guess not.”

 

Danielle Batalion Ola is a Filipina writer who was born and raised on the island of Kaua’i. She’s found her way across mainland America to Brooklyn, NY, where she writes stories both real and imagined with the support of her tiny dog, Stitch. Find her online @_daniola.

Trust Me, Iago

[fiction]

It is Laurie’s cross to bear, this cat that’s found a home in her abdomen. From its nature it must be a Bengal. It is frighteningly active at night. Laurie will be at a Meditation of Surveillance seminar, and she’ll feel it lunge at her stomach wall. Or she’ll be in the kitchen getting some of Susan’s aspic, and she’ll feel it clawing under her heart.

At first, she told herself she shouldn’t worry. She has bigger problems. She’s got her seminars. Her colloquia. Also: Susan’s been bursting into flames again.

While Susan’s a good sport about it—once when her arm caught fire in Whole Foods, she laughed and said, “Hurry, babe, grab one of those steaks and throw it on me!”—it really breaks Laurie’s heart. Susan laughing as she gets smaller, darker. Her fingers, from a burn at yoga last Wednesday, look like scorched wine corks.

“You just keep loving me and I’ll keep loving you,” Susan says.

“I do love you,” Laurie says. “I’m just worried.”

The abdomen cat doesn’t seem worried. It moves down to Laurie’s stomach and purrs against her navel. She feels like it must be immune to all the suffering of the world. She is beginning to hate it for that.

*     *      *

They’re at a Magical Relief from Narcissistic Desire seminar, and Susan is The Invisible Man. Laurie did the bandages herself.

Laurie watches a man at the podium as he pulls a giant mucosal baseball from his mouth and it bounces across the stage. “Seen it all before,” Susan says. “Come back when you barf a bowling ball.”

Laurie feels the cat dart past her hip. Down into her leg.

Susan starts to scream. Another burn, Laurie figures.

“Laurie,” Susan says. “We were wrong! Look! It’s nothing but a tabby.”

Laurie looks down to see the cat’s face emerging from her kneecap.

*     *      *

There are shameful moments when she squeezes the sides of her knee the way she would squeeze a pimple, trying to birth the cat in one go. But the cat never budges when she squeezes it; it only meows more insistently.

“Maybe it’s existential,” Susan suggests. “If we give it a name, maybe it’ll break free.”

A name. A name. She needs to give it a name she can coo soothingly at it. Nothing seems right. She grieves for the way things were. The marriage of her guts to the tiny animal.

*     *      *

By August, Susan has burned away to the size of a child. When they go to Whole Foods, Laurie puts her in her cart. With her burnt fingers, Susan grabs their peanut butter, their quinoa. Her eyes are gone now, so sometimes she grabs the wrong thing. Laurie lets it go. It is part of her love, this sacrifice. The cat—she has named him Iago—watches mutely.

*     *      *

Iago eats and eats. He is everything that Susan isn’t.

Their bodies form a bond that can’t be broken because it cannot be understood. It is he who nourishes her when she leaves a seminar confused. Bonsai Trees for the Technocrat ending abruptly when a woman sculpting a tree on a screen snaps the tree in half. The crowd’s inrush of breath haunts Laurie—until she is home with Iago, feeding him kippers on the porch.

Laurie folds her leg in such a way that Iago is looking up at her. His gaze is steely. She shakes her head when she sees the question in his eyes. It is not a choice she can make. But Iago continues to stare.

*     *      *

They go in to tell Susan what they have planned, but they are spared. There is only some ash on the sofa. Iago meows once, plaintively, and then she feels him coming out.

Laurie can’t abide it. Her sense of things is tied to him. “Iago,” she coos. “Stay. Trust me; I’ll be better.”

But he doesn’t listen. They go around the living room, pushing and pulling, as the sofa smolders behind them.

Laurie has no chance to mourn. Not yet. The mourning will come in the weeks that follow. Time sponged of its life, its color.

For now, Iago comes free in a jolt and lands at her feet. She looks at the hole in her leg. Iago is making for the fire escape. Later, when she is alone, when she has healed enough to think of herself and only herself, she will call into the hole, asking to be delivered another.

 

Kevin Tasker’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Vestal Review, Every Day Fiction, and Flash Fiction Magazine. He lives in Cleveland.

How to Brew Tea for a Funeral

[creative nonfiction]

Send one of your five sons out into the night to turn on the generator. Wait for its whir to wake the village.

Strike a match and light the largest burner on the gas stove. Fill the gallon teapot to the brim. While the water simmers, reach for the canister of herbs. It is autumn, so select the za’atar, not the mint. Add the loose-leaf tea. Stir in sugar until it stops dissolving.

