Dearth

Audrey CarrollAudrey T. Carroll is a Queens, NYC native whose obsessions include kittens, coffee, Supernatural, Buffy, and the Rooster Teeth community. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Fiction International, So to Speak, Feminine Inquiry, the A3 Review, and others. Her poetry collection, Queen of Pentacles, is forthcoming from Choose the Sword Press. She can be found at http://audreytcarrollwrites.weebly.com and @AudreyTCarroll on Twitter.

 

Matriarchal

We wake again pleading for the last time,
a forked tongue once lost between planetary

failures. Their rotation had become dangerous
like birthing hips on the move, either circled

in naked light, or coiling an orbit around
the throat of some dark diviner’s rabbit.

Anti-gravity had taken its unsteered toll,
the air having long been pressed out under

mean flesh, gaze wild and glassy. Gasping
a final incantation at the closing of eyes,

she prepares herself for the difficult
reentry, asks me to please cover up

her body with the stained-blue skin
of a warrior, or perhaps the fine cloth

of an ancient priestess, smiling the creased sorrows
of our plastic spacesuits back to me. She understands

that we will not come this time with grappling
hooks, pressure gauges, flood lights, steel cages,

tightly bound pages, ticking timers, and tested rules, all
these dusty instruments for making wasted spaces

between a concentric star
and a ghost that cannot answer.

I will lay in its powdery surface
and feel the rock beneath me.

Jennifer Seaman CookJennifer’s academic scholarship in the arts, media, technology, and visual and public cultures is augmented by her intermedial practices in poetry, creative non-fiction essay, and documentary. Her most recent essays can be found in Salon, PopMatters, and Heide Hatry’s photography book Not a Rose. Jennifer’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Cedilla Literary Journal (archived at University of Montana), Avatar Review, After the Pause, and more. Jennifer teaches regularly in American Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

To Hildegard

The tenth child, your parents gave you to the church
as tithe; I don’t know if I would do the same
had I ten, twenty, a hundred to my name. In our church,
the young families have begun to foster local children,
taken from mothers who are high, forgetful, taken from days
spent strapped in a car seat in the middle of an empty room.

One child has lost all of her words for love, another has lost
the correct shape of his head. He does not know how to hold
himself up, unaccustomed to free movement, to being held.
The State likes blood families; if mama shapes up,
she’ll get them back next month.

You see and hear, The Lord is holy in anointing
the dangerously stricken.

Born with a closed fist, I have a blue-collar sensibility
for giving. I count my children as mine. A child asleep
in each bed, innocence nested in every corner of my house,
careful packed, as if for travel. The day has no end to its asking.

You speak and write, The Lord is holy in wiping
the reeking wound.

The Lord, when he spoke to you, Fragile One,
was as a brilliant light, permeating your brain;
here all of the lights are out, except for the afternoon
cloud-choked sun, persistent in offering
its white light through drawn blinds.

Renee Emerson

Renee Emerson is the author of Keeping Me Still (Winter Goose Publishing 2014). She lives in Arkansas with her husband and three daughters. www.reneeemerson.wordpress.com

Aturdido

There is a black and white photo of El Capitolio on the wall of Abuelo’s house.
Its icy frame catches the golden dust in the kitchen air, appearing
Pardo. There is no such term in English. He tells me of the colors
like a dream. Suddenly, I am ten again, learning Spanish and shame,
drowning. He asks me, what’s wrong, as I struggle through my very first
foreign language assignment. In Spanish there are two verbs which
in English are both glossed as to know. The primary distinction is
whether the knowledge is a matter of fact or familiarity. In English,

to know is often used to indicate agreement rather than knowledge.
We sit at this same table, an asymmetric pentagon with a long arm,
he built himself. When I cannot translate a sentence about Cuba,
he says I must try harder, and I want so badly to explain why I am
confused, but my tongue will not cooperate. It, frozen in its complete
inability to decide whether knowledge of our people is propositional
or personal, betrays me. I have no answer more than I know. Now,
over coffee we talk politics. Or rather, we don’t. Hand held firmly around

the handle of a discolored mug, he brings the boiling black to his lips.
Mine, with cream, still burns my tongue. I stir in more, captured
by the contagion it casts. Curious, how just a drop renders the whole
of it white. He calls me back by name. Mine and his. It sits between us,
a vast and thrashing ocean. At this angle, El Trabajo and La Virtud Tutelar
perch on his shoulders. I apologize, lost somewhere in the current’s revolution,
and ask about our family. There are relatives he insists he can’t remember,
but I know them. He reminds me history has scattered us: exiles,

immigrants, Americans, those who stayed to support, to watch the house,
those who couldn’t get out. The ocean seems obvious, but I do not think
he can see how we have each become an island in our unfamiliarity.
We cannot agree. It is far too personal. We are too far left, or right.
We do not have all of our rights left. No one is right. We left. I can see
his skin crawl at the thought of Cold War. His blood boils. His face is twisted
as he toils to bite his tongue. He tells me to forget it. It’s in the past.
And he holds the coffee closer as he softly recalls childhood visits. In Spanish,

there are two verb tenses that in English are considered the past.
The difference is a matter of interior composition. I dream of filling us
whole. I imagine an old home bright in the glow of dusk, lechón roasting
the thick air and dancing. But his skin is so thin, I fear the mere proposition
would hurt him. Whether what is described is viewed as discrete and over,
or as ongoing and indefinite is irrelevant in English. The past is simply
the past: a matter of fact. Spanish requires deciding if the past is living,
if it is as it was, if it is sustained and continued. Knowledge of the past

must also be personal or propositional. This is how history is fragmented,
how memory becomes reality. In the photo there is a curvesome Buick
Roadmaster parked along the palm trees of El Paseo. They do not manufacture
these cars any more, but I know it still runs. Though I can scarcely describe
the view in Spanish, I am sure that I know the colors. By now the coffee
has cooled, and I try to unlearn this silence. I know that we all dream
the same dream differently. Yes, it is a matter of fact. We can never return
to the Cuba that we left because our familiar imagining is not right.

But I don’t know how to say it. Not to him. Abuelo tells me he is cold.
I wish I could give him back this name I am burning in. He is a friolero.
English does not have a word. The term Cold War suggests conflict
without violence. It says without saying. It does and denies. And I still do
not have a way to tell him what’s wrong because there is a revolution
of memory between each generation. Though it is the past, I know it is not
over since I am still drowning. I cannot forget language is an ocean.
We are its islands, and not everything translates.

Robert EsnardRobert Américo Esnard was born and raised in the Bronx, New York and studied Linguistics with Social Psychology at Dartmouth College. He has always been fascinated by the myriad ways he is read and obscured. It is this personal and academic experience with semiotics that motivates his work as a poet and a dramatist.

My Mother’s Mouth, A Gift Horse

Father glowers into her mouth—
a drain, clogged with leftovers,
a dirty sun. Lays his fork down,
swallows mashed potatoes
like they’re whole.
Her mouth, which never stays closed,
happily churns herring morsels and syllables
into viscous mounds that morph whole
sentences into crowds,
spilling in and out of a rush hour train
until nobody’s sure who’s going where.

At fifteen, she took the subways
to university. Alone in the big city,
no one saw her chew
when her father sent food
from home, where no one looked
gift horses in the mouth.
She’d bite thick chunks right off precious
pink meat, lick clean salt crystals
stuck in cracks of chapped lips.
On graduation day, he gifted her
a rope of sausage, apples, and good rye.
How they laughed, food flying from their mouths
on strings of salt-saturated joy.
And on her wedding day the same
and everyday until he passed away,
the same open mouth.

My father taught me not to talk
while I eat. He scowls into
my mother’s, a horse’s mouth,
that from afar looks almost human.
I keep chewing. She washes
his underwear, raises us
his way, eats alone. And in a different life,
her father praises her every tooth
like some ancient men worshipped horses,
like they praised the sun.

Tamara HartTamara Hart is a poet and a teacher. Her work, like her life, explores her Ukrainian/Jewish heritage and how it influences the everyday. Tamara writes about family dynamics, gender roles, immigration, and the passage of time in her poetry. Her work has appeared in Lamplighter Magazine. She writes and lives in New Jersey with her husband, son, and two over-fed cats.

 

Archaeology of Silence

Can we assume the bald man dresses
himself in a skin-colored turtleneck
to intentionally resemble a phallus
or must he announce he’s studied Freud?

When she suggests I think outside the box
I respond that saying think outside the box
is an example of thinking inside the box.

She looks at me like I’m French-Canadian,
her eyes dull as tulip bulbs that never bloomed,
and claims I resemble Connecticut:
my best quality’s my proximity to New York.

Her diction’s as crowded as Walmart’s parking lot
on Sunday but the more she talks
the less I listen, my protests pointless
as pockets in an infant’s pajama pants.

It’s better not to admit the thoughts
double-parked in my brain extend to —

There’s an awful lot of wrinkles in these wrinkle-free pants.
It’s probably the creamer but this coffee tastes like crayon.
Should I tip the delivery drone and wish it a good weekend?

We’re all geniuses when we’re quiet.

Should I join a gym to look like a guy who goes to the gym?
Do I purchase fireworks from the man with three fingers on his right hand?
The miracle of miracles is people believe in miracles.

Sometimes silence is the stone shown
but never thrown. Still, we honor the artist,
not the art; credit the rebel who hurled
the rock with heroism, never the rock itself.

WinnerBrad Johnson of the 2012 Longleaf Press Chapbook Contest, Brad Johnson has published four chapbooks of poetry. His first full-length collection, The Happiness Theory, was published by Main Street Rag in January 2014. Work of his has also been accepted by Nimrod, Permafrost, Poet Lore, The South Carolina Review, The Southeast Review, Southern Indiana Review, Willow Springs, and others.

Content is a glimpse

Content is a glimpse
+++++Willem de Kooning

+++++We look at the world once, in childhood.
+++++
The rest is memory.
++++++++++
Louise Glück

1. Cóntent is a Glimpse

Trapped in the dream of wisdom birthed out of the deep desire for a magisterial eye’s
+++++deific “I am” fantasy of a scalpel-sharp panoptical glimpse, itself at war with
+++++objects’ sexy adhesive lust, carving names loose, the whole world cited, sliced
+++++and diced, precise, to resolve the unsolved moot,
a single mind’s cranky light-machine, lost in the daze of its concocted blaze, unconscious
of its own hankering that shreds the world’s bright fabric into rags and waste, left
+++++sprawled and galled—
taxonomized, anatomized, categorized, itemized, pigeonholed, (do not staple or fold),
+++++sorted, aborted, graded, rated, played out and laid out, named and dated, racked
+++++and stacked by form and norm, median, mean, waft, heft, height, weight,
+++++heterogeneity, homogeneity, blood type, genotype, and phenotype;
the whole dismembered world rendered a mess of bits manipulated beyond measure,
+++++beyond pleasure,
so the whole mind-bullied creation shits its innards in a bright tangle, hiding itself and
+++++flummoxing the hungry hunter;
so the project of seeing precisely sees precisely

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++nothing,

blinded by bright profusion and deafened by the rowdy, bawdy whoosh of objects flying
+++++to each other when they will, beyond the limits of our mind-inscribed, gimcrack,
+++++jerry-rigged event horizon.

2. Contént is a Glimpse

Dreaming newborn Adam, waking to god’s voice, with his first glimpse saw everything
+++++at once and entire
in the glittering voices of Eden’s song, weaving light and shadow, singing alleluia at the
+++++wedding of void and form,
and shimmering with void’s ecstasy, knowing itself to be form’s darling and bliss, form knowing itself
+++++to be void’s best beloved;
all this in the infinitesimal instant in Eden when god was about to speak the “אָנוֹכִי” of his
+++++majesty, and not even then,
but just at that moment when god’s throat clicked as he thought to say, “אָנוֹכִי,”
Adam, born of us, bearing us, in that same instant knowing himself, thought, “אָנוֹכִי,” so
+++++they were one voice,
and as god’s immense, etheric circle contained Adam, so Adam’s minuscule bone circle
+++++contained god,
and in that first flawless, glimpse Adam saw for us all
the brotherhood of the river delta and the fibers of a feather and the roots of a tree and its
+++++branches and blood vessels’ nets pulsing and the track of mud that bursts and
+++++branches and spills through a bank of spring snow and the track of love that rises,
+++++clefts and flows, filling and freeing a life frozen until that moment and the spread
+++++of his hand overlapped by god’s hand, holding god’s hand, cherished, in his palm
and how the hum of a voice about to speak a word fosters and cherishes all words,
+++++implicit,
and how his “אָנוֹכִי,” contained god and spoke god into life.
And Adam glimpsed everything and was content and beheld it was very good.

(אָנוֹכִי (anochi) Hebrew for “I”)

David KannDavid Kann is a refugee from a long walkabout in the outback of academic administration. Having returned to sanity, he now teaches, writes, and avoids every committee assignment he possibly can. His chapbook, The Language of the Farm, won the Five Oaks Press chapbook contest and was published last year.

 

Mercury Diner

She sits over coffee until it goes cold
and I dump it and pour new.
I get her to take a bowl of soup

sometimes, which may be all she eats.
She doesn’t look bad, considering.
She can’t hear much. Sometimes

she writes to a daughter out West,
but mostly she’s deep in a book
or staring through the plate glass.

Once I asked if someone was
joining her. She looked startled,
like I’d slipped back into Greek.

Then she laughed. It’s our river
she said, pointing out. We watch
traffic. I didn’t get the joke, but

after that she smiled at me like
I was in on her secret. Sometimes
after the rush, she closes her eyes;

and I keep our loud busboy
from waking her. I let her
listen to trucks rumbling past.

Michael Lauchlan

Michael Lauchlan’s poems have landed in many publications, including New England Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The North American Review, Harpur Palate, and Poetry Ireland. His most recent collection is Trumbull Ave. from WSU Press.

Cassandra

Brother, your body
is a spit-pig,
a split trunk
of light-struck oak.

They will quarter
your meat, deny
you Styx.

In coinless eyes
I’ve seen the thugs
who come to stuff
themselves in
our scared spaces,

the waves of
snails that stick
horrible
to our shores.

My tongue tied
with limestone,
I cannot stop it.
Spoiled long
before a spoil of war.

cassandra poemErin Lynn is working toward a PhD in Poetry at U Conn where she also teaches freshman English. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University and an MA in Irish Literature from Queen’s University, Belfast. She is an editor for the “This Morning” column at Coldfront Magazine and co-curates Poor Mouth Poetry reading series in the Bronx.

The Sound

He follows you into the woods
as always, staying
within reach of a stray touch: out of habit, yes,
and because there’s no reason to believe
this day will end

any differently than others.
Were he to know
the spade’s grim purpose—blade
laced with rust, old earth—
he might plea for the earned mercy

of not seeing the betrayal coming.
But he’d still lie down
on the browning grass, place
his graying muzzle
on folded paws and watch

the squirrels shoot up the trees,
thin black lips twitching
with the vestigial excitement
of pursuit. Friend,
does it help to know he’s happy, finally,

to have found his spot in the shade beneath
the Tree-of-Heaven, where
a hundred scents course
the slight breeze, each another missive
from the secret world?

His eyes close, perhaps to remember
a time without the iron weight
in his bowels, joints not yet overrun
with wild tendrils
of pain; perhaps he’s just

enjoying the pleasure of breathing—
the last act of praise—
on a good patch of grass
on this day in time. Regardless,
this is how you’ll remember him: in love

with this cruel and beautiful world;
old Buddha, may his love shatter time.
The sound, when it comes, scatters
the black birds, ricochets
down the valley, blooming

like a black flower. You look to the sky,
feel the breeze rinse your face.
Soon, it will be necessary to breathe—
the way your children once did: full-throated,
and trembling with abandon.

Steve Mueske

Steve Mueske is an electronic musician and author of a chapbook and two books of poetry. His poems have appeared or will appear in journals such as The Iowa ReviewThe Massachusetts Review, Crazyhorse, Hotel Amerika, CURA, Linebreak, Third Coast, Water~Stone Review, Redactions, and the anthologies Best New Poets and Verse Daily. His most recent album, an EP of mostly microtonal electronica, can be found at http://split-notes.com/muesk-eventual/. Twitter: @SteveMueske.

Selenographer

i.

your desire for the moon holds the weight
of a steam-powered whaling ship.
it is why we braid wreaths for the cows,
why the light after dusk behaves like startled deer.
when the moon’s lamb-face appears through
the forest’s mane, your skin begins to bloom,
mantling me in its petals. a memory lets go
of your throatlatch; it is rain now
turning us into moss.

ii.

the scythe-moon rises above the wheat-fields,
its blade leaving us untouched. no one speaks here
but our bodies drip with names like faucets.
your body holding the vagueness of one between
vitrification and glassblowing. your body, a lake.
I do not ask if I’ll bathe or drown / desire is
the awareness of dying. no owls
in the hollow trunk of your chest. no moon.

Triin Paja is an Estonian, living in a small village in rural Estonia. Her poetry has appeared in The MothBOAAT Journal, Otis Nebula, The Cossack Review, Gloom Cupboard, The Missing Slate, and elsewhere. She writes by riverbeds, forests, various cities, countries and dreams.

The Jaguar / About Writing / Spell to Ward Off Fear of La Catrina

The Jaguar

I am leaving the earth
with a jaguar in my hand

a jaguar that carries
a heart in its hand

in the silent looms of Mitla
the Mexican night grows

like sharing bread
with a brother

I let the jaguar
eat my heart

jaguar with heart
in its hand

 

About Writing

this moment, if it is a coincidence
was already written

rebellion is not against a written destiny
but against the shackles of a single reading

dream or omen
the Word comes from Eve’s rib
the black bone carves hieroglyphics
on the skin of the moon

Oedipus doesn’t know his chimeric path
is the calligraphy left by smoke on retinas
the course of a crooked foot along the wrong streets

there are no coincidences
only confused pages
a library of pulverized adobes
monographs soaked in the vinegars of Canaan

the flames of Alexandria
the burning of Cuzco’s quipus
the imperial mandate of Qin Shi Huang
all for nothing

only we remain
armed with laughter
stripped of Nebrijas and Cartas de Jamaica

such is the road of the erudite ants

we who are barely
a handful of vowels and consonants

 

Spell to Ward Off Fear of La Catrina

like a lost child
touch her breast
let her
guide your hand
only then
will she give you everything

she will teach you
to write
on the rough hide of the night
on the ridges of the sea
on a child’s smooth forehead
in a language
of open wounds

let her guide your steady hand
explain to you
that to write
is to exercise
the vocabulary of silence
it is to redraw
the exact contour
the precise sorrow
of each scar

 

prose_section_divider

EL JAGUAR

me voy de la tierra
con el jaguar en la mano

el jaguar que lleva
un corazón en la mano

en el silencio de los telares de Mitla
crece la noche mexicana

como compartiendo el pan
con un hermano

dejo que el jaguar
se coma mi corazón

jaguar con corazón
en la mano


SOBRE LA ESCRITURA 

este momento, si es coincidencia
estaba ya escrito

la rebelión no es contra el destino escrito
sino frente al eslabón de una sola lectura

sueño o augurio
el verbo sale de la costilla de Eva
su hueso negro talla jeroglíficos
en la piel de la luna

Edipo no sabe que su camino de quimera
es la caligrafía del humo en las retinas
el rumbo de un pie torcido por las calles equivocadas

no hay coincidencias
solo páginas que se confunden
una biblioteca de adobes pulverizados
las monografías remojadas en los vinagres de Canáan

el incendio de Alejandría
la hoguera de los quipus cuzqueños
el mandato imperial de Qin Shi Huang
no sirvieron de nada

quedamos nosotros
armados con la risa
desnudos de Nebrijas y Cartas de Jamaica

tal el camino de las hormigas ilustradas

nosotros que apenas somos
puñado de vocales y consonantes

 

CONJURO PARA NO TEMER A LA CATRINA

como un niño perdido
tócale el seno
deja que ella
guíe tu mano
sólo entonces
te lo dará todo

te enseñará
a escribir
sobre el áspero pellejo de la noche
en la rugosidad del mar
sobre la tersa frente de los niños
en un lenguaje
de heridas que no cierran

deja que ella guíe tu pulso
que te explique
que escribir
es ejercitar
el vocabulario del silencio
es dibujar de nuevo
el contorno exacto
el dolor preciso
de cada cicatriz

Translator’s Note

Alejandro Saravia’s work captured my attention from the very first time I read it. Soon after we met in 2007, he asked me to translate the poem that opens his first collection, Ejercicio de serpientes (Palabras prestadas, 1994). After several fledgling attempts to render “Hoy quizá llueva una ‘a’” into English, I agreed with him that it was impossible and set it aside. Recently, after many years spent dancing around it and translating several short stories, his first novel, and a good number of his poems, I revisited the poem and arrived at a version I felt confident enough to share with the author.

Saravia’s fascination with language is palpable throughout his prolific body of work. Writing and speaking are transformative acts—in that first poem, transmutation is enabled by a first, crucial step: writing the first vowel, the first letter of the alphabet, to realize the power and significance of language. The written word can soothe grief, alter mountains, bridge distances, spark creation itself. The three poems in this selection revolve around this axis, the all-encompassing generative process facilitated by the speaker’s engagement with language, silence, place, memory, and history. Maps are drawn. Pacts are made. Exchanges are negotiated.

As a poet and translator, I find in Saravia’s work an endless source of challenging encounters with the written word. But when is a poem finished? Poets know they must, at some point, consider a poem complete and let it go, even when they have more to say or strings of words could stand further refining to express a set of images and sensations. If writing poetry is an attempt to capture something essential, something felt but unknown and unsayable—if a poem is a snapshot, an approximation that can never fully convey that essence—if writing is a negotiated exchange mediated by language—what does translation add to the mix? One more pair of eyes to see, one more pair of feet to walk the same path, one more system of communicating vessels for the essence of the poem to flow through. The poem never stops.

This is a small sample from my humble, determined attempt to unearth, in the English language, the wondrous complexity of Saravia’s work. It is an honor to share my reading of these poems here. May these versions move, carry, and transmute you.

prose_section_divider

Special Guest Judge, Jesse Lee Kercheval

“One of the moments I enjoy most in reading translations is when they introduce me to a new writer and, through the joint act of the writing and translation, to a whole world. These three poems,”El jaguar,” “Sobre la escritura,” and “Conjura para no temer la Catrina,” lucidly and effectively translated here as “The Jaguar,” “About Writing” and “Spell to Ward Off Fear of La Catrina,” brought me that very real pleasure. The poems are by the Bolivian-Canadian Alejandro Saravia who lives and works as a journalist in Quebec. I see in these poems Bolivia, but also a world widened by immigration and exile, by a writer’s life of reading and thought. In “About Writing,” Saravia writes “such is the road of the erudite ants/ we who are barely/ a handful of vowels and consonants.” And the translations, in another voyage, another act of immigration, effortlessly bring Saravia’s words across to us in English.”

– Jesse Lee Kercheval is the author of 14 books including the bilingual Spanish/English poetry collection Extranjera/ Stranger (Yaugarú, 2015). Her translations include Invisible Bridge/ El puente invisible: Selected Poems of Circe Maia (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015). She is also the editor of América invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets which is forthcoming from the University of New Mexico Press. She is the Zona Gale Professor of English and Director of the Program in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

María José Giménez María José Giménez is a translator, editor, and rough-weather poet with a rock climbing problem. Recent work appears in K1N, Prelude, Rogue Agent, The Apostles Review, and Cactus Heart. Translations include poetry, short fiction, essays, screenplays, a mountaineering memoir by Edurne Pasaban, and Alejandro Saravia’s novel Red, Yellow and Green (Biblioasis, 2017), winner of a 2016 NEA Translation Fellowship. She is part of Montreal’s collective The Apostles Review and serves as Assistant Translation Editor for Drunken Boat.

 

 

Alejandro Saravia Alejandro Saravia was born in Cochabamba, Bolivia and since 1986 has lived in Quebec, where he works as a journalist. His publications have appeared in publications across Canada and the United States, including Quiebre, Tinta y Sombra, Mapalé, Alter Vox, The Fourth River, and Cactus Heart. In addition to the novel Rojo, amarillo y verde (2003), he has published six books of poems and a short fiction volume about the 40th anniversary of the Chilean coup d’état, Cuarenta momentos chilenos (2013). He is part of Montreal’s Hispanic-Canadian collective The Apostles Review.

 

 

 

The Horseshoe Finder / The age / January 1, 1924


The Horseshoe Finder 
            (A Pindaric fragment)

We look at a forest and say:
+++— Here is timber for ships and masts,
Rosy pines,
Free of hairy burden to their very tops,
They should screech in the storm
As lonely pines
In a raging forestless air;
The plumb-line fastened firmly to the dancing deck will endure
++++++++++++++++++++a salty sole of the wind,
And a seafarer,
In a frantic thirst for space
Drags through soggy furrows
A fragile instrument of a geometer,
To weigh a rugged surface of the seas
Against the attraction of the terrestrial bosom.

Inhaling the scent
Of tarry tears which exude through plaiting,
Admiring the clamped planks of bulkheads
Which were not riveted by a Bethlehem’s peaceful carpenter, but by another,
The father of sea-fares, the friend of a seafarer,
We say:
+++— They too stood on land,
Uncomfortable as a mule’s backbone,
Their tops were forgetting about the roots
In a famous mountainous ridge,
And rustling under freshwater torrents
Offered heaven in vain to trade their noble load
For a pinch of salt.

Where to start?
Everything cracks and sways.
The air trembles with similes,
No word is better than any other,
The earth drones with metaphors,
And light two-wheeled chariots,
Dazzlingly harnessed to flocks of birds strenuously flapping their wings,
Fall to fragments
Competing with snorting favorites of the races.

Thrice-blessed is he who puts a name in a song;
A song embossed with a name
Outlives the others —
It is set apart from her girlfriends by a head-band,
Healing from oblivion by a befuddling odor too strong to endure —
Whether caused by the imminence of a man
Or the smell of a strong beast’s fur,
Or just by the scent of thyme grated by the palms.

The air can be as dark as water, and all creatures swim in it like fish
Whose fins thrust the sphere,
Dense, pliable, slightly warmed —
A crystal, where wheels revolve and horses shy,
A soggy black soil of Neaira each night plowed anew
By pitchforks, tridents, hoes, ploughs.
The air is kneaded as densely as soil —
It is impossible to leave it, hard to enter.

A rustle rushes through the trees like a green bat,
Children play knucklebones with the vertebrae of extinct beasts,
The frail chronology of our era comes to a close.
I am grateful for what was given:
I myself was lost, made blunders, lost count.
The era was ringing like a golden orb,
Hollow, cast, supported by no one,
Responding “Yes” or “No” to each touch,
Thus a child answers:
“I’ll give you an apple” or: “I won’t give you an apple,”
While his face is an exact cast of his voice, which utters those words.

The sound is still ringing although its source has vanished.
The steed lies in the dust and snorts dripping with sweat,
But a steep turn of its neck
Still keeps the memory of a thrush-legged race,
Not a four-hoofed race,
But as many hooves as there were cobblestones
Renewed in four shifts
As many times as a steed foaming with heat
Hit the ground.

Thus
The horseshoe-finder
Blows the dust off it
And polishes it with wool until it shines;
Then
He hangs it on his doorway
Giving it rest,
So it won’t have to strike sparks from flint.

Human lips
++++++++which have nothing more to say
Keep the form of the last uttered word,
And a feeling of heaviness fills the hand
Though the jug
++++++++has been half-spilled
++++++++++++++++++++++while it was carried home.

What I am saying now is not spoken by me,
But is dug out like grains of petrified wheat.
Some
+++++++stamp lions on coins,
Others,
+++++++a head.
Various copper, bronze and golden lozenges
Are buried in earth with equal honor.
The age has tried to gnaw at them leaving the clench of its teeth.
Time cuts me like a coin,
And there is not enough of myself left for myself….

(1923)

 

The age

My age, my beast, who can try
Look straight into your eyes
And weld with one’s own blood
Vertebrae of two centuries?
Streams of building blood pour
From the throat of earthly things,
Only a sluggard who lacks backbone
Trembles on the brink of new days.

A creature, while still alive,
Should carry its spine on,
And the wave plays
With an unseen backbone.
Infantile age of earth
Is like tender baby’s bones —
The temple of life is again
Sacrificed like a lamb.

To tear the age from bounds,
To found a new world,
The knotty joints of days
Should be bound by flute sounds.
The age sways a wave
With a human sorrow that stings,
While the adder breathes in the grass
With a golden measure of things.

The buds will swell again
And a green shoot will burst,
But your backbone is broken, alas,
My wonderful wretched age!
A cruel and weak beast,
You gaze with a senseless smile
At the traces of your own paws,
Like a beast once strong and agile.

Streams of building blood pour
From the throat of earthly things,
And a warm cartilage of the seas
Sways searing fish ashore,
And from the bird’s height,
From azure wet rocks
Indifference flows down
Upon your mortal wound, beast.

(1922)

 

January 1, 1924

He who kissed time’s tormented temple,
With a son’s tenderness will recollect
How time lay down to sleep
Behind the window in a snowy mount of wheat.
He who raised time’s sickly eyelids —
Two enormous sleepy apples —
Will always hear the noise of roaring rivers
Of deceptive and deadly times.

A tyrannous age has two sleepy apples
And a beautiful mouth of clay,
But on his death-bed he will kiss
A drooping hand of his aging son.
I know that life’s breath
Grows weaker day by day,
They will soon cut off a simple song
Of clay wrongs and seal the mouth with tin.

Oh, life of clay! Oh, dying of the age!
I fear the only one who can
Grasp you is the one whose helpless smile
Reveals the man who lost himself.
It’s such a pain to look for a lost word,
To raise sickly eyelids
And gather night herbs for a foreign tribe
When one’s blood is thickened with limestone.

The age. The layer of lime hardens in sickly son’s blood.
Moscow sleeps like a wooden chest.
There is nowhere to run from a tyrannous age…
The snow smells of apple as in old days.
I long to run away from my own threshold.
Where to? It’s dark outside,
And as if a paved road sprinkled with salt,
My consciousness shines ahead.

Past lanes, past starling houses, wooden eaves,
Somehow going somewhere not far,
A regular rider covered in a threadbare fur,
I try to button up sleigh robe.
Street after street flies past,
Sleigh’s frozen sound crunches like an apple,
A tight loop would not give up and keeps
Slipping out of my hands all the time.

With what iron hardware does winter night
Jingle along Moscow streets?
It rattles with frozen fish, streams steam
Like silver roach-fish from rosy tearooms.
Moscow—it’s Moscow again. I say “Hello!”
Bear with me—let bygones be bygones,
As in old time, I respect the brotherhood
Of hard frost and pike’s court. [1]

Pharmacist’s raspberry burns in the snow,
An Underwood somewhere clinked,
Two feet of snow and a coachman’s back:
What else to wish? You won’t be hurt or killed.
Winter’s a beauty, and a goat-like starlit sky
Scattered around burns like milk,
With a horse’s hair against the frozen runners
The sleigh robe rings and rubs.

The lanes smoked with kerosene,
Swallowed snow, raspberry, ice,
Still remembering the year of twenty and nineteen,
Scaling off the Soviet sonatina like dry fish.
Can I betray to a shameful smear —
The frost smells of apple again —
The wonderful oath to the fourth estate
And the wows as great as tears?

Whom else will you kill? Whom will you hail?
What lies will you devise?
That’s the Underwood’s cartilage—tear out a key,
And you’ll find a pike’s bone underneath,
And the layer of lime in the blood of a sick son
Will dissolve, and a blessed laughter will burst …
But the typewriters’ simple sonatina is just
A shadow of those mighty sonatas.

(1924, 1937)

 

[1] An allusion to a satirical fable “Carp-Idealist” of the great Russian satirist  Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826-1889). In the story, Carp was proclaiming ideas of equality, observing the laws, which were labeled as “socialist”, and in the end was called for a dispute with Pike, was later taken in custody and finally eaten, or rather, occasionally swallowed by the Pike.

prose_section_divider Нашедший подкову 

        (Пиндарический отрывок) 

Глядим на лес и говорим:
— Вот лес корабельный,мачтовый,
Розовые сосны,
До самой верхушки свободные от мохнатой ноши,
Им бы поскрипывать в бурю,
Одинокими пиниями,
В разъяренном безлесном воздухе.
Под соленою пятою ветра устоит отвес,
+++++++пригнанный к пляшущей палубе,
И мореплаватель,
В необузданной жажде пространства,
Влача через влажные рытвины хрупкий прибор геометра,
Сличит с притяженьем земного лона
Шероховатую поверхность морей.

А вдыхая запах
Смолистых слез, проступивших сквозь обшивку корабля,
Любуясь на доски,
Заклепанные, слаженные в переборки
Не вифлеемским мирным плотником, а другим–
Отцом путешествий, другом морехода,–
Говорим:
…И они стояли на земле,
Неудобной, как хребет осла,
Забывая верхушками о корнях
На знаменитом горном кряже,
И шумели под пресным ливнем,
Безуспешно предлагая небу выменять на щепотку соли
Свой благородный груз.

С чего начать?
Всё трещит и качается.
Воздух дрожит от сравнений.
Ни одно слово
+++++++++++++не лучше другого,
Земля гудит метафорой,
И легкие двуколки
В броской упряжи густых от натуги птичьих стай
Разрываются на части,
Соперничая с храпящими любимцами ристалищ.
Трижды блажен, кто введет в песнь имя;
Украшенная названьем песнь
Дольше живет среди других —
Она отмечена среди подруг повязкой на лбу,
Исцеляющей от беспамятства, слишком сильного одуряющего запаха,
Будь то близость мужчины,
Или запах шерсти сильного зверя,
Или просто дух чобра, растертого между ладоней.
Воздух бывает темным, как вода, и всё живое в нем плавает, как рыба,

Плавниками расталкивая сферу,
Плотную, упругую, чуть нагретую,–
Хрусталь, в котором движутся колеса и шарахаются лошади,
Влажный чернозем Нееры, каждую ночь распаханный заново
Вилами, трезубцами, мотыгами, плугами.
Воздух замешен так же густо, как земля:
Из него нельзя выйти, в него трудно войти.

Шорох пробегает по деревьям зеленой лаптой,
Дети играют в бабки позвонками умерших животных.
Хрупкое летоисчисление нашей эры подходит к концу.
Спасибо за то, что было:
Я сам ошибся, я сбился, запутался в счете.
Эра звенела, как шар золотой,
Полая, литая, никем не поддерживаемая,
На всякое прикосновение отвечала “да” и “нет”.
Так ребенок отвечает;
«Я дам тебе яблоко» — или: «Я не дам тебе яблоко».
И лицо его — точный слепок с голоса, который произносит эти слова.

Звук еще звенит, хотя причина звука исчезла.
Конь лежит в пыли и храпит в мыле,
Но крутой поворот его шеи
Еще сохраняет воспоминание о беге с разбросанными ногами —
Когда их было не четыре,
А по числу камней дороги,
Обновляемых в четыре смены,
По числу отталкиваний от земли пышущего жаром иноходца.

Так
Нашедший подкову
Сдувает с нее пыль
И растирает ее шерстью, пока она не заблестит.
Тогда
Он вешает ее на пороге,
Чтобы она отдохнула,
И больше уж ей не придется высекать искры из кремня.

Человеческие губы,
+++++++++++++которым больше нечего сказать,
Сохраняют форму последнего сказанного слова,
И в руке остается ощущение тяжести,
Хотя кувшин
+++++++наполовину расплескался,
+++++++++++++++++++пока его несли домой.

То, что я сейчас говорю, говорю не я,
А вырыто из земли, подобно зернам окаменелой пшеницы.
Одни
++++++на монетах изображают льва,
Другие —
++++++голову.
Разнообразные медные, золотые и бронзовые лепешки
С одинаковой почестью лежат в земле,
Век, пробуя их перегрызть, оттиснул на них свои зубы.
Время срезает меня, как монету,
И мне уж не хватает меня самого.

1923

 

ВЕК

ВЕК
Век мой, зверь мой, кто сумеет
Заглянуть в твои зрачки
И своею кровью склеит
Двух столетий позвонки?
Кровь-строительница хлещет
Горлом из земных вещей,
Захребетник лишь трепещет
На пороге новых дней.

Тварь, покуда жизнь хватает,
Донести хребет должна,
И невидимым играет
Позвоночником волна.
Словно нежный хрящ ребенка
Век младенческой земли —
Снова в жертву, как ягненка,
Темя жизни принесли.

Чтобы вырвать век из плена,
Чтобы новый мир начать,
Узловатых дней колена
Нужно флейтою связать.
Это век волну колышет
Человеческой тоской,
И в траве гадюка дышит
Мерой века золотой.
И ещё набухнут почки,

Брызнет зелени побег,
Но разбит твой позвоночник,
Мой прекрасный жалкий век!
И с бессмысленной улыбкой
Вспять глядишь, жесток и слаб,
Словно зверь, когда-то гибкий,
На следы своих же лап.

Кровь-строительница хлещет
Горлом из земных вещей,
И горячей рыбой плещет
В берег тёплый хрящ морей.
И с высокой сетки птичьей,
От лазурных влажных глыб
Льётся, льётся безразличье
На смертельный твой ушиб.


1922.

 

1 января 1924

Кто время целовал в измученное темя,–
С сыновьей нежностью потом
Он будет вспоминать, как спать ложилось время
В сугроб пшеничный за окном.
Кто веку поднимал болезненные веки —
Два сонных яблока больших,–
Он слышит вечно шум — когда взревели реки
Времен обманных и глухих.

Два сонных яблока у века-властелина
И глиняный прекрасный рот,
Но к млеющей руке стареющего сына
Он, умирая, припадет.
Я знаю, с каждым днем слабеет жизни выдох,
Еще немного — оборвут
Простую песенку о глиняных обидах
И губы оловом зальют.

О, глиняная жизнь! О, умиранье века!
Боюсь, лишь тот поймет тебя,
В ком беспомо’щная улыбка человека,
Который потерял себя.
Какая боль — искать потерянное слово,
Больные веки поднимать
И с известью в крови для племени чужого
Ночные травы собирать.

Век. Известковый слой в крови больного сына
Твердеет. Спит Москва, как деревянный ларь,
И некуда бежать от века-властелина…
Снег пахнет яблоком, как встарь.
Мне хочется бежать от моего порога.
Куда? На улице темно,
И, словно сыплют соль мощеною дорогой,
Белеет совесть предо мной.

По переулочкам, скворешням и застрехам,
Недалеко, собравшись как-нибудь,–
Я, рядовой седок, укрывшись рыбьим мехом,
Все силюсь полость застегнуть.
Мелькает улица, другая,
И яблоком хрустит саней морозный звук,
Не поддается петелька тугая,
Все время валится из рук.

Каким железным скобяным товаром
Ночь зимняя гремит по улицам Москвы,
То мерзлой рыбою стучит, то хлещет паром
Из чайных розовых — как серебром плотвы.
Москва — опять Москва. Я говорю ей: здравствуй!
Не обессудь, теперь уж не беда,
По старине я принимаю братство
Мороза крепкого и щучьего суда.

Пылает на снегу аптечная малина,
И где-то щелкнул ундервуд,
Спина извозчика и снег на пол-аршина:
Чего тебе еще? Не тронут, не убьют.
Зима-красавица, и в звездах небо козье
Рассыпалось и молоком горит,
И конским волосом о мерзлые полозья
Вся полость трется и звенит.

А переулочки коптили керосинкой,
Глотали снег, малину, лед,
Все шелушиться им советской сонатинкой,
Двадцатый вспоминая год.
Ужели я предам позорному злословью —
Вновь пахнет яблоком мороз —
Присягу чудную четвертому сословью
И клятвы крупные до слез?

Кого еще убьешь? Кого еще прославишь?
Какую выдумаешь ложь?
То ундервуда хрящ: скорее вырви клавиш —
И щучью косточку найдешь;
И известковый слой в крови больного сына
Растает, и блаженный брызнет смех…
Но пишущих машин простая сонатина —
Лишь тень сонат могучих тех.

1924, 1937

Translator’s Note

As Mandelstam said in the “Conversation about Dante,” poetical speech is heard in a very relative way because in a true work of poetry we hear many voices, one of which, a musical voice, is deaf without a word; another, narrative, is absolutely meaningless without music and images, and can be retold as a dull story (that is the best proof of the absence of poetry); the other voice, metaphorical, expresses nothing without poetical motive and meaning revealed in a definite context. This thought of the Russian poet coincides to some extent with Gerard Manley Hopkins’s definition of verse as “speech wholly or partially repeating the same figure of sound.” To name the phenomena of the world is to reveal them. Revelation is re-evaluation: re-veiling and unveiling something so palpable and fragile that when “rendered in a disdainful prose,” to quote Pushkin, it evaporates.

It is my contention that the word as such is untranslatable, even in prose. As George Steiner mentioned, there is no such a vehicle that can transport a word literally into another language. Even composing in one’s own language is an impossible task. Imitations, adaptations, or free translations, which are of no time as poetry itself, on the other hand, do not attempt to render the original poem as translation as such into another language. What one can try to render is what George Steiner calls in After Babel “a contingent motion of spirit” (Steiner 71).

Translating the poems of Osip Mandelstam is even more impossible, since his poetry is not only full of allusions and hidden and direct citations (as, for instance, allusions to Pindar in “The Horseshoe Finder”), but it is also esoteric, and the bridges / associations between metaphors are in most cases eliminated. Hence the translator of Mandelstam’s poetry has to do a lot of research, but then thoroughly “hide” the acquired knowledge between the lines, since translation differs from interpretation (although the latter is also implied).

In Mandelstam’s “The Horseshoe Finder” (1923), “unbridled passion for space,” a desire to sail “beyond the Gates of Hercules” erases the boundary between time and space. The sea is doubtless a metaphor of life while wandering, in my view, is a metaphor of a spiritual quest. Mandelstam’s seafarer may be Odysseus (since he is called “The father of sea-fares, the friend of a seafarer”), but the scholars of Mandelstam’s poetry, Steven Broyd and Clare Cavanagh, do not exclude Peter the Great, since he was also a shipbuilder, though not “a Bethlehem’s peaceful carpenter.” As was mentioned by a number of scholars, rhythm and imagery of the poem have allusions to Pindar as well as to Hesiod’s Theogony (915-917), in which the Muses and their mother Mnemosyne are crowned with frontlets. It is notable that in Mandelstam’s “The Horseshoe Finder,” oblivion (or amnesia) is caused by an overly strong, befuddling smell, the source of which might be the closeness of a male, or the smell of a strong wild beast’s hair, which is akin to Yeats’ “sensual music” (“Sailing to Byzantium”) of the dying generations; hence the vital power of procreation can lead to unbeing if not saved by the creativity or by the “monuments of unageing intellect.”

The image of time, which “has tried to gnaw” on ancient coins, reminds us of Bergson’s image of time where the past “is gnawing into the future.” (Matter and Memory, 52-53.) In Mandelstam’s poem, however, time “cuts me”–the lyrical hero, if not the poet himself, is literally cut by time. Thus, time for Mandelstam, who is alluding to Dezhavin’s (1743-1816) last poem, “The River of Time” [Reka vremyon] and to the theme of oblivion, is a fearful thing. The theme of Derzhavin’s poem is the flux of time which carries away all the human deeds and “drowns in the chasm of oblivion/ nations, kingdoms and kings.”

In “The Age” [Vek] Mandelstam refers to time as “a sick and dying beast,” while in “1 January 1924” the age is shown as a dying tyrant that will nevertheless “sink onto the numb arm of an aging son.” Mandelstam opposes sick time to the roaring rivers of deceptive and desolate times, alluding both to the bloody Soviet reality and to Derzhavin’s “The River of Time.” Hence, the necessity to heal or save sick time with music—even at the cost of the poet’s own life. Therefore, the theme of overcoming separation in time and isolation in civilization and culture, by thus healing or saving time, was inevitably connected in Mandelstam’s poetry with the theme of art. Here “a flute is a metonymy of art, poetry,” as was stated by the Russian scholar Etkind. Similarly, in “The Horseshoe Finder,” the theme of wandering and a spiritual quest is connected with the art of poetry.

Ian ProbsteinIan Probstein, associate professor of English at Touro College, New York, is a bilingual English-Russian poet and translator of poetry. He has published nine books of poetry and more than a dozen books of translation; in all, he has more than 450 publications credits, including work in Atlanta Review, The International Literary Quarterly, Brooklyn Rail: In Translation, and in An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature, 1801-2001: Two Centuries of a Dual Identity. Recently he published Spiritual Soil, a book of essays on Russian Poetry (Moscow: Agraph, 2014), two books of poetry: Gordian Knot (Milan: 2014), The Circle of Being (Vladivostok, Russia, 2015), and participated in the definitive edition of The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas in Russian (Moscow: Rudomino, 2015).