Enter your living room, filled with all the women of the village. Sit next to your oldest son’s wife, the mother of your granddaughter whose body is now stiff and cold. Sip your tea and murmur that she was so young. Rock her mother back and forth. Weep.

In the morning, listen as your youngest son describes how he performed CPR, how he did his best to breathe out life and beat back death. Watch your oldest son press to his chest his infant daughter, your remaining granddaughter and bearer of your name. Think what everyone is thinking: if there were no Israeli military roadblock between your house and the hospital, she might still be alive.

In two days, make tea for the entire village again, but first serve lamb. Prepare the meat so it is tender and the rice salty. Your guests will eat with efficiency, in silence. They will leave after you serve the third cup of tea.

Ensure your remaining granddaughter sees everything. She will prepare the tea when you are gone.

 

J.M. Ellison is a writer, scholar, and grassroots activist. They are interested in using stories, both fictional and true, to build community, document social movements, and imagine a liberated world. Their work has been featured in Story Club Magazine, The Baltimore Review, Columbus Alive, and other publications. They are currently finishing their first graphic novel, a timely nonfiction account of the power of community in a small Palestinian village. J.M. believes that storytelling is integral to healing, transformation, resistance, and survival. Their work is available at http://jmellison.net and on Twitter at @joymellison.

Photo Credit: J.M. Ellison

Plastic

[fiction]

The dead body of a sunfish lies on the sands of Monomoy Wildlife Refuge. More than any other ocean dweller, sunfish are mistaken for sea monsters. It’s why two dozen tourists ring its pulpy white body, nearly a perfect circle with twin fins on top and bottom, stomach pecked crimson by hungry gulls. The sunfish looks nonsensical, comical, its mouth too small for anything other than jellyfish. Its small black eyes are positioned on either side of its head, unable to see the world directly before it. A plastic bag trails out between its lips. The moment could double as an anti-plastic ad, but I still have to collect the body and perform an autopsy, just to give a cause of death I can clearly see. I shoo the onlookers away. They regroup twenty feet back, camera phones out, hushed murmurs of what is it? drifting between them. The incoming tide washes over their sandals. I could inform them, tell them that I work for the National Seashore, but I prefer to be confused for a government agent covering up alien landings, or some nuclear waste monstrosity floundering out of the sea. If I tell them most “shark fins” seen offshore actually belong to sunfish, the magical dead thing before us becomes a normal dead thing, and they’ll lose interest and forget. Leaving it this way, there will be talk, discussion, possibly the start of a dialogue. Even sea monsters choke to death on plastic. When Godzilla’s body washes ashore, strangled by a weave of soda bottles, fishing nets, and grocery bags, maybe they’ll understand. But for now they have this sunfish, and me, and the possibility that they are witnessing something rare and fantastic, despite how common place it actually is.

 

Corey Farrenkopf is a Cape Cod based writer and librarian. His work has appeared in Catapult, JMWW, Blue Earth Review, Gravel, Hawaii Pacific Review, and elsewhere. He is represented by Marie Lamba of the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. To read more visit his website at CoreyFarrenkopf.com or follow on twitter at @CoreyFarrenkopf.

Magic

[fiction]

Estoy corriendo on a dirt road feeling the right side of my face swelling up. Brittle and stiff mesquite se rodearon el camino. Trailers float on the mesquite milas aparte, solos, escuchando los vultures crowing as they circle. And montaña morenas stand silent squatting el cielo azul on their jagged backs.

Oigo un grito and a door slamming open. I look back at my dad standing at the doorway of our tan trailer, sin camisa, su estomago redondo bright in the sun. A belt is wrapped around his fist. He is shouting at me a regresar.

I keep running. Mi corazon pegando mi pecho, cracking a few ribs, my blood veins being squeezed by my muscles, my bones being chipped away con cada piso. I turn away, and the road ends in a patch of small Barrel Cacti.

I slip and fall before I get to the patch. Un hoyo de conejo caught my foot. Dust swirls around me, coating me and lifting into el cielo azul. Me quedo echado en mi espalda mirando el polvo y cielo. The dust drifts away and leaves yellow specks flickering around me. They flutter gently, a few calmly land on me. Son mariposas amarillas, a flutter of them. Mi ojo derecho esta cerrado, and I want to cry but I don’t. Instead I look at those little bits of yellow sun and wind flicker about in the blue forever above me and let that swell into my right eye.