 

Osip MandelstamA great Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) led an unsettled life full of tribulations, wandering, and exile. After his Stalin epigram of 1934, for which the dictator, who used to say that “vengeance is best when served cold” (literally:“vengeance is a cold dish”), never forgave the poet, Mandelstam was first sent to Cherdyn’ in Siberia. Due to the protection of Bukharin, then a powerful Communist party functionary who was fond of Mandelstam’s poetry, the term was somehow softened: he had to live in the provincial town of Voronezh (deprived of the right to live in the capital and big cities) and finally was arrested again in 1937, sent to Vladivostok labor (virtually concentration) camp, where he perished in 1938. The exact date of his death is unknown; the poet has no grave of his own.

Listen:

This is the sound of drunkenness held
+++++on the last twilit gunshot. The sound
++++++++++of your voice carrying from the flat lawn
+++++and up past the sleeping baby, past
++++++++++the boys whose ears have tuned
++++++++++to this semblance of fury.

+++++Tonight, Texas folds itself down
+++++into the hollow of your throat and nestles there
++++++++++++++++its whisky, its raw, hot breath baited
++++++++++++++++++++++toward the edge of our union.

This is the sound of my standing
+++++at a road’s crossing. This is the sound
++++++++++of a car tire wailing over and beyond
++++++++++a tornado’s berth.

+++++See me point two fingers in every direction.
++++++++++To the south of us, a mirrored bottle’s emptied
++++++++++++++++mouth. The north,
++++++++++an eagle of wanting. I wonder

who gave me this urgency. Who told me
+++++to pick through your heart, as if your heart
++++++++++was a sieve for my choosing. Where to go east
++++++++++++++++is to be singular and afraid of my uncoupled side,
+++++and where to go west is to turn myself inward
++++++++++to the fierceness of you, your eye’s

+++++cold spurn. Is to sit with my aunts
++++++++++at a table made from a cask’s aged jaw and watch
+++++their husbands spit arrows
++++++++++into an echo’s turbulence. I know

I would never cast myself into a pool of tongues, yet
+++++I am facing you or the creature of you
++++++++++built up in its fever and I am both fear
+++++and reflection, I am the sound
++++++++++of your freeness bathing in your southern
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++country,

++++++++++standing on the brink of a desire. I am
+++++shying away from the sting of a bitter turn,
the dark of our difference circling us in caustic balance,
++++++++++in a ruinous noise.

Clare PanicciaBorn and raised in upstate New York, Clare Paniccia is currently a PhD student in poetry at Oklahoma State University. In 2015, she was a finalist for both the Janet McCabe and Slippery Elm poetry prizes. Her work has been featured in or is forthcoming in The Pinch, Superstition Review, Puerto del Sol, Radar Poetry, Best New Poets 2015, and elsewhere.

Daniel José Older, Author of Shadowshaper

Daniel Jose OlderDaniel José Older is the type of writer many of us writers aspire to be—careful, intentional, eminently aware of the ecosystems that produce literary work in our society, and the role this work plays in the context of a predominantly white narrative. His Twitter following is large (sitting at over 22k followers), both because of the quality of his work and because of his willingness to engage with an industry that often ignores the immense diversity of voices—of gender, race, culture, and socio-economic background. Equally excited and intimidated by the prospect of interviewing Daniel,  when we spoke on Skype in March 2016, it quickly became clear that my nervousness was unfounded. Daniel is, in the classic sense of the word, engaging. Easy to talk to, but thoughtful in his responses. Careful in choosing his words. Reiterating points that I fumbled with my first questions, my voice cracking, casting glances at my pre-typed list. But soon our conversation meandered pleasantly. Daniel and I spoke for almost an hour and a half—the topics ranging from the craft of writing to diversity, language, music, politics, and a myriad of others. Which is to say that he has a lot to say, because he thinks about all of it in the context of his writing.

*     *     *

I ask Daniel about the genesis of Shadowshaper, his recently published Young Adult novel, now a New York Times bestseller: whether he had always intended to write it as a YA novel or if it had simply evolved that way. He nods and tells me, “Shadowshaper was the first book I ever sat down to write.” He cites the Harry Potter books as influences for the novel. In 2009, when he began writing Shadowshaper, Daniel had already been working as a paramedic for seven years; he was also working as an activist and community organizer, interacting with young people and organizing marches. And so, between working with black and brown kids, and not seeing himself in the YA books he was reading, the kids not seeing themselves in the books they were reading, he thought, man this is dumb. “A lot of it was in the vein of counter-narrative. What if Harry Potter was to be mixed with The Wire, with characters that speak to us in genuine ways?” But it wasn’t simply about painting Harry Potter in brown face; it’s about world-building. Daniel pauses to make sure I understand, “Don’t get me wrong. I love Harry Potter. [JK Rowling] uses European mythology for her books because that’s what she knows.” The problem, he explains, isn’t that Harry Potter is white; it’s that there are, or were, few other options available. “I want to read a fantasy novel that has inside jokes for me, about my mythology.” And he wrote Shadowshaper as a counter-narrative to the predominantly white fantasy worlds that had been constructed up to then, as a nod to cultures that, up to then (and now) have seldom appeared in fantasy novels.

Shadowshaper_cover-Brooklyn as a setting, as a basis for the world-building upon which Daniel embarks in Shadowshaper (and his other works), is the perfect backdrop—with its mishmash of cultures, of people trying to understand their places in the community. Out of this world arises Sierra, the book’s protagonist, who Daniel says emerged as a product of her environment—a strong, dark-skinned brown girl attempting to navigate her culture and the complex ecosystem of Brooklyn, and the various shades of brown the place embodies. Again, not a simple task, but one that is clearly worthwhile. “I had to ask myself, am I writer enough to tackle this character,” Daniel says, “and then I jumped in.” And, as with many of his characters, Daniel writes Sierra with nuance, confronting the difficult issues that young brown girls in Brooklyn face. In one scene, Sierra examines herself in the mirror—her dark skin and unruly afro—and grapples with conventional ideas of beauty. It becomes clear that these ideas have woven themselves into her psyche but, thread by thread, she disentangles herself from them, redefines what beauty means, and recognizes the power she carries in her appearance.

In another scene, Sierra confronts her aunt, Tía Rosa, who spouts racist remarks in her direction about the skin color of a boy she likes. About Sierra’s own supposedly disheveled appearance. At one point, Tía Rosa uses the expression “lighter than the bottom of your foot”—as a sort of insidious benchmark for the color of one’s skin considered respectable, especially for a potential mate. This line illustrates that white supremacy does not just come from white people; it is so pervasive that it weaves itself into brown and black cultures as well. Sierra, in a tense scene of familial confrontation, talks back to her aunt and puts an end to the conversation. It is one of the many scenes in which Sierra asserts herself, empowers herself. What’s amazing, Daniel tells me, is how much international feedback he got from that one scene. “Not just from black and brown communities. Indian communities, Asian communities. So many different people around the world have heard that expression, lighter than the bottom of your foot.” It’s horrifying how many people have heard that, he explains. “Everybody has a Tía Rosa,” he adds.

It becomes clear that these ideas have woven themselves into her psyche but, thread by thread, she disentangles herself from them, redefines what beauty means, and recognizes the power she carries in her appearance.

In Shadowshaper, there is a passage in which Sierra stares at her reflection in the mirror, teasing out her hair, watching the light reflect off her skin. She considers everything people have told her about appearance—her hair, her skin, and her nose—how unkind and unforgiving they have been. She eventually says, “I’m Sierra Maria Santiago. I am what I am. Enough.” This is the type of power with which Daniel imbues his sometimes vulnerable and confused protagonist—an important reminder for young adults of color who seek their own experiences in the novel of the power that they can wield over their self-identity.

Of course, the world of Shadowshaper is filled much more than the weight of oppression. Sierra and her group of friends provide a vehicle for Daniel to explore bigger questions of culture while they hang out, cut up, shoot the shit. Because what teenagers do, and do so well, is rag on each other, try on different ideas, make mistakes, try again. “There’s a great literature to the way that young folks speak to each other. There’s a power to their what I call poetic vernacular.” And though they challenge each other and question each other, their love for one other is never in doubt—this, too, is a form of power. Daniel and I speak about a scene in Shadowshaper where Sierra and her friends visit an overpriced coffee shop that has popped up in their neighborhood—the quintessential symbol of gentrification. In the scene, the friends hit the pause button for a moment on the magical, insidious shit happening around them. They take the opportunity (or rather, Daniel lends them the opportunity) to think about ancestry and its definitions. Spanish versus Latino. Anthropology. Culture. “On the one hand I just wanted to have teens cutting up, because they do that so well. . . On the other hand, [I wanted] to provide them with an antidote to the adults who are trying to put them into boxes, to prescribe to them who they’re supposed date and be, and how they identify. And they’re just saying, you know, I’ma write a book about white people!”

The problem isn’t that Harry Potter is white; it’s that there are, or were, few other options available. “I want to read a fantasy novel that has inside jokes for me, about my mythology.”

Daniel’s work, from his Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series to Shadowshaper, all exhibit the very diversity he seeks to foment in the publishing industry. He led a petition to replace H.P. Lovecraft’s image for the World Fantasy awards with that of Octavia Butler. His Buzzfeed essay,Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing,” garnered a lot of public attention for good reason—it is a scathing critique of the state of the publishing industry, but also provides concrete solutions. It is the type of essay that sparks real, substantive conversation. Older is more than a writer—he is a musician, a paramedic, a fantasy nerd, and, most importantly an activist. “You know,” he says, “I was an activist before a writer. And I was a writer before I was an activist.” He is both, of course. His is the perfect case study of a writer wearing many, meaningful hats.

{CF8916B4-FEA8-401D-B062-B82CE2521644}Img400When I ask Daniel about what he read as a kid, in an effort to understand where he developed his unique voice, he cites a litany of influences. He calls himself a definite “sci-fi fantasy kid” (giving a nod to Dune, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings) but adds that, growing up, he also really loved mythology. “Mythology was my shit. My favorite book when I was a kid was The Iliad.” Indeed, his work seems to borrow from mythology a seamlessness (a word he uses repeatedly when we speak), the casual nature with which gods, spirits, and ghouls interact with everyday people. He also admires the ways in which myths build a universe. “It’s never just the one story,” he explains. “The story fits into this giant framework”—another hint about the way in which Older’s storytelling mind constructs the world his novels occupy. His characters (mystical and human alike) are thrust into situations, building the canon of their experience and adding to the richness of their being. His work, particularly the Bone Street Rumba series—which currently consists of the novels Half-Resurrection Blues and Midnight Taxi Tango; Battle Hill Bolero is due out in January 2017—build just this sort of cohesive, magical world. It consists of a series of vignettes, some of which have been published by Tor as short stories, that all serve to expand the realm through which his characters move.

“And then,” says Older, “I went to college and put that stuff down.” That stuff, of course, refers to sci-fi and fantasy. There was a period in which he studied nonfiction, and genuinely believed he would end up writing essays. “You know, the folks I admired were Eduardo Galeano, James Baldwin, bell hooks. And I thought shit, if I could do that, that would be amazing.” He ultimately returned to his first loves of sci-fi and fantasy, but not before taking a long detour as a paramedic, a musician, and an activist. What comes across in my conversation with Daniel is the importance he ascribes to living a life, and not just being an observer. “I felt like I needed to put myself into the thick of things, and have something to write about besides theory. . . I think writers can fall into this trap of thinking we are outside of things. I didn’t want to play into that.” His twenties were full of just this sort of living; Daniel thrust himself into the thick of things and set aside writing for a time—though he did write in the back of ambulances about the people he encountered as a paramedic (a career that lasted a decade and produced a series of vignettes called Ambulance Stories). He composed and played music as part of the Brooklyn-based soul quartet Ghost Star. In short, he did things, lots of things, all the while keeping one eye on his activist and writing goals.

…white supremacy does not just come from white people; it is so pervasive that it weaves itself into brown and black cultures as well…

Then, Octavia Butler happened, and it all seemed to click. Daniel sits up when he tells me, “It was really Octavia Butler that brought me back into thinking about fantasy again, because she does it in a way that’s so complicated. She thinks about power so deeply in her stories, but they’re still really great stories. And I was like, oh you can do this power analysis shit in the middle of really deep storytelling.” He explains that the reason this truth came as a revelation to him is that all of the fantasy that he’d been reading up to that point contained white supremacist undertones—whether that be in the form of the white savior, global destruction, or any number of tropes the dominant narratives pushes. But Octavia Butler showed him the possibility that fantasy could tear away at traditional power structures while simultaneously telling good stories. It’s safe to say that Older has taken this inspiration and run with it. In fact, he explains, this focus on the telling of stories in careful, nuanced ways that avoid the pitfalls of classic fantasy tales provides him with a platform to elevate long-marginalized voices, particularly in the fantasy genre. He uses this same platform to publish critical articles about the publishing industry’s status quo.

51gwVzzWwrL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_I ask Daniel about his role as gatekeeper—gatekeeper between the predominantly white lit fantasy writer world and that of the writers of color. He cites Octavia Butler’s influence again. “You know, people of color love science fiction and fantasy, in general . . . but we’re not usually included in the masses of sci-fi fans. . . Butler was one of the first fantasy and sci-fi writers to bridge that gap, and step into really talking to a whole other realm of folks (people of color) . . . and she did it not because she’s black, but because she’s willing to talk about race and power in a really deep way, in a way white writers are not.”

Daniel is a gifted writer whose novels embody all of the characteristics of good storytelling: rich characters, epic plotlines, and some of the best dialogue I’ve ever read. His characters jump off the page without relying on archetype, bucking racial stereotypes in favor of depth and complexity. His plots, often grand and steeped in mythology are grounded by the realness of his characters and sweep the reader along. His dialogue is sparse and powerful. Shadowshaper is carefully constructed. Its sights are aimed squarely at issues of culture, appropriation, and colonialism. Its tagline hints at the unapologetic grandness towards which it aspires, which is exactly the sort of grandness young readers are drawn to: Draw a Mural. Change the World. As with much of his work, in Shadowshaper Older seeks to find truth at the intersections of cultures, of spirits, and even of life and death. He draws on old mythologies, finding modern twists and blending them with the reality of living marginalized—but empowered—in today’s world. What’s more, the cast of characters in his work, from the Bone Street Rumba series to Shadowshaper, are all rich in their nuance and diversity.

I needed to put myself into the thick of things, and have something to write about besides theory. . . I think writers can fall into this trap of thinking we are outside of things. I didn’t want to play into that.

Along these same lines—of giving voice to the traditionally overlooked—Older embraces polyvocality. In Midnight Taxi Tango, he writes from the perspective of several very different characters: Carlos, a half-dead (possibly) Puerto Rican man with no memory of his past life; Kia, a stubborn and self-empowered black girl; Reza, a queer woman of color who never leaves home without at least a couple of guns. Writing the Other is, of course, not an easy task. Playing the devil’s advocate, I ask Daniel how he can do this—that is, write the Other—when it is so difficult to write experiences that one hasn’t personally lived. “That a complicated question,” Older tells me. I apologize. He shakes his head and says, “I’m not here for the easy ones.” He adds, “you can’t write and not write the Other. You’ll have very boring books with one character. It’s a memoir. But here’s the thing: it shouldn’t be too much to ask that it be done right. And the problem is that it’s not usually done right. It’s usually done very poorly, and that needs to be part of the conversation. Otherwise it just becomes well, you asked for diversity so we gave you a black bad guy!” The problem, as Daniel sees it, is not necessarily that there is a lack of diverse characters in novels nowadays (he sees progress on this front), but that the conversation seems to have stopped there. That the publishing industry seems willing to hang a banner on this accomplishment and call it a day. The next step, then, is to build characters that are true to life. To write these characters not as tropes, but as living, breathing beings.

From this, our conversation veers naturally to a discussion of one of the characters in Shadowshaper, Wick, a white anthropologist who attempts to study the protagonist Sierra’s Caribbean ancestry and, ultimately, to harness its magic. Wick’s intentions are good—initially he wants merely to act as chronicler, as preserver, but he soon begins to wield the power for himself. There are many notable questions surrounding this character, one of which Sierra herself asks: who gets to study whom? Why is it that this white man gets to play scientist with her culture and that of her ancestors? And more importantly, do his intentions matter? That is, do his benevolent aspirations do anything to dull the decidedly colonialist nature of his actions? The answer is no, of course. Daniel tells me that “a piece of Wick’s whole problem is that he doesn’t fully understand the powers around him.” He is participating in this centuries-long battle, of which he understands almost nothing. There is a clear parallel here to what humans do, particularly those belonging to a dominant class, and a call to more fully grasp one’s role in the grander narrative, both literary and otherwise.

Older seeks to find truth at the intersections of cultures, of spirits, and even of life and death. He draws on old mythologies, finding modern twists and blending them with the reality of living marginalized—but empowered—in today’s world.

“It’s never about you,” he says, when our discussion shifts to gentrification—a rampant problem in both my adopted city of San Francisco and Daniel’s home in Brooklyn, and in many urban areas across the U.S. It’s a topic about which everyone seems to have a strong opinion. Unsurprisingly, Daniel’s thoughts on the matter are carefully thought out. “When I wrote about gentrification for Salon, a lot of the response was well what am I supposed to do about it? And it’s never been about how this individual person shouldn’t do that. It’s about: are you aware of the power framework that’s functioning through you when you make a move. And then do you have that in mind so that you can understand it and react to it? Are you conscious of your relationship with the police, with real estate people?” And therein lies the heart of the problem. Many people who move through life, even allies (most notably allies), are, despite their good intentions, unaware of the space they occupy within a system that aims, intentionally or otherwise, to marginalize. This is a profoundly uncomfortable topic of conversation for white people. For cisgendered people. For men. For those who do not need to consider their place because it is the default. But, the uncomfortable conversation is precisely the one that needs to be had, especially for writers, and it is precisely why the Wick character exists. Daniel explains to me that Wick was originally written as a prototypical bad guy monster (big teeth, scary), but he changed him to the more nuanced, profoundly human, well-intentioned, but ultimately doomed-to-fail character he eventually became. Daniel tells me that “great writers should be the first people to dive into layered conversations. That’s the thing that literature is supposed to do. Talk about uncomfortable shit. That’s your job. Why would you miss that opportunity?” Daniel lives with this discomfort. His work lives in that fraught space because that’s where all of the change happens—and all of the best literature. Avoiding the difficult or accepting the erasure of marginalized communities does nothing to make things better.

The problem, as Daniel sees it, is not necessarily that there is a lack of diverse characters in novels nowadays (he sees progress on this front), but that the conversation seems to have stopped there. That the publishing industry seems willing to hang a banner on this accomplishment and call it a day.

Our conversation meanders again to the idea of the “issues book.” I ask—“so is that why you wrote Shadowshaper as a YA novel? So that you could tackle these questions of race and white supremacy.” Daniel pushes back against my white person question. He explains the concept of “the issues book”—unsurprisingly, a book that is predominantly about one issue. Race, for example. “There will be subplots, characters might fall in love, but at the end of the day it’s about this one. . . whatever.” Though he doesn’t disparage any individual book for this approach, Daniel questions the overall concept. “People of color, or anyone who deals with any kind of oppression, walks through life every day multitasking. It’s not like everything else stops so that they can deal with that oppression. You’re trying to pass the SATs, and you’re getting hit on the street, and you’re being told you’re ‘less than’ by your teacher. All these things are happening at once, and you have to multitask to survive.” This point is particularly salient in Daniel’s novels, particularly Shadowshaper, because all of these things are happening in concurrence with threats from zombies, ghosts, and all manner of evil spirits. In Shadowshaper, Sierra fights zombies, anti-blackness, street harassment, her grandfather’s patriarchy. All of these facets of Sierra’s reality bring depth to the world in which Sierra lives, and they are a true representation of the black and Latino experience. “It’s not just a bunch of outlying moments of bad shit happening. They’re all in conversation. They’re all related. Even if the book doesn’t explicitly tie it all together, if I’ve done my job you walk away seeing that there are these connections between the different conflicts.” All of this is to say that Daniel’s approach to writing, as it is to living, is holistic.

SNcover-front-1000One particular aspect of Daniel’s writing that stood out to me is the musicality of it. Not in the sense of the musicality of the prose (though that too) but his willingness to use music as the glue between his stories. Unlike many writers, though, he does not reference popular bands, or even real bands. Instead, Daniel invents and describes music specifically for the novel in which it appears—another example of his ambitious world-building techniques. In fact, the music he composes crosses the boundaries of his novels—Kia, one of the main characters of the Bone Street Rumba series often listens to King Impervious, who is actually the character Izzy from Shadowshaper, one of Sierra’s inner circle of friends. In Salsa Nocturna, one of Daniel’s early collections, music appears that also emerges in his later works. In essence, Daniel constructs, in his world, a sort of literary score. When I ask him about this, Daniel smiles broadly. “It’s more fun that way!” he says, “You get to make your own music!” I ask him about Sierra’s brother’s band, Culebra, a thrash metal salsa band. In Shadowshaper, Culebra acts as a sort of character in its own right, joining the ancestral and contemporary. “It’s based on a Mars Volta song (L’Via L’Viaquez),” Daniel tells me. “I heard it one day at Newbury Comics with my mom, and we were both like what the fuck is this?! And so we bought that album. And that became Culebra.” As a Mars Volta fan, I am ecstatic when he says this, but it also clicks for me that of course Culebra is The Mars Volta—because he describes their music with such intense detail. He does the same with a particular song in Half-Resurrection Blues, too, as he describes the music at the cusp of a burgeoning love between two of the protagonists. Amid a flurry of poetic prose, the reader is lost in the notes. Daniel tells me that the description of the song seems to have resonated with readers so much that people often tweet at him demanding its name. He shrugs and tries to explain. “I made that shit up!”

Great writers should be the first people to dive into layered conversations. That’s the thing that literature is supposed to do. Talk about uncomfortable shit. That’s your job. Why would you miss that opportunity?

We talk about the publishing world, and how the publishing industry, while making strides in the right direction, is not yet willing to be publicly open about race. “We’re still not in a place where people in the publishing industry, in general, are being brave in their public dialogue about this. Diversity is a really nice word to say, but it doesn’t mean anything. . . you have an amazing diversity of whiteness, but people of color still only get to be that one singular person who made it through the gauntlet into the future.” In short, we are part of the way there. We are having the discussion and this is encouraging, but there is a lot of work left to do. We need editors of color. Agents of color. Acquisitions editors of color. It’s an entire ecosystem shift that the literary world requires—not simple tolerance of alternative narratives. Because the industry still frames these narratives as alternatives rather than one of a multitude of voices.

tumblr_o4kr1zwdLJ1qjtwd5o1_1280Near the end of our interview, I ask Daniel my standard guilty-liberal question. What can I do, as an editor, to make things better? After a hearty laugh, he tells me it can be as simple as diversifying who you’re watching, particularly in online spaces like Twitter. It takes some sifting, of course—not everything you see on Twitter is worthwhile. But, he tells me that, after a while, “you start to see whose voices the people are lifting up.” He points me at publications that espouse the principles of diversity, like Seven Scribes, Catapult, and Fireside Fiction (for which Daniel has recently begun editing), and encourages me to follow the works that emerge from such publications. Daniel explains to me that, as an editor, you have to solicit work from writers of color. It’s not enough to simply state “diversity” as a goal. “Writers of color have no reason to trust majority white publications.”

My conversation with Daniel concludes with a discussion on the use of italics for foreign words—a rule with which Daniel strongly disagrees, and one we at Lunch Ticket have agonized over. MLA standard says to italicize non-English words. Writers who code-switch don’t like to do so. Daniel becomes animated during this discussion. He clarifies his position for me: “There’s a functionality to language that matters much more than any sort of rules and regulations. Italics do not help with clarity, they confuse things.” Daniel tells me that the rules surrounding the use of language should reflect their usage, not dictate it. “Language is a living, fluid, complex, and ever-changing entity that comes from us. In some ways you can think of it as one of the great democracies, but only if you treat it that way.” In a way, this thought embodies the very nature of Daniel’s thinking—that writing can be a power for good, but only if it’s done carefully, and with intentionality.

Alex SimandAlex Simand is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. He writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. His work has appeared in such journals as Red Fez, Mud Season Review, Five2One Magazine, Drunk Monkeys, and others. Alex is the current Blog Editor for Lunch Ticket and past Editor of Creative Nonfiction and Diana Woods Memorial Prize. Find him online at www.alexsimand.com or on Twitter: @AlexSimand.

Symphony in Gray Major


The sea like a coarse mirror of silver
reflects a metallic sky of zinc;
distant flocks of cormorants tarnish
its polished bottom of pallid gray.

The sun like a glass, round and opaque,
paces to its zenith with a halting gait;
the ocean breezes settle in the shadow
making a pillow of a black clarinet.

The waves that heave their leaden bellies
under the dock all seem to moan.
Seated on a cable, smoking his briar,
a sailor is thinking about the beaches
of a vague, remote and foggy place.

He is old, that sea dog. His face is weathered
from the fiery rays of the Brazilian sun;
the rough typhoons of the sea of China
have seen him drinking his flask of gin.

The foam full of iodine and saltpeter
over time has known his ruddy nose,
his curly hair, his muscular biceps,
his cap of canvas, his shirt of drill.

There in the smoke from his pipe tobacco
the old salt sees the remote, foggy place,
where on an evening, fiery and golden,
the sails billowed on a vanishing brig.

The nap of the tropics. The sea dog dozes.
Now all is cast in the gamut of gray.
It seems a soft, enormous obscuring
of horizon could blot the boundary line.

The nap of the tropics. The old cicada
rehearses his hoarse and senile guitar,
and the cricket sings a monotone solo
on the singular string of his violin.

prose_section_divider

SINFONIA EN GRIS MAYOR

El mar como un vasto cristal azogado
refleja la lámina de un cielo de zinc;
lejanas bandadas de pájaros manchan
el fondo bruñido de pálido gris.

El sol como un vidrio redondo y opaco
con paso de enfermo camina al cenit;
el viento marino descansa en la sombra
teniendo de almohada su egro clarín.

Las ondas que mueven su vientre de plomo
debajo del muelle parecen gemir.
Sentado en un cable, fumando su pipa,
está un marinero pensando en las playas
de un vago, lejano, brumoso país.

Es viejo ese lobo. Tostaron su cara
los rayos de fuego del sol del Brasil;
los recios tifones del mar de la China
le han visto bebiendo su frasco de gin.

La espuma impregnada de yodo y salitre
ha tiempo conoce su roja nariz,
sus crespos cabellos, sus bíceps de atleta,
su gorra de lona, su blusa de dril.

En medio del humo que forma el tabaco
ve el viejo el lejano, brumoso país,
adonde una tarde caliente y dorada
tendidas las velas partió el bergantín…

La siesta del trópico. El lobo se aduerme.
Ya todo lo envuelve la gama del gris.
Parece que un suave y enorme esfumino
del curvo horizonte borrara el confín.

La siesta del trópico. La vieja cigarra
ensaya su ronca guitarra senil,
y el grillo preludia un solo monótono
en la única cuerda que está en su violín.

 1891

Translator’s note:

“Symphony in Gray Major” was suggested by Théophile Gautier’s poem “À Symphonie en blanc majeur.” Not only does the poem’s accumulation of images suggest a symphony of gray (a universal sadness and monotony), but its symbolist effect is augmented rhythmically, through the use of the unusual amphibrach foot which heightens the monotonous feeling that pervades the poem. In translating it, I have roughed my meter toward a four–beat line, and replicated the alternating rising and falling line endings. I’ve made free use of assonance, consonance, and even alliteration to recreate in English some similar or equivalent impact of Dario’s rhymes.


Steve Veck

Mark Wacome Stevick directs the creative writing program and the Princemere Poetry Prize at Gordon College. His plays include Cry Innocent and Goodnight, Captain White, which run seasonally in Salem, Massachusetts, and The Sheep Mysteries, which is performed regularly in New York City and in Orvieto, Italy—where Mark often gets to lead a month-long workshop on ekphrasis. His poems have recently won awards from Swink, Wild Plum, The Baltimore Review, Literal Latte, and The Shine Journal. Last summer he was a story slam winner at The Moth in Boston.

 

 

Ruben Dario

This is the centenary of the death of Nicaragua-born poet Rubén Darío (1867-1916), known as an early proponent of Modernismo. In 1888, he published Azul, and then in 1895, Prosas profanas y otros poemas, two of the most seminal works of Spanish-American modernism. His poems are still memorized by Central American children.

Where the Heart Is

I’m driving through your neighborhood. It’s quiet and lonely, like a summer lake without a boat. In the air, white silk light, slow as milk. I can see through the houses. They’re more than themselves, like a minuend before the subtraction of the subtrahend. My thought music points me north. I’ve forgotten one of my shoes, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t affect my driving.

Ever since my release, I have symmetrical taste. I don’t give feedback. I’m always on time. Yes, of course, I care about the animals I eat.

I recall your face, a soft petal above the thorn of your heart. Trust is what you do when you’re too relaxed.

As I pull my rental car into your driveway, your house is three shades of polite beige, calm as a desert stone. The kids must be at school. I’m in my own body, now.

At your door, I don’t knock. I wouldn’t want to disturb you. I am the only thing I’m afraid of. My hands are steady.

I let myself in.

Brad RoseBrad Rose was born and raised in Los Angeles, and lives in Boston. He is the author of Pink X-Ray (Big Table Publishing, 2015). Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize in fiction, Brad’s poetry and fiction have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Folio, decomP, The Baltimore Review, The Midwest Quarterly, San Pedro River ReviewOff the CoastPosit, Third WednesdayBoston Literary Magazine, Right Hand Pointing, and other publications. Brad is the author of three electronic chapbooks, all from Right Hand PointingDemocracy of SecretsDancing School Nerves, and Coyotes Circle the Party Store. The following links will take you to Brad’s published poetry and fiction, audio recordings of a selection of his published poetry, and an interview.

Daughter I Bleed

Placeholder: Waiting for the Biopsy Results

The naked woman in the video I study—double
mastectomy—tosses me into possibility,

presses the soft muscle of what remains
of self against self, sternum and rib

shucked clean by surgical steel.  She stands sculpted,
a torso hewn to scarred catastrophe—

emptied parentheses.  The Mayans called it zero,
this mussel shell emptied of its muscle

set azure side up on night’s window sill.
No barnacle blemish or starfish bore mars

its heft and concentric stretch now less than
half of whole still glistening.  I pick it up.

Can ever such depletion feel full again?

A fixed place from which to measure,
numinous as a shell slick with brine and grace.

Wendy Mannis Scher

Wendy Mannis Scher, a graduate of the low residency MFA program for Creative Writing and Literary Arts at the University of Alaska/Anchorage, lives with her family in the foothills west of Boulder, Colorado. In addition to her writing, she works as a drug information pharmacist at a poison and drug information call center.

How the word poem shows up in my audio text messages

I say poem, the phone hears problem. Maze, no escape. Driving with my mother in a manic state. The sharpness of her no. Telling it like it is. She says “Crazy!” trying to explain. Unanswerable strangeness of the human brain. Equations, undoable. How to keep sane the status she wants to return to. I say poem, it hears pulling. The friction of what isn’t yet, but forming out of air. A turkey buzzard circling the house in fluffy loops. Wondering where the next dead thing is. The slowness of July, stultified. Fired like taffy. The tension & sinew of it. How heat can pull you into yourself until you are nearly a corpse slumped in a chair. I say poem, it spits pole. Magnetic, opposites, so hot/cold. How I never know which way we’ll go. I’ll be the dial turned to the right, spurting cold lake water. You’ll be scalding from the stove, so direct. Down to bone. I am done. I say poem, the phone sees power. How to write it down true, essence. Ore of words. Quest for the pure vein. Then, clown. How I want to be funny, really, I do. But, these poems scare me, instead. Mirrored slivers, winking, or leering from their tiny heads, such foul mouths. Trying to turn upward into goofy. The poem as goof ball. So silly, so dear. But, so dangerous, too. What the phone knows that I do not. Poem as morph. Poem cannot be left alone.

Ellen StoneEllen Stone teaches at Community High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her poems have appeared recently in The Museum of Americana, Passages North, and Rust + Moth, and are forthcoming in Chiron Review and Bluestem Magazine. Stone’s poetry collection, The Solid Living World, won the 2013 Michigan Writers Cooperative Press Chapbook Contest.

 

 

Karma*

We squat unbroken,
faces toward the earth,
feet on the shoulders
of the one below us, fingers
covering their eyes as we cup
their heads between our palms,
as if reading their minds,
feeling the weight of others
on our backs, their warm hands
blocking our sight, generations
of shiny bodies stacked
like vertebrae pierce the sky,
curved and determined, graced
by our articulations,
destiny behind us.

 

 

*23-ft. brushed stainless steel sculpture (2011) by Korean artist Do Ho Suh, Besthoff Sculpture Garden in City Park, New Orleans, Louisiana, which can be seen here.

George SuchGeorge Such is currently a third-year English PhD student at University of Louisiana, Lafayette, where he has been awarded a University Fellowship. In a previous incarnation, he was a chiropractor for twenty-seven years in eastern Washington. His poetry has appeared in Arroyo Literary Review, Barely South Review, The Cape Rock, Dislocate, The Evansville Review, and many other journals, his nonfiction in Phoebe, and his collection of poems Where the Body Lives was selected as winner of the 2012 Tiger’s Eye Chapbook Contest.

On Missing

I could play the guitar
just barely and I would try
when we’d arrive home

all liquor dilated, hearts
more capable of loving.
As far as I can tell, there’s nothing

that lights me up like this
once did. The magic in my life
is quieter now, but grace,

once parsimonious, now crackles
through my circuits: microscopic
wildflowers in my rushing blood.

I hear it in the right side of early mornings
the bright side, long past my vice
slide to the bottom of the sea.

Call this “Forgiveness,” “my thirties,” “God.”
What was it that held me there
and now has let me go?

So little happens on a given day
but I feel lucky, standing solid gold
outside the event horizon.

Melissa WattMelissa Watt holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. Her poems have been featured in The Breakwater Review, Ohio Edit, and elsewhere. If she’s not writing, she’s probably singing karaoke with a live band or catching spiders and taking them outside as a favor to her loved ones.

The Sewing Machine’s Text: Mixed Media

At the End of Hope

[flash creative nonfiction]

Every once in a while, I dream of the impending apocalypse. I dream that I am watching it swallow Manhattan from the shores of Brooklyn—a transmogrified landscape where the outline seems more distant but provides an uninterrupted view from a row of dilapidated brownstones and the “beach” of Kent Ave.

No fences, no condominiums—just grey skies (fire & foreboding) and the abyss of forever, rocked gently by the soft waves of the East River.

—and somehow I am on hope street but not Hope Street because I am by the water. I am surrounded by mutations of its memories: just bricks and gravel and the smell of weed and spray paint and beer and the endless cigarettes, hand rolled and unfiltered (a small circular piece of cardboard at the tip).

In my dreams, my past is now. Breeze carries his machete underneath a Confederate handkerchief and Fumiko and Nozomi make tea in the kitchen and someone somewhere in the loft is inevitably fucking some stranger no matter the time or day. When we paint an angel on the wall, Morgan’s smoking Vinny’s weed and I’m drunk and we’re surrounded by girls with foreign accents, who accessorize and apply bright lipstick for doomed parties on the other side of the L, their matte lips like B&T passports.

In their room, Someone is spending Eternity singing or painting or writing or filming or sewing or crying or memorizing lines or faces or moments in time. The models sit in awkward poses with their eyes burning holes through the lens. Joe organizes them in clean, white lines. We’re all playing like bored children, like we’re all important now.

(with distance, I’m not sure if some things are memories or dreams)

If we’re lucky, at night, we will go to some dark show in the first floor of a warehouse and we will be surrounded by art and candlelight and bodies and bodies of strangers for our beds, for our own art—to make something with our tongues and with our hands. Something “real,” a truth uncovered—all while waiting for the end to reach our island; to wash us, the memories of us, all away.

Picture1

photo: Joseph Clement

Jesi Bender

Jesi Bender is an artist from upstate New York. Her writing has appeared in Zouch Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, Chicago Literati, and Winter Tangerine among others. www.jesibender.com.

A Stop Sign Worn as a Helmet

I

He cared for her whimsy
and for the way her shyness played out.

At some gotcha point, in the negative spaces of photos
spotted at some exhibition downtown,
he started to imagine her silhouette,

her T-shirt a burst of yellow
competing with Cape Cod pelicans
and stealthily-erected Jotunheimen high-rises.

She confided in him like a windmill,
invented new flags to lay claim to the territories
they never knew existed.

Everything smelled like good timber,
and the caterpillars grinned friendlier than ever.

He was the road crisscrossing her terraces of abstraction,
the man wrestling with a marlin at the car wash.

She was the mountain centered in his mind
with the slightest suggestion of a dirigible above it.

They hypnotized themselves with each other’s choices.

II

Hidden among century-old trees,
surveillance cameras recorded grotesque occurrences,
lined them up in rows,
served them with paprika.

The clouds above the cruise ships
looked like resolute middle fingers
from the shore. It was hard to tell what was going on
with locals hopping from Escher staircase to Escher staircase,
always coming back to the same general tornado.

A half-torn shack blinked satanically with its windows.
Yellow flowers were doors to assorted bad news.
After a while, governments looked like ants.

On the beach, everyone blimped around
with stupid eyes.

He decided he really couldn’t be happy
unless a midtown station
demolished in the middle of the last century
rebuilt itself on the double.

A spark in a solar panel started a fire,
but she was too busy long-distance-calling.

The babies who used to hug them wherever they went
looked uncomprehendingly
then fussed.

Sisyphean wrestlers
in a doomed circled wagon,
the two of them finally told their lips
to stop moving.

An unkindness of mockingbirds
marked their generation.

III

Before you meet again,
look for ravens on abandoned rocks
until you realize they are not the point.

The mysteries on which you’ve given up
are resolved by statues of obscure statesmen
on the Saint Petersburg bridges you’ve breezed across.

It’s almost September,
and the foliage slowly turns into leaf-peeper paradise.
All the church domes are already yellow.

Don’t rush back to the garden
where your kiss was stalled
by the sperm-smelling Lower East Side blossoms.

The slouching men you see on the cruise ship decks
are not birds. They won’t migrate toward the better,
though they might give you directions yet.

These wires reach beyond the horizon,
where the Sun still makes an appearance,
though a tad morosely.

A rusted ship might float again someday,
if you are nice enough to the bacteria
that captain it from now on.

Anton YakovlevOriginally from Moscow, Russia, Anton Yakovlev studied filmmaking and poetry at Harvard University. He is the author of chapbooks Neptune Court (The Operating System, 2015) and The Ghost of Grant Wood (Finishing Line Press, 2015). His work is published or forthcoming in The New Yorker, The Hopkins Review, Fulcrum, Prelude, American Arts Quarterly, Measure, and elsewhere. He co-hosts the Carmine Street Metrics reading series in New York City and the Rutherford Red Wheelbarrow reading series in Rutherford, New Jersey. He has also directed several short films.

Elvis Has Left the Building

The second I escaped high school, I went to work at my father’s full-line music store in the little corner hovel called the M.I. department, which stood for Musical Instruments. There wasn’t much to do but restock the clarinet reeds and trombone grease, make sure the ¼-size violins had bows in their cases, and dust and tune the guitars. Sometimes wannabe rockers stopped in, salivating over the vintage equipment before maybe buying a dollar’s worth of Fender picks. I invented names for these regulars—Boat Shoes, Holy Roller, Prescription Drugs, Tire Kicker, Bell Peppers, Boss Hog, Shell Shocked, Porky, High Butt, No Butt, Long Chin, Big Ears. It went on and on. I kept notes on index cards which I filed like a salesman’s box of leads—it was the kind of thing that made me look busy. Jon, a used car salesman, was hard to nickname anything but who he pretended to be most nights of the week—Buddy Holly.

I first met Jon on a slow summer weekday. I was sitting behind the display case that held distortion boxes and microphones, and I noticed at first glance his skinny legs and severe paunch, the twinkle in his eye when he saw me looking. He had a small head and face, as though he was still sixteen, and his manufactured-white smile beamed from a leathered face that suggested decades of hard living. He looked like Charlton Heston’s younger, slightly corrupt brother. “Heston’s Brother” was the best I could do on the spot. I figured I’d dig a little deeper so I asked him how he was doing.

“Just off the lot for lunch,” he said. “So delighted to find such an oasis.” He wasn’t looking at me. He regarded instead the inventory hanging on the walls and perched on floor stands, each guitar or bass apparently a little miracle.

Jon stopped before a used Stratocaster on the wall and looked it up and down. He then turned to me to ask what I thought of the current state of Fender guitars. My inexperience was apparent to anyone with half a brain. Usually such departments are manned by balding ex-rockers, bitter from their dreams dying a slow death over the decades, day-by-retail-day. Or else Guitar Center dudes on commission whose high pressure makes the teens with rock star fixations bow down and break.

Even so, Jon built me up just by asking such a question. He furrowed his brows and cocked his head, waiting for my reply. And when I gave it, his eyes narrowed and he nodded slowly, a nod of gradual understanding—he saw my point, he was being educated. All this would make it harder to say no to him, I realized half-in, whenever he started that ancient dance of horse trading that happens under the roof of every used gear shop on the planet. But I liked the attention, and he assured me he wasn’t looking for high-end equipment. In fact, he had a certain disdain for such stuff. He needed only that which “looked the part.”

“What part is that?” I asked.

He shrugged, said, “The ’50s.”

For a moment I thought I lost him, like I should’ve known this. Summer’s a slow time for music stores and I found that being alone didn’t provide very good company. To keep customers there longer I asked questions and listened. Sure enough, I asked Jon how his music was going and he smiled.

“Monty’s Classic Cars,” he said, leaning against the glass counter as though bellying up to the bar. “He’s got a lazy Susan stage, see, a slow twirler. In the middle’s a wall, and behind it’s us, every Friday night. And on the other side? A ’56, ’57 Caddy, you know, pristine as the day it rolled off the Clark Street plant. In the audience, cocktails and skirts and deep pockets. Real nostalgia types. I says, ‘What you want us to play, Monty?’ He says, ‘Jon, go to hell’—he knows me, see, we go way back, he wants me to play it all. No holds barred. Everything.”

“What’s everything?” I asked.

He tapped his temple; it sounded hollow. On his fingers were gold rings, his wrist a matching watch, digital. I imagined brass fixtures all over his bathroom. I thought I might call him Brass Fixtures.

“I got all Buddy’s music right here,” he said. “No sheet music required.”

“Buddy who?” I asked.

He looked incredulous. Then, features softening and eyes narrowing, he turned his back to me, crouched a little and rolled his shoulders. When he reappeared, he was wearing black-framed glasses with clear lenses. And there he was, Buddy Holly, kind of. For some reason we then shook hands. I told him my name and he said, with a little hiccough, that it was nice to meet me. Then he surveyed the merchandise anew for a good ten minutes in silence. And in silence he left, having bought nothing and still wearing the glasses.

*     *     *

A week later I was busy at my desk calling people at random from the white pages, conducting a survey. It was a slow day. The question—Do you, or anyone in your household, believe music can change the world in any profound way?—had so far failed to generate a single “no.” I don’t remember how long I’d been at it before I noticed Jon standing at the counter, looking at me with his eyebrow cocked, a knowing look that made me blush. I got up to go greet him.

He wanted a drum machine, the kind that put out basic beats—4/4 rock, say, or rumba—at the touch of a button. I showed him the only one we had, a trade-in, which made him frown. Then we began the ancient horse trading dance. He looked skeptical and frowned some more. I told him it worked great. He pointed out a nick in the corner. I said internally it was perfect. He asked if we had anything else, knowing we didn’t. I offered him a musician’s discount—slight raise of his eyebrows—then a “friend” discount. Nodding okay, he peeled off the cash from a brass clip, and then took out his Winston 100s.

He lit up and inhaled, talked with smoke curling from his mouth and nose. To some, finishing a deal was like finishing sex. “Sherry’s got these steaks,” he said, apparently meaning his wife. His gold wedding band sported a gigantic diamond nested in a slab of turquoise. “Get home at seven, eight, she’s got one in front of me with mashed potatoes and gravy galore.”

Suddenly, at ten in the morning, I wanted a steak. And the way he smoked, it looked nutritional. I gave him his receipt and he set it and the drum machine aside, business done.

“Why the drum machine?” I asked.

He closed his eyes, placed the palm of his hand on the left side of his barrel chest like he was going to pledge allegiance. “Man, it’s raining in my heart,” he said.

“What’s wrong? Monty’s not work out?”

Taking a last puff, he stamped out his smoke in the sandbag ashtray. “These tears I can’t hold inside,” he said. “I lost my drummer.”

“Did he explode?” I asked. Everyone who came in that place knew Spinal Tap references like believers know Hallmark bible verses, but Jon wasn’t fazed. Though being blown up didn’t seem too far off the mark.

“Lost him to an Elvis cover,” he said, almost spitting. “This town’s off its nut.”

It was true—for a few months in the late ’80s, Portland went through an Elvis craze. Impersonators were popping up everywhere. And to Jon, the only thing worse was a bad Buddy Holly act. He took it personal.