 

Iraq war vet viviendo en la frontera de los Estados Unidos y Mexico, Jose Francisco Fonseca reads, writes, y trabajos con motors and tends to have aventuras en Juarez y El Paso. He is published in numerous online journals and a few lit mags, most recently published in The Iowa Review. Orgullo mi gente Americanos! You can find him on Twitter @jose_f_fonseca

O’er the Fields

[creative nonfiction]

It was true it was Christmas. It was my first day in Phnom Penh. My boyfriend bought our tickets for Cheong Ek, a genocide memorial site. Yes, perhaps I was an artist when I agreed. My boyfriend adjusted the headphones, his best friend took a Klonopin.

The tour began with facts. A curator’s voice told us that in four years, an estimated 1.5 million Cambodians died under Pol Pot’s regime, many of them in “killing fields.” I listened to this section twice. My stomach tensed up as if a ball were being thrown at me, again and again.

Tourists gravitated toward a monkey pod tree (the “Killing Tree”), which executioners used to beat children to death in front of their mothers. The sun suspended from its pendulum rod. The air was a taut sheet. Before we left for Cambodia, my boyfriend suggested we unpack the Christmas tree. What for? I asked.

Beneath the Killing Tree, fragments of bone and red cloth had surfaced on the dirt paths. In another killing field 100 miles south of Phnom Penh, local villagers have raided bones looking for gold jewelry to sell for food. Days later, we won’t think twice when ordering Tomb Raider cocktails in Siem Reap. A mediocre drink made of Cointreau, lime juice and tonic water, it was invented for Angelina Jolie, a refreshment after a long day on set raiding the tombs of Angkor Wat. We slurp them down and buy Christmas gifts in the open-air market of Psar Chaa: embroidered flats, earrings, and sundry baubles.

The truth is, I heard my boyfriend and his friend laugh about the red fabric materializing on the path’s surface. He mentioned how his mother used to plant red fabric in the chimney flue to simulate Santa’s tattered ass. I always thought she got the fabric from JoAnn’s, he said. I told them to shut up and finished the audio tour on my own, falling purposely behind. My boyfriend’s best friend said to me, laughing, I’ve been here too many times.

The tour led me to another monkey pod tree known as the Magic Tree. It was used to hang a loudspeaker. Khmer Rouge had blasted music from the speaker to drown out the sounds of victims being executed at night. The pock-marked fields behind the Magic Tree were mass graves. There were signs telling us how many victims were buried without heads, that many were naked. I was asked how I felt by another woman tourist. The graves were surrounded by wooden fences with friendship bracelets knotted to them. From the bushes, a boy asked me for money, his feet resting on a lower rung of the fence that guarded the mass graves. I did.

As I stood at these landmarks, I no longer wanted to go out for Christmas. Still, we ate lemongrass curry with rice noodles and Angkor beer at a Cambodian restaurant in a French colonial building. We visited a bar where the DJ, who had an impressive record collection, agreed to play our obvious request: “Holiday in Cambodia” by the Dead Kennedys. We took a picture next to a Santa mannequin. At another bar, we were meant to lose games of Connect Four to bar hostesses. And we did. Every time we lost, we owed a “ladies drink” to our competitor. Turns out, they pocketed a dollar off the top. I had no idea what I was doing there. When we arrived back at our hotel bar, they played different versions of “Jingle Bells” on repeat. I wanted to hear “o’er the fields we go” without the “ha-ha-ha.”

In the memorial stupa, there were 9,000 skulls stacked one on top of the other. Signs told us which heads were injured by which tool: hoe, axe, hook knife. Red and blue stickers told us male or female, under twenty years old. The tour ended with a roomful of portraits. The Khmer Rouge took a photograph of each prisoner both alive and dead. There was an image of a woman prisoner with her baby. I wanted to have something to say when I met my boyfriend and his best friend outside. Something smart, careful. It could have been any one of us, and yet I knew that wasn’t true. The faces from the photographs were once the faces on those skulls. Instead, I said nothing. It was just me and the pendulum sun, finding a slight way to disappear, a way back to the hotel.

 

Andie Francis is the author of the chapbook I Am Trying to Show You My Matchbook Collection (CutBank Books 2015). She holds an MFA from The University of Arizona, and is an assistant poetry editor for DIAGRAM. Her work appears in Berkeley Poetry ReviewCimarron ReviewColumbia Poetry ReviewGreensboro ReviewPortland ReviewTAMMY, and elsewhere.

Photo Credit: Lawrence Lenhart

The Boy Who Loved Red Bishops Too Much

[fiction]

When he was nine, he tried to catch a couple.

He thought the Red Bishops, with their striking red and black plumage, would look lovely in his cage.