“Only have to use this hopefully once,” he said, motioning toward the drum machine like it was a dead animal. “Got a guy coming in the studio tomorrow. We’ll see. Finding a dependable drummer’s like finding a faithful woman—damn near impossible.”

He looked so down. Musicians were either high or low. Never, it seemed, anywhere in between. There are two ways to cheer them up. Deride the success of popular musicians or else ask them about the equipment they own. I tried the latter route. “Jon,” I said. “What’s your studio like?”

His face softened as he proceeded to tell me about the practice space he’d constructed in his garage. “It’s Cricket Studio, redux,” he said, pronouncing the x. “Cement floors for reverb, see, that sweet, real echo, and walled in with acoustic egg-foam. It’s so natural. Looks and sounds like a dream.”

“Wow,” I said. “Nice.”

We spent a moment in a kind of quiet reverence, a call came through and I ignored it, and when Jon finally left, a warm smile was spread across his weathered face.

*     *     *

Jon came in one more time, a couple weeks after he’d bought the drum machine, but I didn’t recognize him at first. His hair was dyed black and he wore large gold-framed sunglasses. As I finished up with Debt Collector—swooping in always on a cash tailwind, this day’s haul a brand-new autoharp and a set of bongos, which he planned to strum and beat on as his wife delivered a natural birth—I began formulating a nickname for this new shady character in the corner. Wishing Debt Collector “happy hunting,” I went to assist who I thought was a stranger, the nickname “Coiffed Bozo” coming to mind.

“Can I help you in any way?” I asked.

Jon peered over the tops of those huge gold frames at me, ran his hand through his hair, and gave a left-sided sneer and struck a smoldering pose—knees bent, hips going circular with rhythmic thrusts that were nearly violent; keys and coins jangled in his pockets. He ended with a, “thank-you-very-much,” and shot me a wink.

I wanted him to stay forever.

“Elvis the pelvis?” I said. “What happened to the Wholly Buddy Hollies?”

“Call it professional differences,” he said. “I lost the whole band.” He reached for his cigarettes, paused and let the pack slide back into his chest pocket. “So I’m finally going to give the public what it wants,” he said. “Got a gig this very night, in fact. It’s The King henceforth.”

Before I could reply, a call came through for my department and I went to go answer. It was an old lady looking for a marimba. As I tried to talk her down to a child’s xylophone, each vibe a different pastel color, I kept an eye on Jon, who’d wandered over to the guitar straps. A white jump suit with sequins and flared lapels materialized over him and he stood there as though in a cloud of gold dust. But he hated Elvis, I thought, and then gone went the jump suit; only Coiffed Bozo remained. The old lady asked if she’d dialed correctly and I said, “Yes, and we no longer have any marimbas,” and hung up.

As I returned, Jon looked over his shoulder as if to check if we were alone. “You shouldn’t miss this, Eric,” he said. “Going to give them some real royalty tonight, an Elvis they’ll never forget.” His eyes flared at me over those golden frames. “I’ve planned a big finale, in fact.”

He filled me in on the whereabouts of his gig. Being underage, I didn’t know if I could get in, though I heard the place was pretty lax in that department. I told him I’d try. He bought the gaudiest guitar strap in the house—white leather with clusters of colored beads—and left wearing it over the shoulder, his step a little heavier than usual.

*     *     *

I sat at the end of the half-full bar nursing a bottle of Heineken I’d managed to procure without an I.D. check. Fastened to the wall above the bar loomed the grille of some old American-made behemoth, and as I sat under it I had the strange feeling I was slowly being run over. Early middle-agers were showing up full of thirst and irony, free on a Friday to relive their youths or what they wished was their youths. Playing as background, largely unnoticed, Jon’s band on stage looked casual, jeans and collared shirts, nothing period. I wrote the tunes they covered down on my napkin: Earth Angel, Louie Louie, Sixteen Candles, Little GTO. Jon’s hair was still dyed black and styled. His plaid shirt and jeans said something different, though. His voice was far from perfect, but he belted out a variety of extended highs and tremulous falsettos, and shifted rapidly from treble to bass and vice versa. His face was shiny with sweat by the second chorus of “Earth Angel.”

At the end of “Lonely Teardrops,” I saw Jon disappear at the rear of the stage through a narrow black door. The bass player and drummer played on for a full two minutes. I think I was the only one who noticed his absence until suddenly the stage lights were lowered to only two spots—one illuminating the black door, the other glowing at the front. The band stopped, and slowly the crowd turned their attention to the two spots.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice came over the P.A. when it was finally quiet. “But especially for you ladies tonight.” It was Jon’s voice, husky and full of secrets. I saw the door crack open an inch. A cardboard cutout of a bloodhound came down from the ceiling over the front of the stage, followed by excited gasps that may have just been laughs. Swaying, I spotted its fish line and followed it over the ceiling pipes and down to the black door. Finally, the hound came to rest on the right stage monitor, facing the audience in the pool of light. I imagined Jon behind that door frantically fixing the line to a cleat, and I laughed. Here it comes, I thought, Jon’s finale. I looked around and many faces appeared to anticipate comedy.

“All the way from Graceland”—a pocket of contrived screams as though on cue—“let’s give it up for the one and only, Mr. Talent himself, the three-chord wonder who never got a song written for him he couldn’t ruin, The King—Elvis Presley!”

Five seconds passed, ten. Then a blast of music tore through the speakers before the volume was adjusted for normal ears. It was “Hound Dog,” but the band, bewildered, wasn’t playing. The black door flew open and Jon entered the light. This time the gasps were real. He was wearing the same kind of flared jump suit I’d seen materialize on him earlier that day, only of a deep red, plus the gold shades. Strapped across his chest lay an old, stringless f-hole guitar rimmed in red and green rhinestones. He swaggered over to the pool of light in front beside the cardboard image of the bloodhound, the rest of the band watching from the shadows.

“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” the real Elvis sang.

Sequins sparkling, Jon stiffened his body and froze in the pool of light.

“Cryin’ all the time,” the King continued.

Moving within the illuminated space, Jon bent at the waist and chopped the air, shifted and jerked in the light. He opened and closed his jaws machine-like, appearing to mouth the lyrics and serenade the bloodhound. He continued his robotic routine with mounting energy, the bends and chops more absurd and exaggerated. When a wide swing of his unbent left leg knocked the dog over, people applauded.

As the music went on, Jon gradually gave it up. He stood there, glaring over his shades at the audience and shaking his head. He took a flask out of his vest pocket and openly drank. Then his mouth moved, not to the last bars of “Hound Dog,” but to some other discourse. Veins stuck out on his sweaty neck. The song ended and in dead air Jon was left, alone near the spot in flared polyester, and I heard the end of a bitter fragment. A hush fell over the place.

He scanned the audience, peering over those shades. His breath came hard and deep, stretching his vest to the bursting point. “Sheep, listen,” he said, his voice cracking without a mike. Sweat poured down his face. “What you’ve just seen is a mockery of a man of fashion, of style, not of music or substance. Elvis was a shit-for-brains idiot, a fraud! What the hell are you thinking?”

“Do ‘Jailhouse Rock’!” someone yelled, garnering agreement and applause.

The drummer came out from his kit and approached Jon, as did the bass player, all to inebriated clusters chanting “Jailhouse Rock.” Jon unstrapped his guitar and took it by the neck, raising it high above his head, the gaudy strap he bought from me falling to the floor like someone’s old skin. The men backed away, out of the spot, so for a second it appeared that Jon was fending off invisible demons, and the crowd grew quiet again.

Jon was about to bring the guitar down—to what purpose I do not know—when a large man from the side bear-hugged him from behind, squeezed him so tightly the guitar fell from his clutches, where it clanged to the floor, its headstock snapping off. The band then started to play as the man guided Jon through the black door.

Almost as soon as the door closed, it flew open again and Jon ran the length of the stage and leapt. His flared lapels flapped like wings, and he hit the dance floor running, the crowds parting all the way to the doors. I tried to meet him there, but he went right past without seeing me. I watched him sprint away on the gravel with a desperation that suggested he may have cut the large man to pieces.

Back in the bar, it was just seconds after Jon exited before someone said—to the great amusement of everyone, including me—“Elvis has left the building!”

And I just about did the same before deciding to belly up again. Behind the bar as I was reflecting on what I’d seen, wondering where Jon had went and if I’d ever see him again, I heard excited talk of something called “karaoke.” A machine was being wheeled out with the promise of turning people into whomever they fancied, provided they were literate. A line of potential dolts formed, and I ordered up another drink, intending to settle in for a long stay.

Eric DayEric Day teaches and writes in Phoenix, Arizona. This piece comes from his collection Raised by Trees, which he hopes to see one day soon in book form.

The Day

“Come on, Daddy. Wake up! It’s time for our Saturday walk.”

“Okay, okay, I’m waking up.” He opens his eyes expecting to see a child, but the sunlit room is empty. Where is he?

He sits up, puts his feet on the floor, then looks around.

Nothing looks familiar. Not right. Name things. Start naming. “Bed. P… pillow. Sitting, no… chair. Picture. Table… no, not table, dressing… dresser.”

“Dresser.” He picks up the picture. The woman’s hair is long and dark. She’s wearing a blue dress… Think, Charlie, think!

“Charlie. I’m Charlie Johnson.”

“Charlie? Did you call me?” A voice from the doorway of the bedroom.

I know her, but what’s her name?

“Are you all right?” she asks. When she steps into the room, he notices a cast on her leg.

“What happened?” he asks. He points at her leg.

“I fell down the front steps three days ago,” she says, “and I broke a couple of bones in my foot.”

“I remember,” he says. You don’t really remember. “Yes, I do.”

She hugs him. “I believe you, Charlie. You called 911, then went with me to the hospital. You stayed with me the entire time. You took good care of me.”

Annie. He hugs her. “Annie. You’re my wife, Annie.”

He feels her body tense. “Yes, sweet Charlie. I’m your wife, Annie. And you, sir, have been my husband for thirty-six years.”

She’s smiling, but something’s wrong.

“Tell you what,” she says brightly, “you take a shower, and I’ll fix us breakfast.”

“Good,” he says. He looks around the room.

She points to a doorway. “The bathroom is there.” They walk to the doorway and he looks in.

“Be sure to wash your hair—it’s sticking up in the back like a haystack.”

He looks in the mirror over the sink. “What if I like it this way? Maybe it’s a new style I’m trying out.”

She smacks him lightly on the arm and smiles.

“Do you need any help with the shower?”

“No. I’ll be fine. I’m not a baby.”

She picks up a spiral-bound tablet on her nightstand and thumbs through several pages. “I’ll wait until you’re finished with your shower. Would you like some toast with your eggs?”

“Sounds good,” he says as he strips off his pajamas.

After his shower, he feels fully awake. The foggy feeling has gone. He sits on their bed, pulling on his socks, when the tablet catches his eye. He picks it up and opens to the first page.

The word “December” is written at the very top. “Morning, Afternoon, Night” are spaced on the top line from left to right. The days of the month run down the left side. Checkmarks are scattered on the page. He counts them: ten. The next page has eight, and the page after that has fourteen. May has eighteen and June has twenty-five, with checkmarks in the morning, afternoon, and night columns. He does not know what this means, but his heart is beating faster as he thumbs through July, August, and September. More marks. October has even more marks, sometimes several in a day. The last mark is in the morning on day 23. He looks at the calendar on the wall next to the dresser. October is in large print at the top.

His stomach twists into a knot. He is breathing faster, and it’s hard to take a deep breath. He rushes out of the bedroom, through the living room, and into the kitchen.

“Annie!”

Anne jumps and drops the knife she is using. “What’s wrong?”

“What’s this?” he asks, waving the tablet at her.

She takes it from him, then says, “This is how I record your ‘lost time.’ That’s what you call it, ‘lost time.’ You asked me to keep track.”

“Oh,” he says. He tries to remember, but his memories are like small fish that he can see but cannot capture. He feels dizzy, so he sits in one of the chairs at the small table in the dining nook that faces the oversized kitchen window.

She sits in a chair next to him. “It was early in December when you asked me to keep a log. We were sitting here, at this table.” She puts the tablet down and rests her hand on his.

“You asked me to do this because your doctor said there would be more daily episodes just before you… before I lose you.” Her voice becomes softer.

He picks up the tablet and turns to the last page. He studies the page for almost a minute, sorting through his jumbled thoughts to make sense of the marks on the page.

“This says October. We’re in October, right?”

“Right. This is today’s date.” She points to the 23.

He points to the previous week. Every day has at least two marks under “morning” and “afternoon,” but three or four in the “night” column.

“So they’re becoming more fire… first…” He shakes his head.

“Frequent?”

“Yes.” He points to the mark she made this morning. “I’ve already had one… today?”

“Yes.” Frown lines appear between her eyes.

“So it can happen any time. I could lose time, like this morning, but never come back.”

Anne’s lips compress into a straight line as she nods. Her eyes glisten.

“I’m scared,” he says softly.

“Me, too.” She scoots her chair closer to his. He feels the weight of her arm on his shoulders.

He closes his eyes. Clock is ticking. I feel Annie breathing. That smell… that’s Annie’s soap.

I’m home. This is home. Annie is here.

“How about breakfast?” Anne asks. “We’ll feel better after we eat.” He nods.

As she works, he stares out the window as pictures of his mother squeeze into his brain. She was in the end stage of Alzheimer’s, lying in her bed, silent and mindless. This is his future. Acid rises in the back of his throat.

A movement outside snaps him back to the present. A black squirrel scurries through the deep green grass of the vacant lot that sits between his house and the neighbor’s home.

They’ve lived there a long time, but I’ve lost their names.

More movement. The trees lining the street are dropping their leaves. Single leaves flutter to the ground, but when a breeze passes by hundreds fall in a blizzard of color.

He leans back in the chair and sighs.

It’s so pretty.

Two small children are playing in the vacant lot. He hears their thin, high voices through the closed window.

Jimmy…

He is grading papers in his home office when Jimmy interrupts him.

“Come play the troll game with us, Daddy.”

Soon he is lurching between the trees waving his arms and growling about eating little boys. They shoot him with finger guns as they yell “Pow!” He staggers as the imaginary bullets strike him, but doesn’t fall. Boyish sopranos yell and scream as they evade his waving arms.

He reads Dr. Seuss books to Jimmy at bedtime. Each character has a different silly voice. Sometimes they act out the story until Annie appears in the doorway.

“Jimmy, if you get your daddy too riled up, he won’t be able to go to sleep tonight,” she says. Jimmy laughs at her joke. But sometimes she can’t resist, and piles on the bed with them.

Jimmy loves the Saturday walks. He would—

“Charlie?”

“Huh?”

“Breakfast is ready. You’ve been looking out the window for several minutes, and I’m a little worried that you’re gone again.”

“I was feeling nas, nostro, astro… ”

“Nostalgic?”

“I was… I was thinking about the Saturday walks that Jimmy and I used to take. Do you remember?”

She sets their eggs and toast on the table. “Yes. You and Jimmy would go off together on Saturdays, and, according to Jimmy, I was not allowed to go along. ‘Saturday walk time is just Daddy and me,’ he said.” She pours coffee for both of them.

“It was not unusual for both of you to come back from your walks with mud on your shoes and clothes, and bits of leaves in your hair.” She smiles as she shakes her head. “My boys.”

He hears her voice catch. Tears run down her face, and she uses a napkin to dab them away.

“What’s wrong?”

For a moment, she says nothing. Then, “I miss him.”

“Who?”

“Jimmy. That’s who we are talking about. Our son.”

He nods. “Of course. Jimmy. He woke me up this morning.” He looks around. “Where is he?”

She takes his hand. “Charlie, Jimmy died a long time ago. His heart just stopped one day.”

His eyes grow moist, and his voice shakes as he asks, “How old was he?”

“Twenty,” she says softly.

He pulls his hand away. “I’m sure I heard him this morning. Am I going crazy?”

“No, Charlie. The doctor said there would be a time when you would have… when you would be seeing or hearing things.”

“Where is he… his body?” he asks.

“He’s not in a cemetery. He was cremated.”

“Cremated?”

“Do you remember what ‘cremated’ means?”

“Burned up. I can remember some things, weird things.”

“We scattered his ashes in the little brook that runs beside Hancock Park.”

“Is that the park I see on my walks?”

“You’re going to kill yourself for you, not for me,” she snaps. Her hands are balled into fists. “I’m willing to take care of you for as long as you live, even when you don’t know who or where you are. You can’t put this on me!”

“Yes. You and Jimmy had a lot of nice times on your walks there, and he loved playing in the brook. When I took him, he would spend hours there floating dead leaves and small twigs.”

She wipes her eyes with her fingertips, then says, “We should eat now. Our food is almost cold.”

Charlie has no appetite, so he only picks at his food as images and sounds tumble over each other in his mind. His heart beats faster and his hands shake. He looks over at Annie, and sees her looking back. She has a puzzled look on her face.

“What’s going on, Charlie?”

“I’m afraid, Annie.” His fork and knife clatter on his plate. He reaches for the coffeepot, but Anne stops him.

“Let me,” she says as she pours some into his cup. “What are you afraid of, Charlie?”

“How could I forget that Jimmy is dead? I’m hearing things that aren’t there, and I even forgot your name for a while this morning. I’m losing big chunks of my life.

“And I’ve been thinking about those marks in the book.” He picks up the tablet, turns to the last page, then lays it on the table so she can read it. She covers it with her napkin. He reaches for her hand; she pulls away.

“What are you trying to say, Charlie?”

“Annie, I… ” He looks out the window. “Time has run away from me. I don’t want to leave you, but…”

He tries to catch her eye, but she will not look at him. Her face is pale and rigid.

“I need to go,” he says. “I’m afraid that if I wait much longer—”

“You don’t know how much longer you have before—”

“This book,” he says as he points to the tablet, “this book says it is happening soon. And think about what I’ve already forgotten. I’m afraid that if I wait another day—”

She throws the tablet on the floor. He is shocked into silence.

She shakes her head, stands, starts to speak, but stops. Then, with agitated movements, she picks up their dishes and puts them in the sink. A butter knife clatters on the wood floor; she picks it up and tosses it onto the counter. With her back to him, she puts her hands on the sink and stands stiff-armed as her head falls forward. Her shoulders are shaking. He stands behind her.

“Please, Annie. Please don’t cry. I’m sorry. I’m afraid. So much is gone. I have to—”

With a raspy, gasping sound, she turns, wraps her arms around him, and buries her face in his chest. Her shoulders heave as her tears dampen his T-shirt.

She says something.

“What did you say?”

She looks up at him. “When? When do you think you’ll… ”

He pulls away from her. “Today. I’m afraid to wait any longer.”

Her body sags. He holds onto her, helps her sit down. She rests her elbows on her knees and holds her head in her hands as he kneels beside her. He lays a hand on her back, but she shrugs him off. His insides are churning, and his knees are hurting. He sits on the floor with his knees drawn up. The silence feels long and heavy.

“Annie,” he says. She does not respond.

“Annie, I don’t want you to see… I don’t want you to see me like I saw my mother.”

“You’re going to kill yourself for you, not for me,” she snaps. Her hands are balled into fists. “I’m willing to take care of you for as long as you live, even when you don’t know who or where you are. You can’t put this on me!” Her face is white with anger as she hugs herself and goes to the window. He uses the chair to leverage himself to his feet. He wants to walk away, but it might make her mad. He wants to go to her, but she might tell him to leave her alone.

Stay? Go? “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to go.” A small sound escapes from him, followed by another, then another as he breaks down.

He feels her arms around him, holding him up.

Her voice is soft. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Charlie.” He opens his eyes and sees she is crying.

“I knew this day would come,” she says. “I know you’re scared, and I’m scared, too. When you brought that notebook to the table, I knew what you were thinking. I knew it would be soon. Part of me was hoping you might forget those damn helium tanks you bought. But another part was afraid you would forget them, or you would wait too long and not know how to use them, or—”

“I’m getting confused,” he said, pulling back so he could look her in the eye. “I can’t think fast enough to understand what you’re saying.”

“I’m confused, too. I don’t know what I want.” She smiles as she wipes her eyes. “I know you have to do this. I hate what you want to do, but I understand. I know how terrible, how awful your future is. I know you are afraid of ending up like your mother. I’m not afraid of that, but I am afraid of how I’ll feel two, or five, or ten years from now when your body is alive but you’re gone.” Her voice breaks. She hugs him hard. “You’re doing this for both of us. I love you for that. I’m not mad at you, but I’m furious that this damn disease is taking you from me.”

She looks up at him. “Now am I making sense to you?”

No.

“Yes,” he says as he takes her hands and kisses them. He sits and pulls her onto his lap. They kiss, then she touches his face and hair. She looks at him like she is memorizing each gray hair, each wrinkle, each blemish. They remain like this a long time, breathing in each other as the sun pulls its rays from the room and rises higher in the clear blue sky.

Charlie comes out of their bedroom in his walking shoes, long pants, and a T-shirt under a fleece hoodie. He stops at the closed door of the guest room, takes a breath, then opens it. Two helium tanks, connected by a short hose, are standing at attention beside the bed. A longer hose snakes from one of the tanks to a breathing mask that lies on the bed. Charlie shivers at the sight. This is why Annie keeps this door closed.

A single page of lined yellow paper is on the bed next to the mask. In his handwriting, there are the three simple steps that will end his life: 1. Turn the handle on tank #1 to “on.” 2. Turn the handle on tank #2 to “on.” 3. Put on the mask.

Turn on the tanks, put on the mask. Turn on the tanks, put on the mask. He squeezes his lips together as the chant plays in his head.

“Charlie. You have your walking clothes on.” Anne is in the living room. She steps toward him but stops when she sees the guest room door is open.

“Are you going for your walk?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“But why?”

“I want to keep my routine.”

“But I can’t go with you because of my foot.”

“How many years did I go on my walk alone?”

“I’ve walked with you for the past year. Well, until three days ago. But why today… if you’re going to—” She covers her mouth with her hands as she takes several deep breaths.

“Look,” she says as she drops her hands. “Rachel can be here in ten minutes.”

“Rachel?” I should know this.

“My sister, Rachel?”

Sister. “Yes, Rachel.” What does she look like?

“Rachel can go with you.”

“I’m feeling fine. I want to go alone. I want to keep my routine.”

She shakes her head. “But why today?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know why… I guess I want to say good-bye.”

“Good-bye? Who will you say good-bye to?”

He opens the front door and steps onto the cement stoop. He looks around at the autumn colors of the trees against a deep blue sky, and a lump forms in his throat. Wordless, he opens his arms, then turns back to Annie.

She starts to say something but stops. Her eyes are full of tears.

“Wait just a second,” she says as she thumps back to their bedroom. When she comes back, she hands him a phone. “All you have to do is touch this button, and you can call me.”

She sounds nervous.

“Annie, I’ll be just fine. I’ll take the same right—”

“Route?”

“Route. I’ll take my usual route.” He slips the phone into his pocket.

“I’ll call Rachel so that she can be with me…” She presses her lips together, then kisses him and walks quickly away. He pulls the door closed.

A light breeze and cool air bring a chill. He zips his jacket to his chin, pulls his hood over his head, then steps down from the stoop onto their short walkway. He turns left on the broad sidewalk. Annie stands at the front window. He waves. She waves back, then turns away.

Splinters of golden autumn sunlight pass through the colored leaves of the large maple and oak trees, casting narrow, uneven patches of light bordered by shadow onto the sidewalk. He turns onto Arnold Street with its long blocks of shaded streets and modest, red-brick houses sitting behind their leaf-covered lawns. Several families are already out, clearing their lawns. Young children are jumping over, into, and onto piles of crinkling, multicolored leaves.

Charlie takes a long inhalation through his nose, bringing the sweet, earthy smell deep into his body. Then he closes his eyes and listens to the leaves’ dry whispers as they move against each other with each breath. A stray fly buzzes past; a cricket calls for a mate.

Charlie remembers pictures that Annie took of Jimmy and him. They showed two sets of legs—his and Jimmy’s—stuck out from piles of leaves. He smiles at the images as the aroma of leaves under his feet brings back childhood memories of autumn days.

He remembers the feel of the rough bark as he shimmied up a tall maple, his favorite tree in the woods near his house. He loved the way its thick branches were swayed by even a light breeze. On windy days, he would sit on the moving branches and imagine he was holding on to the mast of a great sailing ship as it plowed the ocean.

He notices that large trees on both sides of Arnold Street have thrust their branches over it, creating a long, leafy cathedral with ever-shifting light. They stand like silent giants, extending their arms over him in a rustling benediction as he passes beneath them. When he reaches the corner of Arnold and Hancock, he turns around. He touches his forehead in a loose military salute.

“Hail and farewell,” he says. The trees, moved by a passing breeze, wave back.

After a lingering look, he turns. He is about to cross Hancock Street but stops. Nothing looks familiar.

Names—start naming. “Street sign, trees, houses. I came from that direction.” He points along Hancock Street. “Or maybe I came from that—” He’s startled by a car horn, then he realizes he’s standing in the street.

The car pulls closer, and the driver rolls down her window.

“Doctor Johnson?” she asks.

“Y—yes.” Who are you?

“You probably don’t recognize me. I’m Patricia Ferris. I was an English major twenty years ago. I took every one of your classes and learned so much from you.”

“That’s nice,” he smiles. I taught English?

“Are you all right?”

“Yes. Well, maybe not. I want to get to the uh, the uh… Trees. Lots of trees. Post. Park. I’m looking for a park. It’s around here somewhere.”

“It’s right there—Hancock Park,” she says, pointing. He follows her finger.

“Well, damn,” he said. “I guess I got a little turned around.”

She smiles. “Just a senior moment. I’ve had a few of those, and I’m still in my forties. Oops, I better move. There’s another car coming. Nice to see you, Professor.”

“Nice to see you as well,” he says. She drives away, and he steps onto the curb.

“So I was a teacher,” he says as he walks toward the park.

He leaves the sidewalk that curves into the shifting shades of the trees. I think I used to know what kind they were. Every breeze makes the colors ripple, hundreds of leafy flags break apart and flutter to the ground.

“It’s raining leaves!” He laughs and turns in circles as they fall on and around him. He is drawn deeper into the woods as he tries to catch some of them.

“We have to catch at least one before it hits the ground, right, Dad?” a man says.

“Right,” Charlie says. He catches one by clamping it to his chest. “Got it.”

“First one of the fall,” the voice says.

Charlie turns in the direction of the sound. The man darts around, chasing the falling leaves. He is tall and skinny, with dark hair. He stops moving and grins as he faces Charlie.

“Jim?”

“Hi, Dad.”

“But I thought you were dead.”

“I am dead.”

“Are you a ghost?

“No, Dad, I’m not a ghost. You’re having a hallucination. You had one last week, remember? In that one, I was eight years old.”

“No, I don’t remember. I have Alzheimer’s, you know. But how can you remember something if I can’t?”

Jim shrugs and smiles. “I thought you might need some company on your last walk,” he says as he walks by Charlie. They wend their way among the trees and come to a grassy area beside a shallow brook.

“I’ve always loved this spot,” Jim says. “I’m glad you and Mom brought my ashes here.”

Charlie sits down with a grunt. “I forgot that you died, and that we brought your ashes here. Annie told me this morning. I’m sorry I forgot.”

Charlie sits in silence for several minutes, listening to the brook.

“What’s it like?” he asks.

“What?” Jim asks.

“Dying. Did it hurt much?”

“I don’t know, Dad. I’m your hallucination, so what would you like me to say?”

“I’m scared, Jim.”

“I know, Dad. Killing yourself is scary, but you don’t have to do it. You could let nature take its course.”

Charlie shakes his head. “I can’t put Annie through that.”

“You have these little tricks, like naming things.”

“But that won’t work much longer. I know.” Several leaves drift along on the brook. I wonder where they go? It would be so easy to just float away.

“Daddy?” A boy’s voice.

“Jimmy!” Charlie smiles at the boy sitting beside him. “You woke me up this morning, scamp.”

“How did you get so old, Daddy? I thought you were old, but not this old.”

Charlie chuckled. “Hell if I know.”

“Daddy, you always told me life was just one adventure after another. Why are you scared about this one?”

“I’ve never died before.” Charlie picks up a small stone and tosses it into the brook. Jimmy does the same.

“Can we do the leaf pile again?” Jimmy is on his hands and knees.

“Sure can.” Charlie hauls himself onto his knees and gathers armfuls of leaves. It is not long before he is on his back under them with some of them pressed against his glasses, backlit by the sun. Their intricate, tiny veins amaze him, just as they did when he was a kid. His eyes are watering.

“What’s the matter, Daddy?” Jimmy is lying beside him.

“I don’t know, Jimmy,” he says. “Something about all these leaves dying made me sad, I guess.”

“Oh,” Jimmy says. “Let’s be quiet and pay attention to what’s around us. That’s what you told me to do when I felt sad.”

“I told you that?”

“Yeah, a lot of times. Sometimes it even helped.”

Charlie takes a long inhalation through his nose, bringing the sweet, earthy smell deep into his body. Then he closes his eyes and listens to the leaves’ dry whispers as they move against each other with each breath. A stray fly buzzes past; a cricket calls for a mate. Charlie smiles as he catches the scent of grape-flavored bubblegum.

“Daddy, look at the light and colors,” Jimmy says.

He opens his eyes into narrow slits like he did when he was a kid. Everything is slightly out of focus, and sunlight twinkles through the tiny openings between the leaves. It is almost as if he were floating.

“It’s like little pieces of sunshine,” Jimmy says.

“Jimmy, will you remind me about this today when I’m dying?”

“Sure. I’m not afraid, Daddy. I’ll stay with you.”

The sound of an old-fashioned phone ringing startles Charlie. Leaves scatter as he sits up.

“Hello?”

“Charlie, are you okay?”

“Annie, I’m fine. I’m in, um, the tree place, lots of trees, and a stream…”

“Hancock Park,” Anne says. “I can see it on my phone.”

“On your phone? How?”

“I put a tracker on your phone last year.”

“A tracker?”

“Are you lost? You’re normally home from your walk by now.”

“Oh.”

“So, are you lost?”

“No, I’m not lost,” he says. “I just can’t remember the name of the, the park. Jimmy and I have been having a good time.”

Anne gasps. Then she says, “Charlie, we just talked about this. Jimmy died—”

“I know it’s a halo, hollow, hal—”

“Hallucination?”

“Hallucination. It’s nice to pretend. We came here on our Saturday walks.”

“I know.” After a pause, she adds, “Rachel’s here. Would you like her to come get you?”

“No, I’ll walk. It’s a beautiful day. Maybe we could play in the leaves when I get home.”

“I would like that,” Annie says.

“I’m coming home. G’bye.” He slips the phone into his pocket. “Jimmy, I have to go.”

The only answer is the sound of breeze-blown leaves and ripples in the brook. He looks around, sighs, then sets out for home.

Everything seems clearer, the contrasts sharper. He likes the feel of his running shoes on the ground, the cool air on his face. The scent of a wood fire from a neighbor’s home makes him smile.

Several minutes later, as he turns the corner on his street, he sees Annie and Rachel on the stoop, waiting for him. He waves, and they return the wave.

I’m almost home. Not much longer now.

“Daddy, I’m coming with you.”

“Jimmy? I would like that.”

“It’s been a nice day, hasn’t it Daddy?”

“It sure has, Jimmy. The best.”

Timothy CaldwellTimothy Caldwell served in the Army as a chaplain’s assistant in Vietnam in 1970. He began a career as a singer and teacher in higher education in 1972, a career that lasted almost forty years. In 2009, he published his semi-autobiographical novel, The Chaplain’s Assistant: God, Country, and Vietnam. Since then, his essays and short stories have appeared in literary journals such as the Blue Lake Literary Review, Crab Creek Review, Storyteller Magazine, and now Lunch Ticket. He has decided he would like to be known as the Grandma Moses of authors.

Fragile Rat

Sharlotte walked into the A.A. meeting just as the Arizona sunset was throwing peach and orange colors on the walls of the cheap commercial space. A loose, dingy white T-shirt barely concealed the inner tube of weight she’d gained from a cocktail of psychotropics. Her thin, unwashed hair looked like an animal pelt pasted onto her scalp. Her skin was broken out, oily, her breathing audible from tables away as she sat down and made her third stab at sobriety in a year.

I was barely weeks into a life without wine in my hand. A mutual friend introduced us and within weeks I was taking her to art openings and she was bringing me to burlesque performances. She’d come to my apartment door on these nights, dolled up, smiling with perfect lipstick like a lady ready to party, hoisting a 12-pack of Coke Zero that we’d devour like our last supper. We’d play Scrabble or swap life stories and she’d laugh, tossing her head back and her mouth opening wide so her deep laughter punctuated the air. We counted our days clean and went to meetings. We counted our weeks clean and went to meetings. They helped me get through prolonged unemployment and the humility of staying on a friend’s proverbial couch. They helped Sharlotte face one sucker punch after another, the latest of which she told me about over dinner at a Thai restaurant.

Sipping a Diet Coke, she sunk back into the corner of the maroon booth. “My shrink says it’s PTSD. That’s why I still can’t work. And now on top of it my other doctor’s telling me I have colitis.”

The next week at our favorite coffee shop, her voice shaky, face sans makeup, she had more news. “My shrink says I might never return to work. She even told me to start filing papers to get disability.” She gripped her latte cup. “This isn’t how life’s supposed to go. I’m an over-achiever. I’ve always bounced back. My god, I want a drink.” Instead she devoured a pastry. By the time our lattes were near the bottom of the thick brown paper cups, her eyes were scanning her milieu. Back and forth, back and forth. A tiger pacing its cage. She picked up her purse, said, “I have to go,” and bolted from the café.

*     *     *

We count our days, weeks, months clean until one of life’s shit storms blows through, blasting our confidence to ashes, making us want to kick the table of sobriety out from under us.

As we counted our months clean, we noticed the zealotry of many recovering addicts, the stuff that’s earned A.A. the moniker of a cult. Specialized language and symbols are like secret handshakes and code words. Hours once spent drinking turn into hours spent talking about not drinking, continuing to place alcohol front and center in members’ lives. Some members find themselves “hiding in meetings,” attending meetings rather than joining the rest of life, terrified of alcohol’s ubiquity, clutching to that safe zone as if it’s some inoculation against relapse. I think about other groups who face a terrifying potential return like cancer survivors. Do cancer survivors in remission spend as many hours or days or months thinking about the disease’s likely return? Do they reside in survivor support groups like addicts do the Anonymous meetings? Do they let the potential return dictate major decisions? A cancer survivor knows her remission could change course at any moment. She knows she’s not in control. She can go in and out of remission just as a criminal can weave in and out of prison. Recidivism. In and out of the bars like V. or Tastee did in Orange Is the New Black. Though they had a choice. When you look at it through characters like those, it looks like they’re unwilling to live straight, like they’re racing right back to what put them in the joint. Then there’s Brooks from Shawshank Redemption. In him, a kind and gentle man, is someone so accustomed to life inside that anything outside seems cold, the light too harsh, the pressure too crushing. What could he do? Live in the halfway-house community for the short rest of his life? For his decision that takes place on the beam he’s carved his name into anyone can feel compassion. The addict, though, empathizes with Brooks. We count our days, weeks, months clean until one of life’s shit storms blows through, blasting our confidence to ashes, making us want to kick the table of sobriety out from under us too. If we learn to weather that shit storm, we don’t become one of the seventy percent who relapse by day ninety. Or the ninety percent who do so within four years.

We take new steps every day toward a healthier life. We get to know ourselves, discover what the hell we’d missed while floating around in a haze for years. We get to know ourselves, discover what the hell we’d missed while floating around in a haze for years, and hopefully learn about ourselves. Self-awareness appears in my mind like a lighthouse. A baby blue beacon of a thing with a Shaker roof, three or four stories high. Instead of overlooking the cold, rocky shores of an isolated coastal town, though, it scans my psychic landscape, ready to strike at the first sign of thirsty thoughts. It’ll be there, scanning, for the rest of my life.

*     *     *

The blue beacon was just beginning to form when my sponsor took me on a sober women’s weekend retreat in the mountains of Prescott. I’d signed up for it two months before, back when the sunlight of sobriety still hurt my eyes. My sponsor, Denise, was like a kid looking forward to summer camp as she drove us out of the bloody heat and sepia-colored desert of the Phoenix valley north to a national forest. Sharlotte and I, by this autumn weekend, had grown cocky in our burgeoning sobriety. She had exercised her free will to stop attending recovery meetings en toto while I kept going, though to diminishing returns. Now I just looked forward to moist, green mountain soil, the smell of pine trees and ponds, and the cool mountain air on lone walks through the woods. When Denise caught onto my plans, eye piercing me beneath her dripping dishwater blonde hair after the first morning shower, I bid farewell to my plans like a child to her favorite toy. She instead extolled the virtue of this annual excursion. A hundred or so women from all over the Southwest met here to celebrate and support each other’s recovery from overeating, sex, gambling, histrionic behavior, drugs, alcohol. In the national forest campgrounds there were real wood cabins with bunk beds and tractor rides and zip lining. And if I was feeling down or doubtful, there were 24-hour meetings for small groups or one-on-ones in the chapel. It wasn’t time for solitude, Denise said. It was time to enjoy the sober sisterhood.

Liquefy it. Put it in cups and drink the Kumbaya Kool-Aid. It tasted like saccharine.

I followed her around from sober celebration to sober celebration, feeling less acolyte, more show pony. In the auditorium we sat in two putty brown, poorly padded, metal chairs typical of VFW halls and church basements to watch a play written and performed by my sober sisters. On stage they used props made of construction paper, tape and markers, along with a few books commonly found in meetings, to recreate a scene seen every day in sober groups across the planet. Some played the role of long-sober people, some were new, and others were struggling to remember why to remain sober. “Find your higher power. It doesn’t have to be God; it can be this chair.” “Embrace the suck.” The audience, scattered in small clusters among the seven or eight rows of chairs, nodded. Mmm hmmm. Uh huh. Southern gospel style.

Later came freeze-dried eggs and other institutional foods over breakfast with some friends Denise had known for most of her thirteen years in the program. They caught up. I listened.

“We had been friends for years! But they assumed that since I wasn’t going to meetings I was back to drinking or drugging,” one said. She gulped from a large plastic mug commemorating last year’s retreat.

“Right. No one even called me when they heard I had my baby. They sure loved to help during my pregnancy—but stop going to meetings and where are they then?” another said. She shook her long, wavy brown hair, forking up another bite of plastic food.

Denise sat there silent, face bent toward her plate. Could she detect my declining interest?

Her skin was broken out, oily, her breathing audible from tables away as she sat down and made her third stab at sobriety in a year.

After the retreat, Denise backed out of lunch plans and left my calls and texts unanswered. I stopped going to meetings. They’d given me a good start in sobriety, but I alone had made wine a central part of my life; I would learn to eradicate it. Even when the shit storms come. Such as the time I finally landed a job, only to watch it disappear after four days. Still I did not drink. With the next oncoming storm, things weren’t as easy. I rode my scooter through it across the December Phoenix rush hour to take care of a computer problem that no, after all, the warranty didn’t cover. The people surrounding me in the mall and at traffic lights were laughing and smiling and singing in a festive holiday spirit, but Santa had put fire where my heart should’ve been, and didn’t it sound like a grand idea to pour wine all over it? I pictured myself pulling up to the neighborhood liquor store where I used to go, picking up a bottle or two, and walking up to the cashier, a young guy who didn’t know to tell me no. That’s where my fantasy reached the end of the tether. Instead, I drove back home through the rain, poured a fat glass of Diet Coke, and drank it on the cement square of my friend’s porch, looking out at the darkness, and belting out frustrated Living Colour lyric after frustrated Living Colour lyric through my headphones. Within twenty minutes of exposing my out-of-sight neighbors to a voice that would win no contests, the rage unclenched its claws. It dissipated like a hangover until the storm passed, leaving me spent, sober, relieved.

That’s the kind of stuff that drew such a powerful connection between Sharlotte and me. We were both learning what to do with life instead of drinking at it. We didn’t need meetings; we had each other. Until one day, her texts came closer and closer, almost palpable obstacles her mind was throwing in sobriety’s way.

“I’m a mess,” she wrote. It had been a week of similar texts. “I’m having a shitty day.” “Waiting for my shrink to return my call.” “I’m wiped out.” Her typing that Thursday grew increasingly illegible as the evening progressed. I walked out to the patio, cooled by the late evening desert. I dialed her up, keeping my voice calm.

In the initial phase the scientists divided the rats into two equal groups. Half remained in Rat Park. The other half was crammed into a typical lab cage. Each was given two containers: one of morphine-laced water sweetened incrementally with sucrose to entice their natural predilection for sweet things, another of unadulterated water.

“Hey there. Whatcha doin’?”

She sounded like she had a porterhouse steak for a tongue. “I’m drunk.”

I slumped into my patio chair, fired up a cigarette.

“I hope you don’t hate me now.”

“Silly girl, I don’t hate you.”

“No matter how hard I work to overcome my PTSD, it might just stick around. What if it does? What if this shit never goes away?”

“It really will get better,” I said, the beginning of a string of platitudes. “I understand.” “Of course I still love you.” I wanted to add some levity, tease her by saying, “Next time you want to drink, call me up. I’ll drink with you,” but what if she called my bluff—and did call me? What if after driving over there I didn’t convince her to put the bottle down but joined her instead? Is my beacon sturdy enough to scan for that? Is relapse contagious?

To slow those thoughts growing out of control I tried to switch to her, to put myself in her shoes. Relief rang through her voice. Ah, what a cost, that relief. She’d have a helluva hangover the next morning. She’d be shaky and sensitive and guilty. Guilty in Technicolor layers. Guilty long after the nausea and headache and crying. I could empathize with those hangovers, having had thousands of them. But I hadn’t yet had one from this side of Rat Park.

Rat Park was the name of an addiction study done in the late 1970s. In it, psychologist Bruce Alexander and his colleagues Robert Coambes and Patricia Hadaway developed a veritable Shangri-La for rats: two hundred square feet for a colony of thirty-two rats, heated comfortably, cushy with cedar shavings, colorful balls, wheels, and other playthings. In the initial phase the scientists divided the rats into two equal groups. Half remained in Rat Park. The other half was crammed into a typical lab cage. Each was given two containers: one of morphine-laced water sweetened incrementally with sucrose to entice their natural predilection for sweet things, another of unadulterated water. The comfy rats in Rat Park drank sixteen times less of the morphine-laced water than the caged rats, preferring plain water. When the researchers added an agent to the morphine water, mitigating the morphine’s effects yet retaining the sucrose sweetness, even the Rat Park inhabitants drank it.

Continuing their experiment, Alexander et al. turned a third group of rats into the Skid Row image of addicts, giving them nothing but morphine to drink until they were sufficiently entrenched in addiction. The scientists then divided them equally between a simple cage and Rat Park. Then they gave them a choice: morphine water or plain water. The caged group lapped up the drugged stuff. The Rat Park group, however, went less and less to it. “The implications,” Lauren Slater wrote in Opening Skinner’s Box, were that “addictions in progress are not inexorable.” Addicts choosing to sustain their addictions are in fact “quite subject to free will.”

*     *     *

Relapse is rarely the knee-jerk reaction portrayed in Hollywood. There’s a long process back to lifting a glass or placing a bet or shagging a stranger in a public bathroom. Research looks at it in three major stages: emotional, mental, physical. The emotional trigger can be a bad day at work—or even a great one. Take Gary, for instance. He’d been sober a dozen years before his relapse.

“My girlfriend asked when we first started dating, ‘You can’t ever drink? Not even a little drink with me?’ I told her no, but then when I thought about it I figured I could handle a drink or two. That wouldn’t make me the raging alcoholic I was before. But it did. Within weeks I was back to drinking like I’d never quit,” he said.

Half a dozen years into sobriety, Denise succumbed. Having come down with a flu while on holiday with family, she simply wanted some sleep. It came. With help from a shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream. She didn’t get drunk. She didn’t fall back into a drinking routine. She considers it a relapse, though. That solitary shot scared her enough to break her two-year hiatus from meetings, back to those people who had stopped talking to her, back to people who welcomed her back unequivocally. Seven years later that shot still gives her nightmares.

Her experience was exactly the kind of touchstone I needed in my fear of relapse by proxy. It was her tough love that fortified my resolve, strengthening it like steel against fear.

“Listen, you’re going to see people fall all around you for the rest of your life. You have to be prepared to walk over the bodies,” Denise said over sandwiches and salads after a meeting. “People are going to disappoint you by picking up a drink again. People you know will go to jail or die.”

Well, Sharlotte hadn’t continued drinking. And she never tested my resolve or called my bluff. The lines of communication grew dusty. No more art exhibits. No more burlesque shows. Maybe she thought less of me for returning to meetings after my paroxysm of relapse fear. She definitely thought my distance looked like judgment, even when we were together. Who could fault her for that? Sometimes the line between empathy and sympathy is gossamer. Sometimes it’s wide as a river. Sometimes it crushes friendships, and sometimes it changes your life. For now I could only stay on the side of sympathy, my blue lighthouse scanning my psyche in the Shangri-La of sobriety.