He sat high on his perch in the mango tree, watching them fly wild and free, chirping busily, in and out of the reeds in the valley below. Hidden by leaves, he bit into the plump orange-red fruit and watched them weave their oval nests with the side porches at the tips of the reeds, safe from the snakes and rats. Sometimes in the nest, sometimes out, sometimes hanging upside down in a blur of fluttering wings.

When the nests were built, he waited just the right number of days before walking down to the reeds. The birds chattered in indignation and flew away. There was a deathly quiet. He bent a reed down towards him and looked inside the nest. Two blue eggs lay cushioned on the soft grass and down.

He continued his watch from his secret hiding place.

At the correct time, he went down to the reeds again. He bent his chosen reed and peered inside. Two chicks, unseeing, turned their heads towards him, entreating him with urgent cries to feed them, their mouths too big for the rest of their bodies. Their plumage was not as resplendent as he had expected; sparse brown feathers barely covered their pink skins. Still, more than anything in the world, he wanted to own them.

The next time, he came to the nest with two pieces of twine, each about half a metre long. He carefully tied each piece of string onto a leg of each bird, just above the tiny foot. He secured the other end to the reed. The mother would feed them, he thought, and then when they were soft and pretty, he would catch them, for they would not be able to fly away.

He saw the Red Bishops fly in and out of his chosen nest for another two weeks, then he went down to claim his prize.

Both strings hung out of the nest. One fledgling had flown away, leaving behind the vestige of a tiny amputated claw. The other hung upside down, dead. Grey-white maggots squirmed in a skeletal cage.

He stood there a moment. With the back of his hand, he wiped away the tears welling up in his eyes.

Many years have passed and the boy is now a man. He lives in a suburb with his wife and two teenage daughters. They all have an affinity for the great outdoors, especially bird watching. He is an active member of the Protect our Wild Birds Foundation.

He watches the doves and the sparrows visit the bird feeder in his garden. The quarrelsome mynahs visit too. And, on occasion, the raucous hadedas make an appearance.

But no Red Bishops grace his garden.

To see them, he must visit the reeds in the valley.

 

Raj M. Isaac is a South African with Indian roots. He is a retired educator, and his field of expertise is the teaching of English. He holds, amongst other qualifications, a bachelor’s degree with honours in literature and a master’s degree in education. He has written articles on aspects of education for journals and newspapers, but now mainly writes short stories and flash fiction. Isaac won the South African Writers’ Circle 2016 Annual Short Story Competition for his story “Lessons in xenophobia,” and has also received recognition for his short fiction “The cat,” “Nexus,” and “No free lunch.”

Butterfly

[fiction]

How do I explain the butterfly if I don’t explain the heat?

My sister and I were walking to the corner store to buy snacks with money from my grandma, who was dying. She had been dying for as long as I could remember though, so it didn’t really bother me. What did bother me was getting dragged to India for my entire summer vacation, just so my mom could feel guilty about abandoning my grandma and vaguely threaten to move us all to India forever.

Chennai was so hot that most days my sister and I stayed inside, picking fights and eating too much until it was finally nighttime. We spent our days waiting for the chance to lay down, blasting the frigid AC, and watching the streetlights through the ornate prison bars on every window. It was the type of heat that turned stray dogs into rabid beasts, and parents into monsters.

At the store, we stared at the aisles, the currency weird and the snacks weirder. In turn, the cashier stared at our shorts and bright tank tops, our ungreased hair and broken Tamil. We were brown in a country of brown people, and she still stared. She thanked me in English and waved goodbye.

We were walking back home when on the side of the road, I saw a flash of something black and electric blue. Perfectly preserved and perfectly dead, the butterfly stuck out amongst the piles of garbage, glinting enticingly. Crouching, my sister pinched the butterfly and shoved it into her pocket. Her knees brushed against layers of garbage, and she got up, sickeningly unaware.

When we got home, my grandma was watching the news and my mom was asleep. My sister pulled the lovely black/blue butterfly out of her pocket, now crumpled and mangled. It was unholy, like she had brought it to life just to kill it a second time. I scooped it out of the trash, and waited until nighttime. Cradling the butterfly’s broken body, I carefully pushed it through those prison bars and watched it fall back to the concrete ground. The air smelled like manure, sweet and pungent and velvety. In her sleep, my grandma groaned.

 

Sanjana Raghavan is a student at George Mason University and lives in Fairfax, Virginia. When she isn’t writing or camping out at the library, she enjoys chasing down random dogs on the street, and going to yoga to nap on the mat (and so she can tell people she went to yoga today).