Maybe one day the beacon of sobriety will lead her this way, away from the bars of cages. I hope I’m still here to welcome her.

prose_section_divider

Special Guest Judge, Erin Aubry Kaplan

“With humor, heart and urgency, “Fragile Rat” describes the modern travails of addiction—and love—in language that’s honest, propulsive, and never cliched.”

– Erin Aubry Kaplan, is author of I Heart Obama (2016), and the collection of essays and reportage, Black Talk, Blue Thoughts and Walking the Color Line: Dispaches From a Black Journalista. She has written about African-American political, economic, and cultural issues since 1992, and is a regular contributor to Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Salon.com, Ms., and Essence.

Nicole ReberNichole L. Reber digs every day of sobriety and has reached new highs in life because of it. She hopes her essay shows a different side of addiction/recovery than the norm. Her nonfiction and literary criticism have appeared or are forthcoming in Entropy, Fanzine, PANK Magazine, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. She writes a monthly blog series about Indigenous World Literature and Contemporary Asian Literature for Ploughshares. In addition to some awards, she holds an MFA from DePaul University.

The Streetlamp

That was one of my favorite parts of it all—of Allie and me being friends, I mean—sitting there in her passenger seat, with the streetlamp on my neighbor’s lawn glowing in on us through the dashboard, the night’s playlist soft in the background. I liked when I could just barely see her, except for her eyes, and her golden silhouette, and her manicured toes making tiny rings of fog on the windshield, because she always took off her shoes and propped her feet up on the dashboard.

I couldn’t say why I loved it so much. Maybe it was that this was one of the only times when it was just the two of us, sans the noise of our other girlfriends and school and people doing stupid things. In a way, though, it was kind of scary. Because there was no buffer, and no distractions. Just us was good, but just us also provided no place to hide.

That night, Allie didn’t take off her shoes, or even stay in the car at all. She put her phone in her pocket and got out, and before I could really even open my door, she lay down in the middle of the stretch of cul-de-sac in front of my driveway.

“Um,” I said. “What are y—?”

“I’m looking at your stars.” I was about to ask if that was a John Green reference or some crap, when she said, “It’s like, everyone has their own personal piece of the stars that only they see right before they go to bed or whatever. And you can tell a lot about somebody from their stars.”

I went and lay down next to her, and the slightly less than a foot between us hummed with magnetic possibility that made the hairs on my arms more dance than stand up.

“Really?”

“Unh huh. If you really look.”

“What’s there to look for?”

“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a good party trick anymore, would it?” She looked over at me, and for a second, before I could help it, I just stared at her. She had big eyes that could be doey or a bit buggy depending on the mood, that were the kind of perfect light blue usually reserved for the irises of perfume-ad models. It almost burned to look at her eyes, they were so bright. Her skin was beautiful, though it looked like she fought to keep it that way, due to some well-covered pockmarks on her chin. For some reason, she hated her nose. I didn’t think it was bad, a little commanding maybe, but not bad. And between those eyes and her perfect pouty lips, did it really matter?

She blinked, and I realized it’d been too long, so I laughed and said, “Guess not.”

“Now be quiet and let me look a minute, so I can see what they say.”

I shut up. She made this kinda picture frame with her hands, like she was framing a shot for a movie, and squinted into it. There was this crazy-intense concentration on her face, this ultra-serious line-lipped type look, like a terrified kid at a piano recital. I almost laughed, because it was so exaggerated, so far from her typical breezy grins—until something flashed through her eyes, something real, and she lowered her hands, slowly.

It was like she’d actually seen something, up there, and I knew if there was really anything to see, it would be her face, mapped out in constellations, with more shiny corners than normal, but still her.

“So?” I asked. The tar underneath us felt like it was gonna pitch me off, so I’d be thrown up into nowhere, with no solid ground to come back to. It made me sick.

“They seem to think you’re in love.”

I held my breath for a second, and watched as it all came crashing down. What had I done, what had I said, how long had she known? Could it really be in the sky? Or was it that time… there were a million that times it could have been, a million elongated stares, a million hand brushes, a million laughs that were a little too reverent. I’d been headed straight for this moment, fucked in a perfect beeline, since I shut the car door on that first night, and I knew it. But that didn’t make it any easier.

I managed to squeak out something like, hmmm.

When school started again, I’d be screwed, I knew. Maybe over the rest of this summer it wouldn’t be too bad—I’d still have some people in enclaves she didn’t talk to, but once theater was up and running again, it’d spread around, and I’d be the creepy lesbian girl who stalked Allie Hayes for a year. And the worst thing was it would be kind of true.

“Oh yes.” Allie grinned. “The stars say you’re passionately, deeply, in love—but—what’s this?—you must keep your affair a secret, for fear of judgement.” It was worse than any of the times I’d imagined it, way worse. This wasn’t a frank confrontation. She was making fun of me.

“I’m—I’m seeing a face! It’s… Jiffy!”

“What?” I said.

Oh fuck. She’d been kidding. Of course. The whole time. She wasn’t—

“Jiffy.”

I rolled my eyes, making like I hadn’t heard her. Really, I was just short of stress-cackling, but whatever.

Jiffy—his real name was Tyler, but nobody ever called him that—was this gross kid from theater everyone hated. He was our only true outcast, and showing him any kindness was punishable by weeks of exclusion. The nickname had something to do with him trying to fuck a jar of peanut butter, I guess.

“Jesus, Allie,” I said. “Can we please—?”

She was laughing now, and I started too. “I can imagine it. The two of you, riding into the sunset, the grease from his hair coating your face—”

We were both laughing too hard to go on.

The joke had started after I’d once confessed, in a pinch during Truth or Dare, that I’d dated him for a single day in sixth grade. They gave me relentless shit about it whenever they could. I didn’t think it was funny, and I never had, but every laugh seemed to shake a little weight off my chest.

“It was literally one day,” I said, “and Liz Tanaka dared me to do it, so.” I’d made up the part about Liz Tanaka just then. I definitely didn’t know her, now or ever.

Allie looked at me. “Wait, you used to be friends with Liz Tanaka?”

“Uh, yeah. For like three seconds.”

“Weird.” Liz Tanaka was what you could call a mega slut. If you weren’t a feminist, I mean.

I shrugged, feeling my spaghetti-strapped shoulders scrape on the pavement.

Allie sighed, and took out her phone. The blue glow on her face was like concentrated starlight, only it was clean, and harsh, and I could see the reflection of her Instagram feed in the whites of her eyes. I hated that, how she could just zip off into another world in the palm of her hand. I mean, I kind of could too, but only kind of—that was the thing. I couldn’t ever fully get away from her. Not that I’d want to, but still.

“I heard she’s hella smart, though,” I said, just to bring Allie back.

“What?” She clicked her phone dark. Her sound was on.

“Liz Tanaka. I think she’s going to Harvard or some shit.” She’d just graduated.

“That’s funny,” Allie said.

“What?”

“How some people… like, out of everybody you wouldn’t pick them to do great things, but they still do.”

“Yeah.”

“You’d pick me, though, right?” She turned her head to face me, and saw I’d been looking at her. There was no point in me trying to hide it.

“What do you mean?”

“Like if you had to pick somebody who was gonna do something great.”

“I mean,” I said. “Yeah, I’d pick you. I’m not, like, God, or anything, so it doesn’t matter, but…yeah, I would.”

“You’re funny.” She smiled, her teeth shining in the streetlamp light. An easy, toying smile, that looked like it could float straight off her face with a gust of wind.

I wasn’t trying to be funny. Of course I’d pick her. I probably pictured her name lit up on a Broadway marquee more often than she did. It’d played out behind my eyelids so often it seemed inevitable: her smashing her way into the theater world as the lead in Edward Albee’s new play, getting rave reviews in the vein of “But who really is Broadway’s new It Girl?” Her graceful acceptance speech at the Tonys that year. Then a turn as Juliet, or maybe Cleopatra, before she broke into film. It was history from there. And I’d be there, in the front or maybe up in the booth, the whole time.

“I just think,” she bit her lip, and I thought about how the backs of her front teeth must’ve always been covered in red lipstick, “I mean, I can’t help thinking that I’m meant for something, you know? Because I want it, really, really bad. You think that counts for something, right?”

“Yeah, it definitely—”

“When I was a kid, you know, my dad always told me I could do anything I wanted, as long as I set my mind to it. So I said, Daddy, I want to be an actress. Even from the time I was little, when all the other girls wanted to be princesses, that’s all I ever wanted to be. But my mom doesn’t think I’m good enough to—”

Fuck your mom. Cause you really are. You’re really good.”  I meant it, too. One time, I actually missed a light cue during a show cause she did something that was just so insanely real.

Allie sniffed. I looked at her. Her eyes were a little wet, which I guess they were like eighty percent of the time. “You’re not shitting me?” Her voice was quiet.

I sighed. “I wouldn’t shit you, Allie.”

She kinda laughed, and wiped her eyes. “Okay. Good.” She cleared her throat. “On to business, then.” She jumped up.

For a minute, she just stood there, and I was kinda struck by the way she looked from this angle, me eye-level with her scuffed oxfords. She looked like one of those girls on an album cover, a good album, the kind you can cry to. With soft guitar chords, and lo-fi sound, where the front is made to look like a polaroid, and the girl is smoking a cigarette and leaning on a brick wall with twinkly lights affixed to it.

It was something about the cutoff overalls and striped shirt she had on, and the way the baby hairs sticking out of her French braid were lit up in the streetlamp so the world looked cracked around her face, and her half-bitten-off lipstick.

“So, are you gonna get up or anything?”

“Shit. Yeah. Sorry,” I mumbled.

As soon as I was on my feet she half-ran down my cul-de-sac, out into the main street of the neighborhood, which ran past my house. I followed her, even though I had no idea what the hell she was doing.

It didn’t seem like she was going that fast, but I almost didn’t catch her when she went around the corner, her feet kicking up behind her, so it looked like she was ice-skating down the yellow line in the middle of the road.

When she came up next to the streetlamp on the left sidewalk, she stopped and turned toward it. I was still walking over there when she shook her head a little and ran off again.

“What are we even—?”

Allie stopped and whipped around to face me. “Jesus, Iris, just come on.” She grinned and starting running again, calling, “I’m going to take you on a fabulous adventure!” over her shoulder.

I couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled out of me, and I actually started running after her. Every muscle in my legs burned, and I was out of breath before the block ended, but I kept going, until we stopped. I put my hand on my chest, and I could feel my heart thudding away. Allie didn’t notice my ragged breathing, or at least it didn’t seem like she did, because all her attention was focused on the streetlamp in front of us.

It looked just the same as every other one we’d seen that night—same yellow cone of light, same black, lined pole—but she must have decided this was the one, because she cocked her head to the side, smirked, and grabbed my hand, leading me over to it. Little trills of goosebumps travelled up my arm. I could tell by the way she was walking that whatever we were about to do was special to her.

When we reached the streetlamp she didn’t let go of my hand, just pressed her ear up against the pole. After the briefest what-the-fuck second, I did too.

The second my ear touched the pole, I knew why we were doing this. It was the sound of the streetlamp, the buzzing it made. Fuzzy, in a way, but not biting like TV static, or whiny like neon, but not beautiful, either, not distracting in its loveliness.

That was the thing about it, I think. The sound was distraction, but only for the part of my brain that hated me most—the part that was always reaching for my phone no matter how much I didn’t want to. The part that won friends with lies, or razor blades when the lies wore out. That part was sucked up into the buzz, so I could kind of just look at everything.

The world sort of looked, in a way, the same as it did in comic books, everything clear and outlined in black and over-exaggerated almost to a point of parody. Once-tiny flecks of silver in the road were full-on cut diamonds. The weary white boards of the fence across from us bowed inward, like God’s crooked bottom teeth. And the cone of yellow light around us was a hard circle, closing us off from the rest of the world. She was perfect like that.

The way she looked just then made me think of this other time, forever ago, before I knew I loved her.

Actually, I guess it wasn’t really that long ago at all, because it was at the end of the school year, which was literally, like, less than two months ago. But you know how these things are, when summer stretches on forever, and you’re in love with somebody and all.

It was opening night of the last play of the year, the second show I’d done in high school at that point, but maybe the millionth show I’d done in general. The play was A Streetcar Named Desire because our teacher, Mr. Taylor, was young and angry that he wasn’t in New York, and didn’t give two shits about being family-friendly.

I’d gotten there at, like, 5:30, which was half an hour early, because Alex wanted me to run through all the cues before call time.

The door was unlocked when I got up to the booth. I went in, sat down in the much-coveted rolly chair, and fired up the board.

Being there was good, and I was glad I’d never bothered with auditioning. I got to have all those nice live wire pre-show jitters without the pressure of the stage and the dark roaring mass in the seats. Up here, I could see everyone, but they couldn’t see me, so it was really the opposite of being onstage. I didn’t even miss the applause, really.

I’d been up there for about ten minutes maybe, just running the cues as fast as I could, when Allie came onstage. What the hell was she doing here? The only people who ever showed up early were tech people, and only ones with important shit to do. But she was striding onstage like she had important shit to do, so I wasn’t about to question it.

Only the white lights were up then, so I just left them that way. She didn’t acknowledge me or anything, so I figured she didn’t know I was there. To her, I knew, the house was empty, except for the echoes of applause to come.

Her hair was up in her typical messy bun, but somehow it still managed to shine in the stage light. She wasn’t in costume yet, but she also wasn’t wearing any of her normal clothes, either, just calf leggings and a white tank top.

In a minute, I saw why. She started out by just walking across the stage, slowly. I didn’t know what she was doing, until I saw it, in the way her bare feet started to slide, and her posture got better. She was becoming Blanche. I didn’t know how she pulled it off, but she did.

With a little shake of her head, she turned back into herself, plopped down on the apron, and started stretching. Dance stretching, things my muscles probably still remembered, even though it’d been years, and I was about as flexible as an iron rod now.

She folded in half, grabbed her heels, and went up on her toes. I didn’t really know what it was called—I remembered something called relevé, which my teacher told us was French for tippy-toes. Then she scrunched down, still on her toes, into what was essentially a squat. When I was a kid, they’d called it “the turtle.” From there, she sat down, put the soles of her feet together, and folded her torso over her legs. Way back when, they called it “the butterfly.” I wondered why everything was named after animals. She probably knew the real French behind it all.

Watching her stretch was weird, kind of, because it made me realize maybe we weren’t so different after all. As little girls we’d been taught pretty much the same things, by the same unspecifically pretty sixteen-year-old dance teachers working for their tuition, which, of course, Allie was now one of. We’d smelled that same chalky, cold, studio smell, looked in the same mirrors, been eventually passed on to the same expired prima hopefuls—the ones who make you call them Madame as they decay on a stool in the corner.

I pictured the two of us side by side at the barre as little girls. We looked almost the same—soft bubblegum tights, knobby blonde buns, Payless ballet shoes. And we could do all the same animal stretches and simple moves. Sure, I was a bit of a chubby kid, but that’s no big deal when you’re four. In the mirror, we became five, and six, and learning a little more each year, moving beyond the basics. At seven, things changed even more. Once you’re seven you’re done with the baby stuff, as ridiculous as that sounds. Our leotards turned black and sleeveless, we ditched the fluttery skirts, and began cutting our newly-grown teeth on the jagged edges of our teacher’s increasingly stern words. Eight and nine passed without incident. But then we hit ten—when pre-pointe training starts. At ten, you decide, essentially, whether the stratosphere is worth shooting for. And I decided it wasn’t.

From there things changed. I got fat and Allie got serious. Her legs lengthened out, perhaps a tad too much for a dancer. She got a nude leotard, a waist, and, finally, pointe shoes. Before I knew it, she towered over me, the shoes giving her a good four inches. I could have been one of her students.

The Allie on the stage jumped up, drawing my attention back, and turned sideways. She raised her left leg in a perfect arabesque, a breathing incarnation of every music box ballerina I’d ever had, sans tutu.

I was kind of struck by that, and it was beautiful to me, even before I knew I loved her. She wasn’t Bolshoi material and never would be, but there was still a tremendous grace in the furrowed-eyebrow determination on her face, and a jittery, plucked-rubber-band energy in the way the line of her body fell, as if this motion was a momentary pause in the middle of teleportation.

It didn’t feel particularly weird to watch her. Maybe it was because she was onstage, or because I was so far above her, or because she was so totally absorbed in what she was doing.

But then she did something that surprised me. She lowered her leg out of the arabesque, and straightened up, like to the other leg. But instead she tipped over into a cartwheel. She did three of them, across the whole width of the stage, her arms and legs flying like pinwheel spokes, tying the whole thing in a sudden, fluid bow.

When she landed, she grinned, planted her hands on her hips, and called, “Well, are you coming down, or what?”

I jumped, more because she knew I was there than anything. But I still got up and poked my head out the door.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey.” She sighed. “I saw you doing the light cues, earlier.”

“Oh. Yeah. I wasn’t like trying to creep on—”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I don’t care if you were looking at me.” She waved for me to come down. I flipped on some of the house lights and went down the center aisle stairs to the stage.

From the floor below the apron, with the set behind her and the light and everything, she kind of looked like some ten-foot-tall goddess. Her ankles were crossed and her hands were clasped behind her back, so her collarbones jutted forward, like birds’ wings. Her left foot was pointed into a crescent moon. She cocked her head a little to the side and pulled her hands further behind her. I heard her shoulder blades crack.

“Come on up, girly.”

I did this hideous pole-vault-jump wiggle thing, and ended up just heaving myself over the lip of the stage while she waited.

“So you all set for the show?” she asked, once I’d put myself back together.

“Yeah, pretty much.” I was, mostly. Later that night I fucked up one of the cues in the first act, right after the thing with the paper lantern. The thing is, the center lights are supposed to get way softer and kind of blue when Blanche puts on the lantern, which is sort of the whole point, but I fucked up, so it didn’t. But it was whatever. There was another cue, I got it, the world moved on, I guess.

“You?” I asked.

She nodded. “I feel pretty warmed up.”

“Yeah, I bet. What was that, like a solid twenty minutes of stuff?”

She shrugged. “I do that before every show and every dance class.”

“Wow.”

“Comes with the job, I guess.” She didn’t say anything else about it, just kind of folded herself down onto the stage floor, so she was lying flat on her back. She patted the wood next to her and I lay down too.

Thinking back on it, I figured there must have been that same electric field between us, there on the stage. I just hadn’t noticed it yet.

The lights above us were a new kind of bright, a new kind of heat. When you were upright under stage lights, like normal, there was just this kind of tingly warmth on top of your head, and it was hot, sure, but not like this. This heat consumed you, got behind your eyeballs and worked clean through your skull.

But it wasn’t bad. Somehow, it wasn’t bad.

“Huh,” was all I said.

“What?” She turned her head to look at me.

“Nothing.”

“Okay.” She looked back up at the lights, and there was a moment that was quiet except for the humming of the lights.

Then, suddenly, violently almost, her whole face brightened. Fireworks seemed to skitter across the surface of her pupils, and the corners of her mouth sparked into a closed-mouth smile.

“I love this place,” she whispered, so I could just barely hear. “God, I love this place.”

It was that look on her face that fucked me up during the show. Right before she said “we’ve made enchantment,” or whatever that line was, she did that same exact look, and it just got to me. Because I’d never seen anything that real on a stage before, and I doubted I ever would again.

And I guess she kind of had something like that look on her face when we were listening to the streetlamps. And the look was still beautiful.

We stayed like that forever. Or at least that’s how it seemed, just then—standing there, with the weight of her hand getting slightly sticky and very important in mine. Nothing existed but us and the moment and all the happy moments that had ever been and the light, until she slid her hand away, and detached her ear from the pole.

She smiled, and didn’t say anything. She knew I didn’t need an explanation. We walked back to my house slowly, dragging our feet, and not saying a word the whole time. When she got in her car, she said bye, and that was it. We were beyond words, I guess.

And that night, my dreams were all full of yellow light, and Allie’s stark-lined profile, and champagne-bubble buzzing.

Gretchen AdamsGretchen Adams is a freshman at Columbia College Chicago. Her work has previously appeared in Spilled Ink and Canvas Literary Journal. She divides her time equally between her couch and this killer falafel shop in Wicker Park. Harass her on Tumblr at what-are-this.tumblr.com.

My Wife / Ma Femme

My Wife

It was at the end of a dinner of men, married men, old friends who get together sometimes without their wives, boys as in the past. They would eat a long time; they would drink a lot; they would speak of everything. Old and youthful memories would move them; those warm memories that despite themselves, would bring a smile to their lips and a tremor to the heart.

One said: Do you recall, Georges, our trip to Saint-Germain with those two little girls from Montmarte?

Of course! Do I remember!

And they would recall those details, and this and that, one thousand small things that still brought joy today.

They came to talk of marriage and each one spoke with a sincere look: Oh, if it could be done over again!

Georges Duportin added: It is extraordinary how you fall so easily into it. You decide never to marry and then, at springtime you leave for the country; it is warm; summer follows. The fields flower; you meet a young girl at your friend’s house… wham! It is done. You return married.

Pierre Létoile exclaimed: Right! It is my story, only I have the particular details….

His friend interrupted him: As for you, don’t complain. You have indeed the most charming wife in the world, pretty, amiable, perfect; you are truly the happiest one among us.

The other said: That is not my fault.

How is that?

It is true that I have a perfect wife but I indeed married her against my will.

Come, come!

Yes… here’s the adventure. I was thirty-five years old and I thought no more of marrying than of hanging myself. Young girls seemed boring to me and I adored pleasure. I was invited in May to the wedding of my cousin Simon d’Érabel, in Normandy. It was a true Normand wedding. We put out a table at five in the evening and were still eating at eleven o’clock. For the occasion, they paired me with a young lady, Ms. Dumoulin, daughter of a retired Colonel, young, fair and particular, shapely, bold, and talkative. She cornered me completely the entire day, pulled me in the park, made me dance, like it or not, and annoyed me to no end. I said to myself: this is happening today but tomorrow, I go. This is enough. Around eleven o’clock that night, the women went into their rooms; the men stayed to smoke and drink or to drink and smoke, if you like that better.

Through the open window, we could see an open air dance. Country men and women were jumping in a circle and yelling in the air; a wild dance that was drowsily accompanied by two violinists and one clarinet seated on a stage that was a big kitchen table. The tumultuous singing of the country folks sometimes completely drowned the instruments, and the frail music, torn apart by the riotous voices, appeared to fall from the sky in tatters, in small fragments of scattered notes.

Two huge barrels, surrounded by burning torches, were given to the crowd to drink. Two men were occupied with rinsing the glasses or the bowls in a tub, which they held immediately under the tap from which flowed a stream of red wine or a stream of pure gold cider. The thirsty dancers, the old ones quiet, the girls sweaty, crowded, stretching out their arms in order to seize, in their turn, a container, then threw back their heads and poured down their throats, the drink they preferred. On a table, you could find bread, butter, cheese, and some sausages. Each swallowed a mouthful from time to time, and beneath the starlit sky, this party, healthy and vigorous, was a pleasure to see and inspired an urge to drink also from the belly of those enormous barrels and to eat the farmhouse bread with butter and a raw onion.

A mad desire seized me to take part in these festivities and I left my companions. I was maybe a little drunk, I have to confess, but I was soon completely so. I seized the hand of a strong, breathless country girl and I jumped wildly with her until out of breath. And then, I drank a bit of wine and seized another strapping girl. To refresh myself after this, I swallowed a full bowl of cider and I came back to life, like someone possessed. I was supple, flexible; the guys, delighted, noticed me while seeking to imitate me. All the girls wanted to dance with me and jumped about heavily with the elegance of cows.

Finally, round and round, from a glass of wine to a glass of cider, I found myself, at two in the morning, too drunk to stand up anymore. I was conscious of my state and tried to reach my room. The château slept, silent and subdued. I did not have matches and everyone was sleeping. Since I was in the hallway intoxicated, I prayed. I had lot of difficulty finding the banister; finally I found it by chance, groping, and I seated myself on the first step of the stairs to gather my thoughts.

“The tumultuous singing of the country folks sometimes completely drowned the instruments, and the frail music, torn apart by the riotous voices, appeared to fall from the sky in tatters, in small fragments of scattered notes.”

My room could be found on the second floor; the third door to the left. I was happy that I had not forgotten that. From the strength of this memory, I stood up again, not without difficulty, and I began the climb, step by step, my hands tight on the iron railing so as not to fall, absorbed in not making any noise. Only three or four times my feet missed the steps and my knees buckled but thanks to the strength of my arms, and the exertion of my will, I avoided a complete tumble. Finally, I reached the second floor and I ventured in the hallway, feeling the walls. Here is one door. I counted: One; but I lost my hold on the wall from sudden dizziness and made an odd, circular stumble that threw me against the other wall. I wanted to return to a straight line. The way was long and hard. Finally I found the way and proceeded anew with prudence and I found another door. To be sure that I did not make a mistake; I counted out loud again: Two; and resumed walking. I finally found the third. I said: Three, that’s me and I turned the key in the lock. The door opened. I thought, despite my trouble: Because this is open, it is indeed mine. And I advanced in the shadows after having closed the door softly. I collided with something soft: my easy chair. I immediately stretched out on it. In my situation, I must not insist on looking for my night table, my candlestick, and my matches. It would have taken me two hours at least. It would have taken so much time for me to undress; and maybe I would not have managed. I gave it up. I removed only my boots; I unbuttoned my vest, which choked me, I loosened my pants and I slept an impenetrable sleep.

That was for a long time, no doubt. I was abruptly awakened by a vibrant voice that said, quite close to me: What, you lazy girl, still sleeping?! You know it is ten o’clock?

A woman’s voice said: Already! I was still tired from yesterday.

Surprised, I wondered, who would say this? Where was I? What had I done? My mind floated, still wrapped in a thick cloud.

The first voice resumed: I am going to open the curtains.

And I heard steps approach me. I sat up, completely frantic. A hand was placed on my head. I made a sudden movement. The voice asked with force: Who is there? I did not answer. Two furious wrists seized me. In turn, I seized someone, and one horrifying struggle began. We rolled against the furniture and collided with the walls.

A woman’s voice shouted: Help, Help!

Some servants came, some neighbors, some panic stricken women. They opened the shutters, they drew the curtains. I was tussling with Colonel Doumoulin!

I had slept beside his daughter’s bed.

When we had all separated, I ran to my room, a surprised idiot. I locked myself in with the key and sat, my feet on a chair because my boots were still in the young woman’s room. I heard a big racket throughout the château, some doors opened and closed, some whispers, some quick steps.

After a half an hour, someone knocked on my door. I cried: Who is there? It was my uncle, the bridegroom’s father. I opened the door.

He was pale and furious and he treated me harshly. You conducted yourself in my house like a villain, do you hear? Then he added very softly: How, idiot guy, you let yourself be caught at ten o’clock in the morning? You were going to sleep like a log in this room instead of leaving her immediately… immediately after.

I cried: But Uncle, I assure you that nothing happened. I was drunk and made a mistake with the door.

He shrugged his shoulders: Let’s not say foolish things.

I raised my hand: I swear to you on my honor.

My uncle resumed: Yes, that’s good. It’s what you must say.

In turn, I was angry and told him the whole of my misadventure. He looked at me with astonished eyes, not knowing what to believe. Then he left to talk to the Colonel.

I learned that they had also formed a sort of court of mothers, which was to debate the various points of the situation.

He came back more than an hour later, sat with the demeanor of a judge and began: Be that as it may, I don’t see any way for you to get yourself out of trouble, than to marry Ms. Dumoulin.

I leaped up in horror: As far as that, never!

He asked thoughtfully: What do you want to do then?

I said simply: I will leave, when I have gotten my boots.

My uncle said: Don’t joke, please. The Colonel is resolved to blow your brains out when he finds you. And you can be sure he doesn’t threaten in vain. I spoke of a duel; he said: ‘No, I tell you that I will blow his brains out.’ Let us examine the question now from another point of view. If indeed you seduced this child, then, too bad for you, my boy, you shouldn’t speak to young girls. Or if indeed you made a mistake and were drunk, as you say, it is still too bad for you. You should not put yourself in foolish situations like this. In any event, the poor girl lost her reputation because no one ever believes the explanations of a drunk. The true victim, the only victim in there, is her. Think.

He left to go and I cried after him: Say what you would like; I will not marry her.

I stayed alone another hour. It was my aunt who came next. She cried. She used every rationale. No one believed my error. They could not accept that this young girl had forgotten to close and lock her door in a house full of people. The Colonel had slapped her. She has been sobbing since morning. It was a terrible, unforgettable scandal. And my good Aunt added: Ask for her hand in marriage; we can maybe find a way to get you out of it in discussing the conditions of the contract.

Her perspective relieved me and I agreed to write my request.

I left for Paris an hour later.

I was advised the next day that my request was accepted. So in three weeks, without being able to find a ploy, and defeated, the bans were published, the formal announcement of a wedding were sent, the contract signed and I found myself on Monday morning, in the choir of an illuminated church, next to a young girl who cried, after having declared to the magistrate that I consented to take her as a companion… until either of us dies. I had not seen her since my adventure and I looked at her from the corner of my eyes with a certain spiteful surprise. However, she was not ugly; not at all. I said to myself: There’s someone who wouldn’t laugh every day.

She did not look at me at any time until that evening, and she did not say a word to me. Around the middle of the night, I entered the bridal chambers with the intention of making known my resolutions because I was the master now. I found her sitting in an armchair, fully dressed as earlier, pale and with red eyes. She got up when I entered and said solemnly to me: Monsieur, I am ready to do what you want. I will kill myself if you desire it.

The Colonel’s daughter was ever so pretty in that heroic role. I kissed her, it was my right. I soon realized that I was not a thief. It is five years that I am married. I don’t regret it at all.

Pierre Létoile became silent.

His companions laughed. One of them said: Marriage is a lottery; one must never choose the numbers; the ones by chance are the best.

And another added in conclusion: Yes, but don’t forget that the God of drunks had chosen for Pierre.

 

prose_section_divider

MA FEMME

C’était à la fin d’un dîner d’hommes, d’hommes mariés, anciens amis, qui se réunissaient quelquefois sans leurs femmes, en garçons, comme jadis. On mangeait longtemps, on buvait beaucoup ; on parlait de tout, on remuait des souvenirs vieux et joyeux, ces souvenirs chauds qui font, malgré soi, sourire les lèvres et frémir le coeur. On disait :

– Te rappelles-tu, Georges, notre excursion à Saint-Germain avec ces deux fillettes de Montmartre ?

– Parbleu ! si je me le rappelle.

Et on retrouvait des détails, et ceci et cela, mille petites choses, qui faisaient plaisir encore aujourd’hui.

On vint à parler du mariage, et chacun dit avec un air sincère : “Oh ! si c’était à recommencer !…” Georges Duportin ajouta : “C’est extraordinaire comme on tombe là-dedans facilement. On était bien décidé à ne jamais prendre femme ; et puis, au printemps on part pour la campagne ; il fait chaud ; l’été se présente bien ; l’herbe est fleurie ; on rencontre une jeune fille chez des amis… v’lan ! c’est fait. On revient marié.”

Pierre Létoile s’écria : “Juste ! c’est mon histoire, seulement j’ai des détails particuliers…”

Son ami l’interrompit : “Quant à toi ne te plains pas. Tu as bien la plus charmante femme du monde, jolie, aimable, parfaite ; tu es, certes, le plus heureux de nous.”

L’autre reprit :

– Ce n’est pas ma faute.

– Comment ça ?

– C’est vrai que j’ai une femme parfaite ; mais je l’ai bien épousée malgré moi.

– Allons donc !

– Oui… Voici l’aventure. J’avais trente-cinq ans, et je ne pensais pas plus à me marier qu’à me pendre. Les jeunes filles me semblaient insipides et j’adorais le plaisir.

Je fus invité, au mois de mai, à la noce de mon cousin Simon d’Érabel, en Normandie. Ce fut une vraie noce normande. On se mit à table à cinq heures du soir ; à onze heures on mangeait encore. On m’avait accouplé, pour la circonstance, avec une demoiselle Dumoulin, fille d’un colonel en retraite, jeune personne blonde et militaire, bien en forme, hardie et verbeuse. Elle m’accapara complètement pendant toute la journée, m’entraîna dans le parc, me fit danser bon gré mal gré, m’assomma.

Je me disais : “Passe pour aujourd’hui, mais demain je file. Ça suffit.”

Vers onze heures du soir, les femmes se retirèrent dans leurs chambres ; les hommes restèrent à fumer en buvant, ou à boire en fumant, si vous aimez mieux.

Par la fenêtre ouverte on apercevait le bal champêtre. Rustres et rustaudes sautaient en rond, en hurlant un air de danse sauvage qu’accompagnaient faiblement deux violonistes et une clarinette placés sur une grande table de cuisine en estrade. Le chant tumultueux des paysans couvrait entièrement parfois la chanson des instruments ; et la frêle musique, déchirée par les voix déchaînées, semblait tomber du ciel en lambeaux, en petits fragments de notes éparpillées.

Deux grandes barriques, entourées de torches flambantes, versaient à boire à la foule. Deux hommes étaient occupés à rincer les verres ou les bols dans un baquet pour les tendre immédiatement sous les robinets d’où coulaient le filet rouge du vin ou le filet d’or du cidre pur ; et les danseurs assoiffés, les vieux tranquilles, les filles en sueurs se pressaient, tendaient les bras pour saisir à leur tour un vase quelconque et se verser à grands flots dans la gorge, en renversant la tête, le liquide qu’ils préféraient. Sur une table on trouvait du pain, du beurre, des fromages et des saucisses. Chacun avalait une bouchée de temps à autre : et sous le champ de feu des étoiles, cette fête saine et violente faisait plaisir à voir, donnait envie de boire aussi au ventre de ces grosses futailles et de manger du pain ferme avec du beurre et un oignon cru.

Un désir fou me saisit de prendre part à ces réjouissances, et j’abandonnai mes compagnons.

J’étais peut-être un peu gris, je dois l’avouer ; mais je le fus bientôt tout à fait.

J’avais saisi la main d’une forte paysanne essoufflée, et je la fis sauter éperdument jusqu’à la limite de mon haleine.

Et puis je bus un coup de vin et je saisis une autre gaillarde. Pour me rafraîchir ensuite, j’avalai un plein bol de cidre et je me remis à bondir comme un possédé.

J’étais souple ; les gars, ravis, me contemplaient en cherchant à m’imiter ; les filles voulaient toutes danser avec moi et sautaient lourdement avec des élégances de vaches.

Enfin, de ronde en ronde, de verre de vin en verre de cidre, je me trouvai, vers deux heures du matin, pochard à ne plus tenir debout.

J’eus conscience de mon état et je voulus gagner ma chambre. Le château dormait, silencieux et sombre.

Je n’avais pas d’allumettes et tout le monde était couché. Dès que je fus dans le vestibule, des étourdissements me prirent ; j’eus beaucoup de mal à trouver la rampe ; enfin, je la rencontrai par hasard, à tâtons, et je m’assis sur la première marche de l’escalier pour tâcher de classer un peu mes idées.

Ma chambre se trouvait au second étage, la troisième porte à gauche. C’était heureux que je n’eusse pas oublié cela. Fort de ce souvenir, je me relevai, non sans peine, et je commençai l’ascension, marche à marche, les mains soudées aux barreaux de fer pour ne point choir, avec l’idée fixe de ne pas faire de bruit.

Trois ou quatre fois seulement mon pied manqua les degrés et je m’abattis sur les genoux, mais grâce à l’énergie de mes bras et à la tension de ma volonté, j’évitai une dégringolade complète.

Enfin, j’atteignis le second étage et je m’aventurai dans le corridor, en tâtant les murailles. Voici une porte ; je comptais : “Une” ; mais un vertige subit me détacha du mur et me fit accomplir un circuit singulier qui me jeta sur l’autre cloison. Je voulus revenir en ligne droite. La traversée fut longue et pénible. Enfin je rencontrai la côte que je me mis à longer de nouveau avec prudence et je trouvai une autre porte. Pour être sûr de ne pas me tromper, je comptai encore tout haut : “Deux” ; et je me remis en marche. Je finis par trouver la troisième. Je dis : “Trois, c’est moi” et je tournai la clef dans la serrure. La porte s’ouvrit. Je pensai, malgré mon trouble : “Puisque ça s’ouvre c’est bien chez moi.” Et je m’avançai dans l’ombre après avoir refermé doucement.

Je heurtai quelque chose de mou : ma chaise longue. Je m’étendis aussitôt dessus.

Dans ma situation, je ne devais pas m’obstiner à chercher ma table de nuit, mon bougeoir, mes allumettes. J’en aurais eu pour deux heures au moins. Il m’aurait fallu autant de temps pour me dévêtir ; et peut-être n’y serais-je pas parvenu. J’y renonçai.

J’enlevai seulement mes bottines ; je déboutonnai mon gilet qui m’étranglait, je desserrai mon pantalon et je m’endormis d’un invincible sommeil.

Cela dura longtemps sans doute. Je fus brusquement réveillé par une voix vibrante qui disait, tout près de moi : “Comment, paresseuse, encore couchée ? Il est dix heures, sais-tu ?”

Une voix de femme répondit : “Déjà ! J’étais si fatiguée d’hier.”

Je me demandais avec stupéfaction ce que voulait dire ce dialogue.

Où étais-je ? Qu’avais-je fait ?

Mon esprit flottait, encore enveloppé d’un nuage épais.

La première voix reprit : “Je vais ouvrir tes rideaux.”

Et j’entendis des pas qui s’approchaient de moi. Je m’assis tout à fait éperdu. Alors une main se posa sur ma tête. Je fis un brusque mouvement. La voix demanda avec force : “Qui est là ?” Je me gardai bien de répondre. Deux poignets furieux me saisirent. A mon tour j’enlaçai quelqu’un et une lutte effroyable commença. Nous nous roulions, renversant les meubles, heurtant les murs.

La voix de femme criait effroyablement : “Au secours, au secours !”

Des domestiques accoururent, des voisins, des dames affolées. On ouvrit les volets, on tira les rideaux. Je me colletais avec le colonel Dumoulin !

J’avais dormi auprès du lit de sa fille.

Quand on nous eut séparés, je m’enfuis dans ma chambre, abruti d’étonnement. Je m’enfermai à clef et je m’assis, les pieds sur une chaise, car mes bottines étaient demeurées chez la jeune personne.

J’entendais une grande rumeur dans tout le château, des portes ouvertes et fermées, des chuchotements, des pas rapides.

Au bout d’une demi-heure on frappa chez moi. Je criai : “Qui est là ?” C’était mon oncle, le père du marié de la veille. J’ouvris.

Il était pâle et furieux et il me traita durement : “Tu t’es conduit chez moi comme un manant, entends-tu ?” Puis il ajouta d’un ton plus doux : “Comment, bougre d’imbécile, tu te laisses surprendre à dix heures du matin ! Tu vas t’endormir comme une bûche dans cette chambre au lieu de t’en aller aussitôt… aussitôt après.”

Je m’écriai : “Mais, mon oncle, je vous assure qu’il ne s’est rien passé… Je me suis trompé de porte, étant gris.”

Il haussa les épaules : “Allons ne dis pas des bêtises.” Je levai la main : “Je vous le jure sur mon honneur.” Mon oncle reprit : “Oui, c’est bien. C’est ton devoir de dire cela.”

A mon tour, je me fâchai, et je lui racontai toute ma mésaventure. Il me regardait avec des yeux ébahis, ne sachant pas ce qu’il devait croire.

Puis il sortit conférer avec le colonel.

J’appris qu’on avait formé aussi une espèce de tribunal de mères, auquel étaient soumises les différentes phases de la situation.

Il revint une heure plus tard, s’assit avec des allures de juge, et commença : “Quoi qu’il en soit, je ne vois pour toi qu’un moyen de te tirer d’affaires, c’est d’épouser Mlle Dumoulin.”

Je fis un bond d’épouvante :

– Quant à ça, jamais par exemple !

Il demanda gravement : “Que comptes-tu donc faire ?”

Je répondis avec simplicité : “Mais… m’en aller, quand on m’aura rendu mes bottines.”

Mon oncle reprit : “Ne plaisantons pas, s’il te plaît. Le colonel est résolu à te brûler la cervelle dès qu’il t’apercevra. Et tu peux être sûr qu’il ne menace pas en vain. J’ai parlé d’un duel, il a répondu : “Non, je vous dis que je lui brûlerai la cervelle.”

“Examinons maintenant la question à un autre point de vue.

“Ou bien tu as séduit cette enfant et, alors, c’est tant pis pour toi, mon garçon, on ne s’adresse pas aux jeunes filles.

“Ou bien tu t’es trompé étant gris, comme tu le dis. Alors c’est encore tant pis pour toi. On ne se met pas dans des situations aussi sottes. De toute façon, la pauvre fille est perdue de réputation, car on ne croira jamais à des explications d’ivrogne. La vraie victime, la seule victime là-dedans, c’est elle. Réfléchis.”

Et il s’en alla pendant que je lui criais dans le dos : “Dites tout ce que vous voudrez. Je n’épouserai pas.”

Je restai seul encore une heure.

Ce fut ma tante qui vint à son tour. Elle pleurait. Elle usa de tous les raisonnements. Personne ne croyait à mon erreur. On ne pouvait admettre que cette jeune fille eût oublié de fermer sa porte à clef dans une maison pleine de monde. Le colonel l’avait frappée. Elle sanglotait depuis le matin. C’était un scandale terrible, ineffaçable.

Et ma bonne tante ajoutait : “Demande-la toujours en mariage ; on trouvera peut-être moyen de te tirer d’affaires en discutant les conditions du contrat.”

Cette perspective me soulagea. Et je consentis à écrire ma demande. Une heure après je repartais pour Paris.

Je fus avisé le lendemain que ma demande était agréée.

Alors, en trois semaines, sans que j’aie pu trouver une ruse, une défaite, les bans furent publiés, les lettres de faire-part envoyées, le contrat signé, et je me trouvai, un lundi matin, dans le choeur d’une église illuminée, à côté d’une jeune fille qui pleurait, après avoir déclaré au maire que je consentais à la prendre pour compagne… jusqu’à la mort de l’un ou de l’autre.

Je ne l’avais pas revue, et je la regardais de côté avec un certain étonnement malveillant. Cependant, elle n’était pas laide, mais pas du tout. Je me disais : “En voilà une qui ne rira pas tous les jours.”

Elle ne me regarda point une fois jusqu’au soir, et ne me dit pas un mot.

Vers le milieu de la nuit, j’entrai dans la chambre nuptiale avec l’intention de lui faire connaître mes résolutions, car j’étais le maître maintenant.

Je la trouvai, assise dans un fauteuil, vêtue comme dans le jour, avec les yeux rouges et le teint pâle. Elle se leva dès que j’entrai et vint à moi gravement.

“Monsieur, me dit-elle, je suis prête à faire ce que vous ordonnerez. Je me tuerai si vous le désirez.”

Elle était jolie comme tout dans ce rôle héroïque, la fille du colonel. Je l’embrassai, c’était mon droit.

Et je m’aperçus bientôt que je n’étais pas volé.

Voilà cinq ans que je suis marié. Je ne le regrette nullement encore.

Pierre Létoile se tut. Ses compagnons riaient. L’un d’eux dit : “Le mariage est une loterie ; il ne faut jamais choisir les numéros, ceux de hasard sont les meilleurs.”

Et un autre ajouta pour conclure : “Oui, mais n’oubliez pas que le dieu des ivrognes avait choisi pour Pierre.”

Translator’s Note

Guy de Maupassant’s Ma Femme, published in 1882, is, in essence, a celebration of friendship between middle-aged men who knew each other as boys. In the process of translating this delightful yet complex narrative, I was reminded of Aristotle’s suggestion that our relationships with people we regard as ‘friends’ are, at their core, relationships with other selves. Indeed, how we relate to our friends can be emblematic of how we relate to our selves—we may be critical and judgmental with our friends when we do not measure up to our own standards; likewise, we can be loving and altruistic when we perceive our own ‘world’ to be in reasonable order.

The gentle beauty of Ma Femme appears to derive from its pace, rhythm, and order; much like the confidences that occur between Pierre Létoile and his friends. This sort of camaraderie takes years to hone, and it is clear that the friendship between the men in the story is strong enough to withstand the ‘ribbing’ to which they subject each other. This story is also a quiet reminder to choose friends with care, perhaps because over time we can become who our friends are; that is, often without realizing it, we assume their opinions and habits. Can this ‘friend effect’ partially explain why Pierre Létoile chose to love and cherish his wife, rather than allow her to ‘kill’ herself if he desired it?

Beatrice Bridglall, Fulbright Specialist in Higher Education and Director, Office of Special Projects, Office of the Secretary of Higher Education, New Jersey, has a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University and a Doctorate in Education from Columbia University.

Guy De Maupassant (1850—1893); French novelist, travel and short story writer, and poet